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article imageFrom sizzle to fizzle: Hong Kong's red-hot property market cools

By Jerome TAYLOR, Yan ZHAO (AFP)     Jan 15, 2019 in Business

For young Hong Kongers like Wilson Leung getting a foothold on the city's property ladder has long been a near impossible task but with the notoriously overpriced housing market facing a downturn, they now have a chance of realising their dream.

The crammed financial hub regularly tops the list of cities with the least affordable housing in the world, with even cheap apartments out of the reach of most regular workers.

However, after a decade of near continual growth Hong Kong is about to join a global downturn that is buffeting markets including London, Vancouver, Sydney and Shanghai.

And the good news for first-time buyers like Leung, who works in sales and lives with his parents, most analysts believe the trend will continue into 2019 as the China-US trade dispute rumbles on and the Chinese economy stutters.

Hong Kong tops UBS's league table for being the world's most overpriced city and most at r...
Hong Kong tops UBS's league table for being the world's most overpriced city and most at risk of a bubble
ISAAC LAWRENCE, AFP

"Now the price range is OK for me," Leung, 30, tells AFP, a sentiment not often heard in a city where many young people save for years under their parents' roofs in cramped flats well into their thirties.

"I am not waiting for the market to drop even more, but waiting for a wider selection to show up. Once I find an ideal place, I'll spring into action."

Leung, who plans to marry later this year, might do well to wait some more on the property hunt. Many analysts are predicting further dips, fuelled by the fallout of the US-China trade war, the slowing mainland economy, a weakening yuan and the prospect of further interest rate rises.

The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) last month said property prices declined for two consecutive months while sales volumes have been down for four months straight, the longest losing streak since 2008 at the height of the global financial crisis.

- Micro-flats -

Demand from buyers in mainland China -- a cash-rich demographic that has been a key driver of the bubble, much to the frustration of Hong Kongers -- has also been negative for the past four months.

"Against this backdrop, expectations for prices and sales volumes remain firmly rooted in negative territory over the next three months and 12 months," RICS wrote.

Iris Pang, ING's Greater China economist, said residential prices have fallen by as much as 15 percent in some areas.

She said jitters over the trade war were having the most significant effect given the "potential impact on the Hong Kong economy, including job security, wage growth and asset price trend in general".

The amount of income a 'skilled worker' needs to afford a 60 metre flat in Hong Kong has a...
The amount of income a 'skilled worker' needs to afford a 60 metre flat in Hong Kong has almost doubled in a decade
ISAAC LAWRENCE, AFP

"This makes the market sentiment negative currently, and will continue to be so unless we see significant progress from the trade truce," she told AFP, predicting a further 10-15 percent drop in prices in 2019.

Until recently, the financial hub's property has provided handsome returns for the wealthy -- prices have doubled since 2008.

The city became notorious for selling parking space-sized "micro-flats" for around HK$2.85 million ($360,000).

The only time prices dipped was during a brief period in 2015-16 when moves to discourage mainland buyers snapping up multiple properties coincided with a brief stock market plunge.

But it didn't last long.

RICS senior economist Sean Ellison said the current drop looks more long term as the trade war bites.

"This time feels different because there's multiple catalysts," he told AFP.

- Bubble concerns -

So is the world's least affordable property market headed for a crash?

UBS ranked Hong Kong at the top of its league table for being the most overpriced and most at risk of a bubble.

The September report said a "skilled worker" needed 22 years of income to afford a 60 square metre (645 square feet) flat, up from 12 years a decade ago, with salaries staying largely the same since 2008.

But many analysts are wary of predicting a burst bubble because of Hong Kong's unique situation -- the densely populated city of seven million has a massive housing shortage, which means huge demand.

While prices are falling  analysts say there needs to be a major shock to cause a massive drop like ...
While prices are falling, analysts say there needs to be a major shock to cause a massive drop like those seen during the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and SARS six years later
ISAAC LAWRENCE, AFP

"You would need a pretty strong exogenous shock to the market to really send it lower," said Ellison, who predicts a less dramatic five percent fall in prices over the next year.

Historical examples he gives that have sent the market plunging are the 1997 Asian financial crash and the 2003 SARS outbreak.

One potential alarm bell is if Washington and Beijing fail to make a breakthrough in their trade talks by their March deadline -- triggering a massive increase in tariffs from the Trump administration.

"The knock-on effects there could be significant," he warned.

Many sellers are now adopting a wait and see approach.

"I'm still quite uncertain and worried," said Bonnie Chan, who has her 450 sqft flat on the market for HK$8.5 million ($1 million) -- down from its highest valuation of HK$9 million.

"I've listed my flat for sale, but I still haven't made up my mind to sell it."

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