Another day, another survey showing that Hong Kong is one of the most expensive cities in the world to live.
The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Worldwide Cost of Living Survey released recently showed Singapore as the most expensive city to live in, with Hong Kong second.
When it comes to the cost of real estate, Hong Kong prices are at the top of the list. Buying a no-frills one-bedroom apartment near Hong Kong’s central business district will set you back around US$1 million.
Just take a look at Hong Kong’s residential prices since 2008 versus the U.S. and U.K. Prices are up more than 100 percent!
Why is Hong Kong property in such a massive bull market?
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been asked about this numerous times. The week before it was Bloomberg’s Rishaad Salamat doing the asking (click here watch the interview.)
And then last week I spoke about Hong Kong’s property market at Morgan Stanley’s 7th Annual Hong Kong Investor Summit.
A lot of people think that buyers from mainland China are pushing up prices in Hong Kong. (Remember, Hong Kong is politically separate from China, but it’s under Chinese control.)
Over the past few years, we’ve seen the story of “Hot Mainland China Money” playing out across real estate markets all over the world.
There’s a lot of mainland Chinese cash looking for a home outside of China, for diversification reasons and because wealthy folks simply want to move their money outside of China’s borders.
Their number one investment target is offshore real estate in markets like London, Los Angeles, New York, Vancouver, Sydney and Auckland, to name some prominent examples.
This “hot” mainland China money has also gotten a lot of the blame for property price increases in Hong Kong.
But I want to show you some data on why that conclusion is wrong for Hong Kong.
Here’s why Hong Kong is different
You see, back in 2012, the Hong Kong government introduced a new stamp duty aimed at cooling Hong Kong’s red-hot property market.
This additional Buyers Stamp Duty (BSD) added a whopping 15 percent to the purchase price of residential property for certain buyers. Any buyer who is not a permanent resident of Hong Kong is subject to this stamp duty, along with corporate buyers acquiring a property in the name of a company.
So for that $1 million small apartment, you now have to pay an additional BSD of US$150,000… and this is before we get to other stamp duties or costs payable.
This BSD, therefore, captures individual mainland Chinese buyers, along with anyone who is looking to buy residential property in the name of a company and not themselves.
But in each of the past two years (2015 and 2016), less than 5 percent of the total residential sales transactions have been subjected to this additional BSD.
So even if ALL of the BSD taxpayers were mainland Chinese (unlikely given that people living in Hong Kong and elsewhere continue to use companies to buy Hong Kong property), it’s obvious that mainland Chinese money cannot be blamed for driving prices up.
Mainland buyers are a fraction of the total. We cannot blame them for Hong Kong’s high apartment prices.
So, if not mainland buyers, who is to blame? The Federal Reserve for keeping interest rates so low for so long? Perhaps, but the real culprit is much closer to home.
The Hong Kong government
All land in Hong Kong is owned and sold by the government. Public housing is provided by the government and either sold or rented. This housing, which accounts for about 56 percent of the total residential housing stock, is provided for lower income families who would normally find private housing unaffordable. These families don’t usually buy in the private real estate market.
On the private side, land parcels are auctioned by the government to local (and increasingly mainland Chinese) developers.
Those residential units are built and sold into the market.
Take a look at the chart below. It shows the number of both public and private residential units completed each year. This is Hong Kong’s total annual housing supply.
Between 1984 and 2005, total annual housing production was around 67,000 units per year.
But between 2006 and 2015, that number dropped to just 24,000… that’s 65 percent below the long-term annual average!
Hong Kong’s population has continued to grow, along with a need for more housing.
Government land policies have cut back the supply of housing to meet those demands, in both private and public sectors.
The government’s own forecasts of future private housing supply in the coming few years still fall well short of long-term average production.
And even their forecasts are often very optimistic. Our research has shown that over some 30 years, the government overestimated future housing supply by an average of 23 percent!
So what does this mean?
Well, from a supply point of view, Economics 101 will tell you that lots of demand without supply will lead to high prices.
And it means that when a government holds so much control over a scarce asset (in this case land) then it commands a huge influence on pricing.
We should use that to our advantage. Hong Kong has some of the largest and most profitable real estate developer companies in the world. Several are trading at very attractive valuations compared to their longer-term averages.
As for the folks trying to get on the world’s most unaffordable property ladder who keep asking me, “Pete, when’s it going to end?”, I’m afraid that the base case scenario is that prices don’t meaningfully correct any time soon.
You might not be able to buy an apartment, but you can still participate in Hong Kong’s property market with the right real estate stocks.
I’ve been covering Hong Kong property stocks for nearly 30 years, and I tend to focus the majority of my recommendations on a handful of top quality companies. (But in the interests of being fair to subscribers of The Churchouse Letter, I won’t include those here.)
Alternatively, you can take a look at the Guggenheim China Real Estate ETF (New York Stock Exchange; ticker: TAO). This gives you a basket of Hong Kong and Mainland Chinese real estate developer stocks and REITs. Around 80 percent of the ETF is in Hong Kong real estate stocks, with mainland China taking up the other 20 percent.
If you’re looking for a Hong Kong property ETF then this is OK. Although jumbling up Hong Kong and mainland China stocks in a single ETF isn’t ideal. These are completely different markets and should be treated as such.
Just yesterday, mainland Chinese developer stocks fell between 3-5 percent in a single day due to real estate tightening curbs announced over the weekend. Hong Kong property stocks were more or less flat!