Hong Kong’s Property Market Is a Mess—and the Fed Is Partly to Blame
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Hong Kong’s Property Market Is a Mess—and the Fed Is Partly to Blame

U.S. rate increases have tamed inflation at home but caused pain elsewhere

Thu, Aug 3, 2023 9:05amGrey Clock 4 min

Hong Kong’s notoriously expensive property market is often seen as a barometer of the city’s economy. It isn’t looking good.

Home prices are down. Office vacancy rates have hit a record high. Commercial real-estate investment has plummeted. The shares of some big developers in the city are trading at a 30-year low to their net asset value, a measure of financial health, according to research by analysts at JPMorgan.

A key reason is high interest rates, which have increased the burden on mortgage-paying home buyers, said Cathie Chung, senior director of research at Jones Lang LaSalle, a real-estate services company. The Hong Kong dollar’s peg to the U.S. dollar forces monetary authorities in the city to track U.S. interest-rate decisions, limiting their ability to stimulate the property sector and the wider economy.

The Federal Reserve has embarked on a historic cycle of interest-rate rises since last March, raising the benchmark federal-funds rate from around zero to 5.25% to 5.50%. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority, the city’s de facto central bank, has followed these hikes, increasing its base rate to 5.75% from 0.75% over the same period.

The full impact of higher interest rates in the city still hasn’t been felt, said Asif Ghafoor, chief executive of online real-estate marketplace Spacious. Asking prices of residential properties listed on the platform have fallen 5% since the start of the year. Sales prices tend to follow suit, and are likely to fall 5% to 10% in the next six months, he said.

To prop up the market, the HKMA relaxed mortgage rules in early July for the first time since 2009, allowing home buyers to pay less upfront and borrow more for some properties if they plan to live in them. But those working in the sector think the pain is far from over.

“We expect that the recovery will be slow and long,” said Chung at Jones Lang LaSalle.

The slump in the property market has hurt the share prices of developers, a major source of wealth for some of the city’s richest families. CK Asset Holdings, Henderson Land Development, Sun Hung Kai Properties and New World Development—all still partly owned by the families of the founders—are performing much worse than the wider stock market this year. New World and Henderson Land have lost more than 15% this year, according to FactSet data.

Hong Kong is one of the world’s leading financial centres and is seen by many foreign businesses as a gateway to mainland China. It is now being hit by a slowdown in investment-banking activity—with several large banks cutting staff this year—and the shaky recovery of China’s economy, which has undermined confidence among businesses and potential home buyers in Hong Kong.

The overall vacancy rate for offices reached a record high of 15.7% in the first half of this year, compared with an average of under 5% in 2018, according to figures by CBRE. In the central business district, there was almost eight times as much empty office space as in 2018, when the area had a vacancy rate of just 1.3%.

The equivalent of $603 million was invested in commercial real estate between April and June, according to CBRE data, just a third of the first-quarter tally and the lowest quarterly figure since the end of 2008, when the global financial crisis caused a huge drop in confidence.

Hong Kong’s border with mainland China was reopened earlier this year, but companies from the mainland haven’t grabbed office space in the numbers many had hoped, said Ada Fung, head of office services at CBRE Hong Kong. Flexible working arrangements and geopolitical tensions that have made many companies pause expansion plans are also crimping demand, she said.

The drop in demand is being exacerbated by a supply glut. Developers bought land and started constructing a number of new buildings before 2019, when widespread protests rocked the city and only ended with the passing of a strict national-security law. Demand for commercial property after that was soon undermined by the spread of Covid-19.

This shift in supply and demand is finally giving potential renters the upper hand, said Fung. “It could be a healthy reset,” she said.

There are some reasons for optimism. Retail businesses have increased their demand for commercial property after the reopening of the border with China, which has brought in tourists looking to spend on luxury goods. There is also hope that a recent rise in residential rents could help home prices.

After an exodus of professionals and other residents in recent years, people have started to move to the city, including foreign students and those coming to Hong Kong through government talent schemes designed to reverse a brain drain. That is helping rents pick up after hitting a bottom in the first quarter, and could lead to more demand for properties as investments, said Cusson Leung, head of property research in Hong Kong at JPMorgan.



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Wild cities and concrete corridors: How AI is reimagining the landscape

A new AI-driven account by leading landscape architect Jon Hazelwood pushes the boundaries on the role of ‘complex nature’ in the future of our cities

By Robyn Willis
Wed, Dec 6, 2023 2 min

Drifts of ground cover plants and wildflowers along the steps of the Sydney Opera House, traffic obscured by meadow-like planting and kangaroos pausing on city streets.

This is the way our cities could be, as imagined by landscape architect Jon Hazelwood, principal at multi-disciplinary architectural firm Hassell. He has been exploring the possibilities of rewilding urban spaces using AI for his Instagram account, Naturopolis_ai with visually arresting outcomes.

“It took me a few weeks to get interesting results,” he said. “I really like the ephemeral nature of the images — you will never see it again and none of those plants are real. 

“The AI engine makes an approximation of a grevillea.”

Hazelwood chose some of the most iconic locations in Australia, including the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge, as well as international cities such as Paris and London, to demonstrate the impact of untamed green spaces on streetscapes, plazas and public space.

He said he hopes to provoke a conversation about the artificial separation between our cities and the broader environment, exploring ways to break down the barriers and promote biodiversity.

“A lot of the planning (for public spaces) is very limited,” Hazelwood said. “There are 110,000 species of plants in Australia and we probably use about 12 in our (public) planting schemes. 

“Often it’s for practical reasons because they’re tough and drought tolerant — but it’s not the whole story.”

Hazelwood pointed to the work of UK landscape architect Prof Nigel Dunnett, who has championed wild garden design in urban spaces. He has drawn interest in recent years for his work transforming the brutalist apartment block at the Barbican in London into a meadow-like environment with diverse plantings of grasses and perennials.

Hazelwood said it is this kind of ‘complex nature’ that is required for cities to thrive into the future, but it can be hard to convince planners and developers of the benefits.

“We have been doing a lot of work on how we get complex nature because complexity of species drives biodiversity,” he said. 

“But when we try to propose the space the questions are: how are we going to maintain it? Where is the lawn?

“A lot of our work is demonstrating you can get those things and still provide a complex environment.” 

At the moment, Hassell together with the University of Melbourne is trialling options at the Hills Showground Metro Station in Sydney, where the remaining ground level planting has been replaced with more than 100 different species of plants and flowers to encourage diversity without the need for regular maintenance. But more needs to be done, Hazelwood said.

“It needs bottom-up change,” he said. ““There is work being done at government level around nature positive cities, but equally there needs to be changes in the range of plants that nurseries grow, and in the way our city landscapes are maintained and managed.”

And there’s no AI option for that. 


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