Hong Kong’s reopening has led to growing indications of a rebound in the territory’s struggling housing market. Will the market register a sustained recovery despite still high-interest rates?
For nearly three years, Hong Kong’s border with China remained closed even as much of the rest of the world reopened after the pandemic.
When visitors were finally allowed back in January, followed by a full border reopening in February after Chinese New Year, the city-state launched its Hello Hong Kong campaign designed to reassure visitors and investors that the pandemic and recent political instability had been consigned to the past.
“Hong Kong is off to a good start in the Year of the Rabbit after three challenging years,” says John Lee, Hong Kong’s new chief executive, ahead of a tour to the Middle East in February.
After the most difficult year on recent record, there are signs positive sentiment may be returning to Hong Kong’s real estate market as Chinese visitors have returned.
The border reopening has been the largest positive factor so far. It has helped to unleash some purchasing power in the market
In 2022, home sales dropped to their lowest level since the global financial crisis in 2008, as prices slumped nearly 17 percent, according to Hong Kong’s Ratings and Valuation Department.
But by the fourth quarter of last year, prices already recorded a 1.25 percent upswing, signalling the possible start of a recovery which appeared to gather momentum into the first quarter of this year.
Prices continued to rise in each of the first three months of 2023, including a 1.4 percent increase in March, the first full month after the border reopened, the latest sign that a sustained recovery may be underway in the world’s most expensive residential real estate market.
“The border reopening has been the largest positive factor so far,” says Martin Wong, director of research at Knight Frank Hong Kong. “It has helped to unleash some purchasing power in the market.”
In the weeks after mainland Chinese and international visitors returned, Lee’s government posted a new budget which included measures designed to jumpstart the property market, among them an adjustment to the stamp duty paid by permanent residents with no other residential properties.
“This is great news for those who plan to purchase their first homes,” Deloitte stated in a commentary on the new budget.
Despite rising mortgage rates, previously struggling would-be first-time homeowners in Hong Kong have found buying more achievable in recent months, says Cherrie Lai, senior director of residential sales, development, and investment at Savills Hong Kong.
House prices collapsed last year amid excess pandemic inventory of about 40,000 units at the lower end of the market, and 100,000 more units are due to come online by 2025 or 2026, says Lai, estimating annual absorption at between 18,000 to 20,000 units.
“For the general public, the pain has been less than for institutional investors,” she says. “Developers have suffered a lot because they have short-term financing structures… they have to pay high [interest] rates.”
The extent and speed of Hong Kong’s property recovery are expected to be driven in part by interest rate trends and sentiment in the coming months.
Individual mortgages in Hong Kong are mostly tied to the lower HIBOR, or interbank rate, which hovered around three percent at the start of the second quarter. Developers with shorter-term loans tend to incur higher borrowing costs close to the base rate which was raised by 25 basis points to 5.25 percent by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority in late March.
It remains to be seen whether Hong Kong has reached the top of its recent rate cycle. The US Federal Reserve has indicated it may make one further rise in rates before the end of 2023.
And with the Hong Kong dollar closely pegged to the greenback, the HKMA may decide to follow suit as it has done on all but two occasions since the start of the Ukraine conflict. The latter is the spur for rates rises globally amid high inflation. Analysts in Hong Kong mostly agree that the top of the recent interest rates peak is in sight, which has further helped buyer sentiment following the reopening of the border with China.
Yet few analysts agree on the direction of prices in the near term, highlighting the high level of uncertainty that still plagues the residential market in Hong Kong. Analysts’ forecasts for the sector have historically tended to fall within a tight band but have remained anything but consistent recently.
As recently as late January, analysts at Goldman Sachs forecast a 10 percent drop in home prices for this year, citing high-interest rates, an upwards revision on a previous forecast of a 15 percent decline in prices for 2023. In March, global ratings agency S&P forecast a price jump of between five percent and eight percent for Hong Kong’s residential market this year, the most upbeat thus far, “supported by solid pentup demand” amid “an improved economic outlook.”
In April, Wong of Knight Frank says he expected prices to instead fall by up to five percent in 2023 based on a high level of outstanding inventory combined with elevated interest rates. “As some developers may be more actively destocking from now, it will lead to price pressure on both primary and secondary markets,” he says.
Lai of Savills declined to forecast a residential price trend for the remainder of the year and instead warned it was too early for over-optimism following a difficult period of limited transactions and heavy discounts. “We haven’t reached ground zero. We are still underwater,” she says. “If we move ahead for another two quarters, we can start talking of a recovery.”
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