Tide turns for boat-owning fraternity
A very wise business brain once told your correspondent that if you wanted to gauge the state of an economy, you should forget economics textbooks - and head down to the local yacht club instead.
The logic of what he said - when you think about it - is obvious.
The yacht, or pleasure boat, is often the most ostentatious toy taken on by those flush with funds.
Floating palaces therefore tend to be the ultimate purchase of entrepreneurs and other money-makers in good times - and the first items they sell when times aren't so hot.
So we felt it might be a good moment to head for Hong Kong's jetties - and check out the real state of play with the economy - given reports of some boat sales by leading investment houses.
When he heard some owners of imported Italian yachts docked in Hong Kong had paid upwards of US$25 million for their toys, your correspondent felt he was venturing a little out of his league.
But he buried his doubts, brushed off his best blazer and flannels, and ventured boldly into the lives of the rich and famous for a day.
The first port of call, so to speak, was Mike Simpson, the managing director of Simpson Marine - perhaps the best known boating agency in Hong Kong for selling vessels to millionaires.
Mr Simpson immediately confessed the tide was going out on some of the well-heeled, and indeed, on parts of the boating market - particularly sales of new vessels.
'A lot of people in the past bought their boats with surplus cash from the stock market,' he said. 'If they were doing well, they thought a pat on the back was due.' It seems pats on the back are not due now - particularly at many companies.
As Mr Simpson notes: 'People aren't buying corporate yachts. In the past, they were seen as a necessary thing for entertainment, but now - because things aren't rosy - purchases are being deferred.' Before you start getting out your hankies to mourn the plight of the yacht broker, we should add that the story is not all bad.
Apparently, the second-hand yacht market is stronger than last year's - with no shortage of buyers eagerly looking to take advantage of fire sales by Asian companies which have hit heavy seas.
In a strange twist on previous times, many of these buyers are coming from overseas: 'It's like the flood tide and the ebb tide - before we had the boats from overseas and the buyers from Asia,' he said.
'Now, it's local people who are wanting to sell their boats - and the people looking to buy are overseas.' There was a lot of buying interest from Europe, Australia and New Zealand, in particular - with people imagining knockdown prices, he said.
Mr Simpson has been finding some of these buyers expecting to pick up boats for absurd prices, given the recent financial woes: 'We had one Middle Eastern guy who approached us and put in an offer on a yacht that was incredibly low.' 'I told him it was ridiculously low, but he kept ringing us through an interpreter every week - telling us it was only a matter of time before the owner would come to his senses.' The yacht eventually went through at a considerably higher price to another buyer - to the chagrin of the Middle Eastern gentleman.
So it seems the prices of second-hand boats are not as bargain basement as some might hope - despite the influx of the bargain-hunters.
That is particularly the case at the lower end of the market, where we hear values are really holding up.
We hear your one or two-year-old junk is fetching as much as it did before the markets collapsed: in the vicinity of HK$1.5 million.
What happened to the boating sale of the century? So much for our dreams of floating off into paradise in a cut-price junk.
We sailed up to another purveyor of upmarket vessels on our travels - Jeremy Comport, head of the boutique boat brokerage Seanergy - who also attested to the resilience of the market.
'The situation is not as drastic as it is made out to be,' he said.
Mind you, Mr Comport has noticed in the past few weeks that some sellers have been in need of a quick sale - and in some cases have been more willing than others to drop their prices.
Could this be a sign of things to come, perhaps? Well, Mr Comport appears to be remaining on his guard, just in case things do take a turn for the worse.
He admitted that the start of this year had been rather slow - particularly in selling upmarket boats - but said he would 'keep fighting and chipping away' to ensure business held up.
He also made another, more telling remark: he has been in touch with some receivers and liquidators around town - presumably because the companies they are liquidating might just harbour the odd stray boat.
Ah yes, these yacht brokers sure know which way the wind blows: both on the high seas, and in the economy.