Boom and bust
Over the past few years, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, Executive Council convenor Leung Chun-ying, Secretary for Housing Dominic Wong Shing-wah and Director of Lands Robert Pope have all been blamed, not always fairly, for giving the wrong advice on whether it was time for prospective home owners to go into the market.
But officials would not necessarily be lynched for what they said about the sensitive subject if they measured their words carefully.
Last week, Financial Secretary Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, who becomes chief secretary tomorrow, was again asked if people should buy a flat now. Instead of giving a straight reply, he noted that figures showed there would be a drop in housing supply three years down the road. He also called on developers to take a long-term view by re-starting their building programmes now.
In pointing to a future shortage, Mr Tsang was arguably encouraging people to buy now. But to get mired in a debate on whether he was trying to talk prices up would be missing his message that the current glut could give way to a shortage if no new construction was planned.
In fact, Mr Tsang was merely alluding to the traditional boom-bust cycle that is the law in any market. It holds that during a boom, supply is increased to meet seemingly insatiable demand, only to lead to an oversupply which stifles investment to meet future demand, thus precipitating a shortage which gives rise to another boom.
That is certainly what happened to the Hong Kong property market. What was most unfortunate was that well-intentioned political intervention aimed at boosting supply three years ago came as the market was about to peak and the Asian financial crisis was looming, and so had the effect of aggravating the subsequent plunge in prices.
Indeed, for planners and businessmen, the billion-dollar question is getting the timing of the boom-bust cycle right. In predicting a housing shortage by 2004, Mr Tsang has bet that the market will absorb the new flats currently on sale and those due to become available over the next three years.
Developers beg to differ, however, as is evident by their reluctance to snap up new land and begin new construction.
Only time will tell if they are wrong. But judging from the pace of economic recovery, Mr Tsang may turn out to be not wide of the mark, if not spot on.