Buyers pay price of confusing property curbs

Official stamp duties and lending restrictions raise more questions than answers, but there's a window of investment opportunity

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 07 May, 2015, 12:48pm

Hong Kong's famously "non-interventionist" government has intervened five times in the property market over the past five years to either raise or lower prices.

The government, of course, thinks it is being helpful and Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah stressed that the new measures would not affect half of the local buyers. Presumably he also meant sellers, but he did not say this.

More fundamentally, Tsang only spoke of the direct impact of raising stamp duties on property transactions. He did not address the more general issue of the impact on prices - despite the fact the new stamp duties are designed to lower prices. And there's the rub: although the stamp duties are hefty they still represent a tiny part of overall property prices.

Local buyers are exempt from the tax if entering the market for the first time or trading the only property they own.

It is hard to see how this will reassure anyone contemplating entering the property market, assuming they even can after a decade in which residential prices have risen by 245 per cent according to Centaline's Centa-City Leading Index, a benchmark. Residential property rose 21 per cent last year, despite last October's imposition of a 15 per cent tax on purchases by foreigners.

Moreover, although this measure is designed to help "locals", only permanent residents qualify for exemptions, so those who have yet to attain this status will have to pay the higher duty. And this is also another tax on business because the exemptions only apply to residential properties.

Previous government interventions have only had a short-term effect on prices but do not alter the long-term fundamentals. In Hong Kong these fundamentals start with property supply (also largely determined by government) and, as in every global market, prices are swayed by the state of the economy and sentiment.

Fast forward to today and it seems likely the recent measures will depress prices but it is not clear for how long. It is also unclear what anomalies will arise from them. We have already seen a controversial sale of hotel property units and there may be an impact on other property options, such as car-parking spaces (previously accessible for those who could not afford residential buys) and commercial properties that will get the full impact of the levy along with lending restrictions.

So, confusion reigns and it is troubling for the average Hong Kong investor whose biggest asset is likely to be their home or investment property.

Those more interested in property investment but who lack the means to buy should be focusing on property developer shares, which are falling in price. The upfront commitment to buy shares is far less than the sum required to buy property, and equities are instantly tradable.

But assuming the recent measures actually work and the government is able to deflate this market to a level where flats become affordable, people should think about buying.

I bought my first Hong Kong property just before a big dip in the market and felt pretty sick about it. Fortunately the decision was vindicated in the long run. It would have been even better to buy during the dip but, like most people, I lack perfect foresight yet understand that betting against the local property market is rarely clever.