Pensioners get ready for flight

The prospect of growing old in high-cost HK is so daunting that some soon-to-be retirees are planning on moving abroad

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 May, 2013, 3:26am

Planning for retirement is daunting. It is made more complicated in Hong Kong because there is no effective state-funded pension plan and the cost of living is astronomical.

People planning for retirement are also bombarded by an array of investment products. Financial advisers often earn their money on the commission income generated from the sale of investments, so their advice may not always be in your best interest. The same is true for the staff working at the big consumer banks, and the relationship managers at private banks.

Mike Button, the chairman of the Retirement Schemes Association, a non-profit organisation, said: "People have an interest in selling you something which may have commission attached. I'm not saying the whole industry is corrupt but there's not enough people out there working for the benefit of the client."

Ultimately you, the individual, are responsible for making the call about which investment is right for you, and how best to plan for the years when you have no salary and potentially high medical and insurance costs.

In that vein, we asked people who are either retired or are about to retire for their best advice on this difficult topic. Their wisdom can be summed up thus: take responsibility for your own planning, buy property and get out of Hong Kong.

Jack Kivela, who teaches at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says: "I base my retirement planning on a premise my dad told me, and what my grandpa told him. No one is going to look after your money like you do yourself."

Kivela is turning 60 soon and is looking to retire in the next four to five years. He is wary of turning to financial professionals for advice. He has seen peers lose big money after following the questionable advice of planners.

"You give someone your money and it can disappear. If I lose it myself through my own stupidity, then I can blame myself. If I give it to someone else, there's always this doubt that maybe they could've look after it better," he says. "It's not helped by the cold calls from asset managers, up to once or twice a day. They come in waves, playing upon people's vulnerabilities."

As always with any money matter in Hong Kong, property costs are so extreme they dominate all other expenses.

People who retire in Hong Kong without owning property are vulnerable. Rent rises can upset the best conceived budget plans. Moyreen Tilbrook, a Hong Kong resident since 1965, says: "Rental costs tend to be volatile and are rising very steeply."

Tilbrook retired in 1994 and owns properties in Macau and Britain. She says property provides steady, inflation-adjusted income: it will rise in value as your costs go up. "I suspect if you don't have [property] somewhere, it is very difficult," she says. "You would have to have huge assets in the stock market, or bonds or something."

Think internationally

The lack of a meaningful state-backed pension plan leaves many Hongkongers who are planning for retirement feeling vulnerable.

The government pays an old-age allowance of HK$2,200 a month, provided you can prove you are in need. Otherwise, the government relies on the fully private Mandatory Provident Fund to provide for retirees. The plan typically involves monthly contributions of HK$2,500.

Clearly, this is not enough to live on, which is why many Hongkongers who are not rich or do not own multiple Hong Kong flats rely on a plan B for retirement: seek citizenship in countries with state-backed retirement and health-care plans. Popular destinations are Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

Josephine Leong, 59, who holds an Australian passport, says she does not count on stock markets for her and her husband's retirement. "We have some stocks via Manulife. Soon after we got it, the holding went up to US$40,000 but the current value is only US$10,000. It fluctuates too much. That's why I focus on investment properties, but only in Australia. Hong Kong is too volatile."

Leong's plan is to rely on rental yield from the properties as an income stream. In a squeeze, she could sell a property and convert it into cash: "If anything really happens, we always have the Aussie pension to fall back on."

Kivela says the pension given by the Australian government would allow him to live comfortably enough "without ever touching the money in the bank". It also gives him peace of mind about health coverage.

Kivela, who knows a number of people who applied for foreign citizenships to get access to state-supported medicine, says: "If you have a health problem, Hong Kong would be a tough place. It's not Australia or New Zealand, with a national health system."

Another popular option for soon-to-be retirees is relocating to countries with a low cost of living. Nick, a retired accountant who declined to share his last name, will be relocating to Malaysia under the My Second Home scheme. The plan lets foreigners live in Malaysia, and for those over 50 years of age, it allows entry so long as they can show just under HK$900,000 in assets and an income stream of HK$25,000 a month.

"I can buy a spectacular flat [in Malaysia] and have some money left over. That's really key," Nick says.

Leong and her husband have also begun contemplating a move to Malaysia: "Thailand or Malaysia would be one tenth of the cost," she says.

Whatever the plan, the consistent strategy is to move offshore. This is a great town to make money and to plot a career, but a terrible place to grow old.