IS there a monopoly on property development in Hong Kong? With 70 per cent of Hong Kong's private developments controlled by just seven developers (some of which have board members in common), one might be inclined to say yes. But the Consumer Council refrained from using the words 'cartel', 'monopoly' or 'oligopoly' in last year's report on competition policy, even as it expressed concern about the concentration of power in the real-estate industry. After all, big need not always be bad. Economists agreeing with the libertarian ideas of the University of Chicago's Milton Friedman argue there might sometimes be a natural justification for having just a few big players. These economists have no complaints with concentration of power so long as there are no barriers to market entry. The Consumer Council report said 'legal' barriers to entry in Hong Kong's property-development business had never existed. There are, however, plenty of officially constructed obstacles. Potential new entrants to what has been an extremely profitable business in Hong Kong are disadvantaged in several ways, not least by the enormous size of the parcels auctioned off by the Government. From 1993 to 1995, the council reported, lots for residential development sold for $2 billion to $5 billion each. Not too many companies can afford to buy such expensive lots on their own. Because the Government owns all the land here, it has a direct role in deciding how much will be put up for sale, and when. And despite various think-tanks having proclaimed Hong Kong the world's freest economy, the territory's property market is by no means free of price controls. When the Government decides prices have fallen too far, it withdraws land from the auction block until prices rise again. Media reports on the lack of bidding at public auctions in 1994 and 1995 should have said: 'There were no takers at the prices asked by the Lands Department.' But the Real Estate Developers Association's recent protest against 'unwarranted intervention' in the market can hardly be taken as a call for a hands-off policy - since whenever the Government moves to keep prices up by removing land from the market, the industry offers nary a peep. Developers appear to have an even easier time ahead of them, now that Chief Executive-designate Tung Chee-hwa has appointed Leung Chun-ying, a property agent, to head a task force on real-estate policy. C Y Leung & Company bills itself as a surveyor, but its finance and administration manager, Eddy Lau, cheerfully confirms that the company helps individuals and companies buy and sell real estate. And the higher the price of the property, the higher the commission earned by C Y Leung & Company.