A prolonged property market contraction and the deteriorating economy could force up to 40 per cent of estate agents out of work in coming months, Centaline Property Agency managing director Shih Wing-ching said. The number of professionals in the business could fall to 7,200 from 12,000 if the volume of property trades continued to fall, he said. A severe downturn in the property market had already forced more than 40 per cent of agents out of work from last year's peak of 20,000, Mr Shih said yesterday after the opening ceremony for Centaline's Taikoo Shing branch. He said his company had taken advantage of a sharp fall in rents to open a branch at Taikoo Shing which was a strategic location, but would continue to shut branches in poor locations. He said the company had leases for 20 shops due for renewal before the end of the year and might close 70 per cent of them if it failed to secure substantial rent cuts. Mr Shih said staff in shops affected would be transferred to other branches. Property transactions in the secondary market tumbled to about 4,000 last month, compared with 15,000 a month at the peak of last year's boom, he said. He said the market would not see a significant improvement in the next two years. 'Nearly 80 per cent to 90 per cent of agents have recently failed to close a deal because of thin trading volume,' he said. 'Most agents' commission income has dropped 70 per cent,' Mr Shih said. He said the company had managed to break even in the first half but the business environment had worsened in the past two months, resulting in a sharp fall in transactions. Mr Shih said the industry faced revolutionary change when the Estate Agents Bill came into force next year. The new regulations would increase estate agents' operating costs by requiring staff to conduct property information searches as well as charging a licensing fee, he said.