Has Robert Ng gone too far?
NO ONE was surprised when Hongkong's most aggressive property tycoon, Robert Ng Chee-siong, still had his hand in the air when bidding ended at last Tuesday's land auction. But even hardened professionals let out a low whistle at the astonishing price paid.
Sino Land chairman Mr Ng had paid $505 million for a residential site in Sha Tin still considered to be off the beaten track.
The bid worked out at $5,007 per square foot (psf), equivalent to prices on the Peak, and far above the expected price of $350 million.
Most analysts are saying that Mr Ng will have to ask about $7,000 per square feet (almost $2,000 more than the purchased price of $5,007 psf) when the development is completed, in order to make a profit.
The question being asked around town is: has high-roller Mr Ng gone too far this time? ''Many developers who suffered after the 1987 stock market crash would love to find Robert Ng has finally made a blunder and paid too high a price,'' said one property surveyor.
It is not the first time Mr Ng has led the market.
Following the 1987 crash, when many Hongkong developers were in a bind, Mr Ng seized the moment to turn a social crisis into a financial bonanza.
Just before the market collapsed, the Ng family had bought virtually the whole of the company's equity portfolio in exchange for a 100 per cent ownership of the Tuen Mun Town Plaza. The deal realised a profit of $776 million.
While the property hot-shots whimpered, Mr Ng swooped on the property market to boost his company's land bank. He acquired substantial high-quality parcels of land at prices attractive both in pre-1982 terms and in relation to the market values during that period.
His aggressive manner propelled him into the limelight. Throughout the recovery period, the Sino Group maintained a prominent profile in the property sector, striking deal after deal, although many had been criticised as ''highly expensive and unreasonable''.
But in the past, Mr Ng has illustrated his discretionary skills when it comes to property priced ''too high''.
But some analysts aren't as easily sold on the price paid for the New Territories site.
Pointing out that Mr Ng had already paid a ''record high'' price, some are sceptical as to whether $7,000 psf will attract buyers in a territory still considered ''too far out.'' ''The final price was already unbelievably high, but $7,000 seems just incredibly high, especially for that district,'' said Euan Weir, an analyst at Crosby Securities.
Mr Weir did agree that it was an exceptional site being one of the last residential lots available at Kau To Shan.
''It's also got a very nice location, it's on a hill with a great view and the surrounding developments are very attractive garden homes,'' Mr Weir said.
EVEN so, he insisted that Sino Land would have to make it a very special development in order to compensate for the future going price.
However, most consultants think that's exactly what Mr Ng is going to do.
''Before he had even thought about signing a check, Mr Ng was receiving counter-bids, surpassing his $5,007 psf purchase, from some of Hongkong's biggest developers,'' said a property surveyor.
When asked whether or not this was feasible, David Faulkner, a partner at Brooke Hillier Parker (BHP) said: ''It's feasible, things like that have been known to happen.
''Let's put it this way, the activity on that auction floor was clearly frantic, there were three and four hands going up for each increased bid. If Robert Ng had not snatched it first, someone else would have - having paid the same price or even higher,'' Mr Faulkner said.
''He knows what he's doing and I would say the price he paid was reasonable. Look at the garden homes right next door - they're already set at around $6,500 psf,'' said Brian Law, associate member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.
And for those set on the idea that the New Territories are too inaccessible, Mr Law brought up a good point.
''The fact that it's out in the New Territories could be one of its greatest advantages. China is becoming increasingly important to Hongkong, and as 1997 approaches, Sha Tin could very well become an essential door to China,'' Mr Law said.
He added that Hongkong's overall economic well-being looked so bright that by the time the development was completed, $7,000 psf for a luxury garden home would not be unreasonable.
''He will have to think of a good theme for the development and focus on some effective marketing, but he'll pull it through and it will be a success,'' Mr Law said.
Mr Faulkner supported this theory and emphasised the importance of Mr Ng's ''garden home'' concept.
''It's sort of in a class by itself. Garden homes are extremely unique and there's a very short supply of them in Hongkong,'' Mr Faulkner said.
Charles Chan, director at Chesterton Petty, added: ''The supply of garden homes is minimal and upper-end home owners are becoming more demanding about the quality of their living.
''The desire for gardens, large yards, good-quality homes is becoming more prevalent and the demand will definitely increase.'' Of course only time will tell, but most consultants expect Mr Ng's course of action to be carefully calculated, leading to just another lucrative property investment.
Mr Faulkner said he expected Mr Ng to have the development completed in about 18 months, but said that pre-selling will probably begin in about six months.
''I would estimate that he'll set prices anywhere between $6,500 and $7,000 psf, and in the current market I think he'll be able to pull it off.'' Mr Faulkner stressed ''current market'', saying that because of Hongkong's unique political situation, predicting market activity in two years would be foolish.
According to Mr Chan, who said ''the site was not so expensive'', Mr Ng will have to go one step further by ensuring that the needed $7,000 psf be required under the ''brochure price'' rather than the lease price.
''This gets a little tricky. Mr Ng must ask $7,000 under the brochure terms - meaning that car park space, hallway space and balcony space is included. Looking at it that way, paying $7,000 psf for a hallway takes on a whole new meaning,'' Mr Chan said.
''However, I think he'll get it and if he does, he will be pulling in approximately $1,000 profit for each square foot.''