Standard Chartered is in the right places at the right time. Yesterday the bank announced a net profit for the first half of the year up 20 per cent from 2010, the ninth year in a row in which its has notched up a record. The core of Stanchart's business remains its Hong Kong operations, which recorded a 55 per cent increase in operating profit thanks largely to a 50 per cent expansion in its commercial loan book. However, chairman John Peace insists the bank has also done well outside its traditional lines of business. Yesterday he pointed out that ten years ago Stanchart had no private banking, corporate finance, small-company or commodity businesses. Today he says that together they generate almost a quarter of the bank's income. Encouragingly Stanchart has managed to keep a lid on its costs even as it has expanded into new markets. In the first six months of the year the bank's operating expenses amounted to 53 per cent of its revenues, down from a ratio of 55 per cent in the first half of 2010. But it hasn't all been plain sailing. In India the bank's profit slumped by 39 per cent, a decline Asia-Pacific chief executive Jaspal Bindra blames on stiff competition and central bank tightening, which has hit business activity and hurt sentiment in the financial markets. Even so the bank is pressing ahead with an expensive programme of investments, which pushed up its costs in India by 13 per cent in the first half. Meanwhile in Korea Stanchart is struggling with its costs after acquiring Korea First Bank in 2005. To get a grip on expenses in its consumer banking division - where first half costs were a thumping 72 per cent of revenues - Stanchart attempted to introduce a performance-based pay scheme, provoking a strike among its employees. Yesterday Peace was talking tough, claiming that the strike had only a minimal impact on the bank's first half performance - hardly surprising since it only began at the end of June - and vowing to persevere with the new pay scheme. 'It is in the interests of Standard Chartered, the sector and Korea as a whole to have a strong vibrant banking sector, and putting in place a performance-related pay structure is vitally important to that,' he said. Maybe so, but the Korean strike is a reminder that expanding into new markets - and achieving competitive scale in them - is seldom easy. Stanchart has done well in the last few years, side-stepping the financial crisis and growing its business while its competitors were distracted. Its share price reflects that. Today the bank trades at a handsome premium to rivals like HSBC. Over the next few years, however, Stanchart may not find it so easy to outperform. One of the favourite statistics quoted by people who believe the mainland's property market is an enormous bubble on the point of bursting is the mind-boggling claim that some 64.5 million new apartments across the country are sitting empty. The figure is supposed to have come from an academic study of electricity meter billings which found that 64.5 million flats are using no power. According to the bubble-believers these vacant apartments were bought by speculators hoping to make fat capital gains, and are clear evidence of massive over-supply in a market where prices have lost all touch with reality. It's an eye-catching number, but it's always looked a bit suspect to Monitor. After all, according to official figures, in the 10 years between 2000 and 2009 the mainland only built 37 million new homes, so it's hardly credible that 64 million would be sitting empty today. Now, in an attempt to shed some light on the problem, Rosealea Yao at Dragonomics in Beijing has had a go at making a more realistic estimate of the number of vacant flats. Taking estimates that 26 million households own more than one home, and factoring in the number of families that rent their apartments, she concluded that investors own between 10 and 12 million uninhabited flats. Adding the stock of unsold apartments held by developers she came up with a total number of vacant homes of between 14 and 18 million. That's high certainly. According to Yao it's around 10 per cent of the total housing stock. But it's a far cry from 64.5 million. So if that many apartments are really using no power, Monitor can only conclude that 50 million Chinese households have been tampering with their electricity meters.