Hong Kong property

Super rich investors who bought The Center finding it tough to sell floors amid property downturn

  • Only five floors are confirmed to have been sold
  • An investor group paid a world record US$5.15 billion for the building six months ago
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 8:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 31 October, 2018, 2:29pm

Talk about bad timing. Super wealthy investors who paid US$5.15 billion for The Center – in the world’s most expensive real estate transaction ever – have mostly been spinning their wheels over the last six months trying to sell it off floor by floor.

Plans for quick riches were hampered by the US-China trade war, the global stock market slump, and the growing doom and gloom hanging over property generally now in Hong Kong.

In contrast, Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong’s richest person, who sold The Center, looks every bit the “Superman” nickname he acquired thanks to his business acumen.

“If I sold, I would have gotten a bad price. I won’t sell now,” said Lo Man-tuen, founder of DVD and compact disc maker Wing Li Group. Lo confirmed that four out of the five floors he owns have not yet sold.

Li Ka-shing sells The Center in US$5.15 billion record deal to trim his flagship’s Hong Kong assets

Only five of the 48 floors bought by the 10 investors appear to have been resold, and some of those fetched lower-than-expected prices, though the owners still made a profit. However, at least three of the investors said in November that they didn’t intend to sell immediately.

“There was a moment when as long as you grabbed one piece of cake in the building, it meant winning money. But now the sky has darkened. It was just a bit unlucky that they have come across a sudden dive in the market,” Chelsea Lin, senior associate director at Colliers International, said of the investors.

But, given that The Center is located in the most sought-after neighbourhood in the city by global elite companies, investors have mostly hunkered down, continuing to rent out space in the building known for its dazzling neon lights.

Hong Kong is the world’s most expensive city for renting office space, with the Central district, where The Center is located, fetching an annual rent of US$307 per square foot. That is 30 per cent more than the US$235 per square foot in London’s West End, according to a report by CBRE. Vacancy rates in the Central office market are less than 1 per cent.

The deal for the Center was finalised on May 2 between Li and the CHMT Peaceful Development Asia Property group, led by Hui Wing Mau, Shimao Property Holdings’ founder and Forbes’ wealthiest woman of 2017 Pollyanna Chu.

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The 10 investors own different floors of the building. Some immediately offered their floors up for sale, at prices as high as HK$55,000 per square foot for floors 49 and 50, according to a price list for the 48 floors of the building circulating at the time.

The first confirmed sale was by Asia Property Agency founder Raymond Tsoi Chi-chung, who said in November when the deal was announced that The Center was being bought at a bargain. At that time, the property market was still hot. He divided his 22nd floor into 12 small offices. He put six onto the market, asking for an average of HK$40,000 per square foot. Later he put up three more units. So far, four have been confirmed to have been sold – all above the asking price.

Brokers test market appetite for 50 per cent resale premium, even before ink dries on The Center’s price tag

Others wanting to sell include David Chan Ping-chi and Johnny Cheung Shun Yee. They have good offers that are pending.

But the souring property sentiment in the city – and market turmoil in both Hong Kong and Shanghai – have many of the possible buyers with deep enough pockets to buy a floor, or more, in The Center deciding to wait to see the seriousness of the property market downturn that appears to be under way.

“Given the present rather uncertain economic and financial environment, I believe that potential purchasers are more likely to watch and wait rather than commit,” said Nicholas Brooke, chairman of Professional Property Services. “And the re-sale prices that they are hoping to achieve are somewhat optimistic.”

Hong Kong’s famously expensive property market has been showing signs of weakening. Sales of new flats are slowing. Their prices are dropping. And the 28-month bull market for lived-in flats ended in August.

Office rents in Hong Kong’s Central, most expensive in the world, will only go up even amid exodus

Even The Center is feeling a bit of the chill. The latest confirmed sale at the property was of the 49th floor, which had been owned Logistics heir Johnny Cheung Shun Yee. The Hopson Development of mainland China said it planned to buy the 25,659 square foot office space for HK$1.118 billion, or HK$43,510 per square foot.

Sources familiar with matter told the South China Morning Post that the deal has been completed.

Cheung, a veteran investor, has four floors – 42, 43, 49 and 50. He is not selling floor 42. Two sales have been agreed to and he is in discussion with Guoco Group on the 50th floor.

But the sales prices of Cheung’s three floors were all lower than the asking price widely circulated in May – by as much as 20 per cent.

Investor Lo also sold for less than his asking price. The 19th floor sold for more than HK$33,000 per square foot, about 3 per cent less than the original asking price of HK$34,000.

“One day I bumped into Mrs. Liu [Rita Tong Liu, who chaired the property firm Gale Well Group] when she was on the way to see a dentist. She showed interest and then we clinched the deal,” Lo said. “The price reflected the lower quality of the floor. It doesn’t have a nice view.”

Industry players say that the price the investor consortium paid for The Center – HK$33,000 per square foot – is still reasonable, despite the market’s downturn.

“It is not a crazy price and now the valuation of the building has not corrected that much,” said George Wong Chi-fung, a surveyor at Ricacorp Properties. “They are far way from losing money for now.”

But when the investors tried to run up the rents, some tenants balked.

James Mak, district sales director at property broker Midland Commercial, said some of the investors may rent instead of selling in the near term because they expect the next three years will be challenging for the property market.

“When these investors took over, they suddenly raised up the rents to as much as HK$100 [per square foot], which scared away some tenants,” said Mak. “Tenants, particularly blue chip companies, may leave as they find it is too troublesome to negotiate with different owners to rent several floors.”

The 10 Investors are also facing high interest rates through two tranches of 18-month bonds they issued, which provided the financing when they closed the deal in May.

The first tranche of the bond, underwritten by Morgan Stanley, had an up to 65 per cent loan-to-acquisition value (LTV) at a coupon rate of 7.5 per cent, while tranche B, arranged by Hammer Capital had a 65 to 80 per cent LTV with coupon rate of 15.25 per cent.

But, while some of the investors may be smarting a bit, Lo wasn’t looking for sympathy when asked about the bad timing of The Center deal.

“You think that I am that poor? I am now acquiring a lithium mine in Chile,” he said.