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17 Sep 2019 12:38
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  •   Home > News > International

    Hong Kong billionaire tycoons call for end to protests as unrest affects their profits

    For months, Hong Kong's billionaires have remained silent on the protest movement, but as house prices fall and the share market tanks, the city's elite are demanding that order be restored.


    Hong Kong's property tycoons are hurting, the share market is tanking and the tourism sector has taken a beating as the pro-democracy movement continues to strangle the city.

    While the US-China trade war has fuelled some of the losses, weeks of violent protests have wreaked havoc for investor sentiment and caused huge reputational damage for the semi-autonomous territory as an economic powerhouse.

    As the protest movement enters its 11th week with no signs of slowing down, analysts are predicting the financial hub is barrelling towards recession.

    Now the city's ultra-rich are calling for the protests to end.

    The net worth of the 10 wealthiest tycoons, who derive their fortune from Hong Kong-listed companies, has shed billions since the protests started in June, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire's Index.

    Hong Kong's richest person, 91-year-old business magnate Li Ka-shing, has become the latest billionaire to join the chorus speaking out.

    Mr Li, nicknamed 'Superman' in Hong Kong, took out full-page ads in most local newspapers, urging a halt to the unrest "in the name of love".

    While careful not to take sides, the ad featured the Chinese word for "violence" with a red cross through it, flanked by slogans about loving China and loving Hong Kong.

    The entrepreneur, who is worth approximately $39 billion, signed the ad with "from a Hong Kong resident, Li Ka-shing".

    'In Hong Kong, property tycoons control the land'

    As the protest movement drags on, there are concerns the property sector, which is a linchpin of the local economy, could be in danger.

    Controlled by the mega-wealthy, Hong Kong is home to the most expensive real estate in the world, making it out of reach of many of its citizens.

    On average, a nano apartment — the size of a parking spot — costs about $1,475 per month to rent.

    Most of the protesters taking to the streets are university students and young professionals.

    They hold little hope of ever being able to afford their own home, so hitting the rich and powerful has become an aim of the movement.

    "In Hong Kong, the property tycoons control the land supply," Shanghai-based analyst Andy Xie said.

    "Beijing has relied on the tycoons in Hong Kong to govern the place, so the Government is not really in charge. All of the tycoons have a direct line to Beijing," Mr Xie said.

    Whether the billionaires of Hong Kong will do Beijing's bidding remains to be seen.

    "They think these tycoons will keep the peace in Hong Kong, which is not their objective. Their objective is to make as much money as possible, as quickly as possible", Mr Xie said.

    As their profits start to dive, more Hong Kong property magnates are criticising the protest movement.

    Swire Pacific, one of Hong Kong's richest family-owned business empires, has issued a strongly worded statement condemning "illegal activities and violent behaviour," throwing its support behind the city's beleaguered government.

    The family business, which dates back more than 200 years, is the largest shareholder in Cathay Pacific, owns luxury hotels, office towers and high-end shopping malls throughout the city.

    Sun Hung Kai Properties, which is controlled by Asia's third-richest family, the Kwoks, has also called for the violence to stop and for social order to be restored.

    Property tycoon, Peter Woo, the former chairman of developer Wheelock and Co, said the protesters should ease off because they had already succeeded in killing off the extradition bill.

    "The economy will take a deep downturn before the end of the year. The property market will take a big tumble. It is very clear where the economy is going," Mr Xie said.

    Very few people are currently buying property in Hong Kong, according to Mr Xie.

    "If you look at the price data, it doesn't look like a collapsing situation. But the borrowing has collapsed, so when are the sellers going to give up and start slashing prices? It's hard to tell," he said.

    Buggle Lau analyses data for one of Hong Kong's largest real estate firms, Midland Realty Services, and said prices had dropped about 2 per cent since the unrest began with the luxury market hardest hit.

    "Developers have slowed down their new launches. Both buyers and sellers are adopting a wait-and-see approach," he said.

    Mr Lau said residential transactions dropped over 50 per cent this month, compared to the monthly average of the first seven months of this year.

    "But we are not talking about a major collapse in the Hong Kong property market like in 1997," he said.

    Travellers stay away from Hong Kong as protests rage

    The tourism sector — usually Hong Kong's back-up when markets are underperforming — is also taking a beating, with travellers choosing to stay away.

    In the eight weeks to August 9, flight bookings to Hong Kong from Asian markets fell more than 20 per cent on the previous year, according to analytics firm, ForwardKeys.

    Long-haul bookings from mid-June to mid-August were down almost 5 per cent on the same period last year.

    "Hitting the sixth-busiest airport in the world definitely has an impact and those images went viral," hotel group Ovolo founder Girish Jhunjhnuwala said.

    Ovolo runs a chain of boutique hotels in Hong Kong and has expanded its business into several Australian states.

    "The impact now has reached a peak. When it first started it wasn't affecting it so much but I think the recent events have definitely had an impact on tourism into Hong Kong," he said.

    The hotel chain has noticed an increase in cancellations, particularly in group bookings.

    "Usually at this time we should be looking at 80 to 90 per cent occupancy and at this hotel we're probably down around 60 to 65 per cent," Mr Jhunjhnuwala said.

    Government says protests more damaging than SARS

    The Hong Kong Government has warned the downturn could go deeper than the SARS epidemic of 2003, and 2008's global financial crisis.

    But despite its warnings and pleas to protesters to stop, there are few signs of things cooling, with millions of pro-democracy protesters again turning out to march the streets on Sunday night.

    The Hong Kong Government announced last week it would pump billions into its economy in a bid to avert a recession.

    The stimulus package, worth about $2.4 billion, is aimed at helping safeguard jobs and provide relief to "people's financial burden".

    The political unrest is weighing on economic performance with Hong Kong's main market index, The Hang Seng, dropping to its lowest level since January last week amid the airport chaos.

    The territory's flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific, is trading at 10-year lows.

    Hong Kong's economy grew by just 0.6 per cent in the second quarter — the weakest rate in a decade — compared with the first quarter of 2019.

    A contraction in the July-September quarter would tip the city of about 7 million people into recession.

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved


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