Lam sees 40pc home price drop?

Editorial | Mary Ma 25 Jan 2019

Sales of new residential properties appeared to have regained momentum of late. Not surprisingly, some real estate agents cried out to clients that it would be foolish not to buy now.

Since peaking in August, homes have fallen nearly 10 percent in value overall. If a flat slightly smaller than 500 square feet was sold last year for HK$7.7 million, or HK$15,500 per square foot, it would be more than HK$700,000 cheaper now.

But would it really be foolish not to buy now?

It would be quite the contrary if Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's remarks made in Davos, the scenic Swiss resort where the world's wealthiest and most powerful have gathered for their summit, are to be taken seriously.

Her comment was carried by Bloomberg, but news on the China-US trade war caused it to be buried.

"I feel there is still room for some correction" was what Lam said in the interview.

But by how much? She declined to provide an estimate, but said her goal was for a family to be able to spend 40 percent of income on mortgage costs. Right there, the report ended.

That's undoubtedly a rather interesting comment. Although it's widely known that one of Lam's highest priorities is to make housing in Hong Kong affordable to the public again, it's the first time she has so publicly given the goal a numerical definition.

What does that number mean? She gave the answer - "there's still room for correction."

Affordability is currently about 70 percent of median household income for those residing in private housing - thus more than two-thirds of household income is being forked out to pay for mortgage debt.

Some analysts have estimated that if affordability is to be improved to 40 percent, it would effectively imply housing prices would have to plunge 40 to 50 percent from current levels. That would be quite a horrendous drop, right?

If that's going to be the situation, the rebound since the New Year would be all but a mid-way stop before the property market starts heading south again for a bigger dip.

That's an extremely ambitious target by any measure. No wonder Lam gave Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po a slap in the face to stop him boasting about the prospect of easing mortgage restrictions at this crucial point in time.

The current rebound has been fueled by expectations of steady progress in Sino-US negotiations to end their trade war, as well as a slower pace in interest rate hikes locally. On top of that was the consolidation in the stock market.

The problem with these factors has been that they were built on a fragile basis.

Despite the 10-percent correction so far, home prices are still at an extremely high level. Global urban planning consultancy Demographia just named Hong Kong the world's least affordable housing market for the ninth year.

Tycoon Li Ka-shing is predicting a difficult year ahead. Then, what could be the reasons still out there to pump up the property market - besides seeing chortling real estate agents rake in fat sales commission checks?

You tell me.

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