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China, HK properties retain allure despite wobbles

HONG KONG -- Real estate in mainland China and Hong Kong retains a strong long-term allure despite current fears of a damaging bubble, according to an influential player in the regional market.

Alastair Hughes, Asia-Pacific chief executive of Jones Lang LaSalle, a dominant presence in the Chinese property markets, sees plenty of reasons for optimism.

“For every expat who whines about pollution, there are 20 people in London who'd like to be here,” he told AFP in an interview, gesturing out across Hong Kong's famed skyline on a rare clear day in the city.

“I don't think you'd find many people who've made money betting against Hong Kong,” Hughes added.

The market for luxury property in Shanghai and Beijing is seen as “a little bit frothy” because of wealthy individuals indulging in speculation, he said.

“On the other hand, you've got everywhere else in China,” he said, pointing to the annual migration of 50 million people from the Chinese countryside to cities in search of work and better housing.

As other parts of the world struggle out of recession, property markets in China and Hong Kong have been charging ahead, so much so that Beijing has taken increasingly aggressive steps to rein in the mainland market.

The government has restricted lending and made it harder for people to own second or third homes, or to buy outside their home towns. Largely in response, Shanghai's stock market has fallen about 15 percent in two months.

One analyst, Carol Wu of DBS Vickers Securities, predicts a 20-30 percent fall in prices for top-tier mainland housing and a 10-15 percent drop in the “second tier.”

Nonetheless, Hughes says that not only is market “frothiness” confined to the swankiest neighborhoods, but that the commercial and office sector, where cooler heads prevail, is largely unaffected.

“It's really important to separate commercial from residential. The drivers for residential property are very much individually driven and there's more sentiment and emotion,” he said.

“On the commercial property side it's a very professional market. People don't do things on a whim.”

The International Monetary Fund appears to agree. In April it said that concerns about Asian property bubbles were “limited to some urban areas in China and high-end luxury segments in Hong Kong and Singapore,” although it warned policymakers against complacency.

That said, mainland China's market for commercial and office space doesn't always obey market forces.

Beijing office rents continue to rise despite high vacancy rates. Elsewhere, Shanghai office rents jumped 4.9 percent just in the first quarter, according to Jones Lang LaSalle.

Growth ranges widely, from Shenzhen in the southeast, where Goldman Sachs recently took up grade-A office space, to more modest rises deep in the interior, such as the southwestern city of Chengdu.

As for Hong Kong, the former British colony regularly takes a bashing for its polluted air and fares poorly in some international rankings of cities for “liveability,” such as those by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

But boosters of Hong Hong real estate point to the sale this May of an elite property on the Peak, known for its majestic views over the South China Sea — weather permitting — for a cool US$233 million, to a local tycoon.

For Jones Lang LaSalle, which traces its origins to a funeral and house-clearance business in London two centuries ago, Asia and particularly China look set to remain key growth areas.

The company employs 4,000 people on the mainland, virtually all of them Chinese nationals, and another 4,000 in India.

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 China, HK properties retain allure despite wobbles 
Alastair Hughes, Asia-Pacific chief executive of Jones Lang LaSalle, poses at the companies offices in Hong Kong on Thursday, May 27. Real estate in mainland China and Hong Kong retains a strong long-term allure despite current fears of a damaging bubble, according to an influential player in the regional market. (AFP)

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