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Hong Kong sets fastest growth pace since 2011

May 11 2018 11:32
Enda Curran, Eric Lam and Alfred Liu, Bloomberg

Hong Kong’s high-wire economy continued to defy gravity, putting aside fears of a tightening Fed to post its best quarter of growth in almost seven years.

Data Friday showed the Asian financial hub grew 4.7% from a year earlier in the first quarter, the highest reading since June 2011 and more than a percentage point above the highest economist estimate.

The world’s least-affordable property prices continue to hold up, tourism and shopping have rebounded as China’s economy hums along, and a bustling stock market that’s set to boast one of the world’s-biggest stock offerings this year is also buoying sentiment.

The city benefited from robust export growth in both goods and services on an upswing in global investment and trade, while inbound tourism continued its recovery and global financial markets buoyed trade flow, according to a government release.

Citing increased uncertainties in the external environment particularly in trade and financial fronts, the Hong Kong government maintained its forecast for real GDP growth of 3% to 4% for 2018.

There are some signs of strain in the city, however.

The gradual tightening of policy by the US Federal Reserve is starting to bite, with the Hong Kong dollar peg meaning the Chinese region imports US monetary policy. Meantime, a looming trade war between China and the US threatens to dim the outlook further.

Robust demand means house prices should hold up, said Eddie Cheung, an Asia currency strategist at Standard Chartered Plc in Hong Kong.

“Persistent supply shortage and strong pent-up demand mean any price correction should be orderly and modest,” he wrote in a note.

A key wildcard for Hong Kong’s economic health is the city’s interest rates, which had long been stuck at rock-bottom levels thanks to a weak currency and ample liquidity. Now, there are signs of stress.

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority was forced to buy up more than HK$50bn since the currency hit the weak end of its trading band for the first time since 2005 in mid-April, triggering a spike in the cost of lending between banks. Hong Kong’s aggregate balance of liquidity has dropped to around HK$128bn.

As the HKMA has to follow US Fed rate hikes, interest rates are “certainly on an up cycle,” says Chi Lo, senior economist with BNP Paribas Asset Management.

The HKMA’s intervention will help raise the key Hong Kong Interbank Offer Rate, or Hibor, by reducing interbank liquidity - narrowing the gap on other rates such as Libor and reducing the appeal of interest rate arbitrage as investors sold Hong Kong dollars for other higher-yielding currencies, Lo said.

The authority has plenty of room to maneuver with $434bn in foreign reserves, so the peg remains safe, he said.

China trade

There are other worries, too. Ongoing trade tensions between the US and China would have a direct impact, given the role of Hong Kong’s vast container ports as a key trading post.

“We should never look down the risk of a US-China trade war,” said Raymond Yeung, an economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking. “If the US truly targets China-made gadgets, Hong Kong’s trade will be hit.”

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hong kong  |  economy
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