UPDATE 1-HK developers turning blue as property market enters "ice age"

Thu Aug 1, 2013 5:09am EDT

(Recasts, adds details on overall market, comments)

* Cheung Kong H1 net profit falls 13 pct to $1.73 billion

* Cheung Kong sales fall 21 percent in first half

* Hong Kong's Q2 sales transactions lowest since 1996

* Residential prices may fall 5-15 percent by year's end

By Yimou Lee

HONG KONG, Aug 1 (Reuters) - Government cooling measures to rein in Hong Kong's property market are finally taking a toll on the city's powerful developers and industry watchers forecast prices could drop by up to 15 percent in the second half of this year.

Weak property sales at conglomerate Cheung Kong (Holdings) Ltd, controlled by Asia's richest man, Li Ka-shing, confirmed that a series of tightening steps are weighing on companies' bottom lines and taking the heat out of one of the world's most expensive real estate markets.

"It's like an ice age now from an agent's perspective," said Patrick Chau, director of residential investment at property consultant Savills. "The sales volume has dropped substantially since the implementation of a series of tightening policies."

New home transactions dropped 22 percent in the first half of this year from a year earlier and were down 40 percent when compared with the second half of 2012, according to Centaline Property Agency, one of the city's leading agents.

For the second quarter, overall home transactions dropped to 11,443, the lowest quarterly sales since 1996, according to real estate services company Colliers International.

Industry analysts now expect residential prices to drop between 5 and 15 percent by the end of this year.

Cheung Kong, the city's second-largest developer, reported on Thursday a 13 percent year-on-year decline in first-half profit to HK$13.4 billion ($1.73 billion) due to weaker property sales in Hong Kong.

Property sales accounted for 37 percent of its total first-half turnover, down from 57.3 percent a year earlier. The company blamed new government regulations and measures for sluggish residential property transactions.

Cheung Kong sold 267 units in Hong Kong in the first half for HK$2.8 billion ($361 million), less than a tenth of its full-year sales target, according to BNP Paribas property analyst Wee Liat Lee.

PROPERTY CHILLS

The company's sluggish figures came just a day after Hang Lung Properties posted a 23 percent drop in first-half profit after it sold "substantially fewer residential units".

"If you ask me to describe the market with one word, I will use 'winter'," Hang Lung Properties chairman Ronnie Chan said at its earnings briefing on Wednesday. "It feels like winter when selling properties in Hong Kong."

In February, the government imposed higher stamp duties and home loan curbs on property transactions, coming nearly four months after it introduced a 15 percent tax on overseas buyers that many analysts said was aimed at mainland Chinese.

New rules that came into effect in April on sales practices, including new guidelines on marketing strategies, have also led some developers to delay the launch of new projects.

Credit Suisse said in a recent report that no property projects had been completed in Hong Kong during the first half, although some analysts said it was too early to say if this signalled the start of a long-term downturn.

"It's a mind-playing game now - whether I should liquidate properties and get the cash, or should I hold and put them in the leasing market?" said Chau of Savills.

PRICES HEAD SOUTH

Overall residential property prices have jumped 120 percent since 2008 on ultra-low interest rates, tight supply and abundant liquidity. They have slipped about 3 percent from record highs in early March.

Analysts said developers would have to cut prices further to attract local buyers as mainland Chinese investors, who at one point accounted for more than 40 percent of sales, had fled overseas for better options.

"They are going to reduce the price (of new projects). They have to face the reality," said Ricky Poon, executive director of residential sales at Colliers International.

Poon expects the city's developers, including Cheung Kong and Hong Kong's largest developer, Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd , will cut the premium - the difference between new launches and second-hand homes - of new projects by 10 to 20 percent in the second half to attract local buyers.

Analysts said upcoming big launches in the second half would attract pent-up demand, providing a potential catalyst for Cheung Kong's share price, which is trading at a 34 percent discount to its historical median forward 12-month earnings multiple, according to Thomson Reuters StarMine.

Hong Kong's property sub-index hit a five-year high in late January, right before the last round of cooling measures were announced, but it has since fallen nearly 14 percent.

($1 = 7.7553 Hong Kong dollars)

(Additional reporting by Vikram Subhedar and Joy Leung in HONG KONG; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Matt Driskill)