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Chinese financial players shake up Hong Kong office market

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Mainland Chinese financial institutions have expanded their physical footprint in Hong Kong’s prime business district at their fastest pace in five years, driving up rents and underscoring how Beijing’s policies are reshaping the city.

A ferry sails at Victoria Harbour in front of the financial Central district, featuring AIA Central (C) and Cheung Kong Center behind it, in Hong Kong, China February 17, 2016. REUTERS/Bobby Yip

While international firms are consolidating and re-locating offices to save money, Beijing is pushing on with plans to draw the former British colony into a Pearl River Delta mega-economy - and China’s financial institutions are leading the way.

Policies such as the Shanghai-Hong Kong stock connect and mutual funds recognition schemes point towards greater integration, and with it the sort of landmark purchases that Chinese companies have made in other financial capitals like London and New York.

“Ultimately, there will be more mainland Chinese firms in Central,” property consultant Jones Lang LaSalle’s head of Hong Kong research Denis Ma said, referring to Hong Kong’s glittering central business district.

“All of the high marks in the rental market, especially in Central, are being set by (mainland Chinese) companies.”

Jones Lang LaSalle forecasts prime office rents in the Central business district will jump 5-10 percent this year, even as China grapples with its slowest economic growth in 25 years and tumultuous stock and currency markets.

Even though Hong Kong is officially part of China, it has a separate financial and legal system and the influx of mainland companies into the semi-autonomous southern territory is part of Beijing’s push to get Chinese companies to expand overseas.

China’s outbound M&A activity hit a record $113 billion last year, while its financial institutions snapped up landmark properties abroad including the Waldorf Astoria and Baccarat hotels in New York and an office tower in London.

Chinese banks have also been opening branches abroad after their government simplified approval procedures.

Widespread expectations of a greater yuan depreciation are another push-factor - even though the central government has dismissed such concerns - as companies seek legal channels to park money abroad.

Property consultant Knight Frank said mainland Chinese demand last year accounted for as much as half of new leases in Central, home to the Asia headquarters of global bank HSBC Holdings HSBA.L and the city's stock exchange.

Mainland firms remained “the pillar of leasing demand” for Hong Kong’s best office space, it said, with premium Central office rents jumping 11.5 percent in the year to January 2016. A Hong Kong government index shows office rents in Central and the nearby area of Sheung Wan rose 11.7 points last year.


Landlords such as Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd 0016.HK, Henderson Land Development Co Ltd 0012.HK and Cheung Kong Property Holdings Ltd 1113.HK are among the big winners from the influx.

The losers are foreign forms that have been edged out of prime locations by Chinese brokerages, investment firms and Chinese banks, including smaller ones that have filed listing applications with the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Last year, Zhong Zhi Capital took over Barclays Plc's BARC.L office space, according to Savills, ahead of the UK bank's announcement of sweeping cuts at its investment bank and the closure of its Asian cash equities business.

State-owned China Everbright Group took over office space previously occupied by Wells Fargo & Co WFC.N and investment conglomerate Fosun stepped into some of HSBC Holdings Plc's HSBA.L former office space, according to the consultancy's data. The offices that the Chinese firms moved into – in the Cheung Kong Center, AIA Central and the Citibank Tower – are in premium central locations.

Jones Lang LaSalle data shows Chinese demand for office space in Hong Kong’s Central district has more than doubled in the past six years, accounting for a fifth of all Grade A Central office space. In another six years, the consultancy expects it to account for more than a quarter.

Last week, China Everbright Ltd 0165.HK announced plans to buy the Dah Sing Financial Centre in Wan Chai for HK$10 billion ($1.29 billion). That followed whole-office building purchases last November by Evergrande Real Estate Group Ltd 3333.HK and a China Life Insurance Group Co subsidiary.

Reporting by Clare Baldwin; Additional reporting by Michelle Chen, Saikat Chatterjee, Elzio Barreto and Denny Thomas; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree and Stephen Coates