Economic Outlook 2017: Hong Kong

Slow economic growth, rising wages and prices, political instability, lower property values, confrontation between the United States and China over trade or security, and Mainland interference in the rule of law are just some of Hong Kong’s concerns going into 2017.

“Headwinds remain from weak global growth, local property tightening measures, a more aggressive Fed and uncertainty after the U.S. election,” notes Julia Wang, an economist with HSBC in Hong Kong. The peg between the greenback and the Hong Kong dollar means any rise in U.S. interest rates is echoed in Hong Kong, despite its sluggish economy.

Hong Kong’s gross domestic product expanded just 1.4% year-on-year in the first three quarters of 2016, after growing by 2.4% in the comparable period in 2015, according to government data. (Full-year GDP for 2016 is estimated at 1.5%, preliminary figures suggest, compared with 2.4% in 2015).

Business confidence is lukewarm. A survey by CPA Australia, an international accounting group, of the special administrative region’s business professionals late last year showed caution about the city’s economic prospects in 2017, with 56% of respondents expressing pessimism. Small and medium-sized enterprises are also bearish. The Hong Kong SME Leading Business Index, released jointly by Standard Chartered Bank and the Hong Kong Productivity Council, fell to 41.9 in January 2017 from 42.5 in October 2016 (a score of 50 is neutral).

However, Hong Kong’s sky-high property prices have moderated, and economists are forecasting a weaker market in 2017. “We expect Hong Kong property prices to decline by 5% in 2017, the first year of decline since 2008,” says Praveen K. Choudhary, equity analyst at Morgan Stanley in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s move to increase stamp duty for overseas buyers may send many prospective purchasers elsewhere, such as to Singapore or Malaysia, while rising interest rates triggered by the US Fed could put off other buyers.

The stock market is also likely to be a pallid performer. The benchmark Hang Seng Index finished just 0.4% higher at the end of 2016. The launch in December 2016 of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Stock Connect, which lets non-Mainland investors trade shares listed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange and mainland investors buy stocks in Hong Kong, is unlikely to fire up interest. “It will have limited impact,” says UBS chief China strategist Gao Ting.

This March, the 1,200 members of Hong Kong's Election Committee will choose a new Chief Executive after the incumbent, C.Y. Leung, did not seek another term. Given that Beijing appears to be backing Carrie Lam, who, as Chief Secretary for Administration, was formerly Hong Kong’s No. 2 official, it is unlikely there will be any major changes in government policy.