Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man, has scrapped a media briefing following his biggest companies’ interim results announcement this week, breaking with a tradition that goes back at least 15 years.
Li, 85, won’t speak to the media after Cheung Kong Holdings Ltd. and Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. announce their earnings on Aug. 1, Winnie Cheong, a spokeswoman for Hong Kong-based Cheung Kong, said by phone yesterday, without providing a reason.
The billionaire, who controls the city’s second-biggest developer by market value and biggest container terminal operator has been under attack by Hong Kong lawmakers and activists this year following a pay dispute with port workers and the sales of hotel rooms that led to an investigation by the city’s securities regulators. Li, nicknamed “Superman” by the local media for his investment prowess, forecast in 2007 that China’s stock-market bubble would burst and in 2009 predicted the rally in Hong Kong home prices.
“He does have a good sense of what is going on globally,” said Alex Wong, a Hong Kong-based director at Ample Capital Ltd. “Sometimes when he gave tips or directions in the past they were quite accurate so people respected that.”
Li’s companies invest in businesses including real estate, retail, utilities, telecommunications and logistics in more than 50 countries. He often gives his views on topics such as the global economy and Hong Kong property prices during the bi-annual earnings briefings, which are televised.
The company will hold a briefing for analysts on the day of the earnings, Cheong said. Li didn’t speak with reporters following his companies’ annual shareholder meetings in May.
About 450 port workers at Li’s Hongkong International Terminals Ltd. went on a 40-day strike in April demanding higher wages. The workers surrounded Li’s office building in the Central business district, spurring a court battle with the company over their right to protest.
The strike, which ended after workers accepted a 9.8 percent wage increase, may have cost Li about HK$100 million ($13 million), according to Citigroup Inc.
Hutchison Whampoa, Li’s biggest company, is asking potential buyers to submit bids for ParknShop, one of Hong Kong’s two main supermarket chains, by mid-August, people with knowledge of the matter said this month. The company is considering the sale because of the unit’s slow growth and as it seeks to expand other businesses.
Cheung Kong in May canceled the sale of HK$1.4 billion of hotel rooms at the Apex Horizon project in the city’s west, after being notified by the Securities and Futures Commission that the sales constituted unauthorized “collective investment scheme.”
Regulators saw the move as a means of skirting an increase in taxes on apartments to curb prices. Days after the sales, the government extended the taxes to commercial real estate for the first time, and sent inspectors to check that the Apex Horizon units weren’t being used as residences.
Public comments by Li, 16th on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index with a net worth of $27.4 billion, are scrutinized for any hints on succession plans. He has said that Victor, his eldest son, will lead Cheung Kong and Hutchison Whampoa after his retirement, and has pledged to provide other son Richard, chairman of telecommunications company PCCW Ltd., with funding “any time.”
Cheung Kong, the city’s second-biggest developer by value, in March reported underlying profit rose 6 percent as rental-income growth offset a decline in home sales.
Hong Kong’s property transactions are at their lowest in nearly two decades following repeated measures by the government to curb prices. Li in March said that if buyers need to borrow too much, they shouldn’t buy property, a messaged he had delivered in the past two years.
Li, who opened a plastic flower factory in Hong Kong after World War II, began investing in the city’s real estate in 1967 after riots from China’s Cultural Revolution depressed prices. He has built Cheung Kong into a company with a market value of $34 billion. The shares fell 0.3 percent to close at HK$109.60 yesterday.