Li Ka-shing Says Land Prices in China, Hong Kong Deter Purchases

Li Ka-shing, Asia’s richest man, said his companies have slowed land purchases in Hong Kong and China as prices have escalated to a high level.

“Land prices in Hong Kong are high, and already showing signs of an unhealthy situation,” Li said, according to a statement from Cheung Kong Holdings Ltd., his flagship developer. “Land prices in China have surged, and we’re unable to win auctions for land.”

The comments by Li, who controls Hong Kong’s biggest developer Cheung Kong, underline concerns that governments in China and in the city are struggling to tame an asset bubble fueled by cheap credit. New home prices in October jumped in all but one of the 70 Chinese cities tracked, the National Bureau of Statistics said Nov. 18. In Hong Kong, home prices remain more than twice as expensive as five years ago, even though they are little changed this year.

“In China’s first-and-second-tier cities, land prices are definitely too high,” said Lee Wee Liat, Hong Kong-based analyst at BNP Paribas SA. “But there’s no short-term solution as it’ll take time for land supply to increase. Cheung Kong is probably waiting for prices to come down before they’ll buy again.”

Cheung Kong’s statement confirms comments Li made in an interview with Southern Metropolis Weekly.

Prices in China have escalated to a level that people are struggling to cope with and developers need to be cautious, Li told the newspaper. Li said he’s optimistic about the market and will continue investing if prices are reasonable.

Record Prices

Evergrande Real Estate Group Ltd. this month paid 5.14 billion yuan ($844 million) for a land site in Beijing, a record for the Chinese capital, The Standard newspaper reported. In September, Sun Hung Kai Properties Ltd., Hong Kong’s second-biggest builder, bought a site in Shanghai for 21.8 billion yuan in an auction, a record for the city.

Property sales in Hong Kong by Li’s companies, which include Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., reached HK$4 billion ($516 million) this year, the lowest in 13 years, because of a lack of government approval, the newspaper reported as Li saying.

Hong Kong’s government has since 2010 introduced extra property taxes and tightened mortgage lending in its attempt to curb home prices that are now the highest among major global cities according to a Savills Plc report in March.

Li, 85, said any suggestion that his companies are withdrawing investments from Hong Kong is “a big joke” and that asset sales are driven by “business reasons,” according to the Cheung Kong statement.

Victor’s Kidnapping

In an interview with Nanfang Daily newspaper published today, Li said his elder son Victor, who has worked with him for almost three decades, is ready to take over the running of his companies. Li said Victor is financially prudent and detail oriented, while younger son Richard is smart and nimble.

Li also told the Southern Metropolis Weekly he paid HK$2 billion in ransom after Victor was kidnapped by Hong Kong gang boss Cheung Tze-keung, nicknamed “Big Spender,” in 1996.

Li said he regretted not having enough security measures in place and that he told Cheung to take the money, flee Hong Kong and “be a decent man.” He said Cheung called him again later and told him he’s gambled all the money away.

Cheung was sentenced to death in 1998 after being tried by authorities in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou for a series of crimes including the kidnapping of Walter Kwok, then chairman of Sun Hung Kai.

Li, with a fortune of $29 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, expanded his empire even as Hong Kong weathered crises ranging from rioting in the 1960s, a run on the currency in the 1980s, a property collapse in the late 1990s and the outbreak of the SARS virus in 2003.

He stepped up investing in Hong Kong real estate in 1967, after rioting incited by the Cultural Revolution depressed prices. He correctly forecast in 2007 that China’s stock-market bubble would burst and in 2009 predicted the rally in Hong Kong home prices.

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