Asia's Richest Man Has Seen the Future and It's in Europe

Billionaire Li Ka-shing, chairman of Cheung Kong Holdings Ltd. and Hutchison Whampoa Ltd., gestures as he speaks during a news conference in Hong Kong, China.

Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg

When a great investor speaks, it’s best to keep an eye on the direction of his feet as well as his mouth.

Li Ka-shing has pooh-poohed the notion that his commitment to Hong Kong is waning, saying in 2012 that he has a “special feeling” for the city and “definitely” won’t withdraw investments.

Special feelings are for Japanese snowstorms and favorite sports teams. Business is business.

Friday’s news that Hutchison Whampoa is close to buying 02 of the U.K. for as much as $15 billion seals an impression that has been building for years.

Li has seen the future: and it’s in Europe.

We aren’t suggesting that the billionaire plans to dismantle Cheung Kong Center brick by brick and reassemble it in EC2 (just as well, given that the building houses Bloomberg’s Hong Kong office -- we can’t stand those London winters.)

Still, the trend is undeniable. In the past two years, Li tried to offload Hutchison’s Hong Kong supermarket chain (before instead selling a stake in its retail unit for $5.7 billion), raised $3.1 billion listing Hong Kong electricity assets and sold part of its port holdings in the city.

Over the same period, Hutchison bought Telefonica’s Irish unit for $1.1 billion, purchased more mobile spectrum in Austria and held talks to acquire wireless assets in Italy. One of Li’s companies is also among bidders for Swedish electricity grid Fortum.

“Superman,” as Asia’s richest person is known to local media, made his name buying assets that were unloved and waiting patiently for them to rise.

Hong Kong property, the bedrock of Li’s fortune, is anything but unloved. Prices more than doubled since 2009 and are the most expensive in the world. Cheung Kong hasn’t bought land since 2012, Bloomberg News reported in September.

The 86-year-old, who has a net worth of more than $30 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, has also been selling in China, where economic growth is slowing and property prices have started to drop.

If Europe has been looking like a dog with fleas lately, consider where Hong Kong was in 1967 when Li made his first move into real estate: convulsed by riots inspired by the Cultural Revolution across the border in China.

Every dog will have its day, as Li knows. Just ask Mario.

***

Japan reports trade figures for December at 7:50 a.m. Hong Kong time today. Exports are forecast to have risen 11.2 percent from a year earlier, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey, after a 4.9 percent gain in November.

Trade figures are also due from Vietnam today. Singapore posts industrial production data for December at 1 p.m. Australian markets are closed for a public holiday.

Hang Lung Properties and Hopewell Holdings are among companies scheduled to post earnings in Hong Kong, while Taiwan has reports from companies including HTC, Far EasTone and Taiwan Mobile. LG Chem will report in South Korea.

Microsoft is among companies due to post earnings in the U.S. overnight.

***

- Obama, in India on a three-day visit, becomes the first U.S. president to be guest of honor at the annual Republic Day parade. - Islamic State militants are seeking a prisoner exchange after the release of a video that purported to show the corpse of one of two Japanese hostages. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the video is highly likely to be authentic. - Syriza rides a public backlash against austerity to score a decisive victory in Greece’s elections. The euro weakens. - Obama and Modi say they achieved a breakthrough in cooperation on civil nuclear projects. - Amazon Japan says it’s cooperating with a police investigation into possible sales of child pornography. - Russia faces mounting pressure over Ukraine violence. - Vigilantes join Nigerian security forces in fighting a Boko Haram attack on Maiduguri in the northeast. _ John Kerry ties U.S. help to peaceful elections. - At least 18 Egyptians killed at rallies marking 2011 uprising. - New York and U.S. northeast facing blizzards. - Pakistan cuts interest rates. - Samsung’s $63 billion cash pile augurs takeovers. - Latest attempt to lift AirAsia fuselage fails. - China is buying more iPhones than the U.S. - The women who help sustain Kim Jong Un’s grip on power. - British diplomats outraged over Hong Kong snub to minister. - Hong Kong police hunt 12-year-old girl who pulled off $4.6 million jewelry heist. - India wants to know where Michelle Obama has been. - Chinese public opinion backs Xi’s anti-graft campaign. - Murray Beats Dimitrov to Join Nadal, Sharapova in Australian Open quarterfinals.

***

We have a great idea for a movie.

Bill Murray plays an Asian politician fighting to bring down a populist political leader who has just been elected with an overwhelming mandate. Over the course of a single day, he moves through a series of trying and hilarious encounters: middle-class uprisings, parliamentary and legal battles, demonstrations and social chaos. Eventually, the military steps in to restore order. The populist leader is deposed, impeached and finally banned from politics. Our hero falls gratefully asleep.

When he wakes the next morning, though, it’s the same day! The populist leader (or perhaps his sister) is back in power, having been overwhelmingly elected by the people again. Poor Bill has to go through the same process of agitation, disruption and eventually army takeover.

Groundhog Day lasted for 1 hour and 41 minutes. But this movie goes on forever. And ever. And ever.

It could be a hit, though we worry that people may get tired of it.

***

Has David Copperfield been in Hong Kong?

The plaza underneath the giant Meccano set that is HSBC headquarters was covered with a huge construction facade for more than four months as the bank prepared a “heritage feature” to celebrate its 150th anniversary.

Several days ago, the facade was removed to reveal... nothing at all.

The appearance of the giant red canopy last year caused a few knowing sniggers among HSBC staffers, coming shortly before the Occupy protests were to kick off. The public area (used as a thoroughfare by financial types heading to nearby skyscrapers) was a key site in an earlier incarnation of the Occupy movement, with protesters against global inequality camping out there in 2012 until they were evicted almost a year later.

“The installation of a heritage feature is almost there,” Gareth Hewett, a spokesman for HSBC, said in an e-mail last week.

Workers were back on Friday, hammering away in the cavernous, still largely unfilled, space. We watch with interest.

***

An astonishing weekend of F.A. Cup action. When was the last time the top two in the Premier League were both knocked out at home by lower-league opposition on the same day? Chelsea managed to lose 2-4 at home to Bradford City of League One (once known as the Third Division) after being 2-0 ahead, a performance that Jose Mourinho called “disgraceful.” Bradford was playing in the F.A. Cup fourth round for the first time in 15 years, according to the Observer.

Manchester City, meanwhile, lost 0-2 at home to Middlesbrough of the Championship (known better to people of a certain age as the Second Division.) Even third-placed Southampton got in on the act, losing at home to Premier League strugglers Crystal Palace. All free to concentrate on the league then. Manchester United didn’t get the memo: they drew 0-0 away with League Two’s Cambridge on Friday night.

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