By CATHY YAN And SHAI OSTER
HONG KONG—Higher borrowing costs may finally lead to falling prices in the world's least-affordable housing market, one that so far has resisted government efforts to cool it down.
Prices of Hong Kong properties jumped 24% last year on top of a 30% surge in 2009, according to local property indexes.
But there are signs that the pace of transactions in the market for existing housing has started to slow. Hong Kong leaders now worry that a small trickle of cash out of the market for luxury housing, driven by wealthy mainland Chinese, could accelerate and send prices tumbling.
Mortgage rates are starting to rise, albeit from levels of less than 1% a year for some adjustable-rate loans. Earlier this month,HSBC Holdings PLC and some other banks announced higher rates on certain mortgage loans for new customers; HSBC now charges as much as 1.5 percentage point above the Hong Kong interbank offered rate.
Barclays Capital forecasts that a steady rise in borrowing costs, to above 4% next year, in part as the U.S. Federal Reserve starts increasing its own interest rates, could eventually lead to a drop in sales. Because the value of the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar, local interest rates are effectively set by the U.S., even though banks can adjust their mortgage rates independently of central-bank moves.
Financial Secretary John Tsang earlier this month warned investors not to count on cheap credit. "The current abundant liquidity and low interest rates will not last forever," he said. "Neither will rising property prices."
So far, government efforts to cool the market, including moves in November to impose new taxes aimed at discouraging speculative transactions and restrict credit for high-end purchases, haven't worked. Analysts say that is because interest rates remained low and buyers had easy access to cheap loans.
Since the November measures, average housing prices have risen an additional 15%, according to an index compiled by Centaline, a property agency. Sales volume increased 9% in March from February, according to the latest Land Registry report.
A survey on global housing affordability, published by Demographia International in January, ranked Hong Kong last among 325 urban markets. The territory's median house price was 11.4 times Hong Kong's gross annual median household income.
By comparison, New York ranked 68th in affordability, with prices at 6.1 times median income. Atlanta was ranked most affordable; the median home price was 2.3 times income.
Hong Kong's housing prices now are above the peak reached in 1997, just before a financial crisis hammered most of the region, Mr. Tsang noted.
Discontent over unaffordable housing—and the belief that government policy favors powerful property developers over ordinary people—has become a political flashpoint. Recently, activists from the Civic Party's youth branch camped outside the offices of Li Ka-shing, Hong Kong's richest businessman, to protest what they call the "property-developer hegemony."
Now, some analysts are forecasting that the market is close to a tipping point. Analysts at Barclays Capital predict prices will rise another 15% this year as the supply of new apartments remains low, even as the number of transactions starts to fall.
Next year, they added in a recent report, prices could fall 15% to 20% from 2011 levels. In 2013, the report said, prices could fall another 10% from the 2012 levels. The Barclays analysts also predict mortgage rates will rise to 2.5% at the end of this year and above 4% next year, making housing less affordable.
But others doubt that rising mortgage rates will stem demand, because of mainland Chinese buyers who don't rely much on loans to buy property. Newly affluent Chinese account for some 30% of luxury real-estate purchases in Hong Kong.
That could change if the Beijing government take additional measures to cool down China's overheating economy, such as raising interest rates further or boosting reserve requirements for banks. This month, China raised the share of deposits banks must hold as reserves at the nation's central bank to 20.5%, the 10th increase since the start of last year, after boosting interest rates yet again.
However, a drop in home prices is unlikely to bring the sort of damage to banks that U.S. lenders suffered after the U.S. housing bubble burst.
Analysts say banks are protected from the impact of a downturn by the conservative loan-to-value ratios in use in Hong Kong, as well as the use of recourse lending, in which banks can go after borrowers who default on loans.
In a sign of continued optimism about the housing market, developers behind two luxury residential projects haven't budged on prices, despite sluggish sales. The developers say their current asking prices reflect the market.
Queen's Cube, a 96-unit luxury residential building jointly developed by Nan Fung Development Ltd. and an arm of the Hong Kong government, has sold only eight apartments since the project was launched in October.
Units at Queen's Cube have sold for between roughly HK$14,000 a square foot and HK$18,500 a square foot (about US$1,800 to US$2,380), well above the average price of HK$12,292 a square foot in the Wanchai district, according to data from Midland Realty. Donald Choi, managing director of Nan Fung, said the firm hasn't lowered prices at Queen's Cube.
Just five of 66 apartments have sold at Henderson Land Development Co.'s 39 Conduit Road development in the Midlevels district; 20 of the first 24 sales fell through in June. One of the canceled sales was for a 6,158-square-foot duplex that went for HK$71,280 per square foot, which would have made it the world's most expensive apartment.
The 39 Conduit Road project has sold only one unit since the cancellations: a semi-duplex that fetched HK$60,000 per square foot—a record price for a luxury apartment in Hong Kong, according to Henderson Land. Homes in the Midlevels district average about HK$15,000 per square foot, says Midland Realty broker Phoebe Wong.
"These developers are cash-rich, so they're waiting the market out," said Benedict Ma, associate director of research at CB Richard Ellis.—Alice Truong
contributed to this article.