Chinese investment in London’s commercial property has more than trebled since the referendum decision to leave the European Union, most of it channelled through Hong Kong at a time of heightened political uncertainty in the former British colony.
While others have pulled back from British property following last year’s Brexit vote, investors largely from Hong Kong are snapping up the British capital’s best-known skyscrapers including the “Cheesegrater” and “Walkie Talkie”.
In the first six months of 2017 Chinese investors spent £3.96 billion pounds on commercial property in the capital according to data from the CBRE real estate group, the highest amount on record and outpacing the 2.69 billion pounds spent in the whole of 2016.
Hong Kong accounted for 92% of the Chinese investment, according to the Knight Frank agency. Hong Kong food conglomerate Lee Kum Kee paid £1.28 billion last month for 20 Fenchurch Street – the 34-storey skyscraper known as the Walkie Talkie – a record for an office building in Britain.
Political Turmoil in Beijing Fuelling Chinese Investment in the Capital
With Beijing cracking down on foreign deals by mainland companies, investors are using Hong Kong as a conduit for overseas deals. China’s state planner announced on Friday that the country will strengthen rules to defuse risks for domestic companies investing abroad and curb “irrational” overseas investment.
“Deals from mainland China already make up a smaller proportion of the activity from the region, with Hong Kong investors most active,” said Anthony Duggan, head of capital markets research at Knight Frank. “We expect that Chinese investors will still look to make strategic real estate purchases that fit within their business plans.”
Hong Kong’s freedoms, including judicial independence, are constitutionally enshrined under a “one country, two systems” deal struck before Britain returned the territory to China in 1997. However, concerns have been rising in recent years and an appeals court jailed three leaders of Hong Kong’s democracy movement in August.
Tens of thousands protested in Hong Kong the following Sunday against the jailing of the young activists, with many demonstrators questioning the independence of the judiciary.
“If you’re concerned that China is taking control of Hong Kong more and more and you need to take capital out of that jurisdiction, London is attractive,” said Chris Brett, head of international capital markets at CBRE.
Other Factors Attracting Chinese Capital in London’s Commercial Property Market
Other factors include sterling’s 12% drop since the Brexit referendum against the US dollar – to which the Hong Kong dollar is pegged.
“Cheaper money, the rule of law, cultural familiarity and a need to diversify out of a home market is what’s driving Hong Kong demand in the UK,” said James Beckham, head of central London investment at property consultant Cushman & Wakefield, which advised the Walkie Talkie’s buyers and Cheesegrater’s sellers.
Record Hong Kong commercial and residential property prices, along with the political concerns are pushing investors to turn to overseas markets where rental yields are higher. The illiquidity of a building compared with other investments is also an attraction, should Beijing demand that funds be repatriated to China.
The Brexit vote means some London-based financial jobs will shift to the continent or Ireland so that banks can continue selling to clients in the EU.
But this negative factor for the office market is offset by the pound’s fall, which makes property cheaper for foreign investors, and the fact that the buildings sold have come with tenants signed up to leases of around 10-15 years.
Real estate sources said other City of London landmarks, including 30 St Mary Axe – known as the Gherkin – and the Heron Tower are also attracting interest from Hong Kong investors. These prime ‘trophy’ assets, like the Cheesegrater and Walkie Talkie, have well-known tenants and are in limited supply.