Shoppers at a market in Hong Kong. Agence France-Presse
Hong Kong’s July retail sales sank by the most since February 2016 amid anti-government protests that have gripped the Chinese-ruled city for months.
Retail sales in July fell 11.4% from a year earlier, government data showed, as social unrest hurt consumer sentiment and visitor arrivals started to fall.
Many businesses in Hong Kong are already facing strains from China’s economic slowdown, a weak Chinese yuan and fallout from the Sino-US trade war, while businesses say violence has added to the toll on tourism and the pivotal retailing industry.
Unrest in Hong Kong escalated in mid-June over a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts.
The protests, which at times have turned violent, have evolved into broader calls for democracy for the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
Retail sales fell to HK$34.4 billion ($4.4 billion) in July, a sixth consecutive month of declines. June’s decline was 6.7%. In volume terms, retail sales in July fell 13%, compared with a 7.6% fall in June.
For the first seven months of 2019, retail sales fell 3.8% in value from a year earlier and 4.4% in volume terms.
“The situation may deteriorate further if the social incidents involving violence do not come to a stop,” a government spokesman said, adding Sino-U.S. trade tensions and subdued economic conditions continued to dampen sentiment.
Banks are issuing unprecedented profit warnings, while hotels and restaurants are half empty. Several global events have been postponed and economists say retail sales, a key economic pillar in the Asian financial hub, could drop by 20%-30% this year.
Hong Kong is also facing its first recession in a decade, with the government recently cutting its full-year 2019 growth forecast to 0-1%, down from 2%-3% previously.
The Hong Kong Retail Management Association urged landlords to halve rents for six months and expected some retailers may have to sack staff or even shut down.
Retailers had said they expected sales for July and August to drop by double-digit per centage points from a year earlier, while hoteliers are bracing for a wave of cancellations.
The city’s Federation of Trade Unions said hotel occupancy rates fell 20% in June from a year earlier, and probably 40% in July.
Tourism, especially from mainland China, has dropped markedly. Britain, Japan, Singapore and others have issued travel alerts.
“Tours from the mainland dropped by more than 90% in August, and many related workers were forced to take no pay leave,” Paul Leung, chairman of Hong Kong Inbound Travel Association, told Reuters. He said the number of mainland tours had been cut to only 14 a day from 300-400 tours in the same period in 2018.
July tourist arrivals fell 4.8% on year to 5.197 million, according to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, the first decline since January 2018 and the biggest per centage drop since August 2016. That compared with 8.5% growth in June. Mainland visitors fell 5.5% in July, accounting for 80.1% of the total. New York-based luxury jeweller Tiffany & Co, which operates 10 stores in its fourth-largest market in Hong Kong, said protests disrupted business.
Department store operator Lifestyle International said outlook for the city’s retail sector was challenging as people lose the appetite to consume.
Jewellery retailer Luk Fook saw its same store sales in Hong Kong and Macau fell 10% in the April-June quarter, while smaller rival Chow Sang Sang recorded an annual double-digit per centage drop in same store sales in June.
“Well into the third quarter there is still no end in sight for the civil unrest in Hong Kong,” said Chow Sang Sang chairman Vincent Chow.
The Hong Kong Retail Management Association has changed its full-year retail sales forecast to a double-digit per centage fall instead of single-digit growth.
Sales of jewellery, watches, clocks and valuable gifts plunged 24.4% on-year in July, data showed, after a 17.1% drop in June.
Medicines and cosmetics fell 16.1% in July, compared with revised 4.5% fall in June. Department store sales dropped 10.4% in July, against a 6.0% drop in June.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong buying enquiries for expensive Australian and New Zealand homes have ramped up due to anti-government protests in the Chinese-ruled city, according to property agents and real estate data, as wealthy investors look for a safe haven.
Jamie Mi, partner at Melbourne-based Kay & Burton, said the real estate agency was receiving about one-third more enquiries from Hong Kong buyers than usual, with most buyers targeting high-end properties priced above A$5 million ($3.4 million).
She said the protests in Hong Kong had “accelerated the motivation” in the past month for wealthy buyers to look for residential properties to move their money into. The protests, triggered earlier this year by a proposed extradition bill that would allow individuals to be sent to mainland China to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party, have become more violent in recent weeks.
Police for the first time used a water cannon to combat protests on Sunday, while some protesters threw petrol bombs at police.
Juwai.com, China’s largest international property website, recorded a 50% increase in Hong Kong enquiries for Australian properties in the past quarter.
“In the current environment, Australia appears as a safe harbour - both comfortably close and far from home,” Juwai.com executive chairman Georg Chmiel said in a statement to Reuters.
Buying real estate in Australia and New Zealand does not grant Hong Kong investors residency.
Several real estate agents said the buying enquiries are likely coming from wealthy foreigners who are already allowed to reside in Australia or New Zealand and who are possibly planning an exit strategy from Hong Kong. Australia is seeing an increase in interest in its millionaires-only visa programme from wealthy Hong Kong residents who are eyeing a safety net amid political turmoil in the Chinese-ruled territory.
Under the programme, people can obtain a provisional visa if they invest at least A$5 million ($3.4 million) into complying investments in Australia.
New Zealand has similar investor visas that require a minimum NZ$3 million ($1.9 million) spend.
Another factor behind the spike in buying enquiries in Australia and New Zealand is the economic impact the protests are having on the Asian financial hub, which is now facing its first recession in a decade.
James Chan, from Bayleys Real Estate in New Zealand, said enquiries had been ticking up ever since the protests intensified. “They are starting to think about how to protect their money - they need to look for a safe haven,” he said.