Harbour City landlord Wharf REIC says fate of Hong Kong's retail market depends on outcome of trade war

Wharf Real Estate Investment (REIC), the owner of Harbour City and Times Square shopping malls, said it plans to continue reducing its mainland property investments after registering a modest 6 per cent growth in underlying profit to HK$10.05 billion (US$1.28 billion) last year.
"We sold some homes in the mainland last year and will continue to reduce related investments," Stephen Ng Tin-hoi, chairman and managing director of Wharf, said during the results briefing on Tuesday.
Ng had said last March that Wharf REIC's focus would be on Hong Kong and that it planned to sell its homes, hotel and office in Suzhou, ruling out any possibility of returning to the mainland market after the disposals were completed.
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The company's mainland properties incurred an operating loss of HK$109 million in 2018.
Meanwhile, Ng expects a challenging retail environment in Hong Kong this year.
Stephen Ng Tin-hoi, chairman and managing director of Wharf Real Estate Investment, announces the company's annual results, at The Murray, in Central. Photo: Roy Issa
"The retail market will depend on the US-China conflict, currency changes, economic performance and so on. So far our budget has been relatively conservative. This year, the situation is not [going to be] as easy."
He noted that the year on year growth in retail sales at Harbour City in Kowloon this January was significantly lower than last year.
"This is an undeniable fact and reflects a very important part of the macro environment. Hong Kong's retail figures went from quite optimistic at the beginning of last year to almost even [in the end]. The trend is very obvious," Ng said, adding that he was not as optimistic this year.
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On the drop in operating profit at Causeway Bay's Times Square, which fell 2 per cent to HK$2.48 billion, Doreen Lee Yuk-fong, vice-chairman and executive director of Wharf, attributed it to the keen competition among shopping malls in the district.
An aerial view of the cruise terminal and new extension of the Ocean Terminal building at Harbour City in Tsim Sha Tsui. Photo: Roy Issa
"We need to be cautious and think of new ways [to attract visitors]," said Lee.
S&P Global Ratings' credit analyst Esther Liu said that she was not optimistic on the retail sales growth in Hong Kong.
"While growth in visitor arrivals has shown a healthy rebound, it's not boosting retail sales," said Liu.
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The company's revenues rose 7 per cent year on year to HK$14.3 billion, falling short of Bloomberg's consensus estimate of HK$16.3 billion by 12.3 per cent.
Wharf REIC however said that the record HK$49 billion in sales achieved by its tenants accounted for over 10 per cent of Hong Kong's total retail sales during the year. Harbour City witnessed a growth rate of 24 per cent, outperforming the Hong Kong average of 9 per cent.
"Harbour City remained the key driver of the group, contributing 63 per cent of revenue and 72 per cent of operating profit," according to the company's filing to the Hong Kong stock exchange.
The company said that average sales per square foot per month of HK$2,700 would place Harbour City among the most productive malls in the world in terms of sales per square foot.
In lieu of a final dividend, Wharf REIC plans to pay a second interim dividend of HK$1.05 per share on April 23. The full-year dividend amounts to HK$2.1 per share.
The company's share price fell 1.5 per cent to HK$54.55 on Tuesday.
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