Greater Bay Area can boost HK Reit market: Law firm

It says creation of Reits for Chinese project may help HK catch up with regional markets

A law firm involved in almost all initial public offerings of real estate investment trusts (Reits) in Hong Kong is calling for the development of Reits for Beijing's ambitious Greater Bay Area plan, seen as one of the key engines of growth for China in the coming years.

Law firm Baker McKenzie said the creation of Greater Bay Area Reits, or G-Reits, will open the door for the city's tepid Reit market to rejuvenate itself and catch up with other markets in the region, including that of Singapore.

The firm on Wednesday urged the market and regulators to consider developing a G-Reit framework.

Mr Milton Cheng, managing partner at Baker McKenzie's Hong Kong office, said the G-Reits, comprising bay area real estate assets listed in the territory, will "increase the critical mass, liquidity and in-ternational competitiveness of the Hong Kong Reit market".

"The structure we're proposing here actually is similar to what Singapore Reits (S-Reits) already have - external management model, similar to what all but one of the Hong Kong Reits have," he said.

"So in a sense, it's learning from good experience that the Singapore market has already built up."

The firm suggested that for a start, assets in the Greater Bay Area would be listed in Hong Kong as the city already has a mature Reit market and structure.

"But in due course, it could also include Reits listed in Shenzhen when the relevant Chinese regime is also established," said the firm.

It noted that Hong Kong's role within the proposed bay area is centred on the island being the financial hub for capital inflows and outflows - and G-Reits are one way to achieve that.

The proposed G-Reits can help as an additional means for bay area developers to attract and recycle capital, as well as facilitate the supply of quality properties in the area, said Mr Rico Chan, head of the firm's real estate group in Hong Kong.

This will also provide a recognisable and an easily understood investment product for retail investors in the Chinese bay area, he added.

Lawyer Jeremy Ong said it is currently easier to inject Chinese assets that are already in an offshore company into a Hong Kong Reit.

Greater Bay Area-based developers will face additional costs in order to restructure to set up G-Reits and this, Mr Ong said, may prove a disincentive.

However, the silver lining is that G-Reits listed in Hong Kong can be included under the existing framework for southbound trading under the Hong Kong-Shenzhen Stock-Connect, he added.

Growth in Hong Kong's Reit market has been sluggish, especially when compared with markets such as Singapore and Japan.

The city has 10 listed Reits with a total market capitalisation of about $54 billion this month, Hong Kong Stock Exchange data showed.

Data from the Reit Association of Singapore showed that Japan's Reit market is worth about $155 billion while Singapore's is about $90 billion as of August last year.

When asked how far the proposed G-Reits can go in giving S-Reits a run for their money, Mr Cheng said: "Whether or not we would then see less of the assets coming to list in Singapore - maybe yes, maybe no - we don't know."

He added that there are now quite a lot of institutional investors investing in multiple countries across the region. "So if what you're trying to do is to have another product that another market has done - it doesn't mean that Singapore can't do it - you just need to then try to find alternative ways to access those assets or those investors," he said.

And while Singapore has done "a really good job" in trying to increase access to assets, "more can be done", he said, adding that "hopefully there's enough to go around for everybody".

Hong Kong is a more natural market for listings by Chinese businesses, partly because of language and investor familiarity. That said, given Singapore's lead in the Reit space, asset managers and bankers familiar with the process will be very valuable to the G-Reits and can then help with developer, regulator and investor education, Mr Cheng noted.

Last month, Beijing unveiled a vague Greater Bay Area blueprint to link up nine cities in Guangdong province with the special administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, while sticking to the "one country, two systems" principle.

The plan is the brainchild of Chinese President Xi Jinping and is meant to push China's economy forward by taking it on the path of innovation and high-tech development.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 29, 2019, with the headline Greater Bay Area can boost HK Reit market: Law firm. Subscribe