Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s retail sales fell by a record 44% in February from a year earlier, as travel restrictions kept tourists away and residents avoided shopping centres to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Reuters reported. The spending drought has hit an economy already in recession after months of often-violent anti-government protests. Retail sales in February fell 44% from a year earlier to HK$22.7 billion ($2.93 billion), compared with a revised 21.5% drop in January, government data showed on Tuesday.

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Hong Kong plans to introduce its version of U.S.-style “Chapter 11” bankruptcy provisions, a senior government official said, as the city’s worst economic predicament in decades threatens the viability of many companies, Reuters reported. Hong Kong does not have a formal corporate rescue framework, unlike most other major financial centers including fierce rival Singapore, after previous attempts to introduce one met with resistance from lawmakers and labor representatives who were worried plans did not offer enough protection for workers.

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Over the past six months, executives at Hong Kong-based investment firm SC Lowy have been inundated with calls from bankers in China hoping to sell them distressed debt, the Financial Times reported. This is a first in the 11 years since the $2bn firm was established and underscores how China, after spending two decades trying to clean up bad debt by itself, is finally warming up to foreign capital.

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Hong Kong is being threatened by a “Tsunami-like” cataclysm, the city’s finance chief has warned, as the new coronavirus devastates businesses already hobbled by months of anti-government protests, Bloomberg News reported. The financial hub’s lack of a bankruptcy process will only exacerbate the pain. Unlike in the U.S., Australia and rival Singapore, businesses in Hong Kong don’t have recourse to any corporate rescue procedure when in difficulties.

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Noble Group, the commodity trader that almost blew up in an accounting and debt scandal before pushing through a dramatic financial restructuring, has hired a new finance chief, the Financial Times reported. The Hong Kong-based company said on Friday that it has recruited Jacques Enri, the former chief financial officer of Gunvor, one of the world’s leading energy traders. He replaces Paul Jackaman who left in July.

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Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways asked its 27,000 employees to take three weeks of unpaid leave, saying preserving cash was key for the carrier and that conditions were as grave as during the 2009 financial crisis due to the virus outbreak, The Irish Times reported. Cathay is also asking suppliers for price reductions, putting in place hiring freezes, postponing major projects and stopping all non-critical spending, chief executive Augustus Tang said in a video message to staff seen by Reuters.

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Anti-government protests have prompted investors to pull some $5bn out of Hong Kong since April, according to the Bank of England, the Financial Times reported. That amount is equivalent to 1.25 per cent of the gross domestic product of the Asia financial hub, the UK central bank said in its biannual Financial Stability Report. The bank cited data from EPFR Global, Refinitiv and its own calculations. However, the $5bn in outflows from investment funds since April is modest in the context of Hong Kong’s monetary system.

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Even as Hong Kong has reduced down-payment requirements to help young professionals and families to buy homes, banks are beefing up mortgage application standards to ensure that a recession does not saddle them with bad loans, bankers and mortgage brokers said, Reuters reported. Last month, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, struggling to restore confidence in her administration after five months of civil unrest, approved rules allowing first-time homebuyers to borrow as much as 90% of a HK$8 million ($1 million) home’s cost.

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Hong Kong jeweler Jun Lam has already closed one shop. His remaining outlet sits in an almost deserted shopping mall at the heart of a district regularly hit by sometimes violent protests that have rocked the Chinese-ruled city since June, the International New York Times reported on a Reuters story. Restaurants, hotels and retail outlets like Lam's, many of which cater to mostly mainland Chinese tourists, form a central pillar of a small business sector that employs more than one million people in the city.

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Fitch Ratings has lowered its rating on Hong Kong, citing uncertainty about the stability of the business environment following months of protests and looming challenges stemming from the city’s closer integration with mainland China, the Financial Times reported. The rating agency is the first to downgrade Hong Kong's long-term foreign-currency issuer default rating since the start of violent clashes between protesters and police, lowering its ranking of the Asian financial hub from double A plus to double A with a negative outlook, signalling the potential for further falls.

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