May 27th, 2011
07:11 AM GMT
Hong Kong, China (CNN) – The property boom in Hong Kong is pricing out small investors. Real estate prices have risen nearly 70% in the past two years. With interest rates at a measly .001%, it seems silly to leave your savings sitting in the bank. So where can you park your cash?
Some investors are looking to alternative investments like taxi licenses. It doesn't seem very sexy and 25-year old Kin Yin Shek says that's just fine with him. He bought four licenses in January for HK$3 million each (US $387,000). Since then, the value of the licenses has increased about 10%. It's a matter of limited supply and increased demand. The Hong Kong government has issued 18,138 taxi licenses. Don't count on any more being issued any time soon. The last time that happened was 14 years ago – and only 10 were issued.
Shek says he opted for taxi licenses over buying an apartment because it was "cheaper." In order to buy a taxi license, he made a 20% down payment on a loan. If he had purchased an apartment of the same value, he would have had to put down 30%, pay a large stamp duty and attorney fees. "It's very hard to get a good tenant, you can get a really bad tenant who doesn't pay,” Shek says. “I don't have much headaches with taxis. They run by themselves. There are eight drivers working for me."
Shek uses a taxi agency to find his drivers who each work 12 hour shifts. The taxis are operating around the clock. The agency acts like a "property manager" and Shek collects "rent" from the drivers. But this is an unregulated market and the Hong Kong Transportation Department says it does not interfere. "The transfer of taxi license ownership is a kind of commercial activity,” a department spokesperson said by e-mail. “It is not appropriate for the Government to intervene in the taxi license premium."
So is this the Wild West in a niche market? Or is this a bubble in the making? It could be both, so buyers beware. Finance Professor Billy Mak of Hong Kong Baptist University calls the industry an outright oligopoly where only a small number of taxi agencies control the price.
“When you participate in the market, you must accept it (the price)," Mak says.
I did call a taxi agency to ask if agencies set the prices of taxi licenses. The spokesman said prices are determined by demand and fueled by the banks' super low interest rates. When I pressed him further, he did acknowledge that several Hong Kong taxi agency owners meet once a month for dinner and "discuss the price."
If you're more of a long term investor and willing to wait a decade or more, you may want to start studying pu'er tea. It's a special tea from Yunnan province in China. Pu'er is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Like wine, this is a tea that becomes tastier and more valuable when it's stored and aged.
Sun SIng Tea is a tea shop in Hong Kong and it's seeing an increase in interest by investors. "The market is changing. One reason is they (investors) know pu'er is good for the health. They know it's like wine. You can store it. You can buy a lot like stocks," says marketing manager, Akei Mak." If you do not know tea it's a dangerous investment. You need to be a consumer (of tea) first. You need to know the different qualities, different information and tea knowledge."
Antique pu'er tea (anything before 1950) commands the highest prices. That's because the tea then was often made from wild tea leaves. After 1950, the state controlled the production of pu'er tea mostly from farms. Nonetheless, tea from the 1980's is now coming of age and commanding high prices. "Especially this year, the price is up even above our own expectations," says Mak. Pu'er tea is sold as a circular disc known as a "tea cake." A tea cake weighing 320 grams can sell today for between US $1000-$2300. The tea cake can make up to 500 cups of tea.
"It's still cheaper than drinking wine," laughs Mak.
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