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HK banks increase rates for the first time in 12 years

Hong Kong

THREE of Hong Kong's biggest banks raised their lending rates on Thursday for the first time in 12 years, ending an age of cheap cash that could hit the city's famously red-hot property market. The announcement sparked a government warning about the effects on borrowers in the city, while the de facto central bank warned of "uncertainties".

The moves by HSBC, Standard Chartered and Hang Seng Bank came after the Hong Kong Monetary Authority lifted its borrowing costs following an increase by the US Federal Reserve. The HKMA is required to lift rates in line with the Fed owing to the dollar peg.

HSBC and Hang Seng each boosted their lending rate 12.5 basis points to 5.125 per cent, while Standard Chartered lifted its rate from 5.25 per cent to 5.375 per cent.

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"Today's change in rates marks the start of the normalisation cycle for local interest rates and we believe Hong Kong is well prepared for the change," said Diana Cesar, HSBC's chief executive in Hong Kong.

More of the city's commercial banks are expected to hike their prime rates, meaning higher mortgage payments for loans that are linked to it. "The super-low interest rate environment in Hong Kong probably will finish. Going forward, interest rates will go up," said Hong Kong Finance Secretary Paul Chan. "Higher interest rates will add to the burden of homeowners with mortgages," he added, urging investors to "exercise caution in managing their investment and risks".

Shares in Hong Kong property firms turned south on Thursday, with Sun Hung Kai Properties, Sino Land and Country Garden all taking a hit.

The Federal Reserve raised the benchmark interest rate on Wednesday for the third time this year in a widely anticipated decision.

After the HKMA raised interest rates to 2.5 per cent, its chief executive Norman Chan warned the public to be "on high alert" over increases and to manage associated risks, adding that property and assets would be affected. "The current global economic conditions and financial environment are full of uncertainties for Hong Kong," he said.

Analyst Iris Pang said the small increment should not have a dramatic impact on existing mortgages but further hikes could affect those who have refinanced. "Those rates are really high and a bit of an increment can actually be the last straw," said Ms Pang, greater China economist at ING Wholesale Banking in Hong Kong. It could also discourage those who have not yet jumped on the housing ladder, she added.

Marcos Chan, head of research at real estate services company CBRE, added that the higher burden on households could translate into more cautious consumption patterns for the rest of the year. The local economy "remains sound" but could suffer a slowdown in growth from other challenges including the trade war between the US and China, he said.

Despite a string of Fed and HKMA hikes over the past two years, commercial rates had remained low as banks had a vast well of cash in the city's banking system to tap. This kept the crucial Hong Kong InterBank Rate (Hibor) subdued, meaning it did not cost banks much to borrow. However, the HKMA has spent billions this year supporting the local currency - as it is required to - after it hit the bottom end of its permitted HK$7.75-7.85 band against the US dollar. This soaked up that well of money, pushing up the HIbor and therefore the burden on banks. AFP