Sunday, December 31, 2006

Hong Kong Mortgage Interest Rates

Christianpsu raised a query about Hong Kong interest rates in response to my post about the financing of my latest propety purchase (unfortunately this comment was inadvertantly lost along with a few other comments when I was cleaning up my blog).

For home buyers and small investors like myself, the Hong Kong market offers two main choices for mortgage finance:

1. a rate linked to the "prime" lending rate of the lending bank. Currently banks are offering rates mostly in the range of "prime - 2.5" to "prime - 3.0" percent. Some banks will offer a better rate for the first year but then a less attractive rate for the rest of the term. The prime rate is a floating rate which is set by the bank. While the bank has an absolute discretion to set its prime rate at whatever level it wishes, in practice the prime rates for all banks will be set at market driven levels. It used to be the case that every bank would have the same prime rate. That changed in 2006 with there being two different prime rates now used in the market. This can be confusing because it means that not all "prime" based rates are comparable - you have to check what prime rate is being used by each bank in order to compare the cost of different products;

2. a rate linked to the Hong Kong money market (known as the Hong Kong Interbank Offer Rate or HIBOR). Currently banks are offering rates mostly in the range of "HIBOR + 0.6" to HIBOR + 1.5". HIBOR linked rates are floating rates which are effectively set by the market. HIBOR interest rates are quoted for terms ranging from as short as one month out to as long as five years. In practice most banks will use the three month HIBOR rate as the default option.

Which is better?

My personal experience is that HIBOR based rates are better. The effective interest rate on my HIBOR linked mortgages has consistently been either about the same or lower than the prime based mortgages. There is no guarantee that this will continue in the future, but I have essentially concluded that HIBOR based rates with the shortest possible fixings (one month where offered - not all banks will do this) are the lowest cost product available. My understanding is that there are two reasons for this:

1. HIBOR rates are set by the market. Prime rates are set by the banks themselves. Needless to say the rate set in an open competitive market is more likely to be lower;

2. both HIBOR rates and prime rates tend to respond quickly to rising interest rates. Because of the fixing periods associated with HIBOR, it is a matter of luck whether a HIBOR based interest rate or a prime based interest rate will adjust upwards more rapidly. HIBOR rates tend to adjust downwards to falling interest rates quicker than prime rates.

At leats one bank (DBS) now offers a product that sets the interest rate based on the lower of a prime based formula and a HIBOR based formula. I came accross this for the first time when shopping around for my last mortgage in November.

This brings me to a final (and important) point. The Hong Kong banking system is awash with liquidity. The lending banks are competing quite intensively for business. It pays to compare offers from various financial institutions when looking to borrow.