University students wearing Guy Fawkes masks march before their graduation ceremony at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University on November 5 2019. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/BILLY HC KWOK
University students wearing Guy Fawkes masks march before their graduation ceremony at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University on November 5 2019. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/BILLY HC KWOK

Hong Kong — Whether they sell luxury watches from Switzerland or farm hens from Mississippi, a surprising concern is occupying a number of corporate executives this earnings season: Hong Kong’s protests.

An artificial intelligence (AI) model trained by Bloomberg News to scour thousands of quarterly analyst calls and investor updates revealed that the city’s pro-democracy demonstrations, which show few signs of resolution after five months, are putting pressure on companies that sell all kinds of consumer goods.

Of about 2,500 transcripts of calls held during October, the AI model identified dozens of instances of protest-related discussion among businesses ranging from skincare products to talent recruitment.

The far-reaching effects of the protests speaks to the outsize role that Hong Kong has hitherto played as a thoroughfare for Chinese shoppers. Buyers have flocked to the city for its zero consumption tax and variety of global imports, whether luxury handbags or infant formula.

Now, the protests are accelerating a shift away from Hong Kong by global businesses as Chinese travellers — the city’s biggest tourist segment — stay away.

“Hong Kong has been extremely challenging [and] tourism has fallen off a cliff,” said Andre Hoffman, vice-chairman of luxury skincare company L’Occitane. “But we see very strong growth from China, Korea and Macau, so I think about of that business is being transferred to other countries in the region.”

Whatever the outcome of the protests, the blow to Hong Kong’s role as a consumption hub for the region is likely to be lasting, executives said. The city’s economy has already been plunged into a technical recession and full-year growth is likely to be negative.

Hong Kong’s business outlook continued to drop in October, with the purchasing manager’s index for the whole economy falling to 39.3, according to IHS Markit. The reading was the lowest since the depths of the financial crisis in November 2008.

“Business didn’t just arrive back at the doors as soon as the protest finished,” Paul Edgecliffe-Johnson, CFO at InterContinental Hotels said, referring to the Occupy Central protests of 2014. Those protests are widely seen as the precursor to the 2019 movement.

“Hong Kong will probably pay a price for the current situation, not only in terms of volume of business, but also in terms of profitability,” said Jean-Jacques Guiony, CFO of LVMH, the luxury conglomerate which sells everything from leather handbags to fur coats.

Retailers and hotel operators have been hardest hit as clashes between protesters and police bring the city to a near-halt every weekend. Retail sales by value fell 18.3% in September, compared with a decline of 22.9% in August. Hotel occupancy rates were 63% in September, 23 percentage points below the same period the year before, according to data from the Hong Kong Tourism Board.

The protests in Hong Kong “impacted traffic and caused some of our stores to close temporarily,” Harmit J Singh, CFO of denim company Levi Strauss, told analysts. Crocs, a maker of rubber-like shoes, said its stores in the city were “significantly impacted by everything that’s going on there”, Andrew Rees, the company’s president and CEO, said.

Sales of products such as medicine, baby food and other daily necessities have been hit by a drop in Chinese tourists who come to Hong Kong to buy goods for resale in the mainland — one of the many causes which demonstrators have taken up. Mainland arrivals to Hong Kong were down 35% in September compared with the same month a year earlier.

Industries away from the consumer front lines have also felt the heat. Recruitment consultancy PageGroup said social unrest in the city was having an effect on its clients’ confidence.

US exports of broiler chickens have also been affected. “We have seen a little decline [in overall exports] to Hong Kong and I think about of the unrest there has been a big part of that,” Eric Scholer, vice-president of Express Markets Analytics, told delegates at an investor day hosted by Sanderson Farms, a Laurel, Mississippi-headquartered food producer.

Hong Kong’s property tycoons, whose grip on economic life and political power in the city of 7-million has been cited as a factor aggravating the protests, have been of little help to suffering retailers, corporate call transcripts revealed.

“We’ve been very, very aggressive as much as we can be as a tenant in Hong Kong to try to get about rent reductions,” said L’Occitane’s Hoffmann. “Landlords have not been forthcoming with a few exceptions. We will continue to engage with them to try to see what support they can give us, but it’s not been particularly effective at this point.”

Rents for high-street locations in Hong Kong fell 10.5% in the third quarter, compared with three months earlier, the biggest contraction in more than two decades, according to real estate advisory CBRE Group. But shopping mall rents were flat during the same period.

For analysts and investors who use the quarterly calls to prise information from executives, certainty on this particular topic was elusive.

“Really, we do not know how this is going to pan out for the rest of the year,” said Cindy Chow, CEO of Mapletree North Asia Commercial Trust. The Singapore-based real estate investment trust generates almost 70% of its revenue from Hong Kong and owns a mall in the city which closed for three days during the ongoing unrest.

“It still doesn’t have any end in sight,” she said.