With Li's Exit, Hong Kong's Hungry Tycoons Hail From China

(Bloomberg Gadfly) -- Li Ka-shing's retirement from the empire he built over 68 years marks the end of an era for Hong Kong's dominant billionaires and, in important ways, for the territory itself.

A wartime refugee who started with nothing when the then-British colony was relatively poor and struggling, Li rose with other tycoons of his time as the city developed economically under a vigorous brand of laissez-faire capitalism.

His grip on the city has tightened as it became richer, inequality widened and the social structures ossified.

The 89-year-old's departure as chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings Ltd. and CK Asset Holdings Ltd. serves to underline how unlikely it would be for anyone to repeat the trick today -- rising from nothing to dominate sectors from property, retail and utilities to ports.

The conditions that enabled Li's success will arguably never be repeated. Mainland China is the billionaire factory these days, and its influence on the city will only increase.

What does that mean for shareholders in the octogenarian's companies? Probably, first and foremost, growth will have to come from elsewhere.

On that measure, they're in good hands. Elder son, Victor, who's taking over, has an effective template.

He's successfully steered CK Infrastructure Holdings Ltd., another of Li's listed units, away from volatile real estate and into cash-generating utilities, creating a trust-like empire that spans Europe, Australia and Canada.

Evidence of the group's shift away from Hong Kong can be seen in several landmark disposals, including the sale of The Center in a $5.2 billion transaction in November.

Sometimes, the timing hasn't been the best. Investors punished CK Hutchison, which has a large U.K. focus, after 2016's Brexit vote, switching to favor CK Asset. And just as Hong Kong real estate was booming, CK Asset's revenue from property sales slumped to HK$12.8 billion ($1.6 billion) for the full year, from HK$20.9 billion in 2016.

Still, Victor, 53, widely acknowledged as the architect of the group's push into overseas utilities, is a dealmaker like his dad.

While CK Infrastructure is probably still digesting last year's A$7.4 billion ($5.8 billion) acquisition of Duet Group in Australia, money isn't an issue. The Center brought in a tidy pile while Power Assets Holdings Ltd., owned 39 percent by CK Infrastructure, is giving cash away, on Friday announcing its second special dividend in as many years.

The challenge will be finding targets in a world that's turning increasingly protectionist. Victor will need to navigate delicate relationships with regulators. Repeating the trick of merging the company's 3 Italia unit with a telecom rival to gain market leadership won't be easy. The European Union already pushed back on 3's plan to expand with a U.K. merger in 2016. Efforts to perk up the lagging Swedish and Danish phone businesses may meet a similar fate.

Any spinoff of A.S. Watson & Co., meanwhile, is likely a long time away. The supermarket and drug-store owner, part-controlled by Singapore's Temasek Holdings Pte, has been struggling in Hong Kong and China, where online rivals are eating into its business.

Assuming deals do continue, that means fewer shareholder giveaways. Many investors are doubtless still sour after Hutchison Telecommunications Hong Kong Holdings Ltd., having sold its fixed-line assets for $1.9 billion, delayed a special dividend last month. With a one-year waiting period, the risk-reward balance now looks unattractive, Morgan Stanley analysts said.

The elder Li has long been known as "Superman" by Hong Kong's local media, out of reverence for his investing ability. Having worked alongside his father for more than three decades, Victor should be an able steward of his empire.

But if you're searching for the next superhero, don't look to Hong Kong. The hungry billionaires of tomorrow are to be found north of the border. As for Victor, he'll have to cast his horizons even wider.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Matthew Brooker is an editor with Bloomberg Gadfly. He previously was an Opening Line columnist, an editor and a bureau chief for Bloomberg News. Before joining Bloomberg, he worked for the South China Morning Post. He is a CFA charterholder.

Nisha Gopalan is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering deals and banking. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones as an editor and a reporter.

  1. The U.S. has been notably absent in Li's deal-making forays after the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States rejected his 2003 bid for now defunct Global Crossing Ltd.

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