Economy Watch: Hong Kong Boasts Top RE Billionaires

On Forbes' list of billionaires, Hong Kong boasts the top real estate developers; the House votes on bills to do away with housing and development programs, even though the bills won't pass the Senate; and oil still muddies the financial picture.

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

Who in the worldwide real estate industry has the most massive fortune? Forbes magazine provided the answer on Wednesday with its annual billionaire ranking: “Kwok Thomas & Raymond & family,” as the magazine puts it, which isn’t an individual but a clan based in Hong Kong. Ranking number 23 on the list with about $20 billion in assets, the brothers Thomas and Raymond Kwok control the business they inherited from their father, Sun Hung Kai Properties, the largest real estate developer in Hong Kong.

As it happens, Lee Shau Kee, also of Hong Kong, is the second-ranking real estate billionaire on this year’s list, with assets of $19 billion or so (and thus 28th on the billionaire list), while Gerald Cavendish Grosvenor (and family), who are British, came in third with $13 billion (57th on the list). The top American real estate billionaire is Donald Bren (64th on the list), whose fortune is pegged at $12 billion by the magazine, with Sam Zell at number two at $5 billion (208th on the list).

Lesser-known real estate magnates on the list include Olav Thon, who is Norway’s most successful real estate developer ($4 billion); the Japanese golf-course baron Eitaro Itoyama ($3 billion); and Suat Gunsel, one of the largest land holders in northern Cyprus, who just barely squeaked onto the list this year with $1 billion in assets. Entirely too well known is Donald Trump, who came in at number 420 on the billionaire list, with assets of about $2.7 billion.

House votes to kill mortgage modification

The House Financial Services Committee voted 32-23 earlier this week to kill the Home Affordable Modification Program. The program has been pilloried for helping roughly 500,000 borrowers, rather than the 3 million or 4 million promised in its early days in 2009, but House Republicans seem to dislike it on principle, regardless of how effective or ineffective it has been.

In the same measure, the committee also voted to do away with $1 billion for the Neighborhood Stabilization Program, which helps state and local governments clean up and redevelop blighted properties. The full House is expected to take up the measure next week and probably pass it. Toward the end of this week, the House will also vote on measures to get rid of a program that allows underwater homeowners to refinance into government-backed mortgages.

Passage of any of these measures in the Senate, however, is much less likely, and President Obama has promised to veto any attempt to kill HAMP.

The murky oil outlook

The price of oil has become the economic indicator du jour, with plenty of guessing about the direction of the price of this or that kind of crude; reports on whether the civil war in Libya is having an impact beyond spooking the market and inviting speculators to goad the price upward; and speculation on whether the price of gas will put the brakes on the U.S. economy, among much other chatter. In any case, oil was both up and down on Wednesday, dropping 64 cents a barrel in New York (to $104.38) but rising in London by $2.88 to $115.94.

Wall Street marked the second anniversary of the bull market following the Panic of 2008 on Wednesday. The Dow Jones Industrial Average is up about 87 percent since two years ago, and the S&P 500 has gained about 95 percent. As for Wednesday, the markets didn’t move much. The Dow Jones ended down 1.29 points, or a scant 0.01 percent, while the S&P 500 lost 0.14 percent and the Nasdaq was off 0.51 percent.

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