The one surefire topic of conversation at almost every dinner party in Hong Kong must be the state of the local property market. To rent or to buy, old building or new, market timing and mortgage payments - few subjects hold such lasting fascination for the potential investor. It is fair to assume, therefore, that one person never short of an invitation to dine out is Kenneth Tsang. As head of research for Greater China with Jones Lang LaSalle, his understanding of the region's property markets and what is likely to move them can be considered second to none.
One of Mr Tsang's tasks is to lead a team which collects and coordinates data to help dissect and analyse the property market. Among other regular research publications, they produce a quarterly index of rental and property values, which is a key "deliverable" for the firm. Studies are also undertaken for clients such as international banks or private equity funds who want to understand market fundamentals and assess, for example, the general outlook, risks and opportunities associated with getting into the mortgage business.
"You are looking for the stories behind the trends," explains Mr Tsang. "The market wants to know not just that rents are moving, but why. It takes a lot of skills to be able to interpret the numbers and you have to remember to take any comments you hear with a grain of salt."
Besides needing good interpersonal skills, Mr Tsang points out that a researcher must be impartial, a competent judge of objective criteria and able to "detect the answers", even when they are not directly stated. "This is a fundamental part of research and consultancy," he says, "and you must see what the implications are from the investor's point of view, so you can advise them effectively on the key issues."
The property business is very diverse and the research side is undoubtedly challenging
Mr Tsang's education and early jobs did much to broaden his range of skills. He took a four-year honours degree in planning and design at the University of Melbourne which gave a broad understanding of real estate, town planning and the construction industry. After graduation, he decided to return to Hong Kong and joined a local quantity surveying firm where he became involved in construction contract management and legal matters. This led to work with the Airport Authority as a contracts engineer and, in 1997, to the research department of Jones Lang LaSalle.
"I had wanted something more dynamic and exciting and took around two years to find the right opportunity in a firm with an international reputation and an extensive network within the property industry," says Mr Tsang. During that time, he also began a Master's degree in finance to get a better grasp of financial theory and the analytical framework used for major business decisions.
He specialised initially in research for the retail, hotel and tourism industries and had to work long hours to acquire the skill-sets required for "data mining". This meant learning about market dynamics, general trends and, with the help of experts in the leasing, sales and investment departments, to understand what influences investors.
Not all relevant data is automatically available, so the first step is usually to understand the big picture by looking at key economic indicators and how they relate to the property market. Other information can be found from government statistics, third party primary research and industry contacts. Describing himself as "pretty hands-on", Mr Tsang also keeps a close eye on capital markets, regulations and political risk, which may easily have a significant impact on supply and demand in the property sector.
Along with a 15-strong team, which includes staff based in Beijing, Shanghai and Taipei, he also contributes to topical projects. These might include comparative studies of the office rental markets in Chinese cities, or exercises which rank the "world's winning cities" in terms of their general attractiveness for investors and occupiers. In addition, consultancy clients might seek advice on issues such as an area's potential for resort development or the recommended timing for investment in a new hotel.
Mr Tsang plans to expand his team in the near future and indicates that preferred candidates should have "an inquisitive mind, be meticulous and be enthusiastic about research work". No specific degree is required but knowledge of engineering, property or finance is likely to prove an advantage.
"The property business is very diverse and the research side is undoubtedly challenging," comments Mr Tsang. "For those with the right skill-sets, it also provides a great deal of job satisfaction and many opportunities for advancement."
With the general opening up of the China market, the interest of global investors in the property sector is inevitably increasing. According to Mr Tsang, things are becoming more transparent, but it is still difficult to do research work and intensive efforts are needed to obtain sufficient data.
Jones Lang LaSalle is now building research teams in Guangzhou and Macau with heavy involvement from the Hong Kong team. An international exchange programme, which allows Hong Kong graduate trainees to gain experience in mainland offices, is already in place.