Billionaire Li Ka-shing sounds alarm over Hong Kong's economy

HONG KONG - Hong Kong's economy is at its worst in 20 years, billionaire Li Ka-shing said on Thursday, warning that the city's stock market could fall by more than half if the financial hub does not get backing from mainland China.

Li, who held court and joked with reporters for more than an hour during an earnings news conference, is the latest person to sound the alarm after Moody's downgraded Hong Kong's sovereign credit rating at the weekend, citing its links to China's economic slowdown.

"Today's Hong Kong is getting worse ... the worst I've seen in 20 years," said Li, 88, referring to the Asia financial crisis in the late 1990s.

"Our home sales and retail now is worse than the SARS period. During SARS (the effect) was short-lived but now it is long," he said, in a reference to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome that crippled the city in 2003.

Hong Kong retail sales, which suffered their worst decline in 13 years in 2015, have been hit by a slump in tourist from the mainland which has been blamed in part on increasing cross-border tensions and political unease on both sides.

"If we respect tourists, no matter where they're from, today our retail, hotels would not be this bad. So everyone has to reflect on themselves, there are a lot of issues the politicians need to reflect on how they can do better," Li said.

In February, Hong Kong's Financial Secretary John Tsang said"political volatility" was threatening to undermine the economy and warned disputes would intensify ahead of this year's elections which pit the city's democratic opposition against pro-Beijing parties.

A former British territory, Hong Kong is ruled under a "one country, two systems" formula that allows wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China, but many in the city have voiced concern over what they see as increasing interference by Beijing in its affairs.

Li, known as Superman for his deal-making savvy, said he does not think Hong Kong people want independence and urged residents to allow the city to be stable and prosperous.

Earlier on Thursday, Li's ports-to-telecoms conglomerate CK Hutchison reported a net profit of HK$31.17 billion (S$5.4 billion) for 2015, in its first full-year earnings report after a reorganisation last year.

Li continued to take questions from the packed conference even as company officials tried to usher him out, saying finally with a smile: "You guys are just expecting me to slip out something wrong."