Hong Kong trade with its second-largest trading partner looks set to expand following the conclusion of three years of negotiations on a free trade agreement with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Set to be formalised in November, the agreement adds new impetus to a new Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC) study, which found the outlook for quality, unique-style products and services remains bright in the region.

The study of markets in the ASEAN economies, conducted in the second quarter of 2017, surveyed more than 1,400 middle-income class consumers in Jakarta, Surabaya, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi and Manila.

“Travel and leisure were found to be the most popular spending category among ASEAN middle-class consumers,” said HKTDC Principal Economist (Asian and Emerging Markets) Dickson Ho.

About 56 per cent of respondents indicated that this was among their top spending categories in the past two years. In second place was health, beauty and wellness (36%), followed by fashion (32%),

“On the other hand, fashion has the biggest growth potential, with 63 per cent of respondents saying they would spend more on fashion in the next two years,” Mr Ho added. This was followed by travel and leisure (54%) and health, beauty and wellness (36%).

The study also revealed that ASEAN consumers were spending more on local brands than overseas ones, although Hong Kong brands that offer good design and quality enjoy a good reputation.

“The results showed that many Hong Kong brands are well-known among ASEAN middle-class consumers, who would like to see more of these introduced to their home countries,” said Mr Ho.

An overwhelming 95 per cent of respondents said they were willing to spend more on products with better quality, while 89 per cent liked “personal style,” said Mr Ho. “These ASEAN consumers also exhibited a great desire to try trendy and novel items, with 83 per cent saying they were always willing to try new brands and products.”

Environmental features, certifications, good design and packaging were found to be among ASEAN consumers’ product selection criteria. “Brands have to create value beyond their core functions to succeed in the ASEAN market,” Mr Ho said.

The survey found that ASEAN middle-class consumers were multi-channel shoppers, with their purchasing decisions heavily affected by online reviews. “At least 50 per cent of respondents have made purchases online or used both online and offline channels,” said Mr Ho. “More than 50 per cent also reported that social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, had influenced their buying decisions. This shows that Hong Kong suppliers can use social media platforms to market products to ASEAN consumers.”

Export Confidence

The study comes as the latest HKTDC survey of trader confidence showed a slight dip in overall sentiment. “The HKTDC Export Index dropped to 46.2 in the third quarter of the year (3Q17) from a four-year high of 50.1 recorded in the preceding quarter (2Q17),” said HKTDC Director of Research Nicholas Kwan.

“This shows that local exporters have become slightly negative about prospects for Hong Kong’s export performance in the near term,” said Mr Kwan, noting that the reading was dragged down by the clothing, toys, jewellery and timepiece sectors.

The HKTDC Export Index monitors the current export performance of Hong Kong traders and gauges their near-term prospects. Readings above and below 50 indicate positive and negative sentiment, respectively. The Index covers markets in the United States, the European Union, Japan and the Chinese mainland.

Mainland most promising, US least encouraging

“By market, a marginal decline in confidence swept across the board,” said HKTDC Principal Economist (Global Research) Daniel Poon, noting that the Chinese mainland “remained the most promising market, while the United States was least encouraging.”

The mainland, Hong Kong’s largest trading partner, was the only market that stayed above the watershed 50 mark – with a reading of 51.5 in Q317, down from 51.9 in the preceding quarter.

The European Union scored 49.5, followed by Japan with 48.6. The US posted a reading of 47, down from 48.1 in 2Q17 and 50.3 in 1Q17. “While exporters were once positive on the US in the beginning of 2017, confidence in the market slid down over the course of the year,” Mr Poon said.

The survey also indicates that the perceived impact of Brexit on Hong Kong’s export performance continues to decrease. The new research found that 91 per cent of respondents report “no impact” so far from the United Kingdom’s eventual withdrawal from the European Union.

The figure was 86 per cent in 1Q17 and 83 per cent in 3Q16. Only eight per cent of responding exporters in the latest survey anticipated a negative impact, down from 13 per cent in 1Q17 and 17 per cent in 3Q16.

Meanwhile, the perceived effect of US protectionism under the Trump administration on Hong Kong’s export performance also declined. Among respondents, 81 per cent said they saw no impact, compared with 71 per cent in 1Q17. In the latest survey, 18 per cent of respondents expected a negative impact, down from 27 per cent recorded in 1Q17.

“Among the exporters affected in the UK and US markets, the majority planned to respond by developing new markets,” said Mr Poon.

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