HONG KONG, Sept 13 (Reuters) - Hong Kong's Sun Hung Kai Properties, the world's second-largest real estate developer, posted earnings that narrowly beat expectations on Thursday, building on last year's impressive performance thanks to strong property prices and low interest rates.
The company, whose billionaire co-chairmen are facing charges in an alleged bribery case, reported a record underlying profit of HK$21.7 billion for the company's 2012 fiscal year that ended in June, compared with HK$21.5 billion last year.
Analysts had expected underlying income of HK$21.0 billion for the 2012 year, according to StarMine, based on the mean estimate of 19 analysts polled by Reuters.
Since the results are based on sales locked in last year, the company's performance has yet to see any effect from the high-profile scandal involving brothers Thomas and Raymond Kwok.
The company's co-chairmen, who deny any wrong-doing, are due in court next month to face charges that they paid a senior government official to favour their interests.
The Kwoks deny any wrongdoing, and Rafael Hui, a former Hong Kong chief secretary who has also been charged over the case, has not commented since his arrest.
Once the darling of the investment community and considered one of Hong Kong's best-run companies, Sun Hung Kai's shares have underperformed peers since the arrests. The stock is down 7.9 percent in the last six months, compared with a 3.3 percent gain in the Hang Seng Properties Index. It rose 0.75 percent on Thursday.
The results marked the firm's second successive record performance in terms of annual underlying profit, considered by investors a more meaningful figure than net profit since the net figures include valuation gains that depend on the property market rather than the performance of the company.
Alfred Lau, property analyst at Bocom International, noted rental income, the company's earnings base, had come in at HK$11.1 billion, ahead of his HK$10.7 billion estimate.
"The rental growth momentum is still accelerating," he said. "This will mean better grounds for them to maintain this record profit going forward."
Sun Hung Kai, which developed Hong Kong's two tallest buildings, the International Finance Centre and the International Commerce Centre on either side of Victoria Harbour, is celebrating the 40th year of its listing. However, it did not declare a special dividend to honour the occasion, something it did 10 years ago and which it had been expected by analysts to repeat.
The Kwoks are continuing at the helm of the company while they fight the charges against them and Sun Hung Kai contends that it is "business as usual". It has continued to release new properties, and in July agreed to pay HK$6.9 billion ($889.8 million) for a huge waterfront plot in Hong Kong, a price far less than the market had expected.
Market watchers say the effect of the case has been priced into the stock.
More than half of the company's public float is now held by people who knew about the court case when they bought the shares, according to Daiwa Capital Markets analyst Jonas Kan. The fourth quarter could prove an inflection point for the shares, he added, particularly if the court hearing does not produce a negative surprise. (Reporting by Alex Frew McMillan; Editing by Alex Richardson)