Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Missing Legacy - HK Wake Up!

Recently, a gwailo passed away without much of a mention in HK papers. Now, I have to say that I am biased as I think the majority of the bunch of British expats being posted to HK basically had a holiday for the past 50 years. HK did become a financial center and its citizens benefited enormously for the last 30 years. It put HK on the map. Property prices went through the roof. HK became an international city. However, HK would NOT be where it is (economically) if it were not for a guy name John Cowperthwaite (JC). JC was HK's financial secretary from the crucial formative years of 1961-1971. He passed away on January 21, 2006 at the ripe old age of 90. The sad thing is that HK media and HK people in general, failed to give due credit to this man. Sure, HK people worked hard to get to where they are, but as we all know, the structure and gameplan must be there to allow "good things" to happen in an economy. In his first budget speech he said: "In the long run, the aggregate of decisions of individual businessmen, exercising individual judgment in a free economy, even if often mistaken, is less likely to do harm than the centralised decisions of a government, and certainly the harm is likely to be counteracted faster."

JC, very much a disciple of Adam Smith and not a modern monetarist, put in the structure and rules to promote HK's now famous laissez-faire economics. Britain at that time was moving towards a more socialist and welfare state, and it would have been very easy for JC to replicate that for HK. Can you imagine that - having a bunch of whinging "me,me", unionised, welfare dependent Chinese in Asia!? Instead, JC took it upon himself to do "less" by eliminating tariffs, lowered the tax rate to a maximum of 15%, cut the bureaucratic red tape that stifles business. He called his policies "positive non-intervention". To have the courage and political will to do that for HK - that should mean the world to the people of HK. In 1960, the average per capita income in Hong Kong was 28 percent of that in Britain; by 1996, it had risen to 137 percent of that in Britain. Now the per capita income of HK almost mirrors that of the US.

Sir John Cowperthwaite was knighted in 1968, and what he did for HK should be taught in schools and universities in HK. I wonder how many roads, libraries, scholarships or university halls are named after JC? After the Asian financial implosion in 1997, HK suffered and stuttered particularly when compared to Singapore. It looks like Singapore has taken a leaf from the handiwork of JC - less is more. Instead, HK powers to be have put in more legislation and rules, which combined, have put HK on the backfoot. Two examples, the rise and rise of hedge funds in Asia - Singapore has managed to attract a lot more of them than HK, ask any fellow professionals why. The other is the rise and rise of REITs, and though HK has had a headstart, Singapore is putting in the right moves, making REITs dividends non-taxable. Again, we can expect more international REITs to come to list in Singapore in the months ahead.

HK has to learn from its mistakes but also gain lessons on things it did right before. A good way to start is to fully appreciate the things Sir John Cowperthwaite did for HK's economy, and replicate that. The fact that his passing was largely ignored in HK says a lot about where HK's economy is headed.

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