Macleod's wonder years

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 February, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 February, 1995, 12:00am

WHEN Sir Hamish Macleod stands up to present what will be his last Budget on Wednesday, Hong Kong's business community could be forgiven for saying: 'Isn't this where we came in?' It certainly looks like it. When Sir Hamish made one of his first major presentations to Legco as Financial Secretary in November 1991, his theme was inflation, and the evils of speculation in the property sector.

The business sector, faced with an increasingly competitive region, was burdened with rising rents, wages and other costs. It still is.

The inflation figure he reported then, for September 1991, was 11.5 per cent - an improvement on 13.9 per cent six months before, but still close to red hot.

In January this year, the Consumer Price Index (A) showed a 10.1 per cent year-on-year advance. This was distorted by Lunar New Year, but no one can be complacent over that sort of level.

Sir Hamish - then Mr Macleod - also addressed the effects of speculation in property and how to cool it down. That is still high on the government agenda. In 1991, prices were rising at the rate of 40 per cent, and Sir Hamish was warning of the effects on rents, and all other prices in Hong Kong.

Today, the recent trend in property prices has been down, but the jury is still out on how long it will be before the inexorable meshing of supply and demand begins to crank prices skyward again.

But if Sir Hamish has not been able to work miracles on these two key areas of the economy, thanks partly to the constrictions of the peg on the dollar which have removed key monetary weapons from his armoury, he at least has not inflicted any ideological burdens.

For this, business will give much thanks, but probably to the gods of commerce and economic cycles rather than to Sir Hamish himself, for he will be remembered as the lucky Financial Secretary, who enjoyed some wonder years.

Not for him the battles over government finances awash in red ink, nor the huge gaps between imports and exports which have threatened currency crises that have afflicted other country's in the region - and his equivalent in Whitehall.

During his stint at the controls Hong Kong boomed, China boomed, Asia boomed. Property prices soared - and so did the Government's income on land deals.

The stock market rocketed, pouring more silver into the coffers from stamp duties.

So for Sir Hamish, the problem has been to spend the money, not the need to find new and unpopular ways of raising it.

This has made him a man against whom few real complaints will be heard - either from the man in the street, who has enjoyed a more benign tax regime, or from the business sector which benefited from his mainly hands-off approach.

For Sir Hamish knows how to play his luck, not fritter it away. The cool Scot, who some would call austere if they did not know he possessed an impish sense of humour, is obviously a believer in the invisible hand of the father of economics, Adam Smith, or the 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it,' school of fiscal management.

Ian Christie, director of the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce, which has the role of pointing out to the Government any shortcomings, can find few with Sir Hamish.

'During his tenure he has added no additional burdens to business, but he has been extremely successful, the keynote has been proficiency rather than creativity,' Mr Christie said.

'Of all the last three financial secretaries, from Sir Piers Jacobs and Sir John Bremridge, Sir Hamish has been the lucky guy in that he has had a booming economy in terms of the Hang Seng Index, and property prices, so he has had no worries about revenue.

'Sir Piers was properly known as Sir Plus, so Sir Hamish could be known as Super Sir Plus,' Mr Christie suggested.

There have been moments when the Chamber was not so kind. Mr Christie described Sir Hamish as 'mean and tight' when he staggered the territory in 1992 by raising corporate tax from 16.5 per cent to 17.5 per cent.

To this day, Marshall Byres, tax expert with accountants Ernst & Young cannot understand why Sir Hamish made the move. 'That's definitely one for his memoirs. I thought then, 'Hello, what is he anticipating? Why he felt the need to increase was very puzzling, very irrational, almost as if he had a rush of blood to his head, for the first time in his life.

'He must have seen shortfall coming which never did materialise'.' THE dismay didn't last long. The following year Sir Hamish was the businessman's friend once more when he returned the tax to its previous level.

If Sir Hamish is going to be criticised for what he did not do, rather than for what he did, it will be his failure to widen the tax base.

For the thousands of people that Sir Hamish took out of the tax net by raising allowances, this is no problem. For the business community who pay the taxes, and worry that they might see them raised again some time in the future, it is a niggling worry.

Around 65 per cent of the tax man's revenues come from profits and salaries tax. Stamp duty on share and property deals bring in 18 per cent, with the remaining 16 or so per cent coming from duties, not least of which is betting levies.

While markets boom, and property soars, the revenues flow in. When the bulls lose out to the bear, they fall. If the fall leaves the Government under-financed, the money must be found from somewhere.

That must come from existing taxpayers, and with half the salaries tax paid by just 125,000 people, the liability under the present system would be concentrated on a few wallets, which would inevitably be in the pockets of the business community.

To spread the load, the experts in town would have liked Sir Hamish to have pushed through the often-proposed, but never implemented, sales tax. Retailers will be glad he didn't, and now it is reckoned to be politically late for such a radical change to Hong Kong's tax system.

EVEN the property developers, who have recently seen the value of their investments fall - at least in the short term - can't blame Sir Hamish. It wasn't his idea to intervene last year. The move came from a Legco-prodded governor, and the Financial Secretary's department had to go with the flow.

If any pins are to be stuck into Sir Hamish's effigy, it will be those who think that even Hong Kong's rock bottom tax rates are too high, and who have suffered from his determination to block the loopholes, such as service companies and offshore royalties schemes, which were robbing the revenue of funds through methods unavailable to the ordinary tax payer.

For the rest of Hong Kong Limited, Sir Hamish has done what was always expected of financial secretaries: as little as possible, as efficiently as possible. Within his means he has avoided raising the costs of business being done here, and kept the system simple.

But those golden years could start to look tarnished as the 1994 slow down in the property and stock markets works through. The next budget calculations may not enjoy the comfortable margins that Sir Hamish has enjoyed.

One shift that the businessman might regret was Sir Hamish's adjustment to taxes on wine and cigars last year, which made the luxury end of the market much more expensive.

Even that move had a clever twist, for the new method also brought down the cost of the cheaper wines, and as good Scot who likes his wine, Sir Hamish will appreciate more than most being able to find the bargains.