Strickland saved by economical release

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 May, 1998, 12:00am

Spare a thought for Hongkong Bank chairman John Strickland. He has been having a pretty tough time this week trying to work out the difference between US$1.8 billion and $2.5 billion.

Mr Strickland was not mincing his words on Wednesday, telling a press briefing that the HSBC Group has a $2.5 billion exposure to the troubled Indonesian market.

However, this figure had magically shrunk by $700 million in just one day.

A press release put out by HSBC yesterday stated that the group's exposure to Indonesia was, in fact, $1.8 billion, and not $2.5 billion.

The clarification did everything, however, to disguise the fact that the wrong figure had been announced by the Hongkong Bank boss.

Amazingly, Mr Strickland was not even mentioned in yesterday's release, despite his apparent $700 million over-estimate.

Instead, HSBC felt it was appropriate to refer only to media reports: 'There have been widespread reports in the media that the exposure of the HSBC Group to Indonesia totals $2.5 billion. The figure quoted is inaccurate.' Let's face facts: it was Mr Strickland who got his figures wrong, not the media.

The Government is holding an exhibition in Tsim Sha Tsui today to celebrate one of the great archaeological finds in China over the past year: the Tung Wan Tsai North site at Ma Wan.

An ancient burial ground was found at the site, with well preserved human skeletons and artefacts.

Very interesting, you might think - but why is the show not being held at the site itself? Simple: our ancient burial site has been transformed into a very modern construction area. Sun Hung Kai Properties is in the process of putting up a $12 billion development on the now former burial ground.

To be fair, Sun Hung Kai fully funded a 'rescue dig' by a team of local and mainland archaeologists.

Antiquities and Monuments Office archaeology curator Chau Hing-wah told us yesterday it was the 'first time' such a well preserved burial ground had been found in Hong Kong.

Just a pity it doesn't really exist anymore.

Perhaps Sun Hung Kai could make a token nod to it in the naming of its new development. Why not call it Cemetery Plaza? It's official: Australia is no longer part of Asia.

Yes, there was a time when any Australian politician worth his or her salt would be clamouring to cash in on the Asian miracle.

Alas, all that has changed now that the miracle has turned to mayhem.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard said as much yesterday. 'We have stand-alone, discrete, independent economic strengths and virtues that are separate from what is happening in our part of the region,' he told reporters.

Pauline Hanson would no doubt be overjoyed, given her anti-Asian sentiments which have humbled the nation in the eyes of its northern neighbours.

Maybe she will now lend her support to a policy of becoming part of Antarctica instead.

We imagine she'd appreciate one feature of the South Pole: it's uniformly white.

A colleague conducted an unusual interview with Regent Pacific's group corporate finance boss Ascanio Martinotti on his cellular phone last night.

Some would say Mr Martinotti was in an unfortunate situation.

He happened to be in Jakarta, not exactly the fun capital of the world right now - but he was happy just to take care of business.

'It is good fun here, there are riots, looting, fires and the collapse of the currency - but I'm here to complete all the deals. It's a very good time to buy here. The assets are cheap. Very, very cheap.' Yep, a nation may be on the brink of revolution, and its economy about to fall apart - but more importantly for our fund guru, the Sale of the Century is about to begin.

Still on Indonesia, we imagine one area of the economy that could thrive amid the rioting would be taxis.

After all, they represent the quickest way for people to get to the country's international airports to escape the chaos.

And the name of one Indonesian cab operator will stick in the minds of many Hong Kongers, particularly in the investment community: Steady Safe.

That's right, the same aptly named Indonesian taxi and bus company that was at the heart of the collapse of Peregrine Investments.

You may recall Steady Safe owed Peregrine about US$265 million at the time of the investment bank's collapse, although its president Jopie Widjaja said he wanted to pay back every penny.

Who knows? With all those airport cab fares likely to come up, the taxi company may be able to knock the odd thousand off its sizeable debt obligations.