Two ways to look at the SAR's economy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 December, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 December, 1998, 12:00am

One city, two economies: that is how things seem to be moving as the Christmas decorations go up and the unemployment queues lengthen. Company after company reports falling profits, but the Hang Seng Index bobs defiantly around the 10,000 mark. On Monday, the index was up 424 points: two days later the Government announced CSSA benefit cuts.

Analysts point to government intervention and reduced liquidity in the market as a reason for the upward trend of recent months; senior officials herald the situation as a sign that we have reached the bottom and can only go upwards, slowly but surely, in 1999.

Small speculators kick themselves if they did buy during the summer, and weigh up each interest-rate cut for signs of the start of a property boom. And all the while Hong Kong moves through recession.

For a newspaper, it is hard to balance the two stories. In the months after the economic crisis broke, we became blase about violent market movements which, in other times, would have made the front page. Equally, a big profits drop from a famous firm is another recessionary marker these days, rather than big news.

The administration, meanwhile, desperately wants to see light at the end of the tunnel, but it has learned the danger of crowing imminent victory prematurely. Above all, despite Hong Kong's fundamental strengths, it knows the impact which events beyond its control could have.

If China falls badly below its growth targets, if the United States' bubble bursts, if the Euro goes wrong, if Japan continues to fall short - any number of ifs could further postpone recovery.

Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa last week reflected how the administration was pulled both ways when he said that, yes the worst was behind us - but a full recovery was some time away.

For those who do not claim to read the future from a mass of backward looking economic statistics, one great difficulty of the present situation lies in reconciling the evidence which greets us every day. Things are bad, nobody can doubt, but you still meet people who are buying. Fortunes have been lost, but some who have lost them say with relief that 1999 simply cannot be as bad as 1998.

There is no objective reason why they should be right and some of those ifs mentioned above may be lying in wait round the corner. But, whatever cavils one may have about the principle of intervention, the Government's action in August does appear to have played a very important psychological role, and not just for the companies whose shares it bought.

When the index stays around 10,000, it becomes progressively easier to forget about how much of that is due to official action, about the overhang, and about the great disposal question. The everyday news may be of lay-offs, cancelled bonuses and pay freezes in the real economy. But this becomes that much less awful if there is a brighter light burning from the less real sectors of the economy.

Until, that is, the disparity becomes too great, and the political pressures mount from the grassroots while the better-off circle their wagons defensively. Last week we had a whiff of such grapeshot in the uncompromising positions taken, on one side, by James Tien Pei-chun and Ronnie Chan Chi-chung telling us of perils of democracy and, on the other, by Lau Chin-shek as he advocated greater popular pressure in his campaign for the vice-chairmanship of the Democratic Party.

If the gap between the economies continues to grow, such polarisation may turn out to be a lasting legacy of the economic crisis which has supplanted politics in the public mind for most of the past 18 months.



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