Lai See

PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 31 December, 2007, 12:00am

Highs, lows and market throes make for a roller-coaster ride

The Hang Seng Index casually gained or fell 1,000 points in a day.

The world's best-managed bank lost money in mortgage financing.

The country's richest person is a 25-year-old woman, who inherited a fortune from her father's Hong Kong-listed property company and protects her privacy fiercely (No news organisation has yet got a photo of her.)

On this New Year's Eve, we recapture for you some of our most interesting news this year.

January 26: Rogers on the go

Influential American 'investment biker' Jim Rogers is riding through China.

These days the fund manager and media pundit doesn't need to be on a Harley-Davidson to attract attention. A gaggle of reporters was waiting for him at the airport on his latest research trip to Beijing.

'What's Air China trading at?' he shouted as soon as he saw the throng.

His first company visit was to Air China, where he got the red carpet treatment from none other than the chairman, Li Jiaxiang (left). Mr Rogers was keen to know from Mr Li if the airliner was hedging the price of jet fuel.

Here's how a CCTV website reported their conversation:

Mr Li: We are the only mainland airline that hedges fuel prices.

Mr Rogers: But the oil price has dropped. If you hedge, you're not making anything on the decline in oil prices.

Mr Li: Our prevailing hedge price may perhaps be lower than the current market price. I want to ask you, how many Air China shares do you have?

Mr Rogers: I have Air China shares. I'm very happy because I bought them six months or a year ago, or even longer.

Mr Li: You don't want me to know how much money you're making, right?

February 7: Golden goddess

'All that glisters is not gold,' William Shakespeare once wrote. For Hang Fung Gold Holdings 'all that glisters can be sold' might well be true - with one exception.

The jeweller may have taken advantage of high gold prices to sell two solid-gold statues recently but chairman Lam Sai-wing says there is one item in its collection that is not for sale.

No, it's not the kitschy golden toilet at the firm's Hung Hom headquarters. Rather it's the image of Guanyin, the Chinese goddess of compassion, a favourite of Hang Fung employees, who for six years now, have been stopping to pray in front of her on their way to work.

The statue weighs 168kg and these days would be worth HK$281 million based on its gold content alone, artistic merit aside. Mr Lam said not even HK$7 billion would be enough to make him part with it.

The golden toilet, however, doesn't inspire quite the same reverence. Mr Lam said he recently had an offer of HK$300 million for the 389kg privy, which cost him a mere HK$38 million, but he thinks it's worth more.

March 6: Critical questions

In their heyday at HSBC, neither the previous chairman John Bond nor his predecessor William Purves ever had to face as much criticism as current chairman Stephen Green (left) did when unveiling a 4.7 per cent increase in last year's net profit.

It was the first time in a long while that neither the bank's chairman nor its chief executive was in Hong Kong for the results announcement.

The soothing light jazz playing in the background when they showed up for a live video conference with the London-based top management didn't make the hacks any less determined to bring them to book.

Mr Green was asked whether he thought HSBC would have avoided the US subprime mortgage market difficulties if it had had an independent chairman. The unfailingly courteous chairman thanked the questioner but insisted that the bank had excellent corporate governance practices in place while reminding him that HSBC had increased its dividend payout for 15 consecutive years.

Inevitably Mr Green was asked how he could justify wages of #2.93 million (HK$43.99 million) - a rise of 15.8 per cent - for himself and #2.86 million (up 427 per cent) for chief executive Michael Geoghegan after such a disappointing year.

'There was an increase when I took over as chairman and it was the same for Mike [Geoghegan],' he said. 'Apart from that, our salaries haven't changed; they are flat. Our bonuses were flat, which I think was about right, considering the performance of the overall group.'

Until the bank gets back on a fast earnings growth track, the executive torment is unlikely to end.

April 4: A father's trust

The mainland has a new richest female tycoon. She hails from Shunde, Guangdong, and she effectively owns Country Garden Holdings, a property developer that is taking its shares public in the largest and probably hottest listing this year to date. According to the company's prospectus, chairman Yeung Kwok-keung transferred his entire holding of 9.52 billion shares in Country Garden to his 25-year-old second daughter Yang Huiyan. At the maximum offer price of HK$5.38 per share, the stake would be worth HK$51.2 billion.

Ms Yang, a graduate of Ohio State University who joined Country Garden in 2005, would be worth more than the mainland's richest man, Wong Kwong-yu, and its richest woman, Cheung Yan, combined. Last year, Ms Cheung was worth an estimated US$3.4 billion, the Hurun Report said. Mr Wong topped the male list with US$2.3 billion, according to Forbes magazine.

Mr Yeung, 52, said the giveaway did not mean he would retire. The stake was given to Ms Yang to represent the family interests. He told reporters: 'Even if I knew I would live to 100, I would give the stake to her anyway. She is family, and I trust her.'

July 12: Island retreat

Hong Kong has some of the most expensive land prices in the world. So where can one find a cheap piece of land?

Try Po Tai Island. A large parcel of land on the southern edge of Hong Kong is for sale. The 198,000 square foot lot with 16 different numbers is expected to fetch more than HK$10 million. That's right. It translates into about HK$50 per square foot, back to price levels of 50 years ago.

There are, of course, reasons. Top of the list is inconvenience. You would have to take a 45-minute ferry ride from Aberdeen or Stanley to get there. Also, electricity could be an issue as the site does not have any power supply.

The land is to be sold on an 'as is' basis, and the new owner will need to negotiate with the Land Department over land use.

October 24: Open Sesame

In the fable Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, the eponymous character found a treasure by saying 'Open Sesame'. In the local version, Alibaba founder Jack Ma Yun and his 12 directors found their treasure with the term 'initial public offering' and became millionaires. According to the prospectus, Mr Ma will own about 7 per cent of the HK$60 billion company after it is listed, while chief executive David Wei Zhe will hold about 1 per cent. In total, eight managers will own a stake worth more than HK$5 billion - not bad for a nine-year-old company specialising in online services for small to medium-sized companies on the mainland. Like other dotcom companies, Alibaba compensated its management team with generous stock options. At a price-earnings ratio of 100 times, Alibaba is still a hot deal. 'If you missed Google, you may not want to miss Alibaba,' Mr Ma told reporters.

November 8: Pay per view

The Financial Times is moving out, over and up. Next month, the FT will say goodbye to its splendid harbour view from the 29th floor of Two International Finance Centre as the pink paper's Asia headquarters relocates two blocks west and 30 stories up - to the 59th floor of the Center.

The venerable British daily's cushy waterfront digs were always borrowed space on borrowed time. When the paper expanded to launch its Asia edition during a Sars-plagued 2003, it managed to bargain down rent at the newly opened IFC II to as low as HK$30 per sq ft. But over the past four years, rents at the tower have skyrocketed to top HK$160 per sq ft.

Moving two streets away is one small step for the newspaper and one giant leap for its bean counters. Property agents reckon gross rents at Cheung Kong's Center are about HK$40 per square foot. With rents in the core financial district continuing to climb, it appears only the richest of media companies will be able to hang on. Perhaps it is only a coincidence but Li Ka-shing appears to be the only developer offering news organisations shelter from certain banishment to Island East (home to this newspaper, Reuters, Ming Pao, the Hong Kong Economic Times and the Hong Kong Economic Journal) or Kowloon. Unless you work at Bloomberg, which remains ensconced in the swanky setting of Mr Li's Cheung Kong Center, the slog to the FCC after work just keeps getting longer.

December 6: Truffle trifles

Guess who's not coming to what would have been a perfect dinner in an elegant dining room of the Grand Lisboa, to feast on a 1.487kg white truffle from Tuscany prepared by two Michelin-star chefs? Host Stanley Ho Hung-sun (left) was conspicuously absent. Unfortunately, Mr Ho, who paid a record US$330,000 for the prize fungus at a charity auction, was indisposed. His fourth wife Angela played host instead.

Dinner started with amuses-bouche, followed by potato and red prawn truffle soup, scampi and saffron risotto, beef tenderloin with goose liver sauce and white truffle as the main course, rounding off with pear tart in wine sauce and white truffle.


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