The howlers and the hits: what we got wrong or right in 2011

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 23 December, 2011, 12:00am


When I was at school, the teachers would award a prize to the pupil who had committed the most egregious exam howler of the year.

You know the sort of thing I mean: 'Socrates killed himself with wedlock', 'The soldiers all cheered Queen Elizabeth when she exposed herself to them', and 'Captain Cook circumcised the world with a 100 foot cutter'.

My schoolmasters were a sadistic bunch, who clearly relished the opportunity to humiliate the authors of these and similar slips in front of their classmates.

The contestants' names and their gaffes were read out at school assembly, and the unfortunate winner was summoned to the stage amid gales of laughter to receive his prize, probably a dictionary.

This sort of public mockery is frowned upon in schools nowadays. It is thought to damage the pupils' precious self-esteem.

But newspaper columnists are a different matter. As a breed we are not known for the fragility of our egos, so a little ridicule dished out now and then in response to our howlers would probably be healthy. It might help to keep us humble.

But in the absence of a sarcastic Latin master to compile and grade the offending errors, I'll just have to do it myself. As this will be the last Monitor column of 2011, I'm taking the opportunity to look back over the year to see where I went horribly wrong, as well as - hopefully - what I got right.

I confess I was wrong about Hong Kong's budget, delivered back in February.

I initially described Financial Secretary John Tsang's announcement that he would inject HK$6,000 into everyone's Mandatory Provident Fund account as an artful way for the financial secretary to disburse a little of the government's massive surplus without fuelling the rising rate of inflation by doling out cash.

But I had badly underestimated two important factors: first, the degree to which Hong Kong's people would rather have cash in their hands than in their MPF accounts, where fund managers can collect handsome fees on it; and second, Tsang's remarkable ability to perform acrobatic back-flips at the first hint of criticism.

Just a week after the budget speech, Tsang caved in to pressure, and announced he would hand the money out as cash, a reversal a more artful columnist would surely have seen coming.

I was also wrong about Beijing's willingness to rein in inflation on the mainland, arguing in January that the authorities' reliance on quantitative credit controls rather than interest rate increases betrayed their lack of stomach for the fight.

My mistake was to think the rapid expansion of the 'shadow' finance market would undermine the government's efforts. But I had failed to appreciate that the official credit squeeze would send shadow market interest rates shooting up, with dramatic inflation-fighting results.

Helped by the slide in international commodity prices, China's consumer inflation rate peaked at 6.5 per cent in July, and now stands at 4.2 per cent, lower than in January.

It also looks as if I may have been wrong last month when I said that the initial public offering for Chow Tai Fook Jewellery would 'shine in the eyes of investors'.

Investors see things differently. Since their listing last week, shares in Chow Tai Fook have tumbled 7.7 per cent, under-performing even a lacklustre Hang Seng Index. Still, it's early days yet, and the jeweller could regain its sparkle in the new year.

I admit that as howlers go, none of these come close to Captain Cook and his clipper.

I'm quite pleased by that, of course, and even more happy that although over the last year I did commit a few howlers - inevitable when you stick your neck out and make predictions - I also scored a few hits.

In January, for example, Monitor argued that developed-country stock markets would outperform Asian equities in 2011.

Today, with just four trading days left until the end of the year Hong Kong's Hang Seng index is down 20 per cent. That's a worse performance than even the euro-zone's benchmark Euro Stoxx 50 index, which is only down 18.5 per cent. Meanwhile the US Dow Jones Industrial Average is up 4.6 per cent.

Monitor was also doubtful about the merits of investing in gold. In August, as the price hit an all-time high, the column warned the market was experiencing a classic investment bubble.

Over the next month, gold dropped 20 per cent. Today the price remains 14.5 per cent below the level at which Monitor issued its warning.

In April, I argued that while there was no immediate danger of a plunge in Hong Kong property prices, the market would come under pressure towards the end of the year. Prices peaked in June, and have since eased back 3.6 per cent.

Monitor also warned readers about the under-appreciated risks of investing in a clutch of Hong Kong initial public offerings, including those for the yuan-denominated Hui Xian real estate investment trust and commodity companies Glencore and Resourcehouse.

Since its offering Hui Xian has fallen 33 per cent, while Glencore is down 29 per cent. Resourcehouse scrapped its offering for a lack of demand.

So all in all, it's not such a bad record for 2011. But if it's howlers you want, don't despair. There will be plenty more opportunities to get things wrong in 2012.

Happy Christmas!