More agencies are simply not the answer, Mr Leung

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 January, 2012, 12:00am

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A government under Leung Chun-ying would consider setting up a council to promote the city's financial industries and other financial products overseas, the chief executive candidate said yesterday.

SCMP, January 13

When seeking top government office, the proper thing is first to take an early, active and wide interest in affairs and serve in junior public office. Having thus established yourself on the major issues, you set out your views in a political platform of carefully considered statements.

Mr Leung did indeed take an early and active interest but a private and narrow one. He is an estate agent. His record in public office is also narrow. He sits on Beijing's CPPPPCCCC and was for some time convenor of our Executive Council, a rubber stamp relic from colonial days. A convenor's job is to call meetings, keep attendance records and set out agendas, etcetera.

As to setting out carefully considered statements, well, the record of his experience is beginning to show. We have been given a trail of hasty pronouncements that have undergone little neural processing between a ready ear for complaint and a hasty reach for a microphone to propose instant remedy.

Let me sling mud two ways, to declare my impartiality in this chief executive election. I shudder at the alternative of a mommy's boy distinguished by little more than effete rich kid habits. Donald had the right idea for Henry when he made him our chopper in chief of decrepit trees.

But back to C.Y., superficially it does not seem a bad idea to have a government agency promote a financial sector that accounts for a rising share of gross domestic product. After all, we have a Trade Development Council (TDC) to promote goods exports and a tuberculosis (TB) to promote tourism. Oops, sorry, done it again. Yes, TB actually stands for Tourism Board.

It also does not trouble me that the former chief of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, Joseph Yam Chi-kwong, says the idea is unworkable. Joe was always a keen defender of the HKMA's patch in government and cannot give up the habit. This new agency may be an intruder. Get 'em! Shoot to kill!

Let us observe first, however, that the TDC has long passed its close-down date. Hong Kong's goods exports are now negligible. In its quest to justify continued existence, the TDC's latest idea is to do something with small and medium enterprises. Quite what this something is I haven't yet discovered.

The TB may be more useful but only marginally. Like the TDC it promotes nothing quite so much as its own continued existence. I doubt it has much impact abroad while at home it has done little more than try to stop local tour guides from milking mainland tourists. Why bring that herd here then? Thus these two agencies give us little reason to set up a similar one for the financial sector. If anything, they constitute a warning not to do so.

But there is another distinction to make here. The TDC and TB deal with our foreign customers in their respective fields. There are, however, no financial services that a government agency could really promote to foreign customers, at least not better than existing private practitioners already do so.

Is this agency, for instance, to tell Canadians that they should buy fire insurance in Hong Kong rather than Toronto? If it were easier and cheaper to do it in Hong Kong, would some insurance company not long ago have discovered this? Do we really expect Hong Kong bureaucrats to know more about the Canadian insurance market than Canadian insurers?

Likewise in banking. Do we send a busker to a street corner in New York with the message, 'Don't put your money here with Citibank/corp/group/insert latest name. Put it with them in Hong Kong.'

This might not be a bad idea for some people. If it is dirty money we can probably wash it whiter than New York can do. But I don't see our government selling our strengths this way. Nor, if it is a strength, would our government need to do so. Private bankers would have seen to it long ago.

The only thing such an agency could do is encourage foreign financiers to establish offices in Hong Kong and we already have an agency for this, InvestHK. But then, of course, the real purpose is merely to provide C.Y. Leung with a wobbly platform for a few months.