Hang Seng Index

Euro woes too dire even for HK's Overkiller Man

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 31 January, 2012, 12:00am

'You need decisive action. You need overkill. You need to inspire confidence.'

Donald's advice to Europe
SCMP, Jan 29

Yassuh, they calls him Donald the Overkiller Man. Proved it, too, back in '98 when he whupped dem speculator folk right outta town. Saw the backs of their hides, he did, in the shootout at the HKEx Corral.

But Brussels is not quite Dodge City (East). There is a good reason why Donald's style of decisive action to restore confidence in the Hong Kong dollar during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997/98 will not inspire the same sort of recovery in Europe. Simply put, the HK dollar at the time was basically sound. The euro at the moment is not.

A little history here. During the 1990s, several Asian governments blatantly rigged their currencies on foreign exchange markets, tempting speculators to attack as the inevitable monetary damage mounted. They did so in July 1997, savaging the most profligate offenders and setting off a financial panic.

Hong Kong also had a managed currency regime but, unlike every other in Asia, it was a formal currency board system. This is a perfectly viable structure by monetary principles so long as you are willing to bear the pain of occasional bouts of volatile interest rates. Donald proved willing.

But few speculators made this distinction and the HK dollar also came under attack from mid-1997 until late 1998. The chart shows you the consequent variation of HK interest rates from the underlying US rates.

Most galling of all in this sensitive time, however, was that some traders had discovered a lucrative anomaly in the market. Heavy-handed selling of just a few index-sensitive stocks could force the Hang Seng Index (HSI) way down. What they did was short the index futures, sell the stock and then close out their shorts, ringing up handsome profits.

One of them coined the practice his 'personal ATM'. This boast eventually reached Donald's ear, infuriating him. In August 1998 he resolved to teach them a lesson. He would push up the market with buy orders just when they were pushing it down for their ATM game, thus handing them big losses.

It is my belief that Donald thought he would need to buy only about HK$10 billion of stock. I asked him about it once and he replied that he always knew he would need the HK$120 billion he actually spent. My doubts remain firm.

I think the massive selling he encountered was a shock to him. Big financial institutions around the world took government intervention as evidence that our financial system was on the verge of collapse and filled him in with all they had.

But they were wrong. The episode marked the lowest point of confidence. Within two years the HSI more than doubled to top 18,000 and Donald doubled his money to turn a HK$120 billion profit, making him the most successful punter in the city's history.

He was roundly criticised for his intervention at first and then roundly praised for it as the market went back up. Nonetheless, it has always been my belief that the reason United States Federal Reserve Board chairman Alan Greenspan made a special stop in Hong Kong a little later was to give him a private ticking off.

Looking back at it now, a fit of rage was followed by a stroke of luck. I still give Donald credit for it, however, but not because he intervened. I do so because he stuck to the currency board rules of the peg throughout a difficult time. This is what brought the market back up in the end. He kept the HK dollar sound.

And it is what European governments have not done. They devised a common currency and then undermined it by breaking their own rules for it. Their last real guarantor, the German taxpayers, are now justifiably afraid of being made the sacrifice for their negligence.

Ask them and I think they would tell us to keep our overkiller at home.


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