PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 June, 2013, 6:30am

Stanley Ho's Jetstar move highlights folly of express rail link to Shenzhen

History shows Stanley Ho is a much better judge of what's a good investment than our government, and his Jetstar bet will do it again


As the writer of the South China Morning Post’s Monitor column, Tom Holland attempts each day to make sense of the latest developments in business, finance and economic affairs in Hong Kong and mainland China.

Who has the greater business acumen, Macau gambling mogul Stanley Ho and his minions, or the Hong Kong government?

Ho's track record speaks for itself. Despite losing its monopoly 10 years ago, his casino company, SJM Holdings, has gone from strength to strength, generating three-figure earnings growth year after year.

The performance of his other main business, transport and property conglomerate Shun Tak, hasn't been quite as spectacular, but it's still turned in impressive earnings growth.

Shareholders have benefited accordingly. Over the last 12 months SJM stocks have yielded a total return of 54 per cent, while Shun Tak has returned 42 per cent.

The Hong Kong government's business ventures have been rather less successful. After years of losses, Hong Kong Disneyland, in which the government owns a majority stake, finally turned a modest profit last year.

The stock of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, in which the government is the largest shareholder, is down almost 20 per cent from the price at which the government acquired its stake in 2007.

Thanks to its privileged position as a property developer, the MTR Corp, which is 76 per cent government-owned, has done better. Last year its shares provided a total return of 26 per cent.

That's not bad, but it's less than half the return generated by shares in Stanley Ho's SJM.

In short, in looks as if Stanley and his crew have a better nose than the Hong Kong government for a promising business opportunity.

So it's interesting to note that while the government is busy spending HK$67 billion of public money on the express rail link to Shenzhen, to connect Hong Kong to the mainland's high-speed rail network, Stanley Ho is investing in budget airlines.

Last week Shun Tak group bought a 33 per cent stake in start-up discount carrier Jetstar Hong Kong from joint venture partners Qantas and China Eastern Airlines.

Provided it can secure an operating licence, Jetstar plans to start offering cheap flights between Hong Kong and a selection of second-tier mainland cities.

It's a plan that makes a complete nonsense of the Hong Kong government's investment in high-speed rail.

To see why, simply compare ticket prices and journey times. The cheapest ticket on the mainland's new high-speed line between Beijing and Shanghai will cost you 555 yuan, or just over HK$700. A brand new bullet train will then whisk you the 1,320 kilometres between the two cities in 5-1/2 hours.

That's 100km less than the straight-line distance between Singapore and Bangkok. Today, Jetstar Asia, which operates out of Singapore, will fly you from the city state to Bangkok for just HK$518.

Admittedly, your seat might not be as comfortable and as roomy as it would be on a train. But the flight lasts just 2-1/2 hours.

Granted, fares and journey times for trips from Hong Kong wouldn't be exactly the same. But the general principle will still hold: even factoring in an hour to get through the airport at either end, for journeys of 1,000km or more, a budget airline will get you there far faster than a high-speed train, and at a fraction of the cost.

As a result, the advent of discount air services like Jetstar and possibly others threatens to completely undermine the Hong Kong government's business case for building its eye-wateringly expensive express rail link, as passengers will overwhelming choose the cheaper, faster and more flexible travel alternative offered by budget airlines.

So, once again, it looks as if Stanley Ho's companies are making the right call buying into budget air travel, while the Hong Kong government is pouring public money into a giant hole in the ground.


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