Lai See
PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 1:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 1:01am

Infrastructure spending is declining, says Starry Lee

BIO

Howard Winn has been with the South China Morning Post for two and half years after previous stints as business editor and deputy editor of The Standard, and business editor of Asia Times. His writing has also been published in the Far Eastern Economic Review, the Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. He writes the Lai See column which focuses on the lighter side of business.
 

This one is for Starry Lee Wai-king, who while talking on RTHK's Backchat yesterday about the budget, said that the government's spending on infrastructure was declining. Starry, it will be recalled is a member of the Executive Council, the Legislative Council and the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB). Why, she was asked, was the government so keen to spend on infrastructure. She waffled about the need for Hong Kong to stay competitive, and to provide more facilities for visitors and so on.

But we all know why the government spends the money. The money goes into the capital works reserve fund from the premium from land sales. It's spent because it's there. It is an aspect of the absurd organisation of government finances. Obviously hospitals and schools are necessary, but it also serves to fund a raft of projects for political reasons that certainly cannot be justified on economic grounds. The Hong Kong-Macau-Zuhai bridge and the express rail link are two such projects. Capital works expenditure forecasts in the 2006/07 budget until 2010/11 range from HK$29 billion - HK$39 billion. In the latest budget it goes from the current year's HK$88 billion, to HK$77 billion next year, and then HK$98 billion for the three subsequent years. Not even the government can make that look like a decline in expenditure.

 

Asianomics expands

We see that the world of independent research houses is alive and well. Jim Walker, founder of Asianomics and the firm's chief economist, says that he is expanding and has announced the appointment of Peter Rawle and Tathagata Guha Roy as directors and co-heads of its Forensic Asianomics research product.

The raison d'être of independent research houses, of which there are now a number, is that their research is not conditioned by the need to generate commission income, which introduces a conflict of interest. We last caught up with Walker in late 2010 when his former colleague at CLSA, Gillem Tulloch, joined him as managing director of Forensic Asia. The operation has evidently expanded since then. "The addition of TG and Peter to the Asianomics team marks the next step in our firm's development," said Walker. This next step will take place without Tulloch who at the end of last year, amicably, we are told, left to once more go off and do his own thing.

 

Mind the wheelie bags

So the transport bureau thinks the crush on the MTR is due to more people reading newspapers and using mobile devices. One wonders if the authors of this report travel on the MTR in rush hour. It is almost impossible to read a newspaper during rush hour. Mobile devices are less of a problem. The overcrowding occurs because more people are using the trains. A lot of them wear backpacks and don't take them off when they go on the train. Then again our officials don't seem to have noticed, whether out of political correctness or some other aberration, the huge increase in wheelie bags which are used by our compatriots from mainland China and have significantly added to the congestion.

 

Water under the bridge

Recently, a roving inspection group of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, China's graft watchdog, took to task China Three Gorges Corp for wasteful and expensive spending on overly big and luxurious offices and cars. The state-owned enterprise that manages the Three Gorges Dam, the biggest dam in China and the world, humbly took the lesson to heart.

China Three Gorges said its top management has vacated its grand offices in its Beijing headquarters to temporary humbler offices, while the original offices are being renovated to align them more closely to the Chinese government's more austere requirements.

The company also said the 2.8 litre Audi car that was previously used by its top management is now used to receive guests, while its large fleet of 2.4 litre Audi limousines has been reduced to two, and are only to be used by the two most senior executives. The corporation said expenditure on air travel, food, entertainment and cars had been reduced by 52.5 million yuan in 2013 from 2012, and is set to fall another 10 per cent this year.

 

Have you got any stories that Lai See should know about? E-mail them to howard.winn@scmp.com

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