As bad ideas go, this one from finance-friendly functional constituency lawmakers takes the cake. Small stockbrokers who are their main constituents have been complaining about cutthroat competition leading to ever-plummeting commission rates, which have dropped to as low as 0.03 per cent per trade.
Such low rates are, understandably, loss-making and counterproductive. Many long-suffering stockbrokers say they cannot possibly survive for long under such competitive conditions. They have called for help from their friendly representatives in the Legislative Council.
And so, the lawmakers now demand the government set up a statutory stockbrokers' association to fix commission rates, liberalised since 2004, and end the fierce competition. Among those in favour are financial services functional constituency lawmaker Christopher Cheung Wah-fung and a few legislators associated with the Business and Professionals Alliance for Hong Kong.
But what they are proposing is a significant step backwards. The smaller brokers are right; they can't survive like this. But we have to ask: do we need 400-plus small brokers in this town? Their real problem is not loss of commission earnings. That's inevitable when people can trade online. More and more customers are switching to the big banks and finance companies, which offer better and more reliable services. The big funds also increasingly trade in their own dark pools, so front-running opportunities for small-time brokers have disappeared. Setting up a statutory body just to fix rates is the kind of cartel-making activity we can do without as a modern finance hub. It won't even save the brokers who can't compete now. It is their business model that is breaking down. Unless they can find new business, it is not the government's job to save them from the inevitable.
Market forces are doing exactly they are supposed to do, eliminating the losers and consolidating the rest.