John Tsang should make our money work harder - through impact investing

Ming Wong says Hong Kong should stop hoarding and put money to work

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 3:21am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 January, 2014, 3:21am

Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah has done Hong Kong a great disservice with his alarmist view that our fiscal reserves will be depleted in 20 years, following Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's announcement the government will spend up to HK$20 billion per year on measures to alleviate poverty.

Tsang also appears to be out of touch with the social challenges facing us now.

Hong Kong's reserves should never have been allowed to build up to the current outrageous level of HK$1.4 trillion. Tsang might believe that more is needed for his proverbial "rainy day", but the reality is that rain is already pouring down on Hong Kong when it comes to social and environmental issues.

Poverty and income inequality are not new issues. Neither is the lack of affordable housing or health care facilities for our rapidly ageing population. A good financial secretary works with the chief executive to execute plans for the growth and prosperity of our city. In Hong Kong's case, this obviously includes taking care of the most vulnerable members of our population.

Those who are too old, too weak or not otherwise able to work will require social welfare services. The rest need to find jobs - and that includes new immigrants, the young as well as healthy older people.

Handouts are only appropriate as emergency measures, such as when our city is in the middle of a regional financial crisis or recovering from a health epidemic. For all other times, poverty alleviation means job creation, and jobs have to come from boosting the economy, ideally across a diversified range of industries, and not just in property, finance and retailing.

The issue Leung has to address is not whether HK$10 billion (or HK$20 billion) is the right amount to spend on poverty alleviation initiatives. At issue is how the money should be spent. If Tsang wishes to be helpful to Hong Kong, he should ask his team of experts to explore how to double or treble the HK$10 billion, for instance by attracting corporate and family foundations to invest alongside this amount.

Impact investing focuses on generating financial returns while having a social and environmental impact.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has long been a supporter of impact investing and, this month, announced the launch of the Global Learning Exchange on Social Impact Investing, an initiative to share global best practices.

Instead of just leaving the social innovation work to colleagues in the chief secretary's office, who are spearheading the formation of Hong Kong's HK$500 million Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship Development Fund, Tsang should join them to speed up the fund's creation to boost social innovation.

Social innovation cannot happen within the narrow confines of any one government department. For example, tax policies should be studied to see how they can better support social entrepreneurs. After all, their work is just as important as that conducted by Hong Kong's non-governmental organisations, which enjoy tax-exempt status.

Financing and investing regulations also need to be aligned to allow social finance intermediaries to more easily provide advisory and capital-raising services to start-up companies with social missions, without being subject to all the rules and regulations intended to govern traditional banks and investment companies.

Impact investing is now squarely on the global agenda. With a co-ordinated policy approach, Hong Kong can show the world that we care just as much about social well-being and quality of life as we do about financial success.

Ming Wong is an advisory council member of the Impact Investing Policy Collaborative that is jointly leading the Global Learning Exchange with the World Economic Forum