FOUR Hong Kong lenders have fired the opening salvoes of the festive season, unveiling tax loans laced with sweeteners for the salaried classes. American Express Bank, Chase Manhattan Bank, Hang Seng Bank and Standard Chartered Bank have launched their 1995-96 loans in a fight for what is one of the broadest and most dependable areas of retail banking - taxpayers paying their 1995-96 tax. Amex appears to have the edge in terms of the lowest interest rate for existing customers - 8.64 per cent - and the biggest loans - customers can borrow twice their tax loan or up to $750,000, whichever is lower. According to Chase Manhattan, the first to display its new loan package, this part of the market is sizeable. The bank estimates the market size in 1996 to be worth HK$13 billion, comprising between 400,000 and 450,000 people, most of whom must pay income tax when their discretionary spending is probably peaking for the year. Most of this demand is concentrated over the Christmas-Lunar New Year and tax payment season, when consumers need cash - about $10 billion of an estimated market for the year of $13 billion. Of this seasonal demand for $10 billion, about $4 billion was earmarked for personal loans, Chase Manhattan said, with tax requiring another $6 billion. Chase offers customers its traditional personal instalment loans (PILs), and its tax instalment loans (TILs) - but has come up with what it bills as 'hybrid' loans combining attributes of both. It said a customer earning $20,000 a month could apply for a hybrid loan, seeking, for example, $60,000 though the tax bill would be $4,000. Chase said its hybrid loans charged less. Someone borrowing from $10,000 to $14,999 pays 19.94 per cent a year, a $15,000 to $49,999 loan will cost 17.48 per cent and anything over $50,000 will cost 15.05 per cent. Chase loans have a ceiling of $200,000 or three times the monthly salary, whichever is lower. The rates on the regular Chase tax instalment loans are lower, ranging from 10.98 to 17.48 per cent. American Express is the most open-handed so far. Customers can borrow up to $750,000 or 200 per cent of their annual tax bill, leaving them free to spend the rest. Amex customers are guaranteed a rate of 8.64 per cent, and new customers, 10.28 per cent. The maximum loan amount is the lower of 200 per cent of the tax bill or $750,000. Chase offers instant approval by telephone - within three minutes, anyway - while Amex said customers could apply by telephone, mail or in person, and guarantees an answer within 24 hours. Hang Seng Bank's 'tax comforter' features 'an increased maximum loan amount of up to $250,000 or the equivalent of 150 per cent of the tax bill'. The bank said the extra 50 per cent, a personal loan, charged the lower tax loan rate. Rates range from 10.98 per cent a year for loans from $50,000 to $250,000, to 15.05 per cent for loans of $10,000 to $29,999. Standard Chartered Bank offers existing customers preferential interest rates of 9.1 per cent on loans of $150,001 to $200,000 to 12.65 per cent on $8,000 to $20,000 loans.