What's in an exceptional item? Hutchison Whampoa shareholders will have to decide what constitutes flogging the family silver after headline-grabbing 25 per cent net profit growth concealed declining operating income. Fans say the market is held hostage to accountants definitions of what constitutes underlying growth. The question is whether booking $4.1 billion from the initial public offering of British mobile phone company, Orange, is a cut-and-run sale or, actually, high quality recurrent earnings. Hutchison reported profit of $12.7 billion but sustained a dividend payment in line with earnings growth. By doing so, they gave shareholders a continued dividend stream at the expense of losing a large chunk of the Orange business. Its build and spin-off modus operandi is well established and it can be argued the Orange receipts are no different from property firms booking substantial asset disposals. An exceptional item is defined by a one-off sale that depletes a company's key resource. The clearest example is a property developer that books sale revenue as operating income, while failing to replenish its land bank. Hutchison maintained a dividend payout on par with its earnings growth measured per share. By contrast, Citic Pacific, reporting yesterday, showed a 66 per cent dividend increase despite EPS growth of 111 per cent. Should one firm's profits be considered higher quality than those of the other? Li Ka-shing's flagship Cheung Kong increasingly is dependent on contributed earnings from Hutchison rising 25 per cent to $5.4 billion. Interestingly, Cheung Kong again saw diminished treasury profits. It is unclear whether Mr Li has lost the punters touch or a conscious decision to back away from speculation is in evidence. Delve into the Cheung Kong numbers and the Li message of steady-as-she-goes looks reasonable enough with sales from the giant Hunghom development coming through. In short, the less-than-revealing numbers provide few surprises. What has been receiving attention is Hutchison's 1997 prospects. With port income steady, the telecom business seeing cost problems and major property projects two years from completion, the apparently super-positioned synergy-welded conglomerate will depend to a great extent on sales of car parks. Okay, so what does it matter if you sell car parking or apartments at South Horizons? Fund managers have a habit of focusing on, yes, earnings quality.