INVESTHK CHIEF Mike Rowse may not want to say anything about Harbour Fest (I would try to dodge that one, too, if I were in his shoes) but he does have a good deal to say about foreign firms setting up in Hong Kong. The trouble is that what he did not say about a survey showing an increase in their number tells you more about this survey than what he did say. Briefly stated, the survey found that 966 foreign firms had regional headquarters in Hong Kong in June, up 1.9 per cent from 948 a year earlier, while 2,241 had regional offices here, up 3.2 per cent from 2,171, and 2,207 operated local offices here, up 26.3 per cent from 1,748. Thus, as you can plainly see, foreigners are streaming in to take advantage of the business opportunities we offer them. We are forging ahead - trumpets please. And now the kicker, which came at the bottom of a long press release: 'Owing to the lack of a complete survey frame, ... changes between years in the number of regional headquarter/regional offices/local offices, which would be affected by continuous improvement in survey frame and response rate, should be interpreted with care.' Much of this uncertainly apparently stems from the 26.3 per cent growth rate for the third category, local offices. To quote the press release again: 'Unlike regional headquarters and regional offices which are more likely to be prominent undertakings in Hong Kong with higher profile, local offices are usually less prominent undertakings with lower profile. Moreover, since local offices have only been covered as from the 2001 survey, the frame in respect of local offices is still undergoing continuous enhancement to a larger extent.' In other words, these offices are so difficult to find that we are not sure we can count them properly, we only began trying to do it two years ago and we may not even have been doing it the right way but, what the heck, here is a wild one for you. Take note also that the growth rates of 1.9 and 3.2 per cent for the first two and more important categories are not particularly high. You would ordinarily expect foreign participation in our economy to be roughly correlated to the growth of the economy and, were it not for the Sars epidemic, that economic growth rate would have been higher than either of these two. It was so in the first quarter at 4.5 per cent and, remember, that the decision to locate offices here would have been made before Sars intruded. But, if you want foreign company statistics that do not have to be 'interpreted with care', nothing suits the purpose better than the number of companies registered here by overseas interests. They have to file that paperwork if they want to operate here. There is no getting around it and these statistics do not represent a partial survey. You get the Full Monty, all of it declared. The chart shows you a 10-year record of the year-on-year growth rate of overseas companies registered in Hong Kong. The up and down swings are roughly in line with the fortunes of our economy and, while the general trend has been down, these overseas registrations have still grown faster than the overall economy. So let us ditch this survey that Mr Rowse touts. It is unreliable, incomplete, and we have better figures. What we need from him right now is a forthright account of how Harbour Fest became such a shambles. I cannot be alone in wondering whether the hoopla about the survey is a diversionary tactic. I am not content to leave it at that, however. I have a bigger question for anyone in Hong Kong who sets great store by a local count of overseas companies. Why should foreign investment matter so much to us? What is it with this inferiority complex that says Hong Kong people cannot do the job just as well themselves? Why do we so consistently ignore the fact that we have made foreigners rely on us rather than the other way round? The net external claims of our financial system are now greater than our annual gross domestic product and our net international investment position is more than twice as great. Just who relies on whom here? On a per capita basis Hong Kong is perhaps the world's biggest net provider of foreign investment. The real problem with InvestHK is not flaws in its survey methods but the big flaw of a false underlying concept. In the begging trade we hold the coins, not the bowl.