IN years gone by Hong Kong was not exactly what those in polite society might have called 'the right sort of market'. Fun to flirt with, but not the type one would entertain for a weekend in the country. Today, of course, things are very different. After all those self-improvement classes courtesy of the Securities and Futures Commission accents have been spruced up, backs straightened and we are now running with a very different crowd. In fact, last year we became one of the darlings of the world's financial establishments. We were feted and wooed, and our best chaps offered almost unlimited access to the in-crowd on the jet-set circuit through all those convertible bond road-shows. It seemed a happy tale of a market pulled up by its boot-straps, so when we spotted a certain Dennis Levine (yes, the one at the centre of the Ivan Boesky insider-trading ring) knocking around Hong Kong's financial district last week our eyebrows were raised. Mr Levine suffered a US$11.6 million (HK$89.5 million) fine and three years in prison back in 1987 for establishing the insider trading ring described by the sentencing judge as 'an entire nest of vipers on Wall Street'. But, like Hong Kong herself, it seems Mr Levine is well on the way to rehabilitation. We hear that the purpose of his visit was to solicit backing from certain Hong Kong investors for a new venture.FEBRUARY 4 may well be remembered as the most significant day of this year's financial calendar: it was the day the US Federal Reserve confirmed market expectations and nudged the Fed funds rate up 25 basis points. Leverage, that cruelly abused word, took care of the rest and debt values around the world shook like lemon trees. None more so than derivative products which corporations and banks had been lapping up for their ability to deliver fast-buck profits. For government policy makers looking to defend the public weal, derivatives are now right up there with class-A drugs and 'snuff' movies. In Asia, the pushers were largely the US investment banks and reports of heavily burned clients have been circulating for months. One of the most persistent rumours surrounds CITIC Beijing and its dealer Credit Suisse First Boston which had pushed large amounts of tailor-made instruments its way. When the crash came we hear that CITIC could have lost up to US$50 million. The mainland salesman who sold the fix is said not to have returned to China since then for health reasons.WE HAVE always thought that a local version of The Player, a Hollywood tale of evil triumphing over good, would not be hard to find. The taxation department of Standard Chartered Bank had not been high on the list, but it seems that the slide-rule carriers down there have been playing out their very own version of the plot. Our hero (or is it villain?) is the department's former tax controller Chris Spooner who has just crossed the banking world's equivalent of the 38th parallel by joining Hongkong Bank. Mr Spooner, it seems, had not been running a happy ship. According to former colleagues his management regime had a quite distinct style which involved stamping all over any incipient signs of leadership among subordinates. Said one grumpy tax man of his bank: 'What do you expect of Standard Shattered?' Hardly a great alliteration; but then it looks like it was the player who made all the right moves.BARING'S research department has been a warm and cuddly place this week having waltzed off with top spot in the Asia Money magazine poll of worthy research. Its flag-ship product is strategist Alan Butler Henderson's monthly Tiger Talk briefing. So pleased is Baring with its jungle franchise that thhis year's Christmas party at the New York office is going to be themed 'tiger'. Guests can look forward to bimbos in stripped Lycra, re-mixed versions of the Lion Sleeps Tonight and the Baring cub-lets (as they are known in the firm) at play and in appropriate costumes.