The View

What does 2018 have in store for bitcoin, Chinese growth and Hong Kong property prices?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 December, 2017, 12:14pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 December, 2017, 10:34pm

Thank goodness – the season of goodwill has faded and we can get back to normal, which means being cynical, or maybe just realistic. In this vein, I’d like to offer some reflections on the year that’s about to expire and some thoughts on what’s to come.

There’s nothing new under the sun – that famous Old Testament phrase is a reliable guide to the wonderful world of investment, where fads and crazes rise and fall with staggering similarity. This year’s biggest investment craze has definitely been bitcoin, and although absolute predictions in the world of investment are generally unwise, it requires only the smallest of crystal balls to predict that the bitcoin boom will be followed by a bitcoin bust.

The political environment has been oversold – while it is perfectly true to say that changes at a political level always have some impact on the markets, the past year has shown that investors have become far less exercised by what politicians do and say and far more interested in what happens in the underlying economy. Thus the madness in the White House has failed to deter US stock investors, who saw an oversold market with strong growth potential. With characteristic bombast, President Trump has claimed credit for share-price rises. Let’s see if he will claim equal responsibility when the markets fall. Meanwhile in Europe the political turbulence in Britain, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany, not forgetting the upheavals in many Eastern European states, have largely been shrugged off by investors who take the view that political manoeuvres can safely be ignored, except in the case of Britain where a campaign of national suicide seems to be underway.

Gravity can be defied, but not indefinitely – this basic law of more or less everything has been proven time and again, yet China’s four decades of economic growth have indeed been gravity-defying. The economy is still in growth mode, albeit at a lower rate. Those predicting a setback for the Chinese economy have not looked so good. Yet the clouds are gathering and, precisely because the bulls are so confident about prospects for the coming year, it’s a fair bet that bears will be looking rather better in the near future.

A Hong Kong prediction that’s a no-brainer – in a place where property prices are nothing short of a popular obsession and where, at regular intervals, the government claims to be doing something to make home ownership more affordable, the singular lack of success in the past clearly points to a similar lack of success in the future as new schemes are hatched. At core the local administration is terrified of alienating the property tycoons, yet realises that their rapacious behaviour is deeply unpopular. This leads to a vicious cycle that cannot be broken except by external pressures.

Spending other folks’ money will continue to be fun – well, not fun for everyone as most of us are the other folks in question and there is little we can do as the bureaucrats open up the public purse to yet more lavish and costly schemes. As matters stand, not a single one of these schemes has come in within budget. Some, like the now notorious Hong Kong, Zuhai, Macau bridge, are so hopelessly over budget as to have led the government to cover up the real cost and shamelessly issue misleading figures. What can be confidently predicted is that nothing will be learned from these fiascos and that any project capable of being labelled ‘Greater Bay’ or ‘Belt and Road’ will secure more or less whatever funding is demanded, and then some more, as the original estimates prove to be too modest by half.

Hype never goes out of date – it was not so long ago that we were told that the paperless office was just around the corner, earlier we were reliably informed that robots would be taking over all sorts of jobs currently carried out by hapless humans, and now we are flooded with all manner of predictions about driverless cars and more or less everything else in the arena of artificial intelligence. The reality is that of course there is perpetual technological progress but it is never as fast or as all-embracing as it is claimed to be. But that most certainly won’t stop the hype-mongers from doing their worst.

No one likes to be labelled as dull, but the inescapable fact of the matter is that for most people the coming year will be much like the last. However, for those in the more elevated realms of the prediction business my tip is to use history as a guide to the future. Naturally things change, but it is quite remarkable how much remains the same and will continue to do so.