Why are Hong Kong bureaucrats such misers when it comes to spending on needed services?

Hong Kong’s fiscal budget had been in surplus for 14 years, equivalent to more than 7.5 per cent of economic output at its peak. But city bureaucrats are absolute misers when it comes to spending money that they do have.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 12:24pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 February, 2018, 12:24pm

The massive projected [budget] surplus, at least seven times the original estimate of HK$16.3 billion for 2017/18, has reignited criticism of officials’ calculations ... - SCMP, February 12

They say history repeats itself, and I believe it. Here is what the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review had to say about the Hong Kong budget 50 years ago:

“For the first time in living memory, Hongkong’s Financial Secretary admitted that it would be safe to assume that the Colony’s economy might prosper for one more year at least, and Sir John Cowperthwaite astounded his audience by budgeting for a surplus.”

In fact, the phenomenon is notable right back to the post-war years of the late 1940s with huge surpluses and only the occasional slight deficit, following forecasts of consistent huge deficits.

The chart shows you the history of our fiscal balances so far this century. Yes, there was a difficult period from 2001 to 2003 but our fiscal reserves, fattened by consistent investment profits, hardly dipped.

The deficit in 2008 was mostly the result of the government having thumped down hard on the spending button in the prior two years with up to a 30 per cent increase in outlays.

Other than that, we have had consistent surplus for the last 14 years and, at its peak in the third quarter last year, that surplus stood at a running 12-month total of more than HK$180 billion (US$23 billion), the equivalent of more than 7.5 per cent of gross domestic product. Eat your heart out, Washington.

But just as American politicians show no restraint in spending money they do not have, so their Hong Kong equivalents (I hesitate to call career bureaucrats “politicians”) shrink in fear, except where pouring concrete is concerned, from spending money that they do have.

The latest excuse is that the population is growing older and the money will be needed to care for the elderly in their dotage. This raises one question and one observation.

  • The question: If the elderly concern you so much, you misers, why are you actually still so reluctant to spend money on them, instead of wasting that money on pointless bridges and railways?
  • My observation: The elderly are growing older because they are healthier, which means they are also working longer and contributing revenue to the public coffers later in life, while draining these coffers less in their supposed dotage.

I think what we have here is a bureaucrat’s mindset, evident throughout Hong Kong’s history of hoarding money because, well, that’s what hoarders do and don’t ask me why. I suppose it involves illusions of power and security, but that is as far as I can fathom it.

And they go to great lengths to disguise it. They admit, for instance, to HK$1 trillion of free fiscal reserves, but will not tell you that the real figure is more than HK$2 trillion, with the placements of more than 300 statutory bodies and the accumulated investment profits of the Exchange Fund.

On whose behalf do you hold these investment profits, you magpies? Is it the tooth fairy? Do tell us.

Their miserly tendencies vanish, however, when it comes to preening themselves on anything they can call infrastructure. Their latest achievement is to permit only 300 Hong Kong cars to travel to Macau on the new and horrendously expensive Hong Kong-Macau bridge. And even these 300 cars must then be parked on an offshore island and their users resort to public transport to get around in Macau.h

This is considered good use of our fiscal savings while our overcrowded hospitals bulge and we are told to save more than our Mandatory Provident Fund contributions or go short in our old age ...

... by bureaucrats who are alright, Jack.