My Take

James Lau has a duty to come clean about flats purchase

Hong Kong’s undersecretary for financial affairs and the treasury may not have done anything wrong, but questions remain about his conduct as a public official

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 July, 2016, 10:51pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 July, 2016, 12:40am

James Lau has a lot to answer for. The undersecretary for financial affairs and the treasury may not have done anything untoward, but legitimate questions are being raised, and it is his duty to respond fully and forthrightly as a senior civil servant.

He bought two flats with his wife and daughter shortly before the government’s announcement on tightening mortgage rules in July 2010.

He said he did nothing wrong and claimed he didn’t know about the new measures – which could have cost him an estimated HK$1.62 million – until eight days after he made his first purchase.

“I must stress that there was no conflict of interest in my purchase of the properties,” he said. “I did not have any monetary or personal gains because of my public duties.”

On the face of it, there does appear to be a conflict, and doubts about Lau’s conduct cannot be erased just on his say-so.

Deputy Hong Kong finance chief admits negligence over flat purchases shortly before mortgage rule changes

At the time, he was the chief executive officer of the Mortgage Corporation and a member of the Monetary Authority’s chief executive’s committee. While it’s true he was not involved in the deliberation and formulation of the new market-cooling measures, it’s hard to imagine a man in his position knew nothing about such a plan being afoot. And if he really didn’t know, you wonder what he was doing to be put in such an important and high-paying job.

The then-new measure restricted buyers of mid-range properties to taking out mortgages of no more than 60 per cent of the purchase price, instead of 70 per cent. Lau acknowledged he was able to take out a 70 per cent mortgage. Interestingly, he said he had declared his interest in the two flats, but not about the mortgage. Well, why not?

Lau and his family had entered the property market at a very good time. Many flats purchased at that period have since doubled or more in price. There is no doubt they are sitting pretty with the purchases. So it seems he has made substantial monetary or personal gains. Whether he did so out of investment acumen, dumb luck, or because of professional knowledge gleaned from his “public duties” is a question that needs to be answered now.

People like former Executive Council member Franklin Lam Fan-keung and ex-financial secretary Antony Leung Kam-chung have resigned their positions for far less.