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Hong Kong Data Raise Eyebrows 

By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune 

HONG KONG - There is no doubt that Hong Kong's economy is slowly on the mend.

 But doubts are rising about the credibility of its official data, not least the banner-headlined government forecast last week that the economy grew by a surprisingly strong 4.5 percent in the third quarter, and that it was on track to grow 1.8 percent for the year, up from earlier forecasts of 0.5 percent.

 In terms of current dollars, even now, gross domestic product has only about caught up with where it was a year ago. For the year it is likely to end down about 3 percent.

 But the figures the government touted last week were in ''real,'' or inflation-adjusted dollars. And it is in these adjustments and others that economists' doubts lie.

 The main question is over what is known as the GDP ''deflator,'' which adjusts the growth figure to account for inflation or deflation. For the second quarter, this was ratcheted up to minus 5.4 percent from minus 3.6 percent in the first quarter. With the government forecasting it at minus 5 percent for the whole year, the third-quarter deflator - so far unpublished - may come out close to minus 6 percent. 

With a bigger deflator, the real GDP figure grows, too. But the question is: Have prices across the whole economy been declining at such a rate as to justify turning a 3 percent fall in current price GDP into a gain of nearly 2 percent? While some prices, notably rent, have been falling, there is little in the rest of the government's data to suggest so.

 Though the composite consumer price index was down 3.9 percent for the first three quarters, even that index could be exaggerated, economists say. As for other prices, they have all fallen more slowly than the CPI, let alone the GDP deflator. Import and export prices were both down 3 percent, local producer prices fell just 2 percent and construction costs rose slightly. 

One economist who wrote to the government for an explanation of the curious behavior of the deflator has been waiting weeks for an answer. Another was told that the apparent anomaly was due to relative changes in export and import prices - though these have been quite small. So the mystery of the extent of Hong Kong deflation and its real growth remains.

 Less mysterious is another major contributor to 1999 ''growth.'' In midyear, the government quietly lopped 19 billion Hong Kong dollars ($2.44 billion) off Hong Kong's total current price GDP for 1997 and 21 billion dollars off 1998, thus lowering the measurement baseline for this year by more than 1.5 percent. The government insists that its statistics are not subject to political influence. But economists are skeptical. 

At the very least, once the deflator stops falling, ''real'' growth may be more difficult even as current price GDP recovers. So far the recovery may be more in the headlines than on the ground.