Time to rein in HKMA's excesses
SCMP March 19 2008
The finance sector loves to make things seem more complicated than
they really are. Governments of all persuasions like to hide behind
the myth that issues are too complex for ordinary people to understand.
Add those two tendencies together and one can fathom why the Hong Kong
Monetary Authority is so little scrutinised. But it needs to be as
there is a distinct danger that it is starting to behave less like
a purely monetary body and banking regulator and more like a Singapore-style
government fund, a politically driven state with a state.
A media colleague otherwise well-informed about the government system
recently admitted she had no idea about the workings of the Exchange
Fund and why we should take note of it. She was amazed to hear that
it had almost HK$600 billion in assets which belong entirely to the
community at large, a sum in addition to the fiscal reserves which
will very soon hit HK$500 billion. 'Please explain how we have all
this money,' she asked.
The Exchange Fund balance sheet is actually quite simple to understand,
so hopefully legislators, the media and others will take note of this
gigantic surplus and force the government to transfer some of it to
where it belongs - on its own books.
As it is, the government's cash balance sheet in the budget is a dishonest
fiction that hides its total assets. The Fund had, at the end of January,
total assets and liabilities of HK$1.45 trillion. Of the liabilities,
HK$186 billion represents deposits made by banks and the government
itself as backing for the note and coin issues. Some HK$502 billion
represents the government's fiscal surplus, HK$175 billion the Exchange
Fund's own paper and other liabilities. That leaves an accumulated
surplus of HK$585 billion. That's all ours!
The accumulated surplus represents the profits made by the Exchange
Fund which have not been passed on to their rightful owner, the government.
A more truthful way to present the balance sheet would be to show the
fiscal reserves held through the Fund as HK$1 trillion and the Fund's
own accumulated surplus as HK$87 billion.
In the last calendar year, the Fund's own surplus at HK$109 billion
was even larger than the government's own fiscal surplus, even after
deducting the HK$27 billion payment made to the government as earnings
on the fiscal reserves.
The Exchange Fund makes money in several ways. It earns interest on
the cash backing for the note issue, a legitimate source of revenue
for any central bank. But it only pays the government a return on the
fiscal reserves, not on its own surplus which has been boosted not
only by interest and dividends received from its investments, but also
on the foreign exchange profits it makes whenever the HK dollar declines
against the currencies (other than the US dollar) in which it holds
assets. In short, the public purse does not reap the benefit of a weak
currency but has to bear the brunt of inflation caused by it.
At times the authorities claim that the Exchange Fund size is necessary
to protect the dollar peg. This is nonsense as the peg is supposed
to be protected by a combination of the foreign currency backing for
the note issue and interest rates, not by a fund which even with HK$1
trillion in foreign assets is less than a third of Hong Kong dollar
deposits. Even backing for the whole monetary base would need only
about HK$331 billion in foreign assets, not the HK$1.26 trillion on
the Fund's balance sheet.
At a time when, despite its official surpluses, the government is
crying poverty and threatening to reduce health-care availability (other
than for its own employees) the HKMA's position needs a close watch
as it has not only been accumulating assets in its own name (and not
the public's), but engaging in empire-building in several directions.
There was the recent revelation that it had bought a major stake in
Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing. Why? Does it have pretensions of
becoming some sort of Sovereign Wealth Fund like Singapore's Temasek
Holdings, the fiefdom of the prime minister's wife? One may ask why
it holds equities at all given its purely monetary and reserve role.
Then there is that relatively new creation, the Deposit Protection
Board, which is effectively under the thumb of the HKMA, which in turn
determines the premiums that banks must pay to it according to an undisclosed
ratings formula. It does a good but totally unnecessary job of guaranteeing
bank deposits - but only up to HK$100,000 per depositor per bank. Thus
it only covers about HK$500 billion out of total deposits in the banking
system of HK$6 trillion. The HKMA, responsible for banking supervision,
could easily take this level of risk on to its own books rather than
set up a ponderous bureaucratic mechanism costing HK$30 million or
more a year. Meanwhile, the insurance premium provides banks with another
excuse for keeping savings deposit rates at derisory levels.
Then there is the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation, another HKMA offshoot
and an unnecessary public sector construct in a city overflowing with
private sector financial institutions. It has assets of HK$46 billion
and is growing fast thanks to access to ultra-cheap funds by virtue
of its ownership. It was never needed and was one of the many devices
introduced by the government more to help property developers and re-inflate
land prices than promote home ownership. It should be closed down,
but instead it is expanding overseas, thanks to profits easily earned
due to its government status.
Under Joseph Yam Chi-kwong, the HKMA has been competently run by a
man who understands his brief and is too arrogant to have become a
political pawn. But he is being pushed out next year so there is every
reason to fear the next incumbent will be a Tsang loyalist who will
use the institution and its huge resources as a slush fund, beyond
the reach of the Legislative Council, for favoured projects and politically
inspired investments. So now is the time to cut it down to size, distribute
a significant part of its accumulated surplus to the government, and
close its small but costly sideshows.
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