1992 and all that

Well, a strong sense of déjà vu for those of us old enough to remember the 1992 General Election.

Then, as now, a significant number of people seem to have told the opinion pollsters that they intended to vote Labour (or Liberal Democrat), only to choose the Conservatives when they went to the Polling Station.

Did they really change their mind at the last moment?  Or did the pollsters just get it wrong?

It’s interesting to consider that David Cameron’s ludicrous gamble on winning a referendum on Scottish independence - without making any concessions - seems to have rebounded in his favour, doing great damage to the Labour Party.  And what would have happened if Ed Miliband had stayed in London and not joined the absurd spectacle of the major party leaders rushing to Scotland – on the basis of an opinion poll that may well have been wrong.

Today's news (is very boring)

For the second day in a row, the SCMP thinks that a story about Antony Leung Kam-chung's purchase of a motor car in January is worthy of a place on their front page. Does anyone care? Obviously it was crass and stupid of the Financial Secretary to buy a car just before proposed increases in car tax were to be intoduced, but how can it serve the public interest for him to be prosecuted?

The SCMP claims that the government had received legal opinion that there are grounds to prosecute Leung, whilst the government denies this.

I am sure the ICAC is a good thing, but sometimes they do seem to get a bit carried away.


The SCMP also has the results of a poll about whether people would welcome a Goods and Services Tax. The shock answer is that no, they wouldn't approve of higher taxes. Hong Kong has a fairly low rate of Income Tax, and people on low incomes don't pay very much tax. If GST were introduced it would apply to everyone, whereas higher income tax (which is what people apparently prefer) would affect only part of the population.

According to the survey, if given a choice, 45 per cent of respondents would choose an increase in income tax, while 34 per cent said they would opt for a GST. Twenty-one per cent were undecided.


Regarding the levying of a GST paired with a cut in direct taxes, 46.2 per cent of respondents said they were either in favour or "very much" in favour of it, compared with 38.8 per cent who said they were opposed.

So what conclusion can we draw from that? Basically that if you go out into the street and ask 1,000 people for their opinions on fiscal policy you won't learn very much.

George Bush strikes another blow for free trade

In amongst all the economic gloom of the last few years here in Hong Kong, one bright spot has been the garment industry. Exports to the United States and Europe have growing rapidly, and 2002 was a particularly strong year for many companies. Not that they do much manufacturing in Hong Kong (too expensive), and neither will you have heard of most of the companies - they're not Hong Kong brands, but international brands that sub-contract manufacturing to this part of the world. These days the factories are across the border in Guangdong province, usually owned by a Hong Kong company that retains an office here that deals with the buyers in the States and Europe.

One of the more confusing aspects of this industry is the way that tariffs and quotas influence the business decisions. Why should Mauritius have dozens of garment factories? Or the Maldives? Simply because it is possible to export garments more freely from those countries, whereas exports from Hong Kong and China are subject to quotas and tarrifs. If you are a long-established garment manufacturer you will have a certain quota of garments that you can export each year, and as long as you carry on exporting you will keep the quota for future years.

Each different type of garment is subject to different conditions, and for some reason lingerie (underwear) has been exempt from quota. However, with an election coming up in the States, concern about loss of manufacturing jobs has prompted the Bush administration to impose quota on imports from China. Apparently this is specifically allowed under the agreement that was made when China joined the WTO (the exact words are "if the President believes that he can win a few extra votes by clamping down on imports from China, that's fine by us."). China was so desparate to be accepted into this international club that they agreed to almost everything that the USA wanted in return.

The next problem for the garment companies is that they don't know how these rules will be operated. Who will get the quota, and how will it be managed? Will local companies be favoured? Until they have some answers it is very difficult for them to plan future growth.

Some companies are already operating (and expanding) in countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, which don't seem to be perceived as such as a threat by the Americans, and so are not subject to these new restrictions. These countries look like being the big winners, and although they are all worried that when the Multi-Fibre agreement expires in 2005 they will be unable to compete with China, this week's developments reinforce my view that the US will continue to find ways to limit imports from China regardless of the WTO or any other international agreements.

It was a long time ago when I studied Economics, but isn't it generally accepted that international trade is a good thing and that protectionism helps no-one?