Martial law is the latest risk worrying investors in Hong Kong

A local resident shouts at police in riot gear at a bus stop near Kowloon Bay MTR Station, Hong Kong, on Sept 3, 2019.
A local resident shouts at police in riot gear at a bus stop near Kowloon Bay MTR Station, Hong Kong, on Sept 3, 2019.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) - As investors map out potential risks from Hong Kong's summer of unrest, one tool at the government's disposal is attracting increased attention: a colonial-era statute that gives the authorities broad powers similar to martial law.

Speculation that Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam may invoke the city's Emergency Regulations Ordinance has swirled since she said last week that all options are on the table.

The law, introduced by the British in 1922 for use in case of emergency or public danger, gives Hong Kong's leader the power to make "any regulations whatsoever which he may consider desirable in the public interest". Chinese officials said on Tuesday that it could be implemented if necessary.

Market analysts in Hong Kong still view that as a low-probability event, but they haven't ruled it out as some anti-government protesters turn increasingly violent. While invoking the law would be a less extreme measure than calling in Chinese troops to quell the unrest, the knee-jerk impact on markets would likely be negative. Share prices and the Hong Kong dollar, which is pegged to the US currency, would come under pressure as international investors rush to reduce their exposure, analysts said.

The scale and duration of the exodus, and the damage to Hong Kong's status as a global financial hub, would depend on how the law is used. Its provisions include arrests, property seizures, deportation, control of the ports and the power to restrict means of communication. In an extreme scenario, the government could even cut off access to the Internet.

"If the emergency law is triggered, the economic damage will definitely be significant," said Mr Nader Naeimi, who oversees about US$800 million (S$1.1 billion) as head of dynamic markets at AMP Capital Investors. Mr Naeimi sold his Hong Kong stock holdings in May, saying that tail risks in the city are too high.

Here is what other Hong Kong analysts are saying about the emergency law. Comments have been edited and condensed.

Tommy Wu, a senior economist at Oxford Economics Hong Kong

The possibility has increased, but I wouldn't take it as a base-line case. The fear surrounding this is that once it's declared, people potentially won't know what will actually happen. That uncertainty by itself will create fear in the financial markets. It's very likely we'd see some kind of a stock-market sell-off.

We'd probably see Hong Kong's dollar hitting the weak side of the trading band a lot more often. In terms of the peg stability, I still don't think that's an issue because there's enough foreign reserves.

Steven Leung, executive director of UOB Kay Hian (Hong Kong)

I don't think the government is going to do it when there's so much concern in the society. There's still a lot of things the government can do, so there's no urgency for them to launch this law in the near future. If they do it, there may be some very short-term panic in the financial markets and also in society.

 
 

It's difficult to predict what will happen in political issues. It's better to raise cash positions, try to stay away from risky assets.

Samuel Tse, an economist at DBS Group Holdings

The Hong Kong dollar peg is still rock solid because the exchange fund - the official reserves - are still more than double the monetary base. There's no massive capital outflows for now, and even if there was, the Hong Kong dollar peg should stay.

Kevin Lai, chief economist for Asia excluding Japan at Daiwa Capital Markets

The Hong Kong Monetary Authority has a lot of buffer to provide liquidity, we're talking about US$140 billion, so it will take some time, even under the potential state of emergency, before capital outflows lead to a sharp rise in interest rates.