Hong Kong set for bumper fiscal surplus

With Hong Kong (above) now comparable to New York in terms of income inequality, and amid persistent worries that its role as a financial centre is being eclipsed by the likes of Shenzhen or Shanghai, news of bumper fiscal takings is likely to prompt
With Hong Kong (above) now comparable to New York in terms of income inequality, and amid persistent worries that its role as a financial centre is being eclipsed by the likes of Shenzhen or Shanghai, news of bumper fiscal takings is likely to prompt a barrage of calls on how to spend them.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Expected $28b beats govt forecast; finance chief rules out tax cuts across the board

HONG KONG • While Hong Kongers suffer through the world's least affordable property market, their government is enjoying the flip side of the real estate and stock market boom - one of the biggest fiscal surpluses anywhere.

When the territory's Budget is unveiled tomorrow, Chief Executive Carrie Lam and Financial Secretary Paul Chan may have as much as HK$168 billion (S$28 billion) left over from the 2017-2018 fiscal year to play with, according to an estimate by accountancy firm PwC.

That is 10 times the original government forecast of HK$16.3 billion, thanks to higher-than-expected revenue from land sales, profits tax and stamp duty, PwC said.

On a quarterly basis, the Budget surplus hit 8.6 per cent of gross domestic product in the third quarter of last year, the highest since at least 1999, Bloomberg data shows.

If carried through for the full fiscal year even close to that level, Hong Kong's surplus would stand among the biggest of any developed economy, according to Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development data.

With Hong Kong now comparable to New York in terms of income inequality, and amid persistent worries that the city's role as a financial centre is being eclipsed by the likes of Shenzhen or Shanghai, news of bumper fiscal takings is likely to prompt a barrage of calls on how to spend them.

Mrs Lam has hinted that the first Budget under her leadership would include more "daring" spending.

LOOKING FURTHER AHEAD

As to long-term requirements, innovation and technology is one sector we would give serious consideration because this will help, across the board, many industries in enhancing their competitiveness.

FINANCIAL SECRETARY PAUL CHAN, on where some of the city's surplus might go.

"They can use policy buffers to support growth in the long run," said Euler Hermes economist Mahamoud Islam. The windfall provides an opportunity to invest with an eye towards a more difficult global economic outlook potentially as soon as next year, he added.

He suggests that the most immediate investments are in boosting research and development activity. The city should position itself as a source of professional talent for China's Belt and Road Initiative, encouraging education programmes that nurture more architects, engineers, consultants and other commercial services providers, he said.

The windfall should benefit some taxpayers too.

PwC proposes widening salary tax brackets and increasing deductions for child allowance by as much as 20 per cent.

The government could consider waiving stamp duty for first-time, local home buyers for purchases under HK$6 million, according to The Taxation Institute of Hong Kong.

Speaking to reporters on Feb 17, Mr Chan cautioned that while there will be a "high level of surplus", it may not be as large as analysts have predicted.

The Financial Secretary also disagreed with one-off cash handouts, such as those that have been made in Macau and Singapore - as well as in Hong Kong, where residents received a HK$6,000 sweetener announced in 2011.

"Part of it may not be recurrent, so we have to be very careful," said Mr Chan. "As to long-term requirements, innovation and technology is one sector we would give serious consideration because this will help, across the board, many industries in enhancing their competitiveness."

He noted that the surplus will be needed to address the city's ageing population, particularly related to healthcare and elderly homes. Short-term rebates will be considered on a targeted basis, he said.

He added that Hong Kong's tax regime - such as a 15 per cent standard salaries tax rate - is already competitive and he will not consider any across-the-board tax cuts, while targeted tax measures to help certain industries are on the table.

"The philosophy has always been on the prudent side," said Mr Islam from Euler Hermes.

BLOOMBERG

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2018, with the headline 'HK set for bumper fiscal surplus'. Print Edition | Subscribe