Back to the Land
Hong Kong as Financial Platypus
The discovery of the platypus in Australia created something of a dilemma for zoologists. Some said that as a furry warm-blooded animal the platypus should be classified as a mammal: others held that because the platypus reproduces by laying eggs then it should be classified as a bird or a reptile. The solution was to create a new classification especially for the platypus.
Hong Kong is also in a class of its own as a monetary platypus which uniquely has no Central Bank as a lender of last resort. Supervised by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, Hong Kong's banks clear payments among themselves 'real-time'.
Hong Kong is also a fiscal platypus, uniquely gathering a large proportion of government income from the use value of land. Very few countries have used land rental value as a fiscal basis to the same extent as Hong Kong, and those few which have - such as Denmark - have typically levied a local tax on land rental values.
Hong Kong gathered income through the creation and sale of long leases of public land. The resulting 'Crown Rentals' collected from property developers had the effect of reducing the amount of taxation to be collected from Hong Kong's entrepreneurial businesses and citizens. However, over the years the amount raised from the sale of long leaseholds has been reduced considerably - to the advantage of developers - through decreasing the discount rate applied in calculating the lease premium.
Hong Kong is, like the platypus, an evolutionary oddity, with a track record of rapidly evolving its monetary and fiscal architecture in response to external circumstances. This is due in no small part to an extremely flexible and talented cadre of officials in the relevant policy making institutions.
From 1935 to 1972 the Hong Kong dollar was pegged to sterling through a currency board arrangement, but the US dollar gradually supplanted sterling as a global reserve currency, and in late 1974, after a brief flirtation with a US dollar peg, Hong Kong let the HK$ float against other currencies without any formal intervention.
Since 1983, after a crisis in confidence, the HK$ has once again been pegged to the US$ within the Linked Exchange Rate System (LERS) which has two mirror image - strong side and weak side - defences against capital inflows and outflows:
Strong side defence at 7.75 HK$ - Upward pressure on HK$ > Currency Board sells HK$ > monetary base expands > interest rates fall > downward pressure on HK$.
Weak side defence at 7.85 HK$ - Downward pressure on HK$ > Currency Board buys HK$ > monetary base contracts > interest rates rise > upward pressure on HK$.
Decline of the Dollar
The US Federal Reserve Bank responded to the credit crisis in 2008 by reducing dollar interest rates to zero, and by printing $trillions and using them to buy financial assets. These monetary policies have had two adverse effects on Hong Kong.
Firstly, risk averse investors - NOT speculators in search of a transaction profit - have been making financial purchases of commodities using vehicles such as Exchange Traded Funds. These inflation hedgers have perversely caused the very inflation they sought to avoid, and Hong Kong citizens have been particularly hard hit in respect of essentials such as food and energy prices.
Secondly, the low interest rates necessitated by the peg have exacerbated property price inflation. Several international investors take the view that the Hong Kong $ is undervalued against the $ by around 30% and are placing major financial bets to that effect. In their view, the question is not whether or not the peg arrangements will be changed, but when; and - the $64 billion question - to what?
The economist Robert Triffin identified that where a global reserve currency is backed by interest-bearing debt - such as the US dollar, and sterling before that - then the result is that the issuer of that reserve currency will eventually become unsustainably indebted to the rest of the world.
In order for China to become the global reserve currency, and suitable for a Hong Kong currency peg, it would mean that China would not only have to cease its mercantilist export policy but also reverse this into a massive trade deficit.
Such a cosmic shift in Beijing's business model is sufficiently unlikely that the well publicised bet of Bill Ackman's Pershing Square Capital - that the Hong Kong $ will appreciate and adopt a Renminbi peg - appears to be an extremely long shot.
But if Ackman's thesis is accepted that the dollar peg is no longer sustainable, what other basis for the currency might there be?
The global tidal wave of money in search of a safe haven has forced the Swiss Franc (CHF) to levels which gravely threaten Swiss exports. The Swiss National Bank recently surprised the financial world by capping the appreciation of the CHF against the Euro at a level of 1.20. But the innovation which blew away the speculators was the announcement by the SNB that it would defend the cap simply by creating CHF and exchanging this money for foreign assets (and hence currency) without conventionally backing ('funding') this money with government debt.
The Swiss thereby demonstrated that on the 'strong side' they could defend the CHF against appreciation by printing - or even threatening to print - infinite amounts of CHF and exchanging these for foreign assets or currency.
The monetary orthodoxy is that this will cause inflation in Switzerland. This is true only to the extent that the overseas holders of the currency are permitted to buy Swiss assets such as real property and stocks. Overseas holders of CHF do not typically spend them on Swiss domestic consumption to potentially cause retail price inflation.
This unorthodox monetary action by the Swiss blew away the myth that money must necessarily be backed by debt. The truth is that both central and private banks are simply middlemen - credit intermediaries - between people and government. Modern fiat money is backed by the ability to use it to pay taxes, which in most countries are largely levied upon productive people rather than productive assets.
A simple but radical monetary and fiscal evolution for Hong Kong now enters the realm of the Adjacent Possible: land-based money.
Back to the Land
Land backing for bank created money is not a new idea. The remarkable Scottish gambler and adventurer, John Law, proposed a land-backed currency for Scotland in 1705, based upon central bank credit creation and backed by loans secured against leases.
Unfortunately, when he applied his monetary expertise in France in 1719 he created not only the first recognisably modern central bank - the Banque Royale - but also the first asset price bubble driven by bank credit. The land rights owned by his Mississippi Company over a third of the US land mass were not then worth what they are now, and Law ruined himself and France in the Mississippi Bubble.
The absence of a Central Bank in Hong Kong opens up the possibility of a more direct - 'Peer to Asset' - approach. As freeholder, the government could declare a new ground rental on the unimproved value of Hong Kong land and then base the HK$ on this value simply through the creation and issue of credits redeemable in payment for HK$1.00's worth of rental.
The first fiscal effect of this ground rental would be to reduce speculative development pressure. Secondly, the resulting HK Rental Pool may then be distributed equally to all Hong Kong citizens as a Land Dividend. The effect of this would be of a net fiscal transfer from those with above average exclusive use of Hong Kong's scarce land, to those with below average use.
Finally, under suitable management by service providers and supervision by the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, this new source of HK public credit would be available to finance new infrastructure. Such public investment would increase the ground rental value of the relevant land and enable the public credit to be retired and recycled out of the increase.
This Land Dividend would reduce the financial pressure on Hong Kong's poorest citizens and would do so through a pre-distribution of future wealth rather than a re-distribution of existing wealth. Properly executed - and Hong Kong's executive are more likely than most to succeed - this fiscal policy should be Win/Win: the rich would in future receive a smaller share of a larger pie.
The monetary effect of a land-based HK$ would be of a currency with exchange control hard-wired into it. Overseas holders could exchange the HK$ for other value with HK residents and businesses, but they would never be able to redeem it against HK rentals unless they resided in Hong Kong.
This simple and radical concept of a land-based Hong Kong Dollar would see the evolution of Hong Kong's two monetary and fiscal platypi into a new and resilient 21st century financial animal, still in a class of its own.