Hong Kong Chief Executive’s Remarks at Bo’ao Forum
Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, I amdeeply honoured to be invited by Chairman Long Yongtu to join the annual Bo’aoForum, which has rapidly established itself as the primary centre for thediscussion of key challenges in Asia. Well, recently I heard an Asian friendgiving a brilliant speech. He said that in the West, speeches start with a jokeand end with a joke. In Asia, he said, we start with an apology and end with anapology. And in between, it’s all a joke! I think Asians are more serious thanthat and since I don’t have any joke, let me plunge straight into the veryserious subject before us: Should there be a single Asian currency?
Before we answer this question, we need to ask: Why do we need asingle currency? The simple answer is that if there is a sense of Asian unity,then a single Asian currency can either facilitate that Asian unity or become acommon means towards that end. But unfortunately, life is not that simple.
First, Asia spans from the geo-politically sensitive and oil-richareas of West Asia to, depending whether you agree or not, as far East asAustralasia. In my view, Australia is firmly a part of our Asia, as PrimeMinister Howler just explained to us. Asia is the third zone in the world. Itis much more diverse than either the Americas or Europe. Asia accounts for 60percent of global population, but less than one quarter of GDP. Asia rangesfrom the economic advanced country of Japan to some of the poorest economies inthe world. Japan alone accounts for 52 percent of Asian GDP and 60 percent ofAsian financial assets. There is enormous disparity among us.
Second, Asia is unlike Europe that needed a Single Currency as partof a political union, and Europe has worked towards political and economicintegration for over 50 years before the birth of a single European currency in2001. Even with common objectives, it took half a century to achieve a singlecurrency.
Third, the rise of the euro has created a serious alternative to theUS dollar, and it is not currently clear whether there is room for a thirdglobal currency. We must not forget that the Europeans experimented withdifferent currency arrangements, such as the snake or crawling peg, before weforget them, which were subject to many speculative attacks before the euro wassuccessfully launched. Can Asian unity and common understanding withstand suchspeculative attacks against Asian currencies during this transition?
Fourth, a single common currency requires deep and robust financialsystems and markets, including strong institutional support. Asia has justrecovered from a crisis of global proportions, in which many domesticweaknesses in our financial systems have been exposed. Is our institutional andmarket base ready for the launch of such an important and strategic initiative?
All these are serious questions, requiring serious answers beforethe way forward is clear. But the benefits of globalization and Asian economicintegration are clearly strong incentives for us to think about whether weshould work towards a single currency. Asia has already benefited fromglobalization. Asia’s share of world merchandise exports has more than doubledfrom 10 percent in 1985 to 26 percent in the year 2003. Intra-regional trade withinAsia is growing at an average rate of 14 percent a year over this period,double the average growth of global exports, and accounting for half of EastAsian exports, compared with only 30 percent in the mid-1980s. Trade isdominated by manufactures, and even though the product chain has beenrestructured by the division of labour throughout Asia, the ultimateconsumption engine remains largely outside Asia. The real issue within Asia iswhether Asia can generate its own internal engine of domestic growth, ratherthan relying primarily on exports. The corollary question is then whether asingle currency or common currency arrangements would help the promotion ofintra-Asian trade and investments.
Asian industrial restructuring and integration is being driven byFDI flows, particularly intra-regional FDI flows. Total FDI flows into Asia hasrisen to US$103 billion in 2003, compared with only US$20 billion in the early1990s. According to UNCTAD figures, Hong Kong is the largest outward directinvestors [investor] among developing economies and 7th largest contributors [contributor]to global outward FDI stock. Hong Kong’s outward FDI to the rest of the world, especiallyAsia, amounted to US$336 billion at the end of 2003. But let me be blunt. Mostof the trade within the Asian region and with the rest of the world is still inmanufactures. The share of services, particularly financial services, is stillvery small. Why is this? The answer is that Asia is strong in manufactures andnatural resources, but relatively weak in financial services. We are dominatedby large domestic banking systems, our capital markets remain fragmented and wehave not yet begun to build strong retirement and social security funds toprovide for our aging populations.
Asia as a whole runs a modest current account surplus with the restof the world, equivalent to 1 percent of GDP in 2003. Most of the currentaccount surplus is placed with the financial markets in the United States andEurope, with foreign exchange reserves amounting to roughly US$2 trillion. Mostof those funds come back to Asia in the form of FDI and FPI (foreign portfolioinvestment). There is therefore a total equity return swap relationship betweenAsia and the capital markets outside Asia. We place a large part of our savingsoutside the region, earning up to 4 percent annually in long-term bonds indollar and Euro, and the money comes back to Asia in the form of leveraged FDIand portfolio investment which earn up to 10-15 percent total return on equity.This is a symbiotic relationship, and a risk-sharing relationship that is goodfor all parties. But if we are ever to think about a common currency, we mustthink about how we must first strengthen our own domestic financial system.
As you well know, the Asian ministries of finance and central bankshave been working hard on a deep and liquid Asian bond market since the launchof the Asian Bond Fund 1 in June 2003 and more recently, Asian Bond Fund 2(ABF2) in April last year. As former Financial Secretary, I participatedactively in these early stages of those discussions. The Hong Kong MonetaryAuthority has been working hard with regional central banks to launch bothproducts, especially ABF2, which will be sold at the retail level. Theobjective of ABF2 is to act as a catalyst to promote new products, improveAsian market’s infrastructure and reduce regulatory hurdles in Asian marketsthat prevent intra-Asian trade in financial products.
In this regard, for a host of historical reasons, because of diverselegal and institutional backgrounds, Asia has unwittingly erected regulatorybarriers against trade with each other in a variety of financial products. Wehave the irony of growing free trade in physical goods, but relatively littlefree trade in financial products within Asia. For example, it is ironic for amutual fund registered in Luxembourg or a bond listed on the Irish StockExchange to be traded within Asia than for a Hong Kong mutual fund to bepermitted to be traded in any of the Asian markets and vice versa. Each Asianfinancial product has to be individually approved and registered before it couldbe traded. This explains why there is little cross trading of Asian financialproducts.
This does not make sense, since there is no reason why Asianregulatory standards cannot be harmonized according to international standards.Towards this end, the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) hasbegun to sign letters of intent (LOIs) with regional jurisdictions tofacilitate greater regulatory harmonization in line with internationalstandards. So far, we have signed LOIs with Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka.These bilateral LOIs will facilitate more and more Asian financial products(beginning with mutual funds) to be traded within Asia, paving the way for ABF2to reach the retail markets across Asia. Our work with regional central banks andsecurities commissions represent concrete and pragmatic steps in buildingregulatory cooperation with each other. Once Hong Kong and other jurisdictionslearn from each other in terms of regulatory cooperation, many more Asianfinancial products can be traded within Asia. This will generate critical massfor Asian savings to be re-invested within Asia. Without greater free trade inAsian financial services, monetary integration cannot happen successfully, ifat all in my view.
In short, we must learn to walk before we can run. As someone who istotally realistic and pragmatic in the way forward in Asian monetary andfinancial cooperation, we must first create the conditions for greater freetrade in financial services, before we even begin to talk about monetary integrationand cooperation. The Bo’ao Forum is one such forum where we can truly andfrankly help build that understanding and friendship whereby a free andprosperous Asian market can be built. As one of the premier financial centresin the Asian time zone, Hong Kong pledges to work closely with all its tradingand regional partners to build the conditions for greater financial andmonetary cooperation in the future. The case for single Asian currency, in myview, is overwhelming. From the point of view of regional economical stabilityand growth in Asia, it is particularly critical in warding off painful rupturesof our national currency systems across the region, as we saw in 1997 and 1998.In this regard, I do not have rosy dreams to offer, but only concrete andtentative steps forward. But in Asia, we understand very well that the journeyof a thousand miles begins with a single step. Thank you very much.