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Editorial:HK set for first budget deficit in 15 years

【明報專訊】THE Hong Kong economy is in free fall, with the government forecasting that the city will register its first budget deficit in 15 years. With ample fiscal reserves amounting to more than $1 trillion, the government may have no difficulty supporting itself for one or two years. However, it is unknown how long the internal and external problems troubling the economy will remain. Sino-US rivalry may continue to affect Hong Kong in the long term. Renewed violence over the weekend has also raised concerns about when stability can really be restored in the city. Hostility between China and the US as well as the storm over the extradition bill has brought about structural changes to the ecology of the Hong Kong economy. The government must consider the new situation when managing public finances. However, it must also adhere to principles like ''spend when necessary''. It should not slow down the pace of economic restructuring and the tackling of deep-rooted conflicts in society.

The latest data on Hong Kong's economic recession is terrifying. Last week the government reported that the value of the city's total exports had fallen sharply in October by almost a tenth year on year. Yesterday it released figures showing that the total value of retail sales had plummeted year-on-year by 24.3% in October, the steepest monthly decline on record. Amid the continuing Sino-US trade war, Hong Kong has suffered from a double whammy of an unstable external economic environment and incessant social unrest. In view of a sharp decline in consumption away from home, a significant drop in the number of tourists and a slump in retail sales, the government has earlier estimated a growth rate of minus 1.3% for the whole year. Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po said the losses caused by the social upheaval in recent months account for about 2% of the city's GDP. Given the dire economic situation of Hong Kong, it is inevitable that the revenue received by the public coffers has shrunk significantly. Chan estimates that the government will have a budget deficit for the first time in 15 years at the end of the financial year.

Chan had estimated a financial surplus of over $10 billion in his budget at the beginning of this year. But the economy was then caught up in unexpected headwinds. Given several abortive land sales in the second half of the year and the relief measures of over $20 billion rolled out since the outbreak of the anti-extradition storm, a budget deficit is something well anticipated. The only question is its exact amount. There are often debates over whether ''internal factors'' or ''external factors'' have contributed more to the plunge of the Hong Kong economy. The reality is both have dealt a heavy blow to it. No party should wishfully hope for a quick disappearance of these internal or external troubles.

Now that the government will be in the red, it is of course necessary to review its income and expenditure and think about broadening sources of income and cutting costs. Some government departments have long shown poor work efficiency and the resources have not been well utilised. There are problems that must be fixed. However, the authorities should not repeat the mistakes made by the government at the turn of the century, which cut medical and social welfare expenses deeply for the mere sake of reducing costs, leading to a squeeze on all kinds of social services now. In recent years, the government has finally put aside the ideological burden of being a ''small government''. Public expenditure, much of which involves expenses on social welfare, education as well as innovation and technology, has continued to grow and is now more than 21% of the city's GDP. From housing, elderly care to health care services, Hong Kong is still doing not enough in many aspects. The government must continuously invest in the future while facilitating economic restructuring. If it hastily goes for a big cut in those expenses, that will be tantamount to a retrograde step. As the internal and external environments have changed for the Hong Kong economy, the government must take note of the times and situation and adhere to the the principle of prudent management of its finances. At the same time, the overriding principle of investing in the future should never be abandoned.

明報社評 2019.12.03:財赤重臨理財須審慎 「應使則使」原則要堅持

香港經濟失速下滑,政府估計15年來再度錄得財政赤字。政府累積逾萬億元豐厚財政儲備,支撐一兩年並無問題,然而經濟內外交困延續多久,也是未知之數,中美角力可能長期困擾香港,周末暴力再起,亦令人關注香港何時方能真正回復穩定。中美交惡和反修例風暴,令香港經濟生態出現結構性變化,政府理財需要考慮新形勢,惟亦應堅持「應使則使」等原則,不能放慢促進經濟轉型和處理社會深層矛盾步伐。

香港經濟衰退,數據觸目驚心。政府繼上周表示10月商品整體出口貨值按年大跌近一成後,昨天又公布10月零售業總銷貨價值按年急跌24.3%,錄得歷來最大單月跌幅。中美貿易戰持續,外圍經濟環境不穩,加上社會動盪不休,市民外出消費大減,旅客人數顯著下降,零售市道急轉直下,早前政府已預計全年經濟負增長1.3%。財政司長陳茂波表示,近月社會動盪對香港經濟造成的傷害,相當於本地生產總值兩個百分點左右。香港經濟形勢嚴峻,庫房收入自然顯著轉差。陳茂波預計,今個財政年度政府將錄得財赤,是15年來第一次。

今年初財政預算案,陳茂波估計財政盈餘百多億元,未料經濟逆風勁吹,下半年賣地多次流標,加上反修例風暴以來逾200億元紓困措施,財赤是意料中事,問題只在於金額。香港經濟急挫,不時有人爭論究竟是「內因」還是「外因」影響大一些,現實是兩者均重挫香港經濟,各方不能一廂情願指望內憂外患短期消失。

政府出現赤字,當然有必要審視收支狀况,思考開源節流,政府一些部門效率低下,資源未獲善用,必須整頓,可是當局也不能重蹈覆轍,重犯本世紀初政府所犯的錯誤,但求節流,不惜大削醫療社福開支,導致現今諸種社會服務捉襟見肘情况。近年政府總算拋開「小政府」意識形態包袱,公共開支持續有所增長,佔GDP比例逾21%,當中不少屬於社福、教育和創科等方面開支。由房屋、安老到醫療,香港各方各面都存在太多不足,政府需要持續投資未來,同時促進經濟轉型,現在貿然大幅削減相關開支,等於開倒車。香港經濟內外環境起變,政府需要審時度勢,恪守審慎理財原則,惟同時亦不應放棄投資未來的大原則。

■Glossary

ample:more than enough

mere:used when you want to emphasise how small, unimportant, etc. sb/sth is

retrograde:returning to older and worse conditions, methods, ideas, etc

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