You can’t really complain about something that’s free, especially when women – as cheerful as they are no doubt financially desperate – jostle every morning to thrust it into your hands. I refer, of course, to The Standard, Hong Kong’s number-two English-language newspaper, which after years of commercial failure in one guise or another suddenly found a new lease of life as a giveaway.
As a low-budget tabloid aimed at middle-brow commuters must, it offers bite-size world news reports from AFP along with condensed, translated and rehashed local coverage from its owner, the unashamedly pro-establishment Sing Tao group. Much of this leans towards tawdry and prurient stories about celebrities, scandals and suicides, though the best they can manage today is the rather lame ‘Elderly man sleeps in bed with dead wife’, which we must have read a hundred times over the years. Not being behind a paywall, The Standard enjoys a far higher Google News and Internet profile than the ‘real-newspaper’ South China Morning Post, so this is English-speaking overseas surfers’ main insight into life in the Big Lychee.
Where The Standard gets truly distasteful is in its slobbering, pandering shoe-shining of (presumably – how else would they decide?) whoever Sing Tao owner and Hong Kong Tobacco heir Charles Ho sees fit. Thus in today’s gossip column we get a fawning account of how HK$150,000-a-month political assistant Jeremy Young’s actress wife has had a baby. Because the photocopy boy works hard, we are told, “Young’s boss, Secretary for Education Michael Suen Ming-yeung, must … be happy to have an employee like him.” It is unlikely that Ho specifically wants Young to be buttered up (he is the son of Howard, the Liberal ex-tourism representative in the Legislative Council). The idea here is to talk up the unpopular political appointee system, flatter the officials who introduced it and, ultimately, display loyalty to the government in China that appointed them.
The Standard’s redeeming feature, in the total absence of analysis or serious editorials, is its advertorials and space-filling columns, which can be downright funny if you’re in the right mood. Today, readers are blessed with the offerings of three quasi-investment gurus, of the sort that Hong Kong’s middle class appreciate.
Frank Wong of Barclays is pushing a CNOOC call warrant (brought to the market by, surprise, Barclays). The oil company’s stock has risen some 8% in the last week, so this derivative has naturally done well. Therefore it might again. Or it might not. In most places, warrants are used as hedging devices by institutions; in Hong Kong, they are a popular alternative to horse-racing among the retail-level of what Frank Wong euphemistically calls ‘investors’. There are tight restrictions on gambling in Hong Kong. And then you have warrants.
Then we have Dr Check. This anonymous stock tipster exemplifies the Big Lychee investment philosophy for people who find derivatives too scary. You aim for short-term gains, probably have a stop-loss order to automatically sell if your tipped stock dips, cash in quickly if it rises and stay on the sidelines when the technical analysis suggests the market might do this or then again might not. Dr Check’s genius is to dredge up the most obscure, rat-infested Mainland companies to recommend to people who just can’t stop trading. Today’s alternative to being prudent and doing nothing is to buy COFCO Packaging. Which I look up and find was listed in Hong Kong less than a year ago, basically churns out drinks cans, is part of a big food giant and has a P/E of 26 and a dividend yield of 1%. This is possibly not as dismal as some of Dr Check’s other tips, but you still have to wonder what is so special about it.
Finally we have my favourite: Welly Wu, Currency Strategist. (As in ‘Tex Wade, Frontier Accountant’.) Everyone can understand forex. It’s like the ‘big-small’ game in the Macau casinos: if it goes up, you win; if it goes down, you lose – but not much, courtesy of our friend the stop-loss order. To make it interesting, and meaningful, Hong Kong people like to trade currencies on margin, which is how the company Welly works for makes its money: they lend the housewives and taxi drivers the bulk of their stake. (The default leverage at his company is 50:1, which they consider dull, unadventurous and safe.) Welly Wu, Currency Strategist bears a certain resemblance to the brochure-wielding real estate agents who mob innocent bystanders when the latest half-built luxury apartment complex goes on sale. It’s the hair. I think Welly has done well. Thousands of secretaries must recognize him in the street.
All this, and it doesn’t cost you a penny!