Outlook: HSBC a victim of Asian backlash

THERE COULD SCARCELY be a more telling symbol of the insanity gripping world financial markets than the disclosure that the Hong Kong government now owns 8.91 per cent of HSBC, the world's largest bank and until now, at least, a standard bearer for laissez faire capitalism and unfettered free trade.

Sir William Purves, the wily Scot who led this extraordinary organisation until a few months back, must be having kittens at the very thought of it.

Just to put the news in context, this is the Communist-led Chinese people taking a near 10 per cent stake in the capitalist world's biggest bank, the owner of Midland Bank in this country to boot. By any stretch of the imagination, this is a turn up for the books.

At this stage, it isn't clear what the emergence of this new shareholder means for HSBC. But it is hard to see how being part nationalised can in any way be positive. As far as we know, there was no particular purpose to the stake building - apart from the declared one of propping up the Hong Kong stock market.

In the past couple of weeks, the Hong Kong government has accumulated big shareholdings across a range of blue chip stocks in an attempt to thwart the activities of nasty Anglo-Saxon speculators. If there is a further, hidden agenda, we can only guess at it.

The Chinese are being as inscrutable as ever.

One general observation can none the less be made. The support operation being mounted in Hong Kong is symptomatic of a wider backlash across the Far East and other parts of the developing world against free market capitalism.

This finds its wildest expression in the rhetoric of Mahathir Mohamed, prime minister of Malaysia, who in putting up the shutters on the outside world this week, said the free market system had failed his people, so that it was time to try something else.

It is this belief - that it is indeed possible to buck the markets - that has led China to buy big stakes in HSBC and other leading Hong Kong companies. In the West, we all know this to be a seriously misguided policy response to the financial and economic crises now enveloping these countries.

There are no successful examples of isolationism that can be pointed to; by pursuing this path, Mahathir may succeed in keeping his grip on power for a while longer, but he condemns his people to the sort of poverty that afflicts his neighbour, once prosperous Burma.

Unfortunately, none of this is going to stop the backlash. As long as Mahathir is prime minister, he's going to pursue these policies, and as long as Hong Kong has the reserves to do so, China will continue to believe it can row against the current. They'll be learning their lesson the hard way.

But although what is happening in Asia and Russia represents a serious setback to the process of globalisation, lasting possibly many years, there is no reason to suppose it to be permanent.

These political leaders are like latter-day Robert Maxwells; they want the benefits of international capital markets without having to obey their disciplines. Unfortunately for them, a successful alternative to free market capitalism has yet to be found.

It seems unlikely in the extreme that prime minister Mahathir is going to be the one to do so.

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