Hong Kong to give big cash handouts as economy reels from virus

Hong Kong to give big cash handouts as economy reels from virus

FILE PHOTO: People wear protective masks following the outbreak of a new coronavirus, during their
FILE PHOTO: People wear protective masks following the outbreak of a new coronavirus, during their morning commute in a station, in Hong Kong, China February 10, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

HONG KONG: Hong Kong's government on Wednesday (Feb 26) said it will give a HK$10,000 (US$1,280) handout to seven million permanent residents in a bid to jump-start a recession-hit economy now compounded by the coronavirus outbreak.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan unveiled the cash gift in an annual budget, committing HK$120 billion to help alleviate the worst economic downtown the international financial hub has faced in a decade.

Hong Kong boasts significant fiscal reserves of more than HK$1 trillion built up over the boom years, a stockpile that the government is now tapping into.

READ: Hong Kong economy shrinks for first time in a decade

The cash handout alone will cost HK$71 billion but officials hope consumers will plough much of the money back into local businesses.

"Making good use of fiscal reserves to support enterprises and relieve people's hardship is certainly in line with our people's expectations," he said.

Hong Kong's economy is reeling from the US-China trade war, months of protests last year and now the coronavirus: a triple whammy Chan described as "exceptionally austere".

Other measures announced in the budget included profits and salary tax breaks as well as low-interest loans for businesses struggling to pay staff wages.

The tourist, restaurant and retail sectors have been hit especially hard with bankruptcies soaring and traditionally low unemployment rising.

"Hong Kong's economy is facing enormous challenges this year," Chan said, predicting a range of 0.5 per cent growth to a 1.5 per cent contraction this year.

READ: Commentary: The great COVID-19 disruption to Asian economies has begun

The recession is a major headache for the city's unelected pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam who currently boasts record low approval ratings after facing down huge democracy protests.

The massive rallies and regular clashes with police that became a weekly fixture last year were dying down before the outbreak began. But the virus has comprehensively ended mass gatherings.

Yet public anger still simmers in a city where neither its leadership nor Beijing have addressed the issues fuelling years of rising resentment.

Neighbouring Macau often announces universal cash handouts to residents in its annual budget. Hong Kong has historically been more reticent.

The last handout for all residents was in 2011, three years after the global crash sparked the city's last recession.

READ: Hong Kong reports second COVID-19 death

Last week Hong Kong's government announced a HK$30 billion relief fund for those hit hardest by the virus outbreak, including cash handouts for businesses like restaurants and travel companies.

Chan said the city was set to record a record high deficit this year - its first in 15 years.

The last time Hong Kong ran a deficit was between 2001 and 2004. Chan said the reserves should see the city through the current crisis

"In the medium term, the economic outlook of Hong Kong remains positive," he said.

Source: AFP/ga