11 Nov 2008
Ambrose Leung Fanny W. Y. Fung
Lawmakers look likely to pass a resolution tomorrow invoking their special powers to investigate the Lehman Brothers saga, as intense lobbying from small investors increased the pressure on them.
The marked softening of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, whose support would ensure the resolution’s safe passage, seemed to increase the likelihood the step would be taken, with some officials privately admitting that the inquiry was a foregone conclusion.
But bankers – who would probably be summoned before a Legco subcommittee if lawmakers passed the resolution – made a last-ditch effort to prevent that step.
In a letter to his Legco colleagues, finance sector lawmaker David Li Kwok-po warned that banks’ efforts to buy back minibonds and other investment products from affected investors could be hindered if the Legco’s Powers and Privileges Ordinance were invoked.
“Bringing the wide powers of the ordinance to bear and subjecting the banks to what amounts to unlimited power to demand documents and the appearance of bank mangers before the subcommittee will only draw resources away,” Dr Li said.
Other bankers voiced similar concerns in a full-page advertisement posted in local newspapers yesterday.
Saying many minibond holders seeking compensation had actually “ entered into contracts with full knowledge of the risk involved”, Dr Li warned that Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre could also be damaged if foreign banks’ confidential commercial information surfaced during a Legco inquiry.
But with a majority of directly elected lawmakers supporting the move, and the required margin of support from functional constituency legislators just one or two votes away, it appeared likely that bankers’ hopes would be dashed after what was expected to be a lengthy debate tomorrow.
At present, the pan-democrats and trade unionists, plus the three Liberal Party members and some independents support the resolution.
The decision by the DAB will be crucial.
DAB leaders conceded that most the investors wanted a special inquiry. That came after about 200 people who had bought Lehman Brothersrelated investment products protested at the party’s headquarters, urging the party to support the resolution.
They chanted slogans and displayed placards, with three women in the crowd kneeling in front of party vice- chairwoman Ann Chiang Lai-wan to beg for help.
After receiving 1,850 signatures from the investors, DAB chairman Tam Yiu-chung told them that the party had to handle the matter cautiously, taking into consideration the progress achieved in recent days and whether such an investigation would prolong the compensation process.
The party will decide how its nine lawmakers will vote tonight.
Some independent lawmakers who have yet to make up their minds have also shown signs of supporting the resolution.
“I am inclined to support the victims. They have lost all of their savings. What else can legislators do to help them?” said Heung Yee Kuk leader Lau Wong-fat, who declined to say how he would vote.
Meanwhile, a government source said “the battle has already been lost” and further lobbying would be pointless because the DAB was likely to back the resolution.
“It is not the end of the world. The government has nothing to hide.”
Civic Party leader Audrey Eu Yuet- mee, who launched a mass e-mail campaign for the investors to petition lawmakers in support of the resolution, dismissed bankers’ concerns that invoking Legco’s special investigative powers would slow down the compensation process.
Minibonds are not corporate bonds, but consist of high-risk creditlinked derivatives. They are sold as a proxy investment in well- known firms.
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