Time for China to act on foreign listings

May 20, 2009

wei_gu_debate– Wei Gu is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own –

China has talked about plans to allow foreign companies to float on its domestic stock markets for at least a decade, but that’s all there has been: talk.

Now would be a good time to convert some of that talk into action. Beijing has been struggling with its own investment strategies: the state gets feeble returns on the U.S. Treasury bonds it owns, and its equity stakes in foreign financial firms are well under water.

So why not diversify by allowing 1.3 billion Chinese citizens have a go rather than a few bureaucrats working for China’s sovereign fund? The many might even do better than the few. And it would give Chinese savers a chance to buy global blue chips at credit-crunch prices.

The idea of opening up China’s equity markets to foreigners may seem fanciful, but it dovetails with another big national objective. China wants to build Shanghai into a global financial centre by 2020, but that requires a deeper and internationalised equity market. Only when that is in place will foreign money descend on Shanghai, together with an army of bankers, lawyers and accountants.

The market capitalisation of Shanghai is now the world’s fourth largest, but it is dominated by state-owned firms with only a handful of foreign joint ventures and a few private companies.

The market is off-limits even to many of China’s own best and biggest companies, such as the world’s largest telecom operator China Mobile and China’s top offshore oil and gas producer CNOOC.

They are listed in the offshore market of Hong Kong and despite their expressed interest to return to the mainland, continue to fail to win the green light from Beijing.

Indeed there is no other country which relies more heavily on offshore financing than China. One fifth of the foreign companies listed on Nasdaq are from China, the largest percentage in the world. By pushing its top companies to list abroad, China has gained foreign capital at the expense of the development of its equity market.

Meanwhile back in Shanghai too much money is chasing too few good listed companies. The same companies are often valued at a premium in the mainland versus in Hong Kong.

Chinese investors need more and better investment opportunities. China needs to realise the competition of the 21st Century is not just about amassing capital, but also about building companies that can create wealth.

WHO COMES FIRST?

In the past decade, most of the barriers to open equity markets have been removed. China completed a share reform programme that allowed formerly untradeable state-owned shares to trade, and China’s accounting rules are now similar to global standards.

A big block remains in the shape of China’s capital controls, which prevent firms from repatriating profits, but the State Administration of Foreign Exchange recently said it will consider relaxing the controls once foreign companies are allowed to list.

When China first talked about introducing foreign listed companies a decade ago, Unilever, whose Lux soap 20 years ago was as coveted in China as Louis Vuitton bags are now, was expected to be the first.

Although that seems unlikely now, multinational manufacturers are still expected to be interested in the hope that a China listing can raise their profile in what is seen as potentially their biggest market.

Instead, first in line will probably be foreign banks keen to raise money in China to fund their local operations. As things stand, their yuan deposit base is too small due to their limited branch network.

HSBC is said by British officials to be in discussions to be the first foreign company to go public in China. The bank, with a Shanghai branch office that opened some 150 years ago, has gained a lot of goodwill for promising not to sell its strategic investment in Bank of Communications while other foreign banks rushed to the exits.

A full listing of foreign companies will offer an upside for China Inc. in that domestic firms with global ambitions will be able to bid for firms using their own shares and Chinese shareholders will have a say on global deals.

In addition, by allowing the Chinese to buy a piece of the world’s blue chips on their home soil, the change will assist in the country’s ambitions to make the yuan an international currency while keeping a certain amount of capital controls.

China’s leaders have made clear they see the credit crisis creating opportunities to flex their financial muscles. Here’s one opportunity they shouldn’t let pass them by.

– At the time of publication Wei Gu did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. She may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund –

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China exchanges are for yuan-denominated listings of
public enterprises. But it is not certain if foreign
firms opting for such listing would be able to convert
Renminbi outside China, unless yuan is a free and
reserve currency. At status quo, opening up foreign
listings largely benefits foreign companies that have
direct biz in China or Hong Kong. It is absurd for say
AMR to raise yuan in Shanghai and bring yuan home to
finance rail transport.

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