Money talks, IPO reform walks as China stocks rally


SHANGHAI: With China’s main stock market more than doubling in the past year, authorities are looking to cash in by accelerating flotations, but the state-controlled listing system is riddled with institutional shortcomings, analysts say.

In a legacy of China’s decades of Marxist ideology, when the Communist Party launched a stock market 25 years ago— perhaps the ultimate capitalist tool—it kept strict control over key decisions, including initial public offerings (IPOs).

The China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) decides which companies offer shares and when, as well as setting guidelines for the number of shares and their price — all of which are determined by the market in other countries.

It limits IPO prices to a maximum 25 percent above the average price-to-earnings ratio for listed companies in the same industry, but typically seeks to make them around the same level.

As a result companies cannot take demand into account and must go to the market underpriced, offering those investors lucky enough to buy a guaranteed profit.

Virtually every floated firm surges 44 percent on its first day of dealings—the maximum allowed for new issues.

The most extreme recent example is Baofeng Technology, which listed in Shenzhen in March and has repeatedly risen by its daily 10 percent limit.

It closed at 252.86 yuan ($41.45) on Wednesday, once again up 10 percent for the day and offering a spectacular cumulative return of more than 2,500 percent in only two months.

“If the issue price is 5.0 yuan then it will go to 50 yuan. It’s a sure thing. You’ll definitely make money,” said Wang Youfu, who works as a barber but trades stock when he is not cutting hair.

“Everyone is trying to buy IPOs but the supply is small.”

As a result, investors—mostly individuals rather than institutions—drain huge amounts of funds from the rest of the market as they try to subscribe.

But the allocation process is murky, offering rich possibilities for insiders to profit.

“The current system is problematic,” said Zhang Qi, an analyst at Haitong Securities.

“It’s inefficient. Some companies can’t get listed even though there is market demand, while investors do not have enough options (for buying).”

Even so the prestige of listing and vast profits to be made for employees who already hold shares ensure IPOs are still attractive for the companies themselves.

Real assets?
The system and the current market frenzy mean it is a long way from an efficient market for capital, and IPOs find ready buyers regardless of a firm’s quality.

Baofeng Technology itself suffered a net loss in the first quarter this year, highlighting the questionable valuations created.

With growth slowing, incentives for a freer economy are growing stronger while preserving the country’s unique brand of Communism, dubbed “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Leaders declared in 2013 that the market would play a more “decisive” role in the world’s second largest economy, leaving the IPO rules out of step with the proclaimed new imperative.

In January last year, the regulator ended a 14-month IPO moratorium to help support growth using private investors’ funds rather than the debt-addled state banking system.

It has since allowed batches of companies to list but there is a massive backlog of around 500.

The CSRC released proposals last year to “clarify and straighten out the relationship between government and the market,” allowing the company, its underwriters and potential investors to determine IPO timing and pricing.

But the challenge will be how it can vet companies to protect investors from fake information and potential fraud, while reducing state interference.



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