China's little secret: A thriving, free market in shares

An investor watches stock prices in Shanghai, China.
Aly Song | Reuters

Far away from the glare of China's stock market chaos, stampede of sell orders and freeze on new listings, the spirit of free markets is alive and kicking right in the nation's capital.

A small stock exchange set up in Beijing three years ago to attract small and medium-sized companies, the so-called New Third Board (NTB), is flourishing, even as Chinese authorities struggle to bend the nation's main stock markets to their will.

China this month shut the door for new initial public offers on its two main exchanges to stop more money draining out of these markets, but the freeze did not apply to the NTB, which is not a formal exchange and is aimed at professional investors.

How fund managers are coping with China's stock rout
How fund managers are coping with China's stock rout

An over-the-counter market, the NTB has been a hive of new listings since the freeze in Shanghai and Shenzhen took hold, with a whopping 362 companies since July 3.

Developer Evergrande Real Estate has alone unveiled plans over the past four weeks to list a football club, a mineral water business and a unit that owns music rights, radio and TV stations and magazines.

The confidence of issuers in the NTB has been underlined by light government intervention.

"The New Third Board is a completely market-driven board. It lets the market decide," said Suzie Wu, managing partner at Beijing-based Tianxing, a venture capital firm that has been one of the most active players in the New Third Board.

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Tianxing has invested in about 360 companies and 223 of them are already listed in the NTB, Wu added.

"Without the board some of our portfolio companies may have never had the opportunity to access the market and might not be able to sustain their business," Tianxing's Wu said.

"For further growth they have to have access to the market."

China launched the NTB in 2012, but it has taken off since the government made a concerted effort last year to make it an option for small and medium-sized tech companies to list at home instead of the United States. So far in 2015, 577 companies have raised a combined 30.3 billion yuan ($4.88 billion) through the end of June, according to data from the National Equities Exchange and Quotations (NEEQ), which runs the NTB.

That's more than double the 13.2 billion yuan raised in all of 2014 from 329 firms. The queue of companies looking to list on the NTB - 827 firms planning to raise 58.4 billion yuan - underscores the boom in demand for speedier listings targeted at professional investors.

The rapid pace of activity in 2015 has pushed the number of listed companies in the NTB to 2,922, more than the 2,800 listed in Shenzhen and Shanghai combined.

"Everybody talks about it in a very positive way, because they think the Third Board probably will correct the deficiencies in the other boards," said Victor Wang, co-founder of ZhenFund, which is focused on seed financing for startups and has invested in more than 250 companies.

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The NTB is still not for the faint of heart. Like the main exchanges, it has been a wild ride, with the NEEQ market-making index surging 150 percent in the first three months of this year before plunging as much as 50 percent.

And like the big exchanges, it has not been above suspicions of market manipulation in stocks, one of which, Anhui Hauheng Biotechnology, soared to a giddy and worryingly exact 99,999.99 yuan per share before hurtling back to earth.

But the NTB has been left to its own devices and was a study of calm this week as turmoil again struck Shanghai and Shenzhen.

The appeal of a quick listing in the NTB could also lure some Chinese firms back from U.S. exchanges.

"The Chinese stock market is now much different from the year when we decided to list in the U.S. The biggest difference now is the New Third Board," said Raymond Huang, senior director of Investor Relations at AirMedia, which is considering to list in China.

"All these will make it more possible for the listing of growth enterprises, especially Internet companies, that have not generated profit yet."