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Do China markets need a billionaire cheerleader?

An investor in front of an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai, September 2, 2015.
China Daily | Reuters
An investor in front of an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai, September 2, 2015.

From George Soros breaking the British pound in 1992 to last year's Treasury selloff when 'bond king' Bill Gross exited Pimco, Wall Street's high-profile investors have a long history of moving markets. Now, strategists are wondering if the same could ring true for China.

The Shanghai Composite resumed trade more than 3 percent higher on Thursday after a week-long holiday. But it ended the third quarter as one of the world's worst-performing markets, down 25 percent after a summer of volatility. With Beijing's efforts to shore up confidence in recent months yet to pay off, one strategist has called on China's billionaires to step up to the plate.

The mainland needs a "white knight"' for its stock market, Robert Jones, managing director of Hong Kong-based investment consultancy FCL Advisory, told CNBC.

After the Shanghai and Shenzhen indices crashed in mid-June, officials unleashed a slew of aggressive measures to end panic selling, such as asking companies to halt initial public offerings and refrain from selling stocks. But such requests are akin to being bossed around by one's parents, which tends to result in people doing the opposite of what they're told, Jones said.

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"We're in the era where Chinese billionaires need to take charge. For decades, we've had Hong Kong billionaires generate publicity and influence thousands of investors, but now with the shift in wealth to China, Chinese billionaires must take over from the old Hong Kong guard."

He noted that wealthy businessmen had been as quiet as mice in recent months in regard to market volatility.

"The only noise getting made right now is about billionaires making giant purchases overseas, whether its cinema chains or real estate, when this is the exact moment they need to pull in their horns and go back to domestic markets to shore up confidence," Jones said.

His comments came as Hong Kong tycoon Li Ka Shing, Asia's richest man, was accused of being unpatriotic in an editorial by the People's Daily, widely considered the mouthpiece of the Communist party, after he sold some Chinese investments. Li has dismissed the attack, calling the criticism "brouhaha."

What could billionaires do?

"Vocal support won't be useful; what's more important is share buybacks, which helps build confidence and injects liquidity. Confidence is the market's biggest problem right now," Ken Wong, Asia equity portfolio specialist at Eastspring Investments, told CNBC.

Share buybacks aren't as frequent in A-share markets as they should be, which is strange because mainland companies have enjoyed substantial gains in operating cash flow in recent years, so they do have cash lying around that can be put to use, he explained.

Regulators circulated a note earlier this summer encouraging buybacks, either via the repurchase of preferred shares or by redeeming bonds, as part of their stabilization toolkit. But when companies answered Beijing's request, they paid a hefty price. Firms that announced buybacks in the past three months saw their shares lose an average of roughly 40 percent, Reuters reported in mid-September.

Possible candidates

The white knight needed to be someone high-profile, well-known and respected, similar to U.S. investment sage Warren Buffett, according to Jones. There was a strong case to be made that it should be Jack Ma, he said, citing the Alibaba founder's articulate delivery, cult following and humble image as 'a man of the people.'

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But Ma, who is China's second-richest man, according to Hurun's 2015 China Rich List, typically focuses on the Chinese economy, not markets, when speaking about his home country. The e-commerce mogul recently told the Clinton Global Initiative meeting that Americans worried too much about China, pointing to the mainland's high savings rate as a key factor that would help the nation weather a slowdown.

But will it work?

"Celebrity endorsements won't carry much credibility... I'm hard pressed to see if these guys can be a catalyst for a rally," Fraser Howie, independent analyst and long-time China-watcher, told CNBC.

Howie believes billionaires and high-profile investors preferred to keep their heads down during an ongoing stock probe by Chinese authorities. Last month, a company part-owned by Ma was fined "allowing investors to conduct trading without providing real identities," according to the China Securities Regulatory Commission.

Moreover, previous examples of public support from tycoons haven't helped, Howie pointed out.

Liu Chuanzhi, chairman of Legend Holdings as well as the founder of Lenovo, told the South China Morning Post at the end of June that he believed stocks would continue to rise, but markets paid no heed, extending their declines through July.

"I'm not sure there is any correlation to be honest," echoed Andrew Sullivan, managing director of sales trading at Haitong International Securities. "Chinese investors are a very mixed bunch and a lot of them are momentum [or] short-term traders who rely on margin financing. They are looking for a quick gain, they are not long-term holders of stock, whereas people like Jack Ma have been long-term players."

And the Chinese public has become extremely skeptical of public endorsements following the market's pull-back, Sullivan noted, adding: "The government and prominent members of society told them that stocks were cheap and not to worry about the pull-back. Advice that proved to be false!"

Furthermore, Chinese stocks tend to react more to comments by top government officials than well-known corporate names, Wong flagged. That comes down to a matter of corporate governance, he said.

"Once that improves, people will have more belief in companies and give more weight to comments by wealthy businessmen and investors."