Global Investing Hot Spots

Who will win the world's biggest IPO?

Hong Kong is both international and access market: HKEx CEO

Saudi Aramco's expected listing is widely predicted to be the world's largest, and the global competition for the prestigious event is breaking out from boardrooms and into the public.

Speaking to CNBC Wednesday, Hidetoshi Nagata, who heads new listings for the Tokyo Stock Exchange, made his case for Saudi Aramco, and said he believed the energy behemoth could opt for a listing in Japan.

"We have met with Aramco's people last year. We believe that they are quite interested in TSE," he said, adding that representatives first met with the Saudi Ministry of Energy last October.

Saudi Arabia is aiming to sell as much as 5 percent of Saudi Aramco with listings on both the Saudi stock exchange and at least one international market, Reuters reported recently, adding that the sale was expected to raise as much as $100 billion.

That's set off a horse race among global stock exchanges, with commentators naming a variety of cities — including Hong Kong, Singapore, New York, Toronto, London and Tokyo — as potential locations for the listing.

Arun Kant, chief executive and chief investment officer at Singapore-based investing firm Leonie Hill Capital, told CNBC that his proprietary artificial intelligence (AI) system was predicting a 55 percent chance that the company would choose to list on the New York Stock Exchange. That was followed, he said, by a 30 percent chance for London, a 10 percent chance for Toronto, and 5 percent for Hong Kong.

"Our model shows that because of market liquidity needs and keeping (President Donald) Trump happy, they are going to list the biggest IPO in the U.S.," Kant said in an email to CNBC.

Tokyo, Kant added, would likely be deemed too risky for the Saudis because of uncertainties about the yen.

Still, Saudi Arabia's King Salman is scheduled to visit Japan beginning March 12, and Aramco representatives are expected to be part of his delegation.

"We would like to show the benefit [to Aramco] of listing on a global exchange. We have access to many individual investors and a successful track record of large fund-raising like Japan Post," Nagata said.

Saudi Aramco President and Chief Executive Khalid A. al-Falih (L) and Saudi Arabia's Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi attend a news conference at the opening ceremony of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Jeddah, Sept. 23, 2009.
Susan Baaghil | Reuters

"We have a deep investor base," Nagata continued. "Aramco can raise huge funds, we're the third largest by market cap, we're also a global exchange, we have many top tier companies listed on our First Section. Institutional investors occupy half the trading base."

The Tokyo Stock Exchange official added that there are many high-net worth individual investors in Japan who could be attracted to an Aramco IPO on a local exchange.

"We are confident we have high liquidity compared to other Asian stock exchanges like Singapore and Hong Kong," he added.

Singapore's exchange, he said, is popular for derivatives, but less so for cash equity listings. And as for Hong Kong, Nagata said that exchange may boast China-based institutional investors, but it has fewer individual investors than Tokyo.

Speaking with CNBC this week, HKEX CEO Charles Li made his own pitch for Aramco, saying an IPO in Hong Kong would be a "match made in heaven" because of a distinct value proposition.

"We do bring very unique, very competitive proposition and value to that, both in terms of Hong Kong being an English common law jurisdiction, widely accepted by anybody as a listing venue with the most friendly and robust regulatory system," Li said.

"We are also very much an international market and operate completely under international law."

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No matter what artificial intelligence may be predicting, analysts and experts on the space emphasized that Saudi Aramco had a real decision before it.

"I think competition between the key exchanges is very real, but Saudi Arabia will be very selective," Ayham Kamel, director for Middle East and North Africa at the Eurasia Group, said in an email.

"New York and London are the prime targets but the current Saudi leadership is keen on attracting Asian investors."

Both the London Stock Exchange and the New York Stock Exchange declined to comment on Saudi Aramco's planned listing when contacted for this story by CNBC. Toronto had confirmed earlier that it is in the hunt.

Kamel called Tokyo's hopes of nabbing the listing "a long shot," but said it was not off the table. Hong Kong, he said, has "complications" because of a minimum free float requirement — for which the Saudis would seek an exemption. Singapore, meanwhile, is "viable" but has weak political linkages, he said.

Several others offered similar analysis on the Asian exchanges, including Saxo Bank Chief Economist and CIO Steen Jakobsen, who said Tokyo's chances are "close to zero" and Singapore's likelihood was "small."

Jakobsen deemed Hong Kong's IPO pitch "convincing."

Most interviewed by CNBC, however, said they saw at least one Saudi Aramco listing in the West.

"As a multi-bourse listing, Asia has an opportunity to be competitive, but Saudi Arabia is still at the early stages of exploring the viability of an Asia listing," Kamel said.

Multiple international exchanges winning a piece of the listing is certainly a possibility, with several analysts saying such an outcome is the likely course of events.

But the tea leaves about Saudi Aramco's current leanings are apparently a challenge to read, with several well-placed experts telling CNBC that New York is either a complete shoo-in for the listing — or it stands absolutely no chance because of regulation and geopolitical concerns.

—CNBC's Gemma Acton, Leslie Shaffer and Fred Imbert contributed to this report.

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