China Economy

U.S. pressure could accelerate growth for markets in Greater China

Key Points
  • Congress is mulling a new law that could force Chinese companies to delist their stocks from American exchanges.
  • Meanwhile, money managers looking for long-term growth opportunities have increasingly turned to China, even before the coronavirus pandemic shocked global growth.
  • More IPOs, investment funds and institutions are set to turn to Hong Kong and mainland China.
Chinese tourists with facial masks stand in front of the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) on February 3, 2020 at Wall Street in New York City.
Johannes Eisele | AFP | Getty Images

U.S. pressure on Chinese stocks looks set to accelerate the growth of capital markets in Hong Kong and mainland China, as investors remain intent on chasing opportunities in the world's second-largest economy.

Congress is mulling a new law that could force Chinese companies to delist their stocks from American exchanges. The move builds on existing U.S.-China tensions, which began in earnest two years ago on trade, and have since spilled over into technology and finance. In mid-May, U.S. President Donald Trump's administration told a federal pension fund to halt investments in Chinese stocks.  

Revelation in April of major fraud at Luckin Coffee — which sold itself as a rival to Starbucks in China — accelerated U.S. concerns about lack of transparency into Chinese companies.

"Luckin poisoned the well," said Blueshirt managing director Gary Dvorchak, who advises Chinese companies interested in listing in the U.S. "I foresee a very, very difficult environment."

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At the same time, major international stock and bond index managers have started to include mainland Chinese assets, following years of observation. The inclusion automatically adds some Chinese stocks to many investment funds. Money managers looking for long-term growth opportunities have increasingly turned to China, even before the coronavirus pandemic shocked global growth.

Covid-19 emerged late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan. It has since infected more than 7.3 million people, and killed over 416,000. 

The outbreak stalled in China by mid-March. Economists expect the country to eke out growth this year, while they predict developed nations like the U.S. will contract. The Asian giant is also home to some of the largest technology start-ups in the world.

"To deprive investors from great growth companies is a big mistake, and it will have a meaningful effect on the U.S. financial market," Brendan Ahern, U.S.-based chief investment officer at exchange-traded funds manager KraneShares, said in a phone interview last week. "More investment bankers in Hong Kong, more lawyers, more traders — it will have a true impact on the U.S. finance sector, the New York metropolitan area as a financial hub (for) U.S. capital."

The New York Federal Reserve found that the U.S.-China trade war reduced the market capitalization of U.S.-listed companies by $1.7 trillion, with further hits to investment expected this year, according to a study published in late May. 

Foreign funds flowing into China

In April, allocation to Chinese assets among more than 800 funds held steady from the prior month at almost a quarter of nearly $2 trillion in assets under management, according to the latest data available from EPFR. The data covers nine categories of stocks listed in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the U.S. and Singapore.

Chinese government restrictions on cross-border capital flows have made it difficult for foreign funds to access domestic markets, making Hong Kong a more attractive option for international investors wanting to tap China. 

Underdeveloped regulation on the mainland has also resulted in a rather heavy-handed approach to controlling China's stock markets, which are dominated by retail investors who tend to speculate rather than invest for the long term. For years, many have dubbed the mainland Chinese stock market a "casino."

However, analysts say Chinese markets are slowly maturing as more local institutions invest and regulation improves. 

Foreign investor interest in mainland Chinese stocks has also increased. In late May, the Shenzhen Stock Exchange issued an alert that the foreign investment ratio in three stocks was nearing the 30% limit, the first time such a notice has been issued for three companies, according to China's National Business Daily.

Foreign funds accounted for 3.5% of the A shares available for trading, according to data accessed through Wind Information, a financial database. 

More IPOs in Hong Kong, mainland

As U.S. political pressure accelerates, New York-listed Chinese companies are quickly turning to Hong Kong.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission is set to hold a roundtable on July 9 to hear views from investors and others on the risks of investing in emerging markets such as China. UBS' in-house regulatory affairs experts expect the U.S. House of Representatives will pass the new legislation against Chinese IPOs by late August, according to a note Tuesday.

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Ahead of these potential changes, NetEase held a secondary stock offering in Hong Kong on Thursday, while Chinese e-commerce and logistics company JD.com is also planning a secondary listing in coming weeks.

"If you're a publicly traded company anywhere in the world this uncertainty is a material risk. There's no way around that," James Early, CEO of investment research firm Stansberry China, said in a phone interview last week. "The second listing idea is going to be a lot more palatable than just getting out of the U.S. altogether."

Many Chinese companies have sought the chance to list in New York for the branding benefits, and the opportunity to build capital outside of China's border controls. Even as Washington-Beijing tensions simmered, Chinese grocery delivery platform Dada went public on the Nasdaq last week. 

For its part, the Chinese government has wanted to keep its best companies listed closer to home. Last year, the STAR Market launched in Shanghai just months after a directive from Chinese President Xi Jinping

"Shanghai's STAR market has also lowered the costs of going public in China, removing one of the key reasons why many Chinese companies go public in Hong Kong or abroad," Jay Ritter, a finance professor at the University of Florida, said in an email. He pointed out that companies in China have faced long delays in getting approval from the China Securities Regulatory Commission. 

The number of public offerings in China reflects the regulatory changes. 

  • In 2018, 105 companies listed on mainland Chinese A share markets, down from 438 the prior year, according to Wind data. 
  • When the STAR Market launched last year, it attracted 70 out of the 203 companies that went public, the data showed.
  • For this year through Tuesday, 39 of the 106 public offerings were on the STAR market, according to Wind.

The number of public offerings in Hong Kong has also climbed in the last several years, topping 160 last year and 55 for the year so far, according to Wind.

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The semi-autonomous region has made it easier in recent years for biotechnology companies to list on its exchange. The Hong Kong Stock Exchange is already home to Chinese technology giants such as Tencent and Meituan-Dianping

UBS Securities' China equity strategy team added in a note that new secondary listings in Hong Kong could still draw investment from U.S. institutional investors that have global operations. 

Overseas financial firms step up interest

International financial institutions have already had their eye on China. The Chinese government has increased efforts to open up the domestic financial industry further to foreign players. The moves are part of a years-long trend, and are also part of the phase one trade agreement signed with the U.S. in January. Critics say Beijing ensured its own financial services industry was well developed before opening the market to foreigners.

But many in the business point out that several segments of financial services are still in the early stages of development, such as insurance and asset management. 

"We've seen a lot of interest in the market," Chantal Grinderslev, partner at Shanghai-based investment management consulting firm Z-Ben, said in an email. "For those clients that are looking into China ... they all realize: In the current global environment, there isn't an alternative to China."

In one of the latest moves by a foreign firm, Fidelity International – the now independent overseas arm of the U.S. asset management giant – applied last month to set up a wholly owned mutual fund unit. In 2018, the company launched a five-year partnership with Ant Fortune, a subsidiary of Alibaba-affiliate Ant Financial, to study retirement preparedness among people in China. 

Scully Cui, principal at Bain Greater China, pointed out in a phone interview earlier this week that more and more foreign firms are coming into a Chinese market that is already full of nimble players.

"The foreign financial institutions should (move) quickly enough to make the best use of this opening up policy," she said.