Why China's Nasdaq Is No GEM

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Bobby Yip / Reuters

A man talks on his phone outside the Shenzhen Stocks Exchange in China's Guangdong province on November 25, 2008

In Hong Kong last week, Metallurgical Corporation of China, a steel mill builder that helped construct Beijing's famed Bird's Nest Olympics stadium, stunned the stock market when it ended its first trading day 12% below its initial public offering price. The following day, an IPO by China Lilang, owner of the country's largest brand of men's clothing, also flopped, ending the day down nearly 1%. To think that less than three months ago, even lightweights like herbal shampoo manufacturer Bawang and furniture maker Hing Lee debuted with double-digit first-day gains.

It seems bad timing, then, for the Shenzhen Stock Exchange to be launching the country's first Nasdaq-style board in October. After dithering for nine years, mainland regulators finally approved the bourse's proposal for a Growth Enterprise Market (GEM), which aims to help technology and other innovation-oriented start-ups get off the ground. Of the 150 companies that have applied to launch initial public offerings, 22 have won approval. Last week, the first batch of 10 enterprises in electronics, software, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology started accepting subscriptions from domestic investors (foreigners are excluded).

Why is China launching a new stock market board when the prospects for the global economy look so uncertain and investors appear to be souring on IPOs? Like many other counter-intuitive decisions in the communist state, this one also has a method to the seeming madness. It may not look like it, but GEM is actually an important plank in a campaign to tackle one of the country's most pressing predicaments: how to nurture small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which create nearly eight out of 10 jobs, pay 50% of taxes and account for 60% of gross domestic product.

China's problem is that the recent state-directed deluge of bank lending has resulted in a recovery in GDP growth but the money is not filtering down to the SME sector. Loans are going mainly to politically connected state-owned enterprises, which now comprise just 40% of the economy and create only a quarter of jobs. It's an entrenched situation that dates back to the days of economic central planning, and something that China's communist rulers do not seem to have the political gumption — or indeed the desire — to change.

Instead, government planners are banking on GEM to help SMEs get access to capital, augmenting previous initiatives such as the Small and Medium Enterprises Board that the Shenzhen bourse set up in 2004 and state funding for the domestic private equity sector to supply SMEs with venture capital and other funding. GEM, in particular, is regarded as a platform to jumpstart ventures that could dominate China's post-crisis economic environment, in which heavy industry and manufacturing is supposed to take a back seat to higher "value-added" and consumer-focused businesses. It is no coincidence that some in local media grandly refer to "the search for the next Microsoft" in reports about the new board.

The question is whether GEM will be more effective than the banking sector in meeting the funding needs of SMEs. Prospective GEM companies certainly hope so. The 10 enterprises initially aimed to raise around $490 million, but doubled the target after IPOs like Bawang were accorded high valuations. Based on their aggressive IPO pricing, the average price-earnings ratio of the 10 stocks is estimated at 55 times 2008 profits, higher than the average p/e ratio of 40 times asked by the 10 companies that most recently listed on the SME Board.

There are indications that investor interest may not be as strong as expected. The Shenzhen Stock Exchange says less than 200,000 GEM accounts have been opened, far fewer than anticipated. But there are reports of queues in Beijing and Shanghai, where some brokerages say they have extended working hours to accommodate demand. Because GEM companies are seen as riskier than those on other boards, only longtime investors are encouraged to participate, although brokerages can register those with less than two years' investing experience on a case-by-case basis.

The perceived higher risks emanate from GEM's lower listing thresholds compared with those at the main boards in Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong — and even the SME Board in Shenzhen, which requires IPO applicants to have at least three years' operating history and profits. GEM may consider for listing a company that turned a profit of as low as $730,000 in the previous one year, provided total sales exceeded $44 million.

To mitigate the risks, GEM will require higher disclosure levels from its companies and promises to intervene if prices rise or fall too steeply. It will order a 30-minute trading suspension if a newly listed company's share price changes by 20% from the IPO price, and then a second 30-minute timeout if the price moves by another 30% upon resumption.

It's a fine line to tread. China's army of retail investors — its citizens are said to have opened more than 100 million stock brokerage accounts — is driven by sentiment rather than fundamentals. They expect to make hefty gains from IPOs as a matter of course, and so capping price rises even temporarily may turn off many of them.

This may be the flaw in China's strategy to nourish private-sector enterprises. If SMEs are to tap the capital markets for steady and sustainable financing, investors must be willing to support them for the long term. Unfortunately, the market's current get-rich-quick mindset cannot be changed overnight. Hong Kong, a more mature financial center, launched a GEM board 10 years ago. It has not been a notable success, with just 172 companies and total market capitalization of $11 billion — equal to 0.6% of the main board's.

The SME Board in Shenzhen is doing better, having listed 293 firms with total market cap of $80 billion, equivalent to about 11% of the main board's. Still, the odds are that GEM and other initiatives may not do much to help China's private sector. The country's rulers may yet be forced to move more aggressively to stop state-owned enterprises from sucking up all the oxygen in the banking system, and do so sooner rather than later.