Exchange books passage on a fast boat to China

Stock markets around the world are courting potentially the world's greatest economy for the business it will bring, writes Tony Lyons
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Investors could soon be able to buy and sell Chinese shares that are quoted on the London Stock Exchange. A quick phone call to a stockbroker and they can trade in companies quoted on the London market which are based in one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.

This will follow the hoped-for signing later this year of a Memorandum of Understanding by the London Stock Exchange, the Treasury, the Securities and Investments Board and the China Securities Regulatory Commission.

A seminar held in Peking at the end of last month was initiated by the London Stock Exchange and co-sponsored by the China International Trust and Investment Corporation. The latter is the Chinese authority for arranging funds for investment in China and arranges joint ventures internally and overseas.

It was opened by Li Lanqing, China's Vice-Premier, and Michael Heseltine, the Deputy Prime Minister, who was coincidentally leading a trade delegation to China at the same time. Over 300 of the most senior members of the Chinese business community attended.

China has an insatiable appetite for foreign investment. Since the start of the "socialist market economy" in the 1980s which replaced the centralised control of the Communist regime, over 300,000 industrial enterprises have been formed. Its economy is expanding rapidly, by over 12 per cent a year. China is already the third-largest economy in the world, and expected to be the largest by 2020.

"Few economies have more potential than the Chinese economy," Ian Slater, deputy chairman of the Stock Exchange, told the delegates in Peking. "The London Stock Exchange wants to ensure Chinese companies are aware of the tremendous strengths of London's financial markets and the role London can play in enabling them to raise capital.

Mr Slater says that more than 500 international companies have chosen to list in London - significantly more than on any other exchange. "It is also the world's largest market for the trading of international equities."

The Chinese, who have already signed similar memorandums with the United States, Hong Kong and Australia, want to adopt a cautious entry to the London market. They want a full knowledge of how our markets operate, who will own the shares in the companies and how our stock markets are regulated.

Do not expect a rush of Chinese companies that want to have their shares traded in London. At most, only one or two are expected in the next 18 months. The Chinese will want to see how we differ from other countries with well-developed stock markets for fund-raising, especially New York.

Unlike the Chinese proverb, "There are many paths to the top of the mountain but the view is always the same," there can be significant differences between London and New York in listing arrangements.

While it will appear on the surface that individual companies will make the decision about coming to the UK, there is no doubt that any listing of shares will be subject to the agreement of the Chinese regulatory authorities. And more often than not, this will be determined by the then current political realities, depending on how good relations are in the pending transfer of Hong Kong.

Which sector of the Chinese economy, let alone which company, will be the first to test the water in London is impossible to guess. China is now one of the world's top five oil and gas producers, It has significant capacity in minerals, chemicals, agricultural production, machine tools, electronic equipment and is the number one textile and footwear manufacturer.

Mark Abell, international marketing manager of the Exchange, says: "Only the top quality companies will be interested and of these, only those with top quality management will seek access to London".

While private investors will be interested in the first Chinese companies to list here, they might be best advised to leave them to the professionals. There is just too much information needed which is not readily available or accessible. This includes the Chinese financial regulations, economic conditions, differences in accounting standards, as well as exchange rate fluctuations with a currency as tightly regulated as the Chinese yuan.

For the foreseeable future, it will remain better to restrict investment in Chinese companies to the more conventional route of investment trusts, unit trusts and other funds. Later on, all this could change. The Exchange, as part of its profile-raising around the world, is making overtures to many developing countries about its capital-raising abilities.

Led by Mr Abell, it is courting a list of rapidly industrialising nations including Korea, Indonesia, South Africa, India and Vietnam. As well as new issues and the largest companies, the City is trying to attract a growing slice of the listings of overseas utilities and privatisations. Investment in emerging markets for capital growth is all the rage. Before long, however, we could see a whole new sector of the stock market in London where shares can be traded directly in companies in those markets.

Looking for credit card or current account deals? Search here