Derek Pain: Foreign forces' invasion has its downside

No Pain No Gain

More than 50 Chinese companies enjoy a London share quote. Since the first arrived 15 years ago there has been a steady flow of newcomers with eight opting for full listings. Most of the others are on the junior Aim although a handful ventured onto the fringe Plus platform.

Although the new-issue business is down in the dumps, the Chinese invasion appears to be continuing. A number of aspiring groups have their sights on a London presence with a company called Fairy Fox, a clothing group, expected to join Aim this month. It hopes to raise £13 million from a placing but does not see London as its long-term home, indicating that Hong Kong could provide its main listing in a few years' time.

Hong Kong is also the main market for the first Chinese company to arrive in London, Datang International Power. It achieved fully listed status in March 1997 but its shares have experienced an extremely soporific time with most of the trading probably occurring in the Far East.

Globalisation has dramatically increased the foreign influence in London in the past decade or so. It is not only the Chinese that have come to town. Resources stocks from Russia and its former satellites have arrived in numbers and have become quite powerful, enjoying a not inconsiderable input when the Footsie, London's benchmark share index, is calculated.

I must confess I am uneasy about this foreign influx. My attitude is out of step with most investment participants. Overseas companies have for long been part and parcel of the London stock market scene but they have never been as numerous, or powerful, as they are now.

Indeed their influence in the Footsie calculations has produced suggestions that the widely quoted index should be revamped, or at least produced alongside a new index that reflects the performance of the UK economy rather than, say, a commentary on the future prices of metals and oil.

The Footsie was launched in 1984. In effect it replaced the FT 30 share index that was started in 1935 and composed of British companies. Banks were excluded from the original 30 shares selected, perhaps, displaying a considerable degree of foresight in view of the banking behaviour we have witnessed. It is unwise to believe an overseas company, although quoted in London, is restricted to the British rulebook.

It may have signed up to our listing requirements but it is still subject to the laws of its home country or, one it selects. I am also dubious about many of the so-called emerging markets, so beloved by many fund managers. Perhaps, in years ahead, some of these countries will turn out to be long-term winners. There could, however, be many upsets before any hoped-for success materialises.

Anthony Bolton, once the "golden boy" of City fund managers, has so far had to stomach sad reverses in China. Two years ago, he launched the Fidelity China Special Situations fund. The shares started at around 100p, topped 120p and are now 76p. Since its debut the fund has lost about a fifth of its value.

But Mr Bolton, a fund manager for 30 years, still expects it to prosper. He says: "To date the road has been hard but my enthusiasm for this amazing country remains unabated."

The Chinese companies that have sought a London presence have, as I suppose had to be expected, included some losers.

For example the Dongfang Shipbuilding Group arrived in August. The shares hovered near 20p for a time, yet by November had shot to 120p. But, as far as investors were concerned it was not all shipshape and Bristol fashion. By March the price had fallen below 20p after particularly discouraging trading statements. Then Northland Capital resigned as financial adviser and stockbroker to the company, prompting a share suspension. Last month the quote was cancelled.

And the excitement over rare earth elements, needed for some high-tech industries, has given another Chinese group a highly volatile ride. Since the shares of Rare Earths Global arrived at 247p in March they have topped 1,000p but are now down to 323p.

Still, the group, which is in the process of raising a $50 million loan through Credit Suisse, could well enjoy a prosperous future.

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