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Red chips with everything

The handover of Hong Kong to China holds few fears for investors, write Margaret Soares and Ho Sweelin
Albert Chan sold his Hong Kong apartment last year, planning to emigrate before the British colony returned to Chinese rule.

Now the 45-year-old fireman is back - and, like thousands of others in this city of 6.3 million, he is betting on Hong Kong's future by investing in the territory's stock market. He put half of the $800,000 (pounds 480,000) from his flat into shares and doubled his money in less than a year.

Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule at midnight on Monday may knock a few points off the Hang Seng Index, but the dip will be short-lived as the prospect of investing in what is likely to be the world's largest economy inside 50 years upstages politics, UK money managers said.

This view is borne out by the Hong Kong stock market's performance in 1997 and, indeed, in many years since 1984 when Britain and China signed the agreement that would put the territory back in Beijing's hands.

With a capitalisation of $500bn, Asia's second-largest stock market is thriving and its benchmark Hang Seng Index is near record highs. In 1997 alone, the Index is up 13.4 per cent. The money pouring into the territory "is a good reflection of the mood", said Stephanie Wu, who manages the $95m Greater China Fund for Foreign & Colonial Investment Management.

Although no one doubts that China will make good its promise to disband the territory's legislature or require groups to get permission to demonstrate, fund managers are not concerned.

If any political news were to upset Hong Kong's market, said Ms Wu, it would have been the death of Deng Xiao Ping in March and concern about battles over his successor. "The power struggle never took place," she said. "If there hasn't been capital flight and massive emigration by now, it's not likely to happen."

Ms Wu said the Hang Seng could dip about 1,000 points in the 12 months after the handover as investors and the territory adjust to the transition, but "we're positive it will come back", she said.

Others are less sanguine. Nigel Chan and Annabel Betz of ING Barings in Hong Kong have worries about the political and economic future. They think the rally could peter out later in the year and advise investors to take profits before the Chinese Communists' 50th party congress in September.

Old Mutual Asset Management's Ashok Shah said fund managers will have to have more "robust strategies" to handle the vagaries of the market's movement in next few months.

But in the UK fund managers are optimistic about the market. "Hong Kong is towards the upper end of its traditional valuation range but the index could still rise to 18,000 by the end of the year, said Michael Ashridge, investment director at Save & Prosper. "There is fresh investor interest in Hong Kong as the potential of China is being better understood."

Meanwhile, the Hang Seng index, which hit a record high of 15,196.79 on Friday, trades at about 16 times the forecast 1997 earnings per share of its members. In 1994, it was trading at about 23 times earnings - suggesting to some that stocks still have room to rise.

The stock market is changing as, like the rest of Hong Kong, the bourse is gradually being dominated by China. In place of the old hongs (trading houses) are the growing legion of Chinese investment companies, or "red chips". With ties to Hong Kong's future rulers, they are leading the stock market rally. Old Hong Kong hands say investors should focus on corporate profits.

"Don't believe in someone's talk then jump in and make a big investment," said Li Ka-shing, chairman of Cheung Kong (Holdings) and Hutchison Whampoa. "Anyone investing needs to see the potential."

In the months after 1 July, interest rates may set the course for Hong Kong stocks. The territory shadows US monetary policy and if the Federal Reserve tightens credit, Hong Kong will too.

Investors from across the border have been behind record trading days on the territory's exchange, brokers said. It is in China's interest, they say, to have the stock market rallying when the People's Liberation Army marches in. "The market still has some mileage to go unless you have a very strong reason to sell - and we don't," said Husan Pai, a fund manager at Indosuez Asset Management Asia.