Navigating China’s Treacherous IPO Markets

January 11th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Song plate from China First Capital blog post

How do you say “Scylla and Charybdis”  in Chinese? Thankfully, you don’t need to know the translation, or even reference from Homer’s The Odyssey, to understand the severe dilemma faced by China’s stock exchange regulator, the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC)

Scylla and Charybdis were a pair of sea monsters guarding opposite sides of a narrow straight. Together, they posed an inescapable threat to sailors’ lives. By avoiding one, you sailed directly into the lair of the other. 

The CSRC has been trying to navigate between twin perils over the last months, since the October launch of ChiNext , the new Shenzhen stock exchange for smaller-cap private companies. They have tried to stamp out the trading volatility and big first day gains that characterized earlier IPOs in China. But, in doing so, they’ve created circumstances where the valuations of companies going public on the ChiNext have reached dangerous and unsustainably high levels. 

Monsters to the left, monsters to the right. The regulators at CSRC deserve combat pay. 

Based on most key measures, ChiNext has been a phenomenal success. So far, through the end of 2009, 36 companies have IPO’d on ChiNext, raising a total of over $2 billion from investors. That’s more than double the amount these 36 companies were originally seeking to raise from their IPOs. Therein lies the Scylla-Charybdis problem. 

Before ChiNext  opened, the CSRC was determined to avoid one common problem with Chinese IPOs on the main Shanghai and Shenzhen markets – that the price on the first day of trading typically rose very sharply, with lots of volatility. A sharp jump in the price on the first day is great for investors who were able to buy shares ahead of the IPO. In China, those lucky few investors are usually friends and business contacts of the underwriters, who were typically rewarded with first-day gains of over 20%. These investors could hold their shares for a matter of minutes or hours on the day of the IPO, then sell at a nice profit. 

But, while a first-day surge may be great for these favored investors, it’s bad news for the companies staging the IPOs. It means, quite simply, their shares were underpriced (often significantly so) at IPO. As a result, they raised less money than they could have. The money, instead, is wrongly diverted into the hands of the investors who bought the shares at artificially low prices. An IPO that has a 25% first-day gain is an IPO that failed to maximize the amount the company could raise from investors. 

Underwriters are at fault. When they set the price at IPO, they can start trading at a level that all but guarantees an immediate increase. This locks in profits for the people they choose to allocate shares to ahead of the start of trading. 

The CSRC, rightly,  decided to do something about this. They mandated that the opening price for companies listing on the CSRC should be set more by market demand, not the decision of an underwriter. The result is that the opening day prices on ChiNext have far more accurately reflected the price investors are willing to pay for the new offering.

Gains that used to go to first-day IPO investors are now harvested by the companies. They can raise far more money for the fixed number of shares offered at IPO. So far so good. The problem is: Chinese investors are bidding up the prices of many of these new offerings to levels that are approaching madness. 

The best example so far: when Guangzhou Improve Medical Instruments Co had its IPO last month, its shares traded at an opening price 108 times its 2008 earnings.  The most recent  group of companies to IPO on ChiNext had first-day valuations of over 80 times 2008 earnings. Because of the high valuations, these ChiNext-listed companies have raised more than twice the amount of money they planned from their IPO. 

On one hand, that’s great for the companies. But, the risk is that the companies will not use the extra money wisely (for example by speculating in China’s overheated property market), and so the high valuations they enjoy now will eventually plummet. Indeed, valuations at over 80x  are no more sustainable on the ChiNext now than they were on the Tokyo Stock Exchange a generation ago. 

Having steered ChiNext away from the danger of underpriced IPOs, the CSRC is now trying to cope with this new menace. They have limited tools at their disposal. They clearly don’t want to return pricing power to underwriters. But, neither do they want ChiNext to become a market with insane valuations and companies that are bloated with too much cash and too many temptations to misuse it.   

CSRC’s response: they just introduced new rules to limit the ways ChiNext companies can use the extra cash raised at IPO.  CSRC is also reportedly studying ways to lower IPO valuations on ChiNext. 

The new rules restrict the uses of the extra cash. Shareholder approval is required for any investment over Rmb 50 million, or more than 20% of the extra IPO proceeds on a single project. The CSRC also reiterated that ChiNext companies should use the additional proceeds from their IPOs to fund their main businesses and not for high-risk investments, such as securities, derivatives or venture capital.

The new rules are fine, as far as they go. But, they don’t go very far towards resolving the underlying cause of all these problems, of both underpriced and overpriced IPOs in China.

The problem is that CSRC itself limits the number of new IPOs, to try to maintain overall market stability. Broadly speaking, this restricted supply creates excessive demand for all Chinese IPOs. Regulatory interventions and tinkering with the rules won’t do much. There remains the fundamental imbalance between the number of domestic IPOs and investor interest in new offerings.

Faced with two bad options, Odysseus chose to take his chances with the sea monster Scylla, and survived, while losing quite a few of his crew. The alternative was worse, he figured, since Charybdis could sink the whole ship.

The CSRC may well make a similar decision and return some pricing power to underwriters, to bring down ChiNext’s valuations.  But, without an increased supply of IPOs in China,  the two large hazards will persist. CSRC’s navigation of China’s IPO market will certainly remain treacherous.  


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