Author: CHUNG Yoon Ngan
Date: 07-03-12 02:51
Linking China to the rest of the world
By ALFRED ROMANN
June 29, 2012 - 2:05pm http://www.chinadailyapac.com
Shoppers outside a Prada store in Hong Kong. The Italian luxury fashion house listed in Hong Kong in 2011, as did mining company Glencore and Russian aluminum producer Rusal.(AFP)
A veritable fortress of skyscrapers stands guard over the heart of Hong Kong, each of them marked by a different financial institution.
The iconic HSBC Tower stands next to the Standard Chartered Bank building. Just a flight of stairs away is Citibank Tower and next to it, the Bank of China Tower. The latter can be found emblazoned across plenty of HK$20 bills.
Besides making up one of the most impressive skylines in the world, this collection of buildings is testament to the city’s enduring strength as a financial center.
A decade and a half after China took over the reins of Hong Kong, the city has emerged as a wedge, opening up global markets for the yuan.
Fears that rapid growth in Shanghai and Shenzhen would overshadow Hong Kong have, so far, not come true. Rather, Hong Kong has become a bridge between the Chinese mainland and the rest of the world, most recently by taking up the mantle as the largest offshore center for yuan trade.
“Hong Kong has gone from strength to strength. Its position as a financial center has massively developed since 1997,” says Richard Harris, founder and chief executive of investment management firm Port Shelter as well as long-term Hong Kong resident who started his career here in 1978.
Hong Kong was a British colony for 156 years before it was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. By and large, Beijing has kept its local institutions intact. The legal system is unique to Hong Kong as is the monetary and financial system. Banks are governed by local regulations. The stock exchange is independent of the bourses on the mainland.
Yet the links between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland have deepened, alongside economic growth.
Since 1997, Hong Kong has become the listing market of choice for mainland State-owned and private enterprises looking for international capital. At the end of 2011, there were 640 mainland Chinese enterprises listed on both the main board and the growth enterprise market, making up 55 percent of the Stock Exchange of Hong Kong’s (HKEX) market capitalization and accounting for 66 percent of annual turnover.
“Hong Kong has always been a major fundraising center for Chinese companies,” says Francis Lun, managing director of investment firm Lyncean Holdings.
Even before 1997, Hong Kong had been attracting listings from companies from the mainland. The first was Tsingtao Breweries, which went public in 1993. China Mobile raised $4.5 billion in a dual New York/Hong Kong listing in October 1997, a few months after the handover. And right through the Asian financial crisis, IPOs in Hong Kong did not stop.
The listings started coming fast after the turn of the millennium. Some of mainland China’s largest State-owned companies beat one IPO record after another.
“Hong Kong feasted on the listings of mainland Chinese companies, particularly from 2000 onwards,” says Lun. “In recent years it has been helped by many international companies.”
The Agricultural Bank of China set a record in 2010 with a dual Hong Kong/Shanghai listing that raised $22.1 billion. The previous largest share sale in the world had been the $21.9 billion IPO by Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in 2006.
The HKEX is now focused on attracting more international IPOs and has been successful to some degree. Prada listed in Hong Kong, as did commodities trading and mining company Glencore and aluminum producer Rusal.
Hong Kong has steadily cemented its position as a global financial center. It was the largest market in the world for IPOs between 2009 and 2011 and the vast majority of yuan-denominated bonds are issued here. In 2009, Hong Kong attracted 22 percent of global IPOs to become the largest such center in the world and retained that leadership for two years. In 2011, around 101 newly-listed companies raised HK$260 billion ($33.5 billion).
Since 2009, the city has been the trade settlement center for transactions in yuan, which means companies with business on the mainland can pay their bills in Hong Kong. Thanks in large part to this scheme, the percentage of China’s international trade settled in yuan has grown from 2 percent in 2010 to 8 percent in 2011, according to the Hong Kong Monetary Authority (HKMA).
China’s 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) also identifies Hong Kong as an offshore yuan center, a role that China’s Vice-Premier Li Keqiang reaffirmed during a visit in August 2011.
“It is both Hong Kong’s and China’s need that Hong Kong continues to bring out its long-established unique advantages and play its irreplaceable role in the mainland’s reform, opening up and modernization,” Li said during that visit.
About $1 trillion or 27 percent of the mainland’s $3.6 trillion in total trade in 2011 was done through Hong Kong. An even larger 61 percent of the $116 billion of foreign direct investment into China, about $71 billion, went through the city while 56 percent of China’s own overseas direct investment in 2010, some $39 billion, passed through Hong Kong.
Of the total 2,081 billion yuan ($327 billion) in China’s international trade settled in yuan in 2011, some 1,915 billion yuan was settled by Hong Kong banks, according to the HKMA.
“Hong Kong has long been the hub for trade between China and other parts of the world, intermediating around 30 percent of China’s external trade in 2011,” said HKMA Chief Executive Norman Chan during a roadshow to South America. “Hong Kong is also the gateway for China’s inward and outward direct investments.”
Hong Kong is already host to the largest pool of hedge fund assets invested in Asia and has been, since 2011, the most popular center for hedge fund start-ups.
Last year, Asia-focused hedge funds held $38.9 billion in Hong Kong, compared to $31.5 billion in Australia and $19.5 billion in Singapore. The city is also the second-largest hub for private equity funds and the ongoing liberalization of China and Hong Kong’s role as a gateway is likely to attract more funds.
But although important and highly developed as an IPO market, Hong Kong still trails New York and London as a truly global financial center. Bond and commodities trading, the two areas that put the US and UK cities at the top of the list, are not developed in Hong Kong.
Also, Hong Kong still lags behind the two in terms of assets under management. In 2010, Hong Kong had $1.3 trillion in assets under management while the UK and US had $7.4 trillion and $26.2 trillion respectively.
Nevertheless, its role as a gateway to the Chinese mainland puts Hong Kong in an enviable position in Asia. Rather than fade away in the years since the handover, it has flourished.
Its $176 billion GDP in 1997 grew to $243 billion in 2011, while GDP per capita rose from $27,000 to $34,000 in the same period, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Since 1997, Hong Kong has survived the Asian financial crisis, weathered the downturn brought about by the SARS outbreak and, more recently, the global financial crisis. Every time it has come back a little stronger and a little more resilient. The city’s economy is focused on services — a byproduct of specialization — which accounts for about 90 percent of GDP and is much higher than elsewhere. There is very little manufacturing here.
The emergence of Hong Kong as the pre-eminent offshore yuan center in the past couple of years is the latest example of its resilience and the symbiotic relationship with Beijing.
The strength of its legal system and its role as a relatively “neutral” place to do business — international but with access to the mainland — give it a strategic advantage, says Harris of Port Shelter.
“Hong Kong has the beauty of being an almost neutral (location) and being close to mainland China,” says Harris. “If a place like Hong Kong didn’t exist, they would have to invent it.”