Net earnings

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2007, 12:00am

More than 100 million people on the mainland now have stock trading accounts, a number increasing by about 250,000 a day. That's despite the government's decision at the end of last month to triple the tax on stock trades. The tax was intended to cool the overheated market, but it hasn't worked. Prices are down, but investors remain convinced they will rise again, so they're still buying.

For a nation traditionally regarded as thrifty, the transformation of the population into fervent believers in the stock market is astonishing. It's all the more remarkable given that most investors have had to educate themselves about the way stocks and shares work. Women's magazines might have financial advice columns now, but few people trust the mainland's business journalists when it comes to taking advice on buying shares.

That's mainly because there is no code of conduct in place to prevent journalists from endorsing companies they have shares in. The All-China Journalists Association last revised its code of ethics in 1997, when journalists were told not to accept gifts or 'entertainment' in return for running stories. But, as yet, there are no restrictions when it comes to the stock market.

So instead of relying on newspapers, people are turning to the internet. The most popular websites and chat rooms are those that discuss the stock market. They range from ones that offer advice for beginners, to far more sophisticated sites which specialise in interpreting the People's Bank of China's cryptic utterances and then predicting which way the market will move.

Nowhere else in the world does the internet play such a role in driving the stock market. It's partly a reflection of the fact that the vast majority of the mainland's stock traders - some 80 per cent - are individuals, as opposed to the financial institutions which dominate in the west. With most people viewing the market as a way to make a quick profit, the latest information and advice is crucial, and the internet provides it.

It's not all good news, though. The huge rush to invest by ordinary people has been a boon for the mainland's growing army of financial criminals, and the internet is the principal tool of their trade. Websites that tout shares in companies that don't exist, or which charge high fees for tips that will never come true, are appearing as quickly as the bona fide sites.

Nevertheless, the rise of the internet as a far more effective substitute for the business pages of newspapers represents another nail in the coffin of the mainland's print media. The internet is already most people's choice as the most comprehensive, accurate and up-to-date source of information on everything from the latest countryside riots to celebrity gossip. Now, it can help you get rich as well.

David Eimer is a Beijing-based journalist