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Bank of China is one of the big four state-owned commercial banks of the People's Republic of China – the other three are Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Agricultural Bank of China. Bank of China was founded in 1912 to replace the Government Bank of Imperial China, and is the oldest bank in China. From its establishment until 1942, it issued banknotes on behalf of the Government of the Republic of China along with the "Big Four" banks of the period: the Central Bank of China, Farmers Bank of China and Bank of Communications. Although it initially functioned as the Chinese central bank, in 1928 the Central Bank of China replaced it in that role. Subsequently, BOC became a purely commercial bank.

Why Beijing will not want to see a buoyant stock market

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 July, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 July, 2010, 12:00am
 

Which has been the worst-performing stock market this year? Greece, you say? Right. But you get no candy because that's a no-brainer.

Who's next? I hear you offering the names of several European markets. Good guess but sorry. It's the mainland. The Shanghai and Shenzhen A-share markets have lost 27 per cent and 22 per cent respectively in the first half of this year.

Surprised? The country was the first to come out of the devastating financial havoc and will have little problem achieving 8 per cent economic growth this year - perhaps among the highest in the world. Its economic outlook is brighter than that of the United States, where the shadow of a double-dip remains. The mainland's prospects are better than Europe's, where the haunting sovereign debt issue is far from over, and stronger than Japan's, which never really walked out from its prolonged depression.

Yet the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the FTSE-100 Index and the Nikkei-225 Index have only recorded declines of 7.74 per cent, 10.97 per cent and 12.73 per cent respectively in the past six months.

Compare the A-share market with Hong Kong's stock market and the result is no less puzzling. Our economy is significantly affected by the mainland and the Hang Seng Index contains mostly mainland corporations. Yet the Hang Seng has lost only 9.01 per cent this year.

The result is a widening price gap between the same company trading on the mainland and in Hong Kong. For example, mainland banks are trading here at a 14 to 17 per cent premium to the shares on their home market.

The big question is why? Why doesn't the mainland stock market reflect its economic fundamentals?

I hear many rational answers. Some say the first stone to go up will come down first. Thanks to the government's 4 trillion yuan (HK$4.54 trillion) economic stimulus, the A-share market was the first to walk out of the panic.

The Shanghai A-share Index touched 1,863 points in January last year and then peaked at 3,471 points early last August. That's an 86.3 per cent gain within seven months. It took other major markets a year or more to peak, many reaching their tops this April.

The problem is that the economies of the mainland and other countries are not the same.

Some say the 300 billion yuan fund-raising plan by state-owned banks to cover for their surge in lending, plus the mega initial public offering of Agricultural Bank of China, are depressing market sentiment.

That's the predominant view in the mainland media. But that argument doesn't come to terms with the overwhelming response to the shares and debt issues of the banks seen so far. Even the worst performer, Agricultural Bank, has seen its A shares oversubscribed by 700 times. Besides, the fund-raising is shared between Hong Kong and the mainland. A tally of 150 billion to 200 billion yuan isn't such a big sum for mainland investors to swallow.

Some point to the so-called tightening policy and the drop in loan growth. But the fact is liquidity remains ample on the mainland. Remember how property prices continued to balloon for more than six months after the first sign of tightening last autumn?

So what exactly is the cause?

I refer you to liu bai or 'keeping it blank' - a concept borrowed from traditional Chinese painting. The beauty of a painting is not just in the shape and flow of the ink but also the empty space in between. Beijing has not uttered a word as the Shanghai stock market lost almost one-third of its value from its recent peak. That is very unusual.

Beijing officials watch the market closely. Shang Fulin, the securities regulator, looks at the A-share index every morning before any meetings, so the rumour says. The belief is that a poor market means resentment and social instability.

Therefore, in almost every prolonged market dive in the past, we have seen state media or officials speaking of good economic fundamentals or tossing out policy boosters. But they have been silent so far.

To understand this, one must recall what caused the first major correction last autumn.

It was the joint effort by the bank regulator, the Ministry of Finance and the state auditor to investigate the whereabouts of bank loans. They ordered a daily report of all lending from the banks.

That investigation was tantamount to a ban on state-owned enterprises diverting unused bank loans into the stock market. Instead, the liquidity flowed into the real estate market until skyrocketing property prices resulted in a clampdown on that sector this spring.

Does Beijing have any incentive to add fuel to the stock market now? The answer is a clear no.

The consumer price index in May rose 3.1 per cent, breaching Beijing's annual target of 3 per cent.

Inflation is becoming the top concern. Already struggling in its efforts to squeeze the bubble out of the property market, Beijing will not want to see a buoyant stock market. After all, the A-share market now has a price-earning ratio of 18 times, which is not too bad.

In a market where most institutional players - be they fund managers, insurers or brokers - are state-owned, we should never underestimate the importance of the government's will.

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