OPINION
Money Matters
by

Confessions of a market maker in Hong Kong’s penny stocks fiasco

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 1:35pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 July, 2017, 11:04pm

The fiasco with Hong Kong’s penny stocks had been spreading like wildfire. How did it happen like this?

Let’s imagine I’m one of the professional traders whose magic flute has many penny stock investors astray, down the abyss to their personal misfortune.

But don’t blame me. I’m no different from the unsupervised child who finds the cookie jar open. I do what every kid does -- I gouge on cookies till I’m stuffed.

I work in a securities firm you see, but my boss is no ordinary broker. He’s a chong kar (莊家) – market maker. He “made” the stock price of the listed companies he controlled.

The trade craft is derived from ancient wisdom. First, make up some good news about a company. Then, the men on the right side of the room call in buy orders, while those on the left side sell them the stock, and vice versa.

The price goes up and up, until the mom-and-pop investors take notice and pile in. Next announce a massive rights issue to scare off the little shareholders, so shares can be picked up at dirt cheap prices. When the timing is right, do it all over again.

The crux is in knowing the right people. It’s a small tight circle of interesting people – legislators, casino princess, medical doctors and toy manufacturers. My boss brought me in but I was a nobody.

To be in a class of my own, I must make it big, and quickly.

My time was in 2011. Beijing had put new stock exchange listings on hold, amid a stagnant A-share market. Mainland Chinese investors were offering hundreds of millions of dollars for a listed shell company in Hong Kong.

I began to cultivate shell companies. First I found a watch trader or wine store. Then I promised the founder a cut of the gain, cooked up the number to meet the listing requirements, and listed the company on the Growth Enterprise Market. The tick-box regulators rarely said no.

I could even have my boys sign up as pre-listing investors for 49 per cent of the issues with only a few million dollars. It would look suspicious to many but not those in the Hong Kong Exchange.

Those shell companies were the equivalent of two-course meals, with the price manipulation as appetiser and the year-end disposal as the main course. The rules were friendly to the practice, so it didn’t require a master chef to prepare the meal.

Under the so-called full placement option, I simply gave the bookrunner a list of my 100 friends, to allocate shares to them. Many mainlanders were eager to loan me their name to get “asset” for their application as “capital migrants” to the city. That rule didn’t change until 2015.

Don’t the regulators check the shareholders’ list? Theoretically yes, but the phones seldom ring. With every share under my control, I can do anything to the share price, whether it’s HK$1 or HK$10.

Next I expand my empire into brokerage and money lending. Lend money to hot-headed entrepreneurs who pledge their listed companies to bet; push down the stock price; snatch control when the entrepreneurs can’t pay up or top up.

I even published my own magazine for dispensing investment advice, and hired my team of key opinion leaders online. The old trick of investment “tips” remains, only the effects have multiplied by infinity in the internet age.

By 2015, my empire had ballooned to control of more than 30 listed companies. I am finally in a class of my own.

My peers said that’s too much. It’s expensive to maintain and too big an eyesore to regulators. That’s cowards talking. Yes, I had to gear up a bit but guts and smartness define success.

A mainland buddy found me a solution: pyramid marketing, not of anti-cancer water, but asset-backed securities.

Invest 10,000 yuan in Hong Kong stocks to get 200,000 yuan in three years! Bring in two friends to get 2,000 shares in real scripts! Three times’ leverage up! Price management by a Chong Kar!

Only a mainlander could come up with these crazy slogans; they worked though. Chinese mom-and-pop investors piled in.

It was a party until the regulators shut the cookie jar. No more full placement. No more spectacular price rise. No more new money. I starved.

Dumping the shares is a no brainer. Does anyone seriously expect a Chong Kar to mind his reputation more than his money? You must be kidding me.

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