Firms see bankers as key to listing success

Unlike previous share offerings when only a few underwriters are needed, companies now seeking to list want as many as possible

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2012, 9:16am

The more, the better. That seems to be the motto of companies looking to launch share offerings these days, with many of them lining up dozens of underwriters, compared with the four or five investment banks that would suffice in another time.

And the fact that a plethora of new banks - especially from the mainland - are trawling the market for deals to make their mark has only helped listing candidates in beefing up the ranks of underwriters.

Recently, PICC, the leading non-life insurer on the mainland, appointed a record 17 underwriters for its potential US$3 billion initial public offering to be launched this year in Hong Kong, market sources say.

Credit Suisse, HSBC, Goldman Sachs and Beijing-based China International Capital Corp, a home-grown investment bank, are the lead managers.

An investment banker with a major Wall Street bank who has worked on Asian deals for decades said many mainland companies seeking to list in Hong Kong lacked confidence and wanted more underwriters on board in a bid to impress potential investors. The nervousness was understandable in a skittish market.

Hong Kong kept the crown as the world's biggest listing market for the past three years. But in the first 10 months of this year, new listings raised just HK$49 billion, down nearly 80 per cent from the same period last year.

Listing candidates' hunt for multiple underwriters comes at a time when mainland banks are expanding rapidly in Hong Kong. For example, Shanghai-based Haitong Securities and Beijing-based Citic Securities, the two mainland market leaders, are both running big offshore operations in Hong Kong these days.

"Some mainland banks are so eager to get deals that they don't really care about profit and cost too seriously. All they need is to get on the list of underwriters to boost their ranks in the IPO league table," said a hedge fund manager, who has often been invited to be a cornerstone investor for several listing deals.

As conditions worsened this year, many companies managed to float their shares in Hong Kong primarily because of cornerstone investors, who subscribed to between 40 and 50 per cent of new offerings.

In better times, such investors would have been expected to take up just 20 per cent of an offering. When an underwriter fails to line up cornerstone investors, it has to take some of the shares itself to enable the offering to go through.

In July, mainland coalminer Yitai raised more than US$900 million from its share sale. China Merchants Securities, one of its underwriters, bought about US$100 million worth of shares that it failed to sell to institutional investors.

Although underwriters can help in flotations, maintaining the issue price after listing is a different story, as evidenced by a number of disappointing and overly priced stocks of late that flopped after debut.

Chow Tai Fook, the world's largest jewellery retailer, dropped more than a third from its December flotation price.

"The fad of hiring a dozen underwriters will be over soon because it hasn't proved to be that helpful," said another veteran banker with a European firm.