Mainland investors clamouring to own shares in some of the world's corporate giants had reason to be optimistic yesterday after a Shanghai Stock Exchange executive said the bourse was 'ready' to launch a long-awaited international board.
But readiness does not necessarily mean an imminent launch, particularly given the opaque policymaking surrounding China's equity markets. A new board will probably have to wait for a market turnaround, observers said.
Xu Ming, an executive vice-president of the Shanghai bourse, told Bloomberg that the exchange was 'basically ready' to allow foreign companies to list on the international board, adding that trading could begin 'as soon as possible'.
It was the first time a mainland securities official had used a clear-cut term to announce the completion of preparatory work for the international board since China unveiled its plan to let foreign companies raise yuan funds on the domestic exchange in 2009.
However, Xu did not disclose a timetable for the launch of the board, and investment bankers and fund managers knowledgeable about the regulator's thinking said Xu's remarks were still a long way from unveiling a real initial public offering by an international big name such as HSBC Holdings and Coca-Cola on the local exchange.
An investment banker close to the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) said: 'The most optimistic prediction is that the international board could be launched when the currently weak market sees a strong rebound. If the regulator doesn't give a timetable, it means the launch of the board has yet to be put on the top agenda.'
A Shanghai stock exchange official told the South China Morning Post early last year that the board could be created in the second half of 2010 because the preparatory work, including the technical issues and revisions in legal framework, could be completed easily.
The bearish mode on the stock market deterred the CSRC and its former chairman, Shang Fulin, from giving a nod to the international board, with worries about a huge liquidity drain from the exchange's existing stocks. The Shanghai Composite Index lost 14.3 per cent last year.
In June, Shang, then chairman of the CSRC, hinted that the board could be launched some time soon. At that time, the regulator leaned on the major state-owned organisations, asking them not to publish negative stories about the international board, an apparent effort to avoid a market slide before the official announcement.
But a market drop amid the eurozone debt crisis, and growing worries about weakening corporate profits, dashed hopes for an official launch.
Shang was replaced as head of the CSRC by the former chairman of the China Construction Bank, Guo Shuqing at the end of last month.
However, said Zhang Qi, an analyst at Haitong Securities: 'No matter who heads the CSRC, market stability remains a primary concern.'
Market watchers also said the international board was unlikely to be launched in the short run with the benchmark Shanghai Composite Index hovering around the 2,500-point level.
The indicator closed at 2,528.71 yesterday, nearly 60 per cent off its all-time high of 6,092.06, set in mid-October 2007.
Yang Rui, deputy chief executive of the mainland fund house Bosera Asset Management, said the local A-share market would obviously be affected by the launch of any international board.
The regulator would still be wary of a sharp fall that could arise from mega-fundraising by companies such as HSBC, which reportedly planned to raise US$5 billion from the Shanghai exchange when it became possible.