Hutchison Whampoa
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The great shuffle

WHEN Hong Kong's big corporates begin shuffling assets around the place and key tycoons are seen to be taking profits in their own shares, then investors would do well to watch out for danger in the remainder of the financial period.

The selldown of shares by Cheung Kong in Hutchison Whampoa at $1.28 billion to yield a profit of up to $800 million might be read by some stock market watchers as a signal the market has topped.

In the Wheelock and Wharf asset swap, and the merger, come privatisation or reverse takeover, happening at Paliburg International and Paliburg Development, probably signals the bottom of the property market slump has been hit or is near.

At Cheung Kong Li Ka-shing is regarded by many in Hong Kong as the consumate stock market timing guru. He got a $10 billion group rights issue away on October 16, 1987, three days before the Wall Street Crash.

He was seen to cap the market in February 1991 on the issue of covered warrants on Cheung Kong and Hutchison Whampoa. The Hang Seng index took another six months to push through its pre-1987 Wall Street crash high of 3,949.73 made on October 1, 1987.

At the Paliburg and Wheelock camps, analysts argue assets are only moved between companies when it is cheap for the controlling shareholders to do so, ensuring no nasty premium valuations or prices have to be paid in the transactions.

Furthermore when some of the assets involved in the transactions generate recurring income, as in the Marco Polo switch from Wharf to Wheelock, analysts conclude the controlling shareholders are intent on dressing up profits.

There is a common thread between the Wheelock and Cheung Kong actions as each will end up being beneficial for flagging profit lines.

This underlines the real weakness that exists in Hong Kong corporate earnings momentum for 1995 and probably explains again why Mr Li decided to use a period of strong buying in Hang Seng index constituents to take profits in periods of strength as the overall market potential peak expected from declining interest rates is capped by poor domestic market fundamentals.