China companies' acid test

CHINA'S state-owned enterprises listed in Hong Kong face a bitter test this week: their impending annual results will serve as a yardstick of both their ability to meet profit forecasts and their standard of information disclosure.

Hong Kong analysts said the managements of the H share companies, who formerly worked for the government, were still trying to adjust to being responsible to shareholders, a characteristic of the stock market system.

Some market participants have complained that several Chinese companies have been passive in informing the public about their activities, in stark contrast to their loudly heralded flotations last year.

Other than the statutory information such as interim and annual results required by the Hong Kong listing rules, analysts regard management's initiative to disclose information to their shareholders as vital to those who are geographically remote.

However, analysts feel the H share companies will take time to get accustomed to the information disclosure practice in Hong Kong.

''You just can't blame them [the Chinese companies] because they are not familiar with the Hong Kong market or the overseas investors,'' said Merrill Lynch Asia vice-president Pamela Cheng.

Billy Chan, an investment manager at GT Fund Management, said: ''Relatively speaking, the companies are making the right move in the right direction, but there is still room for improvement in terms of accounting knowledge.'' The communication barrier between the companies' management, foreign investors, financial analysts and even reporters is cited as a major problem.

SBCI Finance Asia associate director Lawrence Ang pointed out differences in several areas, such as language, culture, geographic location, accounting systems and management mentality in China and overseas.

''There is no easy solution in the short-term,'' Mr Ang said. ''The only solution is either we accept their way or they conform to our practice.

''As foreign investors, we have to allow for the fact that their information disclosure is insufficient when we look at their stock pricing.'' Shanghai Petrochemical scored the highest mark from analysts and fund managers for its information disclosure. The company's disclosures were seen as an effort to mend fences with the Hong Kong financial community, which snubbed its share offer last July.

Analysts also praised Guangzhou Shipyard. The Chinese shipbuilder was quick to organise a tour to its Guangzhou plant two weeks ago to clear up uncertainty about its inclusion of a public welfare fund in its profit.

Smaller-scale Kunming Machine Tool and Beiren Printing Machinery gained the lowest point, however, because the companies have released hardly any news of corporate development since their listing.

''The company should do a bit of public relations work,'' said Desmond Cheung, an analyst at PBI Securities covering Maanshan Iron and Steel. He was referring to rumours of an inventory pile-up by the Chinese company as a result of a slowdown in the property market.

Mr Cheung is hoping the steel-maker will release a quarterly performance figure because he is concerned about the fluctuation of steel product prices in the first quarter.

''From time to time, the companies should disclose more information, either through analysts or reporters,'' said Mr Cheung. They are inaccessible to some shareholders because of their geographical location. Shareholders will not call the company.'' However, Mr Ang noted that too much talking by the management would also do the company no good, because it ran the risk of giving uneven information. He suggested that the Hong Kong stock exchange should educate Chinese management on how directors should give price-sensitive information.