Money Matters

Hong Kong’s political undercurrent makes reform of listings market look gloomy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 September, 2016, 12:56am
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 September, 2016, 12:56am

Given that the results of the Legislative Council elections were not on the predicted lines, it came as no surprise when city officials decided to extend the consultations on listing reforms.

And not too many would raise any eyebrows if the proposed reforms remain stillborn.

The victory of democratic candidates in the accountancy, technology and functional constituencies, despite the huge political and financial resources of their adversaries, has shaken the belief that Beijing can master votes for its boys and girls.

This has deep implications on the elections for the chief executive in March next year.

At a time when the big brother’s influence is no longer reassuring, every vote will count, especially those controlled by the tycoons – big or small.

So when Pollyanna Chu, referred to as the queen of listed shells, unleased her diatribe against the reforms earlier this week, it came as a rap on the knuckles for city officials.

Chu made her comments at the forum held by the Chamber of Hong Kong Listed Companies to discuss the listing reforms.

The panel had several heavyweight “royals” of the market – Lo Ka-shui and Carmelo Lee, former chairmen of the listing panel; “Father of Red Chips” Francis Leung; and JP Morgan’s head of global investment banking David Lau. On the floor were the who’s who of the multibillion-dollar “shell” industry; or cowboys in other words.

After the panel trashed the proposal for an hour, Chu managed to get the royals to sing her tune when she asked: “The Securities and Futures Commission said you guys (on the listing committee) have been approving many listings for your own business interests. Are you controlled by the HKEX?”

Lo said he has never received a phone call from the bourse during his nine-year term. Lee pointed out that each of the members had put their best foot forward to make Hong Kong a global market.

Not satisfied with the replies, Chu fired another salvo. “You have to tell the public how independent and serious you are (in vetting applications),” she said. Surprisingly, the all-male panel agreed with her.

Now that is a rarity.

The proposal to confer the commission with veto powers on listings, would have united the royals and the cowboys as well as the votes they can master in the coming elections.

The royals had shown their mettle in the past when they torpedoed a proposal that sought to move listing regulatory work from the exchange to the commission in 2003.

But then the clout of people like Chu also cannot be underestimated. After all Forbes ranked her as the most influential women in Hong Kong this June. She was ranked 41st in the global 100 chart while China’s first lady Peng Liyuan was at 58.

It would be wrong to assume that her influence is only limited to brokers. The generous financier is understood to have made many “friends” with her sizeable loans.

The big question is whether anyone jockeying for the top job will risk losing these votes. And prominent among them are financial secretary John Tsang, who has listed the reform in his budget speech.

Such risks are worth taking, provided there is a swell of ground support.

Unfortunately in this case, it is not so. This is despite concerns about quality of listed companies and price swings due to manipulation.

Those who oppose the reform do so because it “is better than status quo” which is a profit-making exchange playing regulator.

The plan did not even get support from the Financial Services Development Council, which include several retired senior commission executives.

Several valid questions remained unanswered, like those on regulatory transparency, extent of the commission’s veto powers and the final onus of responsibility.

The most important concerns how to address rampant market manipulation which has always been under the commission’s full jurisdiction.

The commission may say that this is the best they can do without taking any of the regulatory powers of the exchange.

Yet, that is not enough for pushing the plan through a mine field during such a sensitive period. It is a sad reality for not just our regulators but also for the development of the market.