Hong Kong Stock Exchange

Change the rules and they will come: Tech firms are knocking on Hong Kong’s doors to raise capital

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 7:01am
UPDATED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 1:45pm

Technology companies are knocking on the Hong Kong stock exchange’s doors, making inquiries about raising capital under new listing rules, in a sign that the biggest overhaul of regulations by the bourse in three decades may be showing the desired effect.

More than 10 companies involved in e-commerce, online payments and biotechnology, mostly based in mainland China, have sought out information from Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing (HKEX), according to the bourse operator’s chairman Chow Chung Kong.

“These companies are asking for more information about our newly announced listing reforms, including the chance to list here under a dual-class shareholding structure,” Chow said in an interview with the South China Morning Post, without identifying any of them. “None of them have made a formal application, but they are interested to know more about our proposed rule changes.”

The flurry of interest, less than a fortnight after the HKEX unveiled its regulation change, appears to be a tentative, though preliminary, vindication of the push by the exchange to reinvent itself to compete with New York, Shanghai, Tokyo and Singapore for the global crown in initial public offerings (IPOs).

Hong Kong will finish 2017 in third place in the global IPO stakes, with the funds raised falling 45 per cent to US$13.87 billion, the lowest since 2012, according to Thomson Reuters data.

New York took the crown this year, with the capital raised more than doubling to US$29 billion, helped by blockbuster listings like the US$3.9 billion IPO by Snap Inc, which operates the social media service Snapchat.

Part of the lure of New York is the allowance of multiple-class shares, or stocks with special voting rights for founders, to be listed. This practice, common among technology companies and start-ups from Baidu to Google, runs contrary to Hong Kong’s “one share, one vote” principle.

That obstacle prompted Alibaba Group Holding, the world’s largest e-commerce company and owner of the Post, to take its US$25 billion IPO to New York in 2014. For a large stock like Alibaba, nearly US$2.2 billion worth of shares changed hands everyday on average in the past year, almost a quarter of the total turnover of the entire Hong Kong exchange over the same period.

Several large companies are in the queue to tap the stock markets over the next two years, a pipeline of blockbuster IPOs that no exchange wants to miss out. HKEX, apart from being an exchange operator, is itself a listed company.

Alibaba’s affiliate Ant Financial Services, and Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi are all in the queue for IPOs. But the record breaker will probably be Saudi Aramco, with its US$100 billion IPO, based on a US$2 trillion valuation of the sovereign oil company.

Read: Why did Hong Kong replace our ‘One Share, One Vote’ principle for dual-class stocks?

“We have tried our best effort to present Hong Kong as the best market for Saudi Aramco to list,” Chow said. Chow and HKEX chief executive Charles Li Xiaojia were among the delegates with Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor who visited Aramco’s top officials two weeks ago, including energy minister Khalid Abdul Aziz al-Falih, as well as the kingdom’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“Saudi Arabia is the largest oil exporter while China is the largest oil importer,” Chow said. “Hong Kong is the most international financial market in China.”

To avoid missing out on the technology boom, HKEX and the city’s securities regulator announced on December 15 that they would allow large technology companies with multiple classes of shares, as well as biotechnology companies with no revenue, raise capital in the city under new regulations. Companies that are already listed elsewhere would also be welcomed to seek out a secondary listing in Hong Kong, under the new rules.

“Most of companies which made enquiries aimed at having a primary listing in Hong Kong, while a few want to check on information about a secondary listing,” Chow said.

Even with a more relaxed set of listing regulations, the HKEX will maintain a proportionate degree of shareholders rights to protect minority investors. Snap, which gives its founder disproportionately more voting power than minority shareholders, would not qualify to list in Hong Kong, Chow said.

“We want to reclaim our No.1 spot, but we will never sacrifice our market’s quality,” Chow said.