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An advertisement of Ping An Insurance in Yichang city in Hubei province on August 19, 2015. Photo: REUTERS

Ping An Insurance is the favourite stock among foreign investors that the Chinese seem to hate

Few Chinese companies divide the stock market like Ping An Insurance Group.

The largest Chinese insurer by market value is 2018’s most popular mainland stock among foreign investors, who have net bought 16.1 billion yuan (US$2.4 billion) of its Shanghai-traded shares, according to Bloomberg calculations. That is more than for any other company via trading links between Hong Kong and the mainland.

On the other hand, it’s being ditched in Hong Kong by Chinese investors. They’ve sold more Ping An shares there than any other company this year apart from Tencent Holdings, and they’re also selling onshore.

Ping An’s Hong Kong-listed shares are down 6.7 per cent in 2018 versus the Hang Seng Index’s 7.3 per cent decline, while its mainland-traded A shares have fallen 10 per cent compared with a 18 per cent drop in the CSI 300 gauge.

“Views are diverging between mainland and foreign investors toward Ping An,” said Steven Lam, a Hong Kong-based analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “Many foreign investors not only value the stock as an insurance company, but a fintech player.”

Further Reading: Ping An launches new fund to tap opportunities in health care and finance

Ping An said last year it aimed to eventually get half its earnings from technology, a development that could make investors rethink their valuation methodology on a traditional-economy stock. The company’s stock-market capitalisation climbed $101 billion last year, partly thanks to its investments in online services.

Analysts seem to side with foreigners. The stock has no sell ratings and their average price target implies it will climb at least 30 per cent in both Hong Kong and Shanghai over the next 12 months from Monday’s close.

“It’s the best Chinese financial company to institutional investors,” said Vincent Hsu, a Taipei-based fund manager at Fuh-Hwa Securities Investment Trust, who has been buying shares over the past few months. “Lots of foreign investors are buying Ping An, as the stock ranked top in the criteria valuing a company’s business, investment and capital.”

Ping An’s management has repeatedly said the share price does not fully reflect the value of the company, which spans insurance, banking and asset management. The conglomerate reported a 34 per cent net profit increase in the first half, helped by a jump in fintech and health care business.

Chinese investors still have their doubts.

Further Reading: Australia’s Telstra to sell major stake in China’s Autohome to Ping An Insurance for US$1.6 billion

Ping An’s shares on the mainland have been cheaper than those in Hong Kong since June. Its yuan-denominated securities trade at 9.6 times forward 12-month earnings, while its H shares are at about 10.5. By contrast, technology shares on the CSI 300 Index trade around 21.8 times.

“The fact that Ping An’s A shares aren’t substantially more expensive than H shares is a reflection of the hesitation for domestic investors to give more credit to its fintech story,” said Daiwa Capital Markets Hong Kong’s Leon Qi, the only analyst who does not rate Ping An a buy.

The combined stake of mainland investors in Ping An’s Hong Kong-listed shares is close to a one-year low, while foreign investors hold the most A shares since at least March 2017, according to Bloomberg calculations based on exchange data.

Chinese investors may have chosen to sell liquid heavyweight companies such as Ping An as general sentiment turned against Hong Kong stocks and there was a rush to exit, said Christine Wu, vice-president at Yuanta Securities Investment Trust.

Further Reading: Ping An Insurance aims to take its financial, health-care technologies into new Asian markets

Hengsheng Asset Management Co. fund manager Dai Ming echoed Qi’s views on fintech doubts. “It’s still a bit early to say Ping An’s tech ambition will be realised,” he said. “Conglomerates like Fosun also have such ambitions to develop fintech, but the results haven’t been very satisfying.”

Earnings of Ping An’s online lending platform Lufax could slow, Shanghai-based Dai said. He remains bullish on Ping An though, mainly because of its advantage in the insurance business. It is the only Chinese insurer that managed to keep new business value growing this year while other life insurers were more affected by tightening measures, he said.

“The divergence between China and foreign investors is a result of two different investment styles,” Dai said. “Mainland investors tend to value a stock based on a shorter-term outlook.”