Wednesday, April 1

Money to burn? China firms seek new investors


SHANTOU, CHINA: The Guangdong Yixiang Folk Culture Co has a licence to print money – thousands of lookalike US dollars roll off its clattering presses every minute, intended as burnt offerings for the heavenly bank accounts of Chinese ancestors.

But in the earthly realm, small- and medium-sized companies like this have a devil of a time getting a loan from China’s big state-owned banks, which prefer to lend to large, often state-owned, firms.

Business is booming, says general manager Xu Shaohong, and it is ready to expand its products from ‘Bank of Hell’ currency to paraphernalia for events earlier in the cycle of life, such as weddings and births.

Like thousands of other capital-starved enterprises in the upside-down world of Chinese corporate finance, it has applied to list on the National Equities Exchange and Quotations (NEEQ), a little-known stock market based in Beijing.

The NEEQ, also known as the ‘New Third Board’, has exploded, growing from 356 companies at the end of 2013 to more than 6,000 today – with nearly 1,000 joining since January 1.

It already has twice as many listings as the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges combined and is expected to add as many as 5,000 more by the end of 2016.

“It’s the next NASDAQ,” Xu said, referring to the US exchange favoured by technology startups.

As the world’s second-largest economy falters, Beijing is counting on small, private companies to help move it away from dependency on heavy industry and plodding state-owned enterprises.

Guangdong Yixiang is a prime example. Its offices in the southern city of Shantou are bright and modern.

It has almost 80 employees and mostly exports to Hong Kong and diaspora Chinese communities across Asia.

Documents submitted to NEEQ as part of its listing application show three years of healthy profits – more than two million yuan (US$300,000) in 2015.

With reliable income from one of life’s two certainties, it would seem to be an attractive borrower.

For years, China has promised to make it easier for such firms to access capital, and last year Premier Li Keqiang urged the country’s banks to increase financing for them.

But lenders remain risk-averse, said Suzie Wu, a managing partner at Tianxing Capital, which invests in NEEQ-quoted firms.

“They actually only support the big companies,” she said, leaving companies like Guangdong Yixiang to turn to ‘shadow banks’, unofficial lenders that often charge exorbitant, profit-sapping interest rates.

“Until the NEEQ market came, it was very difficult for the small, medium enterprises to get financial support.”

There were 2,565 share issues on NEEQ last year, generating US$18.7 billion, according to data from the exchange, with another US$4.07 billion raised in the first two months of this year.

But unlike most major global stock exchanges, joining NEEQ does not of itself provide corporate funding, as new listings do not necessarily sell shares in an initial public offering.

When Chinese and Asian football champions Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao – one of the most high-profile companies quoted on NEEQ – listed last year, it simply declared its shares to be worth 40 yuan apiece.

It was not until this January that it sold new investors a little more than five percent of itself, raising 869 million yuan – giving it a market capitalisation close to that of Manchester United.

More than half the listed companies have never recorded a single share sale on the board, data on the NEEQ website shows.

But companies who cannot find buyers can still use their shares as ‘collateral for loans’, said Christopher Balding, of Peking University’s HSBC Business School in Shenzhen.

As such “being on the New Third Board is better than not being on the New Third Board”, explained Yang Peng, a consultant for Guangdong Yixiang.

If nothing else “it will definitely make it much easier to get a bank loan”.

Loose listing requirements are another large part of the NEEQ’s appeal, a contrast to the heavily regulated flotation process in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Until now, companies wanting to go public in China have generally had to show years of profitability, but the New Third Board asks them to demonstrate little more than two years of existence and that their business activities are legal.

As such, Balding said, the bourse does not require “full and accurate disclosure” of the “financial risks that investors might be facing”.

But Xu, the banknote printer, had no qualms, imagining a future financed by NEEQ investors, with automated production lines and orders fulfilled online.

Who knows, she said, “maybe we can even make tombstones”. — AFP