Every country has restrictions on ownership of assets by foreigners. Some of this is unofficial, like when France said yogurt maker Danone was a crown jewel that Pepsi couldn’t buy, or when New York blocked Mitsubishi Estate from buying a decrepit Rockefeller Center. Other limits–notably restrictions on non-citizens owning media or transportation assets–are set down in law.
It’s common that emerging countries restrict foreign ownership of all publicly traded locally owned corporations. The same thing happened in Europe as it was rebuilding after WWII. Two reasons:
–countries don’t want rich foreigners (translation: Americans) to be able to scoop up valuable national assets for a song, thereby disenfranchising the country’s citizens and making locals into sort of tenant farmers, and
–they don’t want the potential disruption to economic activity (the currency and the money supply) caused by mad rushes in and out of local stocks by foreign portfolio investors.
two classes of stock
The most common method of controlling foreign ownership is for a country to establish two classes of stock, one to be held by locals, the other by foreigners. The details vary widely country by country. What makes China unusual is that, generally speaking, locals and foreigners trade shares in different venues–the letter in Hong Kong, the former on the mainland.
problems with the system
Whenever there are two different markets, and two different prices, for the same security, the party that gets the lower price is going to be unhappy. Given that the supply of foreign portfolio capital is large and the number of foreign-designated shares is typically small, it’s almost always the local citizen who feels disadvantaged.
In addition, raising new equity capital can be awkward. Foreigners may balk at having to pay, say, twice what a local does to buy a new share.
Invariably there’s unofficial arbitrage between the two classes.
In China’s case, it’s possible that Beijing wants inefficient state-owned enterprises to be more subject to the goad that can be provided by professional portfolio managers.
Shanghai/Hong Kong trading opened this week
This week, China opened limited foreign trading in Shanghai-listed stocks (not Shenzhen stocks, however, which make up about 40% of China’s market cap). It is also permitting limited trading by mainland citizens in Hong Kong. The control mechanism being used is daily limits on the cross-border flow of money in and out of both markets. The system is called Stock Connect.
ho-hum, so far
The plan was announced a while ago–the result being that stocks identified as possible targets for fresh money in both Shanghai and Hong Kong were bid up in anticipation in recent weeks. However, the volume of cross-border trading has been low and highly touted beneficiaries have been selling off.
For China, this initial indifference is probably the best possible outcome. Still, this is another step in opening Chinese financial markets to the world. And one day the ability for us to buy mainland stocks may be important. It’s just not today.