(Bloomberg Opinion) — The U.S. threat to delist Chinese companies just got a lot more real. Yet businesses from Asia’s biggest economy continue to line up to sell shares on American exchanges — and are thriving. What’s going on?
The President’s Working Group on Financial Markets has told U.S. exchanges to set rules that would require companies to grant American regulators access to their audit work papers, something that China has refused to allow. Firms already listed will have until Jan. 1, 2022, to comply, with removal from U.S. exchanges the ultimate penalty. Those seeking to sell shares will need to adhere to the new rules, according to the high-powered group of U.S. regulators, which includes Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
You might think this ratcheting up of pressure, which reflects increasing geopolitical tensions and the fallout from accounting scandals at Chinese companies such as Luckin Coffee Inc., would put a damper on the rush of enterprises looking to go public. Anything but. Almost every day, it seems, another Chinese company announces plans to list in the U.S. — and they’re finding no shortage of takers.
Late last month, Beijing-based electric-car maker Li Auto Inc. raised $1.1 billion selling shares in an initial public offering that priced above the marketed range. It was the biggest IPO by a Chinese company in New York since Shanghai-based rival NIO Inc. sold $1.15 billion of stock in September 2018. Xpeng Motors, based in Guangzhou, is poised to follow this month.
Shares of U.S.-listed Chinese companies are also outperforming the broader market. The Nasdaq Golden Dragon China Index has surged 30% this year, compared with a 3.7% gain for the S&P 500.
The phenomenon may be partly the product of a craze in day-trading fueled by pandemic lockdowns, which have left many Americans stuck at home looking for amusement. If the Robinhood crowd can drive shares of bankrupt companies to illogical heights, then why not Chinese stocks, too?
On a more rational level, some investors may be betting that threats to delist Chinese companies are largely noise, and a compromise will eventually be worked out. Chinese listings are a gravy train for the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq, and both sides have a financial interest in ensuring that it doesn’t get derailed.
On this point, it’s worth noting that the U.S. regulators left some wiggle room. Chinese companies can hire a “co-auditor,” effectively having a second inspection performed by a U.S. accounting firm after a Chinese affiliate does the first. That would be a potential workaround for Beijing’s rules that prevent the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board from reviewing audits of U.S.-listed Chinese companies.
To count on peace breaking out may be rash, though. There’s plenty of evidence that the move toward a U.S.-China decoupling is serious and tangible. Just look at the lengthening list of U.S.-traded Chinese companies that are selling shares in Hong Kong, giving them a secondary outlet into international capital markets in the event that they are forced to leave: Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., JD.com Inc. and NetEase Inc. among them.
Or witness Tencent Holdings Ltd., which lost $30 billion of market value in Hong Kong on Friday after the Trump administration moved to ban U.S. residents from doing business via its WeChat app. It will be a brave investor who bets on this trend reversing itself.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Nisha Gopalan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and banking. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones as an editor and a reporter.
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