Looking forward: The Singapore economy - Stock market

Liquidity woes, IPO drought still dog SGX

The SGX Centre.
The SGX Centre.PHOTO: ST FILE

Bourse expected to see weak trading volumes despite its efforts to boost investor interest

It was a tough year for remisier Desmond Leong last year.

Not only did the market have one of its worst years since the financial crisis, more of his fellow stockbrokers have left the scene as well. "Four or five of my colleagues have left the industry entirely because they see no future in this industry. Stockbroking is looking like a sunset profession now," he said with a sigh.

It is easy to see why people remain gloomy over the market's prospects. Last year, average turnover volume was 1.58 billion shares a day, significantly lower than the average 2.31 billion-share level seen between 2011 and 2014, IG market analyst Bernard Aw said.

"Weak economic growth has pressured corporate earnings growth, which dampened investor interest, which then hurt valuation and turned away IPOs (initial public offerings). The market is locked in a vicious circle now," he added.

This year, the market continues to face an uncertain stretch ahead despite key changes made to raise investor interest in local stocks.

  • The year ahead

  • • Small IPOs likely to dominate market. But that big listing is unlikely to happen.

    • External headwinds from slow global growth and interest rate hike will put pressure on corporate performance, making stock market recovery an uphill struggle.

    • Focus for SGX is to raise investor interest in the market as raising market liquidity remains its biggest challenge.

In January last year, the Singapore Exchange (SGX) reduced the board lot size, which helped push up the retail daily average traded value by 11 per cent in the first nine months. This feature will continue to gain traction with retail investors in 2016, analysts believe.

The bourse's move to develop an exchange-traded fund (ETF) market here via the introduction of detailed market indices last month is also a welcome move, Mr Leong said, adding: "ETFs can attract more traders to the market and bring attention to local stocks."

But observers say the oomph factor - big listings to ignite excitement among investors - has so far been missing. In 2015, SGX had only 13 new listings, down from 30 in 2014 and dwarfed by Shanghai's 89 and Hong Kong's 117 IPOs.

 

In SGX's annual general meeting in September, new chief executive Loh Boon Chye acknowledged that this will be an important but difficult task due partly to poor market conditions globally and the presence of alternative capital sources such as venture capital and private equity.

Mr Aw said: "It's hard to compete against the Chinese markets for listings. SGX can, however, try to woo more Asean companies."

For now, there is some cautious optimism in the market. SGX is expecting five to six new Catalist listings in the early part this year if market conditions are conducive.

DBS also has a "decent pipeline" ready to be launched at favourable times, said the bank's capital markets head, Mr Tan Jeh Wuan.

But fixing the IPO pipeline may not be enough to revitalise the Singapore bourse against a myriad of other issues, domestic and external.

Some investors believe the contentious minimum trading price (MTP) policy has led to value disruptions, particularly in the small- and mid-cap segments. But beyond the market mechanics, the choppy economic backdrop last year gave few reasons for corporates and investors to cheer.

China's slowdown, plummeting commodity prices, weak exports and currency volatility combined to pressure corporate performance last year. This year may be just as challenging.

DBS consumer banking and wealth management head Tan Su Shan cautioned: "(This year) will continue to be tough. The sooner investors accept that, the sooner they can prepare for what is to come."

UBS regional head for equity and credit Hartmut Issel was less pessimistic. "Companies have adapted to the new environment and we expect earnings growth to resume in 2016, not at a stellar pace but in the vicinity of 5 per cent, which would already mark a welcome trend shift."

Back on the trading floor, investors are counting their losses and hoping for the best.

Seasoned investor and chief executive of financial consultancy Rafflesia Mano Sabnani ended 2015 with a negative return, but he believes better days are ahead.

He said: "Fortunately, the MTP impact should have been worn out. China is having a soft landing, and there is less market uncertainty now after the start of the Fed rate hike... We are at the nether. Things can only improve from here on."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 03, 2016, with the headline 'Liquidity woes, IPO drought still dog SGX'. Print Edition | Subscribe