China tech giants fall as US begins rollout of law aimed at delisting

Tencent and Alibaba slid more than 5 per cent in Hong Kong on March 25. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (REUTERS) - Shares in dual-listed Chinese companies fell sharply on Thursday (March 25) in Asia after the US securities regulator adopted measures that would kick foreign companies off American stock exchanges if they do not comply with US auditing standards.

The move by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) adds to the unprecedented regulatory crackdown in China on domestic technology companies, citing concerns that they have built market power that stifles competition.

The Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act, signed into law by then-President Donald Trump in December, is aimed at removing Chinese companies from US exchanges if they fail to comply with American auditing standards for three years in a row.

The rules also require firms prove to the SEC they are not owned or controlled by an entity of a foreign government and to name any board members who are Chinese Communist Party officials, the SEC said in a statement on Wednesday.

The China Securities and Regulatory Commission (CSRC) did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

In Hong Kong, the news prompted a sharp selloff of the US-listed Chinese companies which have listed on the city's exchange in the past two years.

Baidu shares - which debuted on Tuesday - dropped 8.85 per cent in early Thursday trade, Alibaba Group Holding slipped 4.2 per cent, JD.Com Inc fell 4.45 per cent and Netease was down 3 per cent.

The falls were in contrast to a 0.2 per cent increase in the broader Hong Kong Hang Seng Index and a 1 per cent fall in the Hang Seng Tech Index. The tech index has fallen 11.3 per cent in March.

"A lot of investors thought the US and the Biden administration would be more amicable towards China and things would be easier, but this news shows that it is going to be just as tough," Wealthy Securities Managing Director Louis Tse said.

DailyFX strategist Margaret Yang said the Chinese-listed stocks were also under pressure after it was reported that China was considering creating a state-backed joint venture with domestic tech firms to oversee user data they collect.

"The latter probably marks a further tightening of government control over the technology sector," she said.

But shares in Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing, operator of the city's stock exchange, rose 3.35 per cent which Kingston Securities director Dickie Wong said was the result of investors expecting more homecoming listings from China's US-listed stocks.

"There's never a dull moment in equity markets. There has been a major reaction in the American Depositary Receipts in the US, but I think it's too early to tell what the exact impact will be," a Hong Kong-based capital markets banker said. The banker declined to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the topic.

The SEC fast-tracked the rules around how companies should submit documentation because it was required to issue them within 90 days of the Act becoming law.

The SEC is now seeking public comments on a process for identifying companies that fail to meet the standards.

Some analysts said US-listed Chinese firms may be unable to comply with US accounting requirements because they could risk violating Chinese law.

"It is quite difficult for China to open the accounting of all US-listed companies to US regulatory agencies, especially for some listed companies that involve national security or national data," Everbright Sun Hung Kai strategist Kenny Ng said.

"After the introduction of the final amendments, it is expected that China and the United States will continue to negotiate for a period of time, and the uncertainty during this period will continue to affect the share performance of US-listing Chinese companies."

The new rules come amid simmering tensions between the United States and China, with bipartisan support for a tough US approach.

Last week in Alaska the two countries held their first high-level meeting under President Joe Biden's administration, with both sides leveling sharp rebukes of the others' policies.

A flurry of 11th-hour efforts under the Trump administration led to dozens of Chinese companies being delisted from US exchanges and over-the-counter trading platforms in recent months due to allegations of Chinese military affiliations.

The SEC said it was still assessing how to roll out the rest of the law's requirements, including the identification process and trading prohibition requirement.

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