Team China takes on country's rumour-driven markets

An investor looks on in front of a digital board showing stock market movements at a brokerage house in Shanghai.
An investor looks on in front of a digital board showing stock market movements at a brokerage house in Shanghai. PHOTO: AFP

SHANGHAI (AFP) - Chinese authorities have deployed vast sums to try to stabilise slumping share prices, but have to contend with a rumour-driven market and investors like Wang Youfu, whose latest sure thing is a chemical firm that lost US$180 million last year.

The retired hotel worker poured around US$6,000 - most of his savings - into Lutianhua, whose main products include fertiliser, on hopes that whispers of a restructuring will turn his holding to gold.

He is not looking for solid fundamentals or good future prospects, and does not give a penny for whether a deal actually materialises or the firm recovers.

All he wants is to get out in time.

"The Chinese stock market is purely speculation," Wang said, trading on his smartphone from his home in a suburb of Shanghai, China's financial hub.

"I free the people in front of me," he went on. "The people behind free me. The last people left holding the stock are done for."

Wang's mindset is typical of the country's 90 million "mom and pop" small investors.

Regularly described as a "casino", the Chinese stock market is a gambling den in which the odds are stacked by the dealer - the ruling Communist Party.

Authorities made it easier to borrow to trade shares, encouraged individuals to go into the markets, and Shanghai's benchmark index soared 150 per cent in 12 months to mid-June.

Amid fears of a bubble, restrictions on margin trading were announced, and it collapsed 30 per cent in three weeks - prompting a government rescue package on a colossal scale.

The moves were slammed as interventionist and contrary to pledges of economic reform: barring major shareholders from selling, freezing trading in the shares of hundreds of companies, and funding a "national team" to buy for the government.

The squad includes the China Securities Finance Corp. (CSF), previously a virtually unknown financial institution set up by the country's two stock exchanges and the national clearing house in 2011 to help provide financing for trading.

CSF has bought nearly 400 stocks, according to state media, becoming the largest shareholder in a hydropower company and second largest in more than a dozen firms.

Veteran state-owned investment firm Central Huijin Investment, which already holds stakes in major state banks, is another player.

But despite the hundreds of billions of dollars the team is estimated to have spent, it has failed to beat market forces.

By Tuesday's close the Shanghai index was down 39 per cent from its peak, and 10 per cent off the level where the squad first stepped onto the market field. It fell again at Wednesday's opening.

Capital Economics Chief Asia Economist Mark Williams said government intervention was "badly conceived and poorly communicated" and the market was likely to remain weak.

"The flaws in the government's strategy to boost the market by purchasing equities became increasingly clear," he said in a research note. "Confidence in the market has been badly dented and we think the chances of sustained increases over the medium-term are low."

The mishandling of the markets has raised concerns over the Communist Party's ability to handle the country's economy, whose slowing growth has sent global bourses into spasms of anxiety in recent weeks.

Instead the "national team" has become another object of traders' speculation, analysts say, trapping authorities in a dilemma of their own making by creating expectations they would boost the market.

When fears emerged the government was withdrawing from the market, the plunges resumed, and any sign of a pull-out is a reason for speculators to sell.

"This is the nature of intervention. People are buying only because they think you are going to buy," Fraser Howie, an independent analyst and co-author of "Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China's Extraordinary Rise", told AFP.

"Almost no other stock market has done it (intervention) successfully," he added.

Analysts say Chinese regulators should put more effort into building a class of institutional investors, instead of leaving the market in the hands of short-termists such as retiree Wang.

"The market was never driven by fundamental factors, it was a purely speculative market," Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University, told AFP.

"There is still one strategy, and that is 'try to figure out if the government has enough ammunition to come in and with sheer brute force, force the market up'," he said.

"If you think the government can do that, then you should buy and if you don't think the government can do that, then you've got to get out."