Hong Kong Risks Squandering Its Alibaba Dividend

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Hong Kong is missing an opportunity to displace the U.S. as an offshore listing venue for Chinese companies by keeping trading fees too high. Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.’s $11 billion offering in November showed the potential for the city’s stock exchange to attract U.S.-listed mainland enterprises amid an unsettled trade relationship between the two largest economies. Relatively expensive costs threaten to undermine that appeal.

Investors get more for their dollar when they trade on the New York Stock Exchange. In Hong Kong, bid-ask spreads are wider and minimum investment requirements are higher. That increases the chance of so-called slippage, when there is a difference between the expected price of a trade and the level at which it is actually executed. With zero stamp duty and lower minimum trade requirements, the NYSE has a more favorable environment for active investors.

Hong Kong Risks Squandering Its Alibaba Dividend

Alibaba’s Hong Kong trading volume has slumped since the internet giant made its debut on the local exchange. On Nov. 26, shares valued at the equivalent of about $1.79 billion changed hands. Since mid-December, that figure has dropped to a daily average of about $322 million. The Hong Kong listing has made no dent in Alibaba’s stock trading in New York, where volume has averaged $3.2 billion since late November.

Hong Kong Risks Squandering Its Alibaba Dividend

To be sure, trading costs are by no means the only factor — or even the main one — in deciding where to buy and sell. To begin with, the U.S. is a more deep and liquid market. It has other advantages, including a more active and developed options market that gives traders more ways to hedge or speculate on stocks. That said, Hong Kong could do a better job of rolling out the welcome mat.

Since losing out to New York for Alibaba’s record $25 billion initial public offering in 2014, Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing Ltd. has made a number of rule changes to enhance its viability as a platform for technology startups from China and elsewhere. In April 2018, the exchange amended its provisions to admit companies with dual-class shares. Smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp.  and internet services company Meituan Dianping listed soon after, demonstrating that when HKEX makes smart decisions, the exchange benefits.

More U.S.-traded Chinese companies are looking at Hong Kong for potential secondary listings. They include travel services provider Trip.com Group Ltd., formerly known as Ctrip; game and website operator Netease Inc.; web search provider Baidu Inc.; and e-commerce giant JD.com Inc. The way is open for Hong Kong to create a new offshore ecosystem for U.S.-listed Chinese companies seeking better positioning for the mainland while hedging their bets against a renewed deterioration in the U.S.-China relationship after the phase one agreement was signed this month.

It makes little sense to squander this opportunity by maintaining trading costs that are a major barrier to entry. The Hong Kong government and the exchange must work together to make dual listing opportunities both beneficial and attractive to companies while encouraging investors to trade here. However, HKEX regulators seem to have their heads in the sand when it comes to reducing fees and the minimum buy-in to entice more companies. That may be a reflection of its monopoly status: Unlike the NYSE, which must compete with Nasdaq, HKEX has no local rival.

Reducing fees would lower the barrier to entry for active investors and increase trading volume. As I wrote in September, cutting stamp duty would help improve liquidity and make Hong Kong stocks more attractive to retail and institutional investors. The ripple effect from this would further strengthen Hong Kong’s position as a global financial center. It’s time for the government and exchange to look beyond the immediate impact of reduced revenue and consider the long term.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ronald W. Chan is the founder and CIO of Chartwell Capital in Hong Kong. He is the author of “The Value Investors” and “Behind the Berkshire Hathaway Curtain.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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