Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Chinese Investors Who Borrowed Are Hit Hard by Market Turn


JULY 6, 2015

SHANGHAI — With his stock market riches, Gong Yifeng bought a riverfront apartment here for his son and daughter-in-law. He can eat well and travel abroad. He can also afford to pay for his granddaughter’s education.

But the losses are rapidly piling up for Mr. Gong, a retired shipyard worker. With China’s stock market 30 percent off its highs, his portfolio is down more than $30,000 in the last few weeks.

“I don’t need a high-flying market, just a stable one,” Mr. Gong said.

Millions of ordinary investors like Mr. Gong, who piled into an ever-soaring Chinese stock market over the last year, are bracing for a roller-coaster ride.

With stock prices plummeting, the government announced plans over the weekend to help prop up the market. While big state-owned companies fared relatively well on Monday, smaller companies continued to slide. The fallout also spread to the Hong Kong markets.

The situation is putting ordinary investors, many of whom invested in smaller stocks, in a difficult place. This latest slump may be just another periodic price dip. Or it could be the beginning of a lengthy downturn, like the one that started in late 2007, when the market eventually fell about 70 percent.

For now, Mr. Gong, 65, is sticking with stocks.

“Where else can an ordinary person like me put my money?” Mr. Gong said on Monday, as he watched a board of flickering stock prices at a brokerage firm in downtown Shanghai. “People like me can’t just start investing in properties.”

What happened in China over the last year looks like another episode of the madness of crowds, when many investors seem to lose their senses. They started to borrow money on margin to buy shares they couldn’t afford. They bet everything on the belief that this was a new era, gleefully believing stocks moved in only one direction.

But there is a major difference between the markets in China and those in the other big economies like the United States. In China, mom-and-pop investors, rather than big institutions, make up the bulk of stock purchases. Such smaller players don’t necessarily have the resources to withstand the volatility.

The stock market boom began to take shape a year ago.

As property prices slumped, the government started to cut interest rates in an effort to stabilize the economy. With share prices looking undervalued and real estate in a rut, money flowed into stocks, said Chang Chun, a finance expert and executive dean at the Shanghai Advanced Institute of Finance at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

The government further fueled interest by viewing the market as a way to help start-ups and innovative companies. The state-run news media began publishing articles about the coming bull run and the creation of exchanges geared toward listing new companies.

As droves of investors jumped on board, the stock market boom began to head into bubble territory.

The nation’s two major exchanges, the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets, doubled and even tripled in 12 months. Early this year, the stock of a website that provides financial news and information rose more than 350 percent over two months. Stock valuations in China hit the roof; some companies were trading at 300 times trailing earnings.

“Things got crazy, it really became a feeding frenzy,” Mr. Chang said. “People were talking about new economy stocks.” In the ChiNext market in Shenzhen, some academics found the average price-to-earnings ratio was about 140, even higher than the Nasdaq bubble in the United States in 2000, he added.

The market started to soften a few months ago. Worried about excess speculation, the government started putting restrictions on the so-called leverage, or borrowing, used to buy stocks. In a May report, Credit Suisse analysts said that margin lending and other forms of borrowing to purchase shares amounted to more than $500 billion, increasing the market risk.

Just a few weeks ago, analysts at several major banks started calling a top and urging caution among investors. After that, the government once again tightened restrictions on margin borrowing, helping to undermine confidence in the market.

Heavy selling led to more selling. Since May, China’s stock market — the second-largest in the world after the United States — has lost nearly $3 trillion in market value.

[From "China's Market Rout is a Double Threat"
About $2.7 trillion in value has evaporated since the Chinese stock market peaked on June 12. That is six times Greece’s entire foreign debt, or 11 years of Greece’s economic output.]
The Chinese government’s response to the market downturn has been swift. In late June, China’s Central Bank cut interest rates, a move meant to help make buying stocks more attractive than putting money in the bank. When stock prices continued to fall, the authorities called an emergency meeting last weekend in Beijing. The country suspended new stock listings, and 21 brokerage firms agreed to set up a $19 billion stabilization fund to help prop up the markets.

[From: "Chinese stock still looks overvalued"
But even a proposed $19 billion stabilization fund looks small next to roughly $3 trillion worth of freely tradable shares, and combined average daily trading in Shanghai and Shenzhen of over $200 billion. If fundamental factors matter, Chinese share prices are still too high.]
China is facing the stock market slump at a complicated time. The economy has weakened considerably, now that the country is growing at its slowest pace in more than a decade. Many local governments are heavily indebted.
The Chinese stock market’s plunge “is probably the most public and obvious instance where the government’s omnipotence has been challenged... I think the last couple of weeks really showed that, no, they do not have the ability to make anything happen.” 
The recent stock market losses are equal to three months of China’s economic output, which reached $10.3 trillion last year. Economists increasingly worry that the losses may lead to a sharp drop in spending by Chinese consumers who have lost much of their savings.

With the stock market falling so swiftly, concerns have grown about social and political repercussions. The enormous amount of borrowing that helped lift share prices could turn into bad debt, hurting banks, brokerages and other financial institutions. And small investors could be devastated.

“Honestly, my confidence in regulators and the market is diminishing,” said Chen Minliang, a publishing house editor in Shanghai who has been playing the market for years. “But I still think the market itself has some rules and will likely rebound after reaching the floor.”

The most vulnerable in a sharp, prolonged stock downturn could be people like Mr. Gong, the retired shipyard worker. Most of his family’s assets are tied up in the stock market, with little in the bank.

Mr. Gong, who never attended college, made less than $150 a month in the shipyards. In the mid-1990s, he started playing the stocks, after realizing that his job as a state worker was not going to make him rich. He retired in 2005, and has since built up a $100,000 portfolio.

“I didn’t really have a good income,” he said. “But now, I’m doing better than some people I know who are just living on their pension.”
Investors with heavy losses include He Wuhong, a Beijing middle school teacher and mother of a toddler. She and her husband invested nearly all of their $65,000 in savings in China’s stock market in late April and early May, only to see their account’s value fall by almost half in recent days. She cannot even sell her shares, because their prices fall 10 percent each morning, resulting in an automatic suspension of trading for the rest of the day...
...The problem for millions of investors is that share prices may not recover for years, if ever, for the more speculative stocks. Only a third of the Shanghai stock market, and even less of the Shenzhen market, consists of shares in large businesses.
 The rest of the shares are mostly in small and midsize businesses, often with weak balance sheets and endemic corporate governance problems. Such companies are vulnerable to looting by their controlling shareholders at the expense of minority shareholders.
About three times a week, Mr. Gong visits one of his favorite brokerage houses to meet friends, swap tips and watch the markets gyrate. He was there on Monday, off a narrow street in the city’s riverfront district, in front of an enormous screen arrayed with stock prices, ticker symbols and trading volumes.

Scores of people, mostly retirees, watched the screens, jumped out of their seats to trade stocks, and argued about the market’s movements. Many had packed a lunch and spent the day reading the electronic stock boards.

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