STOCK NOW Hong Kong’s stock slump triggers wave of brokerage closures

Hong Kong’s stock slump triggers wave of brokerage closures

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The prolonged slump and the job losses are adding to questions about the future of the city’s position as Asia’s top international finance centre in the wake of Hong Kong’s extreme pandemic curbs and Beijing’s imposition of national security legislation.

An electronic hoarding displaying the Hang Seng Index and stocks outside the Exchange Square in Central. Photo: Yik Yeung-man

“This wave of shutdowns and lay-offs at brokerages is the worst I’ve ever seen,” said Edmond Hui, chief executive officer of Hong Kong-based brokerage Bright Smart Securities. “The key lies in improving the liquidity of the market. Now everyone is struggling. I simply do not see any light at the end of the tunnel.”

Small-and medium-sized brokerages, whose revenue mainly comes from trading commissions and margin businesses, are bearing the brunt of the market downturn. According to a survey of local brokers by the Hong Kong Securities Association earlier this year, more than 72 per cent suffered losses last year, with at least a quarter planning to scale down their operations this year.

Online brokerage Futu Holdings to set up physical store in Hong Kong

Hong Kong stocks have the widest bid-ask spreads – the price difference between offers to buy and sell stocks – in Asia-Pacific markets, said Tony Cheung, an execution consulting specialist at Instinet. That increases trading costs for institutional investors, he added.

Despite analyst projections at the start of the year that Chinese shares would see a recovery after the country ended its Covid Zero restrictions, investor sentiment turned persistently downbeat. A struggling economy, weak consumption, strained US-China ties and a property crisis sent foreign funds fleeing.

The lack of liquidity shows “institutional interest in Hong Kong and China is declining to a new low,” said Qi Wang, UOB Kay Hian chief investment officer in wealth management. “Global investors have divested a big chunk of their Hong Kong holdings in the last two years. Many now consider China ‘irrelevant’ from a global portfolio view.”

A drought in deals is adding to the sense of a market in trouble. This year is poised to be the worst for Hong Kong debuts since 2001, just after the dotcom bubble burst, with US$5.1 billion of IPOs. That is a fraction of the US$52 billion raised three years ago, and down 84 per cent from the past 10-year average of US$31 billion.

Just last month, Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. shocked investors by terminating plans to spin off and list its US$11 billion cloud business. The company, which cited US restrictions on chip sales to China for the reversal, said it’s also suspending a listing for the popular grocery business Freshippo.

Banks are downsizing as a result. In the past year, Wall Street banks including Goldman Sachs Inc. and Morgan Stanley have conducted multiple rounds of lay-offs in Hong Kong. UBS cut about two dozen investment bankers in Asia, mainly China-focused roles based in Hong Kong and including several managing directors, Bloomberg News reported in October.

“This hiring market in 2023 is probably the toughest hiring market I would say since the global financial crisis,” said John Mullally, a Hong Kong-based managing director at recruiting firm Robert Walters, referring to the local financial services industry in general. “In 2024, I think there will be more cuts.”

The ongoing slump, particularly in a year when global equity markets have gained, is turning Hong Kong into an also-ran. Japan’s stock market is now US$1.5 trillion larger than Hong Kong’s – the biggest gap since 2009. The Topix has surged 23 per cent this year, compared with a 17 per cent retreat by the Hang Seng Index. Hong Kong is also at risk at being displaced by India, which is just US$518 billion less, around the smallest discount on record based on data going back two decades.

Hong Kong’s government has taken steps to arrest the downturn and stimulate trading. This includes reversing a stamp duty hike on stock trades introduced in 2021, as well as plans to ensure markets stay open during severe weather such as a typhoon.

Yet local officials can do little about the city’s high borrowing costs, which follow US moves due to the local currency’s peg to the US dollar, or the weakness in mainland China’s economy.

Chi Lo, investment strategist for Asia-Pacific at BNP Paribas Asset Management says to revive Hong Kong’s stock market, US monetary policy needs to shift from tightening to loosening and Beijing needs to introduce more aggressive easing

“Cutting stamp duty is only a cosmetic change,” said Chi Lo, investment strategist for Asia-Pacific at BNP Paribas Asset Management. To revive Hong Kong’s stock market, US monetary policy needs to shift from tightening to loosening and Beijing needs to introduce more aggressive easing, he added.

Wall Street banks are lowering their expectations on Chinese stocks. Morgan Stanley in August downgraded China to equal-weight, while last month Goldman Sachs cut its recommendation on Chinese stocks listed in Hong Kong due to modest earnings growth.

“The length and severity of this cyclical downturn of the Hong Kong market could continue to weigh on its status as a global financial centre,” said Vivian Lin Thurston, a portfolio manager at William Blair Investment Management. “Only if and when the macro and underlying corporate fundamentals start to improve, could it see improved performance and increased liquidity.”

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