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After spurned play for LSE, Hong Kong bourse to seek deeper China embrace

Published 10/09/2019, 04:43 AM
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: HKEX CEO Charles Li speaks at the Sandler O'Neill + Partners Global Exchange and Brokerage Conference in New York
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By Sumeet Chatterjee and Alun John

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong stock exchange boss Charles Li ignited his unrequited overture to the London Stock Exchange with a riff on Romeo and Juliet as a corporate romance, and doused it in a wistful blog reference to the author of 'Alice in Wonderland'.

After this week dropping the shock $39 billion approach, will Chief Executive Li's next post outlining a strategic vision for the bourse swap British literary references for a metaphor from a Chinese classic?

Investors and analysts expect Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing (HKEX) (HK:0388) to refocus its efforts - for now - on expanding its links with mainland Chinese counterparts following the collapse of its ambitions to build a global exchange platform via a merger with the London Stock Exchange Group (LSE) (L:LSE).

HKEX's abortive approach was the largest withdrawn stock exchange-related mergers and acquisitions transaction ever, surpassing Deutsche Boerse's (DE:DB1Gn) $13.9 billion approach for LSE in 2016, according to Refinitiv data.

"Charles Li must have known that the LSE was a long shot," said Larry Tabb, founder and research chairman at U.S.-based capital markets advisory firm Tabb Group. "So I actually think the bid was meant to demonstrate his aggressiveness to Beijing and put him in a better spot in relation to Shanghai and other exchanges throughout China."

HKEX's approach for LSE also came against the backdrop of four months of increasingly violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong. Rejection by LSE managers and shareholders signaled concerns over giving control of an exchange to a buyer with close links to China, analysts said.

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"You can well imagine if Hong Kong stock exchange makes an offer for some other developing country exchange, why wouldn't you see similar (regulatory) pushback?" said David Blennerhassett of Ballingal Investment Advisors, who publishes research on the Smartkarma website.

"This is going to curtail their global expansion. So, that means they will look inwards for their growth going forward."

HKEX declined to provide comment on future plans for this article, but speaking at a conference in Singapore on Wednesday, HKEX Chair Laura Cha said that while she was disappointed the deal didn't go through, the approach for the LSE was just one facet of one part of HKEX's three-pronged strategy - building on the bourse's China links, focusing on technology and international ambitions.

NOT ONLY 'CONNECT'

Hong Kong's track record for developing China-related trading links is well documented.

It has since 2014 operated the only direct stock trading link between the mainland and the rest of the world, the so-called 'Stock Connect'. In 2017, it added a 'Bond Connect' allowing international investors access to mainland debt markets.

High on its wish list for future growth is opening a 'southbound' Bond Connect, allowing Chinese investors to trade bonds in Hong Kong. Opening an 'IPO Connect' allowing mainland investors direct access to Hong Kong listings is another ambition.

Beyond that, Li has talked also of the potential for an 'ETF Connect', offering Hong Kong-listed exchange-traded funds (ETFs) to Chinese investors.

"The LSE acquisition was about growth, but there is still potential for growth in HKEX's earlier strategy - building its fixed-income currencies and commodities products. I expect them to return to this," said Michael Wu, an analyst at Morningstar.

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As part of this, HKEX is keen to expand the operations of its successful British acquisition - the London Metal Exchange, bought for 1.4 billion pounds ($1.71 billion) in 2012 - into Asia and China in particular.

"The LME business also has significant cost-saving opportunities and further potential to expand its commodity breadth of products, which combined should drive significant earnings growth over time, if management execute on these organic growth options," said Ashley Pittard, head of global equities at fund manager Pendal, a top 15 shareholder in the HKEX.

In the near-term, attention is focused on already announced plans to launch a futures contract based on MSCI's mainland China index - which would be the first internationally traded contract based on the MSCI benchmark, a key gauge for global emerging markets investors.

CROSS-BORDER COMPETITION

While HKEX has previously made much of the former British colony's status as a gateway for capital flows in and out of China - it has been the world's largest listings venue in five of the past 10 years - the continued evolution of mainland markets could make pushing deeper into China a tougher proposition.

The Shanghai Stock Exchange has been particularly active, this year launching a new Nasdaq-style board, known as the STAR Market, which aims to attract the type of tech start-ups that Hong Kong began courting last year through rule changes that made it easier for them to list.

"There is obviously competition across the border," said Ballingal's Blennerhassett, who also suggested a Hong Kong exchange merger with the Shanghai or Shenzhen bourse would be a logical step.

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"Forging a union between these exchanges seems to make a lot more sense - of course a lot would depend on how they structure it," he added.

Other HKEX watchers haven't given up on the potential for future cross-border exchange deals, even if Li's bold gambit failed this time.

"Longer term there is no doubt consolidation in stock exchanges globally will continue," said Pendal's Pittard, who pointed to the benefits of scaling exchanges' high fixed operating costs.

"Near term the road blocks have been from regulators primarily, but over time it is feasible that a European and Asian exchange could merge."

For Charles Li, writing in his 'Chief Executive Blog' on Tuesday, the only certainty the future holds is that HKEX is "strong enough and diverse enough to dust ourselves down and move forward" - even without a Lewis Carroll looking glass.

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