China Stock Market: Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hong Kong

Why China's Stock Market Is Like a Casino

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An investor looks at the stock market in Wuhan of Hubei Province, China. Photo by China Photos/Getty Images

Definition: China's stock market is where shares of Chinese companies are traded. It was founded 100 years ago. It's the second largest in the world, behind the United States. On June 20, MSCI announced it will add China A-shares to its emerging market index. That will increase China's stock market size by $11 billion. The move will force asset managers who track the index to purchase China A-shares for their own portfolios.

These managers hold $4.75 trillion in assets. (Sources: "MSCI to Add China Shares to Indexes," The Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2017. "How Much Do You Know About China’s Stock Market?" The Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2017.)

In 2015 and 2016, huge price swings made China's stock market seem like a casino. One reason for the volatility is that the market is thinly traded. Only 7 percent of China's population own stocks. Since participation is so low, a few wealthy investors own 80 percent of tradable shares. They drive the price swings in China's stock market.(Source: China's Stocks Are Hit by Panic Selling, The Wall Street Journal January 5, 2016. Here's What You May Not Know About the Chinese Stock Market," Fortune, September 2, 2015.)

China's leaders encourage investment as part of its economic reform. A healthy stock market will fund innovative smaller companies and boost China's economic growth.

It would provide an alternative to bank debt. As an attempt to curb volatility, China's Securities Regulatory Commission established automatic circuit breakers in January 2016. The Commission withdrew the breakers after only four days because they only made things worse. (Source: "China Suspends Market Circuit Breakers," MarketWatch, January 7, 2016)

China's stock market doesn't indicate the health of China's economy, unlike the U.S. stock market. The total value of every stock traded on its exchanges is only a third of its economic output, as measured by Gross Domestic Product.That compares to 100 percent for most developed countries. (Source: "Taking a Tumble," The Economist, August 20, 2015)

In China, less than 20 percent of household wealth is in the stock market. Instead, most are fully invested in real estate. That market is cooling after overheating. Banks only offer low-interest rates on savings accounts, since the central bank keeps rates low to make lending cheap. There are no Social Security or pension funds in China, so workers save relentlessly to pay for their own retirement.

China's Stock Exchanges

There are two exchanges on the mainland. The Shanghai and Shenzhen exchanges were opened by the Chinese government in 1990 as a way of modernizing China's economy. The Hong Kong stock exchange (HKEx) is being integrated into the other Chinese exchanges. That makes it loosely part of China's stock market.

The Shanghai stock exchange (SSE) is China's largest. Its total market capitalization was $4.71 trillion in March 2015.  Most of the companies listed are the large, state-owned companies responsible for China's economic growth.

Most investors are pension funds and banks. The SSE is located in Shanghai, China's financial capital.

The Shenzhen stock exchange (SZ) is a smaller exchange. Its market capitalization was $3 trillion in April 2015. It is located in Shenzhen, Guangdong, one of China's most modern cities and a two-hour drive from Hong Kong.  Most investors are individuals.

The Shenzhen trades the shares of smaller, more entrepreneurial companies. Their growth is a critical component of China's economic reform. That's because these privately-owned businesses are more innovative and more profitable than the state-owned companies. A lot of tech companies are listed there, making this exchange similar to the NASDAQ. (Source: "Shenzhen's Overshadowed Stocks Surge," The Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2015.)

Compare Shanghai to Shenzhen by Sector

SectorShanghaiShenzhen
Manufacturing  28%  60%
Financial  32%    7.2%
Mining  Less than 3%  15%
Transportation  5.1%  Less than 3%
Real Estate  Less than 3%  4.9%
Utilities  4.5%  Less than 3%
Retail and Wholesale  Less than 3%  3.3%

 

The Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited, or HKEx, is a stock market and derivatives market. It is in Hong Kong, a city-state that was transferred from the United Kingdom to China in 1997.  Mainland China selects Hong Kong's administrator, but it has its own currency, judicial system, and legislative branch until 2047. The Hang Seng is the index that tracks the Hong Kong stock exchange.

In November 2014, the Chinese government linked the Shanghai exchange with the Hong Kong exchange through the Shanghai-Hong Kong Connect program. Chinese citizens are allowed to trade up to $1.7 billion a day. The Connect program allows foreign investors to buy shares of Chinese companies. Prior to the program, only Chinese citizens and a few foreign fund managers could trade mainland China stocks. It also encourages Chinese savers to buy stocks and earn higher returns. 

It is part of President Xi Jinping's economic reform plan to help heavily indebted state-owned companies. Higher share prices allow them to raise cash in the stock market. 

Many companies are now listed on both the Shenzhen and Hong Kong exchanges. Stock prices are often 25% cheaper on the Hong Kong exchange than the Shenzhen. That attracts mainland investors.  (Source: Chinese Stock Buying Frenzy Sweeps Into Hong Kong, The Wall Street JournalApril 9, 2015.)

Surprisingly, many of them are parking their money, not investing it. That's because they expect the Hong Kong dollar, which is pegged to the U.S. dollar, to get stronger through 2016. They expect the Chinese yuan to weaken as the Peoples Bank of China loosens its peg to the dollar. (Source: "Stocks on the Hang Seng Are Still Cheap," The Wall Street Journal, September 22, 2015.)

China Stock Indexes

The Shanghai Stock Exchange Composite Index (SHCOMP) tracks the Shanghai exchange. It does this by tracking the daily price of  A-shares and B-shares weighted by the total number of shares issued. That means price changes of larger companies affect the index more than those of smaller firms. That means it is a capitalization-weighted index, like the S&P 500, (Source: "SHCOMP:IND," Bloomberg.)

The Shenzhen Index (SZCOMP) tracks the stock prices of all A and B shares on the Shenzhen exchange. It is a capitalization-weighted index. (Source: "Shenzhen Index," Bloomberg.)

The Hang Seng Index (HSI) tracks the Hong Kong stock exchange. It reports the prices of a the largest and most frequently traded companies listed on the Hong Kong exchange. No company can represent more than 10 percent of the index value. Like the Shanghai index, it weights the share prices by the number of shares. It also weights the values by a free-float factor. There are four sub-indices: Commerce& Industry, Finance, Utilities, and Properties. (Source: "Index Methodology," Hang Seng Index.)

History

China's first stock exchange opened in the 1860s in Shanghai. It closed for 41 years during the Communist revolution. In 1990, the Shanghai Stock Exchange opened again. Private investors bought shares of state-owned businesses. (Source: "How Much Do You Know About China’s Stock Market?" The Wall Street Journal, June 4, 2017.)