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China’s Stock Market Rout: Media Firms’ Chance of Escape Gets Smaller

The rout on China’s roller coaster stock markets has dented the business plans of several media and entertainment companies. If it continues – as it now appears to be doing – the turmoil carries the risk of regional contagion and even has the potential to damage the real economy.

At the weekend, the Chinese government attempted to calm the equity markets, which had fallen some 25% since the beginning of June. It introduced new liquidity, halted IPOs and corralled listed companies into buying their own shares. (Leading film company Huayi Brothers Media was one that proudly announced on Sunday that its directors would be buying in.)

These moves had the brief effect of lifting the country’s two stock markets in Shenzhen and Shanghai, which combined had the world’s second largest capitalization after the U.S. But only for a day.

While the official message was “don’t panic,” the stark warning implied by the central government’s stabilization attempt was that all was far from well. Many listed companies responded by suspending trading in their shares. By Wednesday (July 8) the figure was nearly half (1,317 suspensions from 2,700 A listed companies). Those that continued to trade got pummeled.

On Wednesday the combined CSI index was down 6.75% at 3663. The Shanghai composite was down 5.9% at 219.9. The Dow Jones Shanghai index was smashed even further, down by 9.21% to 451.9.

For a brief moment, the brutal halting of the bull run in mainland Chinese equities, and the sudden onset of a bear market, appeared to throw up almost as many opportunities for smart players as it did setbacks for the stupid or greedy.

Fosun, the giant holding company that is the biggest investor in Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8, appeared to be able to take advantage of its Hong Kong listing and already more conservative rating to go ahead with a new fund raising.

Wanda Commercial Property, which listed in Hong Kong in December, was also harboring plans for a secondary listing on the mainland.

It was speculated that the halting of new IPOs on the mainland would benefit Hong Kong, which has already been the world’s second best for fund-raising in 2015. But if mainland corporations panic and the pain for Chinese investors continues, it seems unlikely that Hong Kong can pretend to be immune.

But on Wednesday, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index suffered its biggest ever one day points drop, as it crumpled by 5.84% to 23,516.

In June Imax China said that it was readying its IPO on the Hong Kong exchange. It has not said whether it still thinks that is viable or if the likely pricing still makes business sense.

The problem with China’s bull market was that it made no economic sense and that it sucked in too many inexperienced and small investors. China’s economy is slowing (to a puny 7%), the property market is overblown and at risk of collapse, and capital is now flowing out of China, not in.

The government, however, made the problem worse by using the stock markets as a way of propping up the economy and consumer confidence. All without having to further stretch the state-controlled banks.

Instead, companies, and tens of millions of small investors, have opened brokerage accounts and borrowed (leveraged) heavily to bet on stocks that they thought could only go up. If the equity gold mine is allowed to fail, millions of people will lose parts of their savings, and lose confidence in the government’s ability to make them rich. The initial reasons for propping up the stock markets were political, not economic. But they may become economically imperative too. If the wider Chinese economy, and the switch to consumption-led (rather than an investment-led) GDP growth now stalls, then the problems for companies dependent on discretionary spending will pile up. Shares in New York-traded Alibaba reflected such fears and on Tuesday fell to $79.6, with overnight options trading pointing to a further fall Wednesday.

China’s IPO market, in particular, has long been problematic. It was only switched on again last year by Chinese regulators, who had previously closed the doors for over a year. Among the entertainment companies that must now wait for market conditions to normalize, and regulators to regain their nerve, are China Film Group, the state-owned enterprise that only a week ago said its flotation was finally happening. CFG, China’s largest film company and sole licensed distributor of Hollywood blockbusters, has been talking of IPO since 2006. It needed restructuring first, then when it was ready once before got caught in a similar IPO freeze.

Other entertainment companies that have flashed their IPO credentials include iQIYI, the online video operation that Baidu is seeking to spin off. Only weeks ago it was named as one of a handful of exceptional tech companies that might trade on a special platform.

The new IPO crunch also risks making fools of a mass of Chinese companies, mostly tech and media firms, which had been listed on the New York and Nasdaq exchanges, but which found the tastes of U.S. analysts and investors too conservative. As a consequence the company bosses felt their share ratings were too low, especially when compared with those which had been bid upwards in China’s yearlong bull market charge.

Companies exiting the U.S. markets and that had hoped for a profitable relisting in Shanghai or Shenzhen included Qihoo 360, social network operator Renren and online dating firm Jiayuan.com have also received permission to go private, while Perfect World and Shanda Games have both announced delistings.

In early June, coinciding almost exactly with the peak in the Chinese equity markets, Chinese movie distributor Bona Film Group announced its (non-binding) intention to delist from Nasdaq. Company founder Yu Dong, subsequently admitted that he had thought up the move in flash of inspiration and had caught key co-investors on the hop with his announcement. Whether or not he goes ahead, Bona’s share price in New York has already slipped.

And all this is taking place while the world holds its breath over whether Greece will be forced out of the Euro.

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