Just a few years after Chinese companies lined up to sell shares on Wall Street, a growing number are reversing course and pulling out of U.S. exchanges.
This week, Focus Media Holding Ltd., announced its chairman and private equity firms want to buy back its U.S.-traded shares and take the Shanghai-based advertising company private. The deal would value Focus Media at $3.5 billion, according to financial information firm Dealogic.
Smaller companies also are withdrawing from U.S. exchanges. In a sign of official encouragement, a Chinese business magazine said a state bank has provided $1 billion in loans to help companies with listings abroad move them to domestic exchanges.
The withdrawals follow accusations of improper accounting by some companies and a deadlock between Beijing and Washington over whether U.S. regulators can oversee their China-based auditors.
Some Chinese companies say they are pulling out of U.S. markets because a low share price fails to reflect the strength of their business. Withdrawing also eliminates the cost of complying with American financial reporting rules.
Focus Media “has been seriously undervalued on U.S. stock markets” and being taken private will help to promote its “long-term strategic development,” said a company spokeswoman, Lu Jing.
The company, formed in 2003, operates electronic advertising displays in elevators, grocery stores and other locations.
“We haven’t considered whether to list the company on Chinese markets but that possibility has not been excluded,” Lu said.
U.S.-traded Chinese companies faced scrutiny after auditors for several quit and others were accused of accounting irregularities. Concerns about company finances have caused share prices to tumble, costing investors several billion dollars.
“Probably all these companies have some questionable accounting, so they may prefer to move out of the U.S., not to come under too much scrutiny,” said Marc Faber, managing director of Hong Kong fund management company Marc Faber Ltd.
A financial firm, Muddy Waters Research, accused Focus Media last year of overstating the number of its display panels and questioned acquisitions reported by the company. Focus Media denied the allegations and said independent auditors confirmed the size of its network.
This week, Muddy Waters founder Carson Block said in a statement: “The markets are far better off if a few deep pocketed investors own Focus Media instead of mutual funds and other public shareholders.”
The group proposing to take the company private includes its chairman, Jason Nanchun Jiang, and private equity firms Carlyle Group, CITIC Capital Partners, CDH Investments and China Everbright Ltd.
The status of Chinese companies in the United States could be complicated by a dispute between U.S. and Chinese regulators over whether American inspectors will be allowed to examine the work of their China-based audit firms.
Washington wants auditors to hand over documentation on companies that are under investigation but Chinese authorities have barred the release of some information. If a settlement is not reached, the SEC could reject audits by China-based firms, forcing companies to find new auditors.
In May, Beijing took steps to tighten control of local affiliates of major accounting firms by issuing a requirement for Chinese citizens to head those offices.
Dozens of Chinese companies issued shares on Wall Street over the past decade, raising billions of dollars from investors who wanted a stake in the country’s booming economy.
Many were private companies that could not raise money on Chinese exchanges that were created to finance state industry or wanted the higher public profile.
Chinese regulators encouraged the move as a way for entrepreneurs to raise money and speed the development of China’s economy. But in recent years Beijing has encouraged private companies to issue shares in China to help develop its markets and give Chinese households better investment options.
Regulators have made it easier for private companies to join China’s two exchanges in Shanghai and the southern city of Shenzhen, though most listings still are for state enterprises. The Shenzhen exchange created a second board for small companies, imitating the U.S.-based Nasdaq market.
Major state companies such as oil giant PetroChina Ltd. and China Mobile Ltd., the world’s biggest phone company by subscribers, also have issued shares abroad. None has indicated it plans to withdraw from foreign stock exchanges.
The economics also are shifting in China’s favour.
U.S.-traded companies saw share prices plunge following the 2008 global crisis, while economic growth at home, even after a recent decline, is still forecast at about 8 percent this year. Rising Chinese incomes are creating a bigger pool of money for investment.
“Generally speaking, a company’s shares are sold at a higher premium in initial public offerings on Chinese stock markets than on U.S. markets,” said Mao Sheng, a market strategist for Huaxi Securities in the western city of Chengdu.
Also, he said, “If the company’s business is mainly in China, it will be good for its brand promotion.”
Another U.S.-traded company, Fushi Copperweld Inc., announced plans in June by its chairman, Li Fu, and a Hong Kong firm, Abax Global Capital, to take the maker of metallic conductors private.
Muddy Waters cited Fushi Copperweld in April as one of several companies it said dealt with an investment bank that helped enterprises seeking U.S. stock market listings to conceal problems and misrepresent financial information.
Fushi Copperweld denied Muddy Waters’ “vague and nonspecific” claims.
The company said its privatisation will be financed with loans from the China Development Bank.
Created to support construction of highways and other public works in China, CDB plays a growing role in its corporate expansion abroad. The bank provides credit to buyers of Chinese telecoms gear and other big-ticket goods and has financed building projects in Africa, Latin America and Asia.
CDB has lent $1 billion “to help Chinese public companies leave the U.S. stock market to return to domestic markets,” the business magazine Caixin said last month.
Employees who answered the phone at Fushi Copperweld said no one was available to comment.
Also in June, China TransInfo Technology Corp., a provider of traffic management technology, announced privatization plans to be financed by CDB’s Hong Kong branch. A company spokeswoman said she could not comment because the plan is not finalized.
In October, Harbin Pacific Electric Co. withdrew from Nasdaq in a share buyback financed by $400 million in loans from the CDB.Joe McDonald
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