Chinese firms’ U.S. stock issuance hit a 6-year high in 2020

January 27, 2021, 6:04 AM UTC

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Chinese companies issued more equity on U.S. markets last year than in any year except 2014—when Alibaba launched its $25 billion IPO—says a new report on China-U.S. financial ties by advisory firm Rhodium Group and the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations (NCUSCR).

“Under normal conditions, there would be room for trillions of dollars in additional U.S.-China financial investment before balances reached levels typical of advanced economy pairs,” the authors say, in the report released Tuesday. But headwinds from both Beijing and Washington threaten to put a cap on the potential growth of bilateral financing.

According to the report, U.S. investors held $1.2 trillion in Chinese securities by the end of last year as Chinese firms unleashed $19 billion of stock for U.S. investors to soak up despite the worsening political ties between the two countries.

“Despite all the negative developments since 2020, Chinese firms still view the United States as the most attractive global alternative for listing shares,” says Adam Lysenko, associate director at Rhodium and one of the report authors.

Last year Chinese electric vehicle makers Xpeng and Li Auto both raised over $1 billion through U.S. IPOs—the former on the New York Stock Exchange, the latter on Nasdaq. Fintech firm Lufax was another Chinese debut, raising $2.4 billion on the NYSE—making it the exchange’s largest Chinese IPO since Alibaba.

Besides being generally seen as prestigious, listing in the U.S. also provides Chinese firms practical benefits, Lysenko says, such as allowing companies to raise U.S. dollars—the international currency.

Meanwhile, Chinese holdings of U.S. securities in 2020 were $2.1 trillion with $1.4 trillion of it in debt, according to Rhodium’s estimates. Official data from the U.S. Treasury Department shows Chinese holdings at $1.5 trillion in June 2019, down from $1.6 trillion twelve months earlier.

But Rhodium’s estimates are all higher than the official figures. The report’s estimates for the size of U.S. holdings of Chinese equity last year, for example, is roughly five times U.S. official data, which points to some of the regulatory challenges facing future U.S.-China financial ties.

“Most of the disparity is accounted for by firms from China using complex legal structures to issue shares out of tax havens that trade on U.S. exchanges,” Rhodium says, noting that official U.S. data regularly misattributes investment in Chinese companies as investment in tax havens because of these legal structures.

Some Chinese companies, including several of China’s most valuable firms, set up these shell companies to skirt Beijing’s ban on foreign investment in certain industries, which technically prevents the companies from listing overseas.

As Wall Street’s appetite for Chinese stock continued to grow, lawmakers in Washington raised new objections to the investment risks posed by Chinese firms’ opaque finances.

In December, President Trump signed into law a bill that threatens to remove Chinese companies from U.S. markets if they fail to provide the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) with audit documents. Beijing, citing national security issues, often prohibits companies from sharing the audit documents the SEC requires.

The SEC had previously accepted this limitation to its auditing oversight. But in May, the discovery of massive fraud at Nasdaq-listed Luckin Coffee—a young Starbucks wannabe that dazzled investors with rapid growth, only to reveal it had over reported earnings by $310 million—spurred lawmakers to close the loophole.

The passage of the bill, plus another Trump executive order that threatened to delist companies the State Department deemed to be affiliated with the Chinese military, diverted some Chinese equity from the U.S. Wary of being delisted, some Chinese firms offered secondary listings on the Hong Kong stock exchange as a backup while others avoided the U.S. altogether.

Hong Kong, for its part, hasn’t escaped policy headwinds either. In November, regulators in Shanghai suddenly blocked the highly anticipated $35 billion Hong Kong IPO of Ant Group, the Alibaba-affiliated financial services company. The block dealt a major blow to U.S. institutions that can invest in Hong Kong and were hoping to grab a stake in what was billed as the world’s largest IPO.

Officially, Chinese regulators cited changes in fintech regulations as the reason why it pulled the plug on Ant’s IPO, but experts consider it no coincidence that the stoppage followed criticism of Beijing’s financial regulators by Ant founder Jack Ma weeks earlier.

“Beijing has stated its preference for greater financial opening to the world but needs to enact far-reaching reforms before it can truly open its capital account without guardrails,” the Rhodium report says. That would mean straightening out its domestic regulatory environment, for one, so that there are no more surprises like the Ant bust last year.