Volatile Chinese stock markets shake investors

August 06, 1994|By New York Times News Service

SHANGHAI, China -- Every few weeks for a year now, Li Shangjing has gathered up his nerve and wandered into the offices of a large brokerage firm to see how much further the stock market has fallen -- and how much more of his life savings has disappeared.

And even now, looking at a glowing video monitor that charted this week's phenomenal recovery on the Shanghai Stock Exchange, Mr. Li could barely manage a smile.

"What I have learned is that stocks are like gambling," said Mr. Li, 34, an office clerk who earns $100 a month and has lost most of his savings in China's newly revived stock market.

"I'm relieved that the prices are going back up. But when I finally get all my money back, then I'm out of the stock market, for good," he said.

If Mr. Li is far more dour than his fellow Chinese investors -- and he must be, given the amount of money that flooded into the markets here this week -- he still has something in common with millions of other Chinese who have embraced capitalism and put their money into stocks since 1990.

They have learned a nail-biting lesson about how quickly prices can climb, collapse and then climb again on what has become one of the most volatile stock markets in the developing world.

On the Shanghai exchange, the index of so-called A shares, available only to Chinese buyers, was above the 10,000 level in February 1993. By the end of last month, it had fallen more than 80 percent, to 1,744.01.

But it exploded this week, sparked by the government's decision to halt all new listings for the rest of the year. By yesterday, the A index had climbed back to 3,716.14, more than twice its level a week earlier.

The index for B shares, which are for foreigners only, has also risen this week, but only marginally, as overseas investors continued to question the wisdom of buying equities in the Chinese markets.

The package of reforms announced last week, which included the ban on new issues and proposals for opening the A-share market to foreign buyers, had been anticipated by analysts in Hong Kong and New York.

"I don't think the fundamental problems with this market have been resolved," said Allan Ng, an analyst with S. G. Warburg Investments in Hong Kong. "The market is still not properly regulated. Suspending share issues for a moment is not going to cure the problems."

In December 1990, the Chinese Communist government proved that Communism was dead here and opened the first local stock market in more than 40 years -- in Shanghai.

The new Chinese stock market, the Communists declared, would be the centerpiece of a "socialist market economy," an effort to reconcile Mao Tse-tung's ideology with capitalist theory.

In July 1991, a second exchange opened in Shenzhen, the booming southern coastal city across the border from Hong Kong. The newly reborn Chinese stock market created quick fortunes for a handful of investors.

But after hitting record highs early last year, the market turned sour.

The drop could be explained in part by government moves to tighten credit, a policy intended to cool an economy in danger of overheating. China's economy grew by nearly 12 percent last year.

In recent months, the markets came close to collapse, robbing many first-time Chinese investors of their life savings as they sold off shares in panic.

The impact was most obvious in Shanghai, a city of 9 million people where nearly 1 million people are estimated to own stock. RTC "Some of my friends have lost everything," said Zhu Ke, 29, an office worker here.

Skepticism about the Chinese markets set in far earlier among foreign investors, and their doubts have continued.

Even as the index for the A shares was surging this week, the

index in Shanghai for foreigners-only B shares was rising by only a few percentage points.

Foreign investors have become especially uncomfortable with the scant information made available by listed companies in China.

Some companies listed in Shanghai and Shenzhen have never bothered to issue an annual report. Others are hesitant to receive foreign shareholders and analysts when they visit China.

"You fly halfway round the world to talk to the people who run these companies," said an analyst with a New York-based investment firm. "But instead of a CEO, you get some young executive who knows nothing about the current financial picture.

"They're still playing by the old Communist rules: Don't share information. But that just doesn't work for capitalist investors."

But millions of Chinese investors, despite their heavy losses in the last year, retain a passion for the concept of stocks, and for the risks of capitalism.

Zhao Xuhu, 39, an accountant in Shanghai, acknowledged reluctantly that he and two brothers had lost about $4,500 in the stock market over the last three years. "A fortune," he said.

But Mr. Zhao, as he wandered the offices of a large Shanghai investment firm this week, plotting his next purchases, talked about winning back all of his losses. "I want to believe in the stock market," he said. "I want to believe."

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