Hong Kong's IPO market is finally starting to turn around, consulting firm EY says

BEIJING — The market for initial public offerings in Hong Kong is set to improve significantly over the next five years, starting in the second half of this year, George Chan, global IPO leader at EY, told CNBC in an interview Wednesday.

“I think it will take a couple years to go back to the peak [in 2021] but the trend is there,” Chan said. “I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”

High U.S. interest rates, regulatory scrutiny, slower economic growth and U.S.-China tensions have constrained Greater China IPOs in the last three years.

EY said in a report that while the volume of IPOs and proceeds in the U.S. increased significantly in the first half of 2024 compared to the same period a year ago, mainland China and Hong Kong saw a sharp decline in listings.

Many of the macro trends are now starting to turn around, which can support more IPOs in Hong Kong, said Chan, who is based in Shanghai.

“We are seeing a reversing trend,” he told CNBC. “We are seeing more of these [U.S. dollar] funds, they are moving back to Hong Kong. The main reason is that Hong Kong has already factored in these uncertainties.”

The Hang Seng Index is up more than 5% year-to-date after four straight years of decline — which was the worst such losing streak in the history of the index, according to Wind Information.

“Our HK cap markets team is very busy and has a strong pipeline for H2.  We expect to see many HKSE listings,” Marcia Ellis, global co-chair of private equity practice at Morrison Foerster in Hong Kong, said in an email Wednesday.

Many companies that were waiting for a listing in mainland China’s A share market have decided to switch to one in Hong Kong, she said. “Previously [China Securities Regulatory Commission] approval was slowing things down but recently our team has gotten CSRC approvals pretty quickly.” 

In June, China issued new measures to promote venture capital, and authorities spoke publicly about supporting IPOs, especially in Hong Kong. Investors and analysts said they are now looking at the speed of IPO approvals for signs of a significant change.

Chan said another supportive factor for Hong Kong IPOs is that many of the companies listed in the market are based in mainland China, where economic growth is “quite satisfactory.”

He expects consumer companies could be among the near-term IPO beneficiaries.

“As the economy slowly recovers, a lot of people in China are willing to spend,” he said, noting that was especially the case in less developed parts of the country.

Official national-level data have showed that retail sales are growing more slowly in China — up by just 3.7% in May from a year ago versus growth of nearly 10% or more in prior years.

Also significant for global asset allocation, the U.S. Federal Reserve and other major central banks are pulling back from aggressive interest rate hikes. High rates have made Treasury bonds a more attractive investment for many institutions instead of IPOs.

“I would say if the interest rate can be further cut down, 1% maybe, that would have a significant effect on the IPO market,” Chan said.

Hong Kong IPOs raised $1.5 billion during the first half of the year, a 34% drop from a year ago, EY said in a report released late last month. Back in 2021 and 2020, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange saw nearly 100 or more IPOs a year raising tens of billions of dollars, according to the report.

In comparison, mainland China IPOs raised $4.6 billion in the first six months of 2024 — a drop of 85% from the year-ago period, according to EY.

HKEX CEO aims for more large-scale IPOs this year

Bonnie Chan, CEO of Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing Limited, said during a conference last week that so far this year, the Hong Kong exchange has received 73 new listing applications — a 50% increase compared to the second half of last year. She is not related to EY’s George Chan.

“The pipeline is building up nicely,” she said, noting about 110 IPOs in total are in line for a Hong Kong listing. “All we need is a set of good market conditions so these things get to launch and price nicely,” she added.

Improving post-IPO performance

“What we need is a strong pipeline,” EY’s Chan said. “We need an interested investor with the money to invest, and we need a good aftermarket performance.”

Hong Kong IPO returns are improving. The average first-day return of new listings on the Hong Kong stock exchange in the first half of 2024 was 24%, far more than the average of 1% in the same period last year, according to EY.

“The aftermarket performance of Hong Kong IPOs has been doing quite good compared to the past five years,” Chan said. “These things added together are projecting an upward trend for the Hong Kong market [in the] next 5 years.”

Chan said he expects the number of deals to pick up in the second half of 2024.

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He said those will likely be medium-sized — between 2 billion Hong Kong dollars to 5 billion Hong Kong dollars ($260 million to $640 million) — but added he expects better market momentum in 2025.

Slowing economic growth and geopolitical uncertainty have also weighed on early-stage investment into Chinese startups.

Total venture funding from foreign investors into Greater China deals plunged to $19 billion in 2023, down from $67 billion in 2021, according to Preqin, an alternative assets research firm.

U.S. investors have not participated in the largest deals in recent years, while investors from Greater China have remained involved, the firm said in a report last month.

U.S. IPO outlook

As for IPOs of China-based companies in the U.S., EY’s Chan said he expects current scrutiny on the listings to be “temporary,” although data security rules would remain a hurdle.

In early 2023, the China Securities Regulatory Commission formalized new rules that require domestic companies to comply with national security measures and the personal data protection law before going public overseas. A China-based company with more than 1 million users must pass Beijing’s cybersecurity review to list overseas.

“As time goes on, when people are more familiar with the Chinese [securities regulator] approval process and they are more become comfortable with geopolitical tensions, more of the large companies … would consider [the] U.S. market as their final destination,” Chan said.

“When the time comes I think the institutional investors would be interested in these sizeable Chinese companies, as they pretty much want to make money.”

He declined to comment on specific IPOs, and said certain high-profile listing plans are “isolated incidents.”

Chinese ride-hailing company Didi, which delisted from New York in 2021, has denied reports it plans to list in Hong Kong next year. Fast-fashion company Shein, which does most of its manufacturing in China, is trying to list in London following criticism in the U.S., according to a CNBC report.

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