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China's Largest Bank Debuts on Two Stock Exchanges

  • Luis Ramirez

China's largest bank - the state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank - has started selling shares to investors. The initial public offering, which is raising a world record $21.9 billion, made its debut on stock exchanges in Shanghai and Hong Kong.

With wine and champagne toasts and much fanfare Friday, executives of China's largest bank kicked off trading of ICBC shares at the Shanghai exchange. There were similar celebrations at the stock exchange in Hong Kong.

With assets of more than $800 billion, ICBC became China's fourth major bank to sell shares to overseas investors. The first was China Construction Bank last year, followed by Bank of China, and China Merchants Bank. All have seen their shares do well on foreign exchanges. But this is the first Chinese lender to debut on two markets simultaneously.

Throughout the day, shares in the bank rose, reflecting what analyst Michael Pettis, a finance professor at Peking University, says is a thirst among global cash-rich investors for a piece of China's massive economic growth.

"I think to a certain extent what is happening in China simply is a more intense form of what is happening globally with lots of liquidity, lots of risk appetite looking for places to go. And it has intensified in China because right now China seems to be at the center of a lot of focus and there is a bit of 'China hype' going on. So, almost anything coming out of China that is halfway decent is going to generate quite a lot of demand," said Pettis.

Under its World Trade Organization obligations, China is reforming its banks ahead of a December deadline when foreign banks are going to be allowed more access to the Chinese financial services market.

China's banks are struggling with a high ratio of bad loans, prompting the government to inject billions of dollars in bailout money in recent years. Part of the problem is due to corruption and influence peddling by local ruling Communist Party officials who pressure the banks to lend money to non-creditworthy borrowers.

Government reforms have sought to reduce political interference and bring down the overall ratio of non-performing loans. Chinese officials fear that a collapse of their country's banking system could threaten stability.

Analysts say investor confidence - despite the problems - comes from the impression that the central government will not let the major state banks fail.

"At the end of the day, given the consequences of any bank failure, the government will probably always step in to prevent any of these big banks from going under. So, there's an implicit guarantee on the banks and institutions which means that shareholders face lower risks," said Stephen Green, a senior economist at Standard Chartered in Shanghai.

Selling shares on the exchanges does not mean the banks are privatizing completely. After ICBC's listing, Chinese government entities will retain a 78 percent share of the bank.

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