Monday, February 14, 2011

Suzhou Industrial Park to face IPO test

After years of talk, the Suzhou Industrial Park (SIP) is finally preparing to go for listing as early as this year.

In more ways than one, how it performs in its public outing will be the clearest report card on its 16 years as the flagship bilateral project between Singapore and China.

For in this instance, the markers are no longer politicians and officials of both sides. Political correctness, platitudes and even sentimentality will enjoy little play, if any.

The market will decide.

And as SIP's top official, Mr Ma Minglong revealed last month, that market will be China, as the park has decided to list on the Shanghai A-share stock market instead of in Singapore.

The SIP covers 288 sq km,?of which 80 sq km belongs to the China-Singapore cooperation zone.

The decision could be a smart choice, say analysts. The timing - and investor appetite - looks better this year compared to last year, with the Shanghai stock market expected to bounce back in the next few months.

The Shanghai Composite's 14 per cent fall last year made it the worst performer among benchmark indices in the world's 10 biggest markets, but it is expected to rise by at least 25 per cent this year, said Citic Securities analysts.

Mr Frank Yazdi, the Shanghai-based head of investment research at Evalueserve, said: 'IPO activity will remain highly active, and Chinese investors will maintain their appetite for newly issued shares.'

The Shanghai stock market is also 'prone to higher valuations' than its Hong Kong and Singapore counterparts, he said.

Indeed, being able to command a higher value for its initial public offering by listing in Shanghai was the reason Mr Ma cited for choosing the Chinese city over Singapore, whose market capitalisation is less than half of Shanghai's.

The park's stock may also be more actively traded and enjoy more investor attention in Shanghai.

Mr Yazdi noted: 'Stock trading volume on the Shanghai Stock Exchange was roughly 500 trillion, while (it was) just 713 million on the SGX, at the end of 2010.'

The park has made known its hopes for an IPO since 2004, but it was only in 2008 that it took action. However, its application to list in Shanghai had to be revised because of changes in regulatory rules, resulting in a delay.

If all goes well, the Suzhou park hopes to raise more than 4.5 billion yuan (S$870 million). The funds will be used to boost its development even beyond the boundaries of the park, said Mr Ma.

It is hoped that the listing will reap some profit for Singapore, which currently has a 28 per cent interest in the project's developer, the China-Singapore Suzhou Industrial Park Development Group Company (CSSD).

It will also raise more money and brand awareness to help the park keep ahead of its rivals - more than 50 national development zones and hundreds of provincial and county industrial parks, analysts say.

'A listing would provide the CSSD with additional capital to carry out its plans to stay ahead of the intense competition,' said China expert Lye Liang Fook, who has done research on the SIP.

'Staying ahead of the competition, I believe, is constantly on the minds of the leaders in the CSSD, particularly Mr Ma Minglong.'

Still, if the park makes its debut this year, it will be up against stiff competition: More than 400 other companies are looking to raise a record 600 billion yuan in the more buoyant Chinese stock markets, according to estimates by Ping An Securities and Ernst & Young.

The park will also need to convince investors that it has a bright future, even as it enters a more mature phase of development. After achieving an average of 30 per cent growth in its first 15 years, the park is now targeting an average rate of only about 15 per cent in the next five years.

'The response to its IPO will depend on whether the park, which already houses almost 20,000 companies and may soon fill up all its space, can convincingly promote its high-tech growth story,' said Shanghai broker Liang Jingwen.

The SIP will be following in the footsteps of several similar projects that have listed in Shanghai in past years.

These businesses' stock performance has generally lagged behind the more eye-catching property developers and banking plays in recent years, although some stocks like Beijing Airport High-Tech Park have attracted attention for their real estate projects, said Ms Liang.

But the SIP's strongest selling points will be its Singapore brand name and position as one of China's top-ranked parks for foreign investments, which make up 75 per cent of its total US$99 billion (S$126 billion) haul.

A successful listing would buffer this reputation and ensure that the SIP remains a model for other Chinese parks.

And that would surely mean a distinction on its chequered report card.

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