Buyers beware: China stock names can be totally misleading

May 12, 2015 15:46
The Shanghai Stock Exchange has questioned some companies about corporate name-changes amid suspicions that the firms were trying to mislead investors. Photo: Bloomberg

An entertaining mainland media report is poking fun at the latest trend among Chinese companies to adopt high-tech-sounding names, a ploy aimed at convincing investors that the firms are engaged in high-growth industries.

Jokes aside, the report casts a very real spotlight on the dangers involved in Chinese stocks for average international investors, who have been ramping up their purchases via Hong Kong following the launch last year of a landmark Hong Kong-Shanghai bourse link.

As someone living in China who has daily contact with local investors, I can personally say that people here regularly buy stocks with little or no knowledge of what a company actually does or its business prospects. Instead, factors that would be considered unimportant by most western investors, such as names or tips from friends, are often one of the biggest factors driving stock prices.

One such name change is at the heart of a new report in the English-language Shanghai Daily, which notes a recent change that saw local property developer and building materials supplier Shanghai Duolun Industry rename itself as Pi Tu Pi Financial Information Services. The company announced the change in a filing over the weekend, though it didn't say why it chose the new name and there was nothing to indicate that it is expanding into financial services.

But none of that mattered to local investors, who flocked to the stock when trading began in the new week. As a result the stock soared by its 10 percent daily limit in Monday trade, adding nearly 400 million yuan (US$65 million) to its market value.

Of course it's worth pointing out that China's stock market has embarked on a much bigger rally that has seen the main Shanghai index double since last summer, and that shares also rose by 3 percent on Monday after the central bank cut interest rates over the weekend.

Linguists will note that the name Pi Tu Pi sounds like P2P, which has become a common shorthand in China for popular peer-to-peer lending platforms that allow rich individuals to lend their money to borrowers over the Internet. Such platforms have become a hot ticket over the past year, helping some of the leading players like Jimu Box and Lufax raise tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars in new funding.

But in this case it seems unlikely that the newly named Pi Tu Pi even owns such a functioning P2P site. The company was simply hoping to give that impression with the name change. The Shanghai Daily report notes that according to its own tally, more than 80 companies on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchange had made recent changes to give themselves high-tech-sounding names.

One such case was in the headlines in March, when the nation's largest maker of fireworks, Panda Fireworks, changed its name to Panda Financial (600599.CN), prompting the securities regulator to express concerns over the growing trend.

The newly named Pi Tu Pi got a similar query from the Shanghai Stock Exchange. The company replied that it has no operations yet on the Internet. The firm's sales slumped 91 percent last year, as it blamed slowing property sales in smaller Chinese cities. But that huge drop was no reason for concern for Chinese stock buyers, who obviously thought the name change was worth US$60 million or more based on the Monday price jump.

The moral in all this is that Hong Kong and other foreign investors need to exercise extra care when investing in China-listed stocks via the Hong Kong-Shanghai Stock Connect and through a similar link with the Shenzhen exchange expected to open later this year.

Personally speaking, I would never invest in any of these stocks, except for maybe the bluest of the blue chips like the big four banks or top energy companies, which are the closest thing China has to stocks that trade based on fundamentals.

One of my friends recently pointed out that my attitude has probably cost me big profits that I could have made from the current rally, much of which has occurred since the Hong Kong-Shanghai Stock Connect was launched last fall.

That may be true, but I'll probably also save myself from the big losses that will inevitably occur when this current rally runs out of steam and a big correction begins. In the meantime, anyone who does invest would be wise to look beyond a company's name, and also keep in mind that Chinese investors aren't likely to make such basic checks before picking their stocks.

Bottom line: A new wave of traditional Chinese firms are taking new high-tech names to fool mainland investors who often buy stocks with little or no knowledge of the companies, and should serve as a warning to foreigners interested in Chinese shares.

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A commentator on China company news and associate professor in the journalism department of Fudan University in Shanghai. Follow him on his blog at