June 16, 2017 / 10:52 AM / a month ago

Hong Kong makes play for U.S. secondary listings with new board proposal

A billboard displays the morning trading on the first day of trade after Lunar New Year at the Hong Kong Exchanges in Hong Kong February 1, 2017.Bobby Yip

HONG KONG (Reuters) - The Hong Kong stock exchange unveiled on Friday a long-awaited proposal for a new board that will offer special voting rights and waive profitability requirements, in a drive to attract firms which typically choose New York over the Hong Kong bourse.

The proposal allows the Hong Kong Exchanges and Clearing (HKEX) (0388.HK) to make a play for secondary listings from Chinese firms such as Alibaba Group (BABA.N) and Baidu Inc (BIDU.O) that have been drawn to more flexible corporate governance requirements in the United States.

The HKEX said the move was necessary to diversify from traditional old economy sectors such as financials and real estate, warning the bourse was at risk of stagnating if it did not increase its exposure to new high-growth sectors - especially those being pioneered by mainland companies.

"The opening up of our market to secondary listings of Chinese companies is a big part of what we aim to do," Charles Li, chief executive of HKEX told a news conference on Friday.

"There's no reason why Hong Kong can't become a secondary listing market for major U.S. companies."

The proposed new board would exclusively list 'new economy' companies in sectors such as internet and biotech. There would be a "pro" segment for start-ups with no financial track record open only to professional investors, and a "premium" segment for established companies accessible to all investors, the bourse said.

Both segments would allow weighted voting rights and impose no restrictions for secondary listings by mainland Chinese companies, freeing up Chinese firms already listed in non-Chinese overseas markets to pursue a secondary listing in Hong Kong.

Currently, the rules prohibit companies based in Greater China from pursuing a secondary listing in Hong Kong - a measure designed to prevent Chinese companies listing in Hong Kong via the backdoor.

In addition, the new board would also waive the requirement for companies listed overseas in markets, such as the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq, to adhere to additional shareholder protections required in Hong Kong.

The bourse also published a separate proposal to tighten listing rules for its Growth Enterprise Market (GEM) to address concerns over the quality of companies coming to the exchange's second board.

The HKEX proposed raising the minimum GEM listing market capitalisation rule to HK$150 million ($19.2 million) from HK$100 million, increasing the cashflow requirement, and raising the bar for transitioning from that board to the main board.

It also proposed increasing the market capitalisation requirement for the main board to HK$500 million from HK$200 million, and raising the minimum public float to HK$125 million from HK$50 million.

The consultation closes on Aug. 18 and the exchange hopes to finalise the new rules by 2018.

Editing by Jacqueline Wong

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