China’s stock market was born in the 19th century, abolished and reborn in the 20th century and in the first decade of the 21st has expanded to an unprecedented scale and importance. The market has been of intense interest to international investors, both long ago and recently, while remaining notable for its volatility, both in its stock price movements and in the turbulent shifts of China’s political and regulatory environment.
The prospects and concerns facing investors in the Chinese stock market today have parallels in issues that confronted market players in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Such recurrent themes include the vast growth potential of the huge country and the focus of Chinese reformers on developing the stock market. But other persistent features are daunting: the difficulties of obtaining accurate information about China’s companies and economy; and the market’s exposure to opaque and unpredictable politics.
In the past several years, China’s stock market has taken investors on a wild ride. The Shanghai Stock Exchange’s SSE Composite Index, which opened 2006 at 1,161, soared to a peak of 6,124 in October 2007 before plunging to 1,706 in November 2008. In early 2010 the index was back above 3,000, but hovered below 2,500 in early July following Chinese officials’ June announcement of a more flexible exchange-rate policy.
In historical context, these sharp swings were not an anomaly. Indeed, volatility has been a salient feature of China’s stock market from its 19th-century beginnings.
In the aftermath of the mid-19th-century Opium Wars, China’s port cities were increasingly under foreign influence or control. Under the banner of the “Self-Strengthening Movement,” Chinese reformers sought to adopt Western ideas as a means of putting China on a stronger footing vis-?-vis foreign powers. One such concept was the financing of companies through tradable stock.
In the 1860s, reformer Yung Wing, the first Chinese to graduate from an American university (Yale ’54), proposed the equity financing of a Chinese steamship line. This idea took form in 1872 with the founding of the China Merchants’ Steamship Navigation Company, based in Shanghai. Soon, other equity-financed firms were established and stock trading became a growth industry in the city.
Such companies were operated in accordance with a slogan of “Official Supervision and Merchant Management.” This meant they were subject to a high degree of involvement by officials of the imperial government, which added an element of unpredictability as firms navigated the bureaucratic maze of permits, fees, loans and official patronage or disfavor.
In the early 1880s, the nascent Shanghai stock market experienced its first boom and bust, driven largely by speculation in mining shares. The number of publicly traded firms jumped from 10 to 29 and then dropped to 12. The market at this time operated on an over-the-counter basis with much participation by Chinese investors. The collapse cut share prices roughly in half and dampened Chinese interest in stock trading for years, as evidenced by a drop-off in coverage of the subject in Chinese-language newspapers.
However, Shanghai’s stock market continued to develop, with growing involvement by foreign investors. Trading increasingly occurred on organized exchanges. The first of these, the Shanghai Share Broker’s Association, opened in 1891, forming the nucleus of what would become the Shanghai Stock Exchange. The heavy participation by foreigners stirred some resentment among the Chinese. In 1904, China’s Ministry of Commerce revamped the commercial code to promote the development of domestic companies and make it harder for foreign investors to take control.
The imperial Qing dynasty came to an end in 1911, and at the start of the following year China officially became a republic. Power over the next few decades would flow back and forth between the central government and regional warlords. Shanghai’s equity market showed some resilience to political turmoil, however. Booms in cotton and rubber shares buoyed the market in the 1920s and trading continued through the 1930s even as the invading Japanese army spread through northern China.
In early December 1941, Japan’s attacks at Pearl Harbor and elsewhere spread war throughout the Pacific. On Monday, Dec. 8, Japanese forces occupied Shanghai. The previous Friday would be the market’s last trading day until 1946.
The revival of the market after World War II was short-lived. In 1949, China’s Communists won the country’s civil war and established the People’s Republic of China. Many Chinese brokers and bankers fled to Hong Kong, further spurring the development of capital markets that had existed in the British colony for decades. A stock market would also develop in Taiwan in the 1950s under the exiled Nationalist government. But on the Maoist mainland, stock trading was abolished along with capitalism in general.
A Market Reborn
In 1978, with Chairman Mao dead and hard-line Maoists in political eclipse, China began experimenting with economic reforms. Stock trading did not immediately appear on the agenda, as early reforms focused on more basic matters such as allowing farmers to sell crops grown on household plots rather than collective land. By the mid-1980s, though, some state-owned companies were edging toward making equity offerings.
A milestone was reached in November 1984 when the Shanghai Feile Acoustics Company issued shares. Soon, over-the-counter share trading was under way in a room at the Shanghai Trust Company. In 1986, John Phelan, chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, visited this nascent operation and pointed out that his sprawling institution had begun without even so much as a room, under a Wall Street buttonwood tree in 1792.