One Stock Shows Hong Kong Market Is Booming. Index Says It’s Not

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Two of the most straightforward ways to bet on the future of Hong Kong’s stock market are telling opposing stories.

Take the Hang Seng Index, the city’s50-year-old benchmark that’s down 11% for the year. On a price-to-earnings basis it’s near the cheapest on record relative to MSCI Inc.’s index of global shares. Last month it clocked up the worst quarterly drop versus the S&P 500 Index since the Asian financial crisis in 1998. Three-fifths of its members have lost 16% or more this year.

The flipside isHong Kong Exchanges & Clearing Ltd., the firm that actually operates the stock exchange. Worth $59 billion, it’s the second-biggest of the world’s 24 listed bourses, closing in on Chicago’s CME Group Inc. It’s the priciest exchange, trading at 40 times price-to-earnings, and boasts a 60% premium to peers. The stock, which closed at a record on Tuesday, is up more than 40% in 2020.

It’s a rare divergence in the world’s fourth-largest equity market, which is becoming increasingly polarized by new economy stocks versus old.

A flood of listings from Chinese technology firms, prospects for a jump in derivatives trading and an inflow of cash from mainland-based investors have offset concerns about Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub. On the other hand, local companies exposed to an economy battered by months of anti-government protests and the pandemic have been hit hard.

“We see a bull market and a bear market co-exist in Hong Kong,” said Alex Wong, asset management director of Ample Capital Ltd. “The Hang Seng Index is lagging behind because the weighting in new economy shares is lower than other markets.”

A relentless run of bad news keeps grinding down Hong Kong’s stock bulls. Protests, a collapsing economy, a crackdown on individual freedoms and the end of the city’sspecial status with the U.S. have heaped pressure on. A developing third wave of the virus is adding to the city’s vulnerability. The MSCI Hong Kong index of stocks exposed to the local economy is down 12% this year.

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But while it’s seen as a long road back for Hong Kong’s companies, the city’s status as a financial hub is being supported by share sales from Chinese giants. Firms including NetEase Inc., JD.com Inc. and also billionaire Jack Ma’sAnt Group have listed, or plan to, at a time when tensions between Washington and Beijing have threatened to curtail Chinese companies’ access to U.S. capital markets.

Those tensionsescalated Wednesday after China said the U.S. forced the closure of its Houston consulate, triggering a slump in Hong Kong stocks including the city’s exchange.

Supported by strong mainland inflows through stock connect links, Chinese technology shares have emerged as big winners in the beaten down market. Tencent Holdings Ltd. has surged 44% this year, while Meituan Dianping is up 89%.

In an effort to reflect their growing dominance in the market, the compiler of the Hang Seng Index isscrapping a weighting limit for dual-class shares on some of its gauges, in a move seen as paving the way for more tech stocks to eventually join the benchmark. It is also launchinga new tech-focused index next week.

“These newly listed mainland stocks will become increasingly influential in the index because of their huge market capitalizations,” said Paul Pong, managing director at Pegasus Fund Managers Ltd. “They will gradually overtake local shares which are smaller in size.”

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