Browsing the Bourses

Companies scour global exchanges to find a better price for their shares.

Based in Toronto, Golden China Resources is a mining company with the kind of scary but alluring profile you might expect for a firm that goes prospecting for gold. Established only three years ago, it is still losing money. But it boasts an intriguing technology using bacteria in the refining process, promising rights in China and what appears to be a growing inventory of established reserves.

With bullion prices rising and economic doubts gathering, times should be good for gold producers. But on the Toronto Stock Exchange, Golden China has lost its lustre. Its share price has fallen by half since early 2006. In response, the company has embarked on a different kind of prospecting. It is studying how different bourses around the world value companies like itself. Its findings are a challenge to anyone who believes financial markets are consistent or rational.

Take, for example, the market’s view of “in situ” ounces, meaning gold that is in the ground. According to an outside analysis, Canadian exploration companies are valued at $75 an ounce on average. As refined gold now sells for more than $650 an ounce, this leaves some margin for processing and mining risk.

If the deposits controlled by these Canadian companies are in China, the valuation slips to $43 an ounce. This may reflect worries that China’s methods of verifying potential assets are less stringent. It may also be a consequence of more general fears about property rights in China.

That would be the end of the story were it not for an odd detail. Golden China then went on to look at the valuation of gold producers listed in Hong Kong or on the Chinese mainland. The results were striking: they were valued at $180-240 an ounce. Sino Gold, an Australian company which on March 16th made a secondary listing on the Hong Kong exchange, is priced at about $190 an ounce.

There may be some simple explanations for these big disparities. For example, the Chinese companies in the study all turn a profit. But investors in gold exploration probably care more about the treasure to be unearthed than the trickle of income from ongoing sales.

In fact, Golden China has hit on a broader seam of market discrepancies: the value of a share often depends on where the stock is floated. The most glaring examples are provided by Hong Kong-listed firms that also list in Shanghai, where they almost always get a better price for their shares. No wonder Hong Kong feels threatened by the migration of listings to its mainland rival.

More subtly, global exchanges disagree about the value they put on everything from food companies to banks, even after taking account of differences in a firm’s local prospects. Perhaps investors feel better protected and better informed by some bourses rather than others. Exchanges often claim that stiff auditing and disclosure standards add a premium to the shares listed on them. But strangely, valuations right now seem highest in murky stockmarkets like China’s.

Bourses may also attract their own distinctive base of investors, interested in some sectors more than others. America’s markets attract the technophiles, China’s lure the gold bugs. Like retail arcades, exchanges each seem to draw their own tribe of customers who know what they want, pay a premium for it and ignore bargains that would fetch much higher prices elsewhere. Golden China is like an electronics store trying to sell its wares (cheaply) on London’s Savile Row rather than Tokyo’s Akihabara market.

To profit from such disparities, enterprising investors have long combed the world’s bourses looking for cheap stocks. It makes perfect sense for companies to do the reverse: scour the world for markets that will pay high prices for their shares, thus reducing the cost of their capital.

Unfortunately, bagging a higher valuation is not always as easy as listing on a different exchange. For example, lots of international companies coughed up for a Tokyo listing in the late 1980s, hoping to share in the euphoric multiples then applied to Japanese firms. But they were disappointed; their share prices remained tied to those back home.

Golden China is considering a more dramatic migration. Already most of its 700 employees work in China. The company’s executives are thinking about joining them, and shifting their primary listing from Toronto to Hong Kong in the process. At the moment, they reckon the company’s $50m market value plus its debt is worth only as much as its plant and outside investments, giving it no credit for its 1.5m ounces of gold. If more appreciative customers for their shares exist elsewhere, why not bring the company to them? It would appear the only rational response to an irrational market.

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