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China speeds up stock listing reform to attract "unicorns"
Last Updated: 2018-03-19 08:21 | Xinhua
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The "Unicorn" has become a much chased creature in China's investment world.

In recent weeks, the country's regulators signaled that they would fast-track new listings by "unicorn companies" -- startups valued at more than 1 billion U.S. dollars -- to "invigorate the country's capital market and foster the new economy."

The Shanghai Stock Exchange, for example, said in a statement this week that it would improve services for unicorn companies to be listed.

Investment banks were quick to act. Companies including CITIC Securities and Essence Securities have been identifying unicorns with financing needs in the hope that they could win their businesses, the Securities Times reported.

Shares of listed companies that invested in unicorn companies recorded consecutive gains in the past week on speculation that these unicorns will soon file for initial public offerings.

What underlies the enthusiasm over unicorns is China's transition into an innovation-driven growth model that supports high-tech, "new economy" firms.

For years, China's capital market was dominated by traditional industries such as property development, finance and industrial materials.

Innovative firms, tech startups in particular, face legal and technical barriers to list on the A-share market, including restrictions on weighted voting rights, or dual-class shares, and mandatory requirements on IPO applicants' profitability.

"Many unicorns had no choice but to list overseas," said Yang Delong, chief economist of First Seafront Fund.

"High-tech companies usually burn a lot of cash during the early stage, leading to losses that will fail their A-share IPO applications," Yang said. "In addition, the waiting time for an IPO in the A-share market is often too long. For a new economy company, that often means it will miss its best chance for development."

To woo the tech giants home, China's regulators have been trying hard lately.

"China Depositary Receipts (CDRs), a form of share that will allow Chinese investors to gain exposure to foreign-listed shares, will soon be launched," Yan Qingmin, vice chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, told Xinhua-run China Securities Journal.

The instrument will allow domestic investors access to tech giants such as Alibaba and Baidu, which are currently listed in the United States.

In response to media reports that the company was considering a secondary listing in the A-share market, Alibaba said it would return as long as conditions permit.

For growth companies that are yet to turn a profit, China's preferential treatment for tech darlings could mean access to much-needed cash to cover research and development costs.

Wu Jinzi, founder and CEO of Ascletis, a biotech company focusing on treatments for cancer and infectious diseases, said in an interview with China Securities Journal that the company would prefer to list in the A-share market if allowed.

According to Wu, the company, which is valued at around 5 billion yuan (about 790 million U.S. dollars), expects to turn a profit this year with the launch of new drugs.

"We would have met all the requirements to list in the United States, but we are not going at this moment because we are more optimistic about the future development in Chinese market," Wu said.

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