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Chinese stocks denied MSCI entry in blow to Xi's ambitions

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China's domestic equities were denied entry into MSCI Inc's benchmark indexes, a setback for President Xi Jinping's efforts to raise the profile of mainland markets and turn the yuan into an international currency.

[SHANGHAI] China's domestic equities were denied entry into MSCI Inc's benchmark indexes, a setback for President Xi Jinping's efforts to raise the profile of mainland markets and turn the yuan into an international currency.

The index compiler cited the need for additional improvements in the accessibility of the A-share market for the decision, according to a statement on Tuesday. MSCI said it will reconsider inclusion in its 2017 market classification review, while not ruling out an earlier announcement.

China was rejected despite a flurry of measures this year to address MSCI's concerns, including curbs on arbitrary trading halts and looser restrictions on cross-border capital flows. The decision suggests international investors are still uncomfortable putting their money in the US$6 trillion market after a botched government campaign to prop up share prices roiled global equities last year.

While Chinese authorities have demonstrated a commitment to opening the market, "investors clearly indicated that they would like to see further improvements in the accessibility," Remy Briand, MSCI's global head of research, said in the statement.

Investors need time to assess the effectiveness of recent policy changes on the quota allocation, capital mobility and trading suspension, it said. MSCI also pointed out that the 20 per cent monthly repatriation limit remains a "significant hurdle" for investors that may be faced with redemptions such as mutual funds.

The local exchanges' pre-approval restrictions on introducing financial products also "remain unaddressed," it said.

"The MSCI decision signals that China remains a closed emerging economy that uses market techniques like freezing the market and making it illegal to short, using government funds to buy shares - the techniques that are not welcome among global investors," Paul Christopher, head global market strategist at Wells Fargo Investment Institute, said by phone.

"There are a number of market reforms in progress, but these are the decisions the MSCI would want to wait for and examine."

The outcome of MSCI's decision had divided forecasters. Among the 23 strategists surveyed by Bloomberg in May, 10 predicted entry, while five forecast a rejection and eight said it was too close to call.

The Shanghai Composite Index dropped 2.9 per cent during the past two days, extending this year's slump to 20 per cent, as traders braced for a potential exclusion.

Government intervention has also been a key concern for many money managers after officials responded to a US$5 trillion equity crash last year with a share-sale ban on major investors and a crackdown on trading of stock-index futures.

While some of the measures have since been eased, futures volumes are still more than 90 per cent below their level a year ago.

"China needs to continue reforming its markets after inclusion if it really wants to merge into the global market," said Zhang Yu, a Beijing-based analyst at Minsheng Securities Co.

"First and foremost would be the trading restrictions on stock-index futures, which is an essential hedging tool for institutional investors."

Chinese authorities had pushed hard for the MSCI nod.

In February, regulators allowed qualified traders to shift money in and out of the country on a daily basis, a key change for open-ended mutual funds and exchange-traded funds.

In May, domestic stock exchanges published rules restricting trading halts. And this month, China gave a 250 billion yuan (S$51.4 billion) investment quota to the US, allowing American institutions to invest overseas yuan in mainland markets.

Despite MSCI's rejection, China's combination of size and improved access makes the market hard to ignore for many investors. Mainland-listed shares account for about 9 per cent of the world's equity capitalisation, data compiled by Bloomberg show, and the nation's economy has been by far the biggest contributor to global growth in recent years.

The US$36 billion Vanguard FTSE Emerging Markets ETF, which tracks indexes compiled by an MSCI competitor, already invests in domestic Chinese shares.

Exchanges in Shanghai and Shenzhen give investors access to more than 2,900 companies, many of which are more geared to the nation's growing consumer sector than those with overseas listings in Hong Kong.

So-called H shares have long been part of MSCI indexes, while US-traded Chinese stocks were granted inclusion in November.

"China is the second largest economy in the world," said Kristian Heugh, whose Morgan Stanley Institutional Fund Global Opportunity Portfolio has returned an annualised 20 per cent over the past three years to beat 99 per cent of peers tracked by Bloomberg.

"It really deserves to be in these global indexes, especially the emerging-market indexes," he said. "The capital markets are being opened up to foreign investors and there are quite a few high quality companies in China."

Still, activity through the Shanghai-Hong Kong exchange link suggests demand from overseas investors has been tepid. Foreigners have used less than half of the quota for net purchases of mainland shares since the program began in 2014.

The market's extreme volatility over the past year has been a deterrent. After more than doubling in the 12 months through June 2015 as China's mom-and-pop investors piled into stocks with borrowed money, the Shanghai Composite has since tumbled more than 30 per cent for the biggest slump among major world markets.