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Goldman Sachs beware: China plans 'aircraft carrier-sized' banking rival

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As the nation prepares to fully open its US$45 trillion financial industry to foreign competition next year, policy makers and regulators are pushing to beef up its own players to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Goldman Sachs Group.

[SHANGHAI] China last week commissioned its first home built aircraft carrier to project its military might. It's now on a mission to create "aircraft carrier-sized" investment banks to take on Wall Street's giants.

As the nation prepares to fully open its US$45 trillion financial industry to foreign competition next year, policy makers and regulators are pushing to beef up its own players to go toe-to-toe with the likes of Goldman Sachs Group.

Unlike its massive commercial banks such as Industrial & Commercial Bank of China which dominate at home and carry heft globally, China's brokers are minnows in an international perspective. Beijing's latest ambition is seen sparking a wave of necessary mergers among its over 130 securities firms, led by Citic Securities.

"Compared with either domestic banks, insurers, or their global peers, Chinese brokers are too small to play a meaningful role in the financial market," said Jiang Zhongyu, a Shanghai-based analyst at Essence Securities. "The country's capital market development calls for a heavyweight broker."

Taken together, China's 131 brokers have assets that are equal to what Goldman Sachs sits on by itself. They are also far from being full-service investment banks, counting on mom and pop traders across the country to contribute much of their revenue.

Past efforts to expand out from China have born little fruit. Citic's highly touted attempt to build an international presence by buying Hong Kong brokerage CLSA in 2012 faltered amid a wave of infighting and defections.

China's fifth-largest, Haitong Securities, gets a significant part of its revenue from Hong Kong, but has struggled with a unit in Europe. China International Capital Corp, though, is among the top 10 in global initial public offerings this year.

The financial opening, which culminates in December next year when foreign securities firms are allowed to take 100 per cent ownership of units in the country, is adding to the urgency of building a meaningful local player.

UBS Group, JPMorgan Chase & Co, Nomura Holdings have already gained majority control of local joint ventures, while Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and others have applied to follow suit in a bid to capture an estimated US$9 billion in annual profits for brokers and banks.

Size will matter more and more as Beijing urges brokerages to take a bigger role in supporting the economy. Less than one-quarter of China's US$2.9 trillion of financing last year was from bond and equity issuance, with the rest from bank loans, according to central bank data compiled by Bloomberg.

In a statement last month, China Securities Regulatory Commission said it wanted to create investment banks with "aircraft carrier size" and would support mergers within the industry, enhance capital strength, expand the services they offer and promote "internationalisation."

Chinese brokerages have largely been involved in less capital demanding business such as trading and underwriting after three decades of development.

They will need capital to build out a broader array of investment banking services, market making and margin lending. Meanwhile, many small- and medium-sized firms are struggling as an exodus of retail investors halved income in 2018.

Citic is most in the spotlight when it comes to consolidation. The Beijing-based broker, already the largest in China, said earlier this year that it's considering more acquisitions after snapping up rival Guangzhou Securities for US$2 billion in December.

Citic has bought a number of brokerages over the years, including Wantong Securities. The firm's market value is less than half of Goldman Sachs', but it's competitive in various businesses in Asia, ranking the third in Asia ex-Japan equity offerings this year, after Morgan Stanley and CICC, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Citic declined to comment on any potential acquisition plans.

Smaller deals are popping up. Tianfeng Securities said in June it plans to buy a 30 per cent stake in Hengtai Securities. Last month, Huachuang Securities, announced plans to buy a 6 per cent stake in Pacific Securities.

The markets are also sensing that a turnaround could be coming for the struggling industry. A Bloomberg index of shares in Chinese brokerages is up about 10 per cent from late November.

China Galaxy International Financial Holdings said in a Dec 15 note that Citic is "well positioned to benefit from potential policy support" as China builds bigger investment banks.

"We believe there will be more concrete measures to follow soon, such as support in strengthening the capital base and M&A," Galaxy analysts Wong Chi Man and Mark Lau wrote.

BLOOMBERG