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Many happy returns as China stock market marks 25
[SHANGHAI] When Qian Qimin started investing on the Shanghai Stock Exchange - where trading began 25 years ago on Saturday - he lined up at a sports stadium to buy shares of a textile machinery maker, one of just a handful of listed companies.
One share in Shanghai Erfangji cost 1.87 yuan (S$0.41 now) on its first day as a quoted company. It was later taken over in a corporate restructuring and its successor firm is now around 16 times higher.
A quarter of a century after it opened for business, the Shanghai exchange as a whole has more than 1,000 listed firms, nearly 100 million investors - more than the membership of the Communist party - and a total market capitalisation of US$4.5 trillion.
It has given companies a key funding source outside the state-dominated banking system and created new wealth for investors.
The benchmark Shanghai Composite Index, which is based on a symbolic 100 point level on December 19, 1990, closed at 3,580.00 on Thursday.
But the market is still widely described as a "casino" - an image it cannot shake - and plagued by poor quality companies and insider trading, analysts said.
Shanghai trading started more than a decade after the launch of economic reforms that transformed China, but at a time when the Communist Party was still deeply wary of the ultimate capitalist tool.
"At the initial budding stage, it was self-organised and very primitive," said Qian, 49, now an analyst at brokerage Shenwan Hongyuan. "There was no technical analysis or media coverage. It was actually primitive growth starting from the grassroots."
After 25 years of growth, he said: "There is no problem calling it a success." But the government's management of the market has been brought into question by an unprecedented bail-out earlier this year after a bubble burst in spectacular fashion, with the index plunging nearly 30 per cent in three weeks, having surged 150 per cent in the previous 12 months.
Casting market principles aside, regulators barred major shareholders from selling, allowed hundreds of companies to freeze trading in their stock and funded a "national team" to buy for the government.
"They destroyed the market in order to save it," said Fraser Howie, an independent analyst and co-author of Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China's Extraordinary Rise.
"They've set a very bad precedent by supporting the stock market and giving this impression that the government is there to support it all the time," he said.
Analysts say more reforms are needed, including fostering institutional investors in a market where most are individual punters bent on short-term gains, and revamping an initial public offerings system under which regulators hand-pick the companies to list - and set their flotation prices - instead of the market.
The investor profile grew out of the exchange's origins, seen as an experiment that could be shut down at any time.
In the early days, the exchange was housed in the historic Astor House Hotel, not far from Shanghai's waterfront Bund.
"It was a small market for only a small group of people who were bold and people who were not that presentable," said Li Daxiao, chief economist for Yingda Securities, who started as an investor in the early 1990s. "No one really could take pride or speak aloud about trading stocks."
Communist Party members were discouraged by their work units from trading, he recalled.
It did not take long for the first trading scandal to hit the new stock market.
In February 1995, what was then China's biggest brokerage Wanguo Securities launched a flurry of sell orders for Shanghai-listed bond futures in the final minutes of trading to drive prices down. The firm's president was later jailed and the brokerage forced to merge with another.
Over time the profit motive has drawn in ever more traders.
"The first people who 'ate crab' have reaped huge gains," said Mr Li, using a phrase meaning to try something for the first time. "So that has attracted millions of individual investors to flock to the market." Long ago it moved to a dedicated building in the city's new financial district, which authorities said housed the largest physical stock trading floor in Asia.
But issues remain. In the wake of this year's rout, three of China's biggest brokerages are being probed by the market regulator for suspected rule violations, linked to "irregularities" in margin trading - which allows investors to trade using borrowed funds.
To some experts, persistent problems at the heart of the country's brokerage sector show that government watchdog the China Securities Regulatory Commission needs to do a better job policing the exchange - while at the same time allowing market forces to operate more freely.
As analyst and author Howie said: "25 years later, people still describe it as a casino, one that is ultimately not market disciplined and one that is driven by government policy and edict."