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Short seller threat has Hong Kong rally skipping small caps

Hong Kong stocks may be Asia's star performers this year, but it hasn't done much to revive the fortunes of the market's perennial underdogs: small-cap shares.

[HONG KONG] Hong Kong stocks may be Asia's star performers this year, but it hasn't done much to revive the fortunes of the market's perennial underdogs: small-cap shares.

A peek under the hood of the Hang Seng Index's 25 per cent surge shows it's being dominated by larger equities, with smaller companies trading at their biggest price discount to the big caps since 2009. That's despite expectations a trading link between Hong Kong and Shenzhen set up in December would lure mainland money into the former British colony's smaller shares.

For Hao Hong, the Bocom International Holdings Co. strategist who called China's boom-and-bust equity cycle in 2015, the lack of appetite for small caps comes down to two things: the economy and short sellers.

There are signs China's economic momentum is waning, read more here.

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"In a slowing environment, big caps tend to outperform," he said, adding that they're more liquid, often have higher dividend yields and can be more transparent. "Investors are avoiding small caps due to concerns about short selling - it seems that short sellers are increasingly interested in small caps in Hong Kong."

Short sellers have taken on at least four Hong Kong-listed companies this year, among them snack maker Dali Foods Group Co and furniture company Man Wah Holdings Ltd, a target of well-known short-seller Carson Block. According to Hong, there were only about two short targets a year in Hong Kong before 2014, when the numbers started to pick up.

Small-cap shares also bore the brunt of a selloff in June, when concern over cross-shareholdings inflating their valuations spurred a cascade of losses in a group of stocks.

"Fears about increased short-selling activities around small caps in Hong Kong are definitely part of the reason for investors avoiding small caps this year," said Francis Cheung, head of China-Hong Kong strategy at CLSA Ltd.

Conversely, money coming in to the market via exchange-traded funds and support from China's government-backed funds, known as the 'national team,' have fueled big-cap gains, Mr Cheung said.

But it's been mainland investors which have propelled the wider Hang Seng's outperformance this year, as stricter capital controls make the stock connects between Shanghai, Shenzhen and Hong Kong one of the only ways those onshore can get their money into foreign currency.

Net flows in to Hong Kong via the links have come in at more than 240 billion yuan (S$48.52 billion) this year, versus 131 billion yuan for the same period of 2016, when the Shenzhen connect didn't exist.

While onshore cash is still flocking to Hong Kong, small caps aren't the attraction. Of the top 10 stocks in which mainland investors hold the highest stakes via the Shanghai and Shenzhen trading links, only two - Guangzhou Baiyunshan Pharmaceutical Holdings Co and China Molybdenum Co Ltd - are members of the Hang Seng small cap gauge.

That's seen the Hang Seng Large Cap Index post triple the gains of its small-cap counterpart in 2017. The big-cap gauge fell 0.6 per cent on Thursday, snapping a three-day rally. The Hang Seng Small Cap Index lost 0.3 per cent.

Linus Yip, chief strategist at First Shanghai Securities in Hong Kong, isn't writing the little guys off. He says some have been "oversold" and could rebound on a trigger like better-than-expected results.

Hang Seng small caps trade at a median of 10.5 times projected earnings, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, versus a valuation of 14.4 for the large-cap gauge and 26 for the Shenzhen Composite Index, which tracks a lot of mainland-listed smaller shares.

But with shorting activity "hurting sentiment" around small caps, the bigger stocks will remain in favor, says Catherine Yeung, an investment director at Fidelity International, which oversees about US$279 billion. Like Mr Hong, she makes a link to the economy.

"It's about names that can provide earnings visibility," she said. "We are in this part of a cycle where large caps are getting the attention as investors are still a little bit skeptical about economic recovery."