China's AgBank launches world-record IPO
Hong Kong (AFP) June 30, 2010
Agricultural Bank of China on Wednesday kicked off a share offer worth a world-record 23.2 billion dollars as China strives to develop depressed regions in the rural lender's heartland.
AgBank, the last of China's "big four" state banks to list, plans to float its shares in Hong Kong and Shanghai next month with the monster IPO on track to overtake the previous record of 22 billion dollars set by Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) in 2006.
The initial public offering has already won bedrock support from heavyweight investors -- including Qatar's sovereign wealth fund, US food giant Archer Daniels Midland and British bank Standard Chartered.
"Agricultural Bank of China is a great bank with a great future," Standard Chartered Group chief executive Peter Sands said in a statement Wednesday, confirming a 500-million-dollar investment in the share flotation.
As small-time retail investors got their first chance to grab a piece of the action, queues built outside bank branches in Hong Kong where the AgBank prospectus was being handed out.
But the orderly affair was far cry from the chaotic scene four years ago when huge crowds queued up for several blocks in the city's bustling Kowloon district to get their hands on ICBC's offering kit.
"I think it will be a pretty good investment -- there is good demand for this stock," Warren Ng, 24, told AFP on Wednesday. "I've already made up my mind. I'm going to put some money in it."
But retiree S.S. Fung said he was not so sure about the massive share sale, especially after his investment in AgBank's rival mainland lenders fell flat.
"I think I'll take a little of this one, but this is not a good time in the market," he said.
Hong Kong's South China Morning Post reported that investors in the football-mad former British colony may be distracted by the World Cup.
"The IPO has come at a wrong time as market sentiment is not good while the World Cup is going on," Christopher Cheung, chairman of Hong Kong's Christfund Securities, was quoted as saying.
"(Some investors) think they could earn more money from soccer betting than the IPO."
The Shanghai Composite Index closed down Wednesday over concerns about liquidity and market strength after AgBank said earlier this week that pricing for the Shanghai portion of the IPO would be lower than expected.
That fostered doubts about mainland demand for the IPO after recent spasms of market volatility.
Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index also finished lower, with bank stocks pushing the benchmark down.
The lender plans to raise 13.1 billion US dollars from the Hong Kong IPO and 10.1 billion dollars in Shanghai.
AgBank chairman Xiang Junbo said Tuesday that his company had worked hard to cut its bad-debt load, a major concern for all of China's big banks after a state-sanctioned lending binge during the global financial crunch.
And the rural lender says it is poised to capitalise on Chinese government efforts to boost economic growth in the country's centre and west, which have missed out on the export-driven boom enjoyed by coastal regions.
"The county area business will be one of our key profit drivers," Xiang told a news conference in Hong Kong. "(AgBank) is well positioned to capitalise on China's next wave of growth."
AgBank has come a long way since it was set up in 1951, two years after Mao Zedong's communist revolution in China. Last year it booked a profit of 65 billion yuan (9.56 billion US dollars), up from 51.45 billion yuan in 2008.
Some analysts consider AgBank to be the weakest of the country's big banks, owing mainly to its burden of bad loans and the nature of its business lending to poorer customers in rural China.
But Agbank's prospectus said its bad debt ratio dropped from 4.32 percent in 2008 to 2.91 percent in 2009. In 2010, it forecasts a profit of 82.9 billion yuan.
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