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China Life IPO does well overseas
( 2003-12-19 01:35) (Agencies)

Shares of China Life Insurance Co Ltd jumped 25 per cent on their Hong Kong debut yesterday, slightly lagging their first-day gains in New York after the insurer raised US$3 billion amid frenzied demand for China stocks.

The initial public offering, the world's largest this year, was about 25 times subscribed as investors clamoured for a piece of a Chinese economy growing at more than eight per cent a year.

China Life holds a leading 45 per cent share in an insurance market that is growing rapidly as Beijing tears down its cradle-to-grave welfare system.

The debut bodes well for China stock offerings next year, said Sal Morreale of brokerage Cantor Fitzgerald in Los Angeles.

"We have been busy, China Life is a tremendous IPO,'' he said. "Anything to do with China has been on fire.''

Small Hong Kong investors, emboldened by big first-day gains by recent China IPOs, lined up outside bank branches last week to apply for shares in a frenzy not seen since the dot-com era.

Many could be seen lugging the insurer's 1,000-page-plus prospectus around town.

China Life's Hong Kong-listed shares ended the Thursday morning session at HK$4.475 (55 US cents), up from an IPO price of HK$3.59 (44 US cents), giving the firm a total market value of HK$115.82 billion (US$14.8 billion).

China Life's American Depositary Shares, which equal 40 Hong Kong shares, hit a high of US$25.15 on Wednesday before dropping back to close at US$23.72, or 27 per cent above their issue price of US$18.68. The stock was the most active issue on the New York Stock Exchange.

Market watchers had expected the stock to gain up to 25 per cent on its first day of trade.

The Hong Kong debut went ahead despite a glitch on Wednesday when some 20,000 individual investors were told in error they would receive 50 per cent more shares than they were entitled to.

The typesetting error, which was corrected yesterday, was contained in a 37-page newspaper supplement listing all the Hong Kong residents who qualified for shares.

The warm reception by foreign investors to recent China IPOs has encouraged a slew of mainland firms to plan listings. Among them, Ping An Insurance hopes to raise US$2 billion, China Construction Bank may seek US$5 billion and Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corp may look for US$1 billion.

China firms are already planning IPOs to raise about US$11.7 billion on the Hong Kong market in 2004, well above the US$7 billion raised in 2003.

Last week, Shanghai-based hotel and air ticket company Ctrip.com International made the highest day-one debut in New York in three years when its shares more than doubled.

The latest China IPO frenzy in Hong Kong reminds some investors of the dot-com bubble in the late 1990s and Hong Kong's China craze of 1997, when red chips, or China-backed firms incorporated in Hong Kong, hit all-time highs.

The stocks quickly lost ground after the bubbles burst and the red chip index is down about 78 per cent from its 1997 peak.

There is plenty of speculation fueling the current boom -- China stocks in Hong Kong known as H-shares have doubled this year and many investors say they plan to dump IPO shares for quick first-day gains -- but the enthusiasm is backed by the prospect of growing profits and attractive valuations.

"Fundamentally, the companies that are being brought to market are bigger, better prepared and have better corporate governance,'' said Peter Burnett, co-head of investment banking at UBS and a veteran of the red-chip frenzy.

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