China's top bank got a boost from its second biggest shareholder last week when Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek increased its stake in Industrial and Commercial Bank of China Ltd (ICBC), helping to support the lender's share price as Chinese banks faced an unprecedented liquidity crisis. This kind of buying is exactly the kind of market-oriented support that China's banks should be getting during this ongoing crisis, as the government tries to wean them from the free handouts they traditionally depended on during the socialist era.
ICBC and its peers have faced a growing cash crunch over the last two weeks as offshore money flowed out of China in search of better returns in other global markets. The sudden shortage of cash drove interest rates to record levels for loans that banks make to one another.
Amid the crunch, the banks lobbied hard to the central bank to inject more money into China's financial system as their lending slowed and their share prices tumbled. But the central bank surprised many when instead of giving in to those pleas, it said there was ample liquidity in the system and the big lenders needed to better manage their cash.
While the banks' stocks were sliding, Singapore's Temasek quietly moved in and started buying ICBC's Hong Kong-listed shares in a bid to support the bank. Temasek became ICBC's second largest stakeholder after buying shares from Goldman Sachs in May, and now holds about 8 percent of the lender's stock.
Temasek's purchase of about 126 million of ICBC's Hong Kong dollar-denominated shares, announced late last week, was clearly driven in part by self-interest, as the wealth fund wanted to protect its massive existing investment in the bank worth more than $4 billion. Such purchasing is similar to share buybacks often seen in the US, when companies purchase their own shares to provide support in times of volatility.
The tactic produced some positive results, with ICBC shares up 4.5 percent last week, nearly double the broader market's gains. The buying was also relatively cheap for Temasek, which spent a modest $75 million on the purchases.
Temasek's move came just two weeks after ICBC's largest stakeholder, the State-owned Central Huijin, made a similar move by purchasing 19.3 million of ICBC's A-shares traded in Shanghai.
That move also cost Huijin a relatively modest $13 million, but has helped ICBC's A-shares to cap their losses at 3 percent over the last two weeks - far less than the broader market's 8 percent decline over that period.
This kind of support is quite market-oriented, since Temasek's and Huijin's buying are motivated by self-interest as both try to protect their large investments in ICBC. By comparison, the central bank liquidity injection that ICBC and its peers were seeking looked like a return to China's socialist past when companies went crying to the central government for help every time they ran into trouble.
China needs to continue serving up more of this "tough love" going forward as it tries to make its big State-run companies more independent, and let big stakeholders like Huijin and Temasek provide more market-oriented assistance when necessary.
The author is a former company news reporter from Reuters. He writes about China's company news at www.youngchinabiz.com.