"Oh, East is East and West is West, and never the twain
shall meet," wrote Rudyard Kipling before describing how Kamal and the
Colonel's son tested each other's mettle on the northern border of the British
Raj and, despite their cultural differences, emerged as friends. Perhaps hoping
for a similar outcome, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange offered to buy the
venerable London Stock Exchange for $39 billion last Wednesday. By the end of
the week, the LSE had curtly shot it down. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-lse-m-a-hkexlse/hong-kong-exchange-vows-to-press-on-with-39-billion-lse-bid-after-rebuff-idUSKCN1VY19O. East won't meet West on this frontier, and
it's worth exploring why.
Already, the Beijing government is flexing its muscles, punishing
workers who deign to participate in the protests. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/11/business/cathay-pacific-hong-kong-protests.html
The HKEX, for all its capitalist trappings, is governed by a board 6 of whose
13 members are appointed by the Hong Kong government. Sooner or later, as the
protesters fear and Beijing intends, Hong Kong will become just another Chinese
city. And since the LSE already has a partnership in place with the Shanghai
Stock Exchange, why would it want to make a long-term bet on the less certain
fate of Hong Kong? In the past few days, clearly looking to further undercut
Hong Kong's independence, even the mainland Chinese press has been
lambasting HKEX's bid. When the LSE cited "political considerations" in its
rejection, most thought it referred to 2019 and its riots. But it could as well
have referred to 2047 and whatever that will bring. The latter reading is more fundamental.
HKEX is also a bit of a paper tiger when it comes to
stock listings. It's not the exchange of choice for major Chinese companies.
Alibaba, for example -- China's answer to Amazon, Ebay and Etsy combined -- is
not listed on the HKEX. Nor is ZTO Express, China's answer to FedEx and UPS. If
you want to buy BABA or ZTO, the only place to get them is as American
Depositary Shares on the New York Stock Exchange. That has been the norm for
most of China's large corporations (most of which are, by the way, incorporated
in the Cayman Islands; you see a pattern here, don't you?).
As the LSE's rejection note said, the political
ramifications here "complicate matters." Politics might have driven LSE's
rejection, and you could see it that way. But I think there's a more
fundamental matter at stake, and it involves Refinitiv.
To trade securities (or anything else) you need two
things. You need information and you need a market. You can't decide on a
trading price or strategy without knowing something about the thing you want to
trade. Only after you've made a trading decision do you need the machinery of a
market to make it happen. More than a difference between East and West or the uncertain
political future of Hong Kong, last week's short dialogue between the HKEX and
the LSE was a debate whether, in the future, information will be more valuable
Refinitiv is a data company, formerly part of
Thompson-Reuters. It delivers information feeds to analytical and trading
platforms. Its role is to supply the intelligence that traders need to make
decisions. The LSE entered into a definitive agreement to buy Refinitiv for $27
billion. But the HKEX could not afford to buy the LSE if Refinitiv was also
part of the package, so the HKEX conditioned its bid on the LSE abandoning
Refinitiv. HKEX essentially said, "Instead of you spending $27 billion on
Refinitiv, how about we give you $39 billion instead." For the HKEX, it was, "What's
not to like?"
Plenty, apparently. The LSE put a finer point on its
rejection of the HKEX's offer by at the same time reiterating its intent to close
its purchase of Refinitiv. The LSE essentially sees its future in data rather
than in an East-West trading infrastructure.
Some short-term thinkers don't get it. Seehttps://www.wsj.com/articles/lse-still-needs-to-prove-logic-of-buying-refinitiv-11564660893.
But I think the LSE made the only right move. As I've argued elsewhere,
technologies like blockchain will eventually make the machinery of stock
exchange trading obsolete. And more than that, because blockchains can be made
infinitely scalable at hardly any marginal cost, there won't be any money to be
made in the future plumbing of stock trading. However, what technology taketh
away, it also giveth. Blockchain technology may eviscerate traditional stock
exchanges, but data technology will enrich those who can control its flow to
the traders who need it. The LSE is betting on it.
So, when HKEX's CEO told the British press that HKEX's
bid for LSE was a "corporate Romeo and Juliet story," he was righter than he
realized, because it too would have ended in a double-suicide. Made to choose between
being a leading purveyor of high-margin trading data or becoming a Western
outpost of the Chinese government, between owning or being owned, the wonder is
not how the LSE responded, but why it took so long. I like to think that its
lawyers needed the 2 days to cast their answer in the proper Queen's English. "Your assertion that implementation of a
transaction would be ‘swift and certain' is simply not credible," it said.
"Given the fundamental flaws in your proposal, we see no merit in further
engagement." A whiff of the two-word first draft lingers. That is not the sort of
rejection that politely says, "Sorry, not tonight -- maybe next week?" It's
more like, "Hit the road, Jack -- an' don't ya come back no mo'!"
Aegis Frumento is a partner of Stern Tannenbaum & Bell, and co-heads the firm's Financial Markets Practice. Mr. Frumento represents persons and businesses in all aspects of commercial, corporate and securities matters and dispute resolution (including trials and arbitrations); SEC and FINRA regulated firms and persons on regulatory compliance issues and in SEC and FINRA enforcement investigations and proceedings; and senior executives of public corporations personal securities law and corporate governance matters. Mr. Frumento also represents clients in forming and registering broker-dealers and registered investment advisers, in developing compliance policies, procedures and controls, and in adopting proper disclosure documents. Those now include industry professionals looking to adapt blockchain technologies to finance and financial market enterprises.
Prior to joining the firm, Mr. Frumento was a managing director of Citigroup and Morgan Stanley, a partner and the head of the financial markets group of Duane Morris LLP, and the managing partner of Singer Frumento LLP.
He graduated from Harvard College in 1976 and New York University School of Law in 1979. Mr. Frumento is a frequent author and speaker on securities law issues, and is often quoted in the media on current securities law developments.
NOTE: The views expressed in this Guest Blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of BrokeAndBroker.com Blog.