Abracadabra for Lam's Aramco wish

Editorial | Mary Ma 4 Dec 2017

Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's visit to Saudi Arabia turned out to be a whirlwind tour.

Leaving Hong Kong after Saturday midnight, she will be home this afternoon. For about 22 of those hours in between, she's flying in the air.

Why was her Saudi visit so rushed?

Accompanying Lam were Hong Kong stock exchange heavyweights Chow Chung-kong and Charles Li Xiaojia, along with financial services minister James Henry Lau.

During her meeting at her meeting with Saudi King Salman and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Lam had undoubtedly pitched the SAR as a venue for oil giant Saudi Aramco's initial public offering.

The Saudis are planning to sell 5 percent of Aramco to raise US$100 billion (HK$780 billion) - the biggest IPO in history - in Riyadh and one or more foreign venues. Two years after the original announcement, they have yet to decide on the overseas venue, or venues.

Lam's visit may have been timed at a sensitive moment. It's sensitive not because of the crown prince's "anti-corruption" drive against other royals, but probably because the biggest oil producer is fast approaching a decision after US President Donald Trump surprised the financial market last month with a tweet, urging the Saudis to list Aramco in New York.

The tweet is being viewed by some as a sign that a decision by Riyadh is imminent.

The prospective listing has generated heated competition among the world's major exchanges, including HKEx. Earlier, British Prime Minister Theresa May also joined the lobby to try to win over Aramco for the London exchange.

Government heads know the prestige associated with the listing will help attract more large listings from the gulf later, which would be of strategic significance for China. Despite Shanghai's rapid development, Hong Kong is Beijing's best international platform to join the competition.

New York might be the "obvious" choice - in view of its size, being the biggest among all competitors, not to mention the Saudis' close military ties with the United States. That the father and son have been unable to arrive at a decision after such a long time shows there are grave concerns over a listing in the Big Apple.

Could they be about regulations? Passed last year, the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act allows the Saudi government to be sued for helping plan the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks - an accusation Saudi authorities have denied.

Another concern can be environmental. The New York state attorney general is now investigating oil mammoth Exxon Mobil to establish whether the company had withheld information from investors about the climatic effects of burning fossil fuels.

Exxon is asked to hand over more than 30 years of documents to investigators.

If listed on the New York exchange, will Aramco discover itself in a similar quagmire at some point in future - even if Trump promises its safety during his term?

Hong Kong has its niche: the motherland and a politically neutral business environment.

We don't know if we'll get a share of the IPO deal, but any move to broaden the stock market here - including the listing of dual class stocks - should be encouraged, as long as regulations are intact.

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