What Next for Lai's media empire?

Editorial | Mary Ma 4 Jun 2021

The roller-coaster ride of Next Digital shares since trading in the media company resumed has made it perfect for conspiracy theories.

The last time it was as volatile was last August after founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying was arrested by police.

He is currently in jail facing multiple charges in relation to national security and public order allegations.

The speculation comes ahead of the company's annual general meeting in August.

When trading in the company's shares reopened after an eight-day suspension, the share price more than quadrupled to as high as HK$0.80 This was fom its previous close of HK$0.19 before that day closed at HK$0.28.

Yesterday, trading in the company continued to be active with over 202 million shares changing hands - roughly 10 times the daily average - to close at HK$0.375.

The company's successive announcements confirming the security authority has not only frozen Lai's personal assets but also the voting rights accrued to his 71.26 percent stake in the company have since raised intense speculation as to what might happen without Lai's votes at the AGM.

Purely on mathematical grounds, it would be possible for anyone to control the company if they managed to secure half of the remaining shares.

Then they could replace the senior executives appointed by Lai as the terms of some of them - including chairman Ip Yut-kin - will expire in summer.

Strictly speaking, anyone having 8 to 9 percent of the shares could win in the AGM amid Lai's absence because many retail investors will not attend the event.

One far-fetched theory goes that Beijing could easily control Next Digital without having to destroy it through some of its supporters in the SAR.

Arguably, former chief executive Leung Chun-ying's declaration that he is now a shareholder should have lent some credence to the theory.

The question is: is it credible?

As is often said, it is impossible to prove a conspiracy until it actually happens. What is claimed has not occurred yet.

Nonetheless, the hypothesis is self-contradictory to a certain degree. First, Leung would not have identified himself as a Next shareholder if it were Beijing's plan to seize control of the group from Lai.

This would have exposed the plan prematurely.

Furthermore, surely it would be of little value to Beijing to own Next since its readers would just quit en masse as a result.

If the volatility did not revolve around politics, then it would have to be about commercial considerations.

It is true that Security Secretary John Lee Ka-chiu's decision to freeze Lai's voting rights has made the company vulnerable to hostile takeover bids.

Yet its media assets have little worth - perhaps the group's most valuable asset is its building in Tseung Kwan O, but the industrial estate site cannot be sold freely as private property.

Even if the buyer is aiming at the company's listing status, this would not last because the 71-plus percent stake will be freed one day - whether the owner is still Lai or, following his trial, the SAR government.

Next's fundamentals are extremely uncertain, and it is not for retail investors to bet on.



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