• Bloomberg


The New York Stock Exchange said it will no longer delist China’s three biggest state-owned telecommunications companies, backtracking on a plan that had threatened to escalate tensions between the world’s largest economies.

NYSE’s U-turn came with scant explanation just four days after the exchange said it would remove the shares to comply with a U.S. executive order barring investments in businesses owned or controlled by the Chinese military. Citing “consultation with relevant regulatory authorities” for the reversal in a brief statement late Monday, NYSE declined to elaborate further.

The about-face, described as “bizarre” by a Jefferies Financial Group Inc. analyst, whipsawed investors who on Monday had sold shares of the telecom companies and raced to bet on which Chinese businesses might be delisted next. China Mobile Ltd., China Telecom Corp. and China Unicom Hong Kong Ltd. all rallied more than 7% in Hong Kong trading Tuesday. Cnooc Ltd., a state-owned oil producer also on the Pentagon’s list of companies with Chinese military links, recouped some of Monday’s losses as well.

A lack of clarity on why NYSE changed course left investors to speculate over whether it was simply a result of the exchange initially misinterpreting the executive order or something with broader geopolitical implications.

The stakes are high for both Chinese and U.S. companies. The former have turned to the American stock market for capital and international prestige for more than two decades, raising at least $144 billion from some of the world’s largest investors. U.S. companies are keen to maintain their access to China’s vast economy, especially Wall Street banks that gained unprecedented scope to operate in the country last year.

NYSE’s reversal was “quite unexpected,” said Jackson Wong, director of asset management at Amber Hill Capital Ltd. in Hong Kong. “Some funds that had an obligation to unload these shares will now need to buy them back. Some investors are also starting to pricing in a scenario that the decision to halt delistings could be a start of a de-escalation in tensions between China and the U.S.”

Calls and emails to the media department of the China Securities Regulatory Commission were not immediately returned Tuesday. The CSRC had responded to NYSE’s initial plan by calling it groundless and “not a wise move.” Spokespeople for the U.S. Treasury Department, U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

In separate statements, China Telecom and Unicom said they will continue to monitor the developments, while China Mobile didn’t respond to requests for comment.

On New Year’s Eve, NYSE said it would delist the three companies to comply with a November order by U.S. President Donald Trump. It was the first time an American exchange had announced plans to remove a Chinese company as a direct result of rising geopolitical tensions between the two superpowers.

The confounding developments have unfolded in the last few weeks of the Trump administration, which has long railed against China for what the U.S. president calls unfair trading practices. Trump has imposed tariffs on imports from China and carried out an aggressive campaign against Chinese technology firms such as Huawei Technologies Co., among other measures. With Joe Biden set to enter the White House, China has been seeking to avoid escalating the dispute with Washington.

“The Trump administration is leaving,” said Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. “That puts a big question mark over anything that is ordered during Trump’s period of presidency.”

NYSE faced criticism from some market watchers for the way it handled the situation. Travis Lundy, an Asia markets veteran and independent analyst who publishes on the Smartkarma platform, said in a tweet the U-turn reflected “rank ineptitude” by the exchange and “weak leadership” by the Treasury Department.

“This is the most bizarre series of events we have witnessed in the U.S. during this analyst’s career,” said Edison Lee, the head of telecom research at Jefferies in Hong Kong.

While the impact on China Mobile and its two peers was always likely to be minimal given the bulk of their shares trade in Hong Kong, the delisting plan had heightened concerns about tit-for-tat sanctions between China and the U.S. as tensions between the superpowers simmer. Chinese businesses without military links are also potentially vulnerable to delisting after Trump signed legislation with bipartisan support last month that could kick Chinese firms off U.S. exchanges unless American regulators can review their financial audits.

The outlook may depend in large part on how U.S.-China relations evolve after president-elect Biden steps into the White House later this month. While China’s President Xi Jinping said in a congratulatory message to Biden in November that he hopes to “manage differences” and focus on cooperation between the world’s two largest economies, few expect tensions to ease anytime soon.

“We don’t know as to how the Biden administration will pick up the baton that’s been left by the Trump administration,” said George Magnus, a research associate at Oxford University’s China Centre and author of “Red Flags: Why Xi’s China is in Jeopardy,” speaking Monday before the NYSE’s reversal. “There will certainly be a transition cost to China if the mood in the U.S. remains sour.”

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