Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Chinese wear Prada

Prada, the Italian fashion group, is reportedly going to seek a listing in the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Nothing electric about this, except that you would have thought that they would list in Milan. European fashion houses are ,well, snootishly European. So the move to list in Hong Kong does raise eyebrows.

This is the magic of China. As even a casual visitor to China knows, every brand is ruthlessly copied and pirated on a big scale. You can easily buy any fashion brand, indistinguishable from the original, perhaps even made in the same factory as the original, at one hundredth the price. Despite this, every fashion house's fortunes these days are driven by demand in Asia, chiefly from China. The nouveau riche in China like to spend. And spend on outrageously priced brands which you can then flaunt. There's a certain pleasure into walking into a room of Prada wearers and knowing that everybody elses is a fake and yours is the real thing. Flaunt your original.

But if your main driver of growth is there, does it mean you have to list there ?? You can list anywhere in the world and still attract an international investor base. These days, investors are mainly institutional investors who invest in most of the major markets in the world. Even if you list in London, you could have an investor base that's entirely non British.

There is a symbolic angle to listing in Hong Kong. You can say that it reflects the growing importance of China to the company. But that's just pure show. It doesn't matter one inch in the actual operations of the company or the performance of its stock.

The move also reflects the growing attractiveness of Hong Kong as a financial centre. It always was a major financial hub. But it was dented a bit by the fears of what China might do to it. But 13+ years into Hong Kong becoming a part of China, the world is fully convinced that China does not intend to tinker with Hong Kong's economic apparatus at all - one of the wisest moves Deng Xiaoping and the leaders that followed have made. Hong Kong's markets are free, transparent and highly liquid as say New York or London is. And its also free from the regulatory heavy handedness of a Sarbanes Oxley. And its on the doorstep of mainland China. Presto. Hong Kong is soaring and competitors like Singapore are left by the wayside.

Its still a tiny trickle - the number of western companies seeking to list anew in Hong Kong. I don't think it will turn into a flood - I still can't see the practical benefits of listing in one place over another (other than avoiding onerous stuff like Sarbanes Oxley). What is more likely to happen is more and more companies making Hong Kong or Shanghai as their Asian base, or even their global base (as HSBC has done).

Fashion industry is all about show. You want to flaunt your wares. No wonder, Prada is enamoured by the symbolism of its move. As long as the Chinese don't take violent objection to the slightest hint that its the devil who wears Prada.