This statement explains the general approach of the Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) to cases involving backdoor listings and shell activities, using its statutory powers under the Securities and Futures (Stock Market Listing) Rules (SMLR) and the Securities and Futures Ordinance (SFO).
Issues relating to backdoor listings and shell activities
In recent years, problems associated with backdoor listings and shell activities have attracted wide attention. These activities can undermine the integrity and quality of our market, and may affect investor confidence and our market’s reputation.
Backdoor listings involve transactions or arrangements that are structured to achieve a listing of assets while circumventing the requirements that apply to a new listing applicant, including: (i) initial listing criteria under the Listing Rules, such as suitability for listing, financial eligibility criteria, and sufficiency of public interest in the business of the company; and (ii) obligations such as disclosure and due diligence requirements. Backdoor listings are often associated with assets of lower quality or with suitability issues.
The means by which backdoor listings are achieved have evolved in ways that make them harder to detect or regulate. For example:
(i) instead of one single substantial acquisition, a backdoor listing may involve a series of smaller acquisitions of a new business1 which has no connection with the listed company’s original business, financed by the proceeds from an issue of new shares to a new major shareholder;
(ii) an incoming major shareholder may acquire a significant interest in the listed company, which is less than 30% but circumstances suggest that the shareholder is able to exercise de facto control over the company; and
(iii) transactions may be arranged in a sequence designed to circumvent the related rules. For example, when a disposal of the original business to the outgoing controlling shareholder is deferred to a later stage instead of before or at the time of the change in control.
In most cases, the end result would be a fundamental change in the nature of the listed company’s business and substantial changes in its major shareholders, directors and management.
Closely related to backdoor listings are various activities involving “shell companies”. These are listed companies that are maintained with a low level of business operations as vehicles for backdoor listings. These shell activities include:
(i) listing businesses in order to monetise the premium attached to the listing status rather than to genuinely develop an underlying business;
(ii) disposing of all or substantially all of the listed company’s original business in preparation for a subsequent change in control and injection of assets by the new controlling shareholder; and
(iii) pursuing new businesses with low entry barriers and little commercial substance (e.g. a money lending business with only a few customers) in an attempt to maintain the shell company’s listing status.
To enhance our listing regime and maintain market quality, the SFC and The Stock Exchange of Hong Kong Limited (SEHK) have conducted a thematic review of the regulation of listed companies. SEHK has since introduced a series of amendments to the Listing Rules to address issues relating to GEM, highly dilutive capital raising activities and the prolonged suspension of trading in some companies’ listed securities. Today, the SEHK published a consultation conclusions paper on backdoor listings and continuing listing criteria together with related amendments to the Listing Rules.
In addition to SEHK’s regulation of listed companies based on the Listing Rules, the SFC will not hesitate to use its statutory powers, including its investigation powers, and take action against the parties involved, including companies, directors, major shareholders and intermediaries, where appropriate. In particular, under the SMLR, the SFC may object to a listing application based on one or more of the grounds set out in section 6(2)2, and it may also direct SEHK to suspend trading in a listed corporation’s shares under section 8(1) of the SMLR3.
Factors SFC considers in exercising its statutory powers
In deciding whether to exercise its powers of investigation under the SFO or its powers under the SMLR in cases involving backdoor listings and shell activities, the SFC will have regard to the facts and circumstances of each case including whether there are any red flags (i) indicating a possible scheme designed to mislead regulators and/or the investing public or to circumvent applicable rules or (ii) suggesting that other forms of serious misconduct have been or will be committed. Set out below are some non-exhaustive factors that the SFC considers are likely to be relevant:
- whether there are any red flags indicating concealed arrangements or understandings (such as one involving a change in control or a change in de facto control) between the parties involved, including the directors, shareholders, intermediaries and advisers
- whether the listed company or the listing applicant has disclosed the true nature or extent of its business, affairs and plans
- whether there are any fundamental issues relating to the new assets or businesses being or to be injected that would lead to concerns as to whether these assets or businesses should be allowed to be listed and have access to public investors’ capital
- whether there are any concerns that the directors might not have fulfilled their fiduciary duties and acted in the interests of the shareholders as a whole
- whether sufficient due diligence has been conducted on the assets or businesses acquired, and whether the scope of due diligence is appropriate
Cooperation between SFC and SEHK
The SFC and SEHK will continue to work closely and exchange information to tackle backdoor listings and shell activities.