Here's why 'unprecedented' sanctions are a cat and mouse game

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Hong Kong (CNN Business)Chinese retail investors are snapping up stocks with even the slightest link to trade with Russia, as they bet on closer economic ties between the two countries following unprecedented Western sanctions on Moscow.

From shipping firms to port operators, shares of more than a dozen Chinese companies that have trade links with Russia, or are close to its borders, have soared in the past week, even though some of them have warned investors that their stock is overvalued.
Russian assets have become toxic for many Western investors, who see no reason to expose themselves to a pariah economy that could be crushed by sanctions. And analysts have said that the upside to China-Russia trade will be limited by Beijing’s need to protect existing business ties with the West.

    That isn’t deterring China’s ranks of small investors. Earlier this week, shares in Jinzhou Port, China’s most northerly seaport with direct shipping routes to Russia, had shot up 94% on the Shanghai Stock Exchange since Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Stocks in China are allowed to rise or fall by as much as 10% in daily trading. That means the port operator’s shares had risen by almost the daily limit for seven straight sessions.

      Jinzhou Port has warned investors repeatedly that its share price is too volatile and its valuation “too high” compared with peers.
      The war in Ukraine has made Russian assets toxic

      “The company’s stock price has seriously deviated from the fundamentals,” the company said Tuesday in an exchange filing. “We specifically remind investors to pay attention to the transaction risks and make rational decisions.”
      Shares in Jinzhou Port pulled back on Tuesday and Wednesday, but are still up 60% in two weeks.
      Xinjiang Tianshun Supply Chain — a logistics company for bulky goods in far northwestern Xinjiang, which directly shares a 60-mile border with Russia — had also jumped 95% on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange over the past seven sessions by Monday. The stock retreated on Tuesday and Wednesday. But it’s still up nearly 60% since the Ukraine war.
      Even toll road operators and rail freight service firms have surged since the war began. Heilongjiang Transport Development, a main operator of highway tolls in northeastern Heilongjiang — which shares a 1,850-mile border with Russia, has climbed 21%.
      Changjiu Logistics, whose parent firm operates direct freight trains between northeastern China and Russia, also jumped 14% during the same period.
      “Some Chinese investors believe that Russia now has no one else to turn to but China,” said Hao Hong, managing director and head of research at BOCOM International. “So they believe that China stands to gain from its trade with Russia.”
      It looks “quite possible” that some trade between China and Russia will increase following Western sanctions on Russia, especially in commodities, he added.
      “China needs commodities and Russia may have to sell it cheap,” Hong said. “One ancient Chinese idiom is that when two clams fight, the fisherman stands to benefit.”
      Late last month, China lifted restrictions on imports of Russian wheat, a move that could address food security concerns in the world’s second largest economy.
      The decision to allow imports of wheat from all regions of Russia was made during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to Beijing in early February. During his visit, the two countries signed 15 deals, including new contracts with Russian energy giants Gazprom and Rosneft.
      China lifts restrictions on Russian wheat imports

      Who is behind the frenzy?

      The rally is being driven by small retail investors, who make up more than 80% of China’s stock market turnover, according to data from Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges.
      Purchase orders of less than 40,000 yuan ($6,338) worth of stocks, or fewer than 20,000 shares, account for about 40% of the money flowing into the Sino-Russian trade sector, according to Chinese financial data service East Money Information on Tuesday.
      Medium-sized orders that are below 200,000 yuan ($31,692) or 100,000 shares make up about 36%.
      Analysis: China can't do much to help Russia's sanction-hit economy

      Despite the enthusiasm shown by small traders, experts warn that it is too early to bet on increased trade between Russia and China. Beijing has not rushed to help Russia after its economy was slammed by sanctions from all over the world, and will be wary of risking its much bigger trading links with Europe and the United States.
      While China has refused to condemn Russia’s invasion outright, some Chinese banks have reportedly restricted financing for purchases of Russian commodities, in fear of violating potential sanctions. Last week, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a development bank backed by Beijing, said it was suspending all its activities in Russia as “the war in Ukraine unfolds.”
      Experts tell CNN Business that small investors in China might be unaware of the long-term implications of Western sanctions.
      There is a “disconnect between a legion of retail investors operating in a limited information environment, and the government’s limits to friendship with Russia,” said Jeffrey Halley, senior market analyst for Asia Pacific at Oanda.
      “Clearly, the man on the street believes that China-Russia trade will not be impacted by ‘American’ sanctions, especially in light of the recent ‘deep’ partnership agreement between the two countries,” he said.
      “Unfortunately, China also does a huge amount of business with the rest of the world, and there may be limits to even China’s diplomatic largesse,” he added.
      Why China won't put its economy on the line to rescue Putin

      The trade between the two nations reached $147 billion last year, according to data from Chinese customs. The world’s second largest economy is Russia’s No. 1 trading partner, accounting for 16% of the value of its foreign trade.
      But for China, Russia matters a lot less: Trade between the two countries made up just 2% of China’s total trade volume. The European Union and the United States have much larger shares, accounting for 13.7% and 12.5% respectively, according to Chinese customs statistics for last year.
      China also faces its own economic challenges, which could make it harder for Beijing to significantly boost trade with Russia.

        Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said Saturday that the country would target GDP growth of about 5.5% this year, the lowest official target for economic growth in three decades. A weak property market, renewed Covid-19 outbreaks, and Beijing’s zero-tolerance approach to the virus are hurting domestic demand and production.
        “In my view, betting on a significant pick-up on China-Russia commodity trade could end in tears,” said Stephen Innes, managing partner at SPI Asset Management.
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