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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 March 2007, 17:53 GMT
Chinese market gold rush goes on
By Quentin Sommerville
BBC News, Shanghai

Investor at Orient Securities in Shanghai
Amateur investors are still flocking to China's brokerages

In crowded trading rooms across China, there's a gold-rush atmosphere.

Even though the volatility of Shanghai's stock market was enough to trigger a global share sell-off last week, it does not seem to have discouraged Chinese investors.

The Orient Securities brokerage in central Shanghai is more crowded than ever.

But cast aside images of Wall Street-style traders. This, like many of China's growing number of brokerages, is a very local affair.

People of all ages are crowded around the terminals, banging away on keypads, one transaction after another. The traders, many of them elderly, shell peanuts, or get on with their knitting, in between trades.

When the market closes for lunch, they play cards. In fact, it's difficult to know where the gambling ends and the trading begins, as the room feels more like a bookmaker's than a share dealing room.

The Shanghai Index increased in value by 130% last year, and that's got everyone interested in taking a bet.

"It's not easy," said amateur investor Qin Miaolong. "Sometimes I lose money.

"People like me, who don't know how to trade, lose more money than they make. If you know the market, it's easy. If you don't know the market, you can easily lose more than you make."

'No limits'

It is very easy to set up a trading account. All that is required is a bank account. At the height of the market, as many as 90,000 new accounts are being opened every day across China.

Shares are cheap, only a few pennies - and with the market increasing by as much as 10% some weeks, the returns are viewed as better than anything else on offer.

The market has risen so much, so quickly, there is always the risk it could fall again
James T Areddy, Wall Street Journal

In a room just off the public trading floor, the semi-professional investors are busy trading in bigger numbers. To sit in there, they must have at least 1m renminbi ($130,000) to invest.

Chen Lei is one of the big investors. "For ordinary people, there are not many channels for investment in China," she said.

"Everyone can invest in the stock market, no matter how much money you have, no matter how old you are.

"There's no limitation. All can take part, so people think it's proper to invest in the stock market."

Chinese people have an estimated $2 trillion in their bank accounts. But interest rates are low, so many want to put their money elsewhere.

Government measures to cool the property market have made it more difficult to invest, while prices remain high.

Bubble fears

Many of the traders believe the government wants them to invest in the market, said Mrs Chen.

"China has had a 3-to-5 year bear market. Now Chinese leaders hope the stock market will recover. If the stock market recovers well, it will stimulate the consumption in the rest of the economy," she said.

China's leadership has worried publicly that the stock market was becoming a bubble, that investors were behaving "irrationally", in the words of Cheng Siwei, one of the country's top legislators.

Chen Lei
Chen Lei says Chinese leaders are counting on rising share prices

It was partly fears of a government intervention to cool the market - perhaps by charging capital gains tax on share profits - that spooked investors last Tuesday, sending the market 8.8% lower.

The market improved a day later, when the state media made clear that there would not be a tax rise.

"The market has risen so much, so quickly, there is always the risk it could fall again," said James T Areddy, China correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

"There could be another generation of investors that gets burned, and they would be very upset at the regulators."

China's government has been quick to claim credit for the stock market's earlier success, and to encourage investment. But if it falters again, the growing band of private investors will know who to blame.

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