What’s cooking in penny stocks

Investors look at the share index at a private stock market gallery in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Tuesday, Sept. 16, 2008. Wall Streets overnight freefall sent Asian stock markets tumbling sharply Tuesday morning as investors were gripped with fears of a global financial crisis.

BURSA Malaysia has underperformed for the past three years, largely due to the outflow of foreign funds.

The foreign funds started coming back five weeks ago and subsequently trading volumes on the exchange picked up. Bursa saw its overall turnover hitting a staggering 6.01 billion shares on March 20 – the biggest one-day volume since August 2014. Total turnover was valued at RM3bil.

Unfortunately though, the good always attracts the depraved. Sure, foreign funds are here, but so are the much dreaded “pump and dump” operators.

The presence of the operators who churned out the volume was so immense that it prompted Bursa to come out with a warning to brokerages to not facilitate such activities. The exchange particularly mentioned about social websites that promote these stocks.

So just what are these “pump and dump” operators all about?

Well, they are perhaps a group of people who operate on creating hype and building up fevered excitement around a (usually) small company, where insiders can subsequently unload overvalued or worthless shares to unsuspecting investors.

So let’s say these pump and dumpers identify a cheap stock. Typically it has no earnings but rides on offering big “potential” for upside.

What they do is to cheaply acquire a large position in a company. Then they begin informing the public about this company via e-mail and Internet stock sites. They also start trading shares of these companies, creating volume and upside. Combined together, these activities create the perception that something big is brewing in that fledgling little company.

So the share price skyrockets, doubles, triples or quadruples even. Along the way, the operators dump their stock and make a fat profit for themselves.

That is more or less the modus operandi.

In the last few weeks, stocks that have hogged the volumes and gainers list are those in the sectors of construction, property, technology, logistics and e-commerce. The themes play out every few days before rotating to the next sector.

Brokers say it is more likely that the pump and dumpers are in some of the fintech stocks.

“The majority of the construction stocks, all said and done, have fundamentals and orderbooks to back their earnings. Furthermore, there are real construction contracts to be dished out this year and next.

“The same cannot be said for the tech stocks, where a lot of it is going up purely on potential and speculation,” said one broker.

Caution by the authorities

The authorities are vigilant of the current situation, and over the week, cautioned that “pump and dump” activities are circulating through the social media.

In a circular to the heads of dealing and compliance of stockbroking companies, the stock exchange said it discovered certain groups of market participants using the social media and Internet trading to carry out manipulative activities, which included “pump and dump” schemes.

The circular said that the operators of the “pump and dump” schemes, which are transacted through the social media, would typically begin by spreading false or misleading statements, news or rumours in investor blogs, chat groups – such as Telegram, WhatsApp, WeChat, electronic bulletin board postings or online newsletters – to entice or recommend unsuspecting investors to buy stocks which are touted as “hot” picks.

This, it said, was to facilitate the disposal of the stocks that they had accumulated earlier at higher prices.

Bursa said operators would often post their own researches and make unsubstantiated statements, promotional news or hearsay to gain the confidence of their followers and lure them into following their stock tips.

Bursa said the operators were persuasive in the chatrooms to entice people into buying the stock with the end goal of running up the prices.

When the stock price is pumped up due to an increase in trading volume, the operators behind the schemes will sell their stocks before the hype stops.

“The exit of the operators will cause the price to plummet while innocent investors who bought high and sold low will lose their money,” it added.

Bursa said it wanted to share the observations with brokers so that they become aware of such activities and alert their representatives and clients to exercise caution and diligence.

So what’s cooking?

Now, the latest batch of stocks being “peddled” by financial blogs and social media are those perceived to be beneficiaries of the Digital Free Trade Zone (DTFZ) where Jack Ma’s Alibaba will have a presence.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Ma launched the DFTZ on Wednesday, which is expected to generate trade worth US$65bil (RM286bil) by 2025. It is expected to double the export growth of small and medium businesses by 2025 and create 60,000 jobs. It will also create a new Kuala Lumpur Internet City to house 10,000 Internet firms and 25,000 tech professionals in Bandar Malaysia.

Using these big numbers and the China factor, blogs have started talking up the likes of Dataprep Holdings Bhd, GHL Systems Bhd, Rev Asia Bhd, Cuscapi Bhd, Malaysia Airport Holdings Bhd, AirAsia Bhd, DKSH Bhd and Tropicana Bhd, among others.

The share price of Malaysia Airports Holdings Bhd (MAHB) going up isn’t all surprising.

MAHB will be teaming up with Cainiao Network, the logistics arm of e-commerce giant Alibaba Group where both companies will develop a regional e-commerce and logistics hub in the KL International Airport (KLIA) Aeropolis, as part of the DFTZ initiative.

This is not to say that all the thematic stocks that have moved up sharply are absent of fundamentals, but certainly the element of speculation is huge.

One of the sharpest rise was seen in business process outsourcing solutions provider Efficient-E Solutions. Its share price went up 72.41% or 21 sen in one day to 50 sen on Thursday. It was also the most actively traded counter of the day with 208.04 million shares being traded.

While it is true that Singapore Post Ltd is the largest shareholder in Efficient E-Solutions with a 20.8% stake, and in turn, Alibaba Investment Ltd has a 14.41% stake in Singapore Post, nonetheless fundamentally wise, nothing appears to be happening within the company.

It remains a loss-making company, posting RM10mil loss for its financial year ended Dec 31, 2016 from a previous net profit of RM44mil.

Meanwhile, companies like Cuscapi Bhd and Rev Asia Bhd are riding on the DFTZ wave by virtue of connections.

For Rev Asia, the link is through its parent company Catcha Group, which has been chosen to be the master developer for the Kuala Lumpur Internet City, a component of DFTZ.

It is also uncertain how software solutions provider Cuscapi, which is primarily involved in business management solutions software for the food and beverage industry, will benefit from DTFZ.

The company, however, posted a widening loss of RM36mil for financial year 2016, from a loss of RM24mil the year before.

Perhaps the most drastic of all moves are that of little Dataprep, which has seen its share price run from 25.5 sen on March 15 to reach its high of 65 sen on March 23. It has also been on a phenomenal run. At its last price of 62 sen, the stock still only has a market capitalisation of RM259.2mil.

The main reason being touted for Dataprep’s rise is because its owner, Tan Sri Lim Chee Wah, the son of Genting founder Lim Goh Tong, is a major shareholder of the 20 billion yuan (RM13bil) Genting Secret Garden Resorts project in China.

Genting Secret Garden Resort is an all-season holiday and skiing resort, which will be an important venue for the Beijing Winter Olympics 2022. It is located at the outskirts of Zhangjiakou city in Hebei Province.

The price is rising because Dataprep is Lim’s only Malaysian-listed company. His other private vehicle, VXL Group, is also a major investor in Secret Garden. There are now rumblings in the blogs that there could be a potential transfer of assets and Dataprep could be a beneficiary.

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