HKEX drops bid for London Stock Exchange

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Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing Ltd. abruptly dropped its 29.6 billion-pound ($36.2 billion) unsolicited takeover bid for London Stock Exchange Group Plc after opposition from the U.K. company and a cool reception from Beijing.

HKEX’s board, which met over a public holiday on Monday after a weekend of violence, was concerned by the lack of engagement from the LSE, weeks after it initially approached the company, people familiar with the matter said. The proposal didn’t get support in China, where the official People’s Daily pointed to “persistent worries” about Hong Kong given the current unrest, and instead promoted LSE’s existing tie-up with the Shanghai Stock Exchange. HKEX declined to comment.

The decision is a rare setback for HKEX Chief Executive Officer Charles Li, who saw London at the center of trading between Eastern and Western markets. The withdrawal now leaves LSE, which viewed the HKEX bid as an unwelcome distraction, free to pursue its $27 billion takeover of Refinitiv. It will take the 300-year-old bourse further away from a traditional exchange model and deeper into big data.

LSE said in a statement it “remains committed to and continues to make good progress on” the Refinitiv deal, which will face a shareholder vote next month and close in the second half of 2020.

HKEX, the region’s largest exchange by revenue, struggled to regain momentum after last month’s stinging rebuke from LSE’s board. HKEX executives met LSE shareholders in London and New York to try to gain their backing for the takeover plan. The bourse also was in talks to borrow as much as 8 billion pounds to fund the purchase.

While the HKEX’s board continues to see a combination as “strategically compelling,” it’s “disappointed that it has been unable to engage with the management of LSEG in realizing this vision, and as a consequence has decided it is not in the best interests of HKEX shareholders to pursue this proposal,” the exchange said in a filing on Tuesday.

Li’s LSE counterpart, David Schwimmer, has said he preferred direct access to China and didn’t need the former British colony as a conduit. LSE last month rejected HKEX’s initial takeover proposal, citing complications ranging from political unrest in Hong Kong to potential problems with regulators.

Hong Kong has seen four months of increasingly violent unrest, sparked by a since-scrapped bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. Protests expanded into a broader push for greater democracy, with thousands of protesters gathering on weekends and public holidays, often squaring off against police. In recent weeks, protesters targeted subway stations and businesses seen as pro-Beijing were vandalized.

HKEX shares have dropped about 7% since June, while LSE declined more than 6.7% after the HKEX announcement.

HKEX countered LSE’s cold response with a charm offensive, bringing in UBS Group AG and HSBC Holdings Plc to try to persuade shareholders of the merits of its proposal, Bloomberg reported.

“I don’t think the HKEX shareholders were keen for them to take on even more debt,” said Niki Beattie, founder of consultancy Market Structure Partners in London. “With the backdrop of unrest in Hong Kong, it probably would have been difficult for both sides to ignore it and that could be blown into something bigger on both sides. Therefore better to save face earlier on.”

Exchange companies have tried and failed to combine in recent years, as political, regulatory and economic considerations have foiled the efforts. LSE’s attempted merger with Germany’s Deutsche Boerse AG was ultimately abandoned, and Singapore Exchange Ltd.’s bid for ASX Ltd. was rejected by Australian regulators in 2011 because of national interest concerns.

“The complicated regulatory, technical and technological landscape in which we operate means we are resolutely focused on our ambitions, whilst also maintaining flexibility in our approach,” Li said in a blog post Tuesday.

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