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Shenzhen’s New Small-Cap Stock Market — A Faster Path to IPO. Not Always a Smarter Path

 One of the main themes of the PE conference I attended last week in Shanghai was the launch of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange’s new Growth Enterprise Market “GEM”, for smaller-cap, mainly high-tech companies.

It’s been a long time in the planning – since at least 1999. In March 2008, China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, tried to kickstart the process and announced plans to open soon this second market in Shenzhen. Events then intruded – the credit crisis struck, financial markets tanked, and so plans for China’s GEM went into limbo.

Things are now back on track. Trading is likely to begin in October. At the conference, most of the speakers focused on hows and whys the GEM would open new opportunities for smaller companies to raise money from China’s capital market.

Overall, it’s a development I applaud. Private companies in China are often starved of growth capital, and the GEM will mean more of the country’s capital gets allocated to these businesses.

There is one aspect, however, of the GEM that I personally find a little less positive. It’s a small quibble, but my concern is that the opening of the GEM will lead still more Chinese companies to divert time and resources away from building their profits and market share and instead devote energy and cash towards going public. The smaller the company, the more potentially harmful this diversion of attention can be.

China is, to use a military analogy, a “target-rich environment”. Companies often have more opportunities than they have time or resources. This is the product of an economy growing very strongly (8% this year) and modernizing at lightning speed. Large companies can also suffer when they shift focus from gaining customers to gaining a public listing. But, they will usually operate in an established market with established customers. This gives them more of a cushion.

Smaller, high-tech companies don’t have as much leeway. For these companies (last year’s revenues under $5o million) the risk is that the time-consuming and expensive process of planning an IPO on GEM will severely impact current operations, causing it to miss chances to expand, and so lose out to better-focused competitors.

In other words, there’s a trade-off here that tends to get overlooked in all the excitement about the opening of this new stock market in China. The trade-off is between focusing on capital-raising and focusing on building your business.

In my experience, private Chinese companies are already often a little too fixated on an IPO. It’s the main reason so many have made the poor, and often fatal, choice to go public on the American OTCBB. The GEM, I fear, will add fuel to this fire. Often, the best choice for a fast-growing private Chinese company will be to ignore the many pitches they’ll hear from advisors to IPO, and hunker down by focusing on their business for the next year or two.

Yes, being a boot-strapped company is tough. There’s never enough cash around. I know this at first-hand, since along with running China First Capital, I’m also CEO of a boot-strapped security software company in California, Awareness Technologies. Our growth opportunities far exceed our ability to finance them. So, I can understand why the thought of raising an “easy” $5 million - $15 million by going public on the GEM is very attractive to any Chinese boss running a similar cash-short and opportunity-rich company.

But, capital always has a cost. In this case, the main costs will be both the cash paid to advisors and regulators, along with the indirect cost of being a beat slower to seize available opportunities to grow. In China at the moment, any slowness is not just a problem. It can be life-threatening. Every business here operates in a hyper-competitive marketplace.

Of course, any company that can raise money by going public on the GEM will eventually enjoy a big advantage over competitors. It will have the cash and the stronger balance sheet to finance growth. But, the IPO process in China remains far slower than in the US or Hong Kong. A company planning and funding its GEM IPO now, may need to wait two years or more to get all necessary approvals and so finally raise that money with an IPO. Meantime, competitors are, as Americans like to say, eating this company’s lunch.

It’s a discussion we often have with SME bosses – how to time optimally an IPO. A rule of thumb with IPOs is: “small is not beautiful.” Going public on the strength of still limited earnings and revenues will likely result in a small market cap. This can adversely affect share price performance, and so limit the company’s ability to raise additional equity capital. To avoid this trap, it’s often going to be better to wait. Let competitors get bogged down in IPO planning. You can then grow at their expense.

In one way, though, the establishment of the GEM market is an unqualified triumph. It sends the signal far and wide that private SME companies will play an ever larger role in fueling the growth of China’s economy.