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The Straits Times
Published on May 13, 2013
Catalist still a work in progress

By Goh Eng Yeow Senior correspondent

ON THE face of it, Catalist - the junior board established by the Singapore Exchange (SGX) five years ago to replace Sesdaq - seems to be a resounding success.

Certainly the statistics are impressive: Since its inception, Catalist has attracted 48 initial public offerings (IPOs) which have raised about $504 million.

Catalist-listed companies have also raised another $1.1 billion to fund their business expansion.

However, take a closer look and a different picture emerges in terms of the profile of the companies listing on Catalist.

The junior board has no trouble attracting small companies, which make less than $10 million in pre-tax profit.

But there appears to be a dearth of larger IPOs from medium-sized companies, earning $20 million or more.

For the wider SGX, this issue is about to become more acute.

The bourse operator has raised the bar for a mainboard listing, requiring a company to have a market value of at least $150 million if it is profitable in the last financial year, or a minimum pre-tax profit of at least $30 million to qualify.

So if these medium-sized companies continue to shun Catalist, they will have to look for an alternative exchange to list.

That would be a pity. Some of these mid-sized firms are home-grown companies whose names would be familiar among investors here, unlike many of the bigger foreign companies now beating a path to the SGX.

Before Catalist was established, medium-sized firms could at least turn to Sesdaq to list their shares.

But then the SGX decided to overhaul Sesdaq in 2007 and graft a model, based on London's Alternative Investment Market, onto it in order to try to attract less mature companies and firms with no track record from around the region to list here.

That seemed like a sensible idea at the time. It ensured that the new board would have a critical mass of established listed firms to support it while it went about luring fast-growing regional ones to list here.

Catalist also offered several attractive features that were absent from Sesdaq: It did away with the need for a company to formally demonstrate a business track record to meet financial entry requirements. Once it is listed, a company also gets a freer hand to raise funds and engage in merger-and-acquisition activities.

But the attractions come at a price. A Catalist-listed firm is required to hire a sponsor to hold its hand while it is listed, and that means additional costs. It faces delisting if the sponsor walks out and it is unable to find a replacement.

The prospectus it issues to sell its shares comes with a high-profile warning that "companies listed on Catalist may carry higher investment risk when compared with larger or more established companies listed on the mainboard of the SGX".

It is a proviso unlikely to sit well with bosses at local mid-sized companies. Just because their companies fail to meet the mainboard listing criteria does not necessarily make them any riskier than the foreign companies beating a path here.

Then there is the start-up image which Catalist seems to invoke. It does not help the junior board's cause that every prospectus issued by a Catalist IPO aspirant must come with a clause underscoring the fact that "companies may list on Catalist without a track record of profitability".

For some investors, it flags a fundamental shift in the make-up of companies which are listed on Catalist as compared with those which made up Sesdaq.

The Central Provident Fund (CPF), for example, allowed its members to continue investing in Sesdaq-listed firms which migrated to Catalist, if these companies had already qualified as CPFIS investments.

But it has so far refused to accord companies which launched Catalist IPOs the same privilege. It flagged the worry that as the board listed firms "in their earlier stages of development with limited track record", it needed more time to assess if this made them suitable investments for those investing their retirement savings.

There is another concern: the ability of Catalist-listed firms to make the transition to the mainboard.

Although Catalist was established more than five years ago, only three of the 48 firms which started as IPOs there, have succeeded in making the leap.

This is in stark contrast to the old Sesdaq, which incubated many successful mainboard listings such as Venture Corp and Datapulse Technology.

So what can be done? For one thing, Catalist clearly needs to polish its image if it is to entice decent mid-sized firms to list. It also has to work out a plan to nurture its charges to enable them to qualify for the bigger, more sophisticated mainboard.

Catalist also has to convince powerful bodies such as CPF that Catalist-listed firms make viable investments for their members.

It certainly has its work cut out for it.