Penny stocks drop on news of investigation

PHOTO: Penny stocks drop on news of investigation

Just as shares of Asiasons Capital, Blumont Group and LionGold Corp shares appeared to be clambering out of their doldrums, news of the Monetary Authority of Singapore's (MAS) investigation into their trading activities dragged them down again.

"MAS and the Singapore Exchange (SGX) are conducting an extensive review of the activities around these stocks," MAS said in a statement on Friday. "This episode has also surfaced broader issues regarding the market structure and practices which MAS and SGX intend to review thoroughly."

All three stocks slid to their lowest level in a week as skittish investors took profit. Asiasons shares fell 18 per cent to 19 cents, Blumont stock dropped 19 per cent to 16 cents and LionGold shed 15 per cent to 25 cents by the close of trading on Friday. The three counters were among the five biggest percentage decliners on the SGX.

"(The three stocks) are like this poor guy who just got discharged from the hospital, only to get langgar (Malay for hit) by a truck again, said a broker who requested anonymity.

MAS's remarks, made in response to queries from the media, were the first confirmation that authorities were investigating the circumstances surrounding the meteoric rise of the three stocks over the past year, way beyond their fundamentals, before their spectacular crash wiped out billions from their market value. The fiasco has led to criticisms of whether SGX could have acted earlier to protect the interests of retail investors caught up in the bubble, and calls for an official investigation.

After SGX allowed the three counters to be traded freely on Monday - without the trading restrictions that banned investors from contra trading and short-selling them since Oct 6 - the relief sent the three stocks soaring between 80 and 93 per cent, albeit from the low bases to which they had plummeted.

Said another broker: "MAS doesn't look at where the share price is trading. It's not out there to time the market. Obviously there's some information that MAS knows that the rest of the market doesn't know, which warrants a further investigation."

When contacted by BT on Friday, LionGold's spokeswoman said: "As far as we understand from press articles on the matter, MAS is investigating the trading activities surrounding LionGold's shares and not on the company's operations. LionGold trusts MAS and SGX to look into the matter accordingly."

Asiasons' managing director Jared Lim said: "This isn't unexpected, given the recent volatility. We do hope though that the investment public recognises a difference between the trading activity and the actual operations of a company."

Blumont declined to comment.

Giving its assurance that "the operations and financial positions of the broking firms remain sound", MAS said that it had been closely monitoring their overall exposure by collating reports on losses and major counter-party exposure to the three counters.

This comes as remisiers and brokerages fretted over the losses that they could be saddled with if clients with unsettled contra positions on the stocks could not or refused to pay for their stock purchases during the designation.

In a statement on Friday, SGX clarified that the use of its three regulatory tools - issuing a query, designating a security and suspending trading - was not intended as a comment on the fundamentals or value of the three companies concerned. "When SGX suspended the three counters, it was acting to fulfil its responsibilities to preserve a fair, orderly and transparent market. This remained the sole objective when the securities were designated and when trading resumed," it said.

Any investigation into possible breaches of the Securities and Futures Act, including insider trading and market manipulation, is distinct and separate from the regulatory tools. Investigations are undertaken to review past trading conduct and detect possible transgressions, SGX explained. The bourse operator added that it devotes significant resources into detecting and investigating market misconduct, and works closely with statutory authorities against offenders of the law.

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