BEIJING — Tao dreamed of buying a new car with his winnings from the stock market’s surge. A 32-year-old professional from Shanghai, he had been egged into investing by his friends and then by media stories of grannies making huge killings on shares.
So he became one of China’s 90 million individual investors in stocks who account for 80 percent of all market transactions in a country where letting professionals manage your money through mutual funds has yet to catch on. There aren’t many places for ordinary Chinese people to put their savings, and the real estate market was weak. Equities looked like a one-way government-backed bet, and China’s citizens began borrowing money to place that bet.
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Tao has been learning a tough lesson the past four weeks, as the market has abruptly lost nearly a third of its value.
He knew economic growth was slowing, he said Thursday. But he and his friends had decided that China was in a “policy bull market” and that shares would inexorably benefit from China’s economic reforms and President Xi Jinping’s grand plans for regional economic integration and infrastructure development.
“After the Spring Festival, around April, my friends around me started making money,” he said. “I was pretty tempted, and I was encouraged by their experience.”
Initially, things went well as Tao rode the latter stages of a stock market surge in which Shanghai’s main index rose about 150 percent in a year. From an initial investment of 100,000 yuan ($16,000) in April, Tao says he soon made a profit of about 30 percent.
“I thought I could make more if I invested more,” he said, speaking on condition that his full name not be used because of the sensitivity of the subject. He borrowed money and within a month or two invested a further 600,000 yuan in China’s booming market. Then, in the space of a few days, it all went sour.
“The market started to plunge,” he said. It fell so fast he closed his positions and took huge losses: In one day alone, he says, he lost 200,000 yuan.
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“The moment the position was closed, I really broke down,” he said. “I finally understood why some people jump from buildings after failing in the stock market. Before I used to wonder: How could you jump just because your investment fails? But when I looked at the computer screen and saw the number under my account fall to zero, then I really felt what those people felt.”
China’s stock market rebounded Thursday after the government banned major stockholders from selling shares in listed companies and after the feared Public Security Bureau announced it was mounting an investigation into a dozen institutions or individuals accused of “maliciously” shorting blue-chip stocks. The moves were the latest in a series of measures meant to calm panic in the market.
Shanghai’s Composite Index rose 5.8 percent, to 3709, on Thursday. But it has still lost more than a quarter of its value since a peak in mid-June, and trading in nearly 1,500 companies remains suspended, preventing many investors from taking action on their positions.
Retail investors have helped turn Shanghai into one of the world’s most active exchanges. Many, like Tao, borrowed money in a search for quick and easy profit in recent months.
“I followed the wind,” acknowledged another young professional working for a state-owned company in eastern Shandong province. His benefits at work had been cut. “Everyone was thinking about how to make money from somewhere else,” he said. “The stock market was booming, so I entered.” Now he can’t afford to close out his investments and take the losses.
“We all got trapped because of greed,” he said. “I was trying to make money for my family — my wife is expecting a baby at the end of the year. Now I have to wait until the stock market gets better. There is nothing else to do.”
A similar stock market bubble in China in 2007 also ended in disaster. On both occasions, the bubble sucked in people of all ages and from all walks of life, from farmers to pensioners. But even those with past experience have been left shaking their heads at the recent volatility.
“How can one share go from 7 yuan to 300 all of a sudden?” asked one woman in her 60s, clicking on charts on a computer in a dimly lit old brokerage office building in downtown Beijing on Thursday, where she goes every day to trade shares with her meager savings.
She was referring to Beijing Baofeng Technology, an online video and media company whose shares rose from 7.14 yuan in March to 307.56 on June 11 before trading was suspended.
“It is not normal. There is no pattern to speak of when it comes to China’s stock market. Nobody knows how it works, and there are no regulations,” she said. “I have invested in stocks for 15 years — and it’s all gone in the past three weeks.”
Close by, another retired woman who gave her surname as Zhang said she came here every day, from half past nine in the morning until three in the afternoon.
“If you go to the park every day, you get bored, so I am glad the stock market is here to keep me occupied,” she said, holding a lunch box in her left hand. Air conditioning, electricity and the Internet are all free here, she added.
“The Chinese stock market is full of small potatoes like us. You make 10 yuan in the stock market, it means you can have a nice meal today.”
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Tao said he also spent all day watching the stock market and using the popular WeChat messaging service to chat with groups of friends and share tips.
“Before the crash, in our WeChat group, we would discuss what to buy. Someone would always just say, ‘buy, buy, buy,’ ” he said.
The plunge, Tao said, made everyone “scared and stupid.”
Still, he says he hopes the market will stabilize.
“My friends and I were saying we are still confident in the direction of the country. This time around, we are betting on the fate of the nation.”
Gu Jinglu and Xu Yangjingjing contributed to this report.
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