TAIPEI, Taiwan (TheStreet) -- China is running out of ways to prop up its stock market. So government officials are weighing whether to go after a rather surprising source of funds: individual foreign investors.
Considering the recent implosion in Chinese stocks, the effort may resemble trying to buy insurance while your house is burning down. But China is desperate to bring in more foreign capital to support private enterprise, so it's thinking of doing it anyway.
One obvious step would be to remove barriers to China's notoriously restricted market. Right now, foreigners can't buy Chinese stocks -- known as "A" shares -- directly. Instead, they can buy "H" shares, which trade at a discount to "A" shares, on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
China could start allowing foreign investors to buy "A" shares, though only through Hong Kong and other offshore exchanges.
"To open the market to foreign investment, China can simply use the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect framework," said Jack Perkowski, managing partner of merchant bank JFP Holdings in Beijing. "China can expand the number of companies whose shares can be purchased by Hong Kong investors (and) increase the amount that can be invested."
The existing Shanghai-Hong Kong scheme captivated investors because they face virtually no barriers to trading in Hong Kong, a world financial center with a free-port styled economy and British law. That program opened 568 "A" shares normally traded just in Shanghai, where only government-approved foreign institutions are allowed to trade.
As of November, the Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect had generated $332.4 billion in trades, 72% of that in the Shanghai-listed companies.
This year China may connect Hong Kong and the mainland's Shenzhen bourse, analysts say. Shenzhen is known for aggressive startups and high valuations. A deputy market regulator said in November the government would "continue to advance the work" of the Shenzhen scheme, per the state-run newspaper China Daily.
"There is talk of Shenzhen opening up to foreign investors in a...connect scheme similar to the Hong Kong-Shanghai connect," said Michael McGaughy, a personal investor working in Hong Kong's finance industry. "I hope it happens, but it's always difficult to tell."
China is also eyeing a connect program with London. British and Chinese authorities decided in October to launch a feasibility study, the first step. One analyst is predicting an overseas link for China's over-the-counter board, the National Equities Exchange and Quotations.
Any new scheme would give foreign investors potentially hundreds more "A" shares to choose. The government normally controls its capital markets to stop outflows that could hurt the economy.
Chinese shares are still considered risky after mid-year 2015 loss of 40% sparked by over-aggressive margin lending. They rebounded 23% between a low in August and year's end but have bled another 13% so far this year. Beijing has already tried circuit breakers, criminal probes and its own stock buys to raise prices.
Chinese officials hope foreign funds will find their way into companies such as social networking firm Zhengzhou Zoneyet Technology or safety-monitoring equipment supplier Geokon Instruments. They're small, over-the-counter firms emblematic of the government's drive to promote tech as an alternative to manufacturing.
But analysts say foreign funds may go instead for the likes of Nasdaq-traded China Telecom (CHA) , China Mobile (CHL) and Agricultural Bank of China (ACGBY) as anchors of the country's larger growth-linked industries.