By Michele Kambas
NICOSIA (Reuters) - Shattered by an international bailout which stripped it of 80 percent of its turnover, Cyprus's Stock Exchange is aiming to be a magnet for Chinese firms seeking a foothold in Europe.
Chief Executive Nondas Metaxas told Reuters on Monday that the exchange had listing interest from half a dozen companies with Chinese backers, drawn by the relative ease of rules and tax breaks.
He also said the bourse was pursuing the idea of an introduction of a commodities market, trading local goods in bulk, such as the island's famed halloumi cheese, and potentially its newly found natural gas reserves.
"We lost our most active shares, Bank of Cyprus and Popular Bank, but we have not stood idle," Metaxas said in an interview, referring to the two Cypriot banks caught up in the crisis.
The euro zone state came close to financial collapse in March after a fumbled attempt at economic rescue forced major bank Popular Bank to shut while deposits were seized at Bank of Cyprus. It now has a 10 billion euro economic adjustment plan from the International Monetary Fund and the European Union.
The bourse's lesser-regulated Emerging Market, modelled on the AIM market for smaller companies in London, has 16 firms listed with a capitalisation of 702 million euros, including one with Chinese investors.
Metaxas said bourse authorities had given preliminary approval for a second Chinese listing and the listing application of a third would be discussed at a board meeting this month. "We have another five in the queue," he said.
Popular Bank, known as Laiki, was shut down and Bank of Cyprus was suspended from trading during the crisis.
The two banks combined represented 80 percent of trading on the small exchange, which now has a market cap of 7.5 billion euros from 103 listings and bond issues on its main market.
Chinese firms were attracted by a lack of red tape, ease of access to key officials, Cyprus's euro zone membership and the absence of a capital gains tax on share transfers, Metaxas said.
Cyprus has also been a magnet for Russian money, mainly in the form of deposits in the bank system. Several Russians ended up on the board of Bank of Cyprus after the crisis, when the bank seized savings' depositors and converted them to equity.
Metaxas also said authorities were considering an extension of operating hours to fit in with Far East business.
"This is really very good news for us. There aren't many new listings generally in Europe, but this is a market which has been giving us new listings all the time."
Cyprus's stock exchange, created in 1996, now focuses on traditional bourse trading and legal adjustments would be required to extend its mandate to commodities, Metaxas said.
A feasibility study says the sector is promising, particularly since the dismantling of state-backed marketing boards for commodities due to an austerity drive, he said.
As well as halloumi, Cypriot potatoes could also be traded, he said.
"It's a niche market, and at the back of our minds we are also aware that energy is a very big market," he said, adding that natural gas trading could be an option.
Cyprus has licensed four companies to search for gas off its coast. One, U.S. based Noble Energy, (NBL.N) reported finding reserves in one area worth about $50 billion, almost three times the size of Cyprus's 17 billion euro economy.
(Reporting By Michele Kambas, editing by Patrick Lannin)