The PE industry in China is growing up. Fast. There are two key factors are at work. The first is the onrush of cash. The second is the onrush of talent.
Billions of new money is flowing into the Chinese PE industry. This is in marked contrast with the situation elsewhere. There’s not a lot of appetite for committing capital for any purpose except to invest in China. Other, traditional large PE markets (US and European buyout funds) are in cyclical decline, owing largely to the problems in global credit markets. Then, too, there’s the announced intention of the China’s $75 billion social security fund to begin investing more freely in private equity firms in China.
The weight of all this new money entering the China PE market is having an interesting effect on valuations. While valuations have certainly come down over the last year, they arguably would have fallen faster and farther if not for all the new money looking for opportunities. It’s what financial markets like to call “the weight of money” argument – the more cash there is around, the higher prices will rise.
That’s one side effect of the new money entering the market. The other is that the level of professionalism, across the board, is rising in the PE industry. There’s a good reason for this. As the pool of capital grows, so too does the demand for higher levels of fiduciary responsibility and accountability. This is evident not just in tightening DD procedures, of course, but also in the involvement in the PE investment process in China of some the world’s leading professional service firms.
This past week, I met with a Hong Kong-based partner at one of America’s largest and best law firms. This firm has been very active in China’s IPO market the last five years, and served as lead counsel for many of the larger public offerings by Chinese companies in US exchanges. This is a great business, with very fat fees. But, it’s also a highly cyclical one. The IPO market has cooled this year. So, this firm has now made the shrewd decision to work on some smaller PE deals, rather than just the +$100mn IPOs they’ve relied on in the past. The upfront transaction fees are, of course, lower. But, by getting involved earlier in a company’s financing process, at the time of PE financing, this law firm believes that it will be building a very solid base for the future.
The calculation is very sound. By working on a PE financing today, the law firm will be ideally-positioned to serve as IPO counsel several years down the line. In other words, the firm is moving from being “transaction-based” to “relationship-based” , from targeting only high-dollar one-off IPO transactions, to building a longer-term relationship with a select number of very promising pre-IPO Chinese companies. Over time, this should yield far more revenue for the law firms that follow this path. There’s money to be made advising on PE investment rounds, on Board matters, on M&A work, and litigation.
In principle, it’s an obvious shift to make, and more closely reflects best practices in the legal profession. In fact, a good law firm, like a good merchant bank, should choose its clients wisely, and then commit to serving and advising them over the long-term.
For us, at China First Capital, this is very much at the heart of our operating ethos. For larger law firms, it can sometimes be a tougher shift to make. For one thing, their existing fee structures make it harder to work with smaller clients. The law firms will often need to cut fees as a way of building these longer-term relationships. That’s not always easy to do in a large law firm, where all partners are expected to generate maximum revenues.
But, this change in mindset is happening. I know from experience, since this big US firm has offered to work with several of our clients, on their PE financings, and to cap their fees at an appropriate level. This is a great thing for our clients, since it gives them access to the best legal counsel possible, at a time when it will make a significant positive difference. The PE firms stand to benefit as well, since it should raise standards overall.
This shift from transactional focus to relationship-building is more proof that China’s PE market is coming of age, and building the infrastructure on which to prosper for many decades to come.