Looking purely at the economic news from China of late, this has not been the happiest of Chinese New Years. The Chinese government is estimating that 16% of the huge migrant labor force of 200 million will have no job to return to after the New Year. Factories are continuing to close, or cut employment, across the country. Guangdong province, where China First Capital has its base in China, is particularly hard hit, because it’s still the primary production base for much of China’s better private factories. While factories are being moved out of Guangdong to less expensive, inland locations like Jiangxi, overall industrial employment in factories in Guangdong is still huge, and hugely reliant on migrant labor. There’s no solid date, but ten million or more workers may have lost their jobs in Guangdong over the last six months.
The picture is no less bleak in terms of projections for corporate profits in China in 2009. Larger companies are reporting profit falls of over 50% in 2008, and forecasting even worse results this year. This matters crucially in China. Over 40% of total economic output is generated by business investment. This, in turn, is intimately tied to corporate profits, since most of that business investment is financed out of retained profits. According to a recent report in the Wall Street Journal, “official statistics show that 63% of investment in China last year was financed by what are called “internally generated” funds, which include retained profits. That’s up from just below 50% a decade ago.”
In other words, as corporate profits decline, they take Chinese GDP growth with them. This falling economic output, in turn, influences consumer sentiment, and so takes personal spending down with it.
Good economic news is a scarce commodity this Chinese New Year. But, I see one bright glimmer of hope here. Chinese companies have been excessively reliant on retained earnings and expensive bank debt to finance their growth, rather than equity capital. The difficult economic environment, in China and indeed worldwide, provides a good opportunity for better Chinese companies to reorient their method of financing capital investment and growth. It’s the right time to take on equity capital, and use it as a platform to continue to invest and grow, even if corporate profits are in cyclical decline.
The Chinese companies that can raise equity finance will enjoy a significant financial advantage over competitors, and so be able to gain market share. Adding equity finance lets a company both lower its overall cost of capital, and also increase the amount of capital it can put to work in its business. Both of these factors equate to a very real competitive advantage.
Equity investors, principally PE firms, will need to change their orientation as well. The opportunities to do shorter-term “pre-IPO” financing are far fewer than they were, because stock market valuations are way down and IPO activity has slowed to a crawl. So, the simple arbitrage of a PE firm buying into a Chinese company at a valuation, say, of 10x and selling out 18 months later in an IPO at 20x are gone.
Instead, PE investors in China need to think more like value investors, and less like arbitrageurs. This means looking for opportunities to deploy capital into good businesses offering high rates of return on that invested capital. Equity investment is then used to expand output, lower unit costs, gain market share, and so expand both profits and profit margins. Build profits and valuation will take care of itself. If a Chinese company can put equity capital to work well, and accelerate profits in 2009 and beyond, that business will be worth a lot more money when the IPO market revives than if it simply cut back on investing to ride out the bad times.
This year is going to be difficult, challenging, but also potentially highly rewarding for all of us participating in the financing of private companies in China. It’s a year when good companies should be able to get even better. And smart-money PE firms will make far more, over the medium-term, than fast-money valuation arbitrageurs ever did.