Chinese securities regulations do not allow private domestic companies to issue preferred shares. It does not sound particularly problematic, since preferred shares are not all that common anywhere. And yet, this regulatory quirk has serious unintended consequences. It is holding back the flow of private equity and venture capital investment into promising Chinese companies, particularly those with more than one shareholder.
Preferred shares earn their name for a reason. These shares enjoy certain preferences over common shares, most often greater voting power and better protection in the event of bankruptcy. Preferred shares are the main mechanism through which venture capital and private equity firms invest in private companies. In general, when a PE or VC firm invests, the company receiving the investment creates a special class of preferred shares for the PE or VC. These preferred shares will have a raft of special privileges, above and beyond voting rights and liquidation preference. The theory is, the preferred shares level the playing field, giving the PE or VC firm more power to control the actions of the company, particularly how it uses the VC money, and so protect its illiquid investment.
Take away the ability to issue preferred, as is the case in China, and things begin to get much trickier for PE and VC investment. PE and VC firms are loathe to invest in ordinary common shares, since this gives them little of the protection they need to fulfill properly their fiduciary duty to their Limited Partners. There are, of course, all kinds of clever solutions that can be and often are employed to get around this problem in China. For example, the PE or VC firm can ask their very clever lawyers to craft a special shareholders agreement, to be signed by the company it’s investing in, that gives the PE or VC firm the same special treatment conferred by preferred shares.
The problem here, though, is the legal enforceability of a shareholder agreement is not cut-and-dried. A basis of most securities law, in China and elsewhere, is that all shareholders holding the same class of shares must be treated equally. In other words, if a PE or VC firm has ordinary common shares, it can’t get better treatment and more rights than any other common shareholder.
What happens if a PE or VC firm’s shareholder agreement conflicts with this principle of equal treatment? China’s legal system is evolving, and precedent is not unequivocally clear. But, in general, the law takes precedence over any contract. In other words, if it comes down to a court fight, the PE or VC firm might find its shareholders agreement invalidated.
This is not some remote likelihood, particularly if the company has more than just the founder and the PE or VC firm as shareholders. The “unpreferred” common shareholders have every right and many reasons to feel disadvantaged if they are deprived the same rights enjoyed by a VC firm also holding common shares.
There are many scenarios when this could lead to litigation, not just if the company runs into trouble, and shareholders end up fighting over how to divide whatever assets remain There’s also a big chance of legal mischief if the company does splendidly well. Let’s say the company is preparing for an IPO, and a shareholders agreement gives the VC firm special rights to have their shares registered and fully tradeable. This is a fairly common element in shareholders agreements. Other common shareholders would have ample reason to object, if their shares can’t be liquidated at the same time.
Sometimes in business, legal uncertainty can be useful In this case, though, there are no clear winners. Anything that makes PE or VC firms less likely to invest disrupts the flow of capital to worthy businesses. That’s the situation now in China, with preferred shares disallowed and much uncertainty surrounding the legality of shareholders agreements.
I have no special insight into why Chinese regulators have outlawed preferred shares for private domestic companies, or whether they are contemplating a change. But, a change would be beneficial. Most likely, the prohibition of preferred shares was designed to stop private companies from fleecing their unsuspecting equity-holders. In other words, the motive is sound. But, if the result is less growth capital available for successful young Chinese companies, the medicine ends up occasionally killing the patient. That doesn’t serve anyone’s interests: not entrepreneurs, nor investors, nor the country as a whole.
There are ways to give common shareholders some protection while still allowing private companies to create preferred shares. Ultimately, these common shareholders will likely benefit from the injection of PE or VC money into a company they’ve also invested in. A shortage of capital is always a problem for growing companies, but it’s a particularly acute one in China. The PE or VC firm will also usually play a much more active role than other shareholders in building value, giving these other shareholders a free ride.
Like most, I invest to make money, not exercise voting rights. So, my preference as a common shareholder will be to let the preferred have whatever rights they deem important – as long as they are doing the heavy lifting and pushing hard to build profits. They bring the capital, track record and expertise that often makes all the difference between a successful company and a has-been. I prefer to invest for success, and that often means preferring the presence of preferred investors.