Month: November 2009

Will Bad Money Drive Out Good in Chinese Private Equity?

Qing Dynasty jade boulder, from China First Capital blog post

The financial rule first postulated by Sir Thomas Gresham 500 years ago famously holds that “bad money drives out good”. In other words, if two different currencies are circulating together, the “bad” one will be used more frequently. By “bad”, what Gresham meant was a currency of equal face value but lower real value than its competitor. A simple way to understand it: if you had two $100 bills in your wallet, and suspected one is counterfeit and the other genuine, you’d likely try to spend the counterfeit $100 bill first, hoping you can pass it off at its nominal value. 

While it’s a bit of a stretch from Sir Thomas’s original precept, it’s possible to see a modified version of Gresham’s Law beginning to emerge in the private equity industry in China. How so? Money from some of “bad” PE investors may drive out money from “good” PE investors. If this happens, it could result in companies growing less strongly, less solidly and, ultimately, having less successful IPOs. 

Good money belongs to the PE investors who have the experience, temperament, patience, connections, managerial knowledge and financial techniques to help a company after it receives investment. Bad money, on the other hand, comes from private equity and other investment firms that either cannot or will not do much to help the companies it invests in. Instead, it pushes for the earliest possible IPO. 

Good money can be transformational for a company, putting it on a better pathway financially, operationally and strategically. We see it all the time in our work: a good PE investor will usually lift a company’s performance, and help implement long-term improvements. They do it by having operational experience of their own, running companies, and also knowing who to bring in to tighten up things like financial controls and inventory management. 

You only need to look at some of China’s most successful private businesses, before and after they received pre-IPO PE finance, to see how effective this “good money” can be. Baidu, Suntech, Focus Media, Belle and a host of the other most successful fully-private companies on the stock market had pre-IPO PE investment. After the PE firms invested, up to the time of IPO, these companies showed significant improvements in operating and financial performance. 

The problem the “good money” PEs face in China is that they are being squeezed out by other investors who will invest at higher valuations, more quickly and with less time and money spent on due diligence. All money spends the same, of course. So, from the perspective of many company bosses, these firms offering “bad money” have a lot going for them. They pay more, intrude less, demand little. Sure, they don’t have the experience or inclination to get involved improving a company’s operations. But, many bosses see that also as a plus. They are usually, rightly or wrongly,  pretty sure of themselves and the direction they are moving. The “good money” PE firms can be seen as nosy and meddlesome. The “bad money” guys as trusting and fully-supportive. 

Every week, new private equity companies are being formed to invest in China – with billions of renminbi in capital from government departments, banks, state-owned companies, rich individuals. “Stampede” isn’t too strong a word. The reason is simple: investing in private Chinese companies, ahead of their eventual IPOs, can be a very good way to make money. It also looks (deceptively) easy: you find a decent company, buy their shares at ten times this year’s earnings, hold for a few years while profits increase, and then sell your shares in an IPO on the Shanghai or Shenzhen stock markets for thirty times earnings. 

The management of these firms often have very different backgrounds (and pay structures) than the partners at the global PE firms. Many are former stockbrokers or accountants, have never run companies, nor do they know what to do to turn around an investment that goes wrong. They do know how to ride a favorable wave – and that wave is China’s booming domestic economy, and high profit growth at lots of private Chinese companies. 

Having both served on boards and run companies with outside directors and investors, I am a big believer in their importance. Having a smart, experienced, active, hands-on minority investor is often a real boon. In the best cases, the minority investors can more than make up for any value they extract (by driving a hard bargain when buying the shares) by introducing more rigorous financial controls, strategic planning and corporate governance. The best proof of this: private companies with pre-IPO investment from a “good money” PE firm tend to get higher valuations, and better underwriters, at the time of their initial public offering. 

But, the precise dollar value of “good money” investment is hard to measure. It’s easy enough for a “bad money” PE firm to claim it’s very knowledgeable about the best way to structure the company ahead of an IPO.  So, then it comes back to: who is willing to pay the highest price, act the quickest, do the most perfunctory due diligence and attach the fewest punitive terms (no ratchets or anti-dilution measures) in their investment contracts. In PE in China, bad money drives out the good, because it drives faster and looser.

Multi-Tasking, Chinese Style

China First Capital blog post -- Qing Dynasty grissaille stype

For 18 months or so,  until last month, I tried burning my work candle at both ends. The goal was to play a constructive role both as Chairman of China First Capital, and CEO of Awareness Technologies. For me, it’s been something of a dream come true, this chance to work with two great companies, at different points in their lifecycle, in wholly different industries, with different home markets, different customers, different languages, and vastly different business models.  So much the better. 

It’s also exposed, in way that nothing else ever quite has, just how limited my managerial skills are. They are, at best, barely adequate for managing one business. Cleaved in two, they are woe-begotten. It probably also helps explain why bigamy never really caught on. Attention divided is attention corrupted. 

Or so I thought, until I began spending time with one supremely talented entrepreneur in China. He’s the boss of at least four different companies. There could be more, for all I know. Each time we meet, he mentions, in passing, another business that he founded and runs. Other than the fact they’re all based in China, they are all as different from one another as chalk and cheese. This entrepreneur owns and manages a very consumer goods company, a mining business, an advertising agency and a high-technology business.

And when I say “manage”, I mean manage. He’s not some absentee landlord. He spends significant time with each, and established each to seize what is a very large market opportunity. I only know in detail one of these companies, and it’s outstanding. My sense is that the others are no less so. 

So, how does this one guy do it? For one thing, he’s probably a lot smarter, and certainly more locked-in and ambitious than I am. He sees the world, so far as I can tell, as a vast and intricate delta, of multiple earning streams and innumerable opportunities for profit. He grabs only those that he knows he can readily seize – by being clearer, smarter, and richer than any competitor. 

Me, I look in my business life more for purpose than for profit, for the chance to work on large and complex problems, rather than ways to make a killing. It’s probably why I’ll never be as rich, or as managerially capable, as this Chinese businessman. Some businessmen enter new areas for the very sound reason of diversifying their sources of wealth.

This businessman does so because he visualizes the world as a series of P&L statements. He sees (better than anyone I’ve ever met) where the money is. Then he goes for it. He also chooses businesses that let him maximize his managerial skills, by setting a concrete direction, funneling in the capital, hiring strong management, and then waiting for the money to flow. 

Knowing him more and more, I’m convinced he’d never have entered the two businesses I’m now involved with: investment banking and enterprise software. Investment banking, especially for Chinese SME,  has too many moving parts, too many vagaries (for example, of market prices and investor predilections); enterprise software is crowded, and competitive, prone to technological disruption,  and has many smart people chasing the same limited supply of dollars. 

As I said, I like challenge. He likes making money. 

The kicker here is that it turns out, we need each other. I need him, because my investment banking business thrives by having the very best Chinese entrepreneurs as clients. He needs me to help him get additional capital to build the most promising of his businesses. I am equally confident we can get him that capital as I am that he will put it to very productive use, and so earn his investor a fortune. 

Of all the entrepreneurs I work with, this guy is the one that I’m most awed by, probably because he is so obviously so much better at this “CEO multi-tasking” than I am. He is very comfortable in his skin, and clearly having a great time in life.  It’s a joy to be a small part of his intricate, expansive and beautifully-engineered business empire.

The Billion-Dollar Product In Search of an Inventor

China First Capital blog post -- Ming Dynasty lacquer screen

Too many inventive minds over too many years have focused on trying to solve environmental problems that may be insoluble: like a internal-combustion engine that gets +100mpg, or a new fuel that will burn cleaner and cost less than gasoline. Of course, a solution to either of these would earn its inventor a multi-billion fortune. That’s a very powerful motivator.

But, let’s face it. Some of these bigger problems may be beyond the wit of man and the realms of molecular science. There are so many smaller, more manageable problems to be solved that will both lower pollution and earn its inventor a very tidy sum. Case in point: a new water cooler for China. 

Here’s a problem crying out for a solution. Solve it and you could build one of the largest consumer products companies in the world, much like how Sony’s Akio Morita got his start inventing a small, portable transistor radio in the 1950s. 

Most offices, as well as a large percentage of urban households in China, have a water cooler. They look like the kind you see in the US, but with one addition: Chinese water coolers also have a hot water spigot. The machines keep hot water, as well as cold water, on tap. They do this by having a small in-built heating system to keep about one liter of water continuously heated to around 80-degrees centigrade (176-degrees Fahrenheit). The reason is obvious: many Chinese still like drinking tea. 

When I first came to China almost 30 years ago, cold potable water and bottled water were both all but nonexistent. Today, they are both pervasively common. Tea often seems like a dying brand in China, except as an accompaniment to a cooked meal. 

But, most Chinese water coolers still offer the hot water function, and will likely continue to do so for many long years to come. There are two problems with the current design in China. First, the hot water is produced continuously, even outside of working hours, at enormous cost in wasted electricity. Since in China most electricity is produced by burning coal, this equates to a lot more coal being mined and burned than is necessary. 

Problem number two: though heated, the water is kept at a temperature too low to make a decent cup of tea.  For that, you need water at or about boiling point. It’s not a difference discernible only by tea connoisseurs. You need the hotter water to get the flavor, as well as get the tea leaves to sink to the bottom of the cup. All tap water needs to be boiled, for health reasons in China. But, the water coolers use bottled water (in 18.9 liter jugs). Each jug weighs over forty pounds. The massive infrastructure to deliver these water bottles, mainly done by guys riding specially-configured bicycles that can hold four of the jugs over the back wheel, is another problem crying out for a solution. But, we’ll leave that one be, for the time being.   

China needs a better water cooler. The person who can invent one, and can protect it from copycats with patents,  is going to become very rich. Two relatively small changes would achieve the goal: (1) incorporate a timer so that the machine will waste less energy;  and (2) design a system that will bring water to a boil and then dispense it. Better air and better tea. Both marketing messages should resonate deeply with a large part of China’s urban population.   

I’m no engineer, but assume there will be a positive energy trade-off here. The new system will likely use more power to get water 25% hotter, to boiling point.  But, the timer would shut down the hot water production, in most cases, for at least 40% of the time, outside of office hours. 

How big is the potential market? My guess would be it’s quite big. In most of the larger hypermarkets in China like Wal-Mart or Carrefour, the section devoted to water coolers is quite large, with at least ten models on display – more space than is given to vacuum cleaners, for example. This gives some approximation of overall sales volume. The current models are all roughly equivalent. Top-of-the-line models not only have the hot water, but refrigerate the cold water before dispensing. These generally cost around $150-$200. An eco- and flavor-friendly model should be in the same price range. If so, it would likely become market leader. 

Inventors mostly like to tackle life’s biggest problems. But, there’s a lot of money to be made in “gradual innovation”, particularly when it delivers improvements on a product that is a ubiquitous in a country as large as China.

Why Is China Booming? Surprise, It’s Not the Stimulus

China First Capital blog post -- Qing Dynasty stupa

Launched amid much worldwide rejoicing when the financial crisis struck last year, China’s Rmb 4 trillion ($585 billion) stimulus package is given much of the credit for China’s continued strong economic performance this year. China’s GDP growth is likely to exceed 8%, and the domestic stock market is up by over 70% since the start of the year. 

A Keynesian miracle? To read a lot of the financial commentary on China, you might well conclude this is so, that government spending has single-handedly kept the economy jaunty, while both firms and consumers sank into a deep funk. It’s a great story, and provides a simple explanation for how China dodged the bullets that struck all other major economies. Other countries looked on enviously, and urged China to continue the fiscal pump-priming to help out the overall world economy. 

Problem is, the analysis is flawed. China’s stimulus plan is not all it’s cracked up to be. While the additional government spending has clearly played a part, it is not the only reason why China’s economy has remained so sound this year. The unsung heroes of China’s economic success this year are its ordinary consumers. It’s their continued confidence and increased spending that have really made the difference. 

Economic statistics are notoriously iffy in China. The further one gets from the economic lever-pullers in Beijing, the harder it becomes to track economic activity. That’s another reason why the stimulus plan was so often singled out as the main spur to China’s growth. It’s easier to calculate how much additional the Chinese government is spending building expressways than it is to see how many pairs of socks or bowls of noodles Chinese are buying. 

Another reason: a lot of the economic commentary comes from folks who believe that governments really are responsible for what happens, good and bad, in an economy. Again, it’s just so much simpler to view things this way, that powerful government men can pull out their checkbooks and spend their way to national prosperity. These are often the same people who will tell you, wrongly, that Roosevelt’s New Deal spending lifted the US out of Depression.

China’s supporters and detractors both give the government too much credit. There are those who are convinced China’s economic growth is all some kind of fraud, cooked up by the central government, and that once the extra government spending is dialed down, the economy is certain to crash. 

Again, pure hogwash. 

In China, the government rightly deserves credit for excellent economic management, for creating the circumstances, both marco and micro,  that allow the Chinese economy to continue to thrive. I’ve said it frequently, including in public forums: China is the best-managed major economy in the world. 

But, again, let’s also commend the country’s one-billion-plus consumers, too often seem as miserly skinflints, saving up all their money for their great-grandchildren’s rainy days. It just ain’t so. China’s consumers, with an ever-increasing choice of products, services and shops, are spending ever-increasing sums on improving the quality of their lives. Newer and better housing. New cars. Holidays. New wardrobes. You name it. 

I see it every day here, the untethered exuberance of the Chinese consumer. It’s true that in the early part of this year, there was a relative lull. Back then, shops were working harder to attract customers, by putting a lot of their goods on sale at steep discounts. About four months ago, the situation began to change markedly. No more major knockdowns. Prices now all seem to carry list price, and the prices for many common consumer products are as high, or higher, than in the US. 

Not much of this, it goes without saying, gets noticed by the world’s financial commentariat. Car sales in China are at an all-time high, and China is now the world’s largest car market. But, listen to the commentators, and they’ll tell you it’s the result of some small government tax breaks on new car purchases. Helpful, yes. The main spur? No. Car prices in China are still, in dollar terms, generally much higher than in the US. Based on a percentage of average disposable income, car prices in China are probably among the most expensive in the world. Same goes for property prices. Yet, Chinese keep buying. 

They will keep buying, at or near this record pace, long after any tax breaks phase out.  Chinese want the new cars to drive on the new expressways to carry them to the new shopping malls to buy the new furniture for their new apartments. 

Of all the economic statistics I’ve seen lately, the one that best captures what is going on now in China is this: revenues in China’s restaurant industry were up 18% during the first half of 2009, to over $120 billion. That’s not due to stimulus, or bank loans, or tax concessions, or a government mandate to entertain more. It’s largely because Chinese are out having a good time, more often, and spending a lot more doing so than they did a year ago. 

It’s one of the best barometers of a nation’s mood, restaurant spending. In China, the mood is buoyant, the outlook bright, and the woks are working overtime.



Private Equity in China: Blackstone & Others May Grab the Money But Miss the Best Opportunities

China First Capital blog post -- Song Jun vase

Blackstone, the giant American PE firm, is now trying to raise its first renminbi fund. Its stated goal is to provide growth capital for China’s fast-growing companies. Blackstone isn’t the only international private equity firm seeking to raise renminbi to invest in China.  In fact, many of the world’s largest private equity firms, including those already investing in China using dollars, are looking to tap domestic Chinese sources for investment capital.

Dollar-based investors are increasingly at a serious disadvantage in China’s private equity industry: investing is more difficult, often impossible, and deals take longer to close than competing investors with access to renminbi.

Blackstone enjoys a big leg up in China over other international private equity firms looking to raise renminbi. Its largest institutional shareholder is China’s sovereign wealth fund, CIC. Knowing how to get Chinese investors to open their wallets is a skill both highly rare and highly advantageous in today’s global private equity industry.  

There are two reasons for this stampede to raise renminbi. First, more and more of the best investment opportunities in China are SME with purely domestic structure – meaning they cannot easily raise equity in any other currency except renminbi. The second reason is the most basic of all in the financial industry: if you want money, you go where there’s the most to spare. Right now, that means looking in China.   

In theory, the big international private equity companies have a lot to offer Chinese investors – principally, very long track records of successful deal-making that richly rewarded their earlier investors.

The international PE firms have more experience picking companies and exiting from them with fat gains. They also do a good job, in general, of keeping their investors informed about what they’re doing, and acting as prudent fiduciaries. 

So far so good. But, there’s one enormous problem here, one that Blackstone and others presumably don’t like talking about to prospective Chinese investors. Their main way of making money in the past is now both broken, and wholly unsuited to China. They’re trying to sell a beautiful left-hand drive Rolls-Royce to people who drive on the right. 

Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR, Cerberus and most of the other largest global private equity companies grew large, rich and powerful by buying controlling stakes in companies, using mainly money borrowed from banks. They then would improve the operating performance over several years, and make their real money by either selling the company in an M&A deal or listing it on the stock market.

The leverage (in the form of the bank borrowing) was key to their financial success. Like buying a house, the trick was to put a little money down, borrow the rest, and then pocket most of any increase in the value of the asset. 

It can be a great way to make money, as long as banks are happy to lend. They no longer are. As a result, these kinds of private equity deals – which really ought to be called by their original name of “leveraged buyouts”, have all but vanished from the financial landscape.  It was always a rickety structure, reliant as much on access to cheap bank debt as on a talent for spotting great, undervalued businesses. If proof were needed, just look at Cerberus’s disastrous takeover of Chrysler last year, which will result in likely losses for Cerberus of over $5 billion. 

In his annual letter to shareholders this year, Warren Buffett highlighted the inherent weaknesses in this form of private equity: “A purchase of a business by these [private equity] firms almost invariably results in dramatic reductions in the equity portion of the acquiree’s capital structure compared to that previously existing. A number of these acquirees, purchased only two to three years ago, are now in mortal danger because of the debt piled on them by their private-equity buyers. The private equity firms, it should be noted, are not rushing in to inject the equity their wards now desperately need. Instead, they’re keeping their remaining funds very private.” 

On their backs at home, it’s no wonder Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR are looking to expand in China, All have a presence in China, having invested in some larger deals involving mainly State-Owned Enterprises. But, to really flourish in China, these PE firms will need to hone a different set of skills: choosing solid companies, investing their own capital for a minority position, and then waiting patiently for an exit. 

There’s no legal way to use the formula that worked so well for so long in the US. In China, highly-leveraged transactions are prohibited. PE firms also, in most cases, can’t buy a controlling stake in a business. That runs afoul of strict takeover rules in China. 

I have little doubt Blackstone, KKR, Carlyle can all succeed doing these smaller, unleveraged deals in China. After all, they employ some of the smartest people on the planet. But, these firms all still have a serious preference for doing larger deals, investing at least $50mn. This is also true in China.

There are few good deals on this scale around. Very few private companies have the level of annual profits (at least $15mn) to absorb that amount of capital for a minority stake. Private companies that large have likely already had an IPO or are well along in the planning process. As for large SOEs, the good ones are mostly already public, and those that remain are often sick beyond the point of cure. In these cases, private equity investors find it tough to push through an effective restructuring plan because they don’t control a majority on the board seats. 

Result: some of the companies best-positioned to raise renminbi funds, including Blackstone, have an investment model that seems ill-suited to Chinese conditions. They may well succeed in raising money, but then what? They’ll either need to learn to do smaller deals (of $10mn-$20mn) or bear the heavy risk of making investments in the few larger deals around in China.  

Any prospective Chinese LP should be asking Blackstone and the other large global private equity firms some very searching questions about their investment models for China. True, these firms all have excellent track records, by and large. But, that past performance, based on the leveraged buyouts that went well, is of scant consequence in today’s China. What matters most is an eye for spotting great entrepreneurs, in fast-growing industries, and then offering them both capital and the knowledge that comes from building value as investors in earlier deals. 

Prediction: raising huge wads of cash in China will turn out to be easier for Blackstone and other large global PE firms than putting it to work where it will do the most good and earn the highest returns.

Shenzhen’s Place in China’s Long History Mixing Sex and Commerce

Shenzhen night time, from China First Capital blog post

Shenzhen is such a relentless modern city that it’s often hard to discern the influence of 3,000 years of Chinese history and culture. The skyline is so futuristic that it often resembles the home planet of a higher civilization.(See photo above, of the City Center and buildings near CFC’s office). 

But, of course, this is still a part of China, with all its embedded messages and references to a history longer and richer than any other. It just takes a little wisdom to perceive it. I can’t lay claim to any such wisdom. Luckily, though, I have a friend here who has both the historical knowledge and scholar’s temperament to properly put modern Shenzhen into a more classically Chinese context. 

This friend, Zhen Qinan, has had a exemplary career in the financial industry, first as part of the working team formed in 1990 to establish the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, and then as head of a joint venture between four Chinese financial firms and Merrill Lynch, where he worked with leading Chinese companies like Huawei and Taitai Pharmaceutical. 

These days, Qinan is semi-retired. I try to spend time with him whenever I can. He’s warm and thoughtful, and I know now from experience that he’ll offer astoundingly wise insights to even my most mundane questions. How mundane? Over a meal at one of Shenzhen’s better Sichuan places, I commented on how lucky we were to be in a city with so many good restaurants, even by Chinese standards. 

If I had to come up with reasons why, I would settle for the fact Shenzhen is richer than other cities, and has a population drawn from all parts of China. Qinan, however, offered a much richer explanation, rooted in his learning and respect for Chinese history. 

Shenzhen is part of an unbroken tradition, reaching back at least 1,200 years, of commercial centers in China having the best food and also the most beautiful women. So, in their day, the great trading cities along the Grand Canal — Hangzhou, Suzhou, Yangzhou — were particularly renowned as places with the finest and most varied cuisine, and the most desirable women. This reputation has remained largely intact in those cities, even as the commercial locus of China shifted elsewhere. 

The reason then, and the reason now, is the same: in wealthier commercial cities, there’s a heightened appreciation, as well as larger audience, for the pleasures that money can buy. Qinan is from Xian, and to drive home the point, he drew the comparison for me between Shenzhen and his home city.

Xian was always a center of learning and political power, rather than a city with vibrant trade and a large, successful merchant class. As a result, the food, though still quite delicious, has always been a little more basic, less expensive, less intricate, less subtle than that of the trading centers to the east, along the Grand Canal. There’s just not enough money around to support a thriving community of top-quality chefs and restaurants. They migrate to where the money is. 

The same logic, of course, applies to why beautiful women are more prevalent in rich commercial cities in China. Traditionally, beautiful women went to Suzhou, Hangzhou or Yangzhou to find a rich patron to take them as a subsidiary wife. They then produced better-looking children, on average, so creating a virtuous cycle. Let the process run, uninterrupted, for several centuries and the results would be that the cities gained a reputation, probably grounded in fact, for having particularly good-looking ladies. 

To this day, Chinese will always aver that Suzhou has the most beautiful women in the country. I haven’t been to Suzhou in over 25 years, so I can’t say if the reputation is deserved or not. But, I do know that most Chinese believe this to be true of Suzhou, even though, of course, few will have ever been there to see for themselves. 

While concubinage is officially no more in China, there is still a similar process at work in today’s Shenzhen. Concubines are no more. Polygamy is outlawed. Today, the term is 二奶 “er nai”, or “second lady”. It’s analogous to a mistress. Shenzhen, I’m told, has more “er nai” than any other city in China. These tend to be pretty girls in their early 20s who come to Shenzhen from all over China, and often end up clothed, housed, fed and otherwise supported financially by an older, usually married man. Nowhere else in the world (not Paris, Milan, or other centers of mistress culture) have I ever seen so many dreary older men in the company of stunningly beautiful women. 

Shenzhen has more “er nai” both because it’s the richest city in China, and also because there are a lot of men from neighboring Hong Kong who either live or work here, during the week. Part of the standard “expat package” would seem to be taking a Chinese girl as a mistress. I’m told the going rate, in terms of monthly cash stipend, is at least $1,000 a month, with apartment, car and clothing budget extra. That’s about five times more than a woman of similar age can make working in one of Shenzhen’s factories.

One other difference from the China of yore: these women will usually return to their home village with quite a nice nest-egg, marry locally and start a family. This then creates a “job opening”. The man will now find a new “er nai” and so start again the process of clothing, feeding and housing an attractive woman new to Shenzhen.   

Food and sex. They are life’s two most basic drives, as well as the fuel that has kept China’s commercial centers buzzing for well over a thousand years.