Month: March 2011

The Easiest Company in the World to Run


If you could be the boss of any company in the world, with your pay package completely tied to performance, which would you choose? If you answered Kweichow Moutai Ltd., congratulations. You couldn’t have made a better choice.

For those who don’t know this company, it is the largest and by far most successful distiller of China’s favored prestige alcoholic drink. There is no faster-growing, large spirits company anywhere in the world. Better still, if you do become boss, there’s just about nothing you could do short of outright criminality that would in any way slow its stupefying growth rate.  In 2010, sales rose by about 20% to over $2.2 billion. So strong and constant is the demand for the company’s product that their major headache is preventing designated retailers from raising the price above the already sky-high levels fixed by the company.

During 2010, the street price of a bottle of Moutai’s highest-end brew, called Feitian, doubled from Rmb 700 ($105) to over Rmb1,300 ($200). The raw material cost? Probably under Rmb10 per bottle.  Getting a fix on its real level of profitability is hard to do. But, in my estimation, there is no more profitable liquid mass-produced anywhere in the world. Make no mistake. Moutai is not 25-year-old Courvoisier. Chinese love the stuff. But, it is a species of what Americans would call “rockgut”, distilled from a low-end grain called sorghum and then diluted with water drawn from springs surrounding the distillery in Guizhou province.

When I first came to China 30 years ago, a bottle of Moutai cost no more than a few dollars. It’s the same stuff today, brewed according to a Qing Dynasty formula. The main difference is that over 30 years, the price has gone up 30-fold. And no, that’s not because sorghum prices have skyrocketed.

So, what explains Moutai’s astounding success? Simple math. More and more Chinese chasing an insufficient supply of the country’s highest-end liquor brand. Consumption of bottled liquor has grown by 20% over the last five years, and shows no sign of slowing. Moutai plans to double its output over the next four years, then double it again by 2020. Overall, the plan is to increase output by 2.5 times in next nine years.

At the start of the year,  Moutai put in a price cap, to try to stop its retailers selling Feitian for over Rmb959 a bottle.  The price immediately shot up over Rmb1,200. Seeing the Moutai fly off the shelves, retailers then imposed limits on the number of bottles a customer could buy at one time. Supply restricted, the price just kept climbing.

Packaging and marketing are pretty much unchanged over the last 30 years. Along withTsingtao beer, it’s one of the few branded products in China to stick to the old and clumsy pre-revolution spelling of its name. The company is called Kweichow Moutai but no one knows it under that name. In China, it is pronounced “Gway-Joe Mao-Tai”.

Good, bad or indifferent, whoever is the CEO of this company (the current incumbent is Yuan Renguo) will certainly succeed in keeping things buoyant. As long as Chinese keep making money, they are going to spend a percentage on Moutai. The company has even achieved some success in export markets lately, with sales rising 55% to $50mn in 2010.

If Mr. Yuan chooses early retirement and wants to bring in some foreign blood at the top, I’m available to take over. I’ve been to Guizhou, most recently just two weeks ago,  and like the scenery and the food. I also know how (thanks to a Guizhou client)  to evaluate the quality of Moutai: you rub a bit between your palms. If it smells like soy sauce, it’s the real thing.

The only snag: I’m not much of a fan of the company’s product. Since moving to China, I’ve had enough of it to pickle a goodly portion of my liver. But, it’s still an unacquired taste. Drinking good cognac or Armagnac familiarizes you with the aromas of peat and oak. Drinking Moutai familiarizes you with how instantaneously alcohol can go from gullet to bloodstream. Most frequently, I can remember drinking Moutai but not how I get home afterward. Maybe that’s the secret to the brand’s success?




Taxed At Source: Renminbi Private Equity Firms Confront the Taxman


The formula for success in private equity is simple the world over: make lots of money investing other people’s money, keep 20% of the profits and pay little or no taxes on your share of the take. This tax avoidance is perfectly legal. PE firms are usually incorporated as offshore holding companies in tax-free domains like the Cayman Islands.

Depending on their nationality, partners at PE firms may need to pay some tax on the profits distributed to them individually. But, some quick footwork can also keep the taxman at bay. For example, I know PE partners who are Chinese nationals, living in Hong Kong. They plan their lives to be sure not to be in either Hong Kong or China for more than 182 days a year, and so escape most individual taxes as well. Even when they pay, it’s usually at the capital gains rate, which is generally far lower than income tax.

The tax efficiency is fundamental to private equity, and most other forms of fiduciary investing. If the PE firm’s profits were assessed with income tax ahead of distributions to Limited Partners (“LPs”), it would significantly reduce the overall rate of return, to say nothing about potentially incurring double taxation when those LPs share of profits got dinged again by the tax man.

China, as everyone in the PE world knows, is very keen to foster growth of its own homegrown private equity firms. It has introduced a raft of new rules to allow PE firms to incorporate, invest Renminbi and exit via IPO in China. So far so good. The Chinese government is also pouring huge sums of its own cash into private equity, either directly through state-owned companies and agencies, or indirectly through the country’s pay-as-you-go social security fund. (See my recent blog post here.)

Exact figures are hard to come by. But, it’s a safe bet that at least Rmb100 billion (USD$15 billion) in capital was committed to domestic private equity firms last year. This year should see even larger number of new domestic PE firms established, and even larger quadrants of capital poured in.

It’s going to be a few years yet before the successful Chinese domestic PE firms start returning significant investment profits to their investors. When they do, their investors will likely be in for something of an unpleasant surprise: the PE firms’ profits, almost certainly, will be reduced by as much as 25% because of income tax.

In other words, along with building a large homegrown PE industry that can rival those of the US and Europe, China is also determined to assess those domestic PE firms with sizable income taxes. These two policy priorities may turn out to be wholly incompatible. PE firms, more than most, have a deep, structural aversion to paying income tax on their profits. For one thing, doing so will cut dramatically into the personal profits earned by PE partners, lowering significantly the after-tax returns for these professionals. If so, the good ones will be tempted to move to Hong Kong to keep more of their share of the profits they earn investing others’ money. If so, then China could get deprived of some experienced and talented PE partners its young industry can ill afford to lose.

It’s still early days for the PE industry in China. Renminbi PE firms really only got started two years ago. I’ve yet to hear any partners of domestic PE firms complain. But, my guess is that the complaining will begin just as soon as these PE firms begin to have successful exits and begin to write very large checks to the Chinese tax bureau. What then?

China’s tax code is nothing if not fluid. New tax rules are announced and implemented on a weekly basis. Sometimes taxes go down. Most often lately, they go up.  Compared to developed countries, changing the tax code in China is simpler, speedier. So, if the Chinese government discovers that taxing PE firms is causing problems, it can reverse the policy rather quickly.

The PE firms will likely argue that taxing their profits will end up hurting hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese whose pensions will be smaller because the PE firms’ gains are subject to tax. In industry, this is known as the “widows and orphans defense”. Chinese contribute a share of their paycheck to the state pension system, which then invests this amount on their behalf, including about 10% going to PE investment.

PE firms outside China are structured as offshore companies, with offices in places like London, New York and Hong Kong, but a tax presence in low- and no-tax domains. But, there’s currently no real way to do this in China, to raise, invest and earn Renminbi in an offshore entity. Changing that opens up an even larger can of worms, the current restrictions preventing most companies or individuals outside China from holding or investing Renminbi. This restriction plays a key part in China’s all-important Renminbi exchange rate policy, and management of the country’s nearly $2.8 trillion of foreign reserves.

The world’s major PE firms are excitedly now raising Renminbi funds. Several have already succeeded, including Carlyle and TPG. They want access to domestic investment opportunities as well as the high exit multiples on China’s stock market. When and if the income tax rules start to bite and the firm’s partners get a look at their diminished take, they may find the appeal of working and investing in China far less alluring.




CFC’s Latest Research Report Addresses Most Treacherous Issue for Chinese Companies Seeking Domestic IPO


For Chinese private companies, one obstacle looms largest along the path to an IPO in China: the need to become fully compliant with China’s tax and accounting rules.  This process of becoming “规范” (or “guifan” in Pinyin)  is not only essential for any Chinese company seeking private equity and an eventual IPO, it is also often the most difficult, expensive, and tedious task a Chinese entrepreneur will ever undertake.

More good Chinese companies are shut out from capital markets or from raising private equity because of this “guifan” problem than any other reason. It is also the most persistent challenge for all of us active in the PE industry and in assisting SME to become publicly-traded businesses.

My firm has just published a Chinese-language research report on the topic, titled “民营企业上市规范问题”. You can download a copy by clicking here or from Research Reports page of the CFC website.

The report was written specifically for an audience of Chinese SME bosses, to provide them both with analysis and recommendations on how to manage this process successfully.  Our goal here (as with all of our research reports) is to provide tools for Chinese entrepreneurs to become leaders in their industry, and eventually leaders on the stock market. That means more PE capital gets deployed, more private Chinese companies stage successful exits and most important, China’s private sector economy continues its robust growth.

For English-only speakers, here’s a summary of some of the key points in the report:

  1. The process of becoming “guifan” will almost always mean that a Chinese company must begin to invoice all sales and purchases, and so pay much higher rates of tax, two to three years before any IPO can take place
  2. The higher tax rate will mean less cash for the business to invest in its own expansion. This, in turn, can lead to an erosion in market share, since “non-guifan” competitors will suddenly enjoy significant cost advantages
  3. Another likely consequence of becoming “guifan” – significantly lower net margins. This, in turn, impacts valuation at IPO
  4. The best way to lower the impact of “guifan” is to get more cash into the business as the process begins, either new bank lending or private equity. This can replenish the money that must now will go to pay the taxman, and so pump up the capital available to expansion and re-investment
  5. As a general rule, most  Chinese private companies with profits of at least Rmb30mn can raise at least five times more PE capital than they will pay in increased annual taxes from becoming “guifan”. A good trade-off, but not a free lunch
  6. For a PE fund, it’s necessary to accept that some of the money they invest in a private Chinese company will go, in effect, to pay Chinese taxes. But, since only “guifan” companies will get approved for a domestic Chinese IPO, the higher tax payments are like a toll payment to achieve exit at China’s high IPO valuations
  7. After IPO, the company will have plenty of money to expand its scale and so, in the best cases, claw back any cost disadvantage or net margin decline during the run-up to IPO

We spend more time dealing with “guifan” issues than just about anything else in our client work. Often that means working to develop valuation methodologies that allow our clients to raise PE capital without being excessively penalized for any short-term decrease in net income caused by “guifan” process.

Along with the meaty content, the report also features fifteen images of Tang Dynasty “Sancai ceramics, perhaps my favorite among all of China’s many sublime styles of pottery.