The amount of capital going into private equity in China continues to surge, with over $30 billion in new capital raised in 2011. The number of private equity deals in China is also growing quickly. More money in, however, does not necessarily mean more money will come out through IPOs or other exits. In fact, on the exit side of the ledger, there is no real growth, instead probably a slight decline, as the number of domestic IPOs in China stays constant, and offshore IPOs (most notably in Hong Kong and USA) is trending down. M&A activity, the other main source of exit for PE investors, remains puny in China.
This poses the most important challenge to the long-term prospects for the private equity industry in China. The more capital that floods in, the larger the backlog grows of deals waiting for exit. No one has yet focused on this issue. But, it is going to become a key fact of life, and ultimately a big impediment, to the continued expansion of capital raised for investing in China.
Here’s a way to understand the problem: there is probably now over $50 billion in capital invested in Chinese private companies, with another $50 billion at least in capital raised but not yet committed. That is enough to finance investment in around 6,500 Chinese companies, since average investment size remains around $15mn.
At the moment, only about 250 Chinese private companies go public each year domestically. The reason is that the Chinese securities regulator, the CSRC, keeps tight control on the supply of new issues. Their goal is to keep the supply at a level that will not impact overall stock market valuations. Getting CSRC approval for an IPO is becoming more and more like the camel passing through the eye of a needle. Thousands of companies are waiting for approval, and thousands more will likely join the queue each year by submitting IPO applications to the CSRC.
Is it possible the CSRC could increase the number of IPOs of private companies? In theory, yes. But, there is no sign of that happening, especially with the stock markets now trading significantly below their all-time highs. The CSRC’s primary role is to assure the stability of China’s capital markets, not to provide a transparent and efficient mechanism for qualified firms to raise money from the stock market.
Coinciding now with the growing backlog of companies waiting for domestic IPOs, offshore stock markets are becoming less and less hospitable for Chinese companies. In Hong Kong, it’s generally only bigger Chinese companies, with offshore shareholder structure and annual net profits of at least USD$20 million, that are most welcome.
In the US, most Chinese companies now have no possibility to go public. There is little to no investor interest. As the Wall Street Journal aptly puts it, “Investors have lost billions of dollars over the last year on Chinese reverse mergers, after some of the companies were accused of accounting fraud and exaggerating the quality and size of their assets. Shares of other Chinese companies that went public in the United States through the conventional initial public stock offering process have also been punished out of fear that the problem could be more widespread.”
Other minor stock markets still actively beckon Chinese companies to list there, including Korea, Singapore, Australia. Their problem is very low IPO price-earnings valuations, often in single digits, as low as one-tenth the level in China. As a result, IPOs in these markets are the choice for Chinese companies that truly have no other option. That creates a negative selection bias. Bad Chinese companies go where good companies dare not tread.
For the time being, LPs still seem willing to pour money into funds investing in China, ignoring or downplaying the issue of how and when investments made with their money will become liquid. PE firms certainly are aware of this issue. They structure their investment deals in China with a put clause that lets them exit, in most cases, by selling their shares back to the company after a certain number of years, at a guaranteed annual IRR, usually 15%-25%. That’s fine, but if, as seems likely, more and more Chinese investments exit through this route, because the statistical likelihood of an IPO continues to decline, it will drag down PE firms’ overall investment performance.
Until recently, the best-performing PE firms active in China could achieve annual IRRs of over 50%. Such returns have made it easy for the top firms like CDH, SAIF, New Horizon, and Hony to raise money. But, it may prove impossible for these firms to do as well with new money as they did with the old.
These good firms generally have the highest success rates in getting their deals approved for domestic IPO. That will likely continue. But, with so many more deals being done, both by these good firms as well as the hundreds of other newly-established Renminbi firms, the percentage of IPO exits for even the best PE firms seems certain to decline.
When I discuss this with PE partners, the usual answer is they expect exits through M&A to increase significantly. After all, this is now the main exit route for PE and VC deals done in the US and Europe. I do agree that the percentage of Chinese PE deals achieving exit through M&A will increase from the current level. It could barely be any lower than it is now.
But, there are significant obstacles to taking the M&A exit route in China, from a shortage of domestic buyers with cash or shares to use as currency, to regulatory issues, and above all the fact many of the best private companies in China are founded, run and majority-owned by a single highly-talented entrepreneur. If he or she sells out in M&A deal, the new owners will have a very hard time doing as well as the old owners did. So, even where there are willing sellers, the number of interested buyers in an M&A deal will always be few.
Measured by new capital raised and investment results achieved, China’s private equity industry has grown a position of global leadership in less than a decade. There is still no shortage of great companies eager for capital, and willing to sell shares at prices highly appealing to PE investors. But, unless something is done to increase significantly the number of PE exits every year, the PE industry in China must eventually contract. That will have very broad consequences not just for Chinese entrepreneurs eager for expansion capital and liquidity for their shares, but also for hundreds of millions of Chinese, Americans and Europeans whose pension funds have money now invested in Chinese PE. Their retirements will be a little less comfortable if, as seems likely, a diminishing number of the investments made in Chinese companies have a big IPO payday.