Month: October 2012

Dollars No Longer Welcome

2012 is going to be a bad year for new dollar investment in Chinese financial assets. This reverses what was thought to be, only a few years ago, an irreversible trend as more of the world’s largest and most sophisticated investors sought to increase the asset allocation in China. It’s not that China has fallen out of favor with institutional investors. If anything, China’s comparative strengths — in terms of solid +7% economic growth, a vibrant domestic consumer market, reasonably healthy banks, prudent fiscal policy — stand in ever starker contrast with the insipid economies and improvident governments of Europe, the US, Japan.

So, how come fewer dollars are flowing into China? The main reason is that the stock markets in the US and Hong Kong have fallen out of love with Chinese IPOs. These two stock markets have been the primary source for more than a decade of new dollar funding for domestic Chinese companies. Just two years ago, Chinese companies accounted for one-third of all IPOs in the US. The IPO market for Chinese companies listing in Hong Kong was even hotter. Last year, almost $70 billion was raised by Chinese companies listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Dollars raised in New York or Hong Kong IPOs were converted into Renminbi, then invested to fuel the growth of hundreds of Chinese private companies and SOEs. Stock markets in London, Frankfurt, Seoul, Singapore, Sydney also provided access for Chinese companies to list and raise capital there. Overall, the international capital markets have been a key source of growth capital for Chinese companies, and so an important part of China’s overall economic transformation.

This year, the US will probably host fewer than five Chinese IPOs, and the total amount raised by Chinese companies in Hong Kong will be down by at least 65% from last year. The two other sources of dollar investment in Chinese companies — private equity and institutional purchases of Chinese shares — are also trending downward. Of the two, PE money was by far the more important, particularly over the last decade. In a good year, over $5 billion of capital was invested into private Chinese companies by PE firms. But, rule changes in China began to make dollar PE investing more difficult starting five years ago. It’s harder now to get permission to convert dollars into Renminbi, and Chinese companies can no longer easily create offshore holding company structures to facilitate dollar investment and an eventual exit through offshore IPO.

Rule changes slowed, but didn’t stop, dollar PE investing in China. The bigger problem now is that stock market investors in the US, and to a slightly lesser extent those in Hong Kong, no longer want to buy Chinese shares at IPO. It’s mainly because retail and institutional investors outside China distrust the quality and truthfulness of Chinese corporate accounting. If offshore IPOs dry up, dollar PE investors have no way to cash out. M&A exit is still rare. The twin result this year: less dollar PE money entering China, and also a steep drop in offshore IPO fundraising for Chinese companies.

Consider what this means: the world’s largest pools of institutional capital are finding it more difficult to invest in the world’s fastest growing major economy. This makes no financial sense. Chinese companies have a huge appetite for growth capital, and have the potential to achieve high rates of return for investors. Investment in China’s private entrepreneurial companies remains perhaps the best risk-adjusted investment class in the world. But, all the same, this year will see a steep drop of new international investment in Chinese companies.

Perhaps partially to compensate, China this year has liberalized the rules somewhat to allow international institutions to buy shares quoted in China. But, since that money goes to buy shares held by other investors, rather than to the company itself, investing in Chinese-quoted shares has little, if any impact, in filling Chinese companies’ need for growth capital. The appeal of owning China-quoted shares is hardly overpowering, as the market has been a poor performer overall, and share prices are more propelled by rumor than fundamental value.

At any earlier time in recent history, a dramatic drop like this year’s in new dollar investment into China would be felt acutely by Chinese companies. But, as dollar investing has dried up, Renminbi investing has more than filled the gap. The Shenzhen and Shanghai stock markets are now far larger sources of fresh IPO capital for Chinese companies than New York or Hong Kong ever were. Also, Renminbi PE firms have proliferated.

For a mix of reasons, China is now, arguably, more financially self-reliant than it has been since Mao’s day. Autarky used to be state policy. Now, it is a consequence of China’s own rising affluence and capital accumulation, together with some nationalistic policy changes and the fall-off in interest among international investors to finance Chinese IPOs. Ironically, as China has been drawn more into the global trade and financial system, its need for external capital has lessened.

That is unfortunate. Dollar investment in China benefits both sides. It offers dollar investors higher potential rates of return than investing in mature developed economies. This means better-funded and more generous pensions for American and European retirees. For Chinese companies, dollar investors usually tend to be more hands-on, in a good way, than Renminbi funds. So, they help improve the overall competitiveness, professionalism, corporate governance and strategic planning of the Chinese firms they invest in. Many of China’s best entrepreneurial companies — including well-known firms like Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, as well as hundreds of domestic Chinese brand-name companies few outside of China have heard of– were nurtured towards success by dollar investors.

Since just about everyone wins from new dollar investing in China, what can be done to reverse this year’s big slide? The answer is “not a lot”. I don’t see any strong likelihood that international investors will grow less allergic to Chinese IPOs. Renminbi PE and IPO funding for Chinese companies will continue to grow strongly. Only the removal of capital controls in China, and full Renminbi convertibility, would change the current situation, and lead, most likely, to large new flows of offshore capital into China.

But, full Renminbi convertibility is nowhere in sight. For the foreseeable future, China’s growth mainly will be financed at home.




China’s Soda Wars

(New Jia Duo Bao can on left, with the new SOE-owned Wang Lao Ji can on right)

Imagine this scenario. Coca-Cola is sued for bribery and trademark infringement. It loses in arbitration and beginning the next day it is banned from selling soda under its iconic brand across the US. It immediately switches to a new name, keeping the original packaging design and colors. Meantime, the victor in the lawsuit starts selling a soda under the name Coca-Cola using the same script lettering, same can design as the original, and tasting pretty much exactly like Coke.

Sounds far-fetched, doesn’t it? But, this is precisely what’s going on now in China.  After a arbitration hearing filled with lurid tales of bribery and corruption, the country’s most popular and most famous soft drink changed hands overnight. The brand is called Wang Lao Ji, (王老吉). Everyone in China is familiar with it. It’s a soft drink made from Chinese medical herbs. It outsells Coke by a significant margin in China. Like Coca-Cola, Wang Lao Ji’s recipe was first dreamed up by a pharmacist during the 19th century, and the exact formula remains a secret. In 1949, the Chinese government nationalized the private pharmacy that owned the Wang Lao Ji recipe.

Twelve years ago, a Hong Kong company called Hong Dao Group licensed the Wang Lao Ji brand name from a state-owned medical products company based in Guangzhou. Hong Dao is owned by the descendants of Wang Zebang, the original inventor of Wang Lao Ji back in 1828.  Hong Dao invested heavily to create China’s first home-grown soft drink megabrand, borrowing many of the same techniques that Coca-Cola pioneered, including saturation advertising and efficient nationwide distribution.

Last year, Hong Dao sold about three billion (yes, billion) cans of its Wang Lao Ji. The price, at around Rmb 4 (US 75 cents) per can,  is higher by about 40% than the price Coke charges in China. At that price, gross margins must be about the highest of any legal product sold in China, probably +80%.

Since May, when it lost the arbitration case, Hong Dao has been forbidden to sell Wang Lao Ji in China under that name. So, overnight, the company switched to a new name, Jia Duo Bao (加多宝)but kept the original colors and packaging intact. Just as quickly, the Guangzhou SOE, called Guangzhou Wanglaoji Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd. (广州王老吉药业有限公司), a subsidiary of the state-owned Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Holdings Limited (广州医药集团有限公司), began selling its own version of Wang Lao Ji in a can almost identical to the one used up to then by Hong Dao.

So now there are two drinks, with two different brand names, owned by two different companies, with similar if not identical taste, being sold in almost identical cans. The famed Coke-Pepsi rivalry in the US seems like a quaint antique by comparison.

Who benefits most? At the moment, it’s the ad agencies and television stations. Both companies are now pouring in tens of millions of dollars into tv advertising to influence Chinese customers. The ads ran during almost every prime-time commercial break during coverage of the Olympics. The ads are hard to tell apart, with lots of smiling and zesty young people partying and toasting one another with red cans. Hong Dao’s ads hint that the new drink is same as its old Wang Lao Ji, but without actually mentioning that name.

During the arbitration, detailed were revealed about the way Hong Dao originally secured the license in 2000 to the Wang Lao Ji name. It turns out a manager at Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Holdings agreed to take a bribe of about $500,000 in return for giving Hong Dao a sweetheart deal. Hong Dao paid less than $1 million a year for the rights to use the Wang Lao Ji brand name in China, even as annual sales of Hong Dao’s product reached Rmb 16 billion, ($2.5 billion.)

The manager who took the bribes was given a long prison term for misappropriating state property.Perhaps anticipating it might lose the arbitration case, Hong Dao began last year putting the name Jia Duo Bao, in small letters, on its Wang Lao Ji cans.  When the arbitration decision was announced, both companies reacted with breathtaking speed and efficiency. Hong Dao pulled all its Wang Lao Ji cans and almost immediately had its new Jia Duo Bao aluminum cans in stores. The SOE too clearly had everything geared up, awaiting the court decision. Its version of Wang Lao Ji was quickly on shelves across China. The SOE says the red can’s sales in July grew ten-fold compared to the previous month.

At this point, neither company is competing on price. Nor is there any sign that the overall market for this drink is growing much. So, the likely effect will be to split the 2011 Rmb16 billion of annual sales revenues by around 50-50. Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Holdings’ stock price has shot up, anticipating a flood of profits from selling its Wang Lao Ji in the familiar red cans.  Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Holdings surrendered the tiny annual licensing fee from Hong Dao, and now own outright what is arguably among China’s ten most famous brands.

Watching from the sidelines, I remain somewhat amazed that the two companies did not reach some kind of settlement rather than going through the arbitration process. I find Chinese generally to be very practical in business, and loathe to settle disputes in court. Given Hong Dao’s revenues and likely profits from selling Wang Lao Ji, it seems it could have put much more money on the table and persuaded Guangzhou Pharmaceutical Holdings to continue to license the brand. Switching to Jia Duo Bao has imposed heavy marketing and re-branding costs at a time when its previous monopoly market share is under serious attack.

Not that long ago, of course, China was mainly a market for all kinds of knockoff products — or to use the Chinese phrase, “shanzhai” 山寨. There was little interest in or defense of trademarks and copyright. Go back 30 years to when I first came to China, and there were few, if any, brands at all. That has all changed very markedly, particularly within the last two years.

China’s consumer market, within a decade, will likely overtake the US to become the world’s largest. With consumers shifting en masse to buying brand-name products, all brands active in China, both domestic and global, across just about every product category, are scrambling for every nano-unit of market share.

In the case of Wang Lao Ji and Jia Duo Bao, never in such a short time has such a large consumer market, the one for Chinese soft drinks, been so completely ruptured and so completely remade.