In China’s PE jungle, a mouse is king. Started just five years ago, Kunwu Jiuding Capital (昆吾九鼎投资管理有限公) has probably achieved the best results and best returns for investors in China’s private equity industry over the last three years. Indeed, few if any PE investors anywhere have out-performed Jiuding in recent years. (For a more recent analysis on challenges facing Jiuding, please click here. )
With only around $1 billion in assets, Jiuding is around 1%-2% the size of the leading global PE firms like Blackstone, KKR, Bain Capital and Carlyle. Yet, none of these firms matches Jiuding’s recent record at investing, exiting, and pocketing big returns in China. The firm is about as different from the likes of TPG, KKR and Carlyle as firms in the same industry can get. Jiuding isn’t staffed with Ivy League MBAs, operates out of modest offices, makes no claim to particular expertise in business operations, nor does it reward its partners with hundreds of millions in profits from carried interest.
Jiuding has mastered a form of PE investing devoid of glamour, prestige or deal-making genius. Rather than “Barbarians at the Gate“, think more “Accountants at the Cash Till“. Jiuding may want to savor its current status as “king of the China PE jungle”. The money-making formula Jiuding has used so effectively is getting tougher all the time.
The Jiuding investment method is blunt: it invests only in Chinese companies it believes will very soon thereafter get approved for domestic IPO. It’s not trying to guess which industries will flourish, or how Chinese consumers will spend their money in the future. It makes no bets on unproved technologies, or companies that may be growing fast, but are still years away from an IPO. Its investment technique is based on reproducing internally, as much as possible, the lengthy, opaque approval IPO process of China’s all-powerful securities regulator the CSRC.
Jiuding focuses more on guessing what the CSRC will do, rather than how a particular company will fare. This way, it hopes to capture a big valuation differential between its entry price and exit price after IPO. At its high point two years ago, there was a ten-fold gap between Jiuding’s entry and exit multiples. Jiuding bought in at a p/e of less than 10X, and could exit at over 80X. Though share prices and p/e multiples have fallen, the gap remains ample, still under 10X going in, and a likely 25X-30X going out.
Here’s the way it works: the CSRC IPO approval process can take anywhere from two to five years. Jiuding times its investment as close as legally permissible to the time when the company will file for IPO. It then gets to work doing everything it can to improve the likelihood of CSRC approval, attending meetings at the CSRC, lobbying backstage. When things go smoothly, Jiuding can enter and exit an investment in three years, including the mandatory one-year lockup after IPO.
The average hold time for other PE firms investing in China can be as long as six to eight years. These other firms are willing to invest earlier and then help the company transition, often over a two to three year period, to full tax and regulatory compliance. This is a prerequisite before filing for IPO. Change in China is perpetual, sudden, frenetic. The longer a PE firm holds an investment, the greater the risk some change in the rules, or the domestic market, or the exchange rate, or the competitive landscape will ruin a once-strong company.
These uncertainties, as well as the significant risk a Chinese company will not pass CSRC’s IPO approval process, are the two largest China PE investment risks that Jiuding tries to eliminate. For Jiuding, this means a hyper-technical focus on whether a company is paying all its taxes and whether its main customer is actually the founder’s brother-in-law. In other words, are there serious related party transactions? This is often the main reason the CSRC turns down an IPO application.
Other PEs, particularly the global giants, take a different approach. They expend huge energy on the process of analyzing and predicting the future course of a company’s products, markets, competitive position. This involves a lot of brain power and also some guesswork. The results are mixed. A lot of deals never close, because the PE firm, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and lots of man-hours, can’t complete due diligence. Others will never reach the stage of even applying for IPO, let alone getting approval.
Jiuding seems perfectly-adapted to the Chinese investment terrain. When its process works, its bets pay off handsomely, often delivering returns of at least three times capital invested. Jiuding calls this a “PE factory method”. It tries to systematize as much of the investment process as possible. Jiuding has a huge staff of at least 250 people, ten times the size of other PEs in China. They are kept busy doing this work of collecting company data and then simulating the CSRC’s approval process. It invites its LPs, mainly wealthy Chinese bosses, to participate in deal screening and approval. If the majority of LPs doesn’t approve of a deal, it doesn’t get done. In the PE industry, this is often known as “letting the lunatics run the asylum”.
To be sure, Jiuding doesn’t always get it right. It does more deals each year than just about every other PE firm in China. Quite a few will flame out before IPO. But, Jiuding will usually get its original investment back, by forcing companies to buy back the shares. Meantime, its IPO hit rate is high, as far as I can tell. The company discloses information only sporadically, and its website lists only fourteen IPOs. Its actual tally is certainly far higher. Jiuding regards everything about its business — its portfolio of investments, its total capital, its staff size — as commercial secrets.
Jiuding differs in another important way from larger, better-known PE firms: it helps itself to less of its LPs’ money . Jiuding takes a lower management fee, usually a one-time 3% charge, rather than annual 1%-3%, and awards itself with a smaller carry on successful deals. Jiuding’s almost as efficient at raising money as it is investing it. It’s already raised at least ten different funds, including, recently, a dollar one.
With everything going so well, Jiuding, and its stripped-down approach to PE investing, looks unstoppable. But, there are some signs of serious problems ahead for Jiuding. Its main problems now aren’t raising money or even finding good companies. Partly, it’s a challenge familiar to most successful Chinese companies, including many Jiuding has invested in: copycats start springing up everywhere. In the last two years, hundreds of new Renminbi PE firms were founded. Many are trying to duplicate Jiuding’s formula. They also focus on companies ready to apply for IPO, and also try to anticipate the way the CSRC will rule on the application. Jiuding needs to fight harder now to win deals, and often does this by agreeing to invest at higher price than others. That will inevitably lower potential returns.
The second, larger problem is the CSRC’s IPO approval process itself. It is becoming slower, and also even more impenetrable and unpredictable, even to the savants at Jiuding. It’s harder now for Jiuding to get in and out of deals quickly, a key to its success. The backlog of Chinese companies with CSRC approval and waiting to IPO is now at around 500. In most cases, that means a wait of at least two years after the laborious CSRC process is complete. A lot can go wrong during that time. So, an investor like Jiuding will need to understand, before going in, more about a company and its longer-term prospects.
In China’s PE market, where good companies are plentiful and IPO exits are limited, Jiuding has prospered by focusing more on understanding the regulator than on understanding a company’s business model and industry. It never needed to bother much with monitoring the day-to-day dramas of running a company, or offering sage advice as a board member, or helping a company expand its partnerships and improve marketing. Yet, all this is becoming more and more necessary. These aren’t skills Jiuding has mastered. Who has? The same big global PE firms (including Carlyle, TPG, Blackstone, KKR, Bain Capital) that Jiuding has lately run circles around. Jiuding’s “PE factory” must adapt or die.