China First Capital (中国首创）published two new research reports, one in English and one Chinese. Both are now available for download here. The contents are different, as is the focus.
To download the English report, titled “Private Equity in China 2012: The Pace of Change Quickens“, Click here
For the Chinese report, “2012-2013 中国私募股权融资与市场趋势” Click here
In fact, “No Exit” would be the more appropriate title for a report about private equity in China this year. Jean-Paul Sartre‘s famous play of that name is a conversation between three dead people stuck in hell. They are eternally damned. PE funds currently stuck inside Chinese investments with no way to exit are not in such a hopelessly miserable situation. But, some may be feeling that way.
Over the course of the last twelve months, first the US stock market, then Hong Kong’s, and finally China’s own domestic bourse all pretty much slammed the door shut on IPOs for Chinese companies. In previous years, over 300 Chinese companies would IPO. This year, that number will fall by at least 80%, maybe more. Stock markets in the US, Hong Kong and China all have slightly different explanations for the sharp drop-off in IPOs of Chinese companies. But, a common thread runs throughout: a deep distrust among investors and regulators of the accuracy of Chinese companies’ financial accounts. The view is that a Chinese company’s IPO prospectus may be as much a work of fiction as the Sartre play. Under such circumstances, companies can’t IPO, and PE firms can’t find buyers for their illiquid shares.
China’s domestic stock markets were the last to bar the door against Chinese IPOs. Until mid-year, China’s all-powerful securities regulator the CSRC was continuing to process and approve IPO applications, and companies were going public at a rate of about five a week. Then, in July, the whole complex system of approving and placing IPO shares basically stopped functioning. A Chinese company called Xindadi (新大地） exposed a serious defect at the heart of the regulatory system in China. The CSRC’s primarily function is to stop any bad company with dodgy accounts from accessing China’s domestic capital markets. Layer upon bureaucratic layer is piled up inside the CSRC to prevent officials from conspiring together to let a bad company’s application pass through. The underwriter, the lawyers and accountants are also held legally accountable to detect and expose bad companies. Yet Xindadi managed to slip through.
Xindadi’s IPO application was approved by the CSRC and the company was waiting its turn to go public when media reports surfaced that described a rather clumsy, though, nearly-successful fraud. Xindadi’s financial accounts turned out to be fake from top to bottom. Xindadi’s business model is aptly summarized by comments made nearly a century ago by the US Federal Trade Commission about another rogue outfit, ” fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, dishonesty, breach of trust and oppression.”
The Xindadi IPO was pulled before the underwriters could sell any shares. The CSRC went into a kind of post-traumatic shock from which it’s yet to recover. It basically stopped approving new IPOs in most cases. Meanwhile the number of Chinese companies who’ve filed for IPO continues to lengthen, and now is over 800. If and when the CSRC goes back to its previous rate of approving IPOs, which isn’t likely anytime soon, it would take four years to clear this backlog.
Predictably, for PE firms in China, “No Exit” has now turned into “No Entrance”. Not knowing when IPO windows will reopen, PE firms have mainly stopped doing new deals. Chinese private sector companies, for whom PE is the main source of growth capital, are feeling the pinch. Equity capital, even for good companies, is difficult, if not impossible, to come by. The abrupt cut-off of PE financing will certainly lead to slower growth and fewer new jobs in China.
IPOs of Chinese companies in the US, Hong Kong and China have been an important, if little recognized, part of China’s growth story over the last decade. They fueled the boom in private equity — both the creation over the last five years of hundreds of new PE firms and the raising of tens of billions of dollars in new capital — and with it, a huge increase in total net new investment into China’s private sector companies. Chinese investment, particularly spending by state-owned companies, and government-backed infrastructure projects, is still largely financed by bank lending. But, the equity capital provided by PE firms has played a key part in financing the growth of larger private companies in China. PE money has underpinned increased competition, choice and economic dynamism in China.
Now that gusher of PE money has turned to a trickle. What next for private equity and corporate finance in China? The two new CFC reports summarize some of the main developments and trends in private equity and capital markets this year, and makes some predictions about the year to come. The Chinese-language report was written, as are other CFC Chinese reports, for the specific use and reference of domestic Chinese business-owners and senior management. The key message is that it’s getting far more difficult for companies to raise money, either through private placement or IPO.
The English report focuses more heavily on what’s going on in the private equity industry in China. Unlike many, I remain overall extremely positive about the fundamentals in China, that PE investment in China’s growing private sector companies represents the best risk-adjusted investment opportunity in the world. While exits through IPO are far fewer, China’s strongest investment asset remains firmly in place: the compounded genius of its millions of private entrepreneurs to create wealth and push forward positive social and economic change.