Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, talks to David Tring about his company’s disciplined focus, what the IPO freeze means for PE investors and how a ruling from a court in China has removed a layer of safety for PE firms
What is China First Capital?
China First Capital is a China-focused international bank and advisory firm. I am its chairman and founder. Establishing, and now running, China First Capital is the fulfilment of a deeply-held ambition nurtured for over 30 years. I first came to China in 1981, as part of a first intake of American graduate students in China. I left China after school and then built a career in the US and Europe. But, throughout, I never lost sight of the goal to return to China and start a business that would contribute meaningfully and positively to the country’s revival and prosperity.
China First Capital is small by investment banking industry standards. Our transaction volume over the preceding twelve months was around $250 million. But, we aim to punch above our weight. China First Capital’s geographical reach and client mandates are across all regions of China, with exceptional proprietary deal flow. We have significant domain expertise in most major industries in China’s private and public sector, structuring transactions for a diversified group of companies and financial sponsors to help them grow and globalise. We seek to be a knowledge-driven company, committed to the long-term economic prosperity of Chinese business and society, backed by proprietary research (in both Chinese and English), that is generally unmatched by other boutique investment banks or advisory firms active in China.
What have been some of the legislative changes to the PE sector this year that are affecting you?
The recent policy and legislative changes are mainly no more than tweaks. There has been some sparring within China over which regulator would oversee private equity. But, overall, the PE industry in China is both lightly and effectively regulated. A key change, however, occurred through the legal system within China, when a court in Western China invalidated the put clause of a PE deal done within China, ruling that the PE firm involved had ignored China’s securities laws in crafting this escape mechanism for their investment. While the court ruled on only a single example, the logic applied in this case seems to me, and many others, to be both persuasive and potentially broad-reaching. For PE firms that traditionally added this put clause to all contracts they signed to invest in Chinese companies, and came to rely on it as a way to compel the company to buy them out after a number of years if no IPO took place, there is now real doubt about whether a put clause is worth the paper it’s printed on. Simply put, for PE firms, it means their life-raft here in China has perhaps sprung a leak.
What are some of the hottest sectors in China that are attracting PE investors?
At the moment, with IPOs suspended within China and Chinese private companies decidedly unwelcome in the capital markets that once embraced them by the truckload – the US and Hong Kong – there are no hot sectors for PE investment in China now. The PE industry in China, once high-flying, is now decidedly grounded and covered in tarpaulin. What is perhaps most unfortunate about this is that what we are seeing mainly is a crisis within China’s PE industry, not within the ranks of China’s very dynamic private entrepreneurial economy. In other words, while financing has all but dried up, China’s private companies continue, in many cases, to excel and outperform those everywhere else in the world. The PE firms made a fundamental miscalculation by pouring money into too many deals where their only method of exit, of getting their money back with a profit, was through an IPO. By our count, there are now over 7,500 PE-invested deals in China all awaiting exit, at a time when few, if any exits are occurring. Since PE firms themselves have a finite life in almost all cases, this means over $100bn in capital is now stuck inside deals with no high-probability way to exit before the PE funds themselves reach their planned expiry. The PE industry has never seen anything quite like what is happening now in China.
What is a typical day like for you at China First Capital?
We are lucky to work for an outstanding group of companies, mainly all Chinese domestic. Indeed, I am the only non-Chinese thing about the business. I am in China doing absolutely what I love doing. There are no aspects of my working day that I find tedious or unpleasant. Even at my busiest, I am aware I am at most a few hours away from what the next in an endless series of totally delicious Chinese meals. That alone has a levitating effect on my spirit. But, the real source of pleasure and purpose is in befriending and working beside entrepreneurs who are infinitely more skilled, more driven and wiser to the ways of the world and more successful than I ever could hope to be.
We are quite busy now working for one of China’s largest SOEs. It’s something of a departure for us, since most of our work is with private sector companies. But, this is a fascinating transaction that provides me with a quite privileged insider’s view of the way a large state-owned business operates here in China, the additional layers of decision-making and the unique environment that places far greater onus on increasing revenues than profits.
What do you find are some of the major issues or concerns for foreign PE clients when doing deals in China?
All investors looking to make money in China, whether on the stock market or through private equity and venture capital, must confront the same huge uncertainty – not that China itself will stop its remarkable economic transformation and stop growing at levels that leave the rest of the developed world behind in the dust. This growth I believe will continue for at least the next 20 years. The big unknown has to do with the actual situation inside the Chinese company you are buying into. Can the financial statements and Big Four audits be relied on? Are the actual profits what the company asserts them to be? How great is the risk that investors’ money will disappear down some unseen rat hole?
Some frightening stories have come to light in the last two years. How widespread is the problem of accounting fraud in China? Part of the problem really is just the law of big numbers. With a population almost triple that of the US and Western Europe combined, China has a lot of everything, including both remarkable businesses run by individuals who are the entrepreneurial equal of Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, and well as some shady operators.
What is your outlook for China’s PE sector in the coming 12 months?
I believe the current crisis will abate, and stock markets will once again welcome Chinese private sector companies to do IPOs. The IPOs will be far fewer in number than in 2010, but still the revival of IPO exits will also thaw the current deep-freeze that has shut down most PE activity across China. PE firms will again start to invest, and put a dent in the $30 billion or more in capital they have raised to invest in China but have left untouched. The PE industry in China, since its founding a little more than a decade ago, grew enormously large but never really matured. There are now too many PE firms. By some count, the number exceeds 1,000, including hundreds of Renminbi PE firms started and run by people with no real experience investing in private companies. Their future appears dire. At the same time, the global PE firms that bestride the industry, including Carlyle, Blackstone, TPG, KKR, have yet to fully establish they can operate as efficiently and profitably in China as they do in Europe and the US.
While the China PE industry struggles to recover from many self-inflicted wounds, China’s private sector companies will continue to find and exploit huge opportunities for growth and profit in China, as the nation’s one billion consumers grow ever-richer and ever more demanding.