Month: April 2015
Like many other facets of the financial services industry, the private equity (PE) asset class has endured a turbulent and difficult period since the onset of the financial crisis. Critics of the industry were quick to colour the PE space as a den of iniquity, a place for vultures and destroyers of jobs. In recent years, the sector has been required to comply with an increasingly tight set of regulatory requirements.
Chinese PE activity, by contrast, was rather more subdued. “In 2014, the gap between the performance of the private equity industry in China and the US opened wide,” says Peter Fuhrman, chairman and founder of China First Capital, a China-focused global investment bank. “The US had a record-breaking year, with 10-year net annualised return hitting 14.6 percent. Final data is still coming in, but it appears certain US PE raised more capital more quickly and returned more profits to LPs than any year previously. China, on the other hand, had another so-so year. Exits picked up over 2013, but still remain significantly below highs reached in 2011. As a result, profit distributions to LPs and closing of new China-focused funds are also well down on previous highs. While IPO exits for Chinese companies in the US, Hong Kong and China reached 221, compared to only 66 in 2013, the ultimate measure of success in PE investing is not the number of IPOs; it’s the amount of capital and profits paid back to LP investors. This is China PE’s greatest weakness.”
This report examines some of the unique attributes of China debt investing, especially its fast-growing high-yield “non bank” shadow banking sector. Do the high yields adequately price in risk? Is this an investment class international investors should consider? Can the regulatory Great Wall be scaled to get dollars legally in and out for lending in China?
Little has been written in English about China’s huge high-yield debt market except constant predictions of its imminent catastrophic demise. Search “China shadow banking crash” and Google turns up 390,000 books and articles in English, some dating back five years now. One sample among many, a 2013 book by James Gorrie titled, “The China Crisis: How China’s Economic Collapse Will Lead to a Global Depression”. It perfectly captures the near-unanimous tenor of Western experts and analysts that shadow banking is the iceberg China has already struck. Losses will run into the billions of dollars, we are told, and China’s entire banking industry will teeter and perhaps collapse in a devastating replay of the 2008 financial crisis in the US and Europe.
Those of us in China inhabiting the world of fact rather than prediction, however, will have noticed that there is no crisis, no iceberg, no titanic upsurge of defaults in China’s shadow banking systems. In fact, it is by far the world’s largest, and using actual default statistics rather than somebody’s forecast, the least risky high-yield debt market in the world. There’s good money to be made.
Our report offers only one prediction — that as rules are loosened, global institutional capital will begin to put money into high-yield lending in China, likely by making direct loans to the best of China’s corporate and municipal borrowers. They will do so because debt investing in China offers institutional investors diversification as well as potentially higher risk-adjusted returns than private equity or venture capital.
The report examines high-yield lending in China as an investment strategy for fixed-income investors. In that, it may well be a first to do so. Are there risks in the high-yield market in China? Of course, as there is in all fixed-income investing, including, in theory, the safest and most liquid of all instruments, US Treasury bills, bonds and notes.
Are actual default rates in China high-yield lending likely to surge above the current reported level of 1%? Yes, it seems entirely possible. But, this hardly invalidates the attractions of lending there. Instead, it means lenders, be they large credit funds or institutional investors acting directly as a source of debt capital to borrowers in China, should perfect their collateral at the outset, do first-rate credit analysis before money moves and then, no less important, be extremely hands-on with on-site cash flow monitoring after a loan has been made.
There are 1,000 good reasons for institutional investors to consider China’s high-yield debt market. That’s because of the 1,000-basis point yield premium available in China compared to making similar types of loans against similar collateral to similarly rated companies outside China. In other words, an investor can earn far more with an intelligent direct lending strategy than is possible in all other major economies, as well as more than one can earn even in poorer domains like Indonesia and India.
The report looks at lending and credit markets in China from several different vantage points, including a few case studies. It’s a fascinating topic for anyone who wishes to learn more. Why are interest rates so much higher in China? Who are the winners and losers? Why is it there this near-unanimous view among English-speaking financial analysts and media folk that the high-yield market in China is on the verge of a ruinous crash? Do they share a common gift for doom-laden exaggeration like Nostradamus or will before very long be proven right at last?
I know which way I vote on that, that the shadow banking industry will certainly suffer some stumbles, with individual deals going sour and money being lost. But, as more money enters China for the purpose of providing debt capital, the shadow banking industry will mature, will improve its credit-analysis and credit-pricing skills, and smart investors will do well both relative to other fixed-income investment strategies worldwide as well as compared to private equity investing in China.–