HONG KONG — China’s fast-food sector has been dominated by U.S. chains like Yum’s KFC and Pizza Hut as well as McDonald’s. But now a question hangs over these household brands: Can new owners reverse their declining fortunes?
China Investment Corporation, a sovereign wealth fund, is reportedly leading a consortium that also includes Baring Private Equity Asia and KKR & Co. to acquire as much as 100% of Yum’s China division, valued at up to $8 billion. According to a Bloomberg report, Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings, teaming with Primavera Capital, is also vying for a stake in Yum China, whose spinoff plans were announced on Oct. 20 — five days after Keith Meister, an activist hedge fund manager and protege of corporate raider Carl Icahn, joined the board.
Meanwhile, McDonald’s is likely to start auctioning its North Asian businesses in three to four weeks. Among its would-be suitors are state-owned China Resources, Bain Capital of the U.S. and South Korea’s MBK Partners, among other buyout firms. The winner or winners would oversee more than 2,800 franchises — plus another 1,500 to be added during the next five years — in China, Hong Kong and South Korea.
The company on Friday reported that sales in China surged 7.2% in the first quarter ended in March.
Yum’s and McDonald’s goal to become pure-play franchisers comes as competition in China’s food services market is heating up and as middle-class consumers grow increasingly concerned about food safety and nutrition.
An assembly line of a Daimler AG venture in Minhou, Fujian province.
My on-the-ground experience in China stretches back to the beginnings of the reform era in 1981. Yet I cannot recall a time when so much pessimism, especially in English-language media, has surrounded the Chinese economy. Yes, it is a time of large, perhaps unprecedented transition and challenge.
But the negative outlook is overdone, and starts from a false premise. China does not need to search for a new economic model to generate further prosperity. Instead, what is happening now is a return to a simple formula that has previously worked extraordinarily well: applying pressure on China’s State-owned enterprises to improve their efficiency and profitability, while also doing more to tap China’s most abundant and valuable “natural resource”－the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people, the talent to start a company, provide new jobs and build a successful new business.
These two together provided the impetus for the economic growth since the 1990s. In the 1990s, SOEs accounted for perhaps as much as 90 percent of China’s total economic output. Today, the SOEs’ share has fallen to below 40 percent by most counts. Once the main engine of growth, SOEs are now more like an anchor. Profits across the SOEs have been sinking, while their debt has risen sharply.
Arresting that slide of SOEs is now vital. SOE reform has long been on the agenda of the Chinese government. But such a reform has become more urgent than ever, as well as more difficult. There are fewer SOEs today than in 1991 when serious SOE reform was first undertaken. Among those that remain, many are now extremely big and rank among the biggest companies in the world. The restructuring of any such large company is always difficult.
China, however, has taken some key first steps in that direction. The Chinese government has divided SOEs into those that will operate entirely based on market principles and those that perform a social function. It is downsizing the coal and steel industries, two of the largest red-ink sectors. Senior managers of some large SOEs have been dismissed or are under investigation for corruption, and experiments linking SOEs’ salaries more directly with profitability are underway.
Less noticed, but in my opinion, as important is a strong push now at some SOEs and SOE-affiliated companies to become not better but among the best in the world at what they do. Tsinghua Unigroup in semiconductors, China National Nuclear Corporation and China General Nuclear Power in building and operating nuclear power plants, and CITIC Group in eldercare are seeking global glory. They are trying to sprint while most other SOEs are limping.
Luckily for China, the overall situation in the entrepreneurial sector is far rosier. All it needs is a more level playing field. Important steps to further free up the private sector are now underway－taxes are being cut, banks pushed to lend more, and markets long closed to protect SOE monopolies are being pried open. Healthcare is a good example in this regard.
All these moves are part of what the government calls its new “supply side” policy. The aim is to demolish barriers to competition and efficiency. Chinese entrepreneurs have shown time and again they have world-class aptitude to spot and seize opportunities. They are leading the charge now into China’s underdeveloped service sector. This, more than manufacturing or exports, is where new jobs, profits and growth will come from.
Opportunities also await smart entrepreneurs in less efficient industries like agriculture, in getting food products to market quickly, cheaply and safely. In cities, traditional retail has been hit hard by online shopping. Struggling shopping malls are becoming giant laboratories where entrepreneurs are incubating new ideas on how Chinese consumers will shop, play, eat and be entertained.
China’s economy is now 30 times larger than what it was in 1991, and far more complex. The private sector 25 years ago was then truly in its infancy. But, there is still huge scope today for China to gain from its original policy prescription: prodding SOEs to get in line for reform while letting entrepreneurs meet the needs of Chinese consumers.
The author is chairman and CEO of China First Capital.
Gresham’s Law, as many of us were taught a while back, stipulates that bad money drives out good. There’s something analogous at work in China’s private equity and venture capital industry. Only here it’s not a debased currency that’s dominating transactions. Instead, it’s Renminbi private equity (PE) firms. Flush with cash and often insensitive to valuation and without any clear imperative to make money for their investors, they are changing the PE industry in China beyond recognition and making life miserable for many dollar-based PE and venture capital (VC) firms.
Outbid, outspent and outhustled
From a tiny speck on the PE horizon five years ago, Reminbi (RMB) funds have quickly grown into a hulking presence in China. In many ways, they now run the show, eclipsing global dollar funds in every meaningful category – number of active funds, deals closed and capital raised. RMB funds have proliferated irrespective of the fact there have so far been few successful exits with cash distributions.
The RMB fund industry works by a logic all its own. Valuations are often double, triple or even higher than those offered by dollar funds. Term sheets come in faster, with fewer of the investor preferences dollar funds insist on. Due diligence can often seem perfunctory. Post-deal monitoring? Often lax, by global standards. From the perspective of many Chinese company owners, dollar PE firms look stingy, slow and troublesome.
The RMB fund industry’s greatest success so far was not the IPO of a portfolio company, but of one of the larger RMB general partners, Jiuding Capital. It listed its shares in 2015 on a largely-unregulated over-the-counter market called The New Third Board. For a time earlier this year, Jiuding had a market cap on par with Blackstone, although its assets under management, profits, and successful deal record are a fraction of the American firm’s.
The main investment thesis of RMB funds has shifted in recent years. Originally, it was to invest in traditional manufacturing companies just ahead of their China IPO. The emphasis has now shifted towards investing in earlier-stage Chinese technology companies. This is in line with China’s central government policy to foster more domestic innovation as a way to sustain long-term GDP growth.
The Shanghai government, which through different agencies and localities has become a major sponsor of new funds, has recently announced a policy to rebate a percentage of failed investments made by RMB funds in Shanghai-based tech companies. Moral hazard isn’t, evidently, as high on their list of priorities as taking some of the risk out of risk-capital investing in start-ups.
Dollar funds, in the main, have mainly been observing all this with sullen expressions. Making matters worse, they are often sitting on portfolios of unexited deals dating back five years or more. The US and Hong Kong stock markets have mainly lost their taste for PE-backed Chinese companies. While RMB funds seem to draw from a bottomless well of available capital, for most dollar funds, raising new money for China investing has never been more difficult.
RMB funds seldom explain themselves, seldom appear at industry forums like SuperReturn. One reason: few of the senior people speak English. Another: they have no interest or need to raise money from global limited partners. They have no real pretensions to expand outside China. They are adapted only and perhaps ideally to their native environment. Dollar funds have come to look a bit like dinosaurs after the asteroid strike.
Can dollar-denominated firms strike back?
Can dollar funds find a way to regain their central role in Chinese alternative investing? It won’t be easy. Start with the fact the dollar funds are all generally the slow movers in a big pack chasing the same sort of deals as their RMB brethren. At the moment, that means companies engaged in online shopping, games, healthcare and mobile services.
A wiser and differentiated approach would probably be to look for opportunities elsewhere. There are plenty of possibilities, not only in traditional manufacturing industry, but in control deals and roll-ups. So far, with few exceptions, there’s little sign of differentiation taking place. Read the fund-raising pitch for dollar and RMB funds and, apart from the difference in language, the two are eerily similar. They sport the same statistics on internet, mobile, online shopping penetration: the same plan to pluck future winners from a crop of look-alike money-losing start-ups.
There is one investment thesis the dollar PE funds have pretty much all to themselves. It’s so-called “delist-relist” deals, where US-quoted Chinese companies are acquired by a PE fund together with the company’s own management, delisted from the US market with the plan to one day IPO on China’s domestic stock exchange. There have been a few successes, such as the relisting last year of Focus Media, a deal partly financed by Carlyle. But, there are at least another forty such deals with over $20bn in equity and debt sunk into them waiting for their chance to relist. These plans suffered a rather sizeable setback recently when the Chinese central government abruptly shelved plans to open a new “strategic stock market” that was meant to be specially suited to these returnee companies. The choice is now between prolonged limbo, or buying a Chinese-listed shell to reverse into, a highly expensive endeavor that sucks out a lot of the profit PE firms hoped to make.
Outspent, outbid and outhustled by the RMB funds, dollar PE funds are on the defensive, struggling just to stay relevant in a market they once dominated. Some are trying to go with the flow and raise RMB funds of their own. Most others are simply waiting and hoping for RMB funds to implode.
So much has lately gone so wrong for many dollar PE and VC in China. Complicating things still further, China’s economy has turned sour of late. But, there’s still a game worth playing. Globally, most institutional investors are under-allocated to China. A new approach and some new strategies at dollar funds are overdue.
Peter Fuhrman moderates our SuperReturn China 2016 Big Debate: ‘How Do You Best Manage Your Exposure To China?’. Discussants include:
John Lin, Managing Partner, NDE Capital (GP)
Xisheng Zhang, Founding Partner & President, Hua Capital (GP)
Bo Liu, Chief Investment Officer, Wanda Investment (LP)
The Big Debate takes place on Tuesday 19 April 2016 at 11:55 – 12:25 at SuperReturn China in Beijing. Can’t make it? Follow the action on Twitter.
Renminbi-denominated private equity funds basically didn’t exist until about five years ago. Up until that point, for ten golden years, China’s PE and VC industry was the exclusive province of a hundred or so dollar-based funds: a mix of global heavyweights like Blackstone, KKR, Carlyle and Sequoia, together with pan-Asian firms based in Hong Kong and Singapore and some “China only” dollar general partners like CDH, New Horizon and CITIC Capital. These firms all raised money from much the same group of larger global limited partners (LPs), with a similar sales pitch, to make minority pre-IPO investments in high-growth Chinese private sector companies then take them public in New York or Hong Kong.
All played by pretty much the same set of rules used by PE firms in the US and Europe: valuations would be set at a reasonable price-to-earnings multiple, often single digits, with the usual toolkit of downside protections. Due diligence was to be done according to accepted professional standards, usually by retaining the same Big Four accounting firms and consulting shops doing the same well-paid helper work they perform for PE firms working in the US and Europe. Deals got underwritten to a minimum IRR of about 25%, with an expected hold period of anything up to ten years.
There were some home-run deals done during this time, including investments in companies that grew into some of China’s largest and most profitable: now-familiar names like Baidu, Alibaba, Pingan, Tencent. It was a very good time to be in the China PE and VC game – perhaps a little too good. Chinese government and financial institutions began taking notice of all the money being made in China by these offshore dollar-investing entities. They decided to get in on the action. Rather than relying on raising dollars from LPs outside China, the domestic PE and VC firms chose to raise money in Renminbi (RMB) from investors, often with government connections, in China. Off the bat, this gave these new Renminbi funds one huge advantage. Unlike the dollar funds, the RMB upstarts didn’t need to go through the laborious process of getting official Chinese government approval to convert currency. This meant they could close deals far more quickly.
Stock market liberalization and the birth of a strategy
Helpfully, too, the domestic Chinese stock market was liberalized to allow more private sector companies to go public. Even after last year’s stock market tumble, IPO valuations of 70X previous year’s net income are not unheard of. Yes, RMB firms generally had to wait out a three-year mandated lock-up after IPO. But, the mark-to-market profits from their deals made the earlier gains of the dollar PE and VC firms look like chump change. RMB funds were off to the races.
Almost overnight, China developed a huge, deep pool of institutional money these new RMB funds could tap. The distinction between LP and GP is often blurry. Many of the RMB funds are affiliates of the organizations they raise capital from. Chinese government departments at all levels – local, provincial and national – now play a particularly active role, both committing money and establishing PE and VC funds under their general control.
For these government-backed PE firms, earning money from investing is, at best, only part of their purpose. They are also meant to support the growth of private sector companies by filling a serious financing gap. Bank lending in China is reserved, overwhelmingly, for state-owned companies.
A global LP has fiduciary commitments to honor, and needs to earn a risk-adjusted return. A Chinese government LP, on the other hand, often has no such demand placed on it. PE investing is generally an end-unto-itself, yet another government-funded way to nurture China’s economic development, like building airports and train lines.
Chinese publicly-traded companies also soon got in the act, establishing and funding VC and PE firms of their own using balance sheet cash. They can use these nominally-independent funds to finance M&A deals that would otherwise be either impossible or extremely time-consuming for the listed company to do itself. A Chinese publicly-traded company needs regulatory approval, in most cases, to acquire a company. An RMB fund does not.
The fund buys the company on behalf of the listed company, holding it while the regulatory approvals are sought, including permission to sell new shares to raise cash. When all that’s completed, the fund sells the acquired company at a nice mark-up to its listed company cousin. The listco is happy to pay, since valuations rise like clockwork when M&A deals are announced. It’s called “market cap management” in Chinese. If you’re wondering how the fund and the listco resolve the obvious conflicts of interest, you are raising a question that doesn’t seem to come up often, if at all.
Peter continues his discussion of the growth of Renminbi funds next week. Stay tuned! He also moderates our SuperReturn China 2016 Big Debate: ‘How Do You Best Manage Your Exposure To China?’.