China First Capital

CFC’s New Research Report on Capital Allocation and Private Equity Trends in China

 

Capital allocation, not the amount of capital,  is the largest financial challenge confronting the private equity industry in China. Capital continues to flood into the PE sector in China. 2011 was a record year, with over $30billion in new capital raised by PE firms, including both funds investing in dollars and those investing in Renminbi. China’s private equity industry seems destined now to outstrip in size that of every other country, with exception of the US. Ten years ago, the industry hardly existed in China.

Yes, it is a time of plenty. Yet, plenty of problems remain. Many of the best private companies remain starved of capital, as China’s domestic banks continue to choke back on their lending. As a result, PE firms will play an increasingly vital role in providing growth capital to these companies. 

These are some of the key themes addressed in CFC’s latest research report, titled “2012-2013: 中国私募股权融资与市场趋”. It can be downloaded from the CFC website or by clicking here.

The report is available in Chinese only.

Like many of CFC’s research reports, this latest one is intended primarily for reference by China’s entrepreneurs and company bosses. Private equity, particularly funds able to invest Renminbi into domestic companies,  is still a comparatively new phenomenon in China. Entrepreneurs remain, for the most part, unfamiliar with all but the basics of growth capital investment. The report assesses both costs and benefits of raising PE.

This calculus has some unique components in China. Private equity is often not just the only source for growth capital, it is also, in many cases, a pre-condition to gaining approval from the CSRC for a domestic IPO. It’s a somewhat odd concept for someone with a background only in US or European private equity. But, from an entrepreneur’s perspective, raising private equity in China is a kind of toll booth on the road to IPO. The entrepreneurs sells the PE firm a chunk of his company (usually 15%-20%) for a price significantly below comparable quoted companies’ valuation. The PE firm then manages the IPO approval process.

Most Chinese companies that apply for domestic IPO are turned down by the CSRC. Bringing in a PE firm can often greatly improve the odds of success. If a company is approved for domestic IPO, its valuation will likely be at least three to four times higher (on price/earnings basis) than the level at which the PE firm invested. Thus, both PE firm and entrepreneur stand to benefit.

The CSRC relies on PE firms’ pre-investment due diligence when assessing the quality and reliability of a company’s accounting and growth strategy. If a PE firm (particularly one of the leading firms, with significant experience and successful IPO exits in China) is willing to commit its own money, it provides that extra level of confidence the CSRC is looking for before it allows a Chinese company to take money from Chinese retail investors.

From a Chinese entrepreneur’s perspective, the stark reality is “No PE, No IPO”.

CFC’s Jessie Wu did most of the heavy lifting in preparing this latest report, which also digests some material previously published in columns I write for “21 Century Business Herald” (“21世纪经济报道) and “Forbes China”  (“福布斯中文”). The cover photo is a Ming Dynasty Xuande vase.

Song Dynasty Deal-Sourcing

I get asked occasionally by private equity firm guys how CFC gets such stellar clients. At least in one case, the answer is carved fish, or more accurately my ability quickly to identify the two murky objects (similar to the ones above) carved into the bottom of a ceramic dish. It also helped that I could identify where the dish was made and when.

From that flowed a contract to represent as exclusive investment bankers China’s largest and most valuable private GPS equipment company in a USD$30mn fund-raising. It’s in every sense a dream client. They are the most technologically adept in the domestic industry, with a deep strategic partnership with Microsoft, along with highly-efficient and high-quality manufacturing base in South China, high growth and very strong prospects as GPS sales begin to boom in China.

Since we started our work about two months ago, several big-time PE firms have practically fallen over themselves to invest in the company. It looks likely to be one of the fastest, smoothest and most enjoyable deals I’ve worked on.

No fish, no deal. I’m convinced of this. If I hadn’t correctly identified the carved fish, as well as the fact the dish was made in a kiln in the town of Longquan in Zhejiang Province during the Song Dynasty, this company would not have become our client. The first time I met the company’s founder and owner, he got up in the middle of our meeting, left the room and came back a few minutes later with a fine looking pale wooden box. He untied the cord, opened the cover and allowed me to lift out the dish.

I’d never seen it before, but still it was about as familiar as the face of an old teacher. Double fish carved into a blue-tinted celadon dish. The dish’s heavy coated clear glaze reflected the office lights back into my eyes. The fish are as sketchily carved as the pair in the picture here (from a similar dish sold at Sothebys in New York earlier this year), more an expressionist rendering than a precisely incised sculpture.

It’s something of a wonder the fish can be discerned at all. The potter needed to carve fast, in wet slippery clay that was far from an ideal medium to sink a knife into. Next came all that transparent glaze and then the dish had to get quickly into a kiln rich in carbon gas. The amount of carbon, the thickness and composition of the glaze, the minerals dissolved in the clay – all or any of these could have contributed to the slightly blue-ish tint, a slight chromatic shift from the more familiar green celadons of the Song Dynasty.

All that I knew and shared with the company’s boss, along with remarking the dish was “真了不起”, or truly exceptional. It’s the finest celadon piece I’ve seen in China. Few remain. The best surviving examples of Song celadon are in museums and private collection outside China. I’m not lucky enough to own any. But, I’ve handled dozens of Song celadons over the years, at auction previews of Chinese ceramic sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in London and New York. The GPS company boss had bought this one from an esteemed collector and dealer in Japan.

The boss and I are kindred spirits.  He and I both adore and collect Chinese antiques. His collection is of a quality and breadth that I never imagined existed still in China. Most antiques of any quality or value in China sadly were destroyed or lost during the turbulent 20th century, particularly during the Cultural Revolution.

The GPS company boss began doing business in Japan ten years ago, and built his collection slowly by buying beautiful objects there, and bringing them home to China. Of course, the reason Chinese antiques ended up in Japan is also often sad to consider. They were often part of the plunder taken by Japanese soldiers during the fourteen brutal years from 1931 to 1945 when they invaded, occupied and ravaged parts of China.

Along with the celadon dish, the GPS boss has beautiful Liao, Song, Ming and Qing Dynasty porcelains, wood and stone carvings and a set of Song Dynasty paintings of Buddhist Luohan. In the last few months, I’ve spent about 20 hours at the GPS company’s headquarters. At least three-quarters of that time, including a visit this past week, was spent with the boss, in his private office, handling and admiring his antiques, and drinking fine green tea grown on a small personal plantation he owns on Huangshan.

I’ve barely talked business with him. When I tried this past week to discuss which PE firms have offered him money, he showed scant interest. If I have questions about the company, I talk to the CFO. Early on, the boss gifted me a pretty Chinese calligraphy scroll. I reciprocated with an old piece of British Wedgwood, decorated in an ersatz Chinese style.

Deal-sourcing is both the most crucial, as well as the most haphazard aspect of investment banking work. Each of CFC’s clients has come via a different route, a different process – some are introduced, others we go out and find or come to us by word-of-mouth.  Unlike other investment banking guys, I don’t play golf. I don’t belong to any clubs. I don’t advertise.

Chinese antiques, particularly Song ceramics,  are among the few strong interests I have outside of my work.  The same goes for the GPS company boss. His 800-year old dish and my appreciation of it forged a common language and purpose between us, pairing us like the two carved fish. The likely result: his high-tech manufacturing company will now get the capital to double in size and likely IPO within four years, while my company will earn a fee and build its expertise in China’s fast-growing automobile industry.  

 

CFC’s Annual Report on Private Equity in China

2010 is the year China’s private equity industry hit the big time. The amount of new capital raised by PE firms reached an all-time high, exceeding Rmb150 billion (USD $23 billion). In particular, Renminbi PE funds witnessed explosive growth in 2010, both in number of new funds and amount of new capital. China’s National Social Security Fund accelerated the process of investing part of the country’s retirement savings in PE. At the same time, the country’s largest insurance companies received approval to begin investing directly in PE, which could add hundreds of billions of Renminbi in new capital to the pool available for pre-IPO investing in China’s private companies.

China First Capital has just published its third annual report on private equity in China. It is available in Chinese only by clicking here:  CFC 2011 Report. Or, you can download directly from the Research Reports section of the CFC website.

The report is illustrated with examples of Shang Dynasty bronze ware. I returned recently from Anyang, in Henan. Anyone with even a passing interest in these early Chinese bronze wares should visit the city’s splendid Yinxu Museum.

This strong acceleration of the PE industry in China contrasts with situation in the rest of the world. In the US and Europe, both PE and VC investments remained at levels significantly lower than in 2007. IPO activity in these areas remains subdued, while the number of Chinese companies going public, and the amount of capital raised, both reached new records in 2010. There is every sign 2011 will surpass 2010 and so widen even farther the gap separating IPO activity for Chinese companies and those elsewhere.

The new CFC report argues that China’s PE industry has three important and sustainable advantages compared to other parts of the world. They are:

  1. High economic growth – at least five times higher in 2010 than the rate of gdp growth in the US and Europe
  2. Active IPO market domestically, with high p/e multiples and strong investor demand for shares in newly-listed companies
  3. A large reservoir of strong private companies that are looking to raise equity capital before an IPO

CFC expects these three trends to continue during 2011 and beyond. Also important is the fact that the geographic scope of PE investment in China is now extending outside Eastern China into new areas, including Western China, Shandong,  Sichuan. Previously, most of China’s PE investment was concentrated in just four provinces (Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu) and its two major cities, Beijing and Shanghai. These areas of China now generally have lower rates of economic growth, higher labor costs and more mature local markets than in regions once thought to be backwaters.

PE investment is a bet on the future, a prediction on what customers will be buying in three to five years. That is the usual time horizon from investment to exit. China’s domestic market is highly dynamic and fast-changing. A company can go from founding to market leadership in that same 3-5 year period.  At the same time, today’s market leaders can easily fall behind, fail to anticipate either competition or changing consumer tastes.

This Schumpetrian process of “creative destruction” is particularly prevalent in China. Markets in China are growing so quickly, alongside increases in consumer spending, that companies offering new products and services can grow extraordinary quickly.  At its core, PE investment seeks to identify these “creative destroyers”, then provide them with additional capital to grow more quickly and outmaneuver incumbents. When PE firms are successful doing this, they can earn enormous returns.

One excellent example: a $5 million investment made by Goldman Sachs PE in Shenzhen pharmaceutical company Hepalink in 2007.  When Hepalink had its IPO in 2010, Goldman Sachs’ investment had appreciated by over 220 times, to a market value of over $1 billion.

Risk and return are calibrated. Technology investments have higher rates of return (as in example of Goldman Sachs’s investment in Hepalink)  as well as higher rates of failure. China’s PE industry is now shifting away from investing in companies with interesting new technologies but no revenue to PE investment in traditional industries like retail, consumer products, resource extraction.  For PE firms, this lowers the risk of an investment becoming a complete loss. Rates of return in traditional industries are often still quite attractive by international standards.

For example: A client of CFC in the traditional copper wire industry got PE investment in 2008. This company expects to have its IPO in Hong Kong later this year. When it does, the PE firm’s investment will have risen by over 10-fold.  Our client went from being one of numerous smaller-scale producers to being among China’s largest and most profitable in the industry. In capital intensive industries, private companies’ access to capital is still limited. Those firms that can raise PE money and put it to work expanding output can quickly lower costs and seize large amounts of market share.

Our view: the risk-adjusted returns in Chinese private equity will continue to outpace most other classes of investing anywhere in the world. China will remain in the vanguard of the world’s alternative investment industry for many long years to come.


 

 

 

CFC’s Latest Research Report Addresses Most Treacherous Issue for Chinese Companies Seeking Domestic IPO

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For Chinese private companies, one obstacle looms largest along the path to an IPO in China: the need to become fully compliant with China’s tax and accounting rules.  This process of becoming “规范” (or “guifan” in Pinyin)  is not only essential for any Chinese company seeking private equity and an eventual IPO, it is also often the most difficult, expensive, and tedious task a Chinese entrepreneur will ever undertake.

More good Chinese companies are shut out from capital markets or from raising private equity because of this “guifan” problem than any other reason. It is also the most persistent challenge for all of us active in the PE industry and in assisting SME to become publicly-traded businesses.

My firm has just published a Chinese-language research report on the topic, titled “民营企业上市规范问题”. You can download a copy by clicking here or from Research Reports page of the CFC website.

The report was written specifically for an audience of Chinese SME bosses, to provide them both with analysis and recommendations on how to manage this process successfully.  Our goal here (as with all of our research reports) is to provide tools for Chinese entrepreneurs to become leaders in their industry, and eventually leaders on the stock market. That means more PE capital gets deployed, more private Chinese companies stage successful exits and most important, China’s private sector economy continues its robust growth.

For English-only speakers, here’s a summary of some of the key points in the report:

  1. The process of becoming “guifan” will almost always mean that a Chinese company must begin to invoice all sales and purchases, and so pay much higher rates of tax, two to three years before any IPO can take place
  2. The higher tax rate will mean less cash for the business to invest in its own expansion. This, in turn, can lead to an erosion in market share, since “non-guifan” competitors will suddenly enjoy significant cost advantages
  3. Another likely consequence of becoming “guifan” – significantly lower net margins. This, in turn, impacts valuation at IPO
  4. The best way to lower the impact of “guifan” is to get more cash into the business as the process begins, either new bank lending or private equity. This can replenish the money that must now will go to pay the taxman, and so pump up the capital available to expansion and re-investment
  5. As a general rule, most  Chinese private companies with profits of at least Rmb30mn can raise at least five times more PE capital than they will pay in increased annual taxes from becoming “guifan”. A good trade-off, but not a free lunch
  6. For a PE fund, it’s necessary to accept that some of the money they invest in a private Chinese company will go, in effect, to pay Chinese taxes. But, since only “guifan” companies will get approved for a domestic Chinese IPO, the higher tax payments are like a toll payment to achieve exit at China’s high IPO valuations
  7. After IPO, the company will have plenty of money to expand its scale and so, in the best cases, claw back any cost disadvantage or net margin decline during the run-up to IPO

We spend more time dealing with “guifan” issues than just about anything else in our client work. Often that means working to develop valuation methodologies that allow our clients to raise PE capital without being excessively penalized for any short-term decrease in net income caused by “guifan” process.

Along with the meaty content, the report also features fifteen images of Tang Dynasty “Sancai ceramics, perhaps my favorite among all of China’s many sublime styles of pottery.



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CFC’s New Research Report, Assessing Some Key Differences in IPO Markets for Chinese Companies

China First Capital research report cover

For Chinese entrepreneurs, there has never been a better time to become a publicly-traded company.  China’s Shenzhen Stock Exchange is now the world’s largest and most active IPO market in the world. Chinese companies are also active raising billions of dollars of IPO capital abroad, in Hong Kong and New York.

The main question successful Chinese entrepreneurs face is not whether to IPO, but where.

To help entrepreneurs make that decision, CFC has just completed a research study and published its latest Chinese language research report. The report, titled “民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市” (” Offshore or Domestic IPO – Assessing Choices for Chinese SME”) analyzes advantages and disadvantages for Chinese SME  of IPO in China, Hong Kong, USA as well as smaller markets like Singapore and Korea.

The report can be downloaded from the Research Reports section of the CFC website , or by clicking here:  CFC’s IPO Difference Report (民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市)

We want the report to help make the IPO decision-making process more fact-based, more successful for entrepreneurs. According to the report, there are three key differences between a domestic or offshore IPO. They are:

  1. Valuation, p/e multiples
  2. IPO approval process – cost and timing of planning an IPO
  3. Accounting and tax rules

At first glance, most Chinese SME bosses will think a domestic IPO on the Shanghai or Shenzhen Stock Exchanges is always the wiser choice, because p/e multiples at IPO in China are generally at least twice the level in Hong Kong or US. But, this valuation differential can often be more apparent than real. Hong Kong and US IPOs are valued on a forward p/e basis. Domestic Chinese IPOs are valued on trailing year’s earnings. For a fast-growing Chinese company, getting 22X this year’s earnings in Hong Kong can yield more money for the company than a domestic IPO t 40X p/e, using last year’s earnings.

Chasing valuations is never a good idea. Stock market p/e ratios change frequently. The gap between domestic Chinese IPOs and Hong Kong and US ones has been narrowing for most of this year. Regulations are also continuously changing. As of now, it’s still difficult, if not impossible, for a domestically-listed Chinese company to do a secondary offering. You only get one bite of the capital-raising apple. In Hong Kong and US markets, a company can raise additional capital, or issue convertible debt, after an IPO.  This factor needs to be kept very much in mind by any Chinese company that will continue to need capital even after a successful domestic IPO.

We see companies like this frequently. They are growing so quickly in China’s buoyant domestic market that even a domestic IPO and future retained earnings may not provide all the expansion capital they will need.

Another key difference: it can take three years or more for many Chinese companies to complete the approval process for a domestic IPO. Will the +70X p/e  multiples now available on Shenzhen’s ChiNext market still be around then? It’s impossible to predict. Our advice to Chinese entrepreneurs is make the decision on where to IPO by evaluating more fundamental strengths and weaknesses of China’s domestic capital markets and those abroad, including differences in investor behavior, disclosure rules, legal liability.

China’s stock market is driven by individual investors. Volatility tends to be higher than in Hong Kong and the US, where most shares are owned by institutions.

One factor that is equally important for either domestic or offshore IPO: an SME will have a better chance of a successful IPO if it has private equity investment before its IPO. The transition to a publicly-listed company is complex, with significant risks. A PE investor can help guide an SME through this process, lowering the risks and costs in an IPO.

As the report emphasizes, an IPO is a financing method, not a goal by itself. An IPO will usually be the lowest-cost way for a private business to raise capital for expansion.  Entrepreneurs need to be smart about how to use capital markets most efficiently, for the purposes of building a bigger and better company.


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The indispensable economy? — The Economist

 

Economist logo

The indispensable economy?

China may not matter quite as much as you think

 

THE town of Alpha in Queensland, Australia, has only 400 residents, including one part-time ambulance driver and a lone policeman, according to Mark Imber of Waratah Coal, an exploration firm. But over the next few years it should quintuple in size, thanks to an A$7.5 billion ($7.3 billion) investment by his company and the Metallurgical Corporation of China, a state-owned firm that serves China’s mining and metals industry. This will build Australia’s biggest coal mine, as well as a 490km (300-mile) railway to carry the black stuff to the coast, and thence to China’s ravenous industrial maw.

It is hard to exaggerate the Chinese economy’s far-reaching impact on the world, from small towns to big markets. It accounted for about 46% of global coal consumption in 2009, according to the World Coal Institute, an industry body, and consumes a similar share of the world’s zinc and aluminium. In 2009 it got through twice as much crude steel as the European Union, America and Japan combined. It bought more cars than America last year and this year looks set to buy more mobile phones than the rest of the world put together, according to China First Capital, an investment bank.

In China growth of 9.6% (recorded in the year to the third quarter) represents a slowdown. China will account for almost a fifth of world growth this year, according to the IMF; at purchasing-power parity, it will account for just over a quarter.

For the first 25 years of its rise, China’s influence was most visible on the bottom line of corporate results, as it allowed firms to cut costs. More recently it has become conspicuous on the top line. Audi, a luxury German carmaker, sold more cars in China (including Hong Kong) than at home in the first quarter. Komatsu of Japan has just won an order for 44 “super-large dump trucks” from China’s biggest coal miner.

The Economist has constructed a “Sinodependency index”, comprising 22 members of America’s S&P 500 stockmarket index with a high proportion of revenues in China. The index is weighted by the firms’ market capitalisation and the share of their revenues they get from China. It includes Intel and Qualcomm, both chipmakers; Yum! Brands, which owns KFC and other restaurant chains; Boeing, which makes aircraft; and Corning, a glassmaker. The index outperformed the broader S&P 500 by 10% in 2009, when China’s economy outpaced America’s by over 11 percentage points. But it reconverged in April, as the Chinese government grappled with a nascent housing bubble.

China is, in itself, a big and dynamic part of the world economy. For that reason alone it will make a sizeable contribution to world growth this year. The harder question is whether it can make a big contribution to the rest of the world’s growth.

China is now the biggest export market for countries as far afield as Brazil (accounting for 12.5% of Brazilian exports in 2009), South Africa (10.3%), Japan (18.9%) and Australia (21.8%). But exports are only one component of GDP. In most economies of any size, domestic spending matters more. Thus exports to China are only 3.4% of GDP in Australia, 2.2% in Japan, 2% in South Africa and 1.2% in Brazil (see map).

 

Export earnings can, of course, have a ripple effect throughout an economy. In Alpha, the prospect of selling coal to China is stimulating investment in mines, railways and probably even policing. But these “multipliers” are rarely higher than 1.5 or 2, which is to say, they rarely do more than double the contribution to GDP. Moreover, just as expanding exports add to growth, burgeoning imports subtract from it. Most countries outside East Asia suffered a deteriorating trade balance with China from 2001 to 2008. By the simple arithmetic of growth, trade with China made a (small) negative contribution, not a positive one.

China plays a larger role in the economies of its immediate neighbours. Exports to China accounted for over 14% of Taiwan’s GDP last year, and over 10% of South Korea’s. But according to a number of studies, roughly half of East Asia’s exports to China are components, such as semiconductors and hard drives, for goods that are ultimately exported elsewhere. In these industries, China is not so much an engine of demand as a transmission belt for demand originating elsewhere.

The share of parts and components in its imports is, however, falling. From almost 40% a decade ago, it fell to 27% in 2008, according to a recent paper by Soyoung Kim of Seoul National University, as well as Jong-Wha Lee and Cyn-Young Park of the Asian Development Bank. This reflects China’s gradual “transformation from being the world’s factory, toward increasingly being the world’s consumer,” they write. Gabor Pula and Tuomas Peltonen of the European Central Bank calculate that the Philippine, South Korean and Taiwanese economies now depend more on Chinese demand than American.

Trade is not the only way that China’s ups and downs can spill over to the rest of the world. Its purchases of foreign assets keep the cost of capital down and its appetite for raw materials keeps their price up, to the benefit of commodity producers wherever they sell their wares. Its success can boost confidence and productivity. One attempt to measure these broad spillovers is a paper by Vivek Arora and Athanasios Vamvakidis of the IMF. According to their estimates, if China’s growth quickened by 1 percentage point for a year, it would boost the rest of the world’s GDP by 0.4% (about $290 billion) after five years.

Since the crisis, China has shown that its economy can grow even when America’s shrinks. It is not entirely dependent on the world’s biggest economy. But that does not mean it can substitute for it. In April the Bank Credit Analyst, an independent research firm, asked what would happen if China suffered a “hard landing”. Its answer to this “apocalyptic” question was quite “benign”. As it pointed out, Japan at the start of the 1990s accounted for a bigger share of GDP than China does today. Its growth slowed from about 5% to 1% in the first half of the 1990s without any discernible effect on global trends. It is hard to exaggerate China’s weight in the world economy. But not impossible.

 

http://www.economist.com/node/17363625

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How PE Firms Can Add – or Subtract – Value: the New CFC Research Report

China First Capital research report

CFC has just published its latest Chinese-language research report. The title is 《私募基金如何创造价值》, which I’d translate as “How PE Firms Add Value ”.

You can download a copy here:  How PE Firms Add Value — CFC Report

China is awash, as nowhere else in the world is,  in private equity capital. New funds are launched weekly, and older successful ones top up their bank balance. Just this week, CDH, generally considered the leading China-focused PE firm in the world, closed its fourth fund with $1.46 billion of new capital. Over $50 billion has been raised over the last four years for PE investment in China. 

In other words, money is not in short supply. Equity investment experience, know-how and savvy are. There’s a saying in the US venture capital industry, “all money spends the same”. The implication is that for a company, investment capital is of equal value regardless of the source. In the US, there may be some truth to this. In China, most definitely not. 

In Chinese business, there is no more perilous transition than the one from a fully-private, entrepreneur-founded and led company to one that can IPO successfully, either on China’s stock markets, or abroad. The reason: many private companies, especially the most successful ones, are growing explosively, often doubling in size every year.

They can barely catch their breath, let alone put in place the management and financial systems needed to manage a larger, more complex business. This is inevitable consequence of operating in a market growing as fast as China’s, and generating so many new opportunities for expansion. 

A basic management principle, also for many good private companies, is: “grab the money today, and worry about the consequences tomorrow”. This means that running a company in China often requires more improvising than long-term planning. I know this, personally, from running a small but fast-growing company. Improvisation can be great. It means a business can respond quickly to new opportunities, with a minimum of bureaucracy. 

But, as a business grows, and particularly once it brings in outside investors, the improvisation, and the success it creates, can cause problems. Is company cash being managed properly and most efficiently? Are customers receiving the same degree of attention and follow-up they did when the business was smaller? Does the production department know what the sales department is doing and promising customers? What steps are competitors taking to try to steal business away? 

These are, of course, the best kind of problems any company can have. They are the problems caused by success, rather than impending bankruptcy.

These problems are a core aspect of the private equity process in China. It’s good companies that get PE finance, not failed ones. Once the PE capital enters a company, the PE firm is going to take steps to protect its investment. This inevitably means making sure systems are put in place that can improve the daily management and long-term planning at the company. 

It’s often a monumental adjustment for an entrepreneur-led company. Accountability supplants improvisation. Up to the moment PE finance arrives, the boss has never had to answer to anyone, or to justify and defend his decisions to any outsider. PE firms, at a minimum, will create a Board of Directors and insist, contractually, that the Board then meet at least four times a year to review quarterly financials, discuss strategy and approve any significant investments. 

Whether this change helps or hurts the company will depend, often, on the experience and knowledge of the PE firm involved.  The good PE firms will offer real help wherever the entrepreneur needs it – strengthening marketing, financial team, international expansion and strategic alliances. They are, in the jargon of our industry, “value-add investors”.

Lesser quality PE firms will transfer the money, attend a quarterly banquet and wait for word that the company is staging an IPO. This is dumb money that too often becomes lost money, as the entrepreneur loses discipline, focus and even an interest in his business once he has a big pile of someone else’s money in his bank account.   

Our new report focuses on this disparity, between good and bad PE investment, between value-add and valueless. Our intended audience is Chinese entrepreneurs. We hope, aptly enough, that they determine our report is value-add, not valueless. The key graphic in the report is this one, which illustrates the specific ways in which a PE firm can add value to a business.  In this case, the PE investment helps achieve a four-fold increase. That’s outstanding. But, we’ve seen examples in our work of even larger increases after a PE round.

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The second part of the report takes on a related topic, with particular relevance for Chinese companies: the way PE firms can help navigate the minefield of getting approval for an IPO in China.  It’s an eleven-step process. Many companies try, but only a small percentage will succeed. The odds are improved exponentially when a company has a PE firm alongside, as both an investor and guide.

While taking PE investment is not technically a prerequisite, in practice, it operates like one. The most recent data I’ve seen show that 90% of companies going public on the new Chinext exchange have had pre-IPO PE investment. 

In part, this is because Chinese firms with PE investment tend to have better corporate governance and more reliable financial reporting. Both these factors are weighed by the CSRC in deciding which companies are allowed to IPO. 

At their best, PE firms can serve as indispensible partners for a great entrepreneur. At their worst, they do far more harm than good by lavishing money without lavishing attention. 

The report is illustrated with details from imperial blue-and-white porcelains from the time of the Xuande Emperor, in the Ming Dynasty.


 

Going home again – Back at Forbes, this time in 中文

Forbes China website Peter Fuhrman column

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My career has come full circle. I’m back at Forbes Magazine. Only this time, I’m published in the magazine’s Chinese website, as an occasional columnist.

Have a look here: http://www.forbeschina.com/review/201005/0000757.shtml 

I was at Forbes for almost ten years, and left in 1995, after writing I’d guess around 120 articles, first in New York, and then in Europe, based in London.  I had a splendidly enjoyable career at Forbes, traveling farther and wider than I ever dreamed possible, while writing about companies, ideas and events that seized my interest, and that of my editors at Forbes. I had the great good fortune to be at Forbes while it was edited by Jim Michaels, perhaps the finest ever editor of a business publication.  Read about him by clicking here. 

After leaving Forbes, I always told friends I was much happier outside journalism. I never looked back, never hankered for even a day to get back into journalism. There’s some truth, at least when applied to me, that it’s more rewarding to try to make a little history, rather than to write about those who do. 

All the same, it’s a special feeling to see my byline on the Forbes Chinese website. I accepted immediately when the magazine called to see if they could publish Chinese versions of my blog posts. I’m not all that sure how successful, if at all, Forbes is in China. So, my columns may have a smaller readership than some of the Chinese-language SMS messages I send. 

This time around at Forbes, my writing won’t go under the knife of a sharp team of editors and wordsmiths. Back then, I railed frequently, and impotently, against what I saw to be the boneheaded or misguided changes imposed from above.

Now, well, I have to acknowledge my work could probably benefit from some editing and intervention. Chinese is not a language I speak with much skill. Writing it far harder still. I rely on lots of assistance from my smart co-workers to transubstantiate my hot air  into solid Chinese. 


CFC’s latest research report: 2010 will be record-setting year in China Private Equity

China First Capital 2010 research report, from blog post

 

China’s private equity industry is on track to break all records in 2010 for number of deals, number of successful PE-backed IPOs, capital raised and capital invested. This record-setting performance comes at a time when the PE and VC industries are still locked in a long skid in the US and Europe.

According to my firms’s latest research report, (see front cover above)  the best days are still ahead for China’s PE industry. The Chinese-language report has just been published. It can be downloaded by clicking this link: China First Capital 2010 Report on Private Equity in China

We prepare these research reports primarily for our clients and partners in China. There is no English version.

A few of the takeaway points are:

  • China’s continued strong economic growth is only one factor providing fuel for the growth of  private equity in China. Another key factor that sets China apart and makes it the most dynamic and attractive market for PE investing in the world: the rise of world-class private SME. These Chinese SME are already profitable and market leaders in China’s domestic market. Even more important, they are owned and managed by some of the most talented entrepreneurs in the world. As these SME grow, they need additional capital to expand even faster in the future. Private Equity capital is often the best choice
  • As long as the IPO window stays open for Chinese SME, rates of return of 300%-500% will remain common for private equity investors. It’s the kind of return some US PE firms were able to earn during the good years, but only by using a lot of bank debt on top of smaller amounts of equity. That type of private equity deal, relying on bank leverage, is for the most part prohibited in China
  • PE in China got its start ten years ago. The founding era is now drawing to a close.  The result will be a fundamental realignment in the way private equity operates in China. It’s a change few of the original PE firms in China anticipated, or can cope with. What’s changed? These PE firms grew large and successful raising and investing US dollars,  and then taking Chinese companies public in Hong Kong or New York. This worked beautifully for a long time, in large part because China’s own capital markets were relatively underdeveloped. Now, the best profit opportunities are for PE investors using renminbi and exiting on China’s domestic stock markets. Many of the first generation PE firms are stuck holding an inferior currency, and an inferior path to IPO

Our goal is to be a thought leader in our industry, as well as providing the highest-quality information and analysis in Chinese for private entrepreneurs and the investors who finance them.


New CFC Report on Assessing Risk in PE Investment in China

China First Capital Report on Assessing Risk in PE Investment in China

“Risk and Reward.  They are the yin and yang of investing.”

So begins the latest of CFC’s Chinese-language research reports on risk and reward in private equity investment in China. The 18-page report (titled 风险与回报 in Chinese)  has just been published, and is downloadable via the CFC website by clicking this link:  http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/Riskandreward.pdf

The report’s goal, as stated in the introduction, is to “summarize the ways PE firms evaluate the risks of an investment opportunity so that entrepreneurs will better understand the decision-making process of PE firms, and so greatly improve the odds of succeeding in raising PE capital.” 

The report identifies five key areas of risk that private equity investors attempt to quantify, manage and where possible, mitigate: They are:

  1. 1.      Market Risk
  2. 2.      Execution Risk
  3. 3.      Technology Risk
  4. 4.      Political Risk 
  5. 5.      Due Diligence Risk

As far as we know, this is the first such detailed report prepared in Chinese, specifically for Chinese entrepreneurs. It was written with input from the entire CFC team, and represents a collation of our experiences in dealing both with the founders and owners of Chinese SME and the PE firms that invest in them. 

Few, if any, Chinese entrepreneurs have experience raising private equity capital, or for that matter, answering pointed questions about their business. So, the whole PE process will often seem to them to be odd and protracted. The report aims to increase entrepreneurs’ level of understanding ahead of any PE fund-raising process. The report puts it this way: 

“ The goal of PE firms is to lower risk when they invest, not completely eliminate it. Risk is a necessary part of any profit-making activity. The basic principle of all PE investing is finding the best “risk-adjusted return” – which means, the best ratio of risk to potential future profit.”

Some strategies for entrepreneurs to lower an investor’s risk are also discussed. It’s practically impossible to fully eliminate these risks. But, an entrepreneur will have an important ally in managing them, if successful in raising PE capital. 

PE investment in China is a process in which an entrepreneur give up sole proprietorship over the risks in his business. It’s a new concept for most of them. But, the results are almost always positive. A problem shared is a problem halved. 

We hope the report contributes to the continued growth and success of the PE industry in China.

It can also be enjoyed, for entirely other reasons, by anyone who shares my love of Song Dynasty porcelains. Some beautiful examples of Jun, Guan, Ge, Yaozhou, Cizhou and Longquan ceramics are used as illustrations. 

Some examples:

Yaozhou4
Jun4

Guan6

 

 

 

 

 


The New Equilibrium – It’s the Best Time Ever to be a Chinese Entrepreneur

China Private Equity blog post

As I wrote the last time out, the game is changed in PE investing in China. The firms most certain to prosper in the future are those with ability to raise and invest renminbi, and then guide their portfolio companies to an IPO in China. For many PE firms, we’re at a hinge moment: adapt or die. 

Luckily for me, I work on the other side of the investment ledger, advising private Chinese companies and assisting them with pre-IPO capital raising. So, while the changes now underway are a supreme challenge for PE firms, they are largely positive for the excellent SME businesses I work with.

They now have access to a greater pool of capital and the realistic prospect of a successful domestic IPO in the near future. Both factors will allow the best Chinese entrepreneurs to build their businesses larger and faster, and create significant wealth for themselves. 

As my colleagues and me are reminded every day, we are very fortunate. We have a particularly good vantage point to see what’s happening with China’s entrepreneurs all over the country. On any given week, our company will talk to the bosses of five and ten private Chinese SME. Few of these will become our clients, often because they are still a little small for us, or still focused more on exports than on China’s burgeoning domestic market. We generally look for companies with at least Rmb 25 million in annual profits, and a focus on China’s burgeoning domestic market. 

For the Chinese companies we talk to on a regular basis, the outlook is almost uniformly ideal. China’s economy is generating enormous, once-in-a-business-lifetime opportunities for good entrepreneurs.

Here’s the big change: for the first time ever, the flow of capital in China is beginning to more accurately mirror where these opportunities are. 

China’s state-owned banks have become more willing to lend to private companies, something they’ve done only reluctantly in the past. The bigger change is there is far more equity capital available. Every week brings word that new PE firms have been formed with hundreds of millions of renminbi to invest.

The capital market has also undergone its own evolutionary change. China’s new Growth Enterprise Market, known as Chinext, launched in October 2009. In two months, it has already raised over $1 billion in new capital for private Chinese companies. 

In short, the balance has shifted more in favor of the users rather than the deployers of capital. That because capital is no longer in such short supply. This is among the most significant financial changes taking place in China today: growth capital is no longer the scarcest resource. As recently as a year ago, PE firms were relatively few, and exit opportunities more limited. Within a year, my guess is the number of PE firms and the capital they have to invest in private Chinese companies will both double. 

Of course, raising equity capital remains a difficult exercise in China, just as it is in the US or Europe. Far fewer than 1% of private companies in China will attract outside investment from a PE or VC fund. But, when the business model and entrepreneur are both outstanding,  there is a far better chance now to succeed.

Great business models and great entrepreneurs are both increasingly prevalent in China. I’m literally awestruck by the talent of the Chinese entrepreneurs we meet and work with – and I’ve met quite a few good ones in my past life as a venture capital boss and technology CEO in California, and earlier as a business journalist for Forbes

So, while life is getting tougher for the partners of PE firms (especially those with only dollars to invest), it is a better time now than ever before in Chinese history to be a private entrepreneur. That is great news for China, and a big reason why I’m so thrilled to go to work each day.  


The End of the Line for Old-Style PE Investing in China

Ming Dynasty flask, from China Private Equity blog post

As 2010 dawns, private equity in China is undergoing epic changes. PE in China got its start ten years ago. The founding era is now drawing to a close.  The result will be a fundamental realignment in the way private equity operates in China. It’s a change few of the PE firms anticipated, or can cope with. 

What’s changed? These PE firms grew large and successful raising and investing US dollars,  and then taking Chinese companies public in Hong Kong or New York. This worked beautifully for a long time, in large part because China’s own capital markets were relatively underdeveloped. Now, the best profit opportunities are for PE investors using renminbi and exiting on China’s domestic stock markets. Many of the first generation PE firms are stuck holding an inferior currency, and an inferior path to IPO. 

The dominant PE firms of yesterday, those that led the industry during its first decade in China, are under pressure, and some will not survive. They once generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. Now, these same firms seem antiquated, their methods and approach ill-suited to conditions in China. 

In the end, success in PE investing comes down to one thing: maximizing the difference between your entry and exit price. This differential will often be twice as large for investors with renminbi as those with dollars. The basic reason is that stock market valuations in China, on a current p/e basis, are over twice as high as in Hong Kong and New York – or an average of about 30 times earnings in China, compared to fifteen times earnings in Hong Kong and US. 

The gap has remained large and persistent for years. My view is that it will continue to be wide for many years to come. That’s because profits in China (in step with GDP) are growing faster than anywhere else, and Chinese investors are more willing to bid up the price of those earnings. 

For PE firms, the stark reality is: if you can’t enter with renminbi and exit in China, you cut your profit potential in half. 

chart1









If given the freedom, of course, any PE investor would choose to exit in China. The problem is, they don’t have that freedom. Only fully-Chinese companies can IPO in China. It’s not possible for Chinese companies with what’s called an “offshore structure”, meaning the ultimate holding company is based in Hong Kong, BVI, the Caymans or elsewhere outside China. Offshore companies could take in dollar investment from PE firms, swap it into renminbi to build their business in China, then IPO outside China. The PE firms put dollars in and took dollars out. That’s the way it worked, for example, for the lucky PE firms that invested in successful Chinese companies like Baidu, Suntech, Alibaba, Belle – all of which have offshore structure. 

In September 2006, the game changed. New securities laws in China made it all but impossible for Chinese companies to establish holding companies outside China. Year by year, the number has dwindled of good private companies in China with offshore structure. First generation PE firms with only dollars to invest in China have fewer good deals to chase. At the same time, the appeal of a domestic Chinese IPO has become stronger and stronger. Not only are IPO prices higher, but the stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen have become larger, more liquid, less prone to the kind of wild price-swings that were once a defining trait of Chinese investing. 

Of course, it’s not all sweetness and light. A Chinese company seeking a domestic IPO cannot choose its own timing. That’s up to the securities regulators. To IPO in China, a company must first apply to China’s securities market regulator, the CSRC, and once approved, join a queue of uncertain length. At present, the process can take two years or more. Planning and executing an IPO in Hong Kong or the US is far quicker and the regulatory process far more transparent. 

In any IPO, timing is important, but price is more so. That’s why, on balance, a Chinese IPO is still going to be a much better choice for any company that can manage one. 

Some of the first generation PE firms have tried to get around the legal limitations. For example, there is a way for PE firms to invest dollars into a purely Chinese company, by establishing a new joint venture company with the target Chinese firm. However, that only solves the smaller part of the problem. It remains difficult, if not impossible, for these joint venture entities to go public in China. 

For PE investors in China, if you can’t go public in Shanghai or Shenzhen, you’ve cut your potential profits in half. That’s a bad way to run a business, and a bad way to please your Limited Partners, the cash-rich pension funds, insurance firms, family offices and endowments that provide the capital for PE firms to invest.   

The valuation differential has other knock-on effects. A PE firm can afford to pay a higher price when investing in a Chinese company if it knows it can exit domestically.  That leaves more margin for error, and also allows PE firms to compete for the best deals. The only PE firms, however, with this option are those already holding renminbi. This group includes some of the best first generation PE firms, including CDH, SZVC, Legend. But, most first generation firms only have dollars, and that means they can only invest in companies that will exit outside China. 

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, many of the other first generation PE firms are now scrambling to raise renminbi funds. A few have already succeeded, including Prax and SAIF. But, raising an renminbi fund is difficult. Few will succeed. Those that do will usually only be able to raise a fraction of the amount they can raise is dollars. 

Add it up and it spells trouble – deep trouble – for many of the first generation PE firms in China. They made great money over the last ten years for themselves and their Limited Partners. But, the game is changed. And, as always in today’s China, change is swift and irreversible. The successful PE firms of the future will be those that can enter and exit in renminbi, not dollars.


China First Capital’s New Website

Qing painting, China First Capital blog post

With CFC’s business motoring along nicely, I decided in late spring to redesign our very bare-bones website, to add more information, and make it a little more pleasing to the eye. After four months of sometimes tedious labor, the process is now complete. The English-version of the new CFC website went live earlier this week. The Chinese version will follow after the October holidays in China.

During my journalism career at Forbes, I had some experience working with designers, so I generally understand how words and images can best interact on a page.  Or, at least I thought so. Web design is a whole different ballgame. The web format allows for a lot more flexibility than designing print pages to in a particular newspaper or magazine’s existing template. You can incorporate animation, videos, pictures, sound.  But, there’s also a lot more chaos about the whole process. Maybe it’s the fact that a good web designer must be combine the character traits of a graphic designer and a computer programmer. Rendered in mathematical terms: flakiness 2

Everything turned out well. But, completing the site took far longer than I’d expected at the outset. I helped contribute to the delays by frequently changing my mind about which images should appear on the site. I decided one thing emphatically from the start:  I did not want to reproduce the hackneyed sort of imagery you see on every other financial industry website I’ve ever seen, from Goldman Sachs’ to a small regional bank’s. So, I wanted no photos of men shaking hands, or gathered around a conference room table, or walking purposefully down a busy urban street holding a briefcase. For one thing, I don’t even own a briefcase.

Instead, I wanted to do something far more personally meaningful on the site, and use only close-up images of Chinese art.  After some experimenting with images of Ming Dynasty porcelains and sculptures, I decided to use only Chinese paintings. I wanted them to reflect many of the broader thematic and stylistic movements in Chinese painting, from the Tang Dynasty to the Qing Dynasty.  And, of course, I wanted to feel a connection with each image, both aesthetically and also as  metaphorical statement of core principles and values that animate our work at CFC.

That’s a pretty tall order. I probably looked at over 1,000 paintings, and did my own, on-screen close-up crops of several hundred, before deciding on the 25 I liked most. In the end, there was room on the new site for only 13.  Early on, I’d thought of using close-ups from several thangkas I’m lucky enough to own. The images were gorgeous, but my team felt (and I ultimately agreed), they were too unmistakably religious, even in extreme close-up,to fit well on the site.

The text was not as difficult. We’re lucky in that our business has a very clear, narrow focus that’s easily expressed.  Ours is also, importantly, not a business that relies on website traffic, or Google search results, to create awareness and revenue. I know this other world very well, through my role at Awareness Technologies, which is a web-marketer par excellence. Every day, Awareness Technologies’ websites and Google strategy will deliver new customers who buy our software. It’s highly-specialized work, this kind of online marketing, and my Awareness colleagues do it as well as, and often better than,  anyone else in the world. Awareness Technologies also builds great software, which matters even more, of course, to the success of the business. 

CFC, on the other hand, is mainly a “word of mouth” business. Chinese SME come to us not through an online search, but because we’ve been introduced to them by others they know and trust.  In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn none of our clients have ever visited our website.  They’re generally too busy running their companies to spend much, if any time, online – let alone searching the web to find an investment bank.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. I don’t look to the CFC website to generate “walk-in” traffic. We do no search advertising, or web marketing. So, someone finding our website will usually do so through following a link on what’s called a “natural search result” at Google, Yahoo, Baidu or other search engines. 

My main hope for the new website is that all those who do visit it, first and foremost, will get enjoyment from looking at the paintings, and allow the close-ups to meander around in their minds for awhile.  If that gets them then to read about what we do, so much the better.


Investment Banking in China — New Report Published by China First Capital

China First Capital Report on Investment Banking

My CFC colleagues just completed our latest research report, on investment banking. It’s titled “投资银行的重要性”. A copy can be downloaded here: 

Download China First Capital Report on Investment Banking

The report examines the history, structure and central role of investment banks in raising capital for companies. Like other CFC reports, this one was meant to add meaningfully to the quality of information available in Chinese on financial topics relevant to SME owners and other private sector entrepreneurs. It’s a part of our work that I take special pleasure in. It can widen the circumference of our impact and contribution, beyond the relatively small group of CFC clients and the PE firms that finance them. 

We want the reports to be read widely, and to have some staying power. In choosing topics for these reports, we’re guided most strongly by our daily interactions with Chinese entrepreneurs, by the questions they raise, and problems they confront. So it is with the latest report. 

Investment banking isn’t well-understood in China, for the most part. There’s a lot of pigeonholing. Investment banks are primarily known for their IPO work, and not much else. The core function of investment banking – raising capital for companies —  is often missed.

This lapse speaks volumes about a larger, endemic problem in Chinese business: a shortage of growth capital among private businesses,  and an accompanying lack of knowledge how to raise it. 

Equity capital is used far less in China than the US to finance corporate activity. Bank loans could potentially fill the void somewhat, but they are very difficult for private Chinese companies to obtain from the country’s state-owned banks. The result: private companies under-invest and so grow far more slowly than market opportunities warrant. 

Of course, our new Chinese-language report on investment banking isn’t going to untangle this mess. Its aim is far more modest: to provide research and a rationale for investment banks’ central role in the capital-raising process.