Wall Street

The Fatal Flaws of China “Take Private” Deals on the US Stock Market

Every one of the twenty  “take private” deals being done now by private equity firms with Chinese companies listed in the US, as well as the dozens more being hotly pursued by PE firms with access to a Bloomberg terminal, all suffer from the same fatal flaws. They require the PE firm to commit money, often huge loads of money, upfront to companies about which they scarcely know anything substantive. This turns the entire model of PE investing on its head. The concept behind PE investment is that a group of investment professionals acquires access to company information not readily available to others, and only puts LPs’ money at risk after doing extensive proprietary due diligence. This is, after all,  what it means to be a fiduciary — you don’t blow a lot of other people’s money on a risky deal with no safeguards.

And yet, in these “take private” deals, the only material information the PE firms often have at their disposal before they start shoveling money out the door are the disclosure documents posted on the SEC website. This is the same information available to everyone else, the contents of which will often reveal why it is that these Chinese-quoted companies’ share prices have collapsed, and now trade at such pathetically low multiples. In other words, professional investors in the US read the SEC filings of these Chinese companies and decide to dump the shares, leading to large falls in the share price. PE firms, with teams based in Asia, download the same documents and decide it’s a buy opportunity, and then swoop in to purchase large blocks of the company’s distressed equity, then launch a bid for the rest of the free float. There’s something wrong here, right?

Let’s start with the fact that these Chinese companies being “taken private” are not Dell Inc. The reliability, credibility, transparency of the SEC disclosure documents are utterly different. In addition, their CEOs are not Michael Dell. There is as much similarity between Dell and Focus Media, or Ambow Education as there is between buying a factory-approved and warrantied used car, with complete service history, and buying one sight-unseen that’s been in a wreck.

The Chinese companies being targeted by PEs have, to different degrees, impenetrable financial statements, odd forms of worrying related party transactions,  a messy corporate structure that in some cases may violate Chinese law, and audits prepared by accounting firms that either are already charged with securities violations for their China work by the SEC (the Big Four accountants) or a bunch of small outfits that nobody has ever heard of.  It is on the basis of these documents that take private deals worth over $5 billion are now underway involving PE firms and US-quoted China companies.

Often,  the people at the PE firm analyzing the SEC documents, and the PE partners pulling the trigger, are non-native English speakers, with little to no experience in the world of SEC disclosure statements, the obfuscations, the specialist nomenclature, the crucial arcana buried in the footnotes. (I spent over nine years combing through SEC disclosure documents while at Forbes, and still frequently read them, but consider myself a novice.) The PE firms persuade themselves, based on these documents, that the company is worth far more than US investors believe, and that their LPs’ cash should be deployed to buy out all these US shareholders at a premium while keeping the current boss in his job. Are the PE firms savvy investors? Or what Wall Street calls the greater fool?

The PE firms, to be sure, would probably like to have access to more information from the company before they start throwing money around buying shares.  They’d like to be able to pour over the books, commission their own independent audit and legal DD, talk to suppliers and customers — just as they usually insist on doing before committing money to a typical China PE deal involving a private company in China. But, the PE firms generally have no legal way to get this additional — and necessary — information from the “take private” Chinese companies before they’re already in up to their necks. By law, (the SEC’s Reg FD rules) a public company cannot selectively provide additional disclosure materials to a PE firm or any other current or potential investor. The only channel a company can use is the SEC filing system. This is the salient fact, and irresolvable dilemma at the heart of these PtP deals. The PE firms know only what the SEC documents tell them, and anybody else with internet access.

The PE firms can, and often do, pay lawyers to hunt around, send junior staff to count the number of eggs on supermarket shelves, use an expert network, or bring in McKinsey, or other consultants, to produce some market research of highly dubious value. There are no reliable public statistics, and no way to obtain them, about any industry, market or product in China. Market research in China is generally a well-paid form of educated guesswork.

So, PE firms enter PtP deals based on no special access to company information and no reliable comprehensive data about the company’s market, market share, competitors, cash collection methods in China. Throw in the fact these same companies have been seriously hammered by the US public markets, that some stand accused of fraud and deception, and the compelling logic behind PtP deals begins to look rather less so.

Keep in mind too the hundreds of millions being wagered by PE firms all goes to buy out existing shareholders. None of it goes to the actual company, to help fix whatever’s so manifestly broken. The same boss is in charge, the same business model in place that caused US investors to value the company like broken-down junk. In cases where borrowed money is used, the PE firm has the chance to make a higher rate of return. But, of course, the Chinese company’s balance sheet and net income will be made weaker by the loans and debt service. Chances are there are lawsuits flying around as well. Fighting those will drain money away from the company, and further defocus the people running things. Put simply the strategy seems to be try to fix a problem by first making it worse.

There’s not a single example I know of any PE firm making money doing these Chinese “take privates” in the US and yet so many are running around trying to do them. If nothing else, this proves again the old saying it’s easy to be bold with someone else’s money.

OK, we’re all grown-ups here. I do understand the meaning of a “nudge and a wink”, which is what I often get when I ask PE firms how they get around this information deficiency. The suggestion seems to be they possess, directly from the company owner, some valuable insider information — maybe about the name of a potential buyer down the road, or a new big contract, or the fact there’s lot of undisclosed cash coming into the company. Remember, the PE firms have extensive discussions with the owner before going public with the “take private” bids. The owners always need to commit upfront to backing the PE take private deal, to keep, rather than tender,  their shares and so become, with the PE firm, the 100% owner of the business after the PtP deal closes.

These discussions between the PE firm a Chinese company boss should legally be very narrowly focused, and not include any material information about the business not disclosed to all public shareholders. These discussions happen in China, in Chinese. Is it possible that the discussions are, shall we say, more wide-ranging? Could be. The PE firm thus may have an informational advantage they believe will help them make money. The problem is they’ve gotten it from a guy whose probably committed a felony under US law in supplying it. The PE firm, meantime, is potentially now engaged in insider trading by acting on it. Another felony.

All this risk, all this headache and contingent liability, so a private equity firm can put tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of third party money at risk in a company that the US stock market has concluded is a dog. Taking private or taking leave of one’s senses?

 

 

 

The Ambow Massacre — Baring Private Equity Fails in Its Take Private Plan

 

In the last two years, more than 40 US-listed Chinese companies have announced plans to delist in “take private” deals.  About half the deals have a PE firm at the center of things, providing some of the capital and most of the intellectual and strategic firepower. The PE firms argue that the US stock market has badly misunderstood, and so deeply undervalued these Chinese companies. The PE firms confidently boast they are buying into great businesses at fire sale prices.

The PE firm teams up with the company’s owner to buy out public shareholders, with the plan being at some future point to either sell the business or relist it outside the US. At the moment, PE firms are involved in take private deals worth about $5 billion. Some of the bigger names include Focus Media, 7 Days Inn, Simcere Pharmaceutical.

The ranks of “take private” deals fell by one yesterday. PE firm Baring Private Equity announced it is dropping its plan to take private a Chinese company called Ambow Education Holding listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Baring, which is among the larger Asia-headquartered private equity firms, with over $5 billion under management,  first announced its intention to take Ambow private on March 15. Within eleven days, Baring was forced to scrap the whole plan. Here’s how Baring put it in the official letter it sent to Ambow and disclosed on the SEC website, “In the ten days since we submitted the Proposal, three of the four independent Directors and the Company’s auditors have resigned, and the Company’s ADSs have been suspended from trading on the NYSE. As a result of these unexpected events, we have concluded that it is not possible for us to proceed with the Transaction as set forth in our Proposal.”

Baring’s original proposal offered Ambow shareholders $1.46 a share, a 45% premium over the price at the time. Baring is already a shareholder of Ambow, holding about 10% of the equity. It bought the shares earlier this year.  Assuming the shares do start trading again, Baring is likely sitting on a paper loss of around $8mn on the Ambow shares it owns, as well as a fair bit of egg on its face. Uncounted is the amount in legal fees, to say nothing of Baring’s own time, that was squandered on this deal. My guess is, this is hardly what Baring’s LPs would want their money being spent on.

Perhaps the only consolation for Baring is that this mess exploded before it completed the planned takeover of the company. But, still, my question, “what did Baring know about any big problems inside Ambow when it tabled its offer ten days ago?” If the answer is “nothing”, well what does that say about the quality of the PE firm’s due diligence and deal-making prowess? How can you go public with an offer that values Ambow at $105 million and only eleven days later have to abandon the bid because of chaos, and perhaps fraud, inside the target company?

It is so easy, so attractive,  to think you can do deals based largely on work you can do on a Bloomberg terminal. Just four steps are all that’s needed. Download the stock chart? Check. Read the latest SEC filings, including financial statements? Check. Discover a share trading at a fraction of book value? Check. Contact the company owner and say you want to become his partner and buy out all his foolish and know-nothing US shareholders? Check. All set. You can now launch your bid.

Here the stock chart for Ambow since it went public on the NYSE:

 

 

So, in a little more than two years, Ambow’s market cap has fallen by 92%, from a high of over $1 billion, to the current level of less than $90mn. That’s not a lot higher than the company’s announced 2011 EBITDA of $54mn, and about equal to the total cash Ambow claimed, in its most recent annual report filed with the SEC, it had in the bank. Now really, who wouldn’t want to buy a company trading at 1.5X trailing EBITDA and 1X cash?

Well, start with the fact that it now looks like those numbers might not be everything they purport to be. That would be the logical inference from the fact that the company’s auditors and three of its board members all resigned en masse.

That gets to the heart of the real problem with these “PtP” (public to private) deals involving US-listed Chinese companies. The PE firms seem to operate on the assumption that the numbers reported to the SEC are genuine, and therefore that these companies’ shares are all trading at huge discounts to their intrinsic worth. Well, maybe not. Also, maybe US shareholders are not quite as dumb as some of the deal-makers here would like to believe. From the little we know about the situation in Ambow, it looks like, if anything, the US capital market was actually being too generous towards the company, even as it marked down the share price by over 90%.

A share price represents the considered assessment of millions of people, in real time. Some of those people (suppliers, competitors, friends of the auditor) will always know more than you about what the real situation is inside a company. Yes, sometimes share prices can overshoot and render too harsh a judgment on a company’s value. But, that’s assuming the numbers reported to the SEC are all kosher.  If we’ve learned anything in these last two years it’s that assuming a Chinese company’s SEC financial statement is free of fraud and gross inaccuracy is, at best, a gamble. There simply is no way a PE firm can get complete comfort, before committing to taking over one of these Chinese businesses listed in the US, that there are no serious dangers lurking within. Reputation risk, litigation risk, exit risk — these too are very prominent in all PtP deals.

Some of the other announced PtP deals are using borrowed money, along with some cash from PE firms, to pay off existing shareholders. In such cases, the risk for the PE fund is obviously lower. If the Chinese company genuinely has the free cash to service the debt, well, then once the debt is paid off, the PE firm will end up owning a big chunk of a company without having tied up a lot of cash.  Do the banks in these cases really know the situation inside these often-opaque Chinese companies? Is the cash flow on the P&L the same cash flow that passes through its hands each month?

There’s much else that strikes me as questionable about the logic of doing these PtP, or delist-relist deals. For one thing, it seems increasingly unlikely that these businesses will be able to relist, anytime in the next three to five years, in Hong Kong or China. I’ve yet to hear a credible plan from the PE firms I’ve talked to about how they intend to achieve ultimate exit. But, mainly, my concerns have been about the rigor and care that goes into the crafting of these deals. Those concerns seem warranted in my opinion, based on this 11-day debacle with Baring and Ambow.

Some of the Chinese-listed companies fell out of favor for the good reason that they are dubious businesses, run with shoddy and opaque practices, by bosses who’ve shown scant regard for the letter and spirit of the securities laws of the US. Are these really the kind of people PE funds should consider going into business with?

 

Correction: I see now Barings actually has owned some Ambow shares for longer, and so is likely sitting on far larger losses on this position. This raises still more starkly the issue of how it could have put so much of its LPs money at risk on a deal like this, upfront, and without having sufficient transparency into the true situation at the company. This looks more like stock speculation gone terribly wrong, not private equity.

Addition: Three other large, famous institutional investors also all piled into Ambow in the months before Baring made its bid. Fidelity, GIC and Capital Group reported owning 8.76%, 5.2% and 7.4% respectively, or a total of 21.3% of the equity. They might have made a quick buck had the Baring buyout gone forward. Now, they may end up stranded, sitting on large positions in a distressed stock with no real liquidity and perhaps nowhere to go but down.

 

 

Dollars No Longer Welcome

2012 is going to be a bad year for new dollar investment in Chinese financial assets. This reverses what was thought to be, only a few years ago, an irreversible trend as more of the world’s largest and most sophisticated investors sought to increase the asset allocation in China. It’s not that China has fallen out of favor with institutional investors. If anything, China’s comparative strengths — in terms of solid +7% economic growth, a vibrant domestic consumer market, reasonably healthy banks, prudent fiscal policy — stand in ever starker contrast with the insipid economies and improvident governments of Europe, the US, Japan.

So, how come fewer dollars are flowing into China? The main reason is that the stock markets in the US and Hong Kong have fallen out of love with Chinese IPOs. These two stock markets have been the primary source for more than a decade of new dollar funding for domestic Chinese companies. Just two years ago, Chinese companies accounted for one-third of all IPOs in the US. The IPO market for Chinese companies listing in Hong Kong was even hotter. Last year, almost $70 billion was raised by Chinese companies listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Dollars raised in New York or Hong Kong IPOs were converted into Renminbi, then invested to fuel the growth of hundreds of Chinese private companies and SOEs. Stock markets in London, Frankfurt, Seoul, Singapore, Sydney also provided access for Chinese companies to list and raise capital there. Overall, the international capital markets have been a key source of growth capital for Chinese companies, and so an important part of China’s overall economic transformation.

This year, the US will probably host fewer than five Chinese IPOs, and the total amount raised by Chinese companies in Hong Kong will be down by at least 65% from last year. The two other sources of dollar investment in Chinese companies — private equity and institutional purchases of Chinese shares — are also trending downward. Of the two, PE money was by far the more important, particularly over the last decade. In a good year, over $5 billion of capital was invested into private Chinese companies by PE firms. But, rule changes in China began to make dollar PE investing more difficult starting five years ago. It’s harder now to get permission to convert dollars into Renminbi, and Chinese companies can no longer easily create offshore holding company structures to facilitate dollar investment and an eventual exit through offshore IPO.

Rule changes slowed, but didn’t stop, dollar PE investing in China. The bigger problem now is that stock market investors in the US, and to a slightly lesser extent those in Hong Kong, no longer want to buy Chinese shares at IPO. It’s mainly because retail and institutional investors outside China distrust the quality and truthfulness of Chinese corporate accounting. If offshore IPOs dry up, dollar PE investors have no way to cash out. M&A exit is still rare. The twin result this year: less dollar PE money entering China, and also a steep drop in offshore IPO fundraising for Chinese companies.

Consider what this means: the world’s largest pools of institutional capital are finding it more difficult to invest in the world’s fastest growing major economy. This makes no financial sense. Chinese companies have a huge appetite for growth capital, and have the potential to achieve high rates of return for investors. Investment in China’s private entrepreneurial companies remains perhaps the best risk-adjusted investment class in the world. But, all the same, this year will see a steep drop of new international investment in Chinese companies.

Perhaps partially to compensate, China this year has liberalized the rules somewhat to allow international institutions to buy shares quoted in China. But, since that money goes to buy shares held by other investors, rather than to the company itself, investing in Chinese-quoted shares has little, if any impact, in filling Chinese companies’ need for growth capital. The appeal of owning China-quoted shares is hardly overpowering, as the market has been a poor performer overall, and share prices are more propelled by rumor than fundamental value.

At any earlier time in recent history, a dramatic drop like this year’s in new dollar investment into China would be felt acutely by Chinese companies. But, as dollar investing has dried up, Renminbi investing has more than filled the gap. The Shenzhen and Shanghai stock markets are now far larger sources of fresh IPO capital for Chinese companies than New York or Hong Kong ever were. Also, Renminbi PE firms have proliferated.

For a mix of reasons, China is now, arguably, more financially self-reliant than it has been since Mao’s day. Autarky used to be state policy. Now, it is a consequence of China’s own rising affluence and capital accumulation, together with some nationalistic policy changes and the fall-off in interest among international investors to finance Chinese IPOs. Ironically, as China has been drawn more into the global trade and financial system, its need for external capital has lessened.

That is unfortunate. Dollar investment in China benefits both sides. It offers dollar investors higher potential rates of return than investing in mature developed economies. This means better-funded and more generous pensions for American and European retirees. For Chinese companies, dollar investors usually tend to be more hands-on, in a good way, than Renminbi funds. So, they help improve the overall competitiveness, professionalism, corporate governance and strategic planning of the Chinese firms they invest in. Many of China’s best entrepreneurial companies — including well-known firms like Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, as well as hundreds of domestic Chinese brand-name companies few outside of China have heard of– were nurtured towards success by dollar investors.

Since just about everyone wins from new dollar investing in China, what can be done to reverse this year’s big slide? The answer is “not a lot”. I don’t see any strong likelihood that international investors will grow less allergic to Chinese IPOs. Renminbi PE and IPO funding for Chinese companies will continue to grow strongly. Only the removal of capital controls in China, and full Renminbi convertibility, would change the current situation, and lead, most likely, to large new flows of offshore capital into China.

But, full Renminbi convertibility is nowhere in sight. For the foreseeable future, China’s growth mainly will be financed at home.

 

 

 

Out of Focus: China’s First Big LBO Deal is a Headscratcher

The first rule of capitalism is the more buyers you attract, the higher the price you get. So, having just one potential buyer is generally a lousy idea when your goal is to make as much money as possible.

What then to make of the recently-announced plan by an all-star team of some of China’s largest PE firms, including CDH, Fountainvest, CITIC Capital, as well global giant Carlyle,  to participate in a $3.5 billion proposed leveraged buyout deal to take private the NASDAQ-listed Chinese advertising company Focus Media. Any profit from this “take private” deal, as far as I can tell,  hinges on later flipping Focus Media to a larger company. That’s because the chances seem slight a privatized Focus Media will be later approved for domestic Chinese IPO. But, what if Focus turns out to be flip-proof?

With so much money — as so many big name PE firms’ reputations –  on the line, you’d think there would a clear, persuasive investment case for this Focus Media deal. As far as I can tell, there isn’t. I have the highest respect for the PE firms involved in this deal, for their financial and investing acumen. They are the smartest and most experienced group of PE professionals ever assembled to do a single Chinese deal. And yet, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what they are thinking with this deal and why they all want a piece of this action.

If the goal is to try to arbitrage valuation differences between the US and Chinese stock markets, this deal isn’t likely to pan out. It’s not only that Focus Media will have a tough time convincing China’s securities regulator, the CSRC, to allow it to relist in China. Focus Media is now trading on the NASDAQ at a trailing p/e multiple of 18. That is on the high side for companies quoted in China.

Next problem, of course, is the impact on the P&L from all the borrowing needed to complete the deal. There’s been no clear statement yet about how much equity the PE firms will commit, and how much they intend to borrow. To complete the buyout, the investor group, including the PE firms along will need to buy about 65% of the Focus equity. The other 35% is owned by Focus Media’s chairman and China’s large private conglomerate Fosun Group. They both back the LBO deal.

So, the total check size to buy out all other public shareholders will be around $2.4 billion, assuming they investor group doesn’t need to up its offer. If half is borrowed money, the interest expense would swallow up around 50% Focus Media’s likely 2012 net income. In other words, the LBO itself is going to take a huge chunk out of Focus Media’s net income.  In other words, the PE group is actually paying about twice the current p/e to take Focus Media private, since its purchase mechanism will likely halve profits.

A typical LBO in the US relies on borrowed money to finance more than half the total acquisition cost. The more Focus Media borrows, the bigger the hit to its net income. Now, sure, the investors can argue Focus Media should later be valued not on net income, but on EBITDA. That’s the way LBO deals tend to get valued in the US. EBITDA, though,  is still something of an unknown classifier in China. There isn’t even a proper, simple Chinese translation for it. Separately, Focus Media is already carrying quite a bit of debt, equal to about 60% of revenues. Adding another big chunk to finance the buyout, at the very least,  will create a very wobbly balance sheet. At worst, it will put real pressure on Focus Media’s operating business to generate lots of additional cash to stay current on all that borrowing.

I have no particular insight into Focus Media’s business model, other than to note that the company is doing pretty well while already facing intensified competition. Focus Media doesn’t meet the usual criteria for a successful LBO deal, since it isn’t a business that seems to need any major restructuring, refocusing or realignment of interests between owners and management.

Focus Media gets much of its revenue and profit from installing and selling ads that appear on LCD flatscreens it hangs in places like elevators and retail stores. It’s a business tailor-made for Chinese conditions. You won’t find an advertising company quite like it in the US or Europe. In a crowded country, in crowded urban shops, housing blocks and office buildings, you can get an ad in front of a goodly number of people in China while they are riding up in a jammed elevator or waiting at a checkout counter.

The overall fundamentals with Focus Media’s business are sound. The advertising industry in China is growing. But, it’s hard to see anything on the horizon that will lift its current decent operating performance to another level. Without that, it gets much harder to justify this deal.

This is, it should be noted, the first big LBO ever attempted by a Chinese company. It could be that the PE firms involved want to get some knowledge and experience in this realm, assuming that there could be more Chinese LBOs coming down the pike. Maybe. But, it looks like it could be pretty expensive tuition.

Assuming they can pull off the “delist” part of the deal, the PE firms will need to find a way to exit from this investment sometime in the next three to five years. Focus Media’s chairman has been vocal in complaining about the low valuation US investors are giving his company. In other words, he believes the company’s shares can be sold to someone else, at some future date, at a far higher price. (He personally owns 17% of the equity.)

Who exactly, though, is this “someone else”? Relisting Focus Media in China is a real long shot, and anyway, the current multiples, on a trailing basis, are comparable with NASDAQ’s . This is before calculating the hit Focus Media’s earnings will take from leveraging up the company with lots of new debt. How about the Hong Kong Stock Exchange? Focus Media would likely be given a warm welcome to relist there. One problem: with Hong Kong p/e multiples limping along at some of the lowest levels in the world, the relisted Focus Media’s market value would almost certainly be lower than the current price in the US. Throw in, of course, millions of dollars in legal fees on both sides of the delist-relist, and this Hong Kong IPO plan looks like a very elaborate way to park then lose money.

That leaves M&A as the only viable option for the PE investor group to make some money. I’m guessing this is what they have on their minds, to flip Focus Media to a larger Chinese acquirer.  They may have already spoken to potential acquirers, maybe even talked price. The two most obvious acquirers, Tencent Holdings and Baidu, both may be interested. Baidu has done some M&A lately, including the purchase, at what looks to many to be a ridiculously high price, of a majority of Chinese online travel site Qunar.  So far so good.

The risk is that neither of these two giants will agree to pay a big price down the line for a company that could buy now for much less. The same logic applies to any other Chinese acquirer, though they are few and far between. I’d be surprised if Tencent or Baidu haven’t already run the numbers, maybe at Focus Media’s invitation. But, they didn’t make a move. Not up to now.

Could it be they don’t want to do the buyout directly, out of fear it could go wrong or hurt their PR? Maybe. But, I very much doubt they will be very eager to play the final owner in a very public “greater fool” deal.

I’m fully expecting to be proven wrong eventually by this powerhouse group of PEs, and that they will end up dividing a huge profit pile from this Focus Media LBO. If so, the last laugh is on me. But,  as of now, the Focus deal’s investment logic seems cockeyed.

 

 

In Full Agreement

pyramid

I commend unreservedly the following article from today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page. It discusses US reverse mergers and OTCBB IPOs for Chinese companies, identifying reasons these deals happen and the harm that’s often done.


What’s Behind China’s Reverse IPOs?


A dysfunctional financial system pushes companies toward awkward deals in America.
By JOSEPH STERNBERG

As if China Inc. didn’t already have enough problems in America—think safety scares, currency wars, investment protectionism and Sen. Chuck Schumer—now comes the Securities and Exchange Commission. Regulators are investigating allegations of accounting irregularities at several Chinese companies whose shares are traded in America thanks to so-called reverse mergers. Regulators, and not a few reporters, worry that American investors may have been victims of frauds perpetrated by shady foreign firms.

Allow us to posit a different view: Despite the inevitable bad apples, many of the firms involved in this type of deal are as much sinned against as sinning.

In a reverse merger, the company doing the deal injects itself into a dormant shell company, of which the injected company’s management then takes control. In the China context, the deal often works like this: China Widget transfers all its assets into California Tallow Candle Inc., a dormant company with a vestigial penny-stock listing left over from when it was a real firm. China Widget’s management simultaneously takes over CTC, which is now in the business of making widgets in China. And thanks to that listing, China Widget also is now listed in America.

It’s an odd deal. The goal of a traditional IPO is to extract cash from the global capital market. A reverse merger, in contrast, requires the Chinese company to expend capital to execute what is effectively a purchase of the shell company. The company then hopes it can turn to the market for cash at some point in the future via secondary offerings.

Despite its evident economic inefficiencies, the technique has grown popular in recent years. Hundreds of Chinese companies are now listed in the U.S. via this arrangement, with a combined market capitalization of tens of billions of dollars. Some of those may be flim-flammers looking to make a deceitful buck. But by all accounts, many more are legitimate companies. Why do they do it?

One relatively easy explanation is that the Chinese companies have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous foreign banks and lawyers. In China’s still-new economy with immature domestic financial markets, it’s entirely plausible that a large class of first-generation entrepreneurs are relatively naïve about the art of capital-raising but see a listing—any listing—as a point of pride and a useful marketing tool. There may be an element of truth here, judging by the reports from some law firms that they now receive calls from Chinese companies desperate to extract themselves from reverse mergers. (The news for them is rarely good.)

More interesting, however, is the systemic backdrop against which reverse mergers play out. Chinese entrepreneurs face enormous hurdles securing capital. A string of record-breaking IPOs for the likes of Agricultural Bank of China, plus hundred-million-dollar deals for companies like Internet search giant Baidu, show that Beijing has figured out how to use stock markets at home and abroad to get capital to large state-owned or well-connected private-sector firms. The black market can deliver capital to the smallest businesses, albeit at exorbitant interest rates of as much as 200% on an annual basis.

The weakness is with mid-sized private-sector companies. Bank lending is out of reach since loan officers favor large, state-owned enterprises. IPOs involve a three-year application process with an uncertain outcome since regulators carefully control the supply of new shares to ensure a buoyant market. Private equity is gaining in popularity but is still relatively new, and the uncertain IPO process deters some investors who would prefer greater clarity about their exit strategy. In this climate, it’s not necessarily a surprise that some impatient Chinese entrepreneurs view the reverse merger, for all its pitfalls, as a viable shortcut.

So although the SEC investigation is likely to attract ample attention to the U.S. investor- protection aspect of this story, that is the least consequential angle. Rules (even bad ones) are rules. But these shares are generally held by sophisticated hedge-fund managers and penny-stock day traders who ought to know that what they do is a form of glorified gambling.

Rather, consider the striking reality that some 30-odd years after starting its transformation to a form of capitalism, China still has not figured out one of capitalism’s most important features: the allocation of capital from those who have it to those who need it. As corporate savings pile up at inefficient state-owned enterprises, potentially successful private companies find themselves with few outlets to finance expansion. If Beijing can’t solve that problem quickly, a controversy over some penny stocks will be the least of anyone’s problems.

Mr. Sternberg is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia.

US Government Acts to Police OTCBB IPOs and Reverse Mergers for Chinese Companies

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In my experience, there is one catastrophic risk for a successful private company in China. Not inflation, or competition, or government meddling. It’s the risk of doing a bad capital markets deal in the US, particularly a reverse merger or OTCBB listing.  At last count, over 600 Chinese companies have leapt off these cliffs, and few have survived, let alone prospered. Not so, of course, the army of advisors, lawyers and auditors who often profit obscenely from arranging these transactions.

Not before time, the US Congress and SEC are both now finally investigating these transactions and the harm they have done to Chinese companies as well as stock market investors in the US. Here is a Chinese language column I wrote on this subject for Forbes China: click here to read.

As an American, I’m often angry and always embarrassed that the capital market in my homeland has been such an inhospitable place for so many good Chinese companies. In fact, my original reason for starting China First Capital over two years ago was to help a Jiangxi entrepreneur raise PE finance to expand his business, rather than doing a planned “Form 10” OTCBB.

We raised the money, and his company has since quadrupled in size. The founder is now planning an IPO in Hong Kong later this year, underwritten by the world’s preeminent global investment bank. The likely IPO valuation: at least 10 times higher than what was promised to him from that OTCBB IPO, which was to be sponsored by a “microcap” broker with a dubious record from earlier Chinese OTCBB deals.

In general, the only American companies that do OTCBB IPOs are the weakest businesses, often with no revenues or profits. When a good Chinese company has an OTCBB IPO, its choice of using that process will always cast large and ineradicable doubts in the mind of US investors. The suspicion is, any Chinese entrepreneur who chooses a reverse merger or OTCBB IPO either has flawed business judgment or plans to defraud his investors. This is why so many of the Chinese companies quoted on the OTCBB companies have microscopic p/e multiples, sometimes less than 1X current year’s earnings.

The US government is finally beginning to evaluate the damage caused by this “mincing machine” that takes Chinese SME and arranges their OTCBB or reverse mergers. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “The US Securities and Exchange Commission has begun a crackdown on “reverse takeover” market for Chinese companies. Specifically, the SEC’s enforcement and corporation-finance divisions have begun a wide-scale investigation into how networks of accountants, lawyers, and bankers have helped bring scores of Chinese companies onto the U.S. stock markets.”

In addition, the US Congress is considering holding hearings. Their main goal is to protect US investors, since several Chinese companies that listed on OTCBB were later found to have fraudulent accounting.

But, if the SEC and Congress does act, the biggest beneficiaries may be Chinese companies. The US government may make it harder for Chinese companies to do OTCBB IPO and reverse mergers. If so, then these Chinese firms will need to follow a more reliable, tried-and-true path to IPO, including a domestic IPO with CSRC approval.

The advisors who promote OTCBB IPO and reverse mergers always say it is the fastest, easiest way to become a publicly-traded company. They are right. These methods are certainly fast and because of the current lack of US regulation, very easy. Indeed, there is no faster way to turn a good Chinese company into a failed publicly-traded than through an OTCBB IPO or reverse merger.


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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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TMK Power Industries – Anatomy of a Reverse Merger

lacquer box from China First Capital blog post

Two years back, I met the boss and toured the factory of a Shenzhen-based company called TMK Power Industries. They make rechargeable nickel-metal hydride, or Ni-MH,  batteries, the kind used in a lot of household appliances like electric toothbrushes and razors, portable “Dustbuster” vacuum cleaners, and portable entertainment devices like MP3 players. 

At the time, it seemed to me a good business, not great. Lithium rechargeable batteries are where most of the excitement and investment is these days. But, TMK had built up a nice little pocket of the market for the lower-priced and lower-powered NI-MH variety. 

I just read his company went public earlier this year in the US, through a reverse merger and OTCBB listing. I wish this boss lots of luck. He’ll probably need it.

Things may all work out for TMK. But, at first glance, it looks like the company has spent the last two years committing a form of slow-motion suicide. 

Back when I met the company, we had a quick discussion about how they could raise money to expand. I went through the benefits of raising private equity capital, but it mainly fell on deaf ears. The boss let me know soon after that he’d decided to list his company in the US.

He made it seem like a transaction was imminent, since I know he was in need of equity capital. Two years elapsed, but he eventually got his US listing, on the OTCBB, with a ticket symbol of DFEL. 

Here is a chart of share price performance from date of listing in February. It’s a steep fall, but not an unusual trajectory for Chinese companies listed on the OTCBB. 

 TMK share chart

From the beginning, I guessed his idea was to do some kind of reverse merger and OTCBB transaction. I knew he was working then with a financial advisor in China whose forte was arranging these OTCBB deals. I never met this advisor, but knew him by reputation. He had previously worked with a company that later became a client of mine. 

The advisor had arranged an OTCBB deal for this client whose main features were to first raise $8 million from a US OTCBB stock broker as “expansion capital” for the client. The advisor made sure there wouldn’t be much expanding, except of his own bank account and that of the stock broker that planned to put up the $8mn. 

Here’s how the deal was meant to work: the advisor would keep 17% of the capital raised as his fee, or $1.35mn.  The plan was for the broker to then rush this company through an expensive “Form 10” OTCBB listing where at least another $1.5 mn of the original $8mn money would go to pay fees to advisors, the broker,  lawyers and others. The IPO would raise no money for the company, but instead all proceeds from share sale would go to the advisor and broker. The final piece was a huge grant of warrants to this advisor and the stock broker that would leave them in control of at least 15% of the post-IPO equity. 

If the plan had gone down, it’s possible that the advisor and broker would have made 2-3 times the money they put up, in about six months. The Chinese company, meanwhile, would be left to twist in the wind after the IPO. 

Fortunately for the company, this IPO deal never took place. Instead, I helped the company raise $10mn in private equity from a first class PE firm. The company used the money to build a new factory. It has gone from strength to strength. Its profits this year will likely hit $20mn, four times the level of three years ago when I first met them. They are looking at an IPO next year at an expected market cap of over $500mn, more than 10 times higher than when I raised them PE finance in 2008. 

TMK was not quite so lucky. I’m not sure if this advisor stayed around long enough to work on the IPO. His name is not mentioned in the prospectus. It does look like his kind of deal, though. 

TMK should be ruing the day they agreed to this IPO. The shares briefly hit a high of $2.75, then fell off a cliff. They are now down below $1.50. It’s hard to say the exact price, because the shares barely trade. There is no liquidity.

As the phrase goes, the shares “trade by appointment”. This is a common feature of OTCBB listed companies. Also typical for OTCBB companies, the bid-ask spread is also very wide: $1.10 bid, and $1.30 asked. 

Looking at the company’s underlying performance, however, there is some good news. Revenues have about doubled in last two years to around $50mn. In most recent quarter, revenues rose 50% over the previous quarter. That kind of growth should be a boost to the share price. Instead, it’s been one long slide. One obvious reason: while revenues have been booming, profits have collapsed. Net margin shrunk from 13% in final quarter of 2009 to 0.2% in first quarter of 2010. 

How could this happen? The main culprit seems to be the fact that General and Administrative costs rose six-fold in the quarter from $269,000 to over $1.8mn. There’s no mention of the company hiring Jack Welch as its new CEO, at a salary of $6mn a year. So, it’s hard to fathom why G&A costs hit such a high level. I certainly wouldn’t be very pleased if I were a shareholder. 

TMK filed its first 10Q quarterly report late. That’s not just a bad signal. It’s also yet another unneeded expense. The company likely had to pay a lawyer to file the NT-10Q to the SEC to report it would not file on time. When the 10Q did finally appear, it also sucked money out of the company for lawyers and accountants. 

TMK did not have an IPO, as such. Instead, there was a private placement to raise $6.9mn, and in parallel a sale of over 6 million of the company’s shares by a variety of existing shareholders. The broker who raised the money is called Hudson Securities, an outfit I’ve never heard of. TMK paid Hudson $545,000 in fees for the private placement, and also issued to Hudson for free a packet of shares, and a large chunk of warrants.

Hudson was among the shareholders looking to sell, according to the registration statement filed when the company completed its reverse merger in February. It’s hard to know precisely, but it seems a fair guess that TMK paid out to Hudson in cash and kind over $1mn on this deal. 

The reverse merger itself, not including cost of acquiring the shell, cost another $112,000 in fees. At the end of its most recent quarter, the company had all of $289,000 in the bank. 

These reverse merger and OTCBB deals involving Chinese companies happen all the time. Over the last four years, there’s been an average of about six such deals a month.

This is the first time – and with luck it will be the only time – I actually met a company before they went through the process. Most of these reverse merger deals leave the companies worse off. Not so brokers and advisors. 

Given the dismal record of these deals, the phrase 美国反向收购 or “US reverse merger” , should be the most feared in the Chinese financial lexicon. Sadly, that’s not the case.


 

China First Capital’s Report: 如何选择上市的时机和地点, “When and Where to IPO”

China First Capital Chinese-language Report on "Where and When to IPO" for Chinese SME

 

I’m flying back from China as I write this, and bringing with me something of great value to me personally — even if I can’t claim to recognize every character. It’s the Chinese-language report prepared by my China First Capital colleagues on how a Chinese SME can avoid the quicksand and plan a successful IPO. Built on a first draft in English of mine, it’s written specifically for Chinese SME bosses. The report is called “如何选择上市的时机和地点”. 

Download Here: 如何选择上市的时机和地点 “When & Where to IPO for Chinese SME”

We prepared the report with the explicit goal to help SME bosses make more informed decisions in capital-raising and IPO. There’s been an acute lack of reliable, well-researched information in Chinese on this topic. We hope the report will improve this “information deficit”. 

For me personally, this is the most important report we’ve prepared thus far for SME bosses. As this blog has discussed at length recently,  Chinese SMEs have been victimized disproportionately by every form of IPO indignity, from US OTCBB listings, to reverse mergers, Malaysian IPOs, SPACs and other schemes promoted by the predatory bankers, lawyers and advisors that swarm around China. 

Indeed, there are few bigger risks to a successful Chinese SME than making the wrong decision and heeding the wrong advice on where and when to IPO. 

I’d welcome feedback on the report. You can email me at ceo@chinafirstcapital.com

For those who can’t read the report in Chinese, it provides a comprehensive summary of pluses and minuses for Chinese SME of listing on the US, Hong Kong and Chinese stock markets. It also discusses at length, with several case studies,  the damage done to good Chinese SME by OTCBB listings and reverse mergers in the US. The bad examples abound. 

Even if you can’t read the Chinese, I hope you’ll consider sending it on to those active in China’s capital markets, as well as to any Chinese businessmen contemplating a public offering.  Better Chinese-language information is the strongest antiseptic to kill off the bad deals and bad dealmakers in China. So, I hope all those with a genuine interest in promoting entrepreneurship in China will help spread the word.



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Stairway to Hell? IPO Activity in China Falls Off a Cliff

 

Not quite “a staircase to hell”, but the graphic below shows the steep fall in IPO activity in China in 2008. It looks pretty scary, doesn’t it? Chinese IPO activity in 2008 was at its lowest level since 2004. IPO activity basically came to a halt towards the end of last year. 

cfn6461

No one looking at the table will see much room for optimism. But, it’s worth remembering that though down by almost 80% from the year earlier, IPOs of Chinese companies in 2008 still did manage to raise $20 billion of new capital. The key thing now is that this money is used well and wisely, to build profits and market share at these now-publicly-traded Chinese companies. By doing so, these companies will provide an impetus for companies and investors to get back into the IPO market. 

In other words, the IPO market in China is most attractive vibrant not when a company sees a big price jump in its first days of trading. This does little for company, and benefits mainly those who claimed an allocation of shares ahead of the IPO. The key driver for the IPO market should be that the capital raised in an IPO is used wisely, to put companies on a higher growth path. 

Higher profits will boost company valuation, and also allow newly-listed companies to more easily raise additional equity capital in the future. As I sometimes remind the Chinese laoban we work with, “an IPO should not be just a goal in itself, but also the cheapest way to raise additional capital to build your business even faster.” 

Take the money from a public listing to make more money: that’s the quickest way in which Chinese companies can do their part for reviving the IPO market and start building again the “staircase to heaven”, with annual gains every year in the amount of money raised through IPOs. 

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Why Wall Street rules rule in China Private Equity Deals

Quite possibly, these have been the two toughest weeks in the history of Wall Street. Two of the largest, most well-established investment banks (Merrill and Lehman Brothers) have been shattered by losses in mortgage and derivatives markets. Two others, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, are now converting to traditional bank holding companies. Other banks are teetering, and the stock market itself has experienced some of its largest one-day losses ever. 

Amid all the change and turmoil, it’s worth remembering just what makes Wall Street so central to the world’s financial industry. The US capital markets are both the largest, and the most liquid in the world. This is no less true today than it was a month or a year ago. As important is the fact that Wall Street has developed, over the last 70 years, a set of rules, procedures and best practices for raising capital.   These have become the de facto global standard. Put another way: Wall Street rules rule. 

I’m reminded of this fact quite frequently these days. We’re in the process now, at China First Capital, of closing an investment round for one of our Chinese SME clients, from one of Asia’s most successful PE firms. The closing legal documents are weighty, running to over 300 pages in total. The governing law is Hong Kong’s. But, the actual text of many of the documents comes direct from US private equity and IPO closings, including numerous references to the “Securities Act of 1933”, the basic foundational law for share offerings done in the US since then. 

So, here we have a Chinese company obtaining equity capital from a Hong Kong-based investor, while the securities law cited is from the USA. It seems a puzzle at first, even allowing for the possibility our client may one day choose to list its shares in the USA. So, why the reliance on US law and practice? 

Quite simply, because it comes closest to striking an ideal balance between the often competing interests of management and outside shareholders. In economics terminology, this is known as the “principal-agent problem”. (For anyone who wants to read more, Wikipedia has a decent summary: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principal-agent_problem).  This describes the frequent, and often inevitable tensions that can arise between outside investors and the inside management that makes the day-to-day decisions. The management has access to far more information about a company than the providers of capital.   It’s important to keep these divergent interests aligned. That’s what a lot of US securities law assures. It does so by mandating, for example, how often board and shareholders’ meetings must be called, with what kind of notice period, and what rights an investor has to inspect the books and records of the company they’ve put money into. 

For private equity deals, the US has also evolved a series of specific protections for investors. These rules make sure, for example, that an investor has the right to sell its shares in a public offering, and to be kept fully informed during the IPO process. These are essential for the proper functioning of the global private equity industry. As you’d expect, the investor rights figure prominently in the closing documents for our client. I recognize the terms and conditions, since I’ve seen them, more or less verbatim, in PE and VC deals I’ve worked on in the US. 

So, while Wall Street may be undergoing the most far-reaching changes in several generations, it’s leadership position is unchallenged in resolving these principal-agent problems, and making the flow of capital more ample and more secure than it would be under any other legal structure. 

IPO Exit Window — as it slams shut for US companies, it opens ever wider for Chinese ones

That sound you just heard was the IPO window slamming shut for venture and PE-backed companies in the US. In the second quarter of this year, not a single US company went public. This is the first time this has happened since 1978, when the US VC and PE industry was 1% its current size. In other words, these are unusually tough times for the US venture and PE community.

 

Will China soon follow suit? Not likely, in my view. In private equity, as in so many other industries, China and the US are becoming more and more decoupled. Chinese companies will continue to go public, on the US market, as well domestically and in other Asian markets, including Hong Kong and Singapore.  I remain very optimistic about the prospects of Chinese companies now getting PE and venture finance – and no less optimistic about how well many of these investments will do for the PE firms that are investing. For Chinese companies, IPOs and other exits, including trade acquisition,  will continue, at exit values that will reward those investing at typical pre-IPO multiples in China of 6-9x last year’s earnings.

 

Why the different path for Chinese and US companies backed by PE and VC firms? Start with the economy. The US is going through a period of very slow growth, close to, but not yet in, a recession. This, plus the effect of high oil prices, have weighed heavily on the US stock market, which in turn, limits the appetite among investors for IPOs by US companies. IPOs are traditionally far more difficult to arrange during a time of falling stock prices.

 

China’s stock market – as well as those of Singapore and Hong Kong – have followed the US down. That correlation between stock markets still exists. But, even during a down market, Chinese companies can still succeed with a public offering. In Hong Kong, whose overall market has fallen by 18% so far this year, Chinese companies are still going public at a rate of about one a day.

 

What explains this? A big part of it, in my view, is that too much venture and equity capital in the US has gone into technology and biotech, and less to established and profitable businesses. Don’t get me wrong. The technology market in the US is great, and I’m still active in the US venture community. But,  this heavy concentration on two sectors, technology and biotech, is itself a cause of the IPO drought of 2008. Those two industries tend to be both hyper-competitive and volatile. For every Google that goes public, there are dozens of tech companies that take VC funding and then disappear without a trace. A huge percentage of the venture funding goes to early-stage businesses, with zero or limited revenues, and perhaps only some untested IP.

 

So, while American VCs bet heavily on two high-risk/high-reward industries, the overall stock market is made up of many different sectors, with different rates of growth, maturity and different capabilities to respond to competition. In fact, the vast majority of companies listed on the US exchanges aren’t in the technology or biotech industries.

 

Let’s look now at Chinese companies getting PE and VC funding and going public. They are drawn from a far wider range of industries than their US counterparts. The Chinese PE market doesn’t focus on technology companies, or biotechs, or indeed on any single industry. This is a great strength. Chinese companies getting equity finance and then an IPO exit reflect, far more broadly, the overall composition of the stock market, and so the overall investor demand.

 

The other key differentiator  – the Chinese economy continues to grow strongly. It’s increasingly powered by domestic consumption, and will be for decades to come. This, in itself, creates enormous opportunities for the creation of very valuable businesses serving the Chinese domestic market – example:  consumer goods and the businesses that supply those producers.  We are working with a client that manufactures a key component used in disposable diapers, a market that will likely grow by upwards of 50% a year. Fewer than 15% of China’s babies are being swaddled in disposable nappies, compared to over 90% in most middle income countries.

 

My conclusion – as long as private equity capital in China continues to flow into great companies in a wide variety of industries, particularly ones that service the domestic economy, the Exit Window will remain not only open, but ever-larger.