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:
- High economic growth – at least five times higher in 2010 than the rate of gdp growth in the US and Europe
- Active IPO market domestically, with high p/e multiples and strong investor demand for shares in newly-listed companies
- 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.