How Big Can PE Industry in China Grow?

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By one conventional measure, China’s private equity industry is still a fraction of the size of larger developed economies. The PE penetration rate calculates the total annual flow of private equity finance as a percentage of total GPD. In China, the PE penetration rate is currently 0.1% of GDP. In the US, it’s eight times larger. In the UK, the flow of PE funding 2% of GDP, or twenty times the size of China.

While this calculation of PE penetration rate correctly suggests China’s PE industry still has significant room for growth, it is also somewhat misleading. It’s an apples-and-oranges comparison. Private equity in the US and Europe is mainly used to take over large underperforming businesses or subsidiaries of big public companies. These are control investments, usually financed with heavy amounts of borrowed money and a relative sliver of equity. These deals routinely exceed $1 billion. Indeed, during the first half of this year, the ten largest PE deals, all involving US companies, had total transaction value of over $20 billion.

In China, these sort of leveraged buyout deals, for the most part,  are impossible. PE capital in China flows almost entirely into minority investments in profitable fast-growing private companies. Typical deal size is $10mn for 15%-20% of a company’s shares. Deals of this kind are far more rare in the US and UK.

The more accurate term for Private Equity investing in China is “growth capital investment.” The goal is to add fuel to a fire, providing a fast-growing company with additional capital to build new factories or expand its sales and distribution channels. This kind of investing has a far higher success rate than PE investing in the US and Europe. In China, PE firms support winners. In the rest of the world, PE firms generally try to heal the wounded.

If you measured the penetration rate of growth capital investment, I have no doubt China would now be number one in the world. Nowhere else in the world can match China in the number of great private companies that are growing by over 30% a year, have the scale, experience, management and market leadership to continue to double in size every two to three years. The only real limiting factor is a shortage of capital. That’s where PE firms come in. They invest, monitor, then exit a few years later through an IPO.

That’s another big difference between PE in China and the rest of the world. PE investors in China don’t work nearly as hard as they do elsewhere. In China, the hardest part is finding good companies and then agreeing on the size and valuation of an investment. After that, it’s usually smooth sailing. In the US and Europe, it’s not only difficult to find good investment opportunities. The big challenge begins after an investment is made, in designing and then implementing often complex, risky restructuring plans, including a lot of hiring and firing.

With so much bank borrowing involved, short-term cash-flow problems can prove fatal for the PE firm’s investment. Miss an interest payment and banks can seize the business, wiping out the PE firm’s equity investment. A notable example: Cerberus’s leveraged takeover of US automaker Chrysler. Within six months of the deal’s closing, Cerberus’s $7.4 billion investment was mainly wiped out when Chrysler’s sales plummeted.

In China, PE deals also occasionally turn sour. But, the most common reason is fraud or simple theft. PE money goes into a company and disappears, usually into personal bank account of the company’s boss. This isn’t very common. But, it does happen. The PE firm will usually have a legal right to take control of a company if its money is lost or misused. But, the legal process can be slow and the outcome uncertain. By the time a PE gains control, just about everything of value can be drained out of the company. The PE firm ends up owning 100% of a business worth far less than what they put into it.

In China, PE firms often play the role of a disciplinarian, setting up rules and doling out cash as a reward for good behavior. In the US and Europe, the PE is more like a doctor in a trauma ward.

McKinsey & Company, the global consulting firm, has estimated that China’s private equity fund penetration rate could more than quadruple in the next five years, to reach 0.5% of GDP.  If so, the annual amount of PE capital flowing into private companies could reach Rmb200 billion (US$30 billion.)  There are certainly enough good investment opportunities.

At this point, the main thing holding the industry back is a lack of strong, talented people inside PE firms. Great entrepreneurs vastly outnumber great investors in China.