中国首创投资

China 2015 — China’s Shifting Landscape — China First Capital new research report published

China First Capital research report

 

Slowing growth and a gyrating stock market are the two most obvious sources of turbulence in China at the midway point of 2015. Less noticed, perhaps, but certainly no less important for China’s long-term development are deeper trends radically reshaping the overall business environment. Among these are a steady erosion in margins and competitiveness in many, if not most, of China’s industrial and service economy. There are few sectors and few companies that are enjoying growth and profit expansion to match last year and the years before.

China’s consumer market, while healthy overall, is also becoming a more difficult place for businesses to earn decent returns. Relentless competition is one part. As problematic are rising costs and inefficient poorly-evolved management systems.  From a producer economy dominated by large SOEs, China is shifting fast to one where consumers enjoy vastly more choice, more pricing leverage and more opportunities to buy better and buy cheaper. Online shopping is one helpful factor, since it allows Chinese to escape from the poor service and high prices that characterize so much of the traditional bricks-and-mortar retail sector. It’s hard to find anything positive to say about either the current state or future prospects for China’s “offline economy”.

Meanwhile, more Chinese are taking their spending money elsewhere, traveling and buying abroad in record numbers. They have the money to buy premium products, both at home and abroad. But, too much of what’s made and sold within China, belongs to an earlier age. Too many domestic Chinese companies are left manufacturing products no longer quite meet current demands. Adapting and changing is difficult because so many companies gorged themselves previously on bank loans. Declining margins mean that debt service every year swallows up more and more available cash flow. When the economy was still purring along, it was easier for companies and their banks to pretend debt levels were manageable. In 2015, across much of the industrial economy, the strained position of many corporate borrowers has become brutally obvious.

These are a few of the broad themes discussed in our latest research report, “China 2015 — China’s Shifting Landscape”. To download a copy click here.

Inside, you will not find much discussion of GDP growth or the stock market. Instead, we try here to illuminate some less-seen, but relevant, aspects of China’s changing business and investment environment.

For those interested in the stock market’s current woes, I can recommend this article (click here) published in The New York Times, with a good summary of how and why the Chinese stock market arrived at its current difficult state. I’m quoted about the preference among many of China’s better, bigger and more dynamic private sector companies to IPO outside China.

In our new report, I can point to a few articles that may be of special interest, for the signals they provide about future opportunities for growth and profit in China:

  1. China’s most successful cross-border M&A ever, General Mills of the USA acquisition and development of dumpling brand Wanchai Ferry (湾仔码头), using a strategy also favored by Nestle in China
  2. China’s new rules and rationale for domestic M&A – “buy first and pay later”
  3. China’s most successful, if little known, recent start-up, mobile phone brand OnePlus – in its first full year of operations, 2015 worldwide revenues should reach $1 billion, while redefining positively the way Chinese brand manufacturers are viewed in the US and Europe
  4. Shale gas – by shutting out most private sector investment, will China fail to create conditions to exploit the vast reserves, larger than America’s, buried under its soil?
  5. Nanjing – left behind during the early years of Chinese economic reform and development, it is emerging as a core of China’s “inland economy”, linking prosperous Jiangsu and Shanghai with less developed heavily-populated Hubei, Anhui, Sichuan

We’re at a fascinating moment in China’s story of 35 years of rapid and remarkable economic transformation. The report’s conclusion: for businesses and investors both global and China-based, it will take ever more insight, guts and focus to outsmart the competition and succeed.

 

China juices liquidity, and risk, at OTC exchange — Reuters

Reuters

China juices liquidity, and risk, at OTC exchange

SHANGHAI August 22 Thu Aug 21, 2014 5:10pm EDT

(Reuters) – Chinese brokerages will start making markets next week on China’s New Third Board, its leading over-the-counter (OTC) exchange but one long derided as a dead-end market populated by small little-known, opaquely managed firms.

The move has revitalized interest and trading volumes have exploded, but analysts warn of significant risk.

Most of the 66 Chinese brokerages so far approved to make markets – a business that requires deep cash reserves and sophisticated risk management skills – have little experience.

Market makers quote both a buy and sell price and guarantee share availability by holding shares themselves in inventory, which requires careful real-time management.

For brokerages it means extra profits, while China’s policymakers hope the liberalization will boost liquidity in an exchange that can provide capital for small innovative firms, needed for the next phase of economic expansion.

But, analysts fear that brokerages inexperience coupled with inadequate disclosure by listed companies could led to trouble for an exchange already saddled with image problems.

“Like all OTC markets – including… America’s Bulletin Board and Pink Sheets – China’s Third Board suffers from inherent fundamental flaws,” said Peter Fuhrman, chief executive at China First Capital.

“Liquidity and valuations are persistently low and disclosure is spotty. If it was designed to be a solution to the problem of erratic mainstream IPO policy and approvals on China’s main Shenzhen and Shanghai stock exchanges, the Third Board must be judged a major disappointment.”

Regardless of critics, trading volumes on the exchange soared almost 700 percent in May when Chinese media first reported the advent of market-makers, ChinaScope Financial data shows. Foreign investors are unable to trade on the exchange.

A Reuters analysis of daily data from the National Equities Exchange and Quotations (NEEQ), which runs the New Third Board, shows that August volumes are set to surpass May’s record. Transactions worth 1.16 billion yuan ($188.63 million), as of Aug. 19, were nearly double July’s total, while the volume of shares traded has more than tripled month-on-month.

SMALL CAP CELEBRATION

Smaller private companies in China are the country’s biggest aggregate employers and generators of GDP, but they have difficulty getting bank loans and even more difficulty getting regulatory approval to list on major markets or issue bonds.

However, while dozens of local governments have created OTC markets to help match companies with investors, the lack of market makers and lack of a clear upgrade path to major exchanges has caused most firms and investors to steer clear.

But that may be about to change.

“The expectation is that the Third Board can be an entree onto the growth enterprise board for select small companies,” said Brian Ingram, chief investment manager at Russell Ping An Investment Management.

“If the board does serve that purpose, it’s likely to see pretty rapid growth, and the catalyst for that growth is the fact that regulators are allowing brokerage houses to serve as market makers.”

Brokerages hope it will boost in profits, something they need badly having struggled since 2010 as investors steadily switched out of Chinese stocks, among the world’s worst performers, in favor of housing and high-yielding wealth management products.

SMALL-CAP FEEDING FRENZY

Chinese investors enthusiastically trade small, volatile tickers listed on Shenzhen’s ChiNext growth board, so some predict a revitalized OTC board will attract similar speculative interest, further supporting liquidity.

However, sustained interest from both investors and companies depends on whether regulators formally commit to allowing companies on the New Third Board upgrade to ChiNext.

“We’re now considering listing on the New Third Board, but we are waiting for policy confirmation that we can upgrade to ChiNext,” said Cui Lijun, deputy general manager at robotics firm LEN in Shenzhen.

Similar experiments have disappointed in the past, such as the hard-currency-denominated “B-share” board. Speculators bought B-shares hoping they would ultimately be upgraded to yuan-denominated A-shares, but in the end only a few companies were allowed to transfer, leaving the rest stranded.

CALLS FOR CAUTION

The chequered history of OTC markets in China and abroad, especially with regards to disclosure standards, also has many calling for caution.

In the late 2000s, small Chinese companies began listing on American OTC boards, and some managed to upgrade to major exchanges such as NASDAQ. But many were subsequently found to be riddled with accounting irregularities, causing a swathe of delistings.

Given this history, it is unclear whether regulators want to expand the aggregate OTC market or consolidate it.

Out of all of China’s 26 OTC markets, the New Third Board is the only one that companies from anywhere in China can list on, and it will now be the only one where making markets will be allowed.

Some analysts said that this means the government may be elevating the Third Board, so it can then kill off the rest.

But Zhang Yunfeng, the head of Shanghai’s rival OTC market, said in an interview published in China’s Securities Times on Wednesday that he doesn’t feel threatened.

“I’m not optimistic about the market making institution … if there’s not enough base liquidity, market making will have a hard time enabling market performance.”

www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/21/us-china-markets-otc-idUSKBN0GL26920140821

Download PDF version.

China M&A: Three Recent Deals

In the last month, three large takeovers were announced involving Chinese companies. In two of these, PE buyout firms (CITIC Capital and Blackstone)  are offering to take private Chinese companies (AsiaInfo-Linkage and Pactera) quoted on the US stock exchange. In the third, a Chinese acquirer (Shuanghui International) has offered to purchase all shares of US pork producer Smithfield Foods.

I’ve done a quick comparison of these deals across a range of financial variables — premium offered to current shareholders, p/e ratio, profit growth, last two years’ share price performance. I’ve also offered my own judgment on the risks and the industrial logic of the deal, on a scale of 1-10.

The results: the troubled deals, the ones with the highest risks and deepest uncertainties about future performance, with the most anemic share prices up to the date of the offer, with claims or investigations of accounting fraud, with the least industrial logic, are commanding the higher price.

Ah, the Mysterious Orient.

 

Correction: I wrote this article based on the first day’s English-language media coverage of the Smithfield-Shuanghui International takeover. Big mistake. I took at face value the media’s account that this was a merger between China’s largest pork producer and America’s. Turns out the coverage was wrong, and so my conclusion was also. In the software business, it’s called GIGO, “Garbage in, garbage out.” The Smithfield-Shuanghui deal is every bit as precarious an LBO as the other two. The only improvement is that the target company, Smithfield, is a better and more transparent business than AsianInfo-Linkage or Pactera. For the real situation on this Smithfield deal, see this blog post.

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M&A Policy & Policy-making in China — A Visit to China’s Ministry of Commerce

(Me in borrowed suit* alongside Deputy Director General of the Policy Research Department, China Ministry of Commerce)

China’s Ministry of Commerce invited me last week to give a private talk at their Beijing headquarters. The subject was the changing landscape for M&A in China. It was a great honor to be asked, and a thoroughly enjoyable experience to share my views with a team from the Policy Research Department at the Ministry.

For those whose Chinese is up to it, you can have a look at the PPT by clicking here The title translates as “China’s M&A Market: A New Strategy Targeting Unexited PE Deals”.

My China First Capital colleague, and our company’s COO, Dr. Yansong Wang offered our firm’s view that the current crisis of unexited private equity deals is creating an important opportunity for M&A in China to help strengthen, consolidate and restructure the private sector. Buyout firms and strategic acquirers, both China domestic and offshore, will all likely step up their acquisition activity in coming years, targeting China’s stronger private sector companies.

Potentially, this represents a highly significant shift for M&A in China, and so a shift in the workload and travel schedule of the Ministry of Commerce officials. M&A within China, measured both in number and size of deals,  has historically been a fraction of cross-border transactions like the acquisition of Volvo or Nexen

The Ministry of Commerce occupies the most prominent location of any government department in China, with the exception of the Public Security Ministry. Both are on Chang’an Avenue (aka “Eternal Peace Street” on 长安街)a short distance from Tiananmen Square

The Ministry of Commerce plays an active and central role in economic policy-making. Many of the key reforms and policy changes that have guided China’s remarkable economic progress over the last thirty years got their start there. The Ministry of Commerce is also the primary regulator for most M&A deals in China, both domestic and cross-border.

The key sources of growth for China’s economy have shifted from SOEs to private sector companies, from exports to satisfying the demands of China’s huge and fast-growing domestic market. In the future, M&A in China will follow a similar path. That was the main theme of our talk. More M&A deals will involve Chinese private sector companies combining either with each other, or being acquired by larger international companies eager to expand in China.

Ministry officials were quick to grasp the importance of this shift. They asked if policy changes were required or new administrative practices. We shared some ideas. China’s FDI has slowed recently. That is an issue of substantial concern to the Ministry of Commerce. M&A targeting China’s private sector companies represents a potentially useful new channel for productive foreign capital to enter China.

M&A, as the Ministry officials quickly understood, also can help ease some of the pain caused to private companies by the block in IPOs and steep decline in new private equity funding. In particular, they focused their questions on the impact on Chinese larger-scale private sector manufacturing industries.

I found the officials and staff I met with to be practical, knowledgeable and inquisitive. Market forces, and the exit crisis in China’s private equity industry, are driving this change in the direction of M&A in China. But, policies and regulatory guidance issued from the Ministry of Commerce headquarters can – and I believe will — also play a constructive role.

* Three days before my visit,  the Ministry of Commerce suggested I should probably wear a suit, as senior officials there do.  By that time, I’d already arrived in Beijing, so needed to borrow one from a friend. The suit was tailored for someone 40 pounds heavier. As a result, as the above photo displays, I managed to be overdressed and poorly-dressed at the same time.

 

 

Direct Secondary Investment Opportunities in China Private Equity

 

As detailed follow-up to our report on the current challenging crisis of unexited PE investments in China, China First Capital has prepared a new research note. You can download the abridged version by clicking here.

This note provides far more detailed data and analysis on the unexited PE deals: by industry, original deal size, currency, round, and most importantly, “tier of PE”. This should give a more concrete understanding of the current opportunity in direct secondaries in China, as well as numerical challenges all GPs active in China will face exiting.

China First Capital is currently the only firm with this data and analysis. In addition to this note, we will also share in coming weeks three others research notes:

1. Secondary deals modeled on prospective IRR and hold periods
2. Risk-scoring metrics for primary and secondary deals in China
3. Portfolio analytics specific to primary and secondary investments in China

Beyond this work, shared as a service to our industry, to help facilitate the development of an efficient and liquid exit channel of direct secondaries in China, everything else will remain our confidential work product to be deployed only for clients that retain us. An introduction to our secondaries services is available by clicking here.

 

Paid to Gamble But Reluctant To Do So

 

Venture Capital Financing in the US

(Source; The Wall Street Journal)

 

They are the best-paid gamblers in the world, the General Partners at private equity and venture capital firms. They are paid to take risks, to make bets, with other people’s money. And for this, they usually get a guaranteed high annual retainer, a salary that generally puts them in the top 1% of all wage-earners in their country, and also a share of profits earned from putting others’ money at risk. In other words, their life is on the order of “heads I win, tails I win” compensation. They make a handsome salary, have all their expenses covered, are unlikely ever to get fired, and also usually get to claim 20%-25% of the profits from successful deals.

Given those incentives, and the fact the guys with the money (your fund’s LPs) are paying you to find great opportunities and bet on them rather than sit on your hands, you would assume that GPs would want to keep the flow of new deals moving along at a reasonable pace. In fact, inactivity is, next to losing all the LPs money on bad investments, the surest way for a PE fund to put itself out of business. And yet this do-nothing strategy is now common across China’s private equity industry. For the better part of a year, deal-making has all but dried up.

From a recent high of around 1,200 PE deals closed in a single year in China,  in 2012 the total tumbled. My surmise is that the number of new PE deals closed in China last year was down at least 75% from 2011. The activity that took place did so almost entirely during the first half of the year. An industry now holding over $100 billion in capital and employing well over 10,000 people, including some of the most well-educated and well-paid in China, ground to a halt during 2012.

Let me offer up one example. I won’t name them, since I know and like the people running this shop: a fund that is among the biggest of all China-focused PEs, with over $4 billion in capital, made a total of three investments in all of 2012. Two of them were in “club deals” where they threw money into a pot along with a bunch of other funds. Though they keep a full-time staff of 100, funded by the management fee drawn from LPs money, this firm closed only one deal that they actually initiated. At a guess, these guys have an annual management fee in excess of $50mn, and during 2012, their headcount more than doubled.

In any other line of work, a company that decreased its output to about zero, while significantly increasing its expenses, would be on the fast-track to insolvency. But, not in the PE industry in China. It’s currently the norm. Now, of course, those same PE firms will say they are keeping themselves busy monitoring their previous investments, rather than closing new ones. Yes, that’s necessary work. But, still, the radical slow-down in PE activity in PE is without precedent elsewhere in the PE and VC world.

Look, for example, to the VC industry in the US. In good years and bad, with IPOs plentiful and nonexistent, VC firms keep up their dealmaking.  These two charts at the top of the page show this quite clearly. Across a six-year cycle of capital markets boom and bust, the number of new VC investments closed stayed relatively constant at between 600-800 per quarter. In other words, VC workloads in the US stayed relatively stable. They kept channeling LP money into new opportunities. The dollar amounts fluctuated, peaking recently during the run-up to the highly-anticipated IPOs of Linkedin, Facebook, Groupon and Zynga.  Valuations rose and so did check size. But, deal flow stayed steady, even after Linkedin, Facebook, Groupon and Zynga’s share prices nosedived following IPOs.

This is the picture of a mature industry, managed by experienced professionals who’ve seen their share of stock market up and down cycles, heard thousands of pitches for “sure things” that raised some money only to later crash and burn. Some VC firms crashed and burned with them. But, overall, the industry has kept its wits, its focus and its discipline to invest through bad times as well as stellar ones.

The contrast with China’s PE industry is rather stark. There are perhaps as many as 5,000 PE and VC firms in China. No one knows for sure. New ones keep getting formed every week. The more seasoned of the China PE and VC firms have a history of about 10 years. But, the overwhelming majority have been in this game for less than five years. In other words, today there is a large industry, well-financed and with control over a significant amount of the growth capital available in the world’s second largest economy, that was basically created out of nothing, over just the last few years.

Obviously, these thousands of new PE firms couldn’t point to their long history of identifying and investing in private companies. But, LPs poured money in all the same. They were investing more in China — in the remarkable talents of its entrepreneurs and the continued dynamism of its economy — than in the track record of those doing the investing. That seems a wise idea to me. As I’ve mentioned more than once, putting money into China’s better entrepreneur-led companies is certainly among the better risk-adjusted investment opportunities in the world.

If anything, the opportunities are riper and cheaper than a year ago, as valuations have come down and good companies with significant scale (revenues above $25mn) have kept up a rate of profit growth above 30%. In the US VC industry, this would be a strong buy signal. Not so in China. Not now.

PE firms are collecting tens of millions of dollars from LPs in management fees, but not putting much new LP money to productive use by investing in companies that can generate a return. Nor are they actively exiting from previously-made investments and returning capital to LPs. This situation can’t last indefinitely.  For people handed chips and paid to gamble, it’s unwise to spend too much of the time away from the casino snoozing in your high roller suite.

 

One Star Fits All

China First Capital blog post

Imagine a world of where every product had a single celebrity endorser. The same star would advertise on behalf of car companies, detergent, liquor, travel. Sound implausible? Welcome to the world of Chinese celebrity product endorsement, where kungfu star Jackie Chan is such a fixture of product advertising, both commercials and billboards, that no one knows for certain how many different brands he advertises.

With the help of a friend, I recently compiled a list of 16 companies Jackie Chan now shills for. There are certainly others. The list includes some brands familiar to Western audiences, like Mitsubishi Motors and Canon EOS cameras. But, most of the products are ones targeting China’s domestic market. These include a dumpling company, an air-conditioner manufacturer, an anti-baldness shampoo, green tea bags, and a laundry detergent. During the broadcast of the 2012 London Olympics, Jackie Chan-fronted commercials got far more tv time in China than Michael Phelps or any Chinese medal winner .

In the US and Europe, the generally held view is that a celebrity should endorse only one product.  Endorsement contracts usually specify this. Once a brand pays out a lot of money to get a celebrity, they don’t want that investment squandered, in part, by the same celebrity pitching for another product, even an unrelated one.

So, Robert DeNiro has appeared in American Express advertising, and nowhere else. Jennifer Aniston pitches L’Oreal shampoo, and that’s it. For awhile, golfer Tiger Woods was the one notable exception to this rule of promotional monogamy, promoting several different products at once. His marital philandering brought an end to his endorsement philandering. Every big brand but Nike has dropped him.

But, Jackie Chan in China is an advertising law unto himself. He is, without question, the most visible man in China, a wall-to-wall presence in people’s lives. The only face Chinese seen more often is Mao Zedong, whose portrait is on every banknote circulated in the country.

Simply understood, in today’s consumer market in China, paper with Mao’s face buys products with Jacky Chan’s on it.

Unlike Mao, Jacky Chan’s popularity and ubiquity in China are both a little beyond the scope of my comprehension. Start with the fact Jacky Chan is from Hong Kong, not the Chinese mainland, and his clunky Mandarin betrays that fact. Kungfu movies aren’t particularly popular in today’s China. At 58, he’s hardly a matinee idol. Most of his film work these days is in English, like the recent remake of “The Karate Kid” and “Kungfu Panda”.

China has plenty of home-grown stars. Two of them, the actresses Zhang Ziyi and Gong Li, also do a lot of product endorsements. These two share a key attribute that makes Jackie Chan valuable as a pitchman: they’ve achieved fame outside China.

These three are in a class by themselves among celebrity endorsers in China, precisely because they are the only three with real name recognition outside the country. If you want to be a truly big star in China, become even a minor one in the US.

Most of the products endorsed by Jackie Chan are sold only in China. Some, like Cree air-conditioners, among the leading brands. Others, like Fenhuang Cola, are also-rans. Nothing, though, seems to dent his value as a pitcher of products to China’s masses.

All celebrity endorsements are a paid attempt at rub-off glamour. With Jackie Chan, no matter how often that glamour gets rubbed, it never seems to dull.

 


Stir-Fried Rat Anyone?

Rat painting from China First Capital blog post

I was still drowsy from sleep early one morning when I heard a rustle and saw a brown flash dart across my kitchen counter. A rat. For sure. I then found some telltale signs in one of my cupboards – a plastic bag torn open and peanut skins littered all around.

My immediate thought was, “If only Chinese ate rats, there’d be fewer of them”. I’d always heard rats were one of the few animals that Chinese would not consider a meal-in-waiting.

Turns out, I was wrong about that, as this article I dug up from China Daily points out: Click here to read.

A lot of insight and wisdom, as well as the occasional bit of crackpot thinking, is contained in Chinese “chengyu”(成语), the often-ancient sayings still frequently used in daily speech. It’s no surprise that one such chengyu is used to promote the special virtues of eating rat. It avers “one rat is as nutritious as three chickens.”

That there’s zero empirical basis for this claim is clearly no impediment to its use.  A more considered chengyu would be “eat rat and catch all kinds of nasty diseases for which there is no known cure”.

The Cantonese are widely known as the most adventurous eaters in China. There are multiple chengyu about this as well, mainly variations on the theme that Cantonese will eat anything with four legs except a table, and anything that flies except a helicopter.

Rat meat is obviously an acquired taste in China, and not a common source of protein like, for example, dog meat. If it were more prized on the table, there’d be less chance of  encountering one in my kitchen cabinet.

Equally, though, there’d be more seriously ill Chinese. On balance, I’d rather have them thrive as domestic pests, than become a toxic part of the food chain.

 

 

Renminbi Funds: Can They Rewrite the Rules of Profitable Investing?

Renminbi private equity funds are the world’s fastest-growing major pool of discretionary investment funds, with over $20 billion raised in 2011. These Renminbi funds also play an increasingly vital role in allocating capital to China’s best entrepreneurial companies. Despite their size and importance, these Renminbi funds often have a structural defect that may limit their future success.

Most Renminbi funds are managed by people whose pay is only loosely linked, if at all, to their performance. They are structured, typically, much like a Chinese state-owned enterprise (“SOE”),  with multiple managerial levels, slow and diffuse decision-making, rigid hierarchies and little individual responsibility or accountability. The resemblance to SOEs is not accidental. Renminbi funds raise a lot of their money from state-owned companies, and many fund managers come from SOE background.

Maximizing profits is generally not the prime goal of SOEs. They provide employment, steer resources to industries favored by government plans and policies. A similar mindset informs the way many Renminbi funds operate. Individual greed along with individual initiative are discouraged. There are no big pay-outs to partners. In fact, in most cases, there are no partners whatsoever.

This represents a significant departure from the ownership structure of private equity and venture capital firms elsewhere. Partnership matters because it efficiently harnesses the greed of the people doing the investing.  The General Partners (“GPs”) usually put a significant percentage of their own money into deals alongside that of the Limited Partners who capital they invest. GPs are also highly incentivized to earn profits for these LPs. The usual split is 1:4, meaning the GP keeps 20% of net profits earned investing LPs’ money.

Of course, partnership structure doesn’t guarantee GPs are going to do smart things with LPs’ money. There’s lot of examples to the contrary. But, the partnership structure does seem to work better for both sides than any other form of business combination. GPs and LPs both know that the more the GP makes for himself, the more he makes for investors.

Renminbi funds, in most all cases, are structured like ordinary companies, or as subsidiaries of larger state-owned financial holding companies. Instead of partners, they have large management teams with layer upon cumbersome layer. The top people at Renminbi funds are picked as much for their political connections, and ability to source investment capital from government bureaus and SOEs, as their investing acumen. They are wage slaves, albeit well-paid ones by Chinese standards. But, their compensation might not even be 5% of what a partner at a dollar-based private equity firm can earn in a good year. A Renminbi fund manager will rarely have his own capital locked up alongside investors, and even more rarely be awarded that handsome share of net profits.

Renminbi funds differ in other key ways from PE and VC partnerships. The Renminbi funds usually have relatively flat pay scales, modest bonuses and a consensus approach with often as many as 20 or more staff members deciding on which deals to do.  A typical dollar-based PE fund in China might have a total of 15 people, including secretaries. A Renminbi fund? Teams of over 100 are not all that uncommon. The investment committee of a dollar PE firm might have as few as five people. Partners decide which deals to do. A Renminbi firm often have ICs with dozens of members, and even then, their decisions are often not final. Often Renminbi funds need to get investors’ approval for each individual deal they seek to do. They don’t have discretionary power, as PE partnerships do, over their investors’ money.

Renminbi funds have abundant manpower to scout for deals across all of China, and can throw a lot of people into the deal-screening and due diligence process. This bulk approach has its advantages. It can sometimes take a few months of on-the-spot paper-pushing, coaching and reorganizing to get a Chinese private company into compliance with the legal and accounting rules required for outside investment. Dollar funds don’t have that capacity, in most cases.

Also, Renminbi fund managers often have similar backgrounds to the middle management teams at private companies. They are comfortable with all the dining, wining, smoking and karaoke-ing that play such a core part of Chinese business life. The dollar funds? From partners on down, they are staffed by Chinese with elite educations, often including stints in the US working or studying.  Usually they don’t drink or smoke, and prefer to get back to the hotel early at night to churn through the target company’s profit forecast.

Kill-joys though they may be, the PE dollar funds still have, in my experience, some large – and most likely decisive — advantages over the Renminbi funds. Decision-making is nimble, transparent and centralized in the hands of the firm’s few partners. If they like a deal, they can issue a term sheet the same day. At a Renminbi fund, it can take months of internal meetings, report-writing and committee assessments before any kind of term sheet is prepared. Internal back-stabbing, politicking and turf battles are also common.

We’ve also seen deals where the Renminbi fund’s staff demand kickbacks from companies in return for persuading their firms to invest. An executive at one of China’s largest, oldest Renminbi fund estimates 60% of all deals his firm does probably include such under-the-table payoffs.

It’s often futile to try to figure out who really calls the shots at a Renminbi fund. Private company bosses, including several of our clients, are often loath to work with organizations structured in this way. The boss at one of our clients recently chose to take money from two dollar PE firms because he couldn’t get a meeting with the boss of the well-known Renminbi fund that was courting him hard. That firm compounded things by explaining the fund’s boss was anyway not really involved in investment decision-making and would certainly not join our client’s board.

The message this sent: “nobody is really in charge, so if we invest, you are on your own”. For a lot of China’s self-made entrepreneurs, this isn’t the sort of message they want to hear from an investor. They like dealing with partners who have decision-making power, their own money at stake alongside the entrepreneurs. PE partners almost always take a personal role in an investment by joining the board. In short, the PE partner acts like a shareholder because he is one, directly and indirectly.

At a Renminbi fund, the managers do not have skin in the game, nor a clear financial reward from making a successful investment. A Renminbi fund manager can be fired or marginalized by his bosses at any time during the long period (generally at least 3-5 years) from investment to exit. Private equity investing has long time horizon, and the partnership structure is probably the best way to keep everyone (GP, LP, entrepreneur) engaged, aligned and committed to the long-term success of a company.

It is possible for Renminbi funds to organize themselves as partnerships. But, few have done so, and it’s unlikely many will. The GP/LP structure is supremely hard to implement in China. Those with the money generally don’t accept the principle of giving managers discretionary power to invest, and also don’t like the idea of those managers making a significant sum from deals they do.

All signs are that Renminbi funds will continue to grow strongly in number and capital raised. This is, overall, highly positive for entrepreneurship in China. Hundreds of billions of Renminbi equity capital is now available to private companies. As recently as three years ago, there was hardly any. Less clear, however, is how efficiently that money will be invested. I know from experience that Renminbi funds find and invest in great companies. But, they also are prone to a range of inefficiencies, from bureaucratic decision-making to a lack of real accountability among those investing the money,  that can adversely impact their overall performance.

One way or the other, Renminbi funds will rewrite the rules for private equity investing, and eventually provide a huge amount of data on how well these managers can do compared to PE partners. My supposition is that Renminbi firms will not achieve as high a return as dollar-based PE firms investing in China. The reason is simple: investing absent of greed is often investing absent of profit.

The “OTCBB-ization” of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange

From the world’s leading IPO stock market to a grubby financial backwater with the sordid practices of America’s notorious OTCBB. Is this what’s to become of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange ?

I see some rather disturbing signs of this happening. Underwriters, with the pipeline of viable IPO deals drying up, are fanning out across China searching for mandates and making promises every bit as mendacious and self-serving as the rogues who steered so many Chinese companies to their doom on the US OTCBB.

The Hong Kong Stock Exchange (“HKSE”) may be going wrong because so much, until recently, was going right.  Thanks largely to a flood of IPO offerings by large Chinese companies, the HKSE overtook New York in 2009 to become the top capital market for new flotations. While the IPO markets turned sharply downward last year, and the amount of IPO capital raised in Hong Kong fell by half, the HKSE held onto the top spot in 2011. US IPO activity remains subdued, in part due to regulatory burdens and compliance costs heaped onto the IPO process in the US over the last decade.

During the boom years beginning around 2007, all underwriting firms bulked up by adding expensive staff in expensive Hong Kong. This includes global giants like Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Morgan Stanley, smaller Asian and European firms like DBS, Nomura, BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank and the broking arms of giant Chinese financial firms CITIC, ICBC, CIIC, and Bank of China. The assumption among many market players was that the HKSE’s growth would continue to surge, thanks largely to Chinese listings, for years to come. With the US, Europe and Japan all in the economic and capital market doldrums, the investment banking flotilla came sailing into Hong Kong. Champagne corks popped. High-end Hong Kong property prices, already crazily out of synch with local buying power,  climbed still higher.

The underwriting business relies rather heavily on hype and boundless optimism to sell new securities. It’s little surprise, then, that IPO investment bankers should be prone to some irrational exuberance when it comes to evaluating their own career prospects. The grimmer reality was always starkly clear. For fundamental reasons visible to all but ignored by many, the flood of quality Chinese IPOs in Hong Kong was always certain to dry up. It has already begun to do so.

In 2006, the Chinese government closed the legal loophole that allowed many PRC companies to redomicile in Hong Kong, BVI or Cayman Islands. This, in turn, let them pursue IPOs outside China, principally in the US and Hong Kong. Every year, the number of PRC companies with this “offshore structure” and the scale and growth to qualify for an IPO in Hong Kong continues to decline. A domestic Chinese company cannot, in broad terms, have an IPO outside China.

Some clever lawyers came up with some legal fixes, including a legally-dubious structure called “Variable Interest Entity”, or VIE, to allow domestic Chinese companies to list abroad. But, last year, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce began moving to shut these down. The efficient, high-priced IPO machine for listing Chinese companies in Hong Kong is slowly, but surely, being starved of its fuel: good Chinese private companies, attractive to investors.

Yes, there still are non-Chinese companies like Italy’s Prada, Russia’s Rusal or Mongolia’s Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi still eager to list in Hong Kong. There is still a lot of capital, while listing and compliance costs are well below those in the US. But, the Hong Kong underwriting industry is staffed-up mainly to do Chinese IPOs. These guys don’t speak Russian or Mongolian.

So, the sorry situation today is that Hong Kong underwriters are overstuffed with overhead for a “coming boom” of Chinese IPOs that will almost certainly never arrive. China-focused Hong Kong investment bankers are beginning to show signs of growing desperation. Their jobs depend on winning mandates, as well as closing IPOs. To get business, the underwriters are resorting, at least in some cases, to behaviors that seem not that different from the corrupt world of OTCBB listing. This means making some patently false promises to Chinese companies about valuation levels they could achieve in an Hong Kong IPO.

The reality now is that valuation levels for most of the Chinese companies legally structured for IPO in Hong Kong are pathetically low. Valuations keep getting slashed to attract investors who still aren’t showing much interest. Underwriters are finding it hard to solicit buy offers for good Chinese companies at prices of six to eight times this year’s earnings. Some other deals now in the market and nowhere near close are being priced below four times this year’s net income. At those kind of prices, a HK IPO becomes some of the most expensive equity capital around.

In their pursuit of new mandates, however, these Hong Kong underwriters will rarely share this information with Chinese bosses. Instead, they bring with them handsomely-bound bilingual IPO prospectuses for past deals and suggest that valuation levels will go back into double digits in the second half of this year. In other words, the pitch is, “don’t look at today’s reality, focus instead at yesterday’s outcomes and my rosy forecast about tomorrow’s”.

This is the same script used by the advisors who peddled the OTCBB listings that damaged or destroyed so many Chinese companies over the last five years. Another similar tactic used both by OTCBB rogues and HK underwriters is to pray on fear. They suggest to Chinese bosses that they should protect their fortune by listing their company offshore, at whatever price possible and using whatever legally dubious method is available. They also play up the fact a Chinese company theoretically can go public in Hong Kong whenever it likes, rather than wait in an IPO queue of uncertain length and duration, as is true in China.

In other words, the discussion concerns just about everything of importance except the fact that valuation levels in Hong Kong are awful, and there is a decent probability a Chinese company’s HK IPO will fail. This is particularly the case for Chinese companies with less than USD$25 million in net income. The cost to a Chinese company of a failed IPO is a lot of wasted time, at least a million dollars in legal and accounting bills as well as a stained reputation.

There is, increasingly, a negative selection bias. Investors rightly wonder about the quality of Chinese companies, particularly smaller ones, being brought to market by underwriters in Hong Kong.

“No one has a crystal ball”, is how one Hong Kong underwriter, a managing director who spends most of his time in China scouring for mandates, explains the big gap between promises made to Chinese bosses, and the sad reality that many then encounter. In a real sense, this is on par with him saying “I’ve got to do whatever I’ve got to do to earn a living”. He can hold onto his job for now by bringing in new mandates, then hope markets will turn around at some point, the valuation tide will rise, and these boats will lift. This too is a business strategy used for many years by the OTCBB advisor crowd.

The OTCBB racket is now basically shut down. Those who profited from it are now looking for work or looking elsewhere for victims, er mandates. Tiny cleantech deals are apparently now hot.

My prediction is a similar retrenchment is on the way in Hong Kong, only this time those being retrenched won’t be fast-buck types from law firms and tiny OTCBB investment banks no one has heard of. Instead, it’ll be bankers with big salaries working at well-known brokerage companies. The pool of IPO fees isn’t big enough to feed them all now. And, that pool is likely going to evaporate further, as fewer Chinese companies sign on for Hong Kong listings and successfully close deals.

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.

Too Few Exits: The PE Camel Can’t Pass Through the Eye of China’s IPO Needle

The amount of capital going into private equity in China continues to surge, with over $30 billion in new capital raised in 2011. The number of private equity deals in China is also growing quickly. More money in, however, does not necessarily mean more money will come out through IPOs or other exits. In fact, on the exit side of the ledger, there is no real growth, instead probably a slight decline, as the number of domestic IPOs in China stays constant, and offshore IPOs (most notably in Hong Kong and USA) is trending down. M&A activity, the other main source of exit for PE investors,  remains puny in China. 

This poses the most important challenge to the long-term prospects for the private equity industry in China. The more capital that floods in, the larger the backlog grows of deals waiting for exit. No one has yet focused on this issue. But, it is going to become a key fact of life, and ultimately a big impediment, to the continued expansion of capital raised for investing in China. 

Here’s a way to understand the problem: there is probably now over $50 billion in capital invested in Chinese private companies, with another $50 billion at least in capital raised but not yet committed. That is enough to finance investment in around 6,500 Chinese companies, since average investment size remains around $15mn. 

At the moment, only about 250 Chinese private companies go public each year domestically. The reason is that the Chinese securities regulator, the CSRC, keeps tight control on the supply of new issues. Their goal is to keep the supply at a level that will not impact overall stock market valuations. Getting CSRC approval for an IPO is becoming more and more like the camel passing through the eye of a needle. Thousands of companies are waiting for approval, and thousands more will likely join the queue each year by submitting IPO applications to the CSRC.

Is it possible the CSRC could increase the number of IPOs of private companies? In theory, yes. But, there is no sign of that happening, especially with the stock markets now trading significantly below their all-time highs. The CSRC’s primary role is to assure the stability of China’s capital markets, not to provide a transparent and efficient mechanism for qualified firms to raise money from the stock market. 

Coinciding now with the growing backlog of companies waiting for domestic IPOs, offshore stock markets are becoming less and less hospitable for Chinese companies. In Hong Kong, it’s generally only bigger Chinese companies, with offshore shareholder structure and annual net profits of at least USD$20 million, that are most welcome.

In the US, most Chinese companies now have no possibility to go public. There is little to no investor interest. As the Wall Street Journal aptly puts it, “Investors have lost billions of dollars over the last year on Chinese reverse mergers, after some of the companies were accused of accounting fraud and exaggerating the quality and size of their assets. Shares of other Chinese companies that went public in the United States through the conventional initial public stock offering process have also been punished out of fear that the problem could be more widespread.”

Other minor stock markets still actively beckon Chinese companies to list there, including Korea, Singapore, Australia. Their problem is very low IPO price-earnings valuations, often in single digits, as low as one-tenth the level in China. As a result, IPOs in these markets are the choice for Chinese companies that truly have no other option. That creates a negative selection bias.  Bad Chinese companies go where good companies dare not tread. 

For the time being, LPs still seem willing to pour money into funds investing in China, ignoring or downplaying the issue of how and when investments made with their money will become liquid. PE firms certainly are aware of this issue. They structure their investment deals in China with a put clause that lets them exit, in most cases, by selling their shares back to the company after a certain number of years, at a guaranteed annual IRR, usually 15%-25%. That’s fine, but if, as seems likely, more and more Chinese investments exit through this route, because the statistical likelihood of an IPO continues to decline, it will drag down PE firms’ overall investment performance.

Until recently, the best-performing PE firms active in China could achieve annual IRRs of over 50%. Such returns have made it easy for the top firms like CDH, SAIF, New Horizon, and Hony to raise money. But, it may prove impossible for these firms to do as well with new money as they did with the old. 

These good firms generally have the highest success rates in getting their deals approved for domestic IPO. That will likely continue. But, with so many more deals being done, both by these good firms as well as the hundreds of other newly-established Renminbi firms, the percentage of IPO exits for even the best PE firms seems certain to decline. 

When I discuss this with PE partners, the usual answer is they expect exits through M&A to increase significantly. After all, this is now the main exit route for PE and VC deals done in the US and Europe. I do agree that the percentage of Chinese PE deals achieving exit through M&A will increase from the current level. It could barely be any lower than it is now.

But, there are significant obstacles to taking the M&A exit route in China, from a shortage of domestic buyers with cash or shares to use as currency, to regulatory issues, and above all the fact many of the best private companies in China are founded, run and majority-owned by a single highly-talented entrepreneur. If he or she sells out in M&A deal,  the new owners will have a very hard time doing as well as the old owners did. So, even where there are willing sellers, the number of interested buyers in an M&A deal will always be few. 

Measured by new capital raised and investment results achieved, China’s private equity industry has grown a position of global leadership in less than a decade. There is still no shortage of great companies eager for capital, and willing to sell shares at prices highly appealing to PE investors. But, unless something is done to increase significantly the number of PE exits every year,  the PE industry in China must eventually contract. That will have very broad consequences not just for Chinese entrepreneurs eager for expansion capital and liquidity for their shares, but also for hundreds of millions of Chinese, Americans and Europeans whose pension funds have money now invested in Chinese PE. Their retirements will be a little less comfortable if, as seems likely,  a diminishing number of the investments made in Chinese companies have a big IPO payday.

 

 

 

Is Huawei a Paper Tiger?

No large Chinese company is more scrutinized, criticized, ostracized and demonized than Huawei, the Shenzhen-based manufacturer of telecommunications equipment. With revenues of $28 billion in 2010, and 110,000 employees, Huawei is the second-largest telecom equipment company in the world, along with being the largest and most prominent private technology company in China. It is also said to enjoy significant behind-the-curtain support from senior figures in the Chinese government and military.

Not much is known about the secretive company. But for all its size and prominence in the telecommunications industry, Huawei’s corporate finances and balance sheet may be a good deal weaker than commonly assumed. The problem comes from Huawei’s unbalanced balance sheet, and an over-reliance on loans from Chinese state-owned banks, rather than payments from customers, to finance its business. In 2011, instead of too much help from the Chinese government, Huawei seems to have suffered from a lack of it.

The bigger Huawei has grown, the more criticism it has attracted. Competitors outside China have loudly claimed the company was a front for the Chinese military, and that it owes its size in large part to an efficient process of stealing others’ technology and then selling its cut-price knock-off equipment within China and to telecom monopolies in the world’s poorer, most despotic countries.

Huawei has had a particularly hard time of it in the US, where it was sued in 2003 by Cisco for patent infringement. More recently, its plans to buy several US tech companies were blocked by the US government or obstruction by US politicians. Some of the same politicians also blocked Huawei’s sale of some larger telecom equipment in the US by asserting, without producing any real evidence,  Huawei equipment was used by the Chinese military for eavesdropping.

In part to counter all the criticism and alter its reputation as a technological lightweight, Huawei has been spending heavily in recent years to build large R&D centers around the world, hiring lots of PhDs, both Chinese and Western. The company is filing patents by the truckload, a total of over 50,000 at last count. In 2010, the company is said to have invested over $2 billion in R&D. According to the company, profits in 2010 were Rmb24 billion (US$3.7 billion) up from RMB18.27 billion in 2009.

But, the question still remains: is Huawei a solid high-tech company that is misunderstood and unfairly attacked by jealous competitors or attention-seeking politicians? Or, is it more of a bloated, backward and barely profitable machine-maker kept in business through hidden subsidies and support from various arms of the Chinese government?

I have no way to accurately judge, nor any particular interest in the company. I meet with Huawei people occasionally. Huawei is, after all, the largest and most prominent company in Shenzhen, where I now live. As a private company, Huawei releases limited financial information.

My sense is that Huawei’s main problem, at least at the moment, isn’t technical competence, but poor cash flow. This has been brought on by fast-declining profit margins, slow market growth, erratic payments from customers in less-advanced countries where Huawei derives a significant percentage of its sales. To top it off, once compliant Chinese banks have turned stingy in extending loans. Add it up, and Huawei may currently be in much less robust financial condition than previously. A paper tiger? Probabaly not. But, it does look like a very large company with a similarly large imbalance in its financial structure.

To sell its products, Huawei must usually be the cheapest supplier. But, its costs are rising fast and some of its largest markets of late, like equipment for 3G and other high-bandwidth mobile phone systems, are no longer growing quickly. Other product areas are basically stagnant, especially for traditional fixed-line telecom switches.

Though the company has made no public announcement about its financial condition, my conversations with Huawei people suggest the company had a relatively poor year in 2011, and has run into some serious cash-flow challenges. One example: Huawei’s private equity arm, which until recently was trumpeted by Huawei as a key source of future profits and access to new leading-edge technologies, has all but shriveled up and died. Funding has been basically cut off. The cash is needed apparently to keep other parts of the business above water.

In the past, Huawei could sustain its cash flow by tapping China’s state-owned banks for loans. This year, the flow of loans seems to have been curtailed. One reason:  the Chinese government has clamped down hard on all bank lending to stem rising inflation. That’s impacted most heavy borrowers in China, including, it seems, Huawei.

Chinese banks have cut back lending to Huawei, so Huawei apparently has cut back elsewhere in its business. If so, it suggests Huawei’s own cash reserves are scarce, particularly for a company its size. This is caused not only by low margins, but also because Huawei, as a private company, cannot raise money from the capital markets. Its only cushion is taking loans from Chinese banks. These loans, in turn, are dialed up or dialed down not based purely on Huawei’s creditworthiness, but also the overall credit stance of the Chinese government.

The simplest solution, a Huawei IPO, seems as a remote a possibility today as it ever was. The company does not seem ready to endure that level of public disclosure — of its murky financials, ownership, profit margins, management structure, reliance on orders and loans from Chinese government-backed entities.

Over the years, most of Huawei’s erstwhile competitors – including Northern Telecom, Alcatel, Fujitsu, Siemens, AT&T – have either gone out of business, or been dramatically slimmed down. Only Sweden’s Ericsson has sales larger than Huawei.

In the absence of reasonable profit margins and reliable cash flow from customer purchases, Huawei has used a ready flow of Chinese bank loans to finance its operations and investment. But, those low margins also make it a challenge to repay the ever larger bank debts. Ultimately, positive cash flow needs to come from customers, not bank loans.

Whatever the situation with Huawei’s books at the moment, I’m rather sure we will not be reading financial headlines anytime soon about a cash crisis at Huawei. It is a large business,  and well-connected politically. It is also reportedly a large supplier of equipment to the Chinese military.

The large banks in China are state-owned and are routinely used to advance economic, political and social goals.  These banks may have cut back on funding to Huawei this year, but if the company needs money to stave off more serious – and public — financial problems, it’s all but certain the flow of bank cash will be increased. If need be, Huawei could be put on heavy state loan intravenous support.

As Huawei has grown larger, the reliance on bank lending becomes ever more of a risk. It is, above all, a very stilted, unbalanced way for the company to manage its capital needs. A diet of too much debt and too little equity often leads to corporate malnourishment.

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Xinjiang Is Changing the Way China Uses and Profits From Energy

 

Two truisms about China should carry the disclaimer “except in Xinjiang”. China is a densely-populated country, except in Xinjiang. China is short on natural resources, except in Xinjiang. Representing over 15% of the China’s land mass, but with a population of just 30 million, or 0.2% of the total, Xinjiang stretches 1,000 miles across northwestern China, engulfing not only much of the Gobi Desert, but some of China’s most arable farmland as well. Mainly an arid plateau, Xinjiang is in places as green and fertile as Southern England.

Underneath much of that land, we are beginning to learn, lies some of the world’s largest and richest natural resource deposits, including huge quantities of minerals China is otherwise desperately short of, including high-calorie and clean-burning coal, copper, iron ore, petroleum.  How, when and at what cost China exploits Xinjiang’s natural resources will be among the deciding issues for China’s economy over the next thirty years. Already, some remarkable progress is being made, based on two past visits. I return to Xinjiang tomorrow for five days of client meetings.

Because of its vast size and small population, Xinjiang hasn’t yet had its mineral resources fully probed and mapped. But, every year, the size of its proven resource base expands. Knowing there’s wealth under the ground, and finding a cost-effective way to dig out the minerals and get them to market are, of course,  very different things. Until recently, Xinjiang’s transport infrastructure – roads and railways – was far from adequate to provide a cost-efficient route to market for all the mineral wealth.

That bottleneck is being tackled, with new expressways opening every year, and plans underway to expand dramatically the rail network. But, transport can’t alter the fact Xinjiang is still very remote from the populated core of China’s fast-growing industrial and consumer economy. Example:  it can still be cheaper to ship a ton of iron ore from Australia to Shanghai than from areas in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang’s key resource, and the one with the largest potential market, is high-grade clean-burning coal. Xinjiang is loaded with the stuff, with over 2 trillion tons of proven reserves. Let that figure sink in. It’s the equivalent of over 650 years of current coal consumption in coal-dependent China . The Chinese planners’ goal is for Xinjiang to supply about 25% of China’s coal demand within ten years.

Xinjiang’s coal is generally both cleaner (low sulphur content) and cheaper to mine than the coal China now mainly relies on, much of which comes from a belt of deep coal running through Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Shandong Provinces. Large coal seams in Xinjiang can be surface mined. Production costs of under Rmb150 a ton are common. The current coal price in China is over four times higher for the dirtier, lower-energy stuff.

For all its advantages, Xinjiang coal is not going to become a primary source of energy in China. The Chinese government, rightly, understands that the cost, complexity and long distances involved make shipping vast quantities of Xinjiang coal to Eastern China unworkable. Moving coal east would monopolize Xinjiang’s rail and road network, causing serious distortions in the overall economy.

Instead, the Xinjiang government is doing something both smart and innovative. It is encouraging companies to use Xinjiang’s abundant coal as a feedstock to produce lower cost supplies of industrial products and chemicals now produced using petroleum. All kinds of things become cost-efficient to manufacture when you have access to large supplies of low-cost energy from coal. Shipping finished or intermediate goods is obviously a better use of Xinjiang’s limited transport infrastructure.

I’ve seen and met the bosses of several of these large coal-based private sector projects in Xinjiang. The scale and projected profitability of these projects is awesome. In one case, a private company is using a coal mine it developed to power its $500mn factory to produce the plastic PVC. The coal reserve was provided for free, in return for the company’s agreement to invest and build the large chemical factory next to it. The cost of producing PVC at this plant should be less than one-third that of PVC made using petroleum. China’s PVC market, as well as imports, are both staggeringly large. The new plant will not only lower the cost of PVC in China but reduce China’s demand for petroleum and its byproducts.

Another company, one of the largest private companies in China,  is using its Xinjiang coal reserve, again supplied for free in return for investment in new factories, to power a large chemical plant to produce glycerine and other chemical intermediates. This company is already a large producer of these chemicals at its factories in Shandong. There, they run on petroleum. In the new Xinjiang facility, coal will be used instead, lowering overall manufacturing costs by at least 20% – 30% based on an oil price of around $50. At current oil prices, the cost savings, and margins, become far richer.

The key, of course, is that the companies get the coal reserve for free, or close to it. True, they need to build the coal mine first, but generally, that isn’t a large expense, since it can all be surface-mined.  This means that the cost of energy in these very energy-intensive projects is much lower than it would be for plants using petroleum or, to be fair, any operator elsewhere who would need to purchase the coal reserve as well as build the capital-intensive downstream facilities.

The Xinjiang projects should lock-in a significant cost advantage over a significant period of time. As investments, they also should provide consistently high returns over the long-term. While the capital investment is large, I’m confident the projects are attractive on risk/return basis, and that in a few years time, these private sector “coal-for-petroleum” projects will begin to go public, and become large and successful public companies.

The Xinjiang government keeps close tabs on this process of providing free coal reserves for use as a feedstock.  Since in most cases, these projects are looking to enter large markets now dominated by petroleum and its byproducts, there is ample room for more such deals to be done in Xinjiang.

Deals are getting larger. This summer, China’s largest coal producer, Shenhua Group, announced it would invest Rmb 52 billion ($8 billion) on a coal-to-oil project in Xinjiang. The company plans to mine 70 million tons of coal a year and turn it into three million tons of fuel oil.

Remote and sparsely-populated as it now is, Xinjiang is going to play a decisive role in China’s industrial and energy future, just as the development of America’s West has helped drive economic growth for over 100 years, and created some of America’s largest fortunes.  My prediction:  China’s West will produce more coal and mineral billionaires over the next 100 years than America’s has over the past hundred.

Investment Banking in China — What I’ve Learned & Unlearned

Anyone seeking to succeed in investment banking in China should live by one rule alone: it’s not who you know, but how well you know them. In China, more than any other country where I’ve worked, the professional is also the personal. Comradeship, if not friendship, is always a necessary precondition to doing business together. If you haven’t shared a meal – and more importantly, shared a few hundred laughs – you will never share a business deal. Competence, experience, education and reputation all matter, of course. But, they all play supporting roles.

The stereotypical hard-charging pompous Wall Street investment banker wouldn’t stand much of a chance here. A “Master of the Universe” would need to master a set of different, unfamiliar skills. Personal warmth, ready humor and a relaxed and somewhat deferential attitude will go a lot farther than spreadsheet modeling, an Ivy League MBA and financial dodges to increase earnings-per-share.

I’ve been around a fair bit in my +25 year business career, doing business is over 40 countries and managing companies in the US, Europe and Asia. Everywhere, it helps to be likeable, attentive, courteous. We all prefer working with people we like.  But, since moving to China and opening a business, I’ve learned things work differently here. Making money and making friends are interchangeable in China. You can’t do the first without doing the second.

Investment banking is so personal in China because most private Chinese companies, from the biggest on down, are effectively one-man-shows, with a boss whose authority and wisdom are seldom challenged. Usually, there is  no “management team” in the sense this term is applied in the US and Europe. A Chinese boss is the master of all he (or often she, as women entrepreneurs are common here) surveys.

A substantial percentage of my time is spent getting to know, and winning the friendship, of Chinese bosses. This alone makes me a lucky guy. Without fail, the bosses I meet are smart, gifted, able, hospitable, warm. We don’t select for these qualities. They are prerequisites for success as a private business in China.

Bosses are also usually guarded about meeting new people. It comes with the territory. Anyone with a successful business in China is going to be in very large demand from a very large “catchment pool”, including just about everyone in the extended circle of the boss’s friends, relatives, employees, suppliers, political contacts. Everyone is selling or seeking something. Precious few will succeed. Being a boss in China requires enormous stamina, to deal with all those making a claim on your time, and a gift for saying “No” in ways that don’t offend.

For investment bankers, successful deal generation in China will usually follow an elliptical path. The biggest mistake is to start pitching your company, or a transaction, the moment you meet a prospective client. You need first to win the boss’s trust and friendship, then you can discuss how to work together. In my working life in China, it’s axiomatic that in a first meeting with a company boss, one or the other of us will say, “我们先做朋友”,  or “let’s become friends be first”. It’s not some throwaway line. It’s an operating manual.

The Chinese use a specific word to define the engagement between an investment banker and client. It speaks volumes about the way new business is won here. It’s “合作” or cooperation. You don’t work for a Chinese company, you cooperate with it. There’s got to be a real personal bond in place, a tangible sense of shared purpose and shared destiny.

I could probably teach a class in the cross-cultural differences of investment banking in China and the US. I’ve not only been active in both places, I’ve been on both sides of the table. Before starting CFC, I was CEO of an American company that retained one of the most renowned investment banks in the US to handle an M&A deal for us. At that company, we had a deep senior management team, including two supremely capable founders. We dealt individually and collectively with the investment bank, which had a similarly-sized team assigned to the project.

The relationships were professional, cordial. But, the investment bankers never made any real effort to become my friend, nor did I want them to. Rarely, if ever, did discussions veer away from how to create the conditions to get the best price. The bankers were explicitly pursuing their fee, and we were pursuing our strategic goal.

The deal went pretty smoothly, following a tightly-scripted and typical M&A process. The investment bank’s materials and research were first-rate, and they had no difficulty getting directly to decision-makers at some of the largest software companies in the world. They performed with the intricate precision and harmony of the Julliard Quartet.

I can count the number of times I sat down with the bankers for a nice meal where business was not discussed. Or the number of times when the meeting room rang with peals of friendly laughter. Zero. Both would be unthinkable in China.

Here, a deal is more than just a deal. Price is not the only, or even the main objective. Instead, as an investment banker, you must knit souls together, their lives, fortunes, careers, goals and temperaments. There is no spreadsheet, no due diligence list, no B-school case study, no insider jargon to consult.

Be likeable and be righteous. But. above all, do not be transparently or subliminally motivated mainly by personal greed. A successful Chinese boss will smell that coming from miles away, and recoil. You’ll rarely get past “ 您好” , the polite form of “hello”.