中小企业

ZTO Spurns Huge China Valuations For Benefits of U.S. Listing — Reuters

reuters

headline

zto

By Elzio Barreto and Julie Zhu | HONG KONG

Chinese logistics company ZTO Express is turning up the chance of a much more lucrative share listing at home in favor of an overseas IPO that lets its founder retain control and its investors cash out more easily.

To steal a march on its rivals in the world’s largest express delivery market, it is taking the quicker U.S. route to raise $1.3 billion for new warehouses and long-haul trucks to ride breakneck growth fueled by China’s e-commerce boom.

Its competitors SF Express, YTO Express, STO Express and Yunda Express all unveiled plans several months ago for backdoor listings in Shenzhen and Shanghai, but ZTO’s head start could prove crucial, analysts and investors said.

“ZTO will have a clear, certain route to raise additional capital via U.S. markets, which their competitors, assuming they all end up quoted in China, will not,” said Peter Fuhrman, CEO of China-focused investment bank China First Capital.

With a backlog of about 800 companies waiting for approval to go public in China and frequent changes to the listing rules by regulators, a New York listing is generally a quicker and more predictable way of raising funds and taps a broader mix of investors, bankers and investors said.

“ZTO will have a built-in long-term competitive advantage – more reliable access to equity capital,” Fuhrman added.

U.S. rules that allow founder Meisong Lai to retain control over the company and make it easier for ZTO’s private equity investors to sell their shares were some of the main reasons to go for an overseas listing, according to four people close to the company. U.S. markets allow a dual-class share structure that will give Lai 80 percent voting power in the company, even though he will only hold 28 percent of the stock after the IPO.

Most of Lai’s shares are Class B ordinary shares carrying 10 votes, while Class A shares, including the new U.S. shares, have one vote. China’s markets do not allow shares with different voting power.

ZTO’s existing shareholders, including private equity firms Warburg Pincus, Hillhouse Capital and venture capital firm Sequoia Capital will also get much more leeway and flexibility to exit their investment under U.S. market rules. In China, they would be locked in for one to three years after the IPO.

As concerns grow about a weakening Chinese currency, the New York IPO also gives it more stable dollar-denominated shares it can use for international acquisitions, the people close to the company said.

IN DEMAND

Demand for the IPO, the biggest by a Chinese company in the United States since e-commerce giant Alibaba Group’s $25 billion record in 2014, already exceeds the shares on offer multiple times, two of the people said.

That underscores the appeal of the fast-growing company to global investors, despite a valuation that places it above household names United Parcel Service Inc and FedEx Corp.

The shares will be priced on Oct. 26 and start trading the following day.

ZTO is selling 72.1 million new American Depositary Shares (ADS), equivalent to about 10 percent of its outstanding stock, in the range $16.50 to $18.50 each. The range is equal to 23.4-26.3 times its expected 2017 earnings per share, according to people familiar with the matter.

By comparison, Chinese rivals SF Express, YTO Express, STO Express and Yunda shares trade between 43 and 106 times earnings, according to Haitong Securities estimates.

UPS and FedEx, which are growing at a much slower pace, trade at multiples of 17.8 and 13.4 times.

“The A-share market (in China) does give you a higher valuation, but the U.S. market can help improve your transparency and corporate governance,” said one of the people close to ZTO. “Becoming a New York-listed company will also benefit the company in the long-term if it plans to conduct M&A overseas and seek more capital from the international market.”

China’s express delivery firms handled 20.7 billion parcels in 2015, shifting 1.5 times the volume in the United States, according to consulting firm iResearch data cited in the ZTO prospectus.

The market will grow an average 23.7 percent a year through 2020 and reach 60 billion parcels, iResearch forecasts.

Domestic rivals STO Express and YTO Express have unveiled plans to go public with reverse takeovers worth $2.5 billion and $2.6 billion, while the country’s biggest player, SF Express, is working on a $6.4 billion deal and Yunda Express on a $2.7 billion listing.

ZTO plans to use $720 million of the IPO proceeds to purchase land and invest in new facilities to expand its packaged sorting capacity, according to the listing prospectus.

The rest will be used to expand its truck fleet, invest in new technology and for potential acquisitions.

“It’s a competitive industry and you do need fresh capital for your expansion, in particular when all your rivals are doing so or plan to do so,” said one of the people close to the company.

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-zto-express-ipo-idUSKCN12L0QH

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’s central government gets serious about changing IPO rules and helping SMEs raise capital, Global Times article

globatimes

 

Govt calls for progress in IPO reform to help small firms

By Wang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2014-11-24

 

Amid a slowing economy, the Chinese government is considering strategies to help the country’s cash-starved micro and small companies. Upcoming IPO reform is expected to offer easier access to stock market funding, but investors are concerned it could divert funds from existing stocks.

 

While China’s economy has been affected by a weakening property sector, erratic foreign demand and sagging domestic investment growth, the authorities are hoping that the country’s millions of micro and small enterprises (MSEs) can offer a source of economic energy.

The State Council, the country’s cabinet, pledged on Wednesday to lower the cost of raising funds by giving banks more flexibility to lend and removing rigid profit requirements for a firm to get listed in stock markets, among other measures aimed at making it easier for small firms to grow.

At the meeting on Wednesday, Premier Li Keqiang urged the securities regulator to speed up plans to unveil simplified rules for new IPOs.

Two days after the cabinet’s meeting, the central bank cut interest rates for the first time in two years.

While the rate cut will be of particular benefit for large State-owned enterprises, simplified IPO access is expected to make it easier for cash-starved smaller firms to raise money directly in the markets.

Under the existing IPO scheme, applicants must meet certain conditions in order to get listed in Shanghai or Shenzhen, including having made a profit for at least two consecutive years and having net profit of at least 10 million yuan ($1.63 million).

Even if they meet these requirements, IPO applicants are also subject to the review and approval procedures of the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC), the securities watchdog.

The CSRC suspended its IPO reviews in late 2012 in a bid to enhance information disclosure and crack down on rampant financial fraud and insider trading.

The CSRC also wanted to lay solid foundations for a new round of IPO reform intended to diminish government intervention and establish a more efficient, market-based IPO filing system.

The regulator restarted IPO approvals in December 2013 after a 13-month hiatus.

However, the suspension had resulted in a long queue of IPO applicants. As of mid-November this year, 570 firms were waiting for their applications to be reviewed, according to media reports.

A plan for an IPO filing system with a focus on information disclosure is likely to be released by the end of 2014, the 21st Century Business Herald reported on Thursday, citing a source close to the CSRC.

Equal access

Under the new IPO registration system, the CSRC will no longer intervene in the listing process and will focus on supervision rather than review and approval, analysts said.

The system will provide access to market financing for all firms, not just those at the front of the queue for IPO approval, and the investment value shall be judged by investors, not the government, Dong Dengxin, director of the Finance and Securities Institute at Wuhan University of Science and Technology, wrote on his Weibo on Saturday.

The CSRC was not available for comment on the schedule of IPO registration reform when reached by the Global Times on Thursday.

As China tries to move up the value chain and restructure its economy, small firms have become increasingly important. They also account for more than 70 percent of the country’s jobs.

“While the IPO reforms are absolutely correct in their direction and implementation, the capital markets in China are still unable to provide the financing needed for most MSEs to continue to grow,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman and CEO of Shenzhen-based investment bank China First Capital, told the Global Times in an e-mail on Saturday.

Relatively slow approval of IPOs and the exceptionally long waiting list are seen as the major reasons for the difficult funding.

There are “thousands of Chinese MSEs with good size and profits” that are waiting to go public, said Fuhrman.

Read full article.

China’s Capital Markets Go From Feast to Famine and Now Back Again, China First Capital New Research Report

China First Capital 2014 research report cover

The long dark eclipse is over. The sun is shining again on China’s capital markets and private equity industry. That’s good news in itself, but is also especially important to the overall Chinese economy. For the last two years, investment flows into private sector companies have dropped precipitously, as IPOs disappeared and private equity firms went into hibernation. Rebalancing China’s economy away from exports and government investment will take cash. Lots of it. Expect significant progress this year as China’s private sector raises record capital and China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) gradually transform into more competitive, profit-maximizing businesses.

These are some of the conclusions of the most recent Chinese-language research report published by China First Capital. It is titled, “2014民企国企的转型与机遇“, which I’d translate as “2014: A Year of Transformation and Opportunities for China’s Public and Private Sectors”. You can download a copy by clicking here or visiting the Research Reports section of the China First Capital website, (http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/en/research-reports).

We’re not planning an English translation. One reason:  the report is tailored mainly to the 8,000 domestic company bosses as well as Chinese government policy-makers and officials we work with or have met. They have already received a copy. The report has also gotten a fair bit of media coverage over the last week here in China.

Our key message is we expect this year overall business conditions, as well as capital-raising environment,  to be significantly improved compared to the last two years.  We expect the IPO market to stage a significant recovery. Our prediction, over 500 Chinese companies will IPO worldwide during this year, with the majority of these IPOs here in China.

We also investigate the direction of economic and reform policy in China following the Third Plenum, and how it will open new opportunities for SOEs to finance their growth and improve their overall profitability, including through carve-out IPOs and strategic investment. SOEs will become an important new area of investment for PE firms and global strategics.

The SOEs we work with are all convinced of the need to diversify their ownership, and bring in profit-driven experienced institutional investors. For investors, SOE deals offer several clear advantages: scale is larger and valuations are usually lower than in SME deals; SOEs are fully compliant with China’s tax rules, with a single set of books; the time to IPO or other exit should be quicker than in many SME deals.

As financial markets mature in China, we think one unintended consequence will be a drop in activity on China’s recently-established over-the-counter exchange, known as the “New Third Board” (新三板).  The report offers our reasons why we think this OTC market is a poor, inefficient choice for Chinese businesses looking to raise capital. While the aims of the Third Board are commendable, to open a new fund-raising channel for private sector companies, the reality is that it offers too little liquidity, low valuations and an uncertain path to a full listing on China’s main stock exchanges.

Over the last three years, China has had the highest growth rate and the worst performing stock market among all major economies. In part, the long stock market slide is both necessary and desirable, to bring China’s stock market valuations more in line with those of the US and Hong Kong. But, it also points to a more uncomfortable reality, that China’s listed companies too often become listless ones. Once public, many companies’ profit growth and rates of return go into long-term decline. IPO proceeds are hoarded or misspent. Rarely do managers make it a priority to increase shareholder value.

A small tweak in the IPO listing rules offers some promise of improvement. Beginning this year, a company’s control shareholder, usually the owner or a PE firm, will be locked-in and prevented from selling shares for five years if the share price stays below the original IPO level.

Spare a moment to consider the life of a successful Chinese entrepreneur, both SOE and private sector. In two years, access to capital went from feast to famine. And now maybe back again. An IPO exit went from a reachable goal to an impossibility. And now maybe back again. Meanwhile, markets at home surged while those abroad sputtered. Government reform went from minimal to now ambitious.

2014 is going to be quite a year.

Private Equity in China 2014: A Dialogue

pendant

PE in China is changing. But, from what and into what?

Over the last week, I had an email discussion with a managing director in China of one of the world’s five largest private equity firms. He wrote to tell me about the fund’s recent change in China strategy, which then triggered an email dialogue on the specific challenges his firm is trying to overcome, and the larger tides that are shaping the private equity industry in China.

I’ll share an edited version here. I’ve taken out the firm’s name and any references that might make it identifiable.

Think it’s easy to be a private equity boss in China, to keep your job and keep your LPs happy? It’s anything but.

PE Firm Managing Director: Peter, I want to share some change in our fund strategy with you and get your opinion on it.

We have optimized our investment strategy for our US$ fund. We will focus more on late-stage companies that can achieve an IPO within 1-2 years and exit/partial exit perhaps 3-4 years or less. Total investment amount is still $30-80M but we prefer larger deal sizes within the range. Since these are high quality companies, we have lowered our criteria and is willing to be more competitive and pay higher valuation and take less % ownership (minimum 4-5% is still OK). We can also buy more old shares and participate in small club deals as long as the minimum investment size is met.

We are also willing to work with high quality listed companies in terms of PIPE/CB. In sum, our strategy should be more flexible and competitive versus before.

Me: Thanks for sending me the summary on the new investment strategy. You could guess I wouldn’t just reply, “sounds fine to me”.

Here’s my view of it, after a day’s thought. If I didn’t know it was from [your firm], or didn’t focus on the larger check size, I’d say the strategy was identical to every RMB PE firm active in China, starting with Jiuding and then moving downward. That by itself is a problem since in my mind, [your firm] operates in a different universe from those guys — you are thoroughly professional, experienced, global, proper fiduciaries. Maybe that’s your opportunity, to be the ” thoroughly professional, experienced, global, proper fiduciary” version of an RMB fund?

Other problem is, unless your firm is even smarter and more well-connected in Zhongnanhai than I think, no one can have any real idea at this point which Chinese companies, other than Alibaba Group,  can gain an IPO in next two years. The English idiom here is “making yourself a hostage to fortune”. In other words, the only way a PE could consistently achieve the goal of “IPO exits within 24 months” is based more on luck than planning and deal execution.

If you asked me, I’d think the way to frame it is you will opportunistically seek early exits, but will focus always on companies where you have confidence EV will increase by +30% YOY over short- and medium-term, in part due to the money and know-how you provide. It’s kind of a hedge, rather than just hoping IPO exits will come roaring back after almost two years with basically zero Chinese IPOs.

The good news for you and for me is that China has so many great companies, great entrepreneurs that all of us can “free ride”, to some extent, on their genius and ability to generate growth and wealth.

PE MD: Thanks for the detailed message and for thinking so hard to help us.

First let me explain why the changes were made. Through extensive recent discussion with limited partners, it appears that a hybrid fund with small early stage, mid-sized growth stage and larger sized late stage or PIPE is not what LPs want as they are in the business of allocating funds to a variety of focused managers rather than just put the money to a single fund doing it all. For example, it could allocate a small portion of its capital to Sequoia or Qiming for early stage and pray they can get a huge return back in five years. For other (major) part of their allocation, they desire some fund which can focus more on IRR increase of Multiple of Capital.

I think this is where we are attempting to position our latest fund. Even though our returns are decent, our previous funds took too long to return distributions and result in lower IRRs.

As you know, my firm has [over $100 billion] AUM. Although the company including the Founder is extremely supportive of our fund, we have to do more to make our fund relevant to the firm financially. Therefore, we need to focus on bigger/latter stage project which can allow us to deploy/harvest capital more quickly than before (3-4 years versus 5-7 years) and building up more AUM per investment professional to reach at least the average for the firm.

Doing many small projects ($10-20 million) has also put a very high administrative burden/cost on our back-office. While the strategy means that we will go in a little bit later stage, taking a smaller-stake sometimes and perhaps pay a higher valuation (since the companies are more expensive as risks are lower closer to liquidity), it doesn’t change our commitment to each investment. In fact, due to the reduced number of investment, we can focus our value creation efforts on each one more. This is very different than the shoot and forget method of Jiuding.

It is true having a smaller stake will reduce our influence and perhaps reduce our ability to persuade the founder to sell in case an IPO is impossible. However, a smaller stake means it is more liquid after IPO and we can be more flexible in selling the stake pre-IPO to another PE. Of course we are not explicitly targeting IPO in 24 month but we are trying to be as late stage as possible while meeting our IRR stand. We do have some idea of what kind of company can IPO sooner based on years of experience. If the markets or regulatory agencies don’t cooperate on the IPO schedule, then we just have to make sure our investments can keep growing without an IPO.

Me: As a strategy, it can’t be faulted. In a nutshell, it’s “Get in, get out, get carry and get new capital allocations from one’s LPs.”

My doubts are down on the practical level. Are there really deals like this in the market? If so, I certainly don’t see them. I’m just one guy feeling the elephant’s tail, and so have nothing like the people, sources that your firm has in China. Maybe there are lots of these kinds of opportunities, well-run Chinese companies with pre-money valuations of +USD$200mn (implying net income of +USD$20mn), and so probably large enough to IPO now, but still looking, somewhat illogically,  to raise outside PE money from a dollar fund at a discount to public markets.  Maybe too there are enough to go around to fill the strategic needs of not just your firm but about every other one active here, including not only the RMB crowd, but all the other big global guys, who also say they want to find ways to write big dollar checks in China and exit these deals within 2-3 years. (This is, after all, the genesis of the craze to throw money into PtP deals in the US, none of which have made anyone any money up to this point.)

Is China deal flow a match for this China strategy? That’s the part I’ll be watching most closely.

My empirical view is that the gap may be growing dangerously ever wider between what China PEs are seeking and what the China market has to offer. This is a country where the best growth capital deals and best risk-adjusted investments are concentrated among entrepreneurial private sector businesses with (sane) valuations below $100mn. In other markets, scale is inversely correlated with risk. In China, it is probably the opposite. Bigger deals here usually have more hair on them than an alpaca.

From our discussions over the years, I know you’re someone who looks at deals through a special, somewhat contrarian prism. Your firm’s new strategy pulls in one direction, while your own inclinations, judgment and experience may perhaps pull you in another.

We’re finishing up now a “What’s ahead in 2014″ Chinese-language report that we’ll distribute to the +6,500 Chinese company bosses, senior management and Chinese government officials in our database.  I’ll send a copy when it’s done. You’ll see we’re basically forecasting 2014 will be a better year to operate and finance a business in China than the last two years. Our view is good Chinese companies should seize the moment, and try to outrun and outgun their competitors.  Your role: supply the fuel, supply the ammo.

 

China’s Logistical Nightmare

China First Capital blog logistics in China

China is modeling itself after the wrong part of the American economy. The money, the rhetoric and the policies are all focused on trying to replicate America’s lead in high-technology and innovation. Instead, China would be long-term much better off and its citizens enjoy immediate higher living standards if it copied something far more mundane from the US,  its distribution and logistics.  If China’s $9 trillion economy has an Achilles Heel, this is it. It simply costs too much to get things into consumers’ hands.

Wholesale layer is piled onto wholesale layer, with margin and fees extracted at every step. Fixers, expediters, overlookers all take a cut. Trucks are too small, tolls too high, warehouses too small, and road traffic too congested in major cities. Commercial and retail rents are high, relative to per capita income level. In China, there is enough “friction” in every retail transaction to start a bonfire.

Logistical costs and bottlenecks are the single biggest reason why so many goods made in China are sold at higher prices than in the US. This has more real-world consequences for average Chinese consumers than the level of the dollar-Renminbi exchange rate. It is logistics costs, all the stickiness and expense of getting products to market, that is most to blame for holding back the buying power, and so spending impulses, of Chinese consumers. Middlemen live well in China. Consumers less so.

It is cheaper, in many cases, to get a product made in China onto a container ship in Shanghai, offload it in Long Beach, truck it across the US, and then stock it on a shelf at a Wal-Mart in Georgia then it is to put the same product in front of Chinese consumers in a Wal-Mart in China. High taxes don’t help. China’s VAT, applied to most things sold at retail,  is set at a higher level than most sales taxes in the US. Another factor: retail competition as Americans know it is also largely absent in China. Stores don’t compete much on price in China. Wal-Mart won’t say, but it’s a fair assumption its margins in China are at least double those in the US.

But, high consumer prices in China are mainly the product of the high handling charges. A simple example. I eat a lot of fruit.  Most fresh fruit grown in China costs as much or more in supermarkets here than the same fruit grown and sold in the US.

Apples sell for around Rmb 6 (95 cents) per pound and up in China. The apple farmer gets around Rmb 1 per pound. The rest is liberally spread among all those standing between apple tree and my mouth.

Adjusted for purchasing power, Chinese average income levels are around 1/6th the US’s. So, that Chinese apple sells for equivalent, in US terms, of $6 a pound. That amounts to a lot of money per apple being shared by people other than the grower and the eater. How much? Chinese eat a lot of apples. In fact, almost half of all apples grown in the world are eaten in China, ten times more than total US consumption.

I met the boss of one of China’s largest apple shipping and packaging companies. Outside of China, this is a razor-thin margin business. But, the Chinese apple packer and shipper has profit margins well above 10%.

One of the most expensive links in the Chinese domestic supply chain are road tolls. China’s are among the most costly, per kilometer traveled, anywhere in the world. Trucks carrying agricultural products don’t pay tolls. Anything else moving along China’s highway system pays full freight. Depending where you are in the country, tolls run as high as 25 cents a mile for passenger cars. Trucks pay triple that. It all, of course, ends up being passed along to consumers.

To amortize the tolls, truckers overload their vehicles. This burns more fuel, degrades roadways (justifying still higher tolls), and makes loading and unloading more time-consuming and so more costly. According to the boss of a large long-distance shipping company I talked to, his trucks are routinely pulled over by traffic police and made to pay various on-the-spot fines. This can double the amount paid in tolls.

Everything about the logistics industry in China acts as a sponge soaking up consumers’ cash. The one exception: Shunfeng Express (顺丰快递).  Little known outside China, Shunfeng Express is China’s most successful private shipping and delivery companies. It alone proves that logistics in China doesn’t need to be wasteful, expensive and inefficient.

Shunfeng is modeled after Fedex, DHL and UPS, but operates on a scale, and at prices, that would be unimaginable to these global giants. Shunfeng is a secretive outfit. Not much is publicly disclosed. The founder lives in Hong Kong, but comes originally from the mainland.  It was started in 1993, and according to some media reports, its net income in 2010 of Rmb 13 billion ($2.1 billion). That may be a stretch, but Shunfeng is doing a lot right and deserves whatever profit it keeps.

Shunfeng picks up and delivers documents, packages and some bulk freight between cities in China. It charges a fraction of what Fedex or UPS do in the US. These US companies are mainly prohibited to operate in China’s domestic delivery market. I’m not sure they’d be so eager. For next-day document delivery within a city, Shunfeng charges under $2. Delivery to other cities: $3. If you want to move a few kilos of freight, Shunfeng not only ship it, but will come and package it for you. That part is free. The shipping usually works out to less than $5 a kilo.

One of the main reasons Alibaba’s Taobao has become so successful in China is that Shunfeng ships Taobao purchases cheaply and efficiently across China. Taobao, which operates like a cross between Amazon Marketplace and eBay, will likely facilitate transactions worth around USD$100 billion this year. A lot of that will get shipped and delivered by Shunfeng.

They have an army of delivery guys. Most larger office buildings in major cities have one permanently stationed inside. You call for a pickup and the Shunfeng guy arrives within minutes. Most letters and packages get moved around by either electric motorcycle or jet. It leases its own aircraft to fly stuff around within China.

Shunfeng doesn’t do cross-country trucking. This is one big reason Shunfeng are so efficient and so cheap. Anything that moves by truck in China is going to have multiple hands in the till, and so end up costing consumers too much.

Shunfeng has achieved its massive scale and now well-known brand in China without raising capital from the stock market, or bringing in outside professional investors until three months ago. There are few private companies in China I admire more, and who are doing more to benefit the average consumer in China. I wish I could invest. For the good of every consumer in China, Shunfeng should continue to grow, continue to expand the range of what it handles in China. That will do a lot to unstick China’s logistical logjam.

 

 

Hong Kong IPO Today for China First Capital Client Hydoo

Hydoo Prospectus

Welcome good news today from Hong Kong’s capital markets. The Chinese commercial real estate developer Hydoo (Chinese name 毅德) successfully IPOs on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, raising over USD$200mn in new capital. With IPO channels for Chinese companies mainly blockaded, it’s especially welcome to see a Chinese private sector company raising so much from the stock market.  In this case, the delight is greater because Hydoo is a client of China First Capital. We acted as Hydoo’s investment bankers raising USD$80mn from Chinese private equity firm Hony Capital.  Hony’s 2011 investment, based on today’s IPO price, is now worth USD$150mn.

In addition to Hony, China’s giant financial services group Ping An also invested before IPO.  In total, Hydoo raised USD$140mn (Rmb 860mn) of institutional capital before IPO. Over 60% of the IPO shares (worth over $120mn) were sold by underwriters ahead of time to so-called “cornerstone investors“, including two large Chinese SOEs, Huarong and China Taiping Insurance, as well as retailer Suning (in which Hony owns a share).

I’m happy for Hony and the other investors, but happier still for Hydoo founders, particularly its chairman, Wang Zaixing, known to friends and family  as “Laowu”, literally “Venerable Fifth”. He is the fifth-born of ten children all of whom played a part in building Hydoo. The family is originally from Chaozhou in Guangdong, and speak the distinctive Chaozhou dialect. But, they ended up after 1949 in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province.

The business Laowu started 18 years ago is now worth over $1 billion. The first time I met him, I told Laowu my goal as his investment banker, and my emphatic expectation,  was that his company would be worth at least that much at the time of its IPO. Another priority of mine was that he and his family members would still hold majority control after IPO.  That too has been achieved.  They hold almost 60% of the now publicly-traded business.

For me, Laowu personifies in many ways the large economic changes China has undergone in the last 30 years. He started life as a long-distance truck driver and from that humble start saw and grasped an opportunity to build wholesale trading centers for the emerging army of small businesspeople in China.

I first met Laowu and his company in 2009. The business was then called Haode (豪德). It was then still an old-school Chinese family business. There was no corporate structure in the traditional sense. Laowu and his brothers, sister and nephews would pair up, or act independently, to do individual large wholesale trading centers around China. When I met them, the family had already done 19 such projects. All had done very well. At the time, I’d never met a Chinese private company as profitable over as many years as Haode.

Over the last three years, the company has been transformed into a more professional enterprise. Hydoo provides a useful excellent template for how a Chinese family-owned business can make this transition to a publicly-traded company. Part of that process was splitting up the family’s existing business between a group that would follow Laowu and become shareholders of Hydoo, and five other siblings who chose not to participate, but remain active in some cases building their own wholesale trading centers.

As the IPO prospectus puts it,  this division was “a complex, delicate process involving the allocation of assets or interests in the existing businesses among a group of closely connected family members, who decided to split up into two independent groups with diverging goals going forward. Under the special circumstances, no written agreements were entered into in respect of the Family Allocation and no valuation appraised by independent valuers was undertaken when negotiating the Family Allocation. Instead, the Wang Family Group placed their focus on more subjective, personal factors.”

Me and my firm played a small part by advising Laowu and his siblings on the pros and cons of being part of a company planning for an IPO. But, as you’d expect, most of this was done within the private confines of a large, closely-knit family.  Along the way, though, I gained a deeper appreciation of the unique ways Chaozhou people do business.

Chaozhou natives are rightly famous both in China and throughout much of Southeast Asia for their business acumen. They are often described by other Chinese as “the Jews of China”.  As a Jew in China, I tend to think the description flatters my people. Chaozhou people seem to have an instinctive and unsurpassed talent for making money and entrepreneurship. Look around the world at the most successful Chinese business people, including the leading business families in Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, and a large percentage, including Asia’s richest magnate, Li Ka-shing, Thailand’s richest businessman Dhanin Chearavanont  and Indonesia’s top tycoon, Mochtar Riady, are either from Chaozhou or are descended from people who immigrated from there.

As this suggests, Chaozhou people are able and willing to uproot themselves and chase opportunities. Laowu didn’t leave China, but in building Hydoo, he did venture far afield from where he and his family were raised. He saw very early and profited richly from an economic shift within China that few others noticed 15 years ago. At the time, much of China’s economic growth was centered in southern China, and large coastal cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, Xiamen. Laowu looked inland, especially in Shandong Province, one thousand miles north of Chaozhou.

As the economies of Shanghai and big southern coastal cities began to cool, inland areas, led by Shandong, began to boom. Shandong’s GDP growth, over the last ten years, has been among the highest of any part of China. Shandong is a huge market to itself (population 95mn) as well as a vital crossroads for commerce between north and south, east and west in China. Laowu built large wholesale parks to accommodate thousands of small traders, creating new clusters of small-scale commerce and entrepreneurship.

When you visit one of these centers, you get the impression that half of Shandong’s gdp is going in and out the doors. It’s crowded and vibrant. Even the smallest traders own their own small shop inside the Hydoo centers. That’s Hydoo’s model: they build the buildings, and as they do, sell off most of the units to thousands of individual small traders. Hydoo helps them get mortgages and often acts as guarantor on the loans. This lets thousands of small businesspeople become property-owners. As the Hydoo centers thrive (and they all do, as far as I know) the value of the real estate rises.

I know of no other businessman in China that has done as much as Laowu to build wealth and provide an entrepreneurial hub for such a large number of people in China. Hydoo is now spreading across more areas of China. It’s is building huge new wholesale parks in Sichuan, Hunan, Guangxi, Gansu.

I see Laowu infrequently these days. But, I’m as impressed now as I was when I first met him by his accomplishments. He and his family founded a business back when China was a different and less developed place. They stuck with it, kept reinvesting and now, through today’s IPO,  own shares worth more money than I can imagine. But, more important for me is that they still own the business, still own the majority and so answer to no one else. As an entrepreneur who helped create and sustain so many other entrepreneurs, Laowu deserves nothing less.

 

Punishing the Righteous — How Lax Tax Compliance Distorts the Chinese Economy

The Chinese corporate tax system combines fairly high rates with low compliance. The result is that the companies that do pay all the tax legally owed will usually be at an enormous competitive advantage to the numerous competitors who pay little or nothing. Non-payers can either choose to earn fatter margins or undercut the price of their compliant competitors. Either way, the result is that profits flow to those least legally entitled to keep them.

This widespread tax avoidance is among the more serious distortions in the Chinese domestic economy. The government knows this, and so tries to level the field by giving special targeted tax breaks, subsidies, underpriced land (as well as awards of free land)  to the companies that do pay tax. But, this practice causes distortions of its own.

The corporate tax system in China is a cake of many layers. There is a VAT applied to most products along with a corporate profits tax of 25%, as well as a whole raft of other fees and levies, including taxes on real property and natural resources, and others to finance urban maintenance and construction.

In my experience, it’s exceeding rare to find a Chinese private company that obeys the rules and pays all that is asked of it. Doing so, in most cases, would render the company loss-making. The best payers are the private companies that have filed for an IPO, or have already been publicly-listed in China. It is the most critically important of all the prerequisites for IPO approval, that a company be fully compliant with all tax rules.

For companies we know, this process of becoming fully tax-compliant is the most painful and expensive thing they will ever undertake in business. In one case, a very successful retail jewelry company, has gone from paying almost nothing in tax to paying almost Rmb500mn (USD$80mn) during the three-year process of preparing to file the application for an IPO. An IPO in China is basically a way for a company to reclaim, from stock market investors, the cash it’s lost to the taxman over the preceding three to five years.

The government bestows favors on companies that do pay tax. Hanging prominently on the walls of many private companies I visit are plaques given to a locality’s largest tax-payers. The plaque is awarded for amounts paid, not amounts technically owed. So, it is possible to be both an award-winning local taxpayer and a world-class tax cheat at the same time.

Though there is no formal system of tax rebates, just about every business that pays some tax gets something back in return from the state. The more you pay the more you receive. The two most popular forms of rebate to companies are investment subsidies as well as the opportunity to buy land at concessionary price.

The investment subsidies can be very generous. Depending on industry and location in China, a companies will often get back one-third or more the cost of new factory machinery.  While this lowers breakeven cost and so improves a company’s profit margins, the investment subsidies help propel a system in China that often leads to rampant over-investment. This is especially noticeable in some favored high-tech areas like the manufacturing of LED chips or wind turbines. R&D spending is also often subsidized through a form of tax rebate.

Often, the best use of a company’s money would be to invest in marketing, or building its sales channels. The tax rebate system generally rewards none of this. So, arguably, companies can often end up worse off, with higher-than-needed outlay for fixed assets, because of the tax system.

The offer to purchase land at significant discount is a valuable perk, and one that’s available, in the main, only to Chinese companies that pay tax. It is probably the most frequent form of indirect tax rebate. I know of no specific formula, but the general principle is for every million in taxes you pay, you will be given a chance to buy land worth multiples above that, at a price at least 50% below market value.

Unlike factory equipment, which loses value every year, land is a scarce commodity in China. The government has lately tried to moderate price increases of land. But, overall, buying land in China, especially if done at a discounted price, is a winning one-way bet.

While a nice inducement to encourage tax compliance, the government’s offer of underpriced land to taxpaying companies also causes distortions. Chinese manufacturers, in general, are fixated on owning the land their factories sit on. Even if you can buy that land on the cheap, it is still a sink for capital that might be more efficiently invested elsewhere in your business. You also need to borrow the money, in most cases, to buy the land. Those interest payments can often lower your pre-tax profit margins.

There is also a problem of asyncrony.  You need to pay taxes for several years before you get a chance to buy land on the cheap. During that whole time, while you wait to make a profit on a land deal, your non-taxpaying competitors are enjoying much fatter margins than you. They can use this to steal lower prices, steal your customers and so lower your profits. This not only pushes you towards insolvency, it also reduces the ability to pay the taxes that generate the favors that offset the high tax rates.

From what I’ve been able to tell, nobody, including Chinese government officials, likes the current corporate tax system, with all its complexity and high headline rates. But, these same officials also argue that if they lowered taxes overall, there is no guarantee that the many tax-avoiding companies will then become taxpayers. They are probably right. From that simple standpoint, cutting corporate taxes may only lower the amount of money the government takes in each year. This, in turn, means less money to award to those who are paying.

China is likely stuck with its current corporate tax system. It punishes, then compensates, the righteous few who pay everything that’s owed.

 

Blackstone Leads Latest Chinese Privatization Bid — New York Times

NYT

Download complete text

MAY 21, 2013, 7:07 AM

Blackstone Leads Latest Chinese Privatization Bid

By NEIL GOUGH

A fund run by the Blackstone Group is leading a $662.3 million bid for a technology outsourcing firm based in China, the latest example of a modest boom among buyout shops backing the privatization of Chinese companies listed in the United States.

A consortium backed by a private equity fund of Blackstone that includes the Chinese company’s management said on Monday that it would offer $7.50 a share to acquire Pactera Technology International, which is based in Beijing and listed on Nasdaq.

The offer, described as preliminary, represents a hefty 43 percent premium to Pactera’s most recent share price before the deal was announced. The news sent the company’s stock up 30.6 percent on Monday, to $6.87 — still more than 8 percent below the offer price, in a sign that some investors remain wary that a deal will be completed.

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Shenzhen: A beacon for private enterprises — China Daily


 

A beacon for private enterprises

2013-04-20

By Hu Haiyan and Chen Hong ( China Daily)

Shenzhen bears a superficial resemblance to Shanghai. There are dozens of multinationals and gleaming skyscrapers casting their shadows over narrow lanes. Their respective economic performances last year were also similar: Shenzhen’s GDP hit 1.3 trillion yuan ($210 billion), gaining by 10 percent from 2012. Shanghai GDP reached 2 trillion yuan, increasing by 7.5 percent from 2011.

Both are testing grounds for China’s economic reform policies. Still, for Peter Fuhrman, 54, Shenzhen is a private-sector city, a city that has its face pointed toward the future.

In 2009, Fuhrman moved to Shenzhen from California. The chairman and CEO of China First Capital, an international investment bank and advisory firm focused on China, he is always struck by how similar Shenzhen and California are.

“Both are places where new technologies, and valuable new technology companies, are born and nurtured. I treasure the role Shenzhen has played over these last 30 years in helping architect a new China of renewed purpose and importance in the world,” Fuhrman says. “It is impossible to imagine a US without California. It is so much the source of what makes America great. Shenzhen, too, is a major source of what makes China great, what makes this country such a joy for me to live in. “

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Download PDF version.

 


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.

 

 

More Trouble for the Big Four Accountants in China: Pushing Prudent Analysis or Propaganda?

This is not a good time for the Big Four accounting firms in China. The SEC has charged them with breaking securities law, while one of the group, Deloitte, is now in serious hot water in the US, facing a shareholder class action in Delaware for aiding a US-listed Chinese company in defrauding US investors. If Deloitte loses, or opts to settle, it could uncork a tidal wave of copycat claims that would do serious, perhaps irreparable damage to the China business of Deloitte, and then also possibly to Ernst & Yong, Price WaterhouseCoopers and KPMG.

The charges against the Big Four all boil down to allegations they were either negligent in fulfilling their statutory duties, or in cahoots with bad guys scheming to defraud US investors. The implication of the SEC charges seems to be the accountants’ willy-nilly pursuit of fees led the Big Four to cut corners, surrender objectivity, and allow their judgment to become corrupted.

Similar doubts can be raised about the quality, credibility and soundness of the judgments the accountants provide in assessing China’s private equity industry. Even as the PE market began to slide into serious trouble last year, the accountants kept talking up the industry. In particular, it’s worth reading the two big and well-publicized reports on China private equity produced by Ernst & Young  and PWC. Both can be downloaded by clicking here. E&Y Report. PWC Report.

Both of these documents were published in late December 2012. All IPO activity for Chinese companies had come to an abrupt halt months earlier, and along with this, China’s PE firms basically went into hibernation, closing off almost all new investment in China. The situation has, if anything, worsened so far in 2013. And yet, to read these reports, my opinion would be that that everything was overall pretty rosy.

Nowhere is it mentioned that a main factor contributing to the collapse of Chinese IPOs is the widespread loss of confidence in the work of accountants. While the PWC report does note the challenge posed by limited exits, it echoes the generally bullish sentiment of the E&Y report. PWC confidently predicts, “We think new deal and exit activity will accelerate strongly from 2Q13 as pricing expectations adjust.” In other words, according to PWC, we’re weeks away now from not just the revival of the comatose China PE industry, it’s going to leap out of bed and begin doing wind-sprints.

Let’s see how things play out.  But, the greater likelihood in my opinion is that 2013 will be the worst year in recent history for China PE. Further out, things look even more dire, as hundreds of PE funds reach the end of their lives still holding tens of billions of dollars in illiquid investments made with LP money.

Why then all the optimism, the boosterism, the cheerleading from the accountants? I have a lot of respect for their professionalism. To me, it seems that their enthusiasm may be more a matter of  wishing, hoping and urging that the PE industry, and the fees that come from it, continue to grow. To crib a line from Warren Buffett’s latest Letter to Shareholders, “wishing makes dreams come true only in Disney movies; it’s poison in business.”

China PE has been good — no, make that, very good — to the Big Four accounting firms. It’s anybody’s guess, but I’d estimate the total fees earned as recently as 2011 by the Big Four for work done for PE firms in China is well above $75mn. This is for audits of existing and potential investments, for other due diligence services and for portfolio valuation.

PE firms are certainly one of the key sources of revenue for the Big Four in China. The Big Four also do work for Chinese corporations, but that market is much more crowded in China, with thousands of local accounting firms also getting their share of corporate audits and tax. The local firms charge about half what the Big Four do. The global PE firms rely almost exclusively on the Big Four to do all their work in China. The PE firms pay top dollar.

The Big Four get paid big money to do audits and projections on many of the deals the bigger PE firms are considering in China.  Very often during due diligence the PE firm opts to abandon a deal. Even when they do, the accounting firms get paid in full. At around $250,000 a pop, the financial DD package on PE deals that never close has become a very lucrative line of business. I’ve also known of cases where the PE firm paid for the audit and projections but then tossed them away after deciding the conclusions were flawed.

Reading the E&Y and PWC reports, it seems to me a primary purpose was marketing, to let the PE industry in China feel good about itself, to reassure distant LPs, and even to encourage China GPs to be a little more bold and active. Nowhere does one read any kind of more sober analysis pointing to the systemic problems in the industry caused by the enormous overhang of unexited deals, expiring fund life, the damage done to IPO markets by false accounting, the billions of dollars in LP money at risk. The reports seem more like propaganda than a prudent assessment.

It’s also puzzling that the accounting companies shared no serious research on the scale of the problem of unexited deals in China. Self-interest, as well as professional credibility,  would seem to dictate it.  Instead, it was my company, which earns fees of precisely zero from PE firms, that made the effort over six months to research and contextualize the problem of unexited deals in China. We had no financial incentive to do this work, but did so because we thought it’s the best way to put the China PE industry on a sounder long-term footing and get PEs to start again making new investments.

It’s not only the accountants that have been gorging on PE firm fees. The big US and UK law firms, management consultants like McKinsey, market research firms and placement agents have also been earning very fat fees and retainers from China’s PE business. My guess is the total amount of LP wealth transferred by China PE firms to professional services firms is above $250mn a year. None of these firms issued serious public warnings to their PE clients about problems bedeviling the industry. McKinsey, which interviews GPs, offered this in the 2012 report I saw on private equity in China, ” As one large GP in China told us, “We’re busier than we have been in the last eight or nine years.”

I can’t help but feel that all these professional services firms have perhaps gotten a little drunk and maybe a little lazy from all the easy money they’ve been earning from China-focused PE funds. No one wants to say anything that might close down the tap on the billions of new LP money coming into China each year, a meaningful slice of which always gets divided among these professional service firms. And so the rather utopian portrayals of China PE keep getting printed and circulated.

It’s similar to the way equity analysts at brokerage houses never seem to have a bad word to say about the companies their firms do business with. Even when an analyst decides the company is a loser, the published research will merely advise to “Hold” or “Accumulate”. In the head-to-head combat between a revenue stream and forthright assessment, the revenue stream always seems to win.

 

 

Secondaries offer solution for US capital locked in China — AltAssets

The future of private equity and venture capital in China is threatened by a huge overhang of illiquid investments. US institutional investors and pension funds are at risk in a market that until recently was a source of significant investment profits. Private equity secondaries offer a potential way out, according to China First Capital.

China’s private equity industry, having grown in less than a decade from nothing into a giant rivaling the private equity industry in the US, is in the early stages of a unique crisis that could undermine the remarkable gains of recent years, according to a newly-published research report by China First Capital, an international investment bank. Over $100bn in private equity and venture capital investments is now blocked inside deals with no easy exit. A significant percentage of that capital is from limited partners, family offices, university endowments in the USA.

Private equity firms in China are running out of time and options. Exit through trade sale or M&A, a common practice elsewhere, is almost nonexistent in China. One viable solution, the creation of an efficient and liquid market in private equity secondaries in China where private equity firms could sell out to one another, has yet to develop. As a result, private equity general partners, their limited partner investors and investee companies in China risk serious adverse outcomes.

Secondary deals will likely go from current low levels to gain a meaningful share of all private equity exits in China, China First Capital said.

In all, over $130bn is now invested in un-exited private equity deals in China. The un-exited private equity and venture capital deals are screened and analysed across multiple variables, including date, investment size, tier of private equity firm, industry, price-earnings ratio.

Secondary deals potentially offer some of the best risk-adjusted investment opportunities, as well as the most certain and efficient way for private equity and venture capital firms to exit investments and return money to their limited partners, the report finds. The most acute need for exit will be investments made before 2008, since private equity firms generally need to return money to their limited partners within five to seven years. But, more recent private equity and venture deals will also need to be assessed based on current market conditions.

Over the course of the last twelve months, first the US stock market, then Hong Kong’s, and finally China’s own domestic bourse all slammed the door shut on IPOs for most Chinese companies. As a result, private equity firms can’t find buyers for illiquid shares, and so can’t return money to their Limited Partners.

“Many private equity firms are adopting what looks to be an unhedged strategy across a portfolio of invested deals waiting for capital markets conditions to improve,” according to China First Capital’s chairman and founder, Peter Fuhrman. “The need for diversification is no less paramount for exits than entries,” he continues. “Many of the same private equity firms that wisely spread their LPs money across a range of industries, stages and deal sizes, have become over-reliant now on a single path to exit: an IPO in Hong Kong or China. By itself, such dependence on a single exit path is risky. In the current environment, with most IPO activity at a halt, it looks even more so. ”

Secondary activity in China will differ significantly from secondaries done in the US and Europe, he added. Buyers will cherry-pick good deals, rather than buying entire portfolios, and escape much of the due diligence risk that plagues primary private equity deals in China. Sellers, in many cases, will be able to achieve a significant rate of return in a secondary sale and so return strong profits to their limited partners. Private equity-invested companies stand to benefit as well, since a secondary transaction can be linked to a new round of financing to provide additional growth capital to the business. In short, secondary deals in China should be three-sided transactions where all sides come out ahead.

But, significant obstacles remain. The private equity and venture capital industry in China has grown large, but has not yet fully matured. The industry is fragmented, with several hundred older dollar funds, and several thousand Renminbi firms launched more recently, some fully private and some state-owned with most falling somewhere in between.

Absent a significant and sustained surge in IPO activity in 2013, the pressure on private equity firms to exit through secondaries will intensify. According to the report, no private equity firm is now raising money for a fund dedicated to buying secondaries in China. There is a market need. As a fund strategy, private equity secondaries offer Limited Partners greater diversification across asset types and maturities in China.

Private equity has been a powerful force for good in China, the report concludes. Entrepreneurs, consumers, investors have all benefited enormously. Profit opportunities for private equity firms and Limited Partner investors remain large. Exit opportunities are the weak link. A well-functioning secondary market is an urgent and fundamental requirement for the future health and success of China’s private equity industry.

Copyright © 2013 AltAssets

 

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.

 

China Securities News: 中国首创投资董事长:二级市场并购有望发力

 

If your Chinese is up to it —  or perhaps if you want to see how well-designed the best Chinese newspapers are — click here to see the story today in China Securities News (中国证券报) that includes both an interview with me and excerpts from our Chinese-language report on the crisis in Chinese private equity.

Unlike the sorry situation in the US and elsewhere, newspapers in China are still thriving. The leading papers, including China Securities News, have large nationwide readership and distribution, with the large profits to match. And no, the contents are not fiercely censored. If they were, no one would buy them.

I’m quite chuffed this paper devotes so much space to our report and its conclusions. It’s an affirmation of what a great job my China First Capital colleagues did in preparing the Chinese version. My own modest hope is that this article, together with several others that have appeared recently in other mainstream Chinese business publications, will help catalyze a more active discussion of the current crisis in the PE industry in China. There is, as my interview emphasizes, a lot at stake for China.

The sudden stop of both IPOs and new private equity investment in China means that private companies are being denied access to much-needed capital to finance growth. This is already beginning to have serious impact on China’s private sector and the economy as a whole. I foresee no significant change coming anytime soon. For private entrepreneurs, these are dark days indeed. Keep in mind, China’s private sector now accounts for over half of gdp — and it’s the “half” that provides most of new jobs as well as just about every product and service ordinary Chinese enjoy spending money on.

As a lot of non-Chinese speakers have heard, the Chinese words “crisis” and “opportunity” share a common root (危机,机会). There is much wisdom in this. The current crisis in China PE is also perhaps the best opportunity ever for stronger PEs to find and close great investments, through purchases of what we call “Quality Secondaries”.

Investment opportunities don’t get much riper than this one.