Why did hog giant’s IPO fail to entice investors?
May 2, 2014 (WiC 235)
During the world’s biggest probate dispute a few years ago, a fascinated audience learned that Nina Wang, the late chairwoman of Hong Kong real estate developer Chinachem, paid $270 million to her feng shui adviser (and lover) to dig lucky holes. As many as 80 of them were dug around Wang’s properties to improve her fortune.
One of these holes – about three metres wide and nine metres deep, according to the China Entrepreneur magazine – was burrowed outside a meat processing plant in China.
Why so? Chinachem was the first foreign investor brought in by Shuanghui bosses in 1994 to help the abattoir expand. Wang’s capital would jumpstart the firm’s extraordinary transformation from a state-owned factory in Henan’s Luohe city into China’s biggest (and privately-held) pork producer.
Seeing Shuanghui’s potential, Wang offered to acquire its trademark and then to buy a majority stake for HK$300 million ($38 million). Both proposals were rejected outright by Shuanghui’s chairman Wan Long (see WiC201 for a profile of the man known locally as the ‘Steve Jobs of Chinese butchery’). His rationale was that he wanted to “make full use of foreign capital, but not be controlled by it”. Despite never owning a majority stake in the hog firm, he insisted on running the company his own way.
Two decades have passed since Wan first courted Nina Wang’s cash and in that time a range of new investors have bought into the company. Last year they helped Shuanghui to acquire American hog producer Smithfield for $7.1 billion (including debt) and in January the firm was renamed WH Group, ahead of a multi-billion dollar Hong Kong listing. But embarrassingly the IPO was pulled this week, as plans for the flotation went belly-up.
Not bringing home the bacon…
When WH applied to list on Hong Kong’s stock exchange in January, the firm talked up the prospect of launching the city’s biggest IPO since 2010. It kicked off the investor roadshow early last month intending to raise up to $5.3 billion. Four fifths of the total was to be used to help WH repay loans taken to finance the Smithfield takeover, with bankers setting the price between HK$8 and HK$11.25 a share. This was “an unusually wide indicative range” according to Reuters, but also a recognition of the uncertain outlook in the Hong Kong stockmarket.
A few weeks later, the 29 banks hired to promote the IPO (a record) returned with lukewarm orders. WH was forced to cleave the offer by more than half. Excluding the greenshoe allotment, the new plan was dramatically less ambitious, and looked to raise between $1.34 billion and $1.88 billion. To boost investor confidence, existing owners also dropped plans to sell some of their own shares in the listing. WH’s trading debut was pushed back by a week to May 8.
But investors remained unenthused. Blaming “deteriorating market conditions and recent excessive market volatility” (the prefferred explanation for most failed IPOs), WH shelved its IPO on Tuesday.
“The world’s largest pork company has gone from Easter ham to meagre spare rib,” the Wall Street Journal quipped.
Were rough market conditions to blame?
The failed deal was another blow for bankers in Hong Kong’s equity capital markets, who have watched the planned IPO of Hutchison’s giant retail arm AS Watson slip away and have seen Alibaba Group opt to go to market in New York instead.
Volatile markets may have contributed to WH’s decision to postpone the listing. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index dropped 4.5% between the deal’s formal launch on April 10 and its eventual withdrawal on April 29, according to the South China Morning Post. Other IPOs haven’t been faring well recently. Japanese hotel operator Seibu Holdings and Chinese internet firm Sina Weibo both pared back share sales last month, while the Financial Times notes that concerns about China’s slowing economy have depressed interest in Chinese assets more generally.
Nevertheless, investors were anxious about WH’s investment story too and specifically whether the company’s valuation was too high.
One of the selling points of the original Shuanghui takeover of Smithfield was that it married a reputable American brand with a company that wanted to adapt best practices in product quality and food safety in China. But if one longer term goal was to improve the reputation of Chinese pork – and boost confidence among the country’s jaded consumers – the more immediate business logic was to sell Smithfield’s lower-cost meat into China, where prices at the premium end of the market are typically higher.
“We plan to leverage our US brands, raw materials and technology, our distribution and marketing capabilities in China and our combined strength in research and development to expand our range of American-style premium packaged meats products offerings in China,” the company said in its prospectus. “We expect [this] to positively affect our turnover and profitability.”
In recent months this strategy has faced headwinds, with prices going – from the pork giant’s perspective – in the wrong direction. American pig farmers are struggling with a porcine virus that has wiped out more than 10% of hog stocks. This has sent US pork to new highs, meaning it’s no longer so low-cost. In contrast, Xinhua notes that pork prices in many Chinese cities have fallen to their lowest levels in five years. As such, the commercial case for exporting US pork to China isn’t as strong. So fund managers have needed more convincing of the value of the newly combined Shuanghui and Smithfield businesses.
So WH’s valuation was too high?
Bloomberg said WH was prepared to sell its shares towards the bottom of the marketed price range, which equates to a valuation of 15 times estimated 2014 earnings.
At first glance that doesn’t look too demanding. Henan Shuanghui Investment, the Chinese unit of WH Group that is listed in Shenzhen, carries a market capitalisation of Rmb78 billion ($12.6 billion), or 20 times its 2013 net profit. Hormel, a Minnesota-based food firm that produces Spam luncheon meat (and is a key competitor for WH’s American pork business) trades at a price-to-earnings ratio of 23.
Hence China Business Journal concludes that WH priced itself as “not too high and not too low” among peers, especially if the company can generate genuine synergies between its China operation and its newly acquired American unit.
But an alternate view is that these synergies aren’t immediately obvious and that the new business model has hardly been tested (the Smithfield deal closed last September and exports to China didn’t start until the beginning of this year). The criticism is that WH hasn’t done much more than put Shuanghui Investment and Smithfield together into a holding vehicle, but is now asking for a valuation greater than the sum of the two parts. “Even at the bottom of the range, the IPO implies a valuation for Smithfield 21% above the price WH Group paid for the US pork producer barely eight months ago,” notes Reuters Breakingviews. (And let’s not forget, Smithfield was purchased at a 30% premium to its market price at the time.)
Or as one banker put it to the FT: “It’s like buying a house, ripping out the bathrooms and kitchen and trying to flip it for a premium six months later.”
CBN agreed that investors have the right to be wary: “The market simply has not had time to judge if there is meaningful synergy coming out of WH’s units. Nor is there a single signal that WH has the ability to properly manage an American firm.”
Why did WH want to IPO so fast?
This question brings us back to Shuanghui’s transformation from a state-owned enterprise to a privately-held firm. In April 2006 a consortium including Goldman Sachs and Chinese private equity funds CDH and New Horizon paid about $250 million to buy out the city government’s stake in Shuanghui.
The leveraged buyout was an unusual example of a Chinese national brand (and market leader) being snapped up by foreign buyers. Shuanghui was stripped of its SOE status, with majority ownership passing to private and foreign investors.
Century Weekly suggested last month that most of these Shuanghui shareholders “have waited patiently for at least eight years to exit”. Perhaps running low on their reserves of restraint, they then introduced the Smithfield bid last year to great fanfare as the largest takeover yet of a US company by a Chinese firm.
But as Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, a boutique investment bank, told WiC at the time, this wasn’t really the case. In fact the bid for Smithfield was a leveraged buyout by a company based in the Cayman Islands, not a Chinese one. And its main purpose was to facilitate a future sale by Shuanghui’s longstanding investors.
How so? WH’s set-up is complex: the IPO prospectus features an ownership chart containing WH Group, Shuanghui Group and Shuanghui Investment (not to mention several dozen joint ventures and Smithfield itself). One of these entities is listed in Shenzhen, but the investor group has been looking for other ways to cash out. A key motivation in last year’s dealmaking was that they thought they had found an alternative route via a Hong Kong IPO.
And less than a year after the Smithfield bid, WH made its move, not least because it needs to reduce some of the debt incurred in buying its new American business.
But many market watchers think it looked too hasty. “They rushed into an IPO and didn’t spend time to actually create the synergy between the US and Chinese business,” one fund manager in Hong Kong complained to FinanceAsia this week. “They wanted to float the stock to fund the acquisition and also let the private equity firms exit. But if WH Group is good, then ride with me. Why should I buy when you are selling?”
Fuhrman’s view is much more withering: “I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it, the chutzpah, that these big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausages bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to investors in Hong Kong.”
And what of the boss? Wan Long and another director Yang Zhijun pocketed almost $600 million in share options between them last year after the Smithfield bid went through. (The move pushed WH into a loss in 2013.) The size of the compensation package is said to have also deterred some fund managers.
What next for WH?
Any attempt to resurrect the offering will have to wait until after its first-half results, meaning a possible return to the market in September at the earliest. There have been reports that the deal is more likely be postponed until next year. CDH, the company’s single largest shareholder, told the Wall Street Journal that it refuses to sell its WH shares cheaply. “We have a strong belief in the business’ fundamentals and its long term value,” a spokesperson insisted.
But China Business Journal says that WH now needs to focus on convincing investors that it has a good story to tell, including providing a clearer integration plan for Smithfield and Shuanghui’s operations. The pressure will also increase to find alternative ways to retire some of the debt taken on to finance the Smithfield acquisition. Reports suggest that early refinancing was expected to reduce debt repayments by around $155 million on an annualised basis – or about 5% of last year’s profit.
WH may also use the delay to rethink how it goes to market next time, with the South China Morning Post reporting that senior executives have been blaming the banks for the breakdown. “Some of them were too confident, and even a bit arrogant, when they tried to price the deal and coordinate with each other,” the source told the newspaper.
Then again, the banks will be irked by the expenses inccurred on a deal that didn’t happen. And in retrospect it looks to have been a flawed decision to mandate 29 of them. As WH has learned, it diffused responsibility and may have disincentivised some of the participants.
Indeed, another comment on the situation is that the only winners from this IPO were the airlines and hotels that were used as part of the roadshow process.
It is, if voluminous press reports are to be believed, the biggest story, the biggest deal, ever in China-US business history. I’m talking about the announced takeover of America’s largest pork company, Smithfield Foods, by a company called Shuanghui International. The deal, it is said in dozens of media reports, opens the China market to US pork and will transform China’s largest pork producer into a global giant selling Smithfield’s products alongside its own in China, while utilizing the American company’s more advanced methods for pork rearing and slaughtering.
One problem. A Chinese company isn’t buying Smithfield. A shell company based in Cayman Islands is. Instead of a story about “China buying up the world”, this turns out to be a story of a precarious leveraged buyout deal (“LBO”) cooked up by some large global private equity firms looking to borrow their way to a fortune.
The media, along with misstating the facts, are also missing the larger story here. The proposed Smithfield takeover is the latest iteration in the “take private” mania now seizing so many of the PE firms active in China. (See blog posts here, here, here and here.) With China’s own capital markets in crisis and PE investment there at a standstill, the PE firms have turned their attention, however illogically, to finding “undervalued assets” with a China angle on the US stock market. They then attempt an LBO, with the consent of existing management, and with the questionable premise the company will relist or be sold later in China or Hong Kong. The Smithfield deal is the biggest — and perhaps also the riskiest — one so far.
This shell that is buying Smithfield has no legal or operational connection to Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development (from here on, “Shuanghui China”) , the Chinese pork producer, China’s largest, quoted on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The shell is about as Chinese as I am.
If the deal is completed, Shuanghui China will see no obvious benefit, only an enormous risk. Its Chinese assets are reportedly being used as collateral for the shell company to finance a very highly-leveraged acquisition. The abundant risks are being transferred to Shuanghui China while all the profits will stay inside this separately-owned offshore shell. No profits or assets of Smithfield will flow through to Shuanghui China. Do Shuanghui China’s Chinese minority shareholders know what’s going on here? Does the world’s business media?
Let’s go through this deal. I warn you. It’s a little convoluted. But, do take the time to follow what’s going on here. It’s fascinating, ingenious and maybe also a little nefarious.
First, the buyer of Smithfield is Shuanghui International, a Cayman holding company. It owns the majority of Shuanghui China, the Chinese-quoted pork company. Shuanghui International is owned by a group led by China-focused global PE firm CDH, with smaller stakes owned by Shuanghui China’s senior management, Goldman Sachs, Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, Kerry Group, and another powerful PE firm focused on China, New Horizon Fund.
CDH, the largest single owner of Shuanghui International, is definitively not Chinese. It invests capital from groups like Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund , CALPERS, the Rockefeller Foundation, one big Swiss (Partners Group) and one big Liechtenstein (LGT) money manager, along with the private foundation of one of guys who made billions from working at eBay. So too Goldman Sachs, of course, Temasek and New Horizon. They are large PE firms that source most of their capital from institutions, pension fund and endowments in the US, Europe, Southeast Asia and Middle East. (For partial list of CDH and New Horizon Fund Limited Partners click here. )
For the Smithfield acquisition, Shuanghui International (CDH and the others) seem to be putting up about $100mn in new equity. They will also borrow a staggering $4 billion from Bank of China’s international arm to buy out all of Smithfield’s current shareholders. All the money is in dollars, not Renminbi.
If the deal goes through, Smithfield Foods and Shuanghui China will have a majority shareholder in common. But, nothing else. They are as related as, for example, Burger King and Neiman Marcus were when both were part-owned by buyout firm TPG. The profits and assets of one have no connection to the profits or assets of the other.
Shuanghui International, assuming it’s borrowed the money from Bank of China for three years, will need to come up with about $1.5 billion in interest and principal payments a year if the deal closes. But, since Shuanghui International has no significant cash flow of its own (it’s an investment holding company), it’s hard to see where that money will come from. Smithfield can’t be much help. It already has a substantial amount of debt on its balance sheet. As part of the takeover plan, the Smithfield debt is being assumed by Morgan Stanley, Shuanghui International’s investment bankers. Morgan Stanley says it plans then to securitize the debt. A large chunk of Smithfield’s future free cash flow ($280mn last year) and cash ($139 mn as of the first quarter of 2013) will likely go to repay the $3 billion in Smithfield debts owed to Morgan Stanley.
A separate issue is whether, under any circumstances, more US pork will be allowed into China. The pork market is very heavily controlled and regulated. There is no likely scenario where US pork comes flooding into China. Yes, the media is right to say Chinese are getting richer and so want to eat more meat, most of all pork. But, mainly, the domestic market in China is reserved for Chinese hog-breeders. It’s an iron staple of China’s rural economy. These peasants are not going to be thrown under the bus so Smithfield’s new Cayman Islands owner can sell Shuanghui China lots of Armour bacon.
Total borrowing for this deal is around $7 billion, double Smithfield’s current market cap. Shuanghui International’s piece, the $4 billion borrowed from Bank of China, will go to current Smithfield shareholders to buy them out at a 31% premium. Shuanghui International owns shares in Shuanghui China, and two of its board members are Shuanghui China top executives, but not much else. So where will the money come from to pay off the Bank of China loans? Good question.
Can Shuanghui International commandeer Shuanghui China’s profits to repay the debt? In theory, perhaps. But, it’s highly unlikely such an arrangement would be approved by China’s securities regulator, the CSRC. It would not likely accept a plan where Shuanghui China’s profits would be exported to pay off debts owed by a completely independent non-Chinese company. Shuanghui International could sell its shares in Shuanghui China to pay back the debt. But, doing so would likely mean Shuanghui International loses majority control, as well as flooding the Shenzhen stock market with a lot of Shuanghui China’s thinly-traded shares.
Why, you ask, doesn’t Shuanghui China buy Smithfield? Such a deal would make more obvious commercial and financial sense. Shuanghui China’s market cap is triple Smithfield’s. Problem is, as a domestic Chinese company listed on China’s stock exchange, Shuanghui China would need to run the gauntlet of CSRC, Ministry of Commerce and SAFE approvals. That would possibly take years and run a risk of being turned down. Shuanghui International, as a private Caymans company controlled by global PE firms, requires no Chinese approvals to take over a US pork company.
The US media is fixated on whether the proposed deal will get the US government’s go ahead. But, as the new potential owner is not Chinese after all — neither its headquarters nor its ownership — then on what grounds could the US government object? The only thing Chinese-controlled about Shuanghui International is that the members of the Board of Directors were all likely born in China. The current deal may perhaps violate business logic but it doesn’t violate US national security.
So, how will things look if Shuanghui International’s LBO offer is successful? Shuanghui China will still be a purely-Chinese pork producer with zero ownership in Smithfield, but with its assets perhaps pledged to secure the takeover debts of its majority shareholder. All the stuff about Shuanghui China getting access to Smithfield pork or pig-rearing and slaughtering technology, as well as a Smithfield-led upgrade of China’s pork industry, is based on nothing solid. The pork and the technology will be owned by Shuanghui China’s non-Chinese majority shareholder. It can, if it chooses, sell pork or technology to Shuanghui China. But, Shuanghui China can achieve the same thing now. In fact, it is already a reasonably big buyer of Smithfield pork. Overall, China gets less than 1% of its pork from the US.
If the deal goes through, the conflicts of interest between Shuanghui International and Shuanghui China will be among the most fiendish I’ve ever seen. Shuanghui China’s senior managers, including chairman Wan Long, are going to own personally a piece of Smithfield, and so will have divided loyalties. They will likely continue to manage Shuanghui China and collect salaries there, while also having an ownership and perhaps a management role in Smithfield. How will they set prices between the two fully separate Shuanghuis? Who will watch all this? Isn’t this a case Shuanghui China’s insiders lining their own pockets while their employer gets nothing?
On its face, this Smithfield deal looks to be among the riskiest of all the “take private” deals now underway. That is saying something since several of them involve Chinese companies suspected of accounting frauds, while the PE firms in at least two cases (China Transinfo and Le Gaga) doing the PE version of a Ponzi Scheme by seeking to use new LP money to bail out old, severely troubled deals they’ve done.
Let’s then look at the endgame, if the Smithfield deal goes through. Shuanghui International, as currently structured, will not, cannot, be the long-term owner of Smithfield. The PE firms will need to exit. CDH, New Horizon, Goldman Sachs and Temasek have been an indirect shareholders of Shuanghui China for many years — seven in the case of CDH and Goldman.
According to what I’m told, Shuanghui International is planning to relist Smithfield in Hong Kong in “two to three years”. The other option on the table, for Shuanghui International to sell Smithfield (presumably at a mark-up) to Shuanghui China, would face enormous, probably insurmountable, legal, financial and regulatory hurdles.
The IPO plan, as of now, looks crackpot. Hong Kong’s IPO market has basically been moribund for over a year. IPO valuations in Hong Kong are anyway far lower than the 20X p/e Shuanghui International is paying for Smithfield in the US. A separate tactical question for Shuanghui International and its investment bankers: why would you believe Hong Kong stock market investors in two to three years will pay more than US investors are now paying for a US company, with most of its assets, profits and revenues in the US?
But, even getting to IPO will require Shuanghui International to do something constructive about paying off the enormous $4 billion in debt it is taking on. How will that happen? Shuanghui International is saying Smithfield’s current American management will stay on. Why would one assume they can run it far more profitably in the future than they are running it now? If it all hinges on “encouraging” Shuanghui China to buy more Smithfield products, or pay big licensing fees, so Shuanghui International can earn larger profits, I do wonder how that will be perceived by both Shuanghui China’s minority investors, to say nothing of the CSRC. The CSRC has a deep institutional dislike of related party transactions.
Smithfield has lately been under pressure from some of its shareholders to improve its performance. That may have precipitated the discussions that led to the merger announcement with Shuanghui International. Smithfield’s CEO, C. Larry Pope, stands to earn somewhere between $17mn-$32mn if the deal goes through. He will stay on as CEO. His fiscal 2012 salary, including share and option awards, was $12.9mn.
Typical of such LBO deals, the equity holders (in this case, CDH, Goldman, Temasek, Kerry Group, Shuanghui China senior management, New Horizon) would stand to make a killing, if they can pay down the debt and then find a way to either sell or relist Smithfield at a mark-up. If that happens, profits will go to the Shuanghui insiders along with the partners in the PE firms, CALPERS, the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations, Goldman Sachs shareholders and other LPs. Shuanghui China? Nothing, as far as I can tell. China’s pork business will look pretty much exactly as it does today.
In their zeal to proclaim a trend — that of Chinese buying US companies — the media seems to have been blinded to the actual mechanics of this deal. They also seem to have been hoodwinked by the artfully-written press release issued when the deal was announced. It mentions that Shuanghui International is the ” majority shareholder of Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development Co. (SZSE: 000895), which is China’s largest meat processing enterprise and China’s largest publicly traded meat products company as measured by market capitalization.” This then morphed into a story about “China’s biggest ever US takeover”, and much else besides about how China’s pork industry will now be upgraded through this deal, about dead pigs floating in the river in Shanghai, about Chinese companies’ targeting US and European brands.
China may indeed one day become a big buyer of US companies. But, that isn’t what’s happening here. Instead, the world’s leading English-language business media are suffering a collective hallucination.
A record bid for America’s top pork producer isn’t quite as it first appears
“What I do is kill pigs and sell meat,” Wan Long, chairman at Henan Shuanghui Development, told Century Weekly last year.
It’s an admirably succinct job description for a man who has been lauded by China National Radio as the “Steve Jobs of Chinese butchery” (Jobs, a vegan, probably wouldn’t have approved).
Starting out with a single processing factory in Luohe in Henan province, Shuanghui is now the largest meat producer in China, having benefitted in recent years from a shift in the Chinese diet away from rice and vegetables towards more protein.
So the announcement that it is now making a bid for the world’s largest hog producer, Smithfield Foods from Virginia in the US, prompted a flurry of headlines about the significance of the deal; its chances of getting security clearance from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS); and the broader implications for the meat trade in both countries if the takeover goes through.
Yet although Wan makes his profession sound like a simple one, Shuanghui’s bid for Smithfield turns out to be rather more complicated than many first assumed. Far from a case of a Chinese firm swooping in on an American target, the takeover reflects more complex trends too, including some of the peculiarities of the Chinese capital markets.
What first made headlines on the deal?
Privately-owned Shuanghui International has bid $7.1 billion for Smithfield Foods (including taking on its debt) in what the media is widely presenting as the biggest acquisition yet by a Chinese company of a US firm.
Shuanghui has processing plants in 13 provinces in China and produces more than 2.7 million tonnes of meat each year. But the plan is now to add Smithfield’s resources to the mix. “The acquisition provides Smithfield the opportunity to expand its offering of products to China through Shuanghui’s distribution network,” Wan announced. “Shuanghui will gain access to high-quality, competitively-priced and safe US products, as well as Smithfield’s best practices and operational expertise.”
What’s behind the move?
Most analysts have chosen to focus on Shuanghui’s desire to secure a more consistent supply of meat. Currently, it raises 400,000 of its own hogs a year, only a small share of the 11 million that it needs. That makes it reliant on other breeders in a country where the latest scare about contaminated meat is never far from the headlines. In the most recent case in March, the carcasses of thousands of pigs suddenly started floating down the Huangpu river upstream of Shanghai, after an outbreak of disease in nearby farms and a clampdown on the illicit sale of infected meat (see WiC186).
Now Shuanghui is said to be looking further afield to secure meat, and from a source that would allow it to differentiate its product range from that of its competitors.
“They’re a major processor who wants to source consistent, large volumes of raw material. You want to look at the cheapest sources and in the US, we’re very competitive,” Joel Haggard from the US Meat Export Federation told Bloomberg. Average hog prices in China are currently about $2.08 per kilo or a third higher than in the United States, Haggard also suggested.
How about changes in the industry in China?
A second theory is that Shuanghui is developing a more integrated supply chain in China and wants Smithfield’s help to complete the process.
This was something that C Larry Pope, chief executive at Smithfield, cited as a key factor in its willingness to pay a 31% premium for Smithfield stock. If so, that’s something of an irony: Continental Grain, Smithfield’s largest investor, has been pushing for a break up of the business to unlock more value for investors.
Still, an argument can be made that industry conditions are different in China, where the supply chain is shifting away from its reliance on more traditional household farming (the Mandarin character for “home” depicts a pig under a roof, for instance) to one in which large-scale, industrialised production begins to dominate.
Food safety concerns and the need to improve quality standards are also driving change across the industry. Yet despite signs of consolidation in hog breeding and slaughtering, integration across the full supply chain is a challenge. Shuanghui has already been trying to develop more of its own cold chain rather than rely on third parties (it operates seven private railways to transport its goods to 15 logistics centres, for instance, and has also invested in hundreds of its own retail outlets). But the Smithfield acquisition could help further with the integration effort, especially in areas such as adopting technology that tracks meat from farm to fork.
Paul Mariani, a director at agribusiness firm Variant Capital Advisors, told the Wall Street Journal last week that these systems have huge food safety benefits, allowing producers to track meat back to “where it was grown”. By contrast, Chinese suppliers struggle to achieve the same level of control, especially for meat sourced from the large number of smaller, family-owned firms.
How about in the US? Are Americans pleased with the deal?
The bid has already been referred to CFIUS, the committee that reviews the national security implications of foreign investments in US firms. But Smithfield’s Pope sounds confident, saying that he doesn’t expect “any concern” from the regulatory committee.
“We’re not exporting tanks and guns and cyber security,” he told reporters. “These are pork chops.”
All the same, the regulators will look at Smithfield’s supply contracts with the military, as well as whether any of its farms and factories are close to sensitive locations, an issue that has led to transactions being blocked or amended in the past.
For instance, the Obama administration intervened in the purchase of four Oregon wind farms by a Chinese acquirer this year because they were too close to a naval base.
“There’s a difference between a foreign company buying Boeing and one buying a hot dog stand,” Jonathan Gafni, president of Compass Point Analytics, which specialises in security reviews of this type, told the New York Times. “But it depends on which corner the stand is on.”
The committee will also look at whether Shuanghui could be in a position to disrupt the distribution of pork to American consumers. Indeed, Charles Grassley, the Republican Senator of Iowa, has already urged regulators to look closely at whether the Chinese government has any influence on Shuanghui’s management.
More ominously on Wednesday the chairwoman of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee expressed her concerns. Debbie Stabenow said those federal agencies considering the merger must take into account “China’s and Shuanghui’s troubling track record in food safety”. She further added that those agencies must “do everything in their power to ensure our national security and the health of our families is not jeopardised”.
Despite such concerns, the food security argument looks limited in scope, although some of the Chinese newspapers don’t expect the review to pass without issue. “Even the conspicuous absence of national security factors can hardly guarantee that US protectionists will not poke their noses into it,” the China Daily suggested pointedly.
Back in Washington, Elizabeth Holmes, a lawyer working for the Center for Food Safety, has also called for regulators to consider the bid from the wider perspective of food safety. “They’re supposed to identify and address any national security concerns that would arise,” she warned. “I can’t imagine how something like public health or environmental pollution couldn’t be potentially construed as a national security concern.”
The implication is that the takeover might damage Smithfield’s operations in the United States in some way, even leading to contamination among its locally sold products. Hence the fact that Shuanghui was forced to recall meat tainted by the additive clenbuterol two years ago has been seized upon by the deal’s critics.
Again, the Chinese media response has tended to be indignant, with widespread reference to Smithfield’s own use of ractopamine, an additive similar to clenbuterol that’s banned in hog rearing in China but not by authorities in the US.
According to Reuters, Smithfield has been trying to phase out its usage of the drug, presumably to clear the way for an increase in sales to China. And in response to American anxiety about food safety post-takeover at Smithfield, both parties have gone out of their way to reiterate that the goal is to export more American pork to the Chinese, and not vice versa. Smithfield’s chief executive Pope has argued the case directly, citing the superiority of American meat. “People have this belief…that everything in America is made in China,” he told reporters. “Open your refrigerator door, look inside. Nothing in there is made in China because American agriculture is the most competitive and efficient in the world.”
Similarly, Shuanghui executives are insisting that nothing will change in how Smithfield serves up its sausages to American customers. The company will continue to be run on a standalone basis under its current management team, no facilities will be closed, no staff will be made redundant and no contracts will be renegotiated. Food safety standards will remain as today. “We want the business to stay the same, but better,” Wan said.
So it sounds like the Smithfield deal could turn out to be a major coup for the Chinese buyer?
Not really, says Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, a boutique investment bank and advisory firm based in Shenzhen. He thinks that much of the analysis of the bid for Smithfield has completely missed the point. That’s because Shuanghui International – the entity making the offer – is a shell company based in the Cayman Islands. It isn’t a Chinese firm at all, he says.
Shuanghui International also has majority control of Shuanghui Development, the Shenzhen-listed firm that runs the domestic meat business in China. But it is controlled itself by a group of investors led by the private equity firm CDH (based in China but heavily backed by Western money) and also featuring Goldman Sachs, Temasek Holdings from Singapore and Kerry Group.
The management at Shuanghui, led by Wan, holds a small stake in the new, offshore entity. But as far as Fuhrman is concerned, Shuanghui International has no legal or operational connection to Shuanghui’s domestic operations.
“If the deal goes through, Smithfield Foods and Shuanghui China will have a majority shareholder in common. But nothing else. They are as related as, for example, Burger King and Neiman Marcus were when both were part owned by buyout firm TPG. The profits and assets of one have no connection to the profits or assets of the other.”
Of course, this raises questions about how the bid for Smithfield is being debated, especially its portrayal as the biggest takeover of a US firm by a Chinese one to date. It prompts queries too about the national security review underway in Washington, particularly any focus on the supposedly Chinese identity of the bidder. As it turns out, the Shuanghui bidding vehicle simply isn’t constituted in the way that people like Senators Grassley and Stabenow seem to believe.
So what is going on? Fuhrman says the bid for Smithfield is actually a leveraged buyout, made during a period in which private equity firms have been prevented from exiting their investments in China by blockages in the IPO pipeline (see WiC176 for a fuller discussion on this).
Instead, the investors that own Shuanghui are borrowing billions of dollars from the Bank of China and others to fund their purchase, with Fuhrman noting speculation that the plan is to relist Smithfield at a premium in Hong Kong in two or three years time.
How Shuanghui International is going to meet the interest payments on its borrowings in the meantime is less clear. But one possibility is that it will lean on Shuanghui Development, the operator in the Chinese market, to share some of the financial load. That could be problematic, raising hackles at the China Securities Regulatory Commission. It also prompts questions about the potential conflicts of interest (“among the most fiendish I’ve ever seen,” says Fuhrman) in the relationship between the investors that own Smithfield and the fuller group of shareholders at Shuanghai in China.
Ma Guangyuan, an economics blogger with more than half a million readers, takes a similar view. “If Shuanghui International acquires Smithfield Foods and sells the meat at high prices to Shuanghui Development, this will increase profits for the privatised Smithfield, but may not do much to help Shuanghui Development,” he predicts.
A further possibility is that having to service the LBO debt could curtail much of the investment envisaged by those who see the Smithfield purchase as a game-changing move for the industry. Of course, if it all goes to plan, the bid for Smithfield might turn out to be a game-changer for a small group of highly leveraged investors.But the jury must still be out on whether it will be quite so transformational for China’s domestic meat industry at large.