并购

China M&A: Three Recent Deals

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

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

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

Ah, the Mysterious Orient.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

CITIC Capital’s Take Private Deal for AsiaInfo-Linkage: Is This The Chinese Way to Do an LBO?

Are we seeing the birth of “Leveraged Buyouts With Chinese Characteristics”? Or just some of the craziest, riskiest and unlikeliest buyout deals in worldwide history? That’s the question posed by the announcement this week that China buyout PE firm CITIC Capital Partners is leading the “take private” deal of NASDAQ-listed AsiaInfo-Linkage Inc., a Chinese software and telecommunications services that company whose shares have halved in value from over $20 during the last two years.

CITIC Capital first disclosed in January 2012 its intention to buy out the AsiaInfo-Linkage public shareholders. At the time, the share price was around $7. The board set up a committee to search for alternative buyers. It seems to have found none, and accepted this week CITIC’s offer to pay $12 a share, or 50% above the price on the day in January 2012 when it first notified the company of its interest. That seemed a rich premium 17 months ago. It seems no less so now.

Rule Number One in LBOs: do not pay any more than you absolutely need to acquire a majority of the shares. Few are the M&A deals where a premium of +50% is offered. Fewer still when the target company is one where the stock has been seriously battered for many years now. The share price went into something like a free fall in early 2010, from a high of $30 to reach that level of $7 when CITIC Capital first announced its move.

CITIC Capital is buying AsiaInfo-Linkage at a price that equates to well over 20 times its 2012 earnings. That sort of p/e multiple is rarely seen in buyout deals. Dell’s buyout is priced at half that level, or a p/e of 10X, and a premium of 25% above the share price the day before rumors about the “take private” deal started to spread.

It’s one of the exquisite oddities of this current craze to take Chinese companies private that PE firms are willing to pay p/e multiples to buy distressed quoted companies from US investors that are at least twice what the same PE firms generally say they will pay for a perfectly-healthy private Chinese company located in China. If anything, the reverse should be true.

Rule Number Two in LBOs: have a clear, credible plan to turn around the company to improve its performance and then look to sell out in a few years time. In this case, again, it seems far from obvious what can be done to improve things at AsiaInfo-Linkage and even more so, how and when CITIC Capital will exit. To complete the $900mn buyout, CITIC Capital will borrow $300mn. The interest payments on that debt are likely to chew up most of the company’s free cash, leaving nothing much to pay back principal. Sell off the fixed assets? Hard to see that working. Meantime, if you fail to pay back the principal within a reasonable period of time (say three to four years), the chances of exiting at a significant profit either through an IPO or a trade sale are substantially lower.

Leverage is a wonderful thing. In theory, it lets a buyout shop take control of a company while putting only a sliver of its own money at risk. You then want to use the company’s current free cash flow to pay off the debt and when you do, voila, you end up owning the whole thing for a fraction of its total purchase price.

In CITIC Capital’s case, I know they are especially enamored of leverage. They were formed specifically for the purpose of doing buyout deals in China. Problem is, you can’t use bank money for any part of a takeover of a domestic Chinese company. (AsiaInfo-Linkage is a rarity, a Chinese company that got started in the US over twenty years ago, and eventually shifted its headquarters to China. It is legally a Delaware corporation. This means CITIC Capital can borrow money to take it over.)

I met earlier this year with a now ex-partner at CITIC Capital who explained that the company’s attempts to do buyout deals in China have frequently run into a significant roadblock. Because CITIC Capital can’t borrow money for domestic takeovers, the only way it can make money, after taking control, is to make sure the company keeps growing at a high rate, and then hope to sell out at a high enough p/e multiple to earn a reasonable profit. In other words, a buyout without the leverage.

CITIC Capital is run mainly, as far as I can tell, by a bunch of MBAs and financial types, not operations guys who actually know how to run a business and improve it from the ground up. Sure, they can hire an outside team of managers to run a company once they take it over. But, in China, that’s never easy. Also, without the benefits of being able to leverage up the balance sheet, the risks and potential returns begin to look less than intoxicating.

We understand from insiders CITIC Capital’s plan is to relist AsiaInfo in Hong Kong or Shanghai within three years. Let’s see how that plays out. But, I’d rate the probability at around 0.5%. The backlog for IPOs in both markets is huge, and populated by Chinese companies with far cleaner history and none of the manifest problems of AsiaInfo.

AsiaInfo’s balance sheet claims there’s a lot of cash inside the company. But, we also understand it took many long months and a lot of “No’s” to find any banks willing to lend against the company’s assets and cash flow. In the end, the main lenders turned out to be a group of rather unknown Asian banks, along with a chunk from China’s ICBC. The equity piece is around 60% of total financing, high by typical LBO standards.

AsiaInfo-Linkage is in most ways quite similar to  “take private Chinese company” Ptp deals of the kind I’ve written about recently, here and here. It has the same manifold risks as the other 20 deals now underway — most notably, you walk a legal minefield, can only perform limited due diligence, spend huge sums to buy out existing shareholders rather than fixing what’s wrong in the company, and so end up paying a big price to buy a company that US investors have decided is a dog.

One good thing is that AsiaInfo-Linkage hasn’t been specifically targeted either by the SEC or short-sellers for alleged accounting irregularities. This isn’t the case with the other take private deal CITIC Capital is now involved with. It’s part of the consortium taking private the Chinese advertising company Focus Media, where a lot of questions have been raised about the quality and accuracy of the company’s SEC financial statements.

AsiaInfo-Linkage seems to be a decent enough company. It is growing. Its main problem is that it relies on three mammoth Chinese SOEs — China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom — for over 95% of its revenues. The company’s founder and chairman, Edward Tian, is backing the CITIC Capital deal. Along with CITIC Capital, two other PE firms, Singapore government’s Temasek Holdings and China Broadband Capital Partners (where Tian serves as chairman) are contributing the approximately $400mn in cash to buyout the public shareholders and take control.

Interestingly, Edward Tian has for seven years been a “senior advisor” to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, aka KKR, perhaps the world’s leading buyout firm. In theory, that should have put KKR in a prime position to do a deal like this — they have far more capital and experience doing buyouts than CITIC Capital, and they are already very familiar with the boss. But, they kept their wallet closed.

Disclosure: I’m a big believer in the value of doing control deals for Chinese companies. We’re just completing a research and strategy report on this area and we expect to share it soon. But, the deals we like are for the best private Chinese companies where the current PE firm investor needs to find a way to sell out before the expiry of its fund life. Such deals have their complexity, and using leverage will not be an option in most.

But, these good assets could most likely be bought at half the price (on a p/e basis) that CITIC Capital is paying to a company that shows little prospect of being able quickly to pay off in full the money CITIC is borrowing to buy it. If that happens, CITIC Capital may be lucky to get its LPs’ money back. Is CITIC Capital perhaps trying a little too hard to prove LBOs in China have their own inscrutable Chinese logic that it alone fully understands?

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China’s IPO Drought Spurring Interest In M&A — FinanceAsia

FinanceAsia

 

With slim hope of exiting through a lucrative public listing, Chinese entrepreneurs and their investors are considering sales.

China’s huge backlog of initial public offerings is creating an exit crisis for maturing private equity funds — and an opportunity for international investors interested in buying something other than a bit of a state-owned enterprise.

For China’s entrepreneurs, the dream of earning a rich valuation through an IPO is over, but the result could be a healthy increase in acquisitions as owners slowly come round to reality: that selling to a foreign buyer is probably the best way of cashing out.

There is no shortage of candidates, thanks to the unsustainable euphoria at the height of China’s IPO boom. The number of firms listing in China, Hong Kong and New York was only around 350 at its height, yet private equity funds were investing at triple that rate. As a result, there are now more than 7,500 unexited private equity deals in China.

“IPOs may start again, but it will never be like it was,” says Peter Fuhrman, chief executive of China First Capital, an investment bank that specialises in advising on private equity deals. “The Golden Age is likely over. There are 10,000 deals all hoping to be one of the few hundred to reach IPO.”

As long as the window to a listing was open, China’s entrepreneurs were willing to hold out in the hope of selling their business at a valuation of 80 or 100 times earnings. Even last year, when the window to IPO was firmly closed, few bosses chose to sell.

“Private equity activity was fairly muted in 2012 — you could count the meaningful exits on one hand,” says Lindsay Chu, Asia-Pacific head of financial sponsors and sovereign wealth funds at HSBC. But sponsors still have a meaningful number of investments that they will need to exit to return capital to LPs [limited partners].”

However, both Fuhrman and HSBC note signs of growing interest in M&A — or at least weakening resistance to the idea.

“I’m conservatively optimistic about leveraged buyouts,” says Aaron Chow, Asia Pacific head of event-driven syndicate within the leveraged and acquisition finance team at HSBC. “The market is wide open to do these deals right now, as financing conditions are supportive and IPO valuations may not provide attractive exits.”

Indeed, the ability to use leverage may be decisive in helping foreign buyers emerge as the preferred exit route for China’s entrepreneurs. Leverage is not an option for domestic buyers, which are also burdened with the need to wait for approvals, without any guarantee that they will get them.

This means foreign acquirers can move quicker and earn bigger returns, which may prove enticing to bosses who want to maximise their payday and get their hands on a quick cheque.

If this meeting of the minds happens, foreign buyers will get their first opportunity to buy control positions within China’s private economy, which is responsible for most of the country’s growth and job creation.

“The beauty here is these are good companies, rather than a troubled and bloated SoE that’s just going to give you a headache,” says Fuhrman. “It’s still a bitch to do Chinese acquisitions — it’s always going to be a bitch — but private deals are doable.”

Some of those deals may involve trade sales to other financial sponsors, as a number of private equity funds have recently raised capital to deploy in Asia and are well placed to take advantage of the opportunity, despite the challenges.

“There’s a lot of talk in Europe about funds having difficulty in their fund-raising efforts, but for the most part we’ve not seen that in Asia,” says Chu. Mainland companies will attract most of the flows, he says, but there are also opportunities across the region. “China is always going to be top of the list, but Asean is becoming an even bigger focus thanks to good macro stories and stable governments. Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia are all attractive to private equity investors.”

© Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.

M&A in China – China First Capital’s New Research Report


CFC’s latest Chinese-language research report has just been published. The topic: M&A Strategy for Chinese Private Companies. Our conclusion: propelled by rapidly-growing domestic market and the continuing evolution of China’s capital markets, China will overtake the USA within the next decade as the world’s largest and most active market for mergers and acquisitions.

The report, titled “ 并购- 中国企业的成功助力”,can be downloaded by clicking here.

The report identifies five key drivers that fueling M&A activity among private sector companies in China.  They are: (1) a once-in-a-business-lifetime opportunity to seize meaningful market share in the domestic market; (2) the coming generational shift as China’s first generation of entrepreneurs moves toward retirement age; (3) a widening valuation gap between private and publicly-traded companies; (4) regulatory changes that will make it easier to pay for acquisitions using shares as well as cash; (5) increased access to IPO market in China for companies that have augmented organic growth through strategic M&A.

Several case studies from our work feature in the report, including a cross-border M&A deal we are doing, and one purely domestic trade sale. We take on a select number of M&A clients, and work as a sell-side advisor.

M&A in China has myriad challenges that do not often arise in other parts of the world. One we see repeatedly is that few Chinese acquirers have in-house M&A teams or investment banks on call to provide help with structure and valuation. Talking with anyone less than the company chairman is often a waste of time.

Another unique hurdle: “GIGO DD” or, more prosaically, “garbage in, garbage out due diligence.” Potential acquirers unfortunately will often start their industry research by doing a Chinese language web search using Baidu. There is a lot of dubious stuff out there that is given some credence, including phony websites and bizarre claims posted to people’s personal blogs or chatrooms.

In the cross-border deal we’re working on, several companies backed out of the process after finding Chinese companies claiming on their corporate website to make equipment identical to our client’s. This convinced these potential bidders that our client had technology and assets of little value. We actually took the time, unlike the potential acquirers, to call the phone numbers on these websites, posing as potential customers. None of the companies had any similar equipment for sale or in development. The material on their websites was bogus.

Market data from online sources is also usually specious. Few people, including lawyers, have working knowledge of how an M&A deal might impact a company’s plans for domestic IPO in China.

I’ve been inside some M&A deals in the US,  with their online data rooms, cloak-and-dagger codenames, and a precisely orchestrated bidding process. In China, the process is more unscripted.

Until recently, the only Chinese companies able and willing to do M&A were larger State-Owned Enterprises (SOE). The deals were done to buy oil and other natural resources on the stock market, or to acquire European brand names to put on Chinese-made products. Those deals include Sinopec’s purchase of shares in Canadian company AddaxCNOOC’s failed acquisition of UnoCal, TCL’s purchase of Thomson TVs and Alcatel phones, and Nanjing Automotive’s buying the MG brand.

These kind of deals will likely continue. But, in the future, M&A deals will become more numerous, more necessary for private entrepreneur-founded companies and have more complex strategic goals.

M&A is one of only two ways for founders and shareholders to achieve exit. The other is IPO. But, the number of private companies who can IPO in China will always be limited. At the moment, the number is about 250 per year. Compare that to the 70 million or so private companies in China.

The IPO process creates a special competitive dynamic in China. The first company in an industry to become publicly-traded usually has a huge advantage over competitors. They disrupt the previous equilibrium in an industry.

This means there are only two choices for many entrepreneurs. Both choices involve M&A. If you aren’t going to become a public company or a competitor has already gone public, you need to consider selling your company. If you want to become a public company,  you will need to become an expert at buying other companies.

The economic destiny of China, and many of its better private companies, is M&A.

 

China Goes Shopping: The Compelling Logic of Doing M&A Deals in the US

Selling a business in the US?  Chinese can pay top dollar.

We are entering a golden age of Chinese M&A deals in the US. There is certainly a sharp pick-up in activity going on – not so much of announced deals yet, though there have been several, but in more intensive discussions between potential Chinese acquirers and US companies. There is also a lot more shopping and tire-kicking by Chinese buyers. I certainly see it in our business. We’re engaged now in several M&A deals whose goal is sale of a US company to a Chinese buyer. I expect to see more.

The reasons for this upsurge are many – including the recent appreciation of the Renminbi against the dollar, the growing scale and managerial sophistication of Chinese companies (particularly private as opposed to state-owned ones), attractive prices for target US companies, the launch in 2009 by the Shenzhen Stock Exchange of the Chinextboard for fast-growing private companies.

The best reason for Chinese buyers to acquire US firms is one less-often mentioned – to profit from p/e arbitrage. The gap between stock market valuations in the US and China, on price-earnings basis, are wide. The average trailing p/e in the US now is 14. On China’s Chinext board, it’s 45. For fast-growth Chinese companies, the p/e multiples can exceed 70. This gives some Chinese acquirers leeway to pay a higher price for a US business.

In the best cases, a dollar of earnings may cost $10-$15 to acquire through purchase of a US business, but that dollar is immediately worth fifty dollars or more to the Chinese firm’s own valuation. As long as the gap remains so large, it makes enormous economic sense for Chinese acquirers to be out buying US businesses.

This is equally true for Chinese companies already quoted on the Chinese stock market as well as those with that ambition. Indeed, for reasons unique to China, the incentive is stronger for private companies to do this p/e arbitrage. In China, public companies generally are forbidden from doing secondary offerings, nor can they use their own shares to pay for an acquisition. When a Chinese public company consolidates a US acquisition’s profits, its overall market value will likely rise. But, it has no way to capitalize by selling additional shares and replenish the corporate treasury.

For a private company, the larger the profits at IPO, the higher the IPO proceeds. An extra $1 million in profits the year before an IPO can raise the market cap by $50mn – $70mn when the company goes public on Chinext. Private Chinese companies, unlike those already public in China,  can also use their shares to pay for acquisitions. The better private companies also often have a private equity investor involved. The PE firms can be an important source of cash to finance acquisitions, since it will juice their own returns. PE firms like making money from p/e arbitrage.

In M&A, the best pricing strategy is to swap some of my overvalued paper to buy all of someone else’s undervalued paper.  At the moment, some of the most overvalued paper belongs to Chinese companies on the path to IPO in China.

Most M&A deals end up benefitting the selling shareholders far more than the buyers. That’s because the buyers almost always fail to capture the hoped-for savings and efficiencies from combining two firms. Too often, such synergies turn out to be illusory.

For Chinese acquirers, p/e arbitrage greatly increases the likelihood of an M&A deal paying off – if not immediately, then when the combined company goes public.

If the target company in the US has reasonable rate of profit growth, the picture gets even rosier. The rules are, a private Chinese company will generally need to wait three years after an acquisition to go public in China. As long as the acquired business’s profits keep growing, the Chinese companies market value at IPO will as well. Chinese acquirers should do deals like that all day long.

But, as of now, they are not. One reason, of course, is that things can and often also go wrong in M&A deals. Any acquirer can easily stumble trying to manage a new business, and to maintain its rate of growth after acquisition. It’s tougher still when it’s cross-border and cross-cultural.

Another key reason: domestic M&A activity in China is still rather scant. There isn’t a lot of experience or expertise to tap, particularly for private companies. Knowing you want to buy and knowing how to do so are very different beasts. I’ve seen that in our work. Chinese companies immediately grasp the logic and pay-off from a US acquisition. They are far less sure how to proceed. They commonly will ask us, investment bankers to the seller, how to move ahead, how to work out a proper valuation.

The best deals, as well as the easiest, will be Chinese acquiring US companies with a large untapped market in China. Our clients belong in this camp, US companies that have differentiated technology and products with the potential to expand very rapidly across China.

In one case, our client already has revenues and high profit margins in China, but lacks the local management and know-how to fulfill the demand in China.  The senior management are all based in the US, and the company sends trained US workers over to China, putting them up in hotels for months at a time, rather than using Chinese locals. Simply by localizing the staff and taking over sales operation now outsourced to a Chinese “agent”, the US company could more than double net profits in China.

The US management estimates their potential market in China to be at least ten times larger than their current level of revenues, and annual profits could grow more. But, to achieve that, the current  owners have concluded their business needs Chinese ownership.

If all goes right, the returns on this deal for a Chinese acquirer could set records in M&A. Both p/e arbitrage and high organic profit growth will see to that. Our client could be worth over $2 billion in a domestic IPO in China in four years’ time, assuming moderate profit targets are hit and IPO valuations remain where they are now on China’s Chinext exchange.

Another client is US market leader in a valuable media services niche, with A-List customers, high growth and profits this year above $5mn. After testing the M&A waters in the US, the company is now convinced it will attract a higher price in China. The company currently has no operations now in China, but the market for their product is as large – if not larger – than in the US. Again, it needs a Chinese owner to unlock the market. We think this company will likely prove attractive to quoted Chinese technology companies, and fetch a higher price than it will from US buyers.

The same is true for many other US companies seeking an exit. US businesses will often command a higher price in China, because of the valuation differentials and high-growth potential of China’s domestic market.

China business has prospered over the last 20 years by selling things US consumers want to buy. In the future,  it will prosper also by buying businesses the US wants to sell.