Capital allocation in China was built on a wobbly pedestal. One of its three legs was missing. Equity investment and bank lending were available. But, there was no legal way for private companies to issue bonds. That has now changed. In May this year, the Chinese government approved the establishment of a market for private company bonds in China. This is an important breakthrough, the most significant since the launch three years ago by the Shenzhen Stock Exchange of the Chinext board (创业板） for high-growth private companies. The new bond market has the potential to dramatically increase the scale of funding for private business in China.
Companies can issue bonds through a group of approved underwriters in China, who place the bonds with Chinese institutions. The bonds then trade on secondary markets established by both the Shenzhen or Shanghai stock exchanges. Bonds should lower the cost of capital for Chinese companies, and provide attractive returns for fixed-income investors. Another positive effect: the bonds disintermediate Chinese banks, which for too long have overcharged and under-served private company borrowers.
Up to now, though, China’s private company bond market is off to a bumpy start. Regulators are over-cautious, investors are inexperienced, companies are confused, the secondary markets are lacking in liquidity. We have no direct involvement in the private company bond market. We don’t issue or trade these instruments. But, we are eager to see private company bonds succeed in China. It will increase the capital available for good companies, and allow companies to achieve a more well-balanced capital structure. Capital remains in very short supply. Many PE firms in China have recently cut back rather dramatically in their funding to private companies, because of a decline in China’s stock market and a marked slowdown in the number of IPOs approved in China.
We recently prepared for the Chinese entrepreneurs we work with a short briefing memo on private company bonds. It’s in Chinese. The title is “中国中小企业私募债”. You can download a copy by clicking here.
We explain some of the practical steps, as well as the potential benefits, for companies interested to float bonds. At the moment, only companies based in a handful of China’s more economically-advanced provinces (including Shanghai, Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu) may issue the bonds. Most underwriters expect the geographical limitations to ease, over the next year, allowing companies in all parts of the country to participate. There is no clear threshold on how big a company must be to issue bonds. But, there is a clear preference for larger businesses, with profits of at least Rmb20mn (USD$3mn). In several cases, underwriters have pooled together several smaller companies into a single bond issue. Real estate developers, currently hurting because of the cut-off in bank lending to this industry, are not eligible to issue bonds.
In theory, a company can issue bonds without offering collateral or third-party loan guarantees, both of which are required by banks to secure a typical short-term corporate loan. In practice, however, the market is signaling strongly it prefers these kinds of risk protections. Interest rates on some of the private company bonds already issued have been below the levels typically charged by banks for secured lending. But, the rate is starting to move up, to over 10%. My guess is that interest rates for good borrowers should move back below 10%. That level offers bondholders a very solid real rate of return, and prices in the risk. In the US and Europe, decent companies can borrow at LIBOR+4-6%, or around 5%-7% a year.
Overall, as the new bond market expands and matures, we expect these bonds to offer the lowest cost of capital for growth companies in China. Bond maturities can be as long as three years; interest and principal payments can be structured to accommodate future cash flows. This is generally far more suitable than the rigid short-term lending facilities available from Chinese banks.
Underwriters are promising companies they can complete the process of issuing a bond, including regulatory approvals, in three months or less. That’s remarkably quick for any capital markets transaction in China, and reflects the fact China’s finicky securities regulator, the CSRC, has no role in approving private company bonds. The Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets regulate and approve bond issuance.
PE firms are starting to notice that access to bond market gives private companies more leverage and a little more pricing power when negotiating equity financing. The Chinese companies that can successfully issue bonds are generally the ones that PE firms also target. Over time, though, PE firms should welcome the emergence of a functioning private company bond market in China. The new bond market gives companies, including those with PE investment, an opportunity ahead of a domestic IPO to operate in the capital market, build a reputation for transparency and good performance. This should mean a higher IPO valuation if and when the company does decide to go public.