私募融资

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’s SOEs attract PE interest — Private Equity International Magazine

Private Equity International Magazine

www.peimedia.com

China’s state-owned enterprise promise big returns for PE investors, as well as a big challenge.

By: Clare Burrows


In 2013, private equity investment in China dropped to just $4.5 billion – about 47 percent below the equivalent figure for 2012, according to data from Thomson Reuters. Since China’s dry powder level was estimated at $59 billion at the end of 2012, it’s clear that China’s GPs need to find new ways to deploy the vast amounts of capital raised during better times.

What seems to be catching the industry’s eye more than ever are the country’s state-owned enterprises:large, government-controlled organisations, many of which are in dire need of restructuring. While state-owned enterprises account directly or indirectly for 60 percent of China’s GDP, according to research by China First Capital, almost 100 percent of institutional capital, especially private equity, has
been invested into China’s privately-owned sector.

However, as the number of traditional opportunities falls, “this may leave investing in SOEs as the best, largest and most promising new area for private equity investment,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive at China First Capital suggests.

And, some industry sources ask: what better target for private equity than these bloated, inefficient giants, which the newly-appointed Chinese government is apparently so keen to reform? SOEs are highly compliant when it comes to tax and accounting laws (a rare phenomenon among China’s privately-owned companies). Better still, they’re a bargain – because China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) regulates their price based on net asset value.

“If you have a highly profitable SOE that has very low net assets, you can potentially buy it at incredibly low P/E multiples,” Fuhrman says. With one deal China First is advising on, 51 percent of the business is being offered at 2x EBITDA, he adds. China First is currently acting as an investment banker for five of China’s largest SOEs, including China Aerospace, China State Construction, China Huadian, Wuliangye Group and Shandong Energy.

Click here to 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.

 

The Big Churn — How High Partner Turnover Damages China’s Private Equity Industry

China PE partner turnover 

What’s the biggest risk in China private equity investing?  Depends who you’re asking. If you ask LPs, the people who provide all the money that PE firms live off, you will often hear a surprising answer: turnover at PE firms. Nowhere else in the PE and VC world do you find so many firms where partners are feuding, quitting or being thrown off the bus.

A partnership at a PE firm was meant to be a long-term fiduciary commitment. In China, it rarely is. The result is billions of dollars of LP money often gets stranded, and possibly wasted. That’s because when a partner leaves, it often creates a bunch of orphaned investments. The departing partner is generally the only solid link between the PE firm and the investee company. Everyone left behind is harmed — the PE firms, the companies they invest in, and the LPs whose money is trapped inside these deals.

As the CEO one of Asia’s largest and most professional LPs told me recently, “Before committing to a new China fund, we spend more of our time trying to figure out how the partners get along than just about anything else. Will they hang on together through the life of the fund? We know from experience how damaging it is when partners fall out, when key people leave. We know turnover can mean we lose everything we’ve invested. And yet, we still often get stung.

In my nearly-twenty years in and around the PE and VC industry in the US, Europe and Asia, I’ve never seen anything quite like what happens here in China. A quick look through my Outlook contacts reveals that almost half the PE partners I know working in China have changed firms in the last five years. One reason you don’t see this elsewhere is that partners expect to earn carried interest on the deals they’ve made. If they leave, they forgo this.

Carry is a kind of unvested pay. On paper, it’s often quite sizable, and should represent the majority of a PE partner’s total comp, as well a kind of golden handcuff. The only reason for partners to leave is they believe they won’t get any of this money, either because of failed deals or, more commonly, large doubts that the head partner, the person running the firm, will share the rewards from successful deals.

Most China PE firms are partnerships in name only. There is usually one top dog, usually the founder and rainmaker. This person can unilaterally decide who stays, who goes, who gets carry and who gets a lump of coal. Top Dog tends to treat partners like overpaid, somewhat undeserving hired hands.

So, why have partners at all? Often it’s because LPs insist on it, that they want PE and VC firms in China to be structured like those elsewhere. The business card says “Partner” but the attitude, expectations and level of commitment say “Employee”.

Senior staff (VPs, Managing Directors) also frequently depart. In the US, you don’t often see that much, since these are the people in line to become partners, which is meant to be the crowning achievement of a long successful career in the trenches. They leave because they don’t believe they’ll be promoted, or if they are, that they’ll see any real change in their current status as wage-earners.

At a party celebrating a recent IPO of a PE-backed Chinese company, I ran into the PE guy who led the original investment, did all the heavy lifting. He had since left and joined another firm. He laughed when I asked why he would leave before the IPO, with his old firm certain to earn a big profit on his deal. “I don’t know who will get the carry, but I was sure it wouldn’t include me,” he explained.

Partners jump ship most often because someone is offering a higher salary, a higher guaranteed amount of pay. Their new firm will usually also offer them carry. Both sides will negotiate fiercely over the specific terms, what percent with what hurdle rate. And yet, more often than not, it seems to be a charade.

From day one, the new partners may already thinking about their next career move, how to trade up. Emblematic of this: here in China, when PE partners join a new firm, they almost always refer to it as “joining a new platform”. Note the choice of words: platform, not firm.

The LPs — and I speak to quite a lot of them — acknowledge, of course, that there are other big risks in China, that individual investments or even a whole portfolio turns sour. But, this is a risk inherent in all PE investing everywhere. High partner turnover is not.

If you’re interested, you can click here and read the email exchange I had recently with a newly-departed partner at one of China’s better-known VC firms. As I write there, I hate to sound like a scold. I know PE partners also want to earn a good living, and should work where they are happiest and best compensated. But, China’s PE industry serves a deeper economic purpose and holds in trust the assets of both investors and companies. “Looking out for Number One” should not be the only career goal of those working in senior levels in the industry.

 

 

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.

 

Private Sector Capital for China’s SOEs — China First Capital Press Release

China First Capital press release

Hong Kong, Shenzhen, China:  China First Capital, an international investment bank and advisory firm focused on China, today announces it has received a pioneering mandate from a large Chinese State-Owned Enterprise (“SOE”) holding company to manage a process to revitalize and privatize part of the group by bringing in private capital.

“The investment environment for SOE deals in China is undergoing a significant and exciting change,” commented China First Capital chairman and founder Peter Fuhrman. “We are proud to play a role as investment bankers and advisors in this change, by working with some of China’s SOEs to complete restructuring of unquoted subsidiaries and then raise private sector capital to finance their future expansion. We see these SOE investment deals as the next significant opportunity for institutional investors eager to allocate more capital to China.”

By some estimates, China’s SOEs account for over 60% of total Chinese GDP. Yet, up to now, they have only rarely done private placements or spinoffs to access institutional investment, including from private equity firms. But, according to China First Capital’s internal research, an increasing number of China’s SOEs will face a funding gap in coming years. SOEs, in most cases, have ambitious expansion plans fully supported by the Chinese government. Yet, the SOEs are restricted in their ability to raise large amounts of new bank loans. They are under pressure from Chinese government to maintain or lower their debt-to-equity ratios.

More…

Neue Zurcher Zeitung Interview

 

The China IPO Embargo: How and When IPOs May Resume

China IPO

China first slowed its IPO machinery beginning July 2012 and then shut it down altogether almost a year ago. Since then, about the only thing stirring in China’s IPO markets have been the false hopes of various analysts, outside policy experts, stockbrokers, PE bosses, even the world’s most powerful investment bank.  All began predicting as early as January 2013 the imminent resumption of IPOs.

So here we are approaching the end of September 2013 with still no sign of when IPOs will resume in China. What exactly is going on here? Those claiming to know the full answer are mainly “talking through their hat“. Indeed, the most commonly voiced explanation for why IPOs were stopped — that IPOs would resume when China’s stock markets perked up again, after two years of steady decline — looks to be discredited. The ChiNext board, where most of China’s private companies are hoping to IPO, has not only recovered from a slump but hit new all-time highs this summer.

Let me share where I think the IPO process in China is headed, what this sudden, unexplained prolonged stoppage in IPOs has taught us, and when IPOs will resume.

First, the prime causal agent for the block in IPOs was the discovery in late June last year of a massive fraud inside a Chinese company called Guangdong Xindadi Biotechnology.  (Read about it here and here.)

This one bad apple did likely poison the whole IPO process in China, along with the hopes of the then-800 companies on the CSRC waiting list. They all had underwriters in place, audits and other regulatory filings completed and were waiting for the paperwork to be approved and then sell shares on the Shenzhen or Shanghai stock exchanges. That was a prize well worth queuing up for. China’s stock markets were then offering companies some of the world’s highest IPO valuations.

After Xindadi’s phony financials were revealed and its IPO pulled, the IPO approval process was rather swiftly shut down. Since then, the CSRC has gone into internal fix-it mode. This is China, so there are no leaks and no press statements about what exactly is taking place inside the CSRC and what substantive changes are being considered. We do know heads rolled. Xindadi’s accountants and lawyers have been sanctioned and are probably on their way to jail, if they aren’t there already A new CSRC boss was brought in, new procedures to detect and new penalties to discourage false accounting were introduced.  The waiting list was purged of about one-third of the 800 applicants. No new IPO applications have been accepted for over a year.

IPOs will only resume when there is more confidence, not only within the CSRC but among officials higher up, that the next Xindadi will be detected, and China’s capital markets can keep out the likes of Longtop Financial and China MediaExpress, two Chinese companies once quoted on NASDAQ exchange. They, along with others, pumped up their results through false accounting, then failed spectacularly.  Overall, according to McKinsey, investors in U.S.-listed Chinese companies lost 72% of their investment in the last two years.

China’s leadership urgently does not want anything similar to occur in China. That much is certain. How to achieve this goal is less obvious, and also the reason China’s capital market remains, for now, IPO-less.

If there were a foolproof bureaucratic or regulatory way for the CSRC to detect all fraudulent accounting inside Chinese companies waiting to IPO in China,  the CSRC would have found it by now. They haven’t because there isn’t. So, when IPOs resume, we can expect the companies chosen to have undergone the most forensic examination practiced anywhere. The method will probably most approximate the double-blind testing used by the FDA to confirm the efficacy of new medicines.

Different teams, both inside the CSRC and outside, will separately pour over the financials. Warnings will be issued very loudly. Anyone found to be book-cooking, or lets phony numbers get past him,  is going to be dealt with harshly. China, unlike the US, does not have “country club prisons” for white collar felons.

The CSRC process will turn several large industries in China into IPO dead zones, with few if any companies being allowed to go public. The suspect industries will include retail chains, restaurants and catering, logistics, agricultural products and food processing. Any company that uses franchisees to sell or distribute its products will also find it difficult, if not impossible, to IPO in China. In all these cases, transactions are done using cash or informal credit, without proper receipts. That fact alone will be enough to disqualify a company from going public in China.

Pity the many PE firms that earlier invested in companies like this and have yet to exit. They may as well write down to zero the value of these investments.

Which companies will be able to IPO when the markets re-open? First preference will be for SOEs, or businesses that are part-owned by or do most of their business with SOEs. This isn’t really because of some broader policy preference to favor the state sector over private enterprise. It’s simply because SOEs, unlike private companies, are audited annually, and are long accustomed to paper-trailing everything they do. In the CSRC’s new “belt and suspenders” world, it’s mainly only SOEs that look adequately buckled up.

Among private companies, likely favorites will include high-technology companies (software, computer services, biotech), since they tend to have fewer customers (and so are easier to audit) and higher margins than businesses in more traditional industries. High margins matter not only, or even mainly, because they demonstrate competitive advantage. Instead, high margins create more of a profit cushion in case something goes wrong at a business, or some accounting issue is later uncovered.

The CSRC previously played a big part in fixing the IPO share price for each company going public. My guess is, the CSRC is going to pull back and let market forces do most of the work. This isn’t because there’s a new-found faith in the invisible hand. Simply, the problem is the CSRC’s workload is already too burdensome. Another old CSRC policy likely to be scrapped: tight control on the timing of all IPOs, so that on average, one company was allowed to IPO each working day. The IPO backlog is just too long.

The spigot likely will be opened a bit. If so, IPO valuations will likely continue to fall. From a peak in 2009, valuations on a p/e basis had already more than halved to around 35 when the CSRC shut down all IPOs.  IPO valuations in China will stay higher than, for example, those in Hong Kong. But, the gap will likely go on narrowing.

What else can we expect to see once IPOs resume? Less securitized local government borrowing. Over the last 16 months, with lucrative IPO underwriting in hibernation,  China’s investment banks, brokerage houses and securities lawyers all kept busy by helping local government issue bonds. It’s a low margin business, and one not universally approved-of by China’s central government.

How about things that will not change from the way things were until 16 months ago? The CSRC will continue to forbid companies, and their brokers, from doing pre-IPO publicity or otherwise trying to hype the shares before they trade. If first day prices go up or down by what CSRC determines is “too much”, say by over 15%, expect the CSRC to signal its displeasure by punishing the brokerage houses managing the deals.  The CSRC is the lord and master of China’s IPO markets, but a nervous one, stricken by self-doubt.

China needs IPOs because its companies need low-cost sources of growth capital. When IPOs stopped, so too did most private equity investment in China. It’s clear to me this collapse in equity funding has had a negative impact on overall GDP, and Chinese policy-makers’ plans to rebalance its economy away from the state-owned sector. It’s a credit to China’s overall economic dynamism, and the resourcefulness of its entrepreneurs,  that economic growth has held up so well this past 18 months.

IPOs in China are a creature of China’s administrative state. Companies, investors, bankers, are all mainly just bystanders. Right now, the heaviest chop to lift in China’s bureaucracy may be the one to stamp the resumption of IPOs. So, when exactly will IPOs resume? Sometime around Thanksgiving (November 24, 2013) would be my guess.

 

 

Why China PE will rise again — Interview in China Law & Practice Annual Review 2013

CLP

 

Download complete text

Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, talks to David Tring about his company’s disciplined focus, what the IPO freeze means for PE investors and how a ruling from a court in China has removed a layer of safety for PE firms

What is China First Capital?

China First Capital is a China-focused international bank and advisory firm. I am its chairman and founder. Establishing, and now running, China First Capital is the fulfilment of a deeply-held ambition nurtured for over 30 years. I first came to China in 1981, as part of a first intake of American graduate students in China. I left China after school and then built a career in the US and Europe. But, throughout, I never lost sight of the goal to return to China and start a business that would contribute meaningfully and positively to the country’s revival and prosperity.

China First Capital is small by investment banking industry standards. Our transaction volume over the preceding twelve months was around $250 million. But, we aim to punch above our weight. China First Capital’s geographical reach and client mandates are across all regions of China, with exceptional proprietary deal flow. We have significant domain expertise in most major industries in China’s private and public sector, structuring transactions for a diversified group of companies and financial sponsors to help them grow and globalise. We seek to be a knowledge-driven company, committed to the long-term economic prosperity of Chinese business and society, backed by proprietary research (in both Chinese and English), that is generally unmatched by other boutique investment banks or advisory firms active in China.

What have been some of the legislative changes to the PE sector this year that are affecting you?

The recent policy and legislative changes are mainly no more than tweaks. There has been some sparring within China over which regulator would oversee private equity. But, overall, the PE industry in China is both lightly and effectively regulated. A key change, however, occurred through the legal system within China, when a court in Western China invalidated the put clause of a PE deal done within China, ruling that the PE firm involved had ignored China’s securities laws in crafting this escape mechanism for their investment.  While the court ruled on only a single example, the logic applied in this case seems to me, and many others, to be both persuasive and potentially broad-reaching. For PE firms that traditionally added this put clause to all contracts they signed to invest in Chinese companies, and came to rely on it as a way to compel the company to buy them out after a number of years if no IPO took place, there is now real doubt about whether a put clause is worth the paper it’s printed on. Simply put, for PE firms, it means their life-raft here in China has perhaps sprung a leak.

What are some of the hottest sectors in China that are attracting PE investors?

At the moment, with IPOs suspended within China and Chinese private companies decidedly unwelcome in the capital markets that once embraced them by the truckload – the US and Hong Kong – there are no hot sectors for PE investment in China now. The PE industry in China, once high-flying, is now decidedly grounded and covered in tarpaulin. What is perhaps most unfortunate about this is that what we are seeing mainly is a crisis within China’s PE industry, not within the ranks of China’s very dynamic private entrepreneurial economy. In other words, while financing has all but dried up, China’s private companies continue, in many cases, to excel and outperform those everywhere else in the world. The PE firms made a fundamental miscalculation by pouring money into too many deals where their only method of exit, of getting their money back with a profit, was through an IPO. By our count, there are now over 7,500 PE-invested deals in China all awaiting exit, at a time when few, if any exits are occurring. Since PE firms themselves have a finite life in almost all cases, this means over $100bn in capital is now stuck inside deals with no high-probability way to exit before the PE funds themselves reach their planned expiry. The PE industry has never seen anything quite like what is happening now in China.

What is a typical day like for you at China First Capital?

We are lucky to work for an outstanding group of companies, mainly all Chinese domestic. Indeed, I am the only non-Chinese thing about the business. I am in China doing absolutely what I love doing. There are no aspects of my working day that I find tedious or unpleasant. Even at my busiest, I am aware I am at most a few hours away from what the next in an endless series of totally delicious Chinese meals. That alone has a levitating effect on my spirit. But, the real source of pleasure and purpose is in befriending and working beside entrepreneurs who are infinitely more skilled, more driven and wiser to the ways of the world and more successful than I ever could hope to be.

We are quite busy now working for one of China’s largest SOEs. It’s something of a departure for us, since most of our work is with private sector companies. But, this is a fascinating transaction that provides me with a quite privileged insider’s view of the way a large state-owned business operates here in China, the additional layers of decision-making and the unique environment that places far greater onus on increasing revenues than profits.

What do you find are some of the major issues or concerns for foreign PE clients when doing deals in China?

All investors looking to make money in China, whether on the stock market or through private equity and venture capital,  must confront the same huge uncertainty – not that China itself will stop its remarkable economic transformation and stop growing at levels that leave the rest of the developed world behind in the dust. This growth I believe will continue for at least the next 20 years. The big unknown has to do with the actual situation inside the Chinese company you are buying into. Can the financial statements and Big Four audits be relied on? Are the actual profits what the company asserts them to be? How great is the risk that investors’ money will disappear down some unseen rat hole?

Some frightening stories have come to light in the last two years. How widespread is the problem of accounting fraud in China? Part of the problem really is just the law of big numbers. With a population almost triple that of the US and Western Europe combined, China has a lot of everything, including both remarkable businesses run by individuals who are the entrepreneurial equal of Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, and well as some shady operators.

What is your outlook for China’s PE sector in the coming 12 months?

I believe the current crisis will abate, and stock markets will once again welcome Chinese private sector companies to do IPOs. The IPOs will be far fewer in number than in 2010, but still the revival of IPO exits will also thaw the current deep-freeze that has shut down most PE activity across China. PE firms will again start to invest, and put a dent in the $30 billion or more in capital they have raised to invest in China but have left untouched. The PE industry in China, since its founding a little more than a decade ago, grew enormously large but never really matured. There are now too many PE firms. By some count, the number exceeds 1,000, including hundreds of Renminbi PE firms started and run by people with no real experience investing in private companies. Their future appears dire. At the same time, the global PE firms that bestride the industry, including Carlyle, Blackstone, TPG, KKR, have yet to fully establish they can operate as efficiently and profitably in China as they do in Europe and the US.

While the China PE industry struggles to recover from many self-inflicted wounds, China’s private sector companies will continue to find and exploit huge opportunities for growth and profit in China, as the nation’s one billion consumers grow ever-richer and ever more demanding.

 

China Investment Banking Case Study: An SOE Privatization


China First Capital Signing ceremony

Anyone who’s dipped into this blog will know that I rarely, if ever, discuss directly what me and my company China First Capital do, our client work. Partly it’s because the work is usually by necessity confidential (clients, investors, deal terms) and partly because I don’t blog as a marketing tool.

But, I plan over coming months to share significant details about a “live deal” we are now working on, a buyout transaction involving a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE). The reasons: its size and structure make it an unusual transaction in China, and one that might also bust some myths about the way business in China, especially involving SOEs, actually works.

While I can’t reveal the name of the company, I can disclose why I think it’s such a compelling deal.  Our client is one of China’s largest, most well-known and most successful SOEs. The group’s overall annual profit of over Rmb12 bn (about USD$2bn) also make it one of the richest. Unlike a lot of SOEs, this one operates in highly-competitive markets, and has nothing like a monopoly in China.

The deal we’re working on is to restructure then “privatize” two profitable subsidiary companies of this SOE. Both of these subsidiaries are the largest businesses in China in their industry. Their combined revenues are about $220mn.

Privatization has two slightly different meanings in Chinese finance. First, is the type of deal, very common a decade ago, where big SOEs like China Mobile, Sinopec, PetroChina, ICBC, Air China, are converted into joint stock companies and then a minority share is listed through an IPO on stock markets in China, US or Hong Kong. The companies’ majority owner remains the Chinese state, with the shares usually held and managed by a powerful arm of the government known in Chinese as 国资委, in English known as the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, or more commonly SASAC. In theory, SASAC probably holds the world’s largest and most valuable share portfolio, far bigger than Fidelity,  Vanguard, or the world’s sovereign wealth funds.

The other, rarer,  type of privatization is where a company’s majority ownership changes hands, from state to private ownership. This is the type of control deal we are working on. The plan is to spin out the two subsidiaries by selling a majority stake to either a strategic or financial acquirer. In all likelihood, each company will one day go public either in China or Hong Kong, at which time, I’d expect their market caps to each be well over US$1bn.

In essence, the deals are structured as a recapitalization, where a new private-sector majority owner will contribute capital in excess of the company’s current assessed value. That valuation is determined by an independent accounting firm,  based on current asset value.

The privatization process is heavily regulated and tightly controlled by SASAC. It involves multiple levels of review, outside valuation, and then an open-market auction process. The system has changed out of all recognition from the first generation of government asset sales done in the 1990s. These deals involved little to no public disclosure or transparency and generated quite a lot of criticism and resentment that Chinese state assets were being sold to insiders, or the well-connected, for a fraction of their true value.

For an investment bank, working with an SOE, especially a large and famous one, has a process, logic and rhythm all its own. There are many more layers of management than at a typical Chinese private company, and many more voices involved in decision-making. In this case, we’re rather fortunate that the chairman of the holding company is also the founder of the two subsidiaries we’re now seeking to spin out. He started the companies from zero less than ten years ago, and has built them into proud, successful, fast-growing businesses.

This chairman has far more sway over the strategy and direction of the SOE than is usual in China. I first met him over a year ago. I was called to visit the company to explain the process through which an SOE like his could raise outside capital. Though curious, the chairman said at the time it seemed like more trouble than it would be worth. He had a comfortable life, and was nearing mandatory retirement age.

In fact, as I now understand, that first meeting was really just a way to kickstart a long, complicated and confidential discussion process involving the chairman, his senior management team, as well as even more senior officials at the SOE.  Over the course of a year, the chairman was able to persuade himself, as well as the many others with a potential veto, that a spin-out of the two companies was worth considering in greater detail.

The privatization offers the promise of long-term access to capital and also, most likely, a greater degree of management autonomy.  Though the two subsidiaries do not sell to, rely on or otherwise have related party transactions with the parent, they are ultimately subject to some rather heavy and often-stifling bureaucratic controls. Contrary to the reputation of many Chinese SOE, the two companies sell high-end products to large fastidious global customers. They operate in highly kinetic markets but with a corporate structure above them that is as slow, ponderous and impenetrable as a five-hour Peking Opera performance.

The chairman invited me to return for another visit in June. What followed was a rather intensive process of me and my team submitting several different financing plans and options, including the privatization of either the whole holding company or various subsidiaries, either as standalones, or grouped into mini-conglomerates. These different plans got discussed very actively inside the SOE. In under a month, the company had decided how it wanted to proceed: that its two strongest and most successful subsidiaries should be separately spun off and majority control in each offered to a new investor.

It may not sound like it, but one month is a remarkably fast time for an SOE to consider, decide and then get necessary approvals to do just about anything. We also work with another even larger Beijing-headquartered SOE and it took them almost four months to get the eleven different people needed to approve, and apply the chop to, our template Non-Disclosure Agreement.

I was summoned with one day’s advance notice to return to the company in late July to sign a cooperation agreement to advise them on the proposed privatization/recapitalization of the two subsidiaries. Again, that’s rather typical of SOEs:  meetings are called suddenly, and one needs to drop whatever one’s doing and attend. For me, that meant a hastily-booked two hour flight, then a three-and-a-half hour drive to the company’s headquarters. A photo from the signing ceremony is at the top of this page. (I have to cover over the name of the company.)

The contract signing was followed by another in a series of very elaborate and extremely tasty meals. The chairman has converted a 13-acre plot of the company’s land into an organic farm, where he grows fruits and vegetables and raises free-range pigs, ducks, chickens. Everything I’ve eaten while visiting the company has come from this farm. Everything is remarkably good. And, yes, along with the food, a rather large amount of Chinese alcohol is poured.

In future posts, I’ll talk about different aspects of the transaction, including how to parse the balance sheet and P&L of an SOE, as well as the industrial and investment logic of doing a takeover of an SOE. In the current market environment in China, where so many PE minority investments are stranded with no means to exit, there has probably never been a better time to do buyout transactions, particularly of mature and successful industrial companies with scale, good profit margins and clean accounting. Good businesses like this are few. We are now working for two of them.

 

 

Private Equity in China 2013: the Opportunity & The Crisis — China First Capital Research Report

Making money from private equity in China has become as challenging as “trying to catch a fish in a tree*. The IPO exit channel is basically shut. Fundraising has never been harder. One hundred billion dollars in capital is locked up inside unexited deals. LPs are getting very anxious. Private companies are suffocating from a lack of new equity financing. PE firms are splintering as partners depart the many struggling firms.

Looking beyond today’s rather grim situation, there are some points of light still shining bright. China remains the world’s fastest-growing major economy with the world’s most enterprising private sector. Entrepreneurship remains China’s most powerful, as well as inexhaustible, natural resource. So long as these two factors remain present, as I’m sure they will for decades to come, China will remain an attractive place to put money to work. But, where? With whom?

China First Capital has published its latest survey covering China PE, M&A and capital markets. The report is titled, ” Private Equity in China 2013 — The Opportunity & The Crisis“. It can be downloaded by clicking here.

During the last year, as China PE first stumbled, then fell into a deep pit, a lot of people I talk to in the industry suggested this was a positive development, that the formation of funds and fundraising had both gotten out of hand. Usually, the PE firm partners saying this quickly added, “but this doesn’t apply to us, of course”.  In other words, as the American saying has it,  “Don’t blame you. Don’t blame me. Blame the guy behind the tree.” It’s all somebody else’s fault.

That’s an interesting take. But, not one that holds up to a lot of scrutiny. The reality is that everyone in the business of financing Chinese companies, myself included, got a little drunk and disorderly. China, in business terms, is the world’s largest punchbowl filled with the world’s most intoxicating liquor. Too many good companies. Too much money to be made. Too much money to be had.

It was ever thus. From the first time outside investors and dealmakers got a look at China, they all went a little berserk with excitement.  This was as true of Marco Polo in the 14th century as British opium houses in the 19th century and American endowments and pension funds in the last decade. The scale of the place,  of the market,  is just so stupefying.

The curse of all China investing is counting one’s fortune before it’s made.  In the latter half of the 19th century, for example, European steel mills dreamed of the profits to be made from getting Chinese to switch from chopsticks to forks and knives.

PE firms did a lot of similar fantasizing. Pour money in at eight times earnings, and pull it out a few years later after an IPO at eighty.   All the spreadsheets, all the models, all the market research and top-down analytics — in the end, it all came back to this intoxicating formula. Put a pile of chips on number 11 then spin the roulette wheel. There were a few winners in China PE, a few deals that hit the jackpot. But, the odds in roulette, at 36-to-one, turned out to be much more favorable.

For every PE deal that made a huge return, there are 150 that either went bust or now sit in this near-endless queue of unexited deals, with scant likelihood of an IPO before the PE fund’s life expires.

The China First Capital research report, rather than making any predictions on when, for example, IPOs will resume and at what sort of valuation,  delves more deeply into some more fundamental issues. These include ideas on how best to resolve the “principal-agent dilemma”, and the growing risks to China’s economic reform and rebalancing strategy caused by the drying up of IPO and PE financing of private sector companies.

We hope our judgments have merit. But, above all, they are independent. Unconflicted. That seems more and more like a rarity in our profession.

 

* A prize to the first person who successfully identifies the source of this quote. A hint: it was said by a former, often-maligned ruler of China.

Jiuding Capital: China’s “PE Factory” Breaks Down

Less than 18 months ago, Harvard Business School published one of its famed “cases” on Kunwu Jiuding Capital (昆吾九鼎投资管理有限公), praising the Chinese domestic private equity firm for its ” outstanding performance ” and “dazzling investment results”. (Click here to read abridged copy.) Today,  the situation has changed utterly. Jiuding’s “dazzling results”, along with that HBS case, look more like relics from a bygone era.

Jiuding developed a style of PE investing that was, for awhile, as perfectly adapted to Chinese conditions as the panda is to predator-free bamboo jungles in Sichuan. Jiuding kept it simple. Don’t worry too much about the company’s industry, its strategic advantage, R&D or management skills. Instead,  look only for deals where you could make a quick killing. In China, that meant looking for companies that best met the requirements for an immediate domestic IPO. Deals were conceived and executed to arbitrage consistently large valuation differentials between public and private markets, between private equity entry multiples and expected IPO exit valuations.

Jiuding’s pre-investment work consisted mainly of simulating the IPO approval process of China’s securities regulator, the CSRC. If these simulations suggested a high likelihood of speedy CSRC IPO approval, a company got Jiuding’s money. The objective was to invest and then get out in as short a period as possible, preferably less than two years. A more typical PE deal in China might wait four years or more for an opportunity to IPO.

Jiuding did dozens of deals based on this investment method. When things worked according to plan, meaning one of Jiuding’s deals got quickly through its IPO, the firm made returns of 600% or more. After a few such successes, Jiuding’s fundraising went into overdrive. Once a small domestic Renminbi PE firm, Jiuding pretty soon became one of the most famous and largest, with the RMB equivalent of over $1 billion in capital.

Then, last year, a capital markets asteroid wiped out Jiuding’s habitat.  The CSRC abruptly, and without providing any clear explanation, first slowed dramatically the number of IPO approvals, then in October 2012, halted IPOs altogether. This has precipitated a crisis in China’s private equity industry. Few other PE firms are as badly impacted as Jiuding. The CSRC’s sudden block on IPOs revealed the fact that Jiuding’s system for simulating the IPO approval process had a fatal flaw. It could not predict, anticipate or hedge against the fact that IPOs in China remain not a function of market dynamics, but political and institutional policies that can change both completely and suddenly.

If Jiuding made one key mistake, it was assuming that the IPO approval system that prevailed from 2009 through mid-2012 was both replicable and likely to last well into the future. In other words, it was driving ahead at full speed while looking back over its shoulder.

Jiuding’s deals are now stranded, with no high probability way for many to achieve IPO exit before the expiry of fund life. That was another critical weakness in the Jiuding approach: it raised money in many cases by promising its RMB investors to return all capital within four to six years, about half the life cycle of a typical global PE firm like Carlyle or Blackstone.

Jiuding’s deals, like thousands of others in China PE,  are part of a backlog that could take a decade or more to clear. The numbers are stupefying: at its height the CSRC never approved more than 125 IPOs a year for PE-backed companies in China. There are already 100 companies approved and waiting to IPO, 400 more with applications submitted and in the middle of CSRC investigation, and at least another 2,000-3,000 waiting for a time when the CSRC again allows companies to freely submit applications.

Jiuding’s assets and liabilities are fundamentally mismatched. That’s as big a mistake in private equity as it is in the banking and insurance industries. Jiuding’s assets —  its shareholdings in well over a hundred domestic companies — are and will likely remain illiquid for years into the future. Meantime, the people whose capital it invests,  mainly rich Chinese businesspeople, will likely demand their money back as originally promised, sometime in the next few years. There’s a word for a situation where a company’s near-term liabilities are larger than the liquidatable value of its assets.

In the Harvard Business School case, Jiuding’s leadership is credited with perfecting a “PE factory”,  which according to the HBS document “subverted the traditional private equity business model.”  They might as well have claimed Jiuding also subverted the law of gravity. There are no real shortcuts, no assembly line procedure, for making and exiting successfully from PE investments in China.

In an earlier analysis, written as things turned out just as the CSRC’s unannounced block on IPOs was coming into effect, I suggested Jiuding would need to adjust its investment methods, and more closely follow the same process used by bigger, more famous global PE firms. In other words, they would need to get their hands dirty, and invest for a longer time horizon, based more on a company’s medium term business prospects, not its likelihood of achieving an instant IPO.

Jiuding, in short, will need to focus its investing more on adding value and less on extracting it. Can it? Will it? Or has its time, like the boom years of CSRC IPO approval and +80X p/e IPO valuations in China,  come and gone?

 

 

Smithfield & Shuanghui: One little piggy comes to market — Week In China

week in china

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.

 

Download PDF version.

China M&A: Three Recent Deals

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

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

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

Ah, the Mysterious Orient.

 

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

 –