私募融资

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 private equity bitten again by Fang — Financial Times

FT

 

 

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By Simon Rabinovitch in Beijing

Financier Fang Fenglei is betting on private equity recovery

China’s unruly markets have vanquished many a savvy investor, but if one man knows how to play them it is Fang Fenglei.

From the establishment of the country’s first investment bank in 1995 to the complex partnership that brought Goldman Sachs into China in 2004 and the launch from scratch of a $2.5bn private equity fund in 2007, Mr Fang has been at the nexus of some of the biggest Chinese deals of the past two decades.

Even his abrupt decision in 2010 to start winding down Hopu, his private equity fund, was impeccably well timed. Since he left the scene, the Chinese stock market has been among the worst performers in the world and the private equity industry, once booming alongside the country’s turbocharged economy, has gone cold.

So the news that Mr Fang, the son of a peasant farmer, will return with a new $2bn-$2.5bn investment fund is more than a passing curiosity. The financier is betting that China’s beleaguered private equity industry will recover – a wager that at the moment has long odds.

The most immediate obstacle for the private equity industry in China is a bottleneck on exits from investments. Regulators have halted approvals for all initial public offerings since October, a tried and tested method for putting a floor under the stock market by limiting the availability of shares. But a side effect has been eliminating the preferred exit route of private equity companies.

Even before the IPO freeze, the backlog was already building up. China First Capital, an advisory firm, estimates that there are more than 7,500 unexited private equity investments in China from deals done since 2000. Valuations may have appreciated greatly but private equity groups are struggling to sell their assets.

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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.

China’s GPs search for exits — Private Equity International Magazine

Chinese GPs are running low on exit options, but the barriers to unconventional routes – like secondary sales to other GPs – remain high.

By Michelle Phillips

China’s exit woes are no secret. With accounting scandals freezing the IPO route both abroad and domestically, the waiting list for IPO approval on China’s stock exchanges has come close to 900 companies.  Fund managers have at least 7,550 unexited investments worth a combined $100 billion, according to a recent study by China First Capital. However, including undisclosed deals, the number of companies could be as high as 10,000, says CFC’s founder and chairman Peter Fuhrman.
CITIC Capital chief executive Yichen Zhang told the Hong Kong Venture Capital Association Asia Private Equity Forum in January that because many GPs promised high returns in an unrealistic timeframe (usually three to five years), LPs were already starting to get impatient. He also predicted that around 80 percent of China’s smaller GPs would collapse in the coming years. “The worst is yet to come,” he said.
What ought to become an attractive option for these funds, according to the CFC study, are secondary buyouts. Even if it lowers the exit multiple, secondaries would provide liquidity for LPs, as well as potentially giving the companies an influx of cash, Fuhrman says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Secondaries offer solution for US capital locked in China — AltAssets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright © 2013 AltAssets

 

Direct Secondary Investment Opportunities in China Private Equity

 

As detailed follow-up to our report on the current challenging crisis of unexited PE investments in China, China First Capital has prepared a new research note. You can download the abridged version by clicking here.

This note provides far more detailed data and analysis on the unexited PE deals: by industry, original deal size, currency, round, and most importantly, “tier of PE”. This should give a more concrete understanding of the current opportunity in direct secondaries in China, as well as numerical challenges all GPs active in China will face exiting.

China First Capital is currently the only firm with this data and analysis. In addition to this note, we will also share in coming weeks three others research notes:

1. Secondary deals modeled on prospective IRR and hold periods
2. Risk-scoring metrics for primary and secondary deals in China
3. Portfolio analytics specific to primary and secondary investments in China

Beyond this work, shared as a service to our industry, to help facilitate the development of an efficient and liquid exit channel of direct secondaries in China, everything else will remain our confidential work product to be deployed only for clients that retain us. An introduction to our secondaries services is available by clicking here.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chinese Market Loses Its Bite — Private Equity News Magazine

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A stagnant exit market is likely to cause problems for firms that ventured into China in the boom years

Statistics rarely tell the whole story. However, as China celebrates the Year of the Snake, the most recent figures for private equity exits in the country make sobering reading for those who were convinced that the surge in private equity in the world’s most populated nation was the ticket to easy returns. In the final quarter of 2012, there was no capital raised by sponsors through primary initial public offerings of companies they backed, no capital raised through sales to strategic buyers and just $30 million from secondary buyouts, according to data from Dealogic.
That collapse in the exit market is creating a huge backlog of businesses in private equity hands that could force many companies to the wall and drive a shakeout in the industry, losing investors billions in the process. Global private equity firms, from large buyout specialists TPG Capital and Carlyle Group to mid-market players like 3i Group, all flooded
into the Chinese market raising capital from international investors for deals on the expectation of outsized returns as the economy opened and boomed. They were joined by thousands of domestic players that raised capital in local currency from the growing band of China’s wealthy individuals eager to get a slice of the market.

Incredible Success

Peter Fuhrman, chairman and CEO of investment bank China First Capital, said: “In the course of the last five years China has grown into the largest market by far for the raising and deploying of growth capital in the world. It has been an incredible success story when it comes to talking investors into opening up their wallets and allocating much-needed capital to thousands of outstanding Chinese entrepreneurs.” More…

 

 

An Unfamiliar Chinese Byline — 21st Century Business Herald

21cbh

 

 

I can’t say I ever articulated it as a goal, because it always seemed too far-fetched. But, I did achieve something today I truly value. I had an article published in a leading Chinese newspaper under my own name. Well, not the name my parents gave me, but my Chinese name, 傅成, which is how I’m generally known here. You can click here to see the article. The title, IPO黄金时代一去不返 私募股权行业危机重重, can be translated as “With the Golden Age of IPOs Over,  the Chinese PE Industry is in Crisis”.

It’s an article about problems with unexited PE investments in China, and the block on IPOs for Chinese companies. It appears in the country’s only major national business daily, called 21st Century Business Herald, in English, or 21世纪报纸 in Chinese. Calling it the “Wall Street Journal of China” is a little bit of a disservice, since it enjoys more of a dominant position, both in reputation and in its area of financial reporting, than even the Journal. And I give way to no one in my complete admiration of the WSJ. It is the only newspaper I read and value.

I’ve been an occasional online columnist for 21st Century Business Herald for a couple of years. This may have made them more comfortable when dealing with my rather unusual request, to publish in the daily paper’s news pages under my name an article I submitted to them. This isn’t something Chinese newspapers, especially the major ones, would generally ever do. Media is sensitive in China, extremely well-monitored. I’m just a guy who runs a small advisory firm 1,500 miles from Beijing, and have had no other form of official vetting.

After a day of deliberating, I got word they’d agreed to run the story. I never spoke directly to any of the editors at the newspaper. I wasn’t allowed to. One of the team that manages the online columns acted as middleman.

It was important to me to have the article, as submitted, published, under my name. The article touches on a topic that I think is both important, and little understood — that the block in IPO exits, and the simultaneous cut-off in most new PE funding for private companies in China, is beginning to do real harm to the private sector economy in China. I wanted to make that point, directly and clearly, and not have it be massaged in any way.

I’m a guest in China, and feel extraordinarily privileged to live and work here. There’s nothing in my story critical of government policies, nor should there be. This crisis in China PE industry is largely of its own making.  Yes, the sudden stop of all IPOs does harm to PE investors. But, for years now, China’s PE industry has been overly-reliant on IPO as its one means of exit. Money flooded in and, even at the best of times, only a trickle leaked out through IPO. Now the trickle has been plugged shut. PE firms, their investors and the entrepreneurs they backed are all in serious peril. PEs may lose their LPs money, which would be very unfortunate. But, the real suffering is likely to be borne by the entrepreneurs, who may actually be doing a great job running their business, but now have a desperate unhappy investor inside and so no way to raise the additional capital they need to keep growing. They face a kind of slow asphyxiation.

Another reason I wanted the article to be published under my name was to try to make sure my company got some credit for the work we’ve done over six months to calculate and assess the scale of the problem of unexited deals in China. The article was published this morning. By lunchtime, electronic versions were popping up all over the Chinese internet, on most of the major financial news websites. In almost all cases, these repackaged versions all deleted my name and that of China First Capital. Pretty much par for the course in China. “Journalistic ethics” are two words not frequently paired in China. The pirated articles now discuss the findings of our research without ever mentioning who actually compiled it. If I were a reader, I’d wonder, “why should I believe any of these numbers when the article doesn’t tell me who the source is?” But, I guess Chinese readers aren’t that fussed.

As readers of this blog clearly will have noticed,  me and my company have gotten rather a lot of English-language press attention lately. But, not a single one of those articles, or the whole lump combined, gives me even a fraction of the satisfaction and joy I had this morning holding a Chinese newspaper and finding my article in the middle of page 15.

 

 

 

Five Minutes with Peter Fuhrman — Private Equity International Magazine

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The chairman of research firm China First Capital discusses China’s growing exit problem, and its possible impact on private equity in 2013.

A growing concern for private equity in China is the lack of IPO exits. How do you see that playing out in 2013?

“I don’t expect any substantial improvement or change in the problems that are blocking IPO exits domestically and internationally. And because the China private equity industry is significantly over-allocated to IPO exits, along with diminishing fund life, [this] will be a time of increasing difficulty for GPs. At the same time, the inability to exit will also continue to prevent [GPs] from doing new deals, and that is where the greatest economic harm will be done. Of course I don’t trivialise the importance of the $100 billion that’s locked away in unexited PE investments, but the real victims of this are going to be the private entrepreneurs of China. At this point, over half of all [China’s] GDP activity is generated from the private sector. The private equity money and the IPO money is what [businesses] need to grow, because private companies in China basically can’t borrow. They need private equity money and IPO proceeds to continue to thrive. ”  More…

Stagnant IPO Market Strangles Chinese Private Equity Exits — Financier Magazine

Fin

From humble beginnings in 2000, the past decade has seen the Chinese private equity (PE) market blossom into a global powerhouse. However, according to a new report released by investment bank China First Capital (China First), the Chinese market is in the formative stages of a crisis which could undermine all of the extraordinary strides it has made in recent years.

The report, ‘Secondaries: A necessary and attractive exit for PE deals in China’, notes that while there have been nearly 10,000 deals worth a combined $230bn completed within the Chinese market between 2001 and 2012, around 7500 of those deals remain ‘unexited’. This has left approximately $130bn of PE and venture capital investment locked inside Chinese companies with very few exit options available. More…

China private equity specialist says IPO drought means investors must rethink — Week in China

 

week in china

 

 

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With China’s IPO gusher now reduced to a trickle, prospects for some of the privately-owned companies which have traditionally boosted much of China’s economic growth could be at risk.

So says Peter Fuhrman, founder and chief executive at China First Capital, a boutique investment bank and advisory firm. His firm has just released a new report warning that new private equity investment has basically come to a halt in China since the middle of last year.

Fuhrman talked to WiC this week about the reasons for the slowdown, and why he would like to see more investors considering alternative exits, including sales in the secondary market. More…

Paid to Gamble But Reluctant To Do So

 

Venture Capital Financing in the US

(Source; The Wall Street Journal)

 

They are the best-paid gamblers in the world, the General Partners at private equity and venture capital firms. They are paid to take risks, to make bets, with other people’s money. And for this, they usually get a guaranteed high annual retainer, a salary that generally puts them in the top 1% of all wage-earners in their country, and also a share of profits earned from putting others’ money at risk. In other words, their life is on the order of “heads I win, tails I win” compensation. They make a handsome salary, have all their expenses covered, are unlikely ever to get fired, and also usually get to claim 20%-25% of the profits from successful deals.

Given those incentives, and the fact the guys with the money (your fund’s LPs) are paying you to find great opportunities and bet on them rather than sit on your hands, you would assume that GPs would want to keep the flow of new deals moving along at a reasonable pace. In fact, inactivity is, next to losing all the LPs money on bad investments, the surest way for a PE fund to put itself out of business. And yet this do-nothing strategy is now common across China’s private equity industry. For the better part of a year, deal-making has all but dried up.

From a recent high of around 1,200 PE deals closed in a single year in China,  in 2012 the total tumbled. My surmise is that the number of new PE deals closed in China last year was down at least 75% from 2011. The activity that took place did so almost entirely during the first half of the year. An industry now holding over $100 billion in capital and employing well over 10,000 people, including some of the most well-educated and well-paid in China, ground to a halt during 2012.

Let me offer up one example. I won’t name them, since I know and like the people running this shop: a fund that is among the biggest of all China-focused PEs, with over $4 billion in capital, made a total of three investments in all of 2012. Two of them were in “club deals” where they threw money into a pot along with a bunch of other funds. Though they keep a full-time staff of 100, funded by the management fee drawn from LPs money, this firm closed only one deal that they actually initiated. At a guess, these guys have an annual management fee in excess of $50mn, and during 2012, their headcount more than doubled.

In any other line of work, a company that decreased its output to about zero, while significantly increasing its expenses, would be on the fast-track to insolvency. But, not in the PE industry in China. It’s currently the norm. Now, of course, those same PE firms will say they are keeping themselves busy monitoring their previous investments, rather than closing new ones. Yes, that’s necessary work. But, still, the radical slow-down in PE activity in PE is without precedent elsewhere in the PE and VC world.

Look, for example, to the VC industry in the US. In good years and bad, with IPOs plentiful and nonexistent, VC firms keep up their dealmaking.  These two charts at the top of the page show this quite clearly. Across a six-year cycle of capital markets boom and bust, the number of new VC investments closed stayed relatively constant at between 600-800 per quarter. In other words, VC workloads in the US stayed relatively stable. They kept channeling LP money into new opportunities. The dollar amounts fluctuated, peaking recently during the run-up to the highly-anticipated IPOs of Linkedin, Facebook, Groupon and Zynga.  Valuations rose and so did check size. But, deal flow stayed steady, even after Linkedin, Facebook, Groupon and Zynga’s share prices nosedived following IPOs.

This is the picture of a mature industry, managed by experienced professionals who’ve seen their share of stock market up and down cycles, heard thousands of pitches for “sure things” that raised some money only to later crash and burn. Some VC firms crashed and burned with them. But, overall, the industry has kept its wits, its focus and its discipline to invest through bad times as well as stellar ones.

The contrast with China’s PE industry is rather stark. There are perhaps as many as 5,000 PE and VC firms in China. No one knows for sure. New ones keep getting formed every week. The more seasoned of the China PE and VC firms have a history of about 10 years. But, the overwhelming majority have been in this game for less than five years. In other words, today there is a large industry, well-financed and with control over a significant amount of the growth capital available in the world’s second largest economy, that was basically created out of nothing, over just the last few years.

Obviously, these thousands of new PE firms couldn’t point to their long history of identifying and investing in private companies. But, LPs poured money in all the same. They were investing more in China — in the remarkable talents of its entrepreneurs and the continued dynamism of its economy — than in the track record of those doing the investing. That seems a wise idea to me. As I’ve mentioned more than once, putting money into China’s better entrepreneur-led companies is certainly among the better risk-adjusted investment opportunities in the world.

If anything, the opportunities are riper and cheaper than a year ago, as valuations have come down and good companies with significant scale (revenues above $25mn) have kept up a rate of profit growth above 30%. In the US VC industry, this would be a strong buy signal. Not so in China. Not now.

PE firms are collecting tens of millions of dollars from LPs in management fees, but not putting much new LP money to productive use by investing in companies that can generate a return. Nor are they actively exiting from previously-made investments and returning capital to LPs. This situation can’t last indefinitely.  For people handed chips and paid to gamble, it’s unwise to spend too much of the time away from the casino snoozing in your high roller suite.