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.
I see some rather disturbing signs of this happening. Underwriters, with the pipeline of viable IPO deals drying up, are fanning out across China searching for mandates and making promises every bit as mendacious and self-serving as the rogues who steered so many Chinese companies to their doom on the US OTCBB.
The Hong Kong Stock Exchange (“HKSE”) may be going wrong because so much, until recently, was going right. Thanks largely to a flood of IPO offerings by large Chinese companies, the HKSE overtook New York in 2009 to become the top capital market for new flotations. While the IPO markets turned sharply downward last year, and the amount of IPO capital raised in Hong Kong fell by half, the HKSE held onto the top spot in 2011. US IPO activity remains subdued, in part due to regulatory burdens and compliance costs heaped onto the IPO process in the US over the last decade.
During the boom years beginning around 2007, all underwriting firms bulked up by adding expensive staff in expensive Hong Kong. This includes global giants like Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Morgan Stanley, smaller Asian and European firms like DBS, Nomura, BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank and the broking arms of giant Chinese financial firms CITIC, ICBC, CIIC, and Bank of China. The assumption among many market players was that the HKSE’s growth would continue to surge, thanks largely to Chinese listings, for years to come. With the US, Europe and Japan all in the economic and capital market doldrums, the investment banking flotilla came sailing into Hong Kong. Champagne corks popped. High-end Hong Kong property prices, already crazily out of synch with local buying power, climbed still higher.
The underwriting business relies rather heavily on hype and boundless optimism to sell new securities. It’s little surprise, then, that IPO investment bankers should be prone to some irrational exuberance when it comes to evaluating their own career prospects. The grimmer reality was always starkly clear. For fundamental reasons visible to all but ignored by many, the flood of quality Chinese IPOs in Hong Kong was always certain to dry up. It has already begun to do so.
In 2006, the Chinese government closed the legal loophole that allowed many PRC companies to redomicile in Hong Kong, BVI or Cayman Islands. This, in turn, let them pursue IPOs outside China, principally in the US and Hong Kong. Every year, the number of PRC companies with this “offshore structure” and the scale and growth to qualify for an IPO in Hong Kong continues to decline. A domestic Chinese company cannot, in broad terms, have an IPO outside China.
Some clever lawyers came up with some legal fixes, including a legally-dubious structure called “Variable Interest Entity”, or VIE, to allow domestic Chinese companies to list abroad. But, last year, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce began moving to shut these down. The efficient, high-priced IPO machine for listing Chinese companies in Hong Kong is slowly, but surely, being starved of its fuel: good Chinese private companies, attractive to investors.
Yes, there still are non-Chinese companies like Italy’s Prada, Russia’s Rusal or Mongolia’s Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi still eager to list in Hong Kong. There is still a lot of capital, while listing and compliance costs are well below those in the US. But, the Hong Kong underwriting industry is staffed-up mainly to do Chinese IPOs. These guys don’t speak Russian or Mongolian.
So, the sorry situation today is that Hong Kong underwriters are overstuffed with overhead for a “coming boom” of Chinese IPOs that will almost certainly never arrive. China-focused Hong Kong investment bankers are beginning to show signs of growing desperation. Their jobs depend on winning mandates, as well as closing IPOs. To get business, the underwriters are resorting, at least in some cases, to behaviors that seem not that different from the corrupt world of OTCBB listing. This means making some patently false promises to Chinese companies about valuation levels they could achieve in an Hong Kong IPO.
The reality now is that valuation levels for most of the Chinese companies legally structured for IPO in Hong Kong are pathetically low. Valuations keep getting slashed to attract investors who still aren’t showing much interest. Underwriters are finding it hard to solicit buy offers for good Chinese companies at prices of six to eight times this year’s earnings. Some other deals now in the market and nowhere near close are being priced below four times this year’s net income. At those kind of prices, a HK IPO becomes some of the most expensive equity capital around.
In their pursuit of new mandates, however, these Hong Kong underwriters will rarely share this information with Chinese bosses. Instead, they bring with them handsomely-bound bilingual IPO prospectuses for past deals and suggest that valuation levels will go back into double digits in the second half of this year. In other words, the pitch is, “don’t look at today’s reality, focus instead at yesterday’s outcomes and my rosy forecast about tomorrow’s”.
This is the same script used by the advisors who peddled the OTCBB listings that damaged or destroyed so many Chinese companies over the last five years. Another similar tactic used both by OTCBB rogues and HK underwriters is to pray on fear. They suggest to Chinese bosses that they should protect their fortune by listing their company offshore, at whatever price possible and using whatever legally dubious method is available. They also play up the fact a Chinese company theoretically can go public in Hong Kong whenever it likes, rather than wait in an IPO queue of uncertain length and duration, as is true in China.
In other words, the discussion concerns just about everything of importance except the fact that valuation levels in Hong Kong are awful, and there is a decent probability a Chinese company’s HK IPO will fail. This is particularly the case for Chinese companies with less than USD$25 million in net income. The cost to a Chinese company of a failed IPO is a lot of wasted time, at least a million dollars in legal and accounting bills as well as a stained reputation.
There is, increasingly, a negative selection bias. Investors rightly wonder about the quality of Chinese companies, particularly smaller ones, being brought to market by underwriters in Hong Kong.
“No one has a crystal ball”, is how one Hong Kong underwriter, a managing director who spends most of his time in China scouring for mandates, explains the big gap between promises made to Chinese bosses, and the sad reality that many then encounter. In a real sense, this is on par with him saying “I’ve got to do whatever I’ve got to do to earn a living”. He can hold onto his job for now by bringing in new mandates, then hope markets will turn around at some point, the valuation tide will rise, and these boats will lift. This too is a business strategy used for many years by the OTCBB advisor crowd.
The OTCBB racket is now basically shut down. Those who profited from it are now looking for work or looking elsewhere for victims, er mandates. Tiny cleantech deals are apparently now hot.
My prediction is a similar retrenchment is on the way in Hong Kong, only this time those being retrenched won’t be fast-buck types from law firms and tiny OTCBB investment banks no one has heard of. Instead, it’ll be bankers with big salaries working at well-known brokerage companies. The pool of IPO fees isn’t big enough to feed them all now. And, that pool is likely going to evaporate further, as fewer Chinese companies sign on for Hong Kong listings and successfully close deals.