Why did hog giant’s IPO fail to entice investors?
May 2, 2014 (WiC 235)
During the world’s biggest probate dispute a few years ago, a fascinated audience learned that Nina Wang, the late chairwoman of Hong Kong real estate developer Chinachem, paid $270 million to her feng shui adviser (and lover) to dig lucky holes. As many as 80 of them were dug around Wang’s properties to improve her fortune.
One of these holes – about three metres wide and nine metres deep, according to the China Entrepreneur magazine – was burrowed outside a meat processing plant in China.
Why so? Chinachem was the first foreign investor brought in by Shuanghui bosses in 1994 to help the abattoir expand. Wang’s capital would jumpstart the firm’s extraordinary transformation from a state-owned factory in Henan’s Luohe city into China’s biggest (and privately-held) pork producer.
Seeing Shuanghui’s potential, Wang offered to acquire its trademark and then to buy a majority stake for HK$300 million ($38 million). Both proposals were rejected outright by Shuanghui’s chairman Wan Long (see WiC201 for a profile of the man known locally as the ‘Steve Jobs of Chinese butchery’). His rationale was that he wanted to “make full use of foreign capital, but not be controlled by it”. Despite never owning a majority stake in the hog firm, he insisted on running the company his own way.
Two decades have passed since Wan first courted Nina Wang’s cash and in that time a range of new investors have bought into the company. Last year they helped Shuanghui to acquire American hog producer Smithfield for $7.1 billion (including debt) and in January the firm was renamed WH Group, ahead of a multi-billion dollar Hong Kong listing. But embarrassingly the IPO was pulled this week, as plans for the flotation went belly-up.
Not bringing home the bacon…
When WH applied to list on Hong Kong’s stock exchange in January, the firm talked up the prospect of launching the city’s biggest IPO since 2010. It kicked off the investor roadshow early last month intending to raise up to $5.3 billion. Four fifths of the total was to be used to help WH repay loans taken to finance the Smithfield takeover, with bankers setting the price between HK$8 and HK$11.25 a share. This was “an unusually wide indicative range” according to Reuters, but also a recognition of the uncertain outlook in the Hong Kong stockmarket.
A few weeks later, the 29 banks hired to promote the IPO (a record) returned with lukewarm orders. WH was forced to cleave the offer by more than half. Excluding the greenshoe allotment, the new plan was dramatically less ambitious, and looked to raise between $1.34 billion and $1.88 billion. To boost investor confidence, existing owners also dropped plans to sell some of their own shares in the listing. WH’s trading debut was pushed back by a week to May 8.
But investors remained unenthused. Blaming “deteriorating market conditions and recent excessive market volatility” (the prefferred explanation for most failed IPOs), WH shelved its IPO on Tuesday.
“The world’s largest pork company has gone from Easter ham to meagre spare rib,” the Wall Street Journal quipped.
Were rough market conditions to blame?
The failed deal was another blow for bankers in Hong Kong’s equity capital markets, who have watched the planned IPO of Hutchison’s giant retail arm AS Watson slip away and have seen Alibaba Group opt to go to market in New York instead.
Volatile markets may have contributed to WH’s decision to postpone the listing. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index dropped 4.5% between the deal’s formal launch on April 10 and its eventual withdrawal on April 29, according to the South China Morning Post. Other IPOs haven’t been faring well recently. Japanese hotel operator Seibu Holdings and Chinese internet firm Sina Weibo both pared back share sales last month, while the Financial Times notes that concerns about China’s slowing economy have depressed interest in Chinese assets more generally.
Nevertheless, investors were anxious about WH’s investment story too and specifically whether the company’s valuation was too high.
One of the selling points of the original Shuanghui takeover of Smithfield was that it married a reputable American brand with a company that wanted to adapt best practices in product quality and food safety in China. But if one longer term goal was to improve the reputation of Chinese pork – and boost confidence among the country’s jaded consumers – the more immediate business logic was to sell Smithfield’s lower-cost meat into China, where prices at the premium end of the market are typically higher.
“We plan to leverage our US brands, raw materials and technology, our distribution and marketing capabilities in China and our combined strength in research and development to expand our range of American-style premium packaged meats products offerings in China,” the company said in its prospectus. “We expect [this] to positively affect our turnover and profitability.”
In recent months this strategy has faced headwinds, with prices going – from the pork giant’s perspective – in the wrong direction. American pig farmers are struggling with a porcine virus that has wiped out more than 10% of hog stocks. This has sent US pork to new highs, meaning it’s no longer so low-cost. In contrast, Xinhua notes that pork prices in many Chinese cities have fallen to their lowest levels in five years. As such, the commercial case for exporting US pork to China isn’t as strong. So fund managers have needed more convincing of the value of the newly combined Shuanghui and Smithfield businesses.
So WH’s valuation was too high?
Bloomberg said WH was prepared to sell its shares towards the bottom of the marketed price range, which equates to a valuation of 15 times estimated 2014 earnings.
At first glance that doesn’t look too demanding. Henan Shuanghui Investment, the Chinese unit of WH Group that is listed in Shenzhen, carries a market capitalisation of Rmb78 billion ($12.6 billion), or 20 times its 2013 net profit. Hormel, a Minnesota-based food firm that produces Spam luncheon meat (and is a key competitor for WH’s American pork business) trades at a price-to-earnings ratio of 23.
Hence China Business Journal concludes that WH priced itself as “not too high and not too low” among peers, especially if the company can generate genuine synergies between its China operation and its newly acquired American unit.
But an alternate view is that these synergies aren’t immediately obvious and that the new business model has hardly been tested (the Smithfield deal closed last September and exports to China didn’t start until the beginning of this year). The criticism is that WH hasn’t done much more than put Shuanghui Investment and Smithfield together into a holding vehicle, but is now asking for a valuation greater than the sum of the two parts. “Even at the bottom of the range, the IPO implies a valuation for Smithfield 21% above the price WH Group paid for the US pork producer barely eight months ago,” notes Reuters Breakingviews. (And let’s not forget, Smithfield was purchased at a 30% premium to its market price at the time.)
Or as one banker put it to the FT: “It’s like buying a house, ripping out the bathrooms and kitchen and trying to flip it for a premium six months later.”
CBN agreed that investors have the right to be wary: “The market simply has not had time to judge if there is meaningful synergy coming out of WH’s units. Nor is there a single signal that WH has the ability to properly manage an American firm.”
Why did WH want to IPO so fast?
This question brings us back to Shuanghui’s transformation from a state-owned enterprise to a privately-held firm. In April 2006 a consortium including Goldman Sachs and Chinese private equity funds CDH and New Horizon paid about $250 million to buy out the city government’s stake in Shuanghui.
The leveraged buyout was an unusual example of a Chinese national brand (and market leader) being snapped up by foreign buyers. Shuanghui was stripped of its SOE status, with majority ownership passing to private and foreign investors.
Century Weekly suggested last month that most of these Shuanghui shareholders “have waited patiently for at least eight years to exit”. Perhaps running low on their reserves of restraint, they then introduced the Smithfield bid last year to great fanfare as the largest takeover yet of a US company by a Chinese firm.
But as Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, a boutique investment bank, told WiC at the time, this wasn’t really the case. In fact the bid for Smithfield was a leveraged buyout by a company based in the Cayman Islands, not a Chinese one. And its main purpose was to facilitate a future sale by Shuanghui’s longstanding investors.
How so? WH’s set-up is complex: the IPO prospectus features an ownership chart containing WH Group, Shuanghui Group and Shuanghui Investment (not to mention several dozen joint ventures and Smithfield itself). One of these entities is listed in Shenzhen, but the investor group has been looking for other ways to cash out. A key motivation in last year’s dealmaking was that they thought they had found an alternative route via a Hong Kong IPO.
And less than a year after the Smithfield bid, WH made its move, not least because it needs to reduce some of the debt incurred in buying its new American business.
But many market watchers think it looked too hasty. “They rushed into an IPO and didn’t spend time to actually create the synergy between the US and Chinese business,” one fund manager in Hong Kong complained to FinanceAsia this week. “They wanted to float the stock to fund the acquisition and also let the private equity firms exit. But if WH Group is good, then ride with me. Why should I buy when you are selling?”
Fuhrman’s view is much more withering: “I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it, the chutzpah, that these big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausages bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to investors in Hong Kong.”
And what of the boss? Wan Long and another director Yang Zhijun pocketed almost $600 million in share options between them last year after the Smithfield bid went through. (The move pushed WH into a loss in 2013.) The size of the compensation package is said to have also deterred some fund managers.
What next for WH?
Any attempt to resurrect the offering will have to wait until after its first-half results, meaning a possible return to the market in September at the earliest. There have been reports that the deal is more likely be postponed until next year. CDH, the company’s single largest shareholder, told the Wall Street Journal that it refuses to sell its WH shares cheaply. “We have a strong belief in the business’ fundamentals and its long term value,” a spokesperson insisted.
But China Business Journal says that WH now needs to focus on convincing investors that it has a good story to tell, including providing a clearer integration plan for Smithfield and Shuanghui’s operations. The pressure will also increase to find alternative ways to retire some of the debt taken on to finance the Smithfield acquisition. Reports suggest that early refinancing was expected to reduce debt repayments by around $155 million on an annualised basis – or about 5% of last year’s profit.
WH may also use the delay to rethink how it goes to market next time, with the South China Morning Post reporting that senior executives have been blaming the banks for the breakdown. “Some of them were too confident, and even a bit arrogant, when they tried to price the deal and coordinate with each other,” the source told the newspaper.
Then again, the banks will be irked by the expenses inccurred on a deal that didn’t happen. And in retrospect it looks to have been a flawed decision to mandate 29 of them. As WH has learned, it diffused responsibility and may have disincentivised some of the participants.
Indeed, another comment on the situation is that the only winners from this IPO were the airlines and hotels that were used as part of the roadshow process.
WH’s canceled IPO shows dangers of misjudging demand
By Michael Barris (China Daily USA)
It could have been the largest IPO in a year. Instead the canceled initial offering of Chinese pork producer WH Group became an epic flop and an example of the pitfalls of failing to accurately gauge investor demand for IPOs.
Eight months ago, in the biggest-ever Chinese acquisition of a US company, WH, then known as Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd, acquired Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc, the world’s largest hog producer, for $4.7 billion. Awash in kudos for tapping into China’s increasing demand for high-quality pork, a Shuanghui team began working on a planned Hong Kong IPO.
By late April, however, the proposed offering was in deep trouble. Bankers slashed the deal’s marketed value to $1.9 billion from $5.3 billion. Finally, the company, now renamed WH Group, announced it would not proceed with the IPO because of “deteriorating market conditions and recent excessive market volatility”.
The decision handed the company a setback in its effort to cut the more than $2.3 billion of debt it took on in the Smithfield purchase and dealt a blow to Asia’s already struggling IPO market and the stock prices of some formerly high-flying Asian companies. The WH IPO debacle is even seen as possibly hampering the much-anticipated New York IPO of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, expected to occur later this year and valued at an estimated $20 billion.
What went wrong? To put it simply, investors scoffed at the idea of paying top price for WH shares without any clear indication of how the Smithfield acquisition would save money.
The price range of HK$ 8 to HK$ 11.25 per share ($1.03 to $1.45) was at a valuation of 15 to 20.8 times forward earnings. “The synergies between Shuanghui and Smithfield are untested. Why do investors have to buy in a hurry?” Ben Kwong, associate director of Taiwanese brokerage KGI Asia Ltd, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal. “They would rather wait until the valuation is attractive.”
A disease that infected pigs, inflating US prices, also turned off investors. US pork typically trades at about half the meat’s price in China, because US feed tends to be cheaper. But Chicago hog futures have soared 47 percent this year to $1.25 a pound. Investors also saw corporate governance practices which awarded shares to two executives before the listing occurred as worrisome.
“I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents filed at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it,” China First Capital CEO and Chairman Peter Fuhrman wrote on the Seeking Alpha investment website. “These big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausage bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to Hong Kong investors and institutions.
The Smithfield acquisition “never made much of any industrial sense”, Fuhrman wrote. The private equity firms behind WH – CDH Investments, Singapore state investor Temasek Holdings and New Horizon – “have no experience or knowledge how to run a pork business in the US. In fact, they don’t know how to run any business in the US”, he wrote.
One man’s meat, however, is another man’s poison. As Fuhrman wrote, the debacle has ended up putting smiles on the faces of the mainly-US shareholders who last year reluctantly sold their Smithfield shares at a 31 percent premium above the pre-bid price. Some of these same shareholders had protested that the Chinese company’s offer for the pork producer was too low. Ultimately, the sellers received the satisfaction of knowing they got the “far better end of a deal against some of the bigger, richer financial institutions in Asia and Wall Street,” Fuhrman wrote. And that, he said, has likely made them as delighted as pigs in muck.
We’re one-quarter of the way through 2013 and so far no IPOs in China. Capital flows to private companies remain paralyzed. Never fear, says Goldman Sachs. In a 24-page research report published January 23rd of this year (click here to read an excerpt), Goldman projects there will be 349 IPOs in China this year, a record number. Its prediction is based on Goldman’s calculation that 2013 IPO proceeds will reach a fixed percentage (in this case 0.7%) of 2012 year-end total Chinese stock market capitalization.
This formula provides Goldman Sachs with a precise amount of cash to be raised this year in China from IPOs: Rmb 180bn ($29 billion), an 80% increase over total IPO proceeds raised in China last year. It then divvies up that Rmb 180 billion into its projected 349 IPOs, with 93 to be listed in China’s main Shanghai stock exchange, 171 on the SME board in Shenzhen, and 85 on the “Chinext“ (创业板）exchange. To get to Goldman’s numbers will require levels of daily IPO activity that China has never seen.
The report features 35 exhibits, graphs, charts and tables, including scatter plots, cross-country comparisons, time series data on what is dubbed “IPO ratios (IPO value as % of last year-end’s total market cap)”. It’s quite a statistical tour de force, with the main objective seeming to be to allay concerns that too many new IPOs in China will hurt overall China share price levels. In other words, Goldman is convinced a key issue that is now blocking IPOs in China is one of supply and demand. The Goldman calculation, therefore, shows that even the 349 new IPOs, taking Rmb180 billion in new money from investors, shouldn’t have a particularly adverse impact on overall share price levels in China.
I’ve heard versions of this analysis (generally not as comprehensive or data-driven as Goldman’s) multiple times over the last year, as China IPO activity first slowed dramatically, then was shut down completely six months ago. The CSRC itself has never said emphatically why all IPOs have stopped. So, everyone, including Goldman, is to some extent guessing. Goldman’s guess, however, comes accessorized with this complex formula that uses December 31, 2012 share prices as a predictor for the scale of IPOs in 2013.
I’m grateful to a friend at China PE firm CDH for sending me the Goldman report a few days ago. I otherwise wouldn’t have seen it. I’m not sure if Goldman Sachs released any follow-up reports or notes since on China IPOs. Goldman was the first Wall Street firm to win an underwriting license in China. It’s impossible to say how much Goldman’s business has been hurt by the near-year-long drought in China IPOs.
Goldman shows courage, it seems to me, in making a precise projection on the number of IPOs in China this year, and relying on their own mathematical equation to derive that number. Here’s how all IPO activity in China since 1994 looks when the Goldman formula is plotted:
I’m not a gambling man, and personally hope to see as many IPOs as possible this year of Chinese companies. Even a fool knows the easiest way to lose money in financial markets is to be on the other side of a bet with Goldman Sachs. That said, I’m prepared to take a shot. I’d be delighted to make a bet with the Goldman team that wrote the report. A spread bet, with “over/under” on the 349 number. I take the “under”. We settle up on January 1, 2014. Any takers?
My own guess – and that’s all it is – is that there will be around 120 IPOs in China this year. But, this prediction admittedly does not rely on any formula like Goldman Sachs and so lacks exactitude. In fact, I approach things from a very different direction. I don’t think the only, or even main, reason there are no IPOs in China is because of concerns about how new IPOs might impact overall share prices.
I put as much, or more, importance on rebuilding the CSRC’s capacity to keep fraudulent companies from going public in China. The CSRC seems to have had quite stellar record in this regard until last summer, when a company called Guangdong Xindadi Biotechnology got through the CSRC approval process and was in the final stages of preparing for its IPO. Reports in the Chinese media began to cast doubt on the company and its finances. Within weeks, the Xindadi IPO was pulled by the CSRC. The company and its accountants are now under criminal investigation.
The truth is still murky. But, if press reports are to be believed, even in part, Xindadi’s financial accounts were as fraudulent as some of the more notorious offshore Chinese listed companies like Sino-Forest and Longtop Financial targeted by short sellers and specialist research houses in the US. The CSRC process — with its multiple levels of “double-blind” control, audit, verification — was designed to eliminate any potential for this sort of thing to happen in China’s capital markets.
But, it seems to have happened. So, in my mind, getting the CSRC IPO approval process back on track is a key variable determining when, and how many, new IPOs will occur this year in China. This cannot be rendered statistically. The head of the CSRC was just moved to another job, which complicates things perhaps even more and may lead to longer delays before IPOs are resumed and get back to the old levels.
How far is the CSRC going now to try to make its IPO approval process more able to detect fraud? It has instructed accountants and lawyers to redo, at their own expense, the audits and legal diligence on companies they represent now on the CSRC waiting list. Over 100 companies just dropped off the CSRC IPO approval waiting list, leaving another 650 or so stranded in the approval process, along with the 100 companies that have already gotten the CSRC green light but have been unable to complete their IPO.
A friend at one Chinese underwriter also told us recently that meetings between CSRC officials, companies waiting for IPO approval and their advisers are now video-taped. A team of facial analysis experts on the CSRC payroll then reviews the tapes to decide if anyone is telling a lie. If true, it opens a new chapter in the history of securities regulation.
If, as I believe, restoring the institutional credibility of the CSRC approval process is a prerequisite for the resumption of major IPO activity in China, a statistical exhibit-heavy analysis like Goldman’s is only going to capture some, not all, of the key variables. Human behavior, fear of punishment, organizational function and dysfunction, as well as darker psychological motives also play a large role. An expert in behavioral finance might be more well-equipped to predict accurately when and how many IPOs China will have this year than Goldman’s crack team of portfolio strategists.
The first rule of capitalism is the more buyers you attract, the higher the price you get. So, having just one potential buyer is generally a lousy idea when your goal is to make as much money as possible.
What then to make of the recently-announced plan by an all-star team of some of China’s largest PE firms, including CDH, Fountainvest, CITIC Capital, as well global giant Carlyle, to participate in a $3.5 billion proposed leveraged buyout deal to take private the NASDAQ-listed Chinese advertising company Focus Media. Any profit from this “take private” deal, as far as I can tell, hinges on later flipping Focus Media to a larger company. That’s because the chances seem slight a privatized Focus Media will be later approved for domestic Chinese IPO. But, what if Focus turns out to be flip-proof?
With so much money — as so many big name PE firms’ reputations — on the line, you’d think there would a clear, persuasive investment case for this Focus Media deal. As far as I can tell, there isn’t. I have the highest respect for the PE firms involved in this deal, for their financial and investing acumen. They are the smartest and most experienced group of PE professionals ever assembled to do a single Chinese deal. And yet, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what they are thinking with this deal and why they all want a piece of this action.
If the goal is to try to arbitrage valuation differences between the US and Chinese stock markets, this deal isn’t likely to pan out. It’s not only that Focus Media will have a tough time convincing China’s securities regulator, the CSRC, to allow it to relist in China. Focus Media is now trading on the NASDAQ at a trailing p/e multiple of 18. That is on the high side for companies quoted in China.
Next problem, of course, is the impact on the P&L from all the borrowing needed to complete the deal. There’s been no clear statement yet about how much equity the PE firms will commit, and how much they intend to borrow. To complete the buyout, the investor group, including the PE firms along will need to buy about 65% of the Focus equity. The other 35% is owned by Focus Media’s chairman and China’s large private conglomerate Fosun Group. They both back the LBO deal.
So, the total check size to buy out all other public shareholders will be around $2.4 billion, assuming they investor group doesn’t need to up its offer. If half is borrowed money, the interest expense would swallow up around 50% Focus Media’s likely 2012 net income. In other words, the LBO itself is going to take a huge chunk out of Focus Media’s net income. In other words, the PE group is actually paying about twice the current p/e to take Focus Media private, since its purchase mechanism will likely halve profits.
A typical LBO in the US relies on borrowed money to finance more than half the total acquisition cost. The more Focus Media borrows, the bigger the hit to its net income. Now, sure, the investors can argue Focus Media should later be valued not on net income, but on EBITDA. That’s the way LBO deals tend to get valued in the US. EBITDA, though, is still something of an unknown classifier in China. There isn’t even a proper, simple Chinese translation for it. Separately, Focus Media is already carrying quite a bit of debt, equal to about 60% of revenues. Adding another big chunk to finance the buyout, at the very least, will create a very wobbly balance sheet. At worst, it will put real pressure on Focus Media’s operating business to generate lots of additional cash to stay current on all that borrowing.
I have no particular insight into Focus Media’s business model, other than to note that the company is doing pretty well while already facing intensified competition. Focus Media doesn’t meet the usual criteria for a successful LBO deal, since it isn’t a business that seems to need any major restructuring, refocusing or realignment of interests between owners and management.
Focus Media gets much of its revenue and profit from installing and selling ads that appear on LCD flatscreens it hangs in places like elevators and retail stores. It’s a business tailor-made for Chinese conditions. You won’t find an advertising company quite like it in the US or Europe. In a crowded country, in crowded urban shops, housing blocks and office buildings, you can get an ad in front of a goodly number of people in China while they are riding up in a jammed elevator or waiting at a checkout counter.
The overall fundamentals with Focus Media’s business are sound. The advertising industry in China is growing. But, it’s hard to see anything on the horizon that will lift its current decent operating performance to another level. Without that, it gets much harder to justify this deal.
This is, it should be noted, the first big LBO ever attempted by a Chinese company. It could be that the PE firms involved want to get some knowledge and experience in this realm, assuming that there could be more Chinese LBOs coming down the pike. Maybe. But, it looks like it could be pretty expensive tuition.
Assuming they can pull off the “delist” part of the deal, the PE firms will need to find a way to exit from this investment sometime in the next three to five years. Focus Media’s chairman has been vocal in complaining about the low valuation US investors are giving his company. In other words, he believes the company’s shares can be sold to someone else, at some future date, at a far higher price. (He personally owns 17% of the equity.)
Who exactly, though, is this “someone else”? Relisting Focus Media in China is a real long shot, and anyway, the current multiples, on a trailing basis, are comparable with NASDAQ’s . This is before calculating the hit Focus Media’s earnings will take from leveraging up the company with lots of new debt. How about the Hong Kong Stock Exchange? Focus Media would likely be given a warm welcome to relist there. One problem: with Hong Kong p/e multiples limping along at some of the lowest levels in the world, the relisted Focus Media’s market value would almost certainly be lower than the current price in the US. Throw in, of course, millions of dollars in legal fees on both sides of the delist-relist, and this Hong Kong IPO plan looks like a very elaborate way to park then lose money.
That leaves M&A as the only viable option for the PE investor group to make some money. I’m guessing this is what they have on their minds, to flip Focus Media to a larger Chinese acquirer. They may have already spoken to potential acquirers, maybe even talked price. The two most obvious acquirers, Tencent Holdings and Baidu, both may be interested. Baidu has done some M&A lately, including the purchase, at what looks to many to be a ridiculously high price, of a majority of Chinese online travel site Qunar. So far so good.
The risk is that neither of these two giants will agree to pay a big price down the line for a company that could buy now for much less. The same logic applies to any other Chinese acquirer, though they are few and far between. I’d be surprised if Tencent or Baidu haven’t already run the numbers, maybe at Focus Media’s invitation. But, they didn’t make a move. Not up to now.
Could it be they don’t want to do the buyout directly, out of fear it could go wrong or hurt their PR? Maybe. But, I very much doubt they will be very eager to play the final owner in a very public “greater fool” deal.
I’m fully expecting to be proven wrong eventually by this powerhouse group of PEs, and that they will end up dividing a huge profit pile from this Focus Media LBO. If so, the last laugh is on me. But, as of now, the Focus deal’s investment logic seems cockeyed.
The amount of capital going into private equity in China continues to surge, with over $30 billion in new capital raised in 2011. The number of private equity deals in China is also growing quickly. More money in, however, does not necessarily mean more money will come out through IPOs or other exits. In fact, on the exit side of the ledger, there is no real growth, instead probably a slight decline, as the number of domestic IPOs in China stays constant, and offshore IPOs (most notably in Hong Kong and USA) is trending down. M&A activity, the other main source of exit for PE investors, remains puny in China.
This poses the most important challenge to the long-term prospects for the private equity industry in China. The more capital that floods in, the larger the backlog grows of deals waiting for exit. No one has yet focused on this issue. But, it is going to become a key fact of life, and ultimately a big impediment, to the continued expansion of capital raised for investing in China.
Here’s a way to understand the problem: there is probably now over $50 billion in capital invested in Chinese private companies, with another $50 billion at least in capital raised but not yet committed. That is enough to finance investment in around 6,500 Chinese companies, since average investment size remains around $15mn.
At the moment, only about 250 Chinese private companies go public each year domestically. The reason is that the Chinese securities regulator, the CSRC, keeps tight control on the supply of new issues. Their goal is to keep the supply at a level that will not impact overall stock market valuations. Getting CSRC approval for an IPO is becoming more and more like the camel passing through the eye of a needle. Thousands of companies are waiting for approval, and thousands more will likely join the queue each year by submitting IPO applications to the CSRC.
Is it possible the CSRC could increase the number of IPOs of private companies? In theory, yes. But, there is no sign of that happening, especially with the stock markets now trading significantly below their all-time highs. The CSRC’s primary role is to assure the stability of China’s capital markets, not to provide a transparent and efficient mechanism for qualified firms to raise money from the stock market.
Coinciding now with the growing backlog of companies waiting for domestic IPOs, offshore stock markets are becoming less and less hospitable for Chinese companies. In Hong Kong, it’s generally only bigger Chinese companies, with offshore shareholder structure and annual net profits of at least USD$20 million, that are most welcome.
In the US, most Chinese companies now have no possibility to go public. There is little to no investor interest. As the Wall Street Journal aptly puts it, “Investors have lost billions of dollars over the last year on Chinese reverse mergers, after some of the companies were accused of accounting fraud and exaggerating the quality and size of their assets. Shares of other Chinese companies that went public in the United States through the conventional initial public stock offering process have also been punished out of fear that the problem could be more widespread.”
Other minor stock markets still actively beckon Chinese companies to list there, including Korea, Singapore, Australia. Their problem is very low IPO price-earnings valuations, often in single digits, as low as one-tenth the level in China. As a result, IPOs in these markets are the choice for Chinese companies that truly have no other option. That creates a negative selection bias. Bad Chinese companies go where good companies dare not tread.
For the time being, LPs still seem willing to pour money into funds investing in China, ignoring or downplaying the issue of how and when investments made with their money will become liquid. PE firms certainly are aware of this issue. They structure their investment deals in China with a put clause that lets them exit, in most cases, by selling their shares back to the company after a certain number of years, at a guaranteed annual IRR, usually 15%-25%. That’s fine, but if, as seems likely, more and more Chinese investments exit through this route, because the statistical likelihood of an IPO continues to decline, it will drag down PE firms’ overall investment performance.
Until recently, the best-performing PE firms active in China could achieve annual IRRs of over 50%. Such returns have made it easy for the top firms like CDH, SAIF, New Horizon, and Hony to raise money. But, it may prove impossible for these firms to do as well with new money as they did with the old.
These good firms generally have the highest success rates in getting their deals approved for domestic IPO. That will likely continue. But, with so many more deals being done, both by these good firms as well as the hundreds of other newly-established Renminbi firms, the percentage of IPO exits for even the best PE firms seems certain to decline.
When I discuss this with PE partners, the usual answer is they expect exits through M&A to increase significantly. After all, this is now the main exit route for PE and VC deals done in the US and Europe. I do agree that the percentage of Chinese PE deals achieving exit through M&A will increase from the current level. It could barely be any lower than it is now.
But, there are significant obstacles to taking the M&A exit route in China, from a shortage of domestic buyers with cash or shares to use as currency, to regulatory issues, and above all the fact many of the best private companies in China are founded, run and majority-owned by a single highly-talented entrepreneur. If he or she sells out in M&A deal, the new owners will have a very hard time doing as well as the old owners did. So, even where there are willing sellers, the number of interested buyers in an M&A deal will always be few.
Measured by new capital raised and investment results achieved, China’s private equity industry has grown a position of global leadership in less than a decade. There is still no shortage of great companies eager for capital, and willing to sell shares at prices highly appealing to PE investors. But, unless something is done to increase significantly the number of PE exits every year, the PE industry in China must eventually contract. That will have very broad consequences not just for Chinese entrepreneurs eager for expansion capital and liquidity for their shares, but also for hundreds of millions of Chinese, Americans and Europeans whose pension funds have money now invested in Chinese PE. Their retirements will be a little less comfortable if, as seems likely, a diminishing number of the investments made in Chinese companies have a big IPO payday.
Most investors, over time, will underperform the stock market as a whole. This is as true for people investing their own money in shares, as it is for mutual fund managers, hedge funds, PE and VC firms. So, any investor with a big sustainable “unfair” advantage should seize it.
Right now, in private equity industry in China, certain private equity firms have this unfair advantage. They get the most cash, the most good deals and the most certain exit through a domestic IPO in China. These PE firms are one part of a tripartite alliance, the likes of which the investment world has never seen. The other two are China’s National Social Security Fund, soon to be the largest source of investible capital in the world, and the CSRC, China’s securities regulator, which has all the say in approving all domestic IPOs.
The PE firms get funding through one, and profits through the other. The deck is heavily stacked in their favor. For the hundreds of other PE firms active in China, including the global giants TPG, KKR, Carlyle, Blackstone and Goldman Sachs, making money investing in China is riskier, harder and slower.
Among the PE firms that are members of this new elite in China are CDH, SAIF, New Horizon, Hony Capital. To many investment professionals outside China, these names will be unfamiliar. Yet, they operate in an environment, and achieve outcomes, that ought to be the envy of other investors.
The firms mainly got their start about ten years ago. They were present at the creation of the Chinese PE industry. They raised their initial capital, in most cases, from prestigious American investors, like Stanford and Princeton endowments. The firms’ investment focus has shifted somewhat over time – from technology deals to more traditional industries, from investing only dollars to now using also Renminbi. They did well almost from the beginning. This early success set in motion policies and preferences that have led more recently to their position today.
The two key developments took place within the last 18 months. First, in October 2009, China’s Shenzhen Stock Exchange launched the ChiNext （创业板）board for private companies to go public. It’s been a resounding success, with over 230 companies now listed, having raised over $5 billion from the public. Chinext’s total aggregate market cap is now over $100 billion.
The Chinext p/e multiples, from the start, have been well above levels in the US and Hong Kong. Currently, the average is 42X trailing year’s earnings. The high valuations make it a very profitable place for PE firms to exit from their investments. But, the CSRC acts as a strict gatekeeper, controlling both the number and quality of Chinese companies allowed to IPO on Chinext. Most Chinese firms who apply for Chinext listing are turned down.
The CSRC has a clear preference for companies that have received PE finance from one of the top PE firms in China, since this means, in effect, the company has already passed through a more rigorous due diligence process than the CSRC can attempt. The CSRC’s logic is impeccable: if a good PE firm was willing to put its own capital at risk when the company was private, that business should be a safer investment for public shareholders than a Chinese company without a top PE investor.
Who comes top of the CSRC’s list of favored PE firms? The firms listed above. This means that the companies invested in by these PE firms have a better chance of being chosen by the CSRC to go public on Chinext. In turn, because of Chinext’s high valuations, this all but guarantees these PE firms achieve better annual investment returns than others.
When the NSSF announced it was going to begin investing up to 10% of the national pension system’s capital in alternative investments, particularly PE, only a few firms were able to pass through its rigorous selection criteria. It chose firms with strong performance and high standards. Leading the list when the NSSF started handing out money last year: CDH, SAIF, New Horizon, Hony Capital.
The favored PE firms now have access to enormous capital from the state pension fund, along with what seems to be preferential access for its deals to China’s IPO market. In the future, any gains these favored PE firms have from investments using NSSF funds will flow back into higher pensions for millions of Chinese retirees. Will the CSRC consider this, when it deliberates which Chinese companies should be approved for IPO? It seems a fair assumption.
China’s pay-as-you-go pension system only got started recently. So, most of the profits from the PE deals won’t get distributed to pensioners for many years. In the meantime, the gains will be recycled back into more PE investing in domestic companies that then get preferential access to China’s capital markets. It’s a process as elegant as it is practical: Chinese investors bid up the shares at IPO, locking in high profits for a PE firms investing NSSF money. The major part of the PE’s profits is then returned to the NSSF to finance higher pension payments in the future to those same Chinese investors.
All the other PE firms outside this loop, including the global giants, will claim the system is rigged against them, that it’s harder and harder for them to compete with the favored PE firms, and to get approval for their portfolio companies to IPO in China. They probably have a point. But, in the end, this system in China will result in more private Chinese companies getting growth capital, leading to more jobs, more successful IPOs, and more comfortable retirements for China’s many millions. Those are outcomes most Chinese, as well as many others, including me, can endorse unreservedly.
CFC has just published its latest Chinese-language research report. The title is 《私募基金如何创造价值》, which I’d translate as “How PE Firms Add Value ”.
You can download a copy here: How PE Firms Add Value — CFC Report.
China is awash, as nowhere else in the world is, in private equity capital. New funds are launched weekly, and older successful ones top up their bank balance. Just this week, CDH, generally considered the leading China-focused PE firm in the world, closed its fourth fund with $1.46 billion of new capital. Over $50 billion has been raised over the last four years for PE investment in China.
In other words, money is not in short supply. Equity investment experience, know-how and savvy are. There’s a saying in the US venture capital industry, “all money spends the same”. The implication is that for a company, investment capital is of equal value regardless of the source. In the US, there may be some truth to this. In China, most definitely not.
In Chinese business, there is no more perilous transition than the one from a fully-private, entrepreneur-founded and led company to one that can IPO successfully, either on China’s stock markets, or abroad. The reason: many private companies, especially the most successful ones, are growing explosively, often doubling in size every year.
They can barely catch their breath, let alone put in place the management and financial systems needed to manage a larger, more complex business. This is inevitable consequence of operating in a market growing as fast as China’s, and generating so many new opportunities for expansion.
A basic management principle, also for many good private companies, is: “grab the money today, and worry about the consequences tomorrow”. This means that running a company in China often requires more improvising than long-term planning. I know this, personally, from running a small but fast-growing company. Improvisation can be great. It means a business can respond quickly to new opportunities, with a minimum of bureaucracy.
But, as a business grows, and particularly once it brings in outside investors, the improvisation, and the success it creates, can cause problems. Is company cash being managed properly and most efficiently? Are customers receiving the same degree of attention and follow-up they did when the business was smaller? Does the production department know what the sales department is doing and promising customers? What steps are competitors taking to try to steal business away?
These are, of course, the best kind of problems any company can have. They are the problems caused by success, rather than impending bankruptcy.
These problems are a core aspect of the private equity process in China. It’s good companies that get PE finance, not failed ones. Once the PE capital enters a company, the PE firm is going to take steps to protect its investment. This inevitably means making sure systems are put in place that can improve the daily management and long-term planning at the company.
It’s often a monumental adjustment for an entrepreneur-led company. Accountability supplants improvisation. Up to the moment PE finance arrives, the boss has never had to answer to anyone, or to justify and defend his decisions to any outsider. PE firms, at a minimum, will create a Board of Directors and insist, contractually, that the Board then meet at least four times a year to review quarterly financials, discuss strategy and approve any significant investments.
Whether this change helps or hurts the company will depend, often, on the experience and knowledge of the PE firm involved. The good PE firms will offer real help wherever the entrepreneur needs it – strengthening marketing, financial team, international expansion and strategic alliances. They are, in the jargon of our industry, “value-add investors”.
Lesser quality PE firms will transfer the money, attend a quarterly banquet and wait for word that the company is staging an IPO. This is dumb money that too often becomes lost money, as the entrepreneur loses discipline, focus and even an interest in his business once he has a big pile of someone else’s money in his bank account.
Our new report focuses on this disparity, between good and bad PE investment, between value-add and valueless. Our intended audience is Chinese entrepreneurs. We hope, aptly enough, that they determine our report is value-add, not valueless. The key graphic in the report is this one, which illustrates the specific ways in which a PE firm can add value to a business. In this case, the PE investment helps achieve a four-fold increase. That’s outstanding. But, we’ve seen examples in our work of even larger increases after a PE round.
The second part of the report takes on a related topic, with particular relevance for Chinese companies: the way PE firms can help navigate the minefield of getting approval for an IPO in China. It’s an eleven-step process. Many companies try, but only a small percentage will succeed. The odds are improved exponentially when a company has a PE firm alongside, as both an investor and guide.
While taking PE investment is not technically a prerequisite, in practice, it operates like one. The most recent data I’ve seen show that 90% of companies going public on the new Chinext exchange have had pre-IPO PE investment.
In part, this is because Chinese firms with PE investment tend to have better corporate governance and more reliable financial reporting. Both these factors are weighed by the CSRC in deciding which companies are allowed to IPO.
At their best, PE firms can serve as indispensible partners for a great entrepreneur. At their worst, they do far more harm than good by lavishing money without lavishing attention.
The report is illustrated with details from imperial blue-and-white porcelains from the time of the Xuande Emperor, in the Ming Dynasty.