My firm, China First Capital, just completed our annual report on Private Equity, Venture Capital and Strategic Mergers and Acquisitions in China. I had the biggest hand in writing it, so the opinions expressed are my own. My view, overall, is one of realistic optimism. China will continue to be the world’s most robust emerging market for private equity and venture capital finance, even in a very difficult global economic environment. A big reason for this is the continuing strong performance of many private SME companies in China, especially those focused on the domestic market, rather than exports.
China First Capital has a special affinity for these strong private SMEs. They are the only companies we choose to work with. There a few reasons for this. A big one is my personal conviction that the most important predictor of a success in private equity investing is putting money into a company with a truly outstanding boss. Ideally, the boss will also be the entrepreneur who founded the company.
You can do all the spreadsheet modeling and projections you want, but nothing else matters quite as much as the quality and drive of the leadership at the top. In many of the good Chinese SMEs, the boss is a first-class business strategist and opportunity-seeker. Give him a dollar and he’ll bring you back five. In many of China’s larger state-owned, or partially state-owned companies in China, the boss is often more a political animal, appointed to the job as much for skills as a bureaucratic infighter as for talents at managing a business. Give him a dollar and he’ll come back in a while and ask you to lend him another three.
SMEs, no surprise, usually run circles around their state-owned competitors in China. That’s a big reason we choose to work exclusively for SMEs. Another reason: we prefer long-term partnerships with our clients rather than one-off deal-making of larger investment banks. We act as a financial and strategic advisor to Chinese SMEs in a long-term process that often begins at early stages of corporate development and continues through the capital raising process from private equity to a successful IPO and beyond to global leadership.
Thanks to these Chinese SMEs, China should be among the most attractive – and active – private equity investment markets in the world in 2009. Many of the international private equity firms we work with are expecting to invest more in Chinese SMEs in 2009 than in 2008. Indeed, private equity and venture capital investment in China will likely reach record levels in 2009, the report projects, with over $1 billion in new investment into high-growth Chinese SMEs with strong focus on China’s booming domestic market.
Chinese companies raising capital this year will enjoy significant financial advantages over competitors, improving market share and profitability.
The report, titled “Private Equity and Strategic M&A Transactions in China 2009”, identifies five central trends that will drive the growth in private equity and venture capital investment in China’s SMEs in 2009. They are:
- the drive for industrial consolidation;
- profit growth helping to reignite the IPO markets for Chinese companies in China, Hong Kong and the USA;
- increased importance of Convertible Debt and other hybrid financings;
- opportunities for strategic mergers and acquisitions;
- well-financed businesses with strong balance sheets will enjoy sustainable competitive advantage in China’s domestic market.
Here’s the report’s first section. I’ll add more of it in later posts.
Turbulence creates opportunity
2008 was a year of extremes in China. Extremes of joy and pride, during the Beijing Olympics. Extremes of sadness and shock following the Sichuan earthquake. Even the climate reached extremes, during China’s crippling winter storms early in 2008.
Financially, 2008 was also a year of extremes. The stock markets in Hong Kong, Shanghai and Shenzhen rose strongly in the first months of the year, and IPOs were plentiful. By mid-year, the markets began plunging, and IPOs dried up. By year-end, Shenzhen, Shanghai and Hong Kong were all down 60% for the year.
China’s private equity and venture capital investments followed a similar turbulent course, beginning strongly, with over $10 billion invested in Chinese companies in the first half of the years, and then the pace of new investments slowed to a crawl.
Governments in China, the USA and around the world intervened in an unprecedented fashion to stabilize the economy and the credit markets. As we enter 2009, there is no longer any doubt that the world economy is in recession.
The question now is when will the recovery begin and when will be a good time to begin investing again? I want to offer a personal perspective to our valued relationships, both clients and the private equity firms we work with. As Chairman of China First Capital, Ltd, with over 20 years of experience in the capital markets, private equity and business analytics, I’ve survived my share of business cycles. One example, I was CEO of a California venture capital company during the Dot-Bust years, the last time private equity investing came to a similar standstill. Within two years, deal activity and valuations resumed their upward momentum.
My view: the overall investment environment in China remains challenging and the effects of 2008’s turbulence are still being felt. But, 2009 will be a year of unique opportunity for private equity, venture capital and mergers and acquisitions in China. Tough times can be the best time to make money.
Consolidation and “flight to quality”
The Chinese economy is under significant strain as 2009 begins, with growth decelerating, factories closing by the thousands and unemployment rising. Many areas of China’s domestic economy are “over-saturated”, with too many companies competing with small market shares. China is ripe for consolidation.
In the freely competitive markets, the weakest companies will perish. The stronger competitors will be able to add market share and enjoy the virtuous cycle of increasing volumes lowering unit costs, thus boosting profits that can be re-invested to lower still further costs of production.
Chinese consumers will respond as well, and reward with more of their money the better managed companies with the most efficient manufacturing and distribution. Out of this, stronger dominant brands will emerge, and this too will push for greater consolidation.
This process is just beginning in China. China’s domestic market is huge, second only to the US. In many vertical markets (including financial services, consumer goods, distribution and logistics, retailing, fashion), each point of additional market share in China can equate to tens of millions of dollars in additional revenue.
Chinese companies are still, most often, small-in-scale relative to the size of the industries they serve, particularly in areas where private companies, rather than those with partial or complete state-ownership, predominate Strong regional companies will acquire competitors elsewhere in China to become national powerhouses.
For investors, the opportunities will be unparalleled to back the Chinese companies that will thrive during this process of consolidation. The winners will be able to increase revenues and profits strongly and sustainably, even in a weak economy.