Carlyle China

Buyout Firms Lack Exit Ramp in China — Wall Street Journal

 

WSJ

With the door to initial public offerings in China largely shut, private-equity firms invested there are having a tough time cashing out. The alternative—selling to another buyout firm or a company looking to expand via acquisition—remains rare in a market where buyers are relatively few.

Private-equity firms are sitting on more than $130 billion of investments in China and are under pressure from investors to find an exit, Shenzhen-based advisory firm China First Capital said in a report last week.

Gary Rieschel, founder of Shanghai-based Qiming Venture Partners, said, “There needs to be a broader number of choices in buyers” in China.

Private-equity firms have generally exited their China investments through IPOs, but the number of private-equity-backed IPOs approved by mainland regulators has plummeted. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong IPO market has softened and sentiment toward Chinese companies in the U.S. has soured because of accounting scandals.

In October, the China Securities Regulatory Commission shut the IPO door completely on the mainland, halting the approval of new listings over worries that a glut of offerings would further weigh on sagging share prices. The Shanghai Composite Index was one of the world’s worst performers in 2012, sinking to a near four-year low in early December before a rally pulled the index up slightly for the year.

Analysts say they don’t expect the CSRC to approve any IPOs until at least March, when Beijing’s top lawmakers usually hold important annual planning meetings.

The regulator approved 220 IPOs of companies backed by private-equity or venture-capital firms in 2010, but that fell to 165 the following year and 97 last year, research firm China Venture said. There are now nearly 900 companies waiting to list in China, the CSRC said on its website.

Hong Kong’s market, meanwhile, has seen fewer IPOs over the past year as investors soured on new listings after several underperformed the broader market. U.S. private-equity firm Blackstone Group, which owns 20% of chemical company China National Blue Star, scrapped a planned Hong Kong listing of a unit called Bluestar Adisseo Nutrition Group in 2010 due to weak markets. It has yet to list that firm.

Carlyle Group has struggled to exit some of its deals, including two deals it made in 2007, a $20 million investment in Shanghai-based language-training firm NeWorld Education Group and a $100 million investment in Zhejiang Kaiyuan Hotel Management Co. A company spokesman said the holding periods for those investments are normal because private-equity firms usually stay invested for four to seven years. The spokesman also said Carlyle has successfully exited many deals, including the recent sale of its stake in China Pacific Insurance, which generated a profit of more than $4 billion.

In more-developed markets, private-equity firms can count on exiting their investments through sales to rival buyout firms or to companies looking to grow through strategic acquisitions. But in China, private-equity firms have sold stakes to rival firms or other companies only an average of 15 times a year over the past three years, according to data provider Dealogic.

China’s secondary buyout market—where private-equity firms sell to each other—remains immature. Among the handful of such deals, Actis Capital sold a majority stake last month in Beijing hot-pot chain Xiabu Xiabu, for which it had paid $50 million in 2008, to U.S. firm General Atlantic for an undisclosed amount.

Domestic consolidation is rare compared with the activity in developed countries. Chinese companies that are still growing quickly may prefer to hold off selling, and there are fewer big corporate domestic buyers.

“China is still a relatively fragmented economy with a disproportionately small number of large businesses relative to the size of its economy and very few national businesses,” said Vinit Bhatia, head of China private equity for Bain & Co.

When a private-equity firm does sell a Chinese portfolio company, the size of the deal tends to be small. Last year’s biggest sale was MBK Partners’ $320 million sale of a majority stake in Luye Pharma Group, which it bought in 2008. The buyer was AsiaPharm Holdings Ltd.

Usually, though, foreign private-equity firms hold only minority stakes in Chinese companies because full control is tough to get, in part for regulatory reasons. Domestic private-equity firms, meanwhile, are often content to hold minority stakes in fast-growing companies, which can offer healthy returns.

Management may not be on board when a minority investor wants to put the whole company up for sale. Chinese chairmen, who are often the founders of their businesses, prefer to remain at the helm, said Lei Fu, co-founder of Shanghai-based private-equity firm Ivy Capital.

Still, private-equity investors say they are hopeful that more buyers will emerge in China this year, even if the IPO markets stay shut.

The number of strategic Chinese buyers should increase as the government encourages consolidation across industries and as medium-size companies begin growing more rapidly with a rebound in the economy, they say.

“Five years ago we would think of multinationals…Now we think more local companies” when looking for buyers, says Huaming Gu, Shanghai-based partner at private-equity firm Baird Capital.

 

http://blogs.wsj.com/deals/2013/01/15/buyout-firms-lack-exit-ramp-in-china/

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Out of Focus: China’s First Big LBO Deal is a Headscratcher

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.