China Zigs While the Rest of the PE and VC World Zags

Tang vase from China First Capital blog post

This is a time of darkness and despair for most private equity and venture capital guys. Their world came crumbling down last year, as credit and stock markets collapsed and IPO activity came to a halt everywhere —  everywhere that is, except China.  

If ever there were an example of a counter-cyclical trend, it is the private equity industry in China. It is poised now for the most active period, over the next 12 months, in its young history. There are many reasons to explain why China should be so insulated from the deep freeze that’s gripping the industry elsewhere. For one thing, it has always relied less on leverage, and more on plain vanilla equity investing. 

This mattered crucially, since as credit markets seized up last year, PE firms were still able to do deals in China, by putting their own equity to work. Of course, PE firms in the US could have done the same thing. After all, most have very large piles of equity capital raised from limited partners. But, they have habituated themselves to a different form of investing, involving tiny slivers of equity and very large slabs of bank debt. Like any leveraged transaction, it can produce phenomenal results, on a return-on-equity basis. But, without access to the debt component, many PE firms seem adrift. It’s as if they’ve forgotten, or lost the knack of how to properly evaluate a company, to look at cash flows not in relation to potential debt service, but as a telltale sign of overall operating performance. 

Many PE firms these days seem to resemble a hedge fund gone bad:  they once had a formula for making great piles of money. Then, markets changed, the formula stopped working, and the firms are at a loss as to how to proceed. 

China looks very different. Beyond the lack of leverage, there are other, larger factors at work that are the envy of the rest of the PE world. Most importantly, China’s economy remains robust. It’s done a remarkable pirouette, while the rest of the world was falling flat on its face. An economy dependent until recently on exports is now chugging along based on domestic demand. And no, it’s not simply — or even mainly —  because of China’s huge +$600 billion stimulus package. The growth is also fueled by Chinese consumers, who are continuing to spend. 

There’s one other key factor, in my opinion, that sets China apart and makes it the most dynamic and desirable market for PE investing in the world: the rise of world-class private companies, of a sufficient scale and market presence to grow into billion-dollar companies. In other words, PE investing in China is not an exercise in financial engineering. It’s straight-up equity investing into very solid businesses, with very bright futures. 

One common characteristic of PE investing in China, all but absent in the US, is that the first round of equity investment going into a company is smaller than trailing revenues. So, in a typical deal, $10mn will be invested into a company with $50 million of last year’s revenues, and profits of around $5 million. Risk mitigation doesn’t get much better than this: investing into established, profitable companies that are often already market leaders — and doing so at reasonable price-earnings multiples. 

China has other things going for it, from the perspective of PE investors: the IPO window is open; dollar-based investors have the likely prospect of upping their gains through Renminbi appreciation; management and financial systems both have significant room for improvement with a little coaching from a good PE firm. 

It all adds up to a unique set of circumstances for PE investors in China.  It’s a highly positive picture all but unrecognizable to PE and VC firms in the US and elsewhere. Opportunities abound. Risk-adjusted returns in China are higher, I’d argue, than anywhere else in the world. A +300% return over three to five years is a realistic target for most PE investment in China. The PE firms invest at eight times last year’s earnings, and should exit at IPO at 15 times, at a minimum. Pick the right company (and it’s not all that difficult to do so), and the capital will be used efficiently enough to double profits over  the term, between the PE investment and the IPO.  Couple these two forces together — valuation differentials and decent rates of return on invested capital — and the 300% return should becomes a modest target as well as reasonably commonplace occurrence. 

It’s  the kind of return some US PE firms were able to earn during the good years, but only by layering in a lot of bank debt on top of smaller amounts of equity. That model may still work, at some future time when banks again start lending at modest interest rates on deals like this. But, there’s an inherent instability in this highly-leveraged approach: cash flows are stretched to the limit to make debt payments. A bad quarter or two leads to missed repayments, and the whole elaborate structure crumbles: just think of Cerberus’s $7.5 billion purchase of 80% of Chrysler. 

China is in a world of its own, when it comes to PE investing. My best guess is that it remains the world’s best market for PE investment over the next ten years at least. Little wonder that many of the world’s under- or unemployed PE staff members are taking crash courses in Chinese. 

Here’s one of the slides from the PPT that accompanied a recent talk I gave  in Shanghai called “Trends in Global Private Equity: China as Number One”.

Private Equity in China  中国的私募股权投资: 

—Strong present, stronger future—  今天不差钱,明天更美好

—PE firms continue to raise money for investment in China, over $10 billion in committed   capital and growing —  私募股权基金仍在继续募集资金投资国内,规模已经为100亿美元并将继续增长

—Next 12 months : most active in history ; IPO window open; finding and financing China’s next national champions —  未来的一年:历史上最蓬勃发展的时期,IPO 重启,发现并投资中国下一批的企业明星


For whole presentation, please click: 私募股权投资:中国成为第一 



The future of PE in China — Big PE vs. Small PE

I never much liked the term “Private Equity” since it serves two very different meanings and even more different business models. That difference has never been more stark than it is today. There is what I like to call “Big PE” and “Small PE”. One is hurting, and the other is still thriving. Luckily for China First Capital, we focus working with the part of the PE industry that’s still in good shape.  

In Big PE, large-scale, multi-billion-dollar deals are done by famous firms of the likes of Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, Blackstone and Carlyle. In Small PE , another group of PE firms thrive by finding great companies, at an earlier stage in their development, and backing them with growth capital. 

Big PE targets larger, often publicly-traded companies, or divisions of these larger firms. Using a slug of equity to support a large pile of bank debt, these private equity deals are based on acquiring a controlling interest in a company, and can deliver outstanding results by tossing out tired and underperforming management teams, tightening up on operating efficiencies, investing for growth. In 1-3 years, if things go well, the Big PE firm exits the now-improved business through either a trade sale or primary stock market listing. 

What matters most here essentially is finding a poorly-run business, with a bad capital structure and often worse management. (To take one recent example among many, think of Cerberus’s purchase of Chrysler’s from Daimler.) Ideally, a Big PE firm can turn things around quickly after buying control, and get an exit where the debt is paid off, and the underlying equity gets a very high rates of return. 

There are two big problems now in Big PE: the drying up of credit, and the shrinking valuations put on the businesses spiffed up for sale by the PE firms.  The recession compounds the problems, since the deals are built on leverage, and the bank debt will often have aggressive covenants attached to it. Those covenants (generally targeting  operating metrics like increasing EBITDA) are much harder to achieve in a down economy. Covenants get breached, deals need to be restructured with the Big PE firm pouring in more of its own capital, and the time and value of an exit go in the wrong directions: it takes longer to make less. 

Not a good business to be in at the moment. 

Then there’s Small PE, which has never looked sounder. The core skill-set here never goes out of fashion. It’s the ability to find a great company with the potential to grow far larger. Small PE firms invest their own money, for a minority stake in a business. They then provide what help they can to management, and if they’ve chosen their portfolio investments well, will wait confidently for the optimal moment to achieve a very solid return on each individual investment.  

In other words, Small PE is not built on complex financial engineering, but on good, old-fashioned “stock-picking”. 

Last month, David Rubenstein, the co-founder and managing director of Carlyle Group, one of the biggest of the Big PE,  gave a presentation in Tokyo titled “What Happened? What Will Happen? A Look At The Changing Investment And Private Equity Worlds” . Rubenstein, who has made over a billion dollars personally in the PE industry, tried to summarize all the tectonic forces destabilizing Big PE. There’s a lot of alarming stuff in his presentation. The key line: “The Credit Crisis Has Dislocated the Private Equity Industry “. (If anyone would like a copy of the Rubenstein presentation, email me at peter@chinafirstcapital.com)                                                                                                                                          

Rubenstein’s prediction, which I share: “Deals: Smaller, Less Frequent, More Overseas”. In particular, Rubenstein foresees more PE firms raising money to invest in Asia. The fact he cites: Asia private equity fundraising has increased but remains small at 9.2% of the $331 billion raised by U.S. PE funds in 2007 considering that the combined GDP of the above countries is 93% of the GDP of the U.S. 

No question, Big PE will now try to act more like Small PE. The problem they’ll face is that they’re not well structured to find, assess and invest in smaller-sized deals. My guess is that the good PE firms already operating in Asia – the ones we work with regularly at China First Capital – will  be able move quicker and smarter than their new Big PE rivals. Here I means firms like China Renaissance Capital, (www.crcicapital.com) which has a great record of finding strong middle-market companies in China, investing wisely and at fair valuations, and then working alongside management to create the operating conditions for an ideal exit. 

Rubenstein’s talk included a table showing the 2008 year-to-date performance of a number of the most well-known Big PE.  All the following have lost money this year. What you see here is a cumulative loss of many tens of billions of dollars:

􀂃 Tosca Fund – 62%

􀂃 Templeton Emerging – 50%

􀂃 Kensington/Citadel  –37%

􀂃 Satellite Overseas  -30%

􀂃 Marathon Global Equity – 20%

􀂃 Canyon Value Realiz. –20%

􀂃 Goldman Sachs Investment Partners –16%

􀂃 Deephaven Global –15%

􀂃 Millenium Global HY –14%

􀂃 Cantillon Europe –13%

􀂃 Zweig-Dimenna Intl. –8%

􀂃 Harbinger Offshore -5%

􀂃 Cerberus Intl. –3%

􀂃 Viking Global Equities –2%

The good Small PE firms are having far better years. My own prediction is that this performance gap will only widen over the next two years, as the deal pipelines for Asian PE firms we work with remain very strong. Big PE has to re-learn their approach, and try to master a new set of skills. All the while, they’ll be losing out on many of the best opportunities in Asia to their smaller, more nimble and more experienced rivals. 

It’s hard to find a dancing elephant. The reason: it’s hard to teach the elephant the steps.