Corporate Finance in China: Often A Well-Oiled Machine for Mangling Good Chinese SME

China Chop -- From China First Capital Blog Post


I’m a pretty even-tempered guy, for the most part. But, those who know me, or read this blog, will by now know that I have a rather lively contempt for the financial advisors who swarm all over China, coaxing Chinese SME to pay them huge sums to arrange an IPO. Most often, the IPO happens as quickly as possible, with maximum fees flowing to the advisors, often on the shabbiest, most illiquid and unregulated of all stock markets, the American Over-the-Counter Bulletin Board (OTCBB). 

So, it was with a mix of surprise and, to be honest, some annoyance that I found myself recently besieged by some of these same “financial advisors”, eager to become my friend and business partner. It happened at the PE Conference I attended in mid-July in Shanghai. I was there to give one of the keynote speeches. Overall, it was a great experience. The organizers were cordial and professional. The other speakers and panel-members were first-class. 

But, I occasionally felt like a bit of bait dangling on hook. At every break, I was approached by well-dressed and well-spoken people, eager to give me their business cards, and talk shop. It just so happened that the shop they wanted to talk about was how to revive their now-troubled business model of doing these quick and lucrative IPOs for Chinese companies. I quickly, and I hope politely, explained that they were anathema, and in my mind, deserved particularly excruciating forms of punishment for ruining so many otherwise-good Chinese businesses by promoting and profiting from these awful IPO deals. Boiling in oil perhaps? ;) 

Now, sure, these people didn’t have any way of knowing how I felt about what they do. They’ve never seen my blog, or heard me hold forth on the subject. So, I guess they must have found my reaction a little extreme. But, it did put a more human face on this whole problem, which I believe to be the single worst aspect of China’s financial system, that unethical and unprincipled advisors run rampant here, and have succeeded in convincing so many Chinese companies to IPO for the wrong reasons, at the wrong time, at grotesque expense with disastrous results.   

To be honest, I was a little surprised at just how nice and professional many of these “financial advisors” at the conference seemed to be. They didn’t conform very well to my stereotype, which admittedly, was formed by a quick meeting with one of these advisors almost two years ago. This was the guy who had tried, and nearly succeeded, to lure a great Chinese company to destruction via a “Form 10 Listing” on the OTCBB. This company later became China First Capital’s first client. 

The advisors I met at the conference were mainly eager to talk about how much they liked and respected CFC’s approach, and how much they had to learn from us. What is it they say about flattery being the food of fools? Anyway, soon after, they usually then started pitching me on some company or other that they were trying to list. One of them explained that they were now trying to get into the business of raising PE capital for Chinese SME. Did I have any tips? 

In this case, my advice was to disclose to these SME their past record of copping fat fees for taking companies public, knowing these clients would likely wither and die after the IPO. 

One thing that did strike me, in talking to these guys, is that they all tended to use the same Chinese phrase to describe their clients: “上市公司”, which I’d translate as “an IPO company”. It’s actually quite apt.  They are in business to arrange IPOs, not generally to raise capital, or act as bankers or trusted long-term advisors. 

We have some similar kinds of organizations in the US, and they often delusionally will call themselves “investment banks”. What they are, more accurately, are IPO bucket shops. In China, they still mainly call themselves “FA”, short for “Financial Advisor”. 

By whatever name, these guys are likely to remain a problem in China for a long time. They will not go out of business just because I hectored them about the damage they’re doing to entrepreneurship in China.  There are too many of them, and too many good SME for them to prey upon. They are like a well-oiled machine for mangling good Chinese companies.