Too Rich? Is PE Industry in China Being Drowned in Cash?

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The flow of money into private equity in China is fast becoming a deluge. Six months ago, new rules were introduced to allow the country’s insurance companies to invest up to 5% of their Rmb4.8 trillion of assets in PE funds investing in China. If fully invested, that would be Rmb240 billion ($36 billion) of new capital for an investment class that is already flooded with liquidity.  Insurance assets are growing by over 15% a year, which means at least another $5 billion a year available in coming years for PE investing.

The other fire hose of capital is the National Social Security Fund (NSSF), subject of a recent blog post of mine. The NSSF is pumping Rmb80 billion ($12 billion) into PE investing in China, and expects to add an additional $1.5 billion a year in new capital for same purpose. Never before, in the space of twelve months has so much new capital poured a single class of illiquid investing.

In part, these institutions are chasing returns. Insurance companies and the NSSF both have very large longer-term liabilities, mainly in the form of retirement pensions and life insurance policies. PE investing can jazz up overall returns for institutions that otherwise park their money in safe but tepid investments like government bonds.

PE investing in China has certainly been performing well lately. The more successful firms have been earning returns of +40% a year for investors. For insurance companies, that kind of performance (40% returns on 5% of its assets) would deliver 2% base annual return. For the NSSF, with up to 10% of its assets going to PE, the potential rewards would be higher.

The investments in PE also serve a patriotic purpose. By providing additional growth capital for Chinese entrepreneurs, PE investment should help increase employment and overall economic growth in China. The insurance companies are all majority state-owned.  The NSSF is a branch of government.  Invest carefully, earn a good return and contribute to building China. That summarizes the management goals for insurance companies and the NSSF alike.

Less clear is what overall effect of all this state-controlled money on the PE industry in China. Like any other asset class, the more capital that pours in, the lower the overall returns are likely to be. The insurance companies and NSSF aren’t the only – or even the main – source of capital for the PE industry. There is already billions of dollars available for PE firms from LPs in China, the US, Europe, Japan. By some estimates, as much as $30 billion in new capital has already flowed into PE firms over the last year for investment in China. This excludes the money from the NSSF and insurance companies.

All this new capital is enough to fund PE investments in over 5,000 companies, based on a typical PE deal size in China. Are there that many good deals out there? It’s hard to say. Overall,  I’m very bullish about the number of great private companies and great PE investment opportunities in China.

The big bottleneck is certain to be within the PE firms themselves. The good ones, currently, do anywhere from 10-15 deals a year, and look seriously at another 25- 40 companies. They don’t have the partners and skilled staff to review, close and manage many more deals than this a year. The irony here: while PE firms demand portfolio companies use PE capital efficiently and scale quickly after investment, PE firms generally have no such ability. Adding capital to PE firms is like adding salt to soup.  More is not necessarily better.

As the amount of capital has surged, the preferred deal size of the more successful PE firms in China has risen steeply, from $10 million per deal, to over $25 million now. But,  in China, bigger deals are not generally better deals. Often, the opposite is true. The best PE investment I know of, for example, was the $5 million investment Goldman Sachs made in Shenzhen pharmaceutical company Hepalink. Its investment rose 240 times in value, based on Hepalink’s IPO price last year.

More capital also can also skew the priorities and tame the animal instincts of PE firms. When money is easy to raise,  as it is now, PE firms can spend more time on this than hunting for great companies. It’s easy to understand why. For every $100 million they raise, a PE firm generally keeps $2 million in annual management fees. This management fee income keeps rolling in like an annuity, regardless of how well the PE firm is doing in its “day job” of putting capital to work on behalf of investors.

Insurance companies and NSSF can generally negotiate a lower management fee. But, the incentive is still there for PE firms to focus on raising money rather than investing it.

The PE industry in China is blessed, as nowhere else is, with abundant capital, stellar investment opportunities and favorable IPO markets. My view: over the next decade, PE deals in China will produce more wealth for entrepreneurs and investors that any other major asset class anywhere in the world. Anything less will mean many opportunities in China were squandered rather than seized.