China M&A

Quietly But Successfully, US Companies Are Buying Chinese Businesses

--FILE--RMB (renminbi) yuan and US dollar bills are pictured at a bank in Huaibei city, east Chinas Anhui province, 16 September 2011. Chinas yuan edged down versus the dollar on Tuesday (11 October 2011), consolidating its biggest single-day gain a day earlier, brushing aside a record central bank mid-point as US lawmakers prepare to vote on a bill aimed at punishing Beijing for alleged currency manipulation. The Peoples Bank of China, the countrys central bank, set the yuan central parity rate at 6.3483 against the dollar, compared with 6.3586 on Monday.

Is China really buying up America? Or is it the opposite?

Chinese investments in the US draw lots of headlines and occasional handwringing about China’s growing influence and ownership. It is true that Chinese investors, especially SOE, have been throwing billions of dollars around, mostly for US real estate.

Far more quietly, and perhaps with better overall results, US investors have been buying businesses in China. The US acquirers do their utmost to stay out of the headlines. They prefer to shop quietly, without competitors finding out. This does a lot to keep prices down and give these US buyers maximum negotiating leverage. A lot of these US acquisitions in China stay secret long after they close.

Contrast this style with that of Chinese investors in the US. Most end up bidding against one another for the same assets. Overpaying has become a hallmark of Chinese purchases in the US.

Compared to the huge number of Chinese companies shopping for assets in the US, not nearly as many US companies are sizing up deals and kicking tires in China. Partly this stems from some misunderstandings among less-experienced US acquirers about what kinds of Chinese businesses can be targeted. Topping the list of sweeping generalizations: Chinese companies, especially privately-owned ones, are said to have owners who rarely wish to sell. Those that do, want to sell their deeply troubled companies at Neiman Marcus prices.

There is some truth to this arm-chair analysis. But, equally, there are good deals being done. I’ve written before about the most successful US acquisition in China, by food giant General Mills. (Click here to read.) It’s a textbook case of how to do M&A in China and also how to build a billion dollar business there without anyone really noticing.

Why buy rather than build in China? For one thing, China has huge and fast-growing markets in almost all industries except the smoke-stack ones. For buyers that choose and execute well, the China market is proving lucrative ground to do M&A. It’s a truth that remains a known to a select group of smart buyers.

Lifting the veil a bit, here are some of the largely-unpublicized acquisitions done by smart American buyers in China.

3d

In April 2015, 3D Systems, a New York Stock Exchange-quoted manufacturer of 3D printers, purchased 65% of a Chinese 3D printing sales and service company Wuxi Easyway. The Chinese company’s customers in China include VW, Nissan, Philips, Omron, Black & Decker, Panasonic and Honeywell. 3D Systems has an option to purchase the remainder of the business within five years.

Along with acquiring a developed sales network and increased distribution in China, another key aspect of the deal was to make the founder of Easyway, a Western-educated Chinese, the CEO of a newly-formed subsidiary,  3D Systems China.  The plan is to make the Chinese founder the king of a larger kingdom, a carrot frequently dangled by American companies to persuade Chinese founders to sell to them.

Since the deal closed, 3D Systems also accelerated the build-out of its operational infrastructure in China. What lies behind the deal? 3D Systems acquired a local management team as well sales channels, customer relationships.  It did not acquire manufacturing capability.

3D Systems manufactures high-quality 3D printers that sells at significantly higher prices than Chinese domestic competitors. Owning a Chinese business with established customer relationships in China will make it easier for 3D Systems to penetrate more deeply what should become the world’s largest market for 3D printers. The shift is particularly strong among Chinese private sector manufacturing companies making products for China’s consumer market.

Prior to the acquisition, Easyway was not a major client or partner of 3D Systems. As the integration moves forward, Easyway will likely expand its product offerings in China beyond relatively commoditized business of producing 3D prototypes. 3D Systems’ printers have broader capabilities, including the production of end-use parts, molds for advanced tool production, medical and surgical supplies.

The dual-track strategy is for Easyway to maintain its existing comparatively low-end service business in China while adding two new sources of revenue: the sale of 3D Systems’ 3D printers in China and an enhanced/upgraded service business of using 3D Systems printers to produce higher-quality and more complex parts to order for Chinese customers.  Both should positively impact 3D Systems’ P&L.

3D Systems used a deal structure that often works well in China. They bought a majority of Easyway, while leaving the target company founder/owner with a 35% minority stake in an illiquid subsidiary of 3D Systems. 3D Systems has the option to buy out the remaining shares and assume 100% control. But, the option may never be exercised. 3D Systems now enjoys the benefits of holding corporate control, including consolidation, while also keeping the previous owner aligned and incentivized.

The deal isn’t without its risks, of course. 3D Systems previously had no corporate presence in China. It therefore did not have its own management team in place and on-the-ground in China to manage the integration of Easyway and monitor the business going forward.

illinois

In July 2013, Illinois Tool Works (“ITW”), a huge and hugely-successful US industrial conglomerate, purchased 100% of a Chinese kitchen supply manufacturer Gold Pattern Holdings, based in Guangzhou, from global private equity firm Actis.

The acquisition fits well with the expansion strategy of ITW of looking to make tuck-in acquisitions in their core business segments. ITW has a large food equipment business with over $2 billion in annual revenue, 15% of ITW’s total.  Gold Pattern’s business is selling Western-style kitchen equipment to restaurants and hotels in China.

From discussions we’ve had with ITW since the acquisition, the deal is considered a solid success within ITW. The company says it has a strengthened appetite to make more such acquisitions in China, a key market for the company going forward.

ITW owns some of the most well-known brands in the food equipment industry, including Hobart mixers and Vulcan ranges. Buying Gold Pattern was part of a strategy to increase sales and distribution of these ITW brands in the fast-growing China market. Gold Pattern’s own commercial kitchen equipment is lower-priced and generally considered lower-quality.  But, the domestic sales channels used to sell Gold Pattern’s equipment is also suitable to distribute ITW’s US brands.

ITW expects that as China continues to grow more affluent, the demand among the Chinese middle class for European and American food will expand significantly. This will create a long-term market opportunity for ITW to sell Western style commercial kitchen equipment. More and more four-and-five star hotels in China are being equipped with Western kitchens as well as Chinese ones.

ITW mitigated its deal risk by buying Gold Pattern from a well-regarded international PE fund. As a result, Gold Pattern already had fully-compliant GAAP accounting, established corporate governance structures, and a professional management team. No less important, ITW knew from the outset that Gold Pattern had already successfully undergone the forensic due diligence process that preceded Actis buying control of the company. This significantly lower due diligence risk, a prime reason many deals in China – both minority and control – fail to close.

ITW has significant experience buying and integrating businesses globally. They had operations in China for twenty years prior to this acquisition.  ITW and another diversified Midwestern industrial company, Dover Corporation, are both actively, but ever-so-quietly seeking more acquisitions in China, aimed primarily at expanding their sales and distribution in China’s growing domestic market.

 amazon

This deal happened a long time ago, but continues to pay dividends for Amazon. In August 2004, they bought 100% of Chinese e-commerce company Joyo, paying a total of $75mn including an earn-out.  At the time, e-commerce in China was in its infancy, while Amazon was less than one-tenth its current size. The purchase of Joyo was a calculated gamble that China’s online shopping industry, despite huge impediments at the time including no established online payment systems would eventually achieve meaningful scale.

The gamble has paid off handsomely for Amazon. The e-commerce industry in China is now at least 50X larger than in 2004, with revenues last year of over $700bn. E-commerce revenues are projected to double in China by 2020. Amazon is the only non-Chinese company with meaningful market share and revenues in this hot sector. That said, Amazon is dwarfed by Alibaba’s Taobao, which has a market share in China estimated at 75%.

But, Amazon in 2012 spotted an opportunity to use its China-based business to establish a highly-lucrative cross-border business facilitating direct export sales by Chinese manufacturers and individual traders on Amazon’s main US and UK websites.  This is a business Alibaba has tried and so far failed to enter.  As a result, Amazon’s senior management, if they know no one is listening, will tell you the Joyo acquisition is a big success. It generates meaningful revenue in China (approx. $3bn), while supporting the infrastructure to build out the cross-border exports.  Amazon continues to invest aggressively in China, with enormous warehouse facilities (800,000 total sqm) and wholly-owned logistics business.

When Amazon bought Joyo, it knew full well that Chinese law, as written, forbids foreign companies from owning a domestic internet company. The Chinese government views the internet and e-commerce as “strategic national industries”. At the time, Amazon got around this by using an ownership structure for its China business called a “Variable Interest Entity” (“VIE”) also used by some domestic Chinese e-commerce companies that listed on the US stock market. The Chinese government, if they chose to, could probably shut Amazon down in China, because it’s using this loophole to operate in China. That could leave Amazon scrambling to find a way to stay in business in a country in which it now has hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

The boards of many other large US companies would blanch at approving a deal where the assets are owned indirectly and control could be so easily forfeited by Chinese regulatory action. But, Amazon, with founder Jeff Bezos firmly in control, has shown itself time and again to be comfortable with making rather bold bets. Success in China often requires that mindset.

negative

Of course, US buyers have also slipped on their share of Chinese banana peels. Three well-known Silicon Valley technology companies tried and mainly failed to do M&A successfully in China. All three followed a similar strategy to acquire domestic Chinese technology companies started and owned by Chinese who had previously studied and worked in the tech field in the US. The acquisitions followed the general strategic logic of most tech M&A within the US: to identify and acquire companies with complimentary proprietary IP. But, the results in China fell well short of expectations.

The three deals were:

  1. Cirrus Logic acquired Caretta Integrated Circuits in 2007. By 2008, the acquired company was shut down and Cirrus recorded a $12mn loss.
  2. Netgear acquired CP Secure in 2008. There is now no trace of the original CP Secure business, nor any indication it is ongoing concern.
  3. Aruba Networks acquired Azalea Networks in 2010, a Chinese wireless LAN provider.

Over the last five years, no similar M&A deals in China were announced by larger Silicon Valley companies. The strategy has shifted from acquiring companies for their IP to targeting companies for their domestic Chinese distribution and sales channels.  This reflects the fact that indigenous innovation in China has not made much of a global impact. IP protection in China is still inadequate by US standards. China is also a late adopter market, which further impedes the development of globally-competitive domestic technology companies.

The successful US acquisitions in China were all rooted in a different, more viable strategy: to buy one’s way directly or indirectly into China’s burgeoning consumer market.

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Abridged version as published in Nikkei Asian Review

China Cross-Border M&A, CNBC Interview

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CNBC

The seventh annual Future China conference just concluded in Singapore. I was invited to speak on a panel about financial markets reform in China. As the conference got underway, CNBC interviewed me live about Chinese cross-border M&A. You can watch the interview by clicking here.

My thanks and congratulations to the conference organizer, Singapore’s Business China, and the two ravishing ladies who run it, CEO Sun Xueling and Executive Director, Josephine Gan. They and their staff put on the best China conference I’ve ever been to. Reform, innovation, corruption, military strategy were all on the agenda. But, so too were discussions about how to improve the lives of the 600 million Chinese still living in peasant villages. One comparison hit home: the average farm size in China is 6,000 square meters. Even in India, with less than one-quarter China’s per capita GDP, farms are almost twice the size, at 13,000 square meters. What about the US? Farms are on average 300 times larger than China’s, or about 1.8mn square meters.

Business China was started nine years ago by Lee Kuan Yew to foster greater business and cultural ties between Singapore and the People’s Republic. I’m among the many who view Mr. Lee as one of the outstanding political leaders of the last century and among those who sincerely mourn his passing last year at age 91.

 

Group   Peter Fuhrman at Future China, Singapore July 2016

 

 

 

 

 

An insider’s view of Chinese M&A — Intralinks Deal Flow Predictor

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Intralinks Dealflow Predictor

 

Intralinks: The meltdown of China’s equity markets that began in the summer, despite measures by officials in Beijing aimed at calming investors’ nerves, has left many global investors jittery. Is this just a correction of an overheated market or the start of something more serious, and how would you describe the mood in China at the moment?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Never once have I heard of a stock market correction that was greeted with glee by the mass of investors, brokers, regulators or government officials. So too most recently in China. The dive in Chinese domestic share prices, while both overdue and in line with the sour fundamentals of most domestically quoted companies, has caused much unhappiness at home and anxiety abroad. The dour outlook persists, as more evidence surfaces that China’s real economy is indeed in some trouble. I first came to China 34 years ago, and have lived full-time here for the last six years. This is unquestionably the worst economic and financial environment I’ve encountered in China. Unlike in 2008, the Chinese government can’t and won’t light a fiscal bonfire to keep the economy percolating. The enormous state-owned sector is overall on life support, barely eking out enough cash flow to pay interest on its massive debts. Salvation this time around, if it’s to be found, will come from the country’s effervescent private sector. It’s already the source of most job creation and non-pump-primed growth in China. The energy, resourcefulness, pluck and risk-tolerance of China’s entrepreneurs knows no equal anywhere in the world. The private sector has been fully legal in China for less than two decades. It is only beginning to work its economic magic.

 

Intralinks: Much has been made of slowing economic growth in China. What are you seeing on the ground and how reliable do you view the Chinese official growth statistics?

 

Peter Fuhrman: If there’s a less productive pastime than quibbling with China’s official statistics, I don’t know of it. Look, it’s beyond peradventure, beyond guesstimation that China’s economic transformation is without parallel in human history. The transformation of this country over the 34 years since I first set foot here as a graduate student is so rapid, so total, so overwhelmingly positive that it defies numerical capture. That said, we’re at a unique juncture in China. There are more signs of economic worry down at the grassroots consumer level than I can recall ever seeing. China is in an unfamiliar state where nothing whatsoever is booming. Real estate prices? Flat or dropping. Manufacturing? Skidding. Exports? Crawling along. Stock market prices? Hammered down and staying down. The Renminbi? No longer a one-way bet.

 

Intralinks: What impact do you see a slowing Chinese economy having on other economies in the APAC region and elsewhere?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Of course there will be an impact, both regionally and globally. There’s only one certain cure for any country feeling ill effects from slowing exports to China: allow the Chinese to travel visa-free to your country. The one trade flow that is now robust and without doubt will become even more so is the Chinese flocking abroad to travel and spend. Only partly in jest do I suggest that the U.S. trade deficit with China, now running at a record high of about $1.5 billion a day, could be eliminated simply by letting the Chinese travel to the U.S. with the same ease as Taiwanese and Hong Kong residents. Manhattan store shelves would be swept clean.

 

Intralinks: With prolonged record low interest rates and low inflation in most of the advanced economies, many multinational companies have looked to China as a source of growth, including through M&A. Which sectors in China have tended to attract the majority of foreign interest? Do you see that continuing or will the focus and opportunities shift elsewhere? Is China a friendly environment for inbound M&A?

 

Peter Fuhrman: The challenges, risks and headaches remain, of course, but M&A fruit has never been riper in China. This is especially so for U.S. and European companies looking to seize a larger slice of China’s domestic consumer market. The M&A strategy that does work in China is to acquire a thriving Chinese private sector business with revenues in China of at least $25m a year, with its own-brand products, distribution, and a degree of market acceptance. The goal for a foreign acquirer is to use M&A to build out most efficiently a sales, brand and product strategy that is optimized for China, in both today’s market conditions, as well as those likely to pertain in the medium- to long-term.

The botched deals tend to get all the headlines, but almost surreptitiously, some larger Fortune 500 companies have made some stellar acquisitions in China. Among them are Nestle, General Mills, ITW, FedEx and Valspar. They bought solid, successful, entrepreneur-founded and run companies. Those acquired companies are now larger, often by orders of magnitude. The acquirer has also dramatically expanded sales of its own global products in China by utilizing the localized distribution channels it acquired. In Nestle’s case, China is now its second-largest market in revenue-terms after the U.S. Four years ago, it ranked number seven.

Chinese government policy towards M&A is broadly positive to neutral. More consequential but perhaps less well-understood are the negative IPO environment for domestic private sector companies, as well as the enormous overhang of un-exited PE invested deals in China. These have transferred pricing leverage from sellers to buyers in China. Increasingly, the most sought-after exit route for domestic Chinese entrepreneurs is through a trade sale to a large global corporation.

 

Intralinks: After years of being seen mainly as “an interested party”, rather than an actual dealmaker, Chinese players are increasingly frequently the successful bidder in international M&A transactions. What has changed in their approach to dealmaking to ensure such success?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Yes, Chinese buyers are increasingly more willing and able to close international M&A deals. But, the commonly-heard refrain that Chinese buyers will devour everything laid in front of them stands miles apart from reality. It seems like every asset for sale in every locale is seeking a Chinese buyer. The limiting factor isn’t money. Chinese acquirers’ cost of capital is lower than anywhere else, often fractionally above zero. The issue instead is too few Chinese companies have the managerial depth and experience to close global M&A deals. There are some world-class exceptions and world-class Chinese buyers. In the last year, for example, a Chinese PE fund called Hua Capital has led two milestone transactions, the proposed acquisition for a total consideration north of $2.5bn, of two U.S.-quoted semiconductor companies, Omnivision and ISSI. Hua Capital has powerful backers in China’s government, as well as outstanding senior executives. These guys are the real deal.

 

Intralinks: When it comes to doing deals, what are the differences between private/public companies and SOEs?

 

Peter Fuhrman: With rare exceptions, the SOE sector is now paralyzed. No M&A deals can be closed. Every week brings new reports of the arrest of senior SOE management for corruption. In some cases, the charges relate directly to M&A malfeasance, bribes, kickbacks and the like. SOE M&A teams will still go on international tire-kicking junkets, but getting any kind of transaction approved by the higher tiers within the SOE itself and by the government control apparatus is all but impossible for now. That leaves China’s private sector companies, especially quoted ones, as the most likely club of buyers. We work with the chairmen of quite a few of these private companies. The appetite is there, the dexterity often less so.

 

Intralinks: China has long been a fertile dealmaking environment for PE funds – both home-grown and international. In what ways does the Chinese PE model differ from what we see in other markets?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Perhaps too fertile. For all the thousands of deals done, Chinese PE’s great Achilles heel is an anemic rate of return to their limited partner investors, especially when measured by actual cash distributions. Over the last three, five, seven years, Chinese PE as a whole has underperformed U.S. PE by a gaping margin. It’s a fundamental truth too often overlooked. High GDP growth rates do not correlate, and never have, with high investment returns, especially from alternative investment classes like PE. If there is one striking disparity between PE as practiced in China as compared to the U.S. and Europe, it’s the fact that that Chinese general partners, whether they’re from the world’s largest global PE firms or pan-Asian or China-focused funds, too often think and act more like asset managers than investors. The 2 takes precedence over the 20.

Intralinks: What opportunities and challenges are private equity investors facing?

 

Peter Fuhrman: The levels of PE and venture capital (VC) investing activity in China have dropped sharply. What money is being invested is mainly chasing after a bunch of loss-making online shopping and mobile services apps. The hope here is one will emerge as China’s next Alibaba or Tencent, the two giants astride China’s private sector. PE investment in China’s “real economy,” that is manufacturing businesses that create most of the jobs and wealth in China, has all but dried up. Though out of favor, this is where the best deals are likely to be found now. Contrarianism is an investing worldview not often encountered at China-focused PE and VC firms.

 

Intralinks: As in many other markets, PE investors are having to deal with a backlog of portfolio companies ready to be exited. Do you feel that PE’s focus on minority investments in China could prove a challenge when it comes to exiting those investments? What do you see as the primary exit route?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Exits remain both few in number and overwhelmingly concentrated on a single pathway, that of IPO. M&A exits, the main source of profit for U.S. and European PE firms, remain exceedingly rare in China. In part, it’s because PE firms usually hold a minority stake in their Chinese investments. In part, though, the desire for an IPO exit is baked into the PE investment process in China. Price/Earnings (P/E) multiple arbitrage, trying to capture alpha through the observed delta in valuation multiples between private and public markets, remains a much-beloved tactic.

 

Intralinks: Finally, what is your overall outlook on China and advice for foreign companies and investors seeking opportunities to engage in M&A or invest there?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Yes, China’s economy is slowing. But the salient discussion point within boardrooms should be that even at 5% growth, China’s economy this year is getting richer faster in dollar terms than it did in 2007 when GDP growth was 14%. That’s because the economy is now so much larger. This added increment of wealth and purchasing power in China in 2015 is larger than the entire economies of Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Much of the annual gain in China, likely to remain impressively large for many long years to come, filters down into increased middle class spending power. This is why China must matter to global businesses with a product or service to sell. M&A in China has a cadence and quirks all its own. But, the business case can often be compelling. The terrain can be mastered.

 

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M&A the Chinese Way: Buying First and Paying Later — Financial Times

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FT article

For these two, as well as companies wishing to find a buyer in China, the game now is to learn the new rules of China M&A and then learn to use them to one’s advantage.

Chinese companies mainly pursue M&A for the same reasons others do – to improve margins, gain efficiencies and please investors. The main difference, and it’s a striking one, is that in most cases domestic Chinese corporate buyers, especially the publicly-quoted ones who are most active now trying to do deals, have no money to buy another business.

Outside of China, there are three known ways to pay for an acquisition – with cash, borrowed money, or shares. All three are generally between excruciatingly slow and impossible for publicly-listed Chinese companies. The reason: companies’ retained earnings are just about always insufficient.

Banking and securities rules in China severely restrict the way publicly-traded companies in China can finance acquisitions using debt or by issuing new shares. Deals financed with leverage are basically forbidden. So, Chinese companies have invented two convoluted ways to get M&A done. They display a certain genius. Both involve trying to buy first and pay later.

Method One is for the acquirer to first negotiate a purchase then ask the Chinese stock market to suspend trading in its own shares. The acquirer will announce the deal publicly and if all goes to plan its share price will surge, often by as much as 50 per cent to 75 per cent.

This predictable outcome is the result of the fact almost all shares quoted in China are owned by small retail investors, commonly called Chinese brokers “old grandpas and grandmas”. Most have never cared to look at a company’s financials or studied its competitive position. Instead, they trade in and out of stocks depending mainly on rumor and hype fed to them by brokers or online tip sheets.

In China, an announced M&A deal is now always a market-moving event. The movement tends to be all in one direction. Up.

Once trading in the acquirer’s shares resumes and the price duly jumps up, the acquirer then initiates the laborious process of applying to the Chinese securities regulator, the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC), for permission to do a secondary share offering.

This will then, it’s hoped, yield the cash to complete the acquisition. The approval process will generally take six months or longer. Chinese securities rules are cumbersome and mandate that the new shares be issued at a discount to the share price at the time of application.

The result: the sequence of “announce first, then apply” means the acquirer can raise the cash needed to buy the target on more favorable terms for the acquiring company, lowering the amount of dilution.

Method Two, a close cousin, is to persuade a friendly domestic investment fund to buy the target company then hold onto it for as long as it takes the intended final owner to get the money in place through the secondary offering. In other jurisdictions, this might be deemed a “concert party” and so likely to land everyone in jail. In China, it’s becoming common practice.

In fact, a new form of investment fund has come into being especially to do deals like this. They call themselves “市值管理基金” which you can translate as “market cap management funds”. They exist to help publicly-traded companies do M&A deals that will lift the company’s share price, and not much else.

They make money buying and selling shares, as well as marking up for resale companies they buy on behalf of publicly-traded companies. They are not buyout funds as understood elsewhere, since these market cap management funds are buying on behalf of a specific company and have no particular industry expertise or experience managing an acquired company. They act purely as a temporary custodian.

Most often, the acquirer will contribute a small amount of limited partner capital to the “market cap management fund” as a way to bind the two organisations together. It can take a year or more from when the market cap management fund first buys the target company then sells to the publicly-traded acquirer, and from there, several more years before this acquisition starts to have an impact, if any, on the acquiring company’s earnings. In other words, a very long timetable.

That by itself is not a problem for the acquirer, since it is as eager to give a shot of adrenalin to its own share price and maintain it on this higher plane as it is to get control of the target company and integrate it into its business. Market cap management trumps industrial logic as a reason to pursue M&A.

I’ve yet to see evidence of much skepticism from Chinese stock market investors that an announced M&A deal may not benefit the acquirer. In the US and other more developed capital markets, it’s frequently the opposite. An acquiring company will as often as not see its shares fall when it announces plans for a takeover. That’s because in most cases, as far as hard empirical evidence can determine, the main beneficiaries of any M&A deal are the target company’s shareholders. Too often, for acquirers M&A deals prove to be too expensive and synergies elusive.

We’ve been invited by domestic listed companies in China to help consult on M&A deals where “market cap management” was an explicit purpose. Finding an attractive target is also a consideration, but a somewhat secondary one.

The discussions, in the main, are unlike anywhere else where M&A deals are being planned and executed. They revolve around how to get the money together, when and for how long to halt share trading, and by how much the listed company’s shares will likely go up, and stay up, once the M&A announcement is made.

Where the publicly-listed company has private sector, rather than State-owned enterprise background, the chairman will usually be the largest single shareholder. The chairman’s net worth stands to get the biggest boost if market cap management works as planned.

Opportunities for global buyout funds
The lengthy, roundabout nature of Chinese M&A is creating attractive opportunities for global corporations and buyout firms. They are the only participants in the M&A arena in China both with cash in hand or easily accessed to close deals and the experience to manage a company well once it’s bought.

From the perspective of potential Chinese sellers, both of these are extremely valuable, since they remove much of the uncertainty in agreeing to sell to a domestic acquirer. Global corporates and buyout firms will thus often be buyers of first choice for sellers.

For now, few global corporates and buyout firms are busy closing M&A deals in China. There are a host of reasons, including China’s slowing economic growth, the perception China is becoming more hostile towards foreign investment, the difficulty persuading owners of better Chinese companies to give up majority control. All valid concerns. But, there are larger forces now at work that make it attractive to expand through acquisition in the world’s largest fast-growing market.

First, in almost all industrial and service industries, China is beginning at last a process of rationalisation and consolidation. Costs are rising quickly, especially for labor, energy and debt service. These are applying vice-like pressure on margins. Markets for most products and services in China are no longer growing by +25 per cent a year and suffer from overcapacity.

Scale, efficiency, quality, modern management are the only ways to combat the punishing margin pressure. This plays directly to the strengths of larger global corporations and buyout firms. They know how to do this, how to transform a capable smaller business into a large market-share leader.

It’s something of a well-kept secret, but some of the world’s most successful M&A deals have seen large global corporations buying private sector businesses in China. The successful buyers generally prefer it this way, that few know how well they are doing after buying and upgrading a Chinese domestic company.

Why tip off competitors? For every well-publicized horror story there are at least three quiet successes. Indeed, one can find within a single Fortune 500 company three great examples of how to do domestic M&A well in China, and achieve a big payoff. The company is Swiss food giant Nestle.

They first opened an office in China in 1908. The big transformation began a hundred years later, in 1998, when they decided to buy an 80 per cent ownership in a Chinese powdered bullion company Taitaile. That company is now more than twelve times the size it was when Nestle bought in.

They followed that up with two other large acquisitions of domestic Chinese food and beverage brands, drinks company Yinlu and candy brand Hsu Fu Chi. In all cases, Nestle bought majority control, but not 100 per cent. They kept the founder in place, as CEO and a minority owner.

That has proved a brilliant model for successful M&A in China, and not only at Nestle. When discussing with Chinese business owners the advantages of selling control to a capable global company, we often share details of Nestle’s M&A activity in China, including the fact that the Chinese owner stays but gets to spend Nestle’s money, leverage its resources, to build a giant business. That’s a pretty attractive proposition.

All three acquisitions have thrived under Nestle’s ownership and now enjoy significant market shares. Thanks largely to these acquisitions, China is Nestle’s second-largest market overall. It was number seven just four years ago.

From my discussions with the China M&A team at Nestle, they are frank that it’s not always been smooth sailing. The M&A deals all involved trying to blend one of the world’s most fastidious, slow-moving and more bureaucratic cultures with the free-wheeling, “ready, fire, aim” style common to all Chinese domestic entrepreneurs. Corporate culture gaps could not get any wider. And yet, it’s worked out well, better in fact than Nestle hoped when going in.

Nestle tells us it is hungry to do more acquisitions in China. Chinese still spend half as much on food per capita as Mexicans. That’s where the growth will come from. Market dynamics in China are also moving strongly in Nestle’s favor, as food quality and safety become paramount concerns. Further acquisitions should help Nestle gather in billions more in revenue in China along with higher market shares.

Across multiple industries, the circumstances are similar in China, and so favor smart, bold acquirers. Choose good targets, buy them at a good price, convert great entrepreneurs to great managers and partners, don’t script everything from your far-off global headquarters. Do these right and M&A can work in China. No market cap management required.

(Originally published Financial Times BeyondBrics)

http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2015/05/08/ma-the-chinese-way-buying-first-and-paying-later/

http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/en/FT.pdf

 

China’s Caijing Magazine on America’s All-Conquering Dumpling Maker

caijing

Caijing Magazine

 

The secret is out. Chinese now know, in far greater numbers than before, that the favorite brand of the favorite staple food of hundreds of millions of them is made by a huge American company, General Mills, best known for sugar-coated cereals served to American children. (See my earlier article here.) In the current issue of China’s weekly business magazine Caijing is my Chinese-language article blowing the cover off the well-hidden fact that China’s tastiest and most popular brand of frozen dumplings, known in Chinese as 湾仔码头, “Wanzai Matou”, is made by the same guys who make Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms in the US.

You can read a copy of my Caijing article by clicking here.

Getting these facts in print was not simple. I’ve been an online columnist for Caijing for years. When I sent the manuscript the magazine’s editor, he did the journalistic version of a double take, refusing to believe at first that this dumpling brand he knows well is actually owned and run by a non-Chinese company, and a huge American conglomerate to boot. He asked many questions and apparently did his own digging around to confirm the truth of what I was claiming.

He asked me to reveal to him and Caijing’s readers the secret techniques General Mills has used to conquer the Chinese market. That further complicated things. It wasn’t, I explained,  by selling stuff cheap, since Wanzai Matou sells in supermarkets for about double the price of pure domestic brands. Nor was it because they used the same kind of saturation television advertising P&G has pioneered in China to promote sales of its market-leading products Head & Shoulders and Tide. General Mills spends little on media advertising in China, relying instead on word of mouth and an efficient supply chain.

My explanation, such as it is, was that the Americans were either brave or crazy enough, beginning fifteen years ago, to believe Chinese would (a) start buying frozen food in supermarkets, and (b) when they did, they’d be willing to pay more for it than fresh-made stuff. Wanzai Matou costs more per dumpling than buying the hand-made ones available at the small dumpling restaurants that are so numerous in China just about everyone living in a city or reasonably-sized town is within a ten-minute walk of several.

In my case, I’ve got at least twenty places within that radius. I flat-out love Chinese dumplings. With only a small degree of exaggeration I tell people here that the chance to eat dumplings every day, three times a day, was a prime reason behind my move to China. For my money, and more important for that of many tens of millions of Chinese, the Wanzai Matou ones just taste better.

The article, though, does explain the complexities of building and managing a frozen “cold chain” in China. General Mills had more reason to master this than any company, domestic or foreign. That’s because along with Wanzai Matou they have a second frozen blockbuster in China: Häagen-Dazs ice cream, sold both in supermarkets and stand-alone Häagen-Dazs ice cream shops. Either way, it’s out of my price range, at something like $5 for a few thimblefuls, but lots of Chinese seem to love it. Both Wanzai Matou and Häagen-Dazs China are big enough and fast-growing enough to begin to have an impact on General Mills’ overall performance, $18 billion in revenues and $1.8bn in profits in 2014.

For whatever reason, General Mills doesn’t like to draw attention to its two stellar businesses in China. The annual report barely mentions China. This is in contrast to their Minnesota neighbor 3M which will tell anyone who’s listening including on Wall Street that it’s future is all about further expanding in China. But, the fundamentals of General Mills’ business in China look as strong, or stronger, than any other large American company operating here.

The title of my Caijing article is “外来的厨子会做饺子” which translates as “Foreign cooks can make dumplings”. It expresses the surprise I’ve encountered at every turn here whenever I mention to people here that China’s most popular dumpling company is from my homeland not theirs.

 

China’s IPO Drought Spurring Interest In M&A — FinanceAsia

FinanceAsia

 

With slim hope of exiting through a lucrative public listing, Chinese entrepreneurs and their investors are considering sales.

China’s huge backlog of initial public offerings is creating an exit crisis for maturing private equity funds — and an opportunity for international investors interested in buying something other than a bit of a state-owned enterprise.

For China’s entrepreneurs, the dream of earning a rich valuation through an IPO is over, but the result could be a healthy increase in acquisitions as owners slowly come round to reality: that selling to a foreign buyer is probably the best way of cashing out.

There is no shortage of candidates, thanks to the unsustainable euphoria at the height of China’s IPO boom. The number of firms listing in China, Hong Kong and New York was only around 350 at its height, yet private equity funds were investing at triple that rate. As a result, there are now more than 7,500 unexited private equity deals in China.

“IPOs may start again, but it will never be like it was,” says Peter Fuhrman, chief executive of China First Capital, an investment bank that specialises in advising on private equity deals. “The Golden Age is likely over. There are 10,000 deals all hoping to be one of the few hundred to reach IPO.”

As long as the window to a listing was open, China’s entrepreneurs were willing to hold out in the hope of selling their business at a valuation of 80 or 100 times earnings. Even last year, when the window to IPO was firmly closed, few bosses chose to sell.

“Private equity activity was fairly muted in 2012 — you could count the meaningful exits on one hand,” says Lindsay Chu, Asia-Pacific head of financial sponsors and sovereign wealth funds at HSBC. But sponsors still have a meaningful number of investments that they will need to exit to return capital to LPs [limited partners].”

However, both Fuhrman and HSBC note signs of growing interest in M&A — or at least weakening resistance to the idea.

“I’m conservatively optimistic about leveraged buyouts,” says Aaron Chow, Asia Pacific head of event-driven syndicate within the leveraged and acquisition finance team at HSBC. “The market is wide open to do these deals right now, as financing conditions are supportive and IPO valuations may not provide attractive exits.”

Indeed, the ability to use leverage may be decisive in helping foreign buyers emerge as the preferred exit route for China’s entrepreneurs. Leverage is not an option for domestic buyers, which are also burdened with the need to wait for approvals, without any guarantee that they will get them.

This means foreign acquirers can move quicker and earn bigger returns, which may prove enticing to bosses who want to maximise their payday and get their hands on a quick cheque.

If this meeting of the minds happens, foreign buyers will get their first opportunity to buy control positions within China’s private economy, which is responsible for most of the country’s growth and job creation.

“The beauty here is these are good companies, rather than a troubled and bloated SoE that’s just going to give you a headache,” says Fuhrman. “It’s still a bitch to do Chinese acquisitions — it’s always going to be a bitch — but private deals are doable.”

Some of those deals may involve trade sales to other financial sponsors, as a number of private equity funds have recently raised capital to deploy in Asia and are well placed to take advantage of the opportunity, despite the challenges.

“There’s a lot of talk in Europe about funds having difficulty in their fund-raising efforts, but for the most part we’ve not seen that in Asia,” says Chu. Mainland companies will attract most of the flows, he says, but there are also opportunities across the region. “China is always going to be top of the list, but Asean is becoming an even bigger focus thanks to good macro stories and stable governments. Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia are all attractive to private equity investors.”

© Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.

A Practical Guide for M&A deals for Chinese Bosses

Illustration from 中国企业跨境并购交易要点和流程浅析  or

 “What you need to know and do to complete an M&A deal”

 

Like the smart tv or a cheap fuel-efficient automobile, China M&A is the good business idea whose time never seems to arrive. There’s basically no one in the Chinese business community, or inside Wall Street investment banks, who doesn’t agree that China’s future must include a lot more M&A deals, both cross-border and domestic. Domestic industries are highly fragmented and in need of consolidation. Chinese manufacturers need to acquire brands and technology from abroad to keep growing at home and offshore.

Think of the China M&A market as a huge pile of dry sticks soaked in gasoline. You throw a lighted match on it, expecting it to explode into a spectacular bonfire. And then… nothing. M&A activity in China remains so subdued, particularly for an economy China’s size, it is almost an irrelevancy. Can this, will this, change? I’m certainly among those who think it must, and not because it promises to someday bring in fat fees for investment bankers. M&A needs to develop as a routine means to let some entrepreneurs (and the PE investors who backed them) exit, and allow others to accelerate growth and grab market share. Both should end up benefiting China’s economy.

So, where exactly are the stumbling blocks on the path to an efficient and dynamic market for corporate control in China? There are more than just a handful, and include psychological and national factors, as well as more typical business reasons. But, one of the key problems is actually a very practical, and very solvable, one — the fact most Chinese companies don’t often have a clear understanding of how to select and assess an acquisition target, and then how, if the will is there to do something,  to actually take control of another company.

Our most recent Chinese-language research paper offers some guidance here. For those with the requisite Chinese skills, you can download a copy by clicking here or visiting the Research Reports section of the China First Capital website. The research paper is titled ” 中国企业跨境并购交易要点和流程浅析“, which I’d loosely translate as  “What you need to know and do to complete an Offshore M&A deal” .

The main readership is the +4,000 Chinese company bosses and senior management of both private sector and SOE companies we have in our database. We’re also sharing it with those whose work sometimes involves facilitating or regulating M&A deals — partners at law firms, accounting companies, PE firms, brokerage houses and government officials. This adds about another 2,000 to the list of people we sent it to.

We have a reasonable amount of experience in  — and we hope knowledge of  — M&A involving Chinese companies, representing both sellers and buyers, cross-border and pure-play Chinese domestic transactions. In other words, all four quadrants on the M&A map in China.

The contents grew directly out of our client work. It’s light on theory. We’re not trying to compete with McKinsey or business school professors. Instead, we emphasize practical steps and offer a rather stripped-down timetable of how an M&A deal might go from concept to close. Investment banks, for reasons of self-interest as well as business efficiency,  are always telling companies why and how they should do M&A. You’ll need to believe me that this wasn’t our motive. I’ve been on both sides of M&A deals as a CEO and board member in the US, both as seller and buyer of companies. Now, I sit in the middle, as a banker in China. I wanted to provide a short operational guide to Chinese CEOs on when and why M&A might make sense.

A common thread among Chinese companies looking to buy is to use M&A as a way to beef up their company’s in-house technology. One example: a client of ours  is already China’s leader in the auto electronics industry but is well behind European, American, Japanese and Korean companies in developing systems to make using a mobile phone in your car both safe and efficient. That’s a very big market opportunity in China, which is now the world’s largest auto and mobile phone market by rather large margins. This client wants to buy, rather than build, to save time, and also make sure any product they eventually try to sell to their Chinese customers works smoothly, from the beginning.

This client found a good target in Europe but then got bogged down in technology DD — how to evaluate not just the obvious stuff like patents, but the trickier domain of “company know how”.  What can be learned, what can be transferred, what can walk out the door and into the arms of a competitor? So, another area our research paper tries to both explain and systematize is the process of technology due diligence. I doubt our simplification would satisfy the partners at McKinsey or the Big Four accounting firms who often get called into do this work, and make huge sums along the way. Our operative principle here is “better to light a candle than curse the darkness”. Again, we wanted to keep it practical, for busy folks mainly engaged in running companies. With few exceptions, I’ve yet to meet a Chinese company with a specialist in-house team to do M&A.

The Chinese word for M&A is 并购 , which joins together the characters for “to combine” and “to purchase”. Theoretically, it’s an appropriate choice of words. At this point, however, with M&A still very much in its infancy in China, the main requirements are “to understand” and “to execute confidently”.  I hope this research paper goes some way towards making both more common, more certain.

 

 

Two New CFC Research Reports

China First Capital (中国首创)published two new research reports, one in English and one Chinese. Both are now available for download here. The contents are different, as is the focus.

To download the English report, titled “Private Equity in China 2012: The Pace of Change Quickens“, Click here

For the Chinese report, “2012-2013 中国私募股权融资与市场趋势” Click here

In fact, “No Exit” would be the more appropriate title for a report about private equity in China this year. Jean-Paul Sartres famous play of that name is a conversation between three dead people stuck in hell. They are eternally damned. PE funds currently stuck inside Chinese investments with no way to exit are not in such a hopelessly miserable situation. But, some may be feeling that way.

Over the course of the last twelve months, first the US stock market, then Hong Kong’s, and finally China’s own domestic bourse all pretty much slammed the door shut on IPOs for Chinese companies. In previous years, over 300 Chinese companies would IPO. This year, that number will fall by at least 80%, maybe more. Stock markets in the US, Hong Kong and China all have slightly different explanations for the sharp drop-off in IPOs of Chinese companies. But, a common thread runs throughout: a deep distrust among investors and regulators of the accuracy of Chinese companies’ financial accounts.  The view is that a Chinese company’s IPO prospectus may be as much a work of fiction as the Sartre play. Under such circumstances, companies can’t IPO, and PE firms can’t find buyers for their illiquid shares.

China’s domestic stock markets were the last to bar the door against Chinese IPOs. Until mid-year, China’s all-powerful securities regulator the CSRC was continuing to process and approve IPO applications, and companies were going public at a rate of about five a week. Then, in July, the whole complex system of approving and placing IPO shares basically stopped functioning. A Chinese company called Xindadi (新大地) exposed a serious defect at the heart of the regulatory system in China. The CSRC’s primarily function is to stop any bad company with dodgy accounts from accessing China’s domestic capital markets. Layer upon bureaucratic layer is piled up inside the CSRC to prevent officials from conspiring together to let a bad company’s application pass through. The underwriter, the lawyers and accountants are also held legally accountable to detect and expose bad companies. Yet Xindadi managed to slip through.

Xindadi’s IPO application was approved by the CSRC and the company was waiting its turn to go public when media reports surfaced that described a rather clumsy, though, nearly-successful fraud. Xindadi’s financial accounts  turned out to be fake from top to bottom. Xindadi’s business model is aptly summarized by comments made nearly a century ago by the US Federal Trade Commission about another rogue outfit, ” fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, dishonesty, breach of trust and oppression.”

The Xindadi IPO was pulled before the underwriters could sell any shares. The CSRC went into a kind of post-traumatic shock from which it’s yet to recover. It basically stopped approving new IPOs in most cases. Meanwhile the number of Chinese companies who’ve filed for IPO continues to lengthen, and now is over 800. If and when the CSRC goes back to its previous rate of approving IPOs, which isn’t likely anytime soon,  it would take four years to clear this backlog.

Predictably, for PE firms in China,  “No Exit” has now turned into “No Entrance”. Not knowing when IPO windows will reopen, PE firms have mainly stopped doing new deals.  Chinese private sector companies, for whom PE is the main source of growth capital, are feeling the pinch. Equity capital, even for good companies,  is difficult, if not impossible, to come by. The abrupt cut-off of PE financing will certainly lead to slower growth and fewer new jobs in China.

IPOs of Chinese companies in the US, Hong Kong and China have been an important, if little recognized, part of China’s growth story over the last decade. They fueled the boom in private equity  — both the creation over the last five years of hundreds of new PE firms and the raising of tens of billions of dollars in new capital —  and with it, a huge increase in total net new investment into China’s private sector companies. Chinese investment, particularly spending by state-owned companies, and government-backed infrastructure projects, is still largely financed by bank lending. But, the equity capital provided by PE firms has played a key part in financing the growth of larger private companies in China.  PE money has underpinned increased competition, choice and economic dynamism in China.

Now that gusher of PE money has turned to a trickle.  What next for private equity and corporate finance in China? The two new CFC reports summarize some of the main developments and trends in private equity and capital markets this year, and makes some predictions about the year to come. The Chinese-language report was written, as are other CFC Chinese reports, for the specific use and reference of domestic Chinese business-owners and senior management. The key message is that it’s getting far more difficult for companies to raise money, either through private placement or IPO.

The English report focuses more heavily on what’s going on in the private equity industry in China. Unlike many, I remain overall extremely positive about the fundamentals in China, that PE investment in China’s growing private sector companies represents the best risk-adjusted investment opportunity in the world. While exits through IPO are far fewer, China’s strongest investment asset remains firmly in place:  the compounded genius of its millions of private entrepreneurs to create wealth and push forward positive social and economic change.

 

China Goes Shopping: The Compelling Logic of Doing M&A Deals in the US

Selling a business in the US?  Chinese can pay top dollar.

We are entering a golden age of Chinese M&A deals in the US. There is certainly a sharp pick-up in activity going on – not so much of announced deals yet, though there have been several, but in more intensive discussions between potential Chinese acquirers and US companies. There is also a lot more shopping and tire-kicking by Chinese buyers. I certainly see it in our business. We’re engaged now in several M&A deals whose goal is sale of a US company to a Chinese buyer. I expect to see more.

The reasons for this upsurge are many – including the recent appreciation of the Renminbi against the dollar, the growing scale and managerial sophistication of Chinese companies (particularly private as opposed to state-owned ones), attractive prices for target US companies, the launch in 2009 by the Shenzhen Stock Exchange of the Chinextboard for fast-growing private companies.

The best reason for Chinese buyers to acquire US firms is one less-often mentioned – to profit from p/e arbitrage. The gap between stock market valuations in the US and China, on price-earnings basis, are wide. The average trailing p/e in the US now is 14. On China’s Chinext board, it’s 45. For fast-growth Chinese companies, the p/e multiples can exceed 70. This gives some Chinese acquirers leeway to pay a higher price for a US business.

In the best cases, a dollar of earnings may cost $10-$15 to acquire through purchase of a US business, but that dollar is immediately worth fifty dollars or more to the Chinese firm’s own valuation. As long as the gap remains so large, it makes enormous economic sense for Chinese acquirers to be out buying US businesses.

This is equally true for Chinese companies already quoted on the Chinese stock market as well as those with that ambition. Indeed, for reasons unique to China, the incentive is stronger for private companies to do this p/e arbitrage. In China, public companies generally are forbidden from doing secondary offerings, nor can they use their own shares to pay for an acquisition. When a Chinese public company consolidates a US acquisition’s profits, its overall market value will likely rise. But, it has no way to capitalize by selling additional shares and replenish the corporate treasury.

For a private company, the larger the profits at IPO, the higher the IPO proceeds. An extra $1 million in profits the year before an IPO can raise the market cap by $50mn – $70mn when the company goes public on Chinext. Private Chinese companies, unlike those already public in China,  can also use their shares to pay for acquisitions. The better private companies also often have a private equity investor involved. The PE firms can be an important source of cash to finance acquisitions, since it will juice their own returns. PE firms like making money from p/e arbitrage.

In M&A, the best pricing strategy is to swap some of my overvalued paper to buy all of someone else’s undervalued paper.  At the moment, some of the most overvalued paper belongs to Chinese companies on the path to IPO in China.

Most M&A deals end up benefitting the selling shareholders far more than the buyers. That’s because the buyers almost always fail to capture the hoped-for savings and efficiencies from combining two firms. Too often, such synergies turn out to be illusory.

For Chinese acquirers, p/e arbitrage greatly increases the likelihood of an M&A deal paying off – if not immediately, then when the combined company goes public.

If the target company in the US has reasonable rate of profit growth, the picture gets even rosier. The rules are, a private Chinese company will generally need to wait three years after an acquisition to go public in China. As long as the acquired business’s profits keep growing, the Chinese companies market value at IPO will as well. Chinese acquirers should do deals like that all day long.

But, as of now, they are not. One reason, of course, is that things can and often also go wrong in M&A deals. Any acquirer can easily stumble trying to manage a new business, and to maintain its rate of growth after acquisition. It’s tougher still when it’s cross-border and cross-cultural.

Another key reason: domestic M&A activity in China is still rather scant. There isn’t a lot of experience or expertise to tap, particularly for private companies. Knowing you want to buy and knowing how to do so are very different beasts. I’ve seen that in our work. Chinese companies immediately grasp the logic and pay-off from a US acquisition. They are far less sure how to proceed. They commonly will ask us, investment bankers to the seller, how to move ahead, how to work out a proper valuation.

The best deals, as well as the easiest, will be Chinese acquiring US companies with a large untapped market in China. Our clients belong in this camp, US companies that have differentiated technology and products with the potential to expand very rapidly across China.

In one case, our client already has revenues and high profit margins in China, but lacks the local management and know-how to fulfill the demand in China.  The senior management are all based in the US, and the company sends trained US workers over to China, putting them up in hotels for months at a time, rather than using Chinese locals. Simply by localizing the staff and taking over sales operation now outsourced to a Chinese “agent”, the US company could more than double net profits in China.

The US management estimates their potential market in China to be at least ten times larger than their current level of revenues, and annual profits could grow more. But, to achieve that, the current  owners have concluded their business needs Chinese ownership.

If all goes right, the returns on this deal for a Chinese acquirer could set records in M&A. Both p/e arbitrage and high organic profit growth will see to that. Our client could be worth over $2 billion in a domestic IPO in China in four years’ time, assuming moderate profit targets are hit and IPO valuations remain where they are now on China’s Chinext exchange.

Another client is US market leader in a valuable media services niche, with A-List customers, high growth and profits this year above $5mn. After testing the M&A waters in the US, the company is now convinced it will attract a higher price in China. The company currently has no operations now in China, but the market for their product is as large – if not larger – than in the US. Again, it needs a Chinese owner to unlock the market. We think this company will likely prove attractive to quoted Chinese technology companies, and fetch a higher price than it will from US buyers.

The same is true for many other US companies seeking an exit. US businesses will often command a higher price in China, because of the valuation differentials and high-growth potential of China’s domestic market.

China business has prospered over the last 20 years by selling things US consumers want to buy. In the future,  it will prosper also by buying businesses the US wants to sell.

 


 

“The Great Unwind” — Jim Zukin’s Masterly Analysis of Global Financial Crisis & Opportunities for Chinese Companies to Benefit Through M&A

Ming Dynasty

Readers of this blog will know I’m a big fan of Jim Zukin, a founding partner of the investment bank Houlihan, Lokey, Howard and Zukin. We met again for lunch last week, in Los Angeles. 

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and befriending, quite a few smart, and highly successful businessmen and entrepreneurs. It’s probably been the most rewarding part of my career. But, even among such pretty stellar company, Jim Zukin stands out. I’m truly awestruck – which is not a quality I often exhibit — by his intellect, his charisma, his business savvy, his warmth and humor, his love for his family, his clear and incisive thinking on the largest issues of our time. 

Jim is also much, much better at investment banking than I will ever be. I tend to be somewhat stubborn and used to being in charge. But, Jim’s judgment as an investment banker is so much more thoroughgoing than my own, that he is one of the very few people I’ve known who, metaphorically,  I would follow unquestionably into battle. Like a good junior officer, I would,  “Salute, shut up, and do what I was told.” 

Jim shares with me a deep affection for China, and a great delight in doing business there. He spotted big potential opportunities for his firm in China several years ago, and personally traveled there frequently to get Houlihan Lokey’s office started and on a solid footing, which is where it is today. Jim is one of those people who seems to know more about more things than should be possible, let alone for a guy who’s also occupied with “minor” tasks like staying very close to his five kids and grandchild, while helping to run the thriving global investment bank he founded. 

Among the things Jim understands well (better than anyone I’ve run across) the remarkable moment in financial history we’re now living through – the US is struggling to rebuild its banking sector and recover from a serious credit crisis and recession, while China is awash in liquidity. Most experts look at this and see just one dimension – that China’s government will continue to use its massive foreign exchange reserves to buy US government debt, thereby providing some additional stability to US interest rates and the dollar. 

Jim Zukin sees beyond this – indeed well beyond the current horizon —  to another important aspect of the financial symbiosis between the US and China. Chinese companies, as Jim sees it,  now have the scale, the ambition, the growth potential and the financial resources, to acquire assets in the US. This could have transformational effects for the Chinese companies able to acquire businesses in the US, and no less of an impact on parts of the ailing US industrial base. China could, and should, become a buyer of quality Middle Market companies in the US. There are good reasons why: because these US assets will help the Chinese firm accelerate its growth,  improve distribution and customer base in the US, upgrade technology. One other reason: US Middle Market companies are comparatively cheap, at the current valuation multiples (often around 5x)  and dollar-renminbi exchange rate. 

Jim sees this opportunity earlier and more clearly than most of us. He does so, in part,  because he holds more substantive knowledge and insight about the US, China and the financial tsunami that has changed the world over the last year. He condensed some of this knowledge and insight into a Powerpoint called “The Great Unwind and Its Impact”. 

I recommend it as essential reading, for anyone who wants to understand better the current financial crisis and some longer-term impacts on China and the US.  There’s a large amount to chew on in Jim’s report, not just the section on China. It shows a breadth of understanding that help explain why Jim was able to build a perennially successful investment banking firm, as well as perhaps the only one that’s come through the current financial crisis stronger than ever. 

You can view it here:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/15194564/The-Great-Unwind-and-Its-Impact-By-Jim-Zukin

 

 

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China M&A: 2008 Is A Record Year, And The Strong Growth Will Continue

snuff-bottle-21

 

Even as IPO activity all but came to a standstill in 2008, China’s M&A market reached an all-time high in 2008, with almost USD$160 billion in deals completed, according to Thomson Reuters. This makes China the biggest M&A market in Asia, for the first time ever. 

This is an important development, and I expect China’s role as Asia’s largest M&A market will continue into the future, despite the current economic slowdown. The reasons: M&A deals in China will continue to make business and financial sense. China’s M&A activity in 2008 was almost equally split between purely domestic deals – where one Chinese company buys or merges with another – and the cross-border acquisitions where Chinese and foreign firms join together – either with the Chinese firm buying into the overseas business, or the foreign firm taking a stake in a Chinese one.  

I see huge scope for growth in both areas. China’s economy, though growing more slowly now than in recent years, is still expanding. Despite its vase size (China is now the world’s third-largest economy, trailing only Japan and the US) 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. China’s private sector is filled with minnows, not whales. 

The result: there is ample room for consolidation in virtually every industry. Smaller firms will continue to merge, to gain both market share and scale economies. Strong regional companies will acquire competitors elsewhere in China to become national powerhouses. 

The M&A market, more than IPO activity, tends to holds up well even during sour economic times, or when stock markets fall. As share prices drop, the lower valuations make it cheaper for acquirers to act. We had evidence of this recently in the US, where one of the biggest M&A deals of all-time was recently announced: Pfizer’s planned acquisition of Wyeth Labs

In China, valuations for both quoted and private companies are lower than they were a year ago. That lowers the cost of acquiring a competitor. The cheapest way to build market share, at this point in China, will often be to buy it. 

All M&A transactions have risk. Very often, the planned-for gains in efficiency never materialize from combining two similar businesses. In China, the complexities go above and beyond this. There is due diligence risk – the difficulty of getting accurate financial information about an acquisition target – and management risk as well.  Good Chinese companies are  usually owned and run by a single strong Chairman, with scarce management talent around him. In a merger, the boss of the acquired company will often step aside, leaving a big hole in that company’s management, and so making it harder for the acquiring company to integrate its new acquisition. 

How to do M&A right in China? Good deal-structure and good advice are crucial. Structure can anticipate and resolve some of the larger post-acquisition headaches. Advice is important to make sure that the price and strategic fit are right. Just as China’s SMB’s need specialized merchant banks to serve their needs in raising capital, these SMBs, as they grow, will also need competent M&A advisors to identify target companies, manage the DD, do the valuation work, help negotiate the price, and assist with post-acquisition integration. 

Last year was a strong one for M&A in China. But, the future should be even brighter, once current economic uncertainty begins to abate.  Looking ahead, I see a real possibility that China’s M&A market will overtake America’s as the world’s largest. I’m planning for my company to play a part in this.