China Merchants Bank

China Merchants Steams in to Compete with SoftBank’s Vision Fund — Financial Times


China Merchants Group has been adopting new technology to resist foreign competitors for nearly 150 years. Founded in the 19th century, the company brought steam shipping to China so it could compete with western traders.

Now an arm of the Chinese state, CMG has been enlisted once again to buy up technology at a time when global private equity is vying for a share of China’s burgeoning tech market.

The country’s largest and oldest state-owned enterprise, CMG said this month it would partner with a London-based firm to raise a Rmb100bn ($15bn) fund mainly focused on investing in Chinese start-ups.

The China New Era Technology Fund will be launched into direct competition with the likes of SoftBank’s $100bn Vision Fund, as well as other huge investment vehicles raised by top global private equity houses such as Sequoia Capital, Carlyle, KKR and Hillhouse Capital Management.

“They have been very important to China in the past, especially in reform,” said Li Wei, a professor of economics at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing. “But you haven’t heard much about them in technology . . . It’s not too surprising to see them moving into this area, upgrading themselves once again.”

CMG is already one of the world’s largest investors. Since the start of 2015 its investment arm China Merchants Capital, which will oversee the New Era fund, has launched 31 funds aiming to raise a combined total of at least $52bn, according to publicly disclosed information.

But experts say little is known about the returns of those funds, most of which have been launched in co-operation with other local governments or state companies.

Before New Era, China Merchants Capital’s largest fund was a Rmb60bn vehicle launched with China Construction Bank in 2016. While almost no information is available on its investment activity, the fund said it would focus on high-tech, manufacturing and medical tech.

CMG’s experience investing directly into Chinese tech groups is limited, although it has taken part in the fundraising of several high-profile companies. In 2015 China Merchants Bank joined Apple, Tencent and Ant Financial to invest a combined $2.5bn into ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing, a company that now touts an $80bn valuation. It also invested in ecommerce logistics provider SF Express in 2013.

Success in Chinese tech investing is set to become increasingly difficult as more capital pours into the sector.

“Fifteen billion dollars can seem like a droplet in China,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive of tech-focused investment banking group China First Capital, based in Shenzhen. “We’re all bobbing in an ocean of risk capital. Still, one can’t but wonder, given the quite so-so cash returns from China high-tech investing, if all this money will find investable opportunities, and if there weren’t more productive uses for at least some of all this bounty.”

CMG, however, has always set itself apart from the rest of the country’s state groups. It is unlike any other company under the control of the Chinese government as it was founded before the Chinese Communist party and is based in Hong Kong, outside mainland China. Recommended Banks China Merchants Bank accused of US discrimination

The business was launched in 1872 as China Merchants Steam Navigation Company, a logistics and shipping joint-stock company formed between Chinese merchants based in China’s bustling port cities and the Qing dynasty court.

Mirroring its New Era fund today, it was designed to compete for technology with foreign rivals. At that time it was focused on obtaining steam transport technology to “counter the inroads of western steam shipping in Chinese coastal trade”, according to research by University of Queensland professor Chi-Kong Lai.

Nearly a century later, after falling under the control of the Chinese government, CMG became the single most important company in the early development of the city of Shenzhen, China’s so-called “window to the world” as it opened to the west.

Then led by former intelligence officer and guerrilla soldier Yuan Geng, the company used its base in Hong Kong to attract some of the first investors from the British-controlled city into the small Chinese town of Shenzhen, which has since grown into one of the world’s largest manufacturing hubs.

Its work in opening China to global investment gained CMG and Yuan, who led the company until the early 1990s, status as leading figures in the country’s reform era.

Today the company is a sprawling state conglomerate with $1.1tn in assets and holdings in real estate, ports, shipping, banking, asset management, toll roads and even healthcare. The company has 46 ports in 18 countries, according to the state-run People’s Daily, with deals last year in the sector including the controversial takeover of the Hambantota terminal in Sri Lanka and the $924m acquisition of Brazilian operator TCP Participações.

CMG did not respond to requests for comment. But one person who has advised it on overseas investments said the Chinese government was using it in the same way the company opened up Shenzhen to the outside world, helping “unlock foreign markets”.




China’s State-Owned Banks’ Missed Opportunity Opens the Way for Some Global Banks to Prosper

If ever there were a case of “a chart tells a thousand words”, it’s this one, courtesy of The Economist and Macquarie Research:

SME bank lending

At ground level here in China, it’s easy to see some of the more obvious signs of the financial distortion this chart portrays. In August last year, in the face of gathering worldwide economic slowdown, the Chinese government relaxed earlier controls on bank lending, basically instructing the state-owned banks to keep the economy and employment growing by expanding credit to businesses. Later in the year, the government lowered interest rates to further spur lending. 

My worry at the time was that most of this increase in bank lending would be channeled to the least deserving customers: the many clapped-out large state-owned enterprises, rather than the far more numerous thriving private sector companies short of cash. This would more or less defeat the purpose of the government pump-priming, since the lending would only allow some of the country’s least competitive most loss-making manufacturers to stay in business that much longer, at the expense of their better private-sector competitors. As a job-saving mechanism, it would likely be equally flawed, since most of the new lending would sustain for a little while longer bad jobs in bad businesses that should be allowed to wither. Failure is rewarded and success penalized. 

Well, the worries appear to have been very well-founded. The most deserving borrowers, China’s dynamic entrepreneurial Small & Medium Enterprises (SME), mainly came away empty-handed when all this new lending was being handed out. As the chart shows, overall bank lending to SMEs didn’t even crack 10% of total lending at four of the largest state-owned banks. With the exception of the more entrepreneur-friendly China Merchants Bank, which also happens to be the only bank on the list not owned by the central government, the large Chinese banks continued their past (bad) habits of stuffing bank loans into the tottering state-owned giants. 

The eventual outcome, of course, will be a lot more write-offs and non-performing loans inside these state-owned banks. For an abject lesson in bank lending policy, it’s hard to outdo this: the government-owned banks make loans to other government-owned bodies, which then default, causing losses at the government-owned banks that then need to be recapitalized by – you guessed it – more money from the government. 

There’s an even more malign effect: it’s actually getting harder – not easier – for China’s best-performing SMEs to obtain credit. These are the companies that are producing products consumers want, expanding employment, servicing their loans, making profits and paying taxes. The private sector now accounts for over two-thirds of China’s total economic output, and private SMEs represent the bulk of this. 

The Macquarie chart suggests the credit system of China state-owned banks is largely broken: borrowers least able to repay are those granted most of the lending. There are lots of losers in this, but no one is affected more adversely by this than the owners of China’s best SMEs. They are being locked out of the market for bank lending by Chinese banks. 

That leaves one possibility: SMEs finance their expansion through equity, rather than debt. This investment capital will come from outside the realm of China’s state-owned banks. Instead, it will largely be provided by the 100 or so private equity and venture capital firms now active in China. They have raised over $30 billion to invest in China, and the SMEs are a favorite target. 

Of course, not all SMEs will be able to raise equity. It’s generally an option only for the higher-performing SMEs with significant scale and significant presence in China’s domestic market. My company is an international investment bank working exclusively with Chinese SMEs, to help them raise equity finance from the best sources active in China, mainly the top private equity and venture capital firms.  The challenge for us, as for the private equity firms, is that too few of China’s best SME bosses know that they can access private equity investment and so escape from the perils of undercapitalization. 

For the SMEs that can raise money from international investors, this is not just the best option – but also often the only option – to finance growth. An injection of equity will deliver both the resources to grow more quickly and sizable competitive advantage against under-capitalized competitors. 

An additional advantage: by raising equity, an SME will strengthen its balance sheet and so be more likely to succeed in borrowing from one of the very good international banks with operations in China and a focused expertise on lending to Chinese SMEs: Citibank, Standard Chartered, ABN-AMRO foremost among these. I know the management in Shenzhen of all three banks. They are very well-run and very well-connected among SMEs across China. The three international banks bridge the huge gap created by Chinese state-owned banks failures to make adequate lending available to SME customers. 

For Citibank and ABN-AMRO, their current performance in China, founded on their strong presence in SME lending, is one of the only bright spots for two organizations that could do few things right elsewhere recently. Together, they lost over $30 billion last year, and Citibank is now a ward of the US government. 

Everything ABN-AMRO and Citibank did so spectacularly wrong in other countries, they do spectacularly right in China – they focus on the right clients, the right kind of products (loans to growth companies) and having steady bankers, not deal-makers, at the top.  If Citibank and ABN-AMRO are ever to recover their lost luster globally, they should learn from the example of their China operations. The banks represent two of the brightest hopes for the future financing of China’s SME entrepreneur class. 

In China today, there is no larger financial need – and no larger financial opportunity for investors – than to put additional finance into strong fast-growing private SMEs. This will allow them to grow most immediately into the leaders in China’s domestic market, and eventually, for some, into publicly-traded global businesses. 

China’s state-owned banks, meanwhile, will likely continue on their wayward path of lending to companies with more political clout than business ability. It’s a losing strategy for them. But, it’s one that creates ideal conditions for well-managed international banks in China, with the skills, market knowledge and focus to lend to SMEs (take another bow Citibank, Standard Chartered, and ABN-AMRO), to prosper alongside their SME clients.