China stock market

Neue Zurcher Zeitung Interview

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Monday’s “Neue Zurcher Zeitung” of Switzerland published an article based on the interview I gave last week while in London with the newspaper’s financial editor Christof Leisinger. For those whose German is up to the task, click here to read the article in full.

To get a flavor of what we discussed, here are some of the quotes, in English:

China has the world’s second largest economy and capital market. GPD growth and corporate earnings are both growing far faster than in OECD countries. And yet, global institutional capital is in almost all cases seriously underweight China. How to explain this? Simple, there are just too few attractive and legal ways for international capital to invest in China.

“The Chinese companies quoted in the US and Hong Kong mainly come from two unrepresentative pools: large, slower-growing Chinese state-owned companies, and internet and mobile services “concept” stocks often with limited revenues and profits. The powerful engine of long-term economic growth in China, its millions of successful private sector entrepreneur-founded businesses serving domestic market, are almost all off-limits to non-Chinese investors. To invest, you need state approval to buy Renminbi and later permission to convert back into dollars, Euros or other freely-tradable currencies.

“China no longer especially needs or wants Western capital to finance its economic growth. The best way now to invest in China, to increase allocation there,  is probably through M&A, by putting money into US or European companies that are aggressively acquiring good Chinese private sector ones.”

“Overall, the country is doing an excellent job managing the transition from export-reliance to domestic consumption, a economic challenge Germany is still struggling with. The Chinese economy has undergone enormous structural change over the last five years, most of it positive, with more and more of economic activity coming from the private sector, rather than state-owned one, from producing and selling products to satisfy the needs of  China’s 1 billion consumers rather than those of Wal-Mart shoppers in the US.

“On the macro level I do not expect any big change anytime soon, no free convertibility for the Renminbi. But, more quietly and pragmatically, the Chinese government has solved a rather large problem related to this, by making it legal and simple now for every Chinese citizen to use Renminbi to buy up to $50,000 a year in dollars, to pay for travel, educating their children, or buy shares or other assets outside China. In other words, the capital account remains closed, but Chinese individually now have a lot of the benefits of free exchange between dollars and Renminbi. It’s one of the reasons the Champs d’Elysees and Bond Street are jammed with Chinese tourists.”

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China’s IPO Freeze to Melt in Midwinter

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IPOs are returning to China. The China Securities Regulatory Commission this weekend announced its long-awaited guidelines on a new, somewhat liberalized process for approving IPOs. The rush is now on to get new IPOs approved and the money raised before Chinese New Year, which falls on January 31st, less than two months from now. Ultimately, the CSRC hopes to clear within one year the backlog of over 800 Chinese companies now with IPO applications on file. Thousands of other Chinese companies are waiting for the opportunity to submit their IPO plans. The CSRC stopped accepting new applicants almost 18 months ago.

From what I can tell, the CSRC has concluded, rightly, its old IPO approval process was broken beyond repair. The regulator used to take primary responsibility for determining if a Chinese company was stable enough, strong enough, honest enough to be trusted with the public’s money. No other securities regulator took such a hands-on, the “buck stops with me” approach to IPO approvals. The CSRC now seems prepared to pass the buck, in other words, to put the onus where it belongs, on IPO applicants, as well as the underwriters, lawyers and accountants.

This should eliminate the moral hazard created by the old system. Companies, as well as their brokers and advisors, had a huge amount to gain, and much less to lose, by submitting an application and hoping for a CSRC approval. They could cut corners knowing the CSRC wouldn’t. For the successful IPO applicants who got the CSRC green light, valuations were sky-high, and so were underwriting and advisory fees.

Going forward, the CSRC seems determined to switch from security guard to prosecutor. Rather than trying to detect and prevent all wrongdoing, it is now saying it will punish severely companies, and their outside advisors, where there’s a breach in China’s tough securities laws. The CSRC’s powers to punish any wrongdoing are significant. Heaven help those who end up being convicted of criminal negligence or fraud. As I noted before,  there are no country club prisons in China for white collar offenders.

While baring its sharp teeth, the CSRC is also now using its more soothing voice to tell retail stock market investors they will need to do more of their own homework. It wants more and better disclosure from companies. It hopes investors will read before buying. And, the CSRC also hopes the stock market will itself begin to provide investors will clearer signals, through share price movements, on which companies may not be suitable for the more risk-averse.

Up to now, companies going public in China did so with a kind of “CSRC Warranty”. That’s because the CSRC itself said it had already done far more detailed, forensic scrutiny of the company than just reading through its public disclosure documents. The approval process could take two years or more, with company execs, lawyers and accountants being called frequently to meetings at the CSRC headquarters to be grilled. All this to give comfort to investors that nothing was awry.

The warranty has effectively been revoked. This may make some investors more nervous, but it represents a significant and positive breakthrough for the CSRC.

It needs to lighten its grip. Markets need regulation, need rules and effective mechanisms for punishing bad actors. But, the CSRC took on too much responsibility for assuring the orderly functioning of China’s stock market. This was always going to be difficult. China’s stock markets are far more prone to speculative frenzy than stock markets in the US, Europe. Shares on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets are bought and sold mainly by retail investors, or as the Chinese say, “old granddads and grannies” (老爷爷老奶奶). Institutional investors are a minority. As for investment fundamentals, on China’s stock market there are mainly just two:  “Buy on rumor. Sell on rumor”.

Over the last year, I’ve written about problems at the CSRC that helped cause and prolong this long freeze in IPOs. The CSRC’s first instinct back in 2012 was to try to toughen its regulation, toughen its own internal systems and procedures for rooting out fraud. It then switched tracks, and decided to let the market play more of a role.  This is a major concession, as well as important proof that China’s larger process of economic transformation, of freeing rather than freezing markets, is headed in the correct direction.

As if on cue, this past week’s Wall Street Journal last week digested a section from the Nobel Prize acceptance speech by economist Friedrich Hayek.

“To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm…Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims. ”

I’m delighted China’s IPO market is going to re-open. My own prediction here a couple of months ago was that it IPOs would resume around now, rather than next month. This just goes to show all forms of market timing — whether it’s trying to guess when a stock price has hit its peak or when a stock market itself will change course, and its once omnipotent regulator change its entire approach — is a fool’s errand.

The China IPO Embargo: How and When IPOs May Resume

China IPO

China first slowed its IPO machinery beginning July 2012 and then shut it down altogether almost a year ago. Since then, about the only thing stirring in China’s IPO markets have been the false hopes of various analysts, outside policy experts, stockbrokers, PE bosses, even the world’s most powerful investment bank.  All began predicting as early as January 2013 the imminent resumption of IPOs.

So here we are approaching the end of September 2013 with still no sign of when IPOs will resume in China. What exactly is going on here? Those claiming to know the full answer are mainly “talking through their hat“. Indeed, the most commonly voiced explanation for why IPOs were stopped — that IPOs would resume when China’s stock markets perked up again, after two years of steady decline — looks to be discredited. The ChiNext board, where most of China’s private companies are hoping to IPO, has not only recovered from a slump but hit new all-time highs this summer.

Let me share where I think the IPO process in China is headed, what this sudden, unexplained prolonged stoppage in IPOs has taught us, and when IPOs will resume.

First, the prime causal agent for the block in IPOs was the discovery in late June last year of a massive fraud inside a Chinese company called Guangdong Xindadi Biotechnology.  (Read about it here and here.)

This one bad apple did likely poison the whole IPO process in China, along with the hopes of the then-800 companies on the CSRC waiting list. They all had underwriters in place, audits and other regulatory filings completed and were waiting for the paperwork to be approved and then sell shares on the Shenzhen or Shanghai stock exchanges. That was a prize well worth queuing up for. China’s stock markets were then offering companies some of the world’s highest IPO valuations.

After Xindadi’s phony financials were revealed and its IPO pulled, the IPO approval process was rather swiftly shut down. Since then, the CSRC has gone into internal fix-it mode. This is China, so there are no leaks and no press statements about what exactly is taking place inside the CSRC and what substantive changes are being considered. We do know heads rolled. Xindadi’s accountants and lawyers have been sanctioned and are probably on their way to jail, if they aren’t there already A new CSRC boss was brought in, new procedures to detect and new penalties to discourage false accounting were introduced.  The waiting list was purged of about one-third of the 800 applicants. No new IPO applications have been accepted for over a year.

IPOs will only resume when there is more confidence, not only within the CSRC but among officials higher up, that the next Xindadi will be detected, and China’s capital markets can keep out the likes of Longtop Financial and China MediaExpress, two Chinese companies once quoted on NASDAQ exchange. They, along with others, pumped up their results through false accounting, then failed spectacularly.  Overall, according to McKinsey, investors in U.S.-listed Chinese companies lost 72% of their investment in the last two years.

China’s leadership urgently does not want anything similar to occur in China. That much is certain. How to achieve this goal is less obvious, and also the reason China’s capital market remains, for now, IPO-less.

If there were a foolproof bureaucratic or regulatory way for the CSRC to detect all fraudulent accounting inside Chinese companies waiting to IPO in China,  the CSRC would have found it by now. They haven’t because there isn’t. So, when IPOs resume, we can expect the companies chosen to have undergone the most forensic examination practiced anywhere. The method will probably most approximate the double-blind testing used by the FDA to confirm the efficacy of new medicines.

Different teams, both inside the CSRC and outside, will separately pour over the financials. Warnings will be issued very loudly. Anyone found to be book-cooking, or lets phony numbers get past him,  is going to be dealt with harshly. China, unlike the US, does not have “country club prisons” for white collar felons.

The CSRC process will turn several large industries in China into IPO dead zones, with few if any companies being allowed to go public. The suspect industries will include retail chains, restaurants and catering, logistics, agricultural products and food processing. Any company that uses franchisees to sell or distribute its products will also find it difficult, if not impossible, to IPO in China. In all these cases, transactions are done using cash or informal credit, without proper receipts. That fact alone will be enough to disqualify a company from going public in China.

Pity the many PE firms that earlier invested in companies like this and have yet to exit. They may as well write down to zero the value of these investments.

Which companies will be able to IPO when the markets re-open? First preference will be for SOEs, or businesses that are part-owned by or do most of their business with SOEs. This isn’t really because of some broader policy preference to favor the state sector over private enterprise. It’s simply because SOEs, unlike private companies, are audited annually, and are long accustomed to paper-trailing everything they do. In the CSRC’s new “belt and suspenders” world, it’s mainly only SOEs that look adequately buckled up.

Among private companies, likely favorites will include high-technology companies (software, computer services, biotech), since they tend to have fewer customers (and so are easier to audit) and higher margins than businesses in more traditional industries. High margins matter not only, or even mainly, because they demonstrate competitive advantage. Instead, high margins create more of a profit cushion in case something goes wrong at a business, or some accounting issue is later uncovered.

The CSRC previously played a big part in fixing the IPO share price for each company going public. My guess is, the CSRC is going to pull back and let market forces do most of the work. This isn’t because there’s a new-found faith in the invisible hand. Simply, the problem is the CSRC’s workload is already too burdensome. Another old CSRC policy likely to be scrapped: tight control on the timing of all IPOs, so that on average, one company was allowed to IPO each working day. The IPO backlog is just too long.

The spigot likely will be opened a bit. If so, IPO valuations will likely continue to fall. From a peak in 2009, valuations on a p/e basis had already more than halved to around 35 when the CSRC shut down all IPOs.  IPO valuations in China will stay higher than, for example, those in Hong Kong. But, the gap will likely go on narrowing.

What else can we expect to see once IPOs resume? Less securitized local government borrowing. Over the last 16 months, with lucrative IPO underwriting in hibernation,  China’s investment banks, brokerage houses and securities lawyers all kept busy by helping local government issue bonds. It’s a low margin business, and one not universally approved-of by China’s central government.

How about things that will not change from the way things were until 16 months ago? The CSRC will continue to forbid companies, and their brokers, from doing pre-IPO publicity or otherwise trying to hype the shares before they trade. If first day prices go up or down by what CSRC determines is “too much”, say by over 15%, expect the CSRC to signal its displeasure by punishing the brokerage houses managing the deals.  The CSRC is the lord and master of China’s IPO markets, but a nervous one, stricken by self-doubt.

China needs IPOs because its companies need low-cost sources of growth capital. When IPOs stopped, so too did most private equity investment in China. It’s clear to me this collapse in equity funding has had a negative impact on overall GDP, and Chinese policy-makers’ plans to rebalance its economy away from the state-owned sector. It’s a credit to China’s overall economic dynamism, and the resourcefulness of its entrepreneurs,  that economic growth has held up so well this past 18 months.

IPOs in China are a creature of China’s administrative state. Companies, investors, bankers, are all mainly just bystanders. Right now, the heaviest chop to lift in China’s bureaucracy may be the one to stamp the resumption of IPOs. So, when exactly will IPOs resume? Sometime around Thanksgiving (November 24, 2013) would be my guess.

 

 

Stairway to Hell? IPO Activity in China Falls Off a Cliff

 

Not quite “a staircase to hell”, but the graphic below shows the steep fall in IPO activity in China in 2008. It looks pretty scary, doesn’t it? Chinese IPO activity in 2008 was at its lowest level since 2004. IPO activity basically came to a halt towards the end of last year. 

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No one looking at the table will see much room for optimism. But, it’s worth remembering that though down by almost 80% from the year earlier, IPOs of Chinese companies in 2008 still did manage to raise $20 billion of new capital. The key thing now is that this money is used well and wisely, to build profits and market share at these now-publicly-traded Chinese companies. By doing so, these companies will provide an impetus for companies and investors to get back into the IPO market. 

In other words, the IPO market in China is most attractive vibrant not when a company sees a big price jump in its first days of trading. This does little for company, and benefits mainly those who claimed an allocation of shares ahead of the IPO. The key driver for the IPO market should be that the capital raised in an IPO is used wisely, to put companies on a higher growth path. 

Higher profits will boost company valuation, and also allow newly-listed companies to more easily raise additional equity capital in the future. As I sometimes remind the Chinese laoban we work with, “an IPO should not be just a goal in itself, but also the cheapest way to raise additional capital to build your business even faster.” 

Take the money from a public listing to make more money: that’s the quickest way in which Chinese companies can do their part for reviving the IPO market and start building again the “staircase to heaven”, with annual gains every year in the amount of money raised through IPOs. 

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