China-US relations

Are US and China Decoupling? Guest Lecture at University of Michigan Ross School of Business

I was honored and delighted to teach a class via video lecture at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business for third year, this time on the potential decoupling between the US and China, the competitive realignments as well as investment opportunities.

The lecture’s title: “Chimerica No More: Are China and the US Decoupling? How Will This Alter World Economics and Commerce?”

Thanks to Professor David Brophy and his class on Global Private Equity for the invitation an incisive questions.

This is a video link to the presentation. (Click here.)

This is a video link to the full two hour class. (Click here.)

This is the PDF of the presentation — without the animations. (Click here.)

China aims for greater tech independence as the rift with America and Europe widens. Will it work? — Washington Post

 

 

China’s Technology Future and What It Means for Silicon Valley — Bay Area Council Research Report

 

The Bay Area Council Economic Institute, the leading think tank and public policy organization in the Silicon Valley, has just published a comprehensive and timely research report on Chinese innovation, titled “China’s Technology Future and What It Means for Silicon Valley“. The author is Sean Randolph, Senior Director at the Institute.

You can download a copy of the complete report by clicking here.

Sean was kind enough to seek out my views on this topic and we shared a lively dialogue, both in person here in China, and by email once he returned to San Francisco.

The report does an excellent job contrasting China’s overarching future goals in technology and innovation with the current state of affairs. It takes a balanced view: “While recognizing China’s advances, it would be a mistake to think of China as a remorseless juggernaut sweeping everything in its path. Having a plan doesn’t guarantee success, and not everything works.”

The report looks deeply both at some of China’s leading technology companies — including the “BAT” along with Huawei and car-maker Geely — and more broadly at how Chinese companies, both state-owned and private, regions and universities all align themselves with broader national goals to upgrade the level of China’s indigenous innovation.

What does all this mean for Silicon Valley, the world’s most important and successful breeding ground for high-value innovation? It’s here, in offering answers and perspective, that the report achieves its greatest value.

Here are some particularly insightful passages:

“China’s relationship with the Silicon Valley/San Francisco Bay Area is unique, in part due to the deep historical and demographic ties between the Bay Area and China, but also because the region’s technology sector—the world’s largest—most highly concentrates the assets of technology, investment and expertise that relate to China’s goals to accelerate its own technological development.

Bay Area technology companies, such as Intel, Apple, and Cisco, and venture firms, such as Sequoia Capital, DFJ (Draper Fisher Jurvetson), and Kleiner Perkins, have been active investors in China for decades. Now, reversing the historic trend in which virtually all investment flowed from the Bay Area to China, Chinese companies have started sending investment capital and other resources to the Bay Area through mergers and acquisitions, equity investments, and the establishment of research and innovation centers and accelerator programs.”

The attraction of China’s market can be compelling, but [Silicon Valley] companies also must consider whether their core technology can be protected, and whether their position in the Chinese market can be sustained if that technology is compromised by competitors.While few US companies are leaving China, government policies and weak IP protection have caused many to keep their best technology at home and others to stay away.”

The report appears at an especially critical time in the development of US-China technology policy and investment. Congress is moving to tighten the CFIUS controls on Chinese technology investment in the US. China, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with new and more restrictive policies at home, leading to companies like Amazon selling off assets in China.

Let’s hope the tide reverses. A more open and reciprocal trade and investment relationship between China and the US would benefit both, benefit the world.

 

 

 

China Steps Up Warnings Over Debt-Fueled Overseas Acquisitions — The New York Times

BEIJING — China moved on Friday to curb investment overseas by its companies and conglomerates, issuing its strongest signal yet that it wants to rein in runaway debt that could pose a threat to the country’s slowing economy.

Beijing has stepped up its efforts in recent months to restrict some of its most acquisitive companies from buying overseas assets, worried that a series of purchases by China’s conglomerates around the world has been driven by excessive borrowing.

In the latest move, a statement published by China’s cabinet, the State Council, said the authorities would punish companies for violating foreign investment rules, and establish a blacklist of businesses that did so. The statement was attributed to the National Development and Reform Commission, the commerce ministry, the foreign ministry and the central bank.

The statement pointed to acquisitions in sectors ranging from entertainment and sports clubs to hotels, but it was unclear whether or how the government would block deals.

It reiterated a warning issued in December that restrictions on overseas investments were being imposed because of “irrational” investment trends.

That statement said that the kinds of investments overseas it described were “not in accordance with macro-control policies.” The government wants to “effectively guard against all sorts of risks,” it said. The State Council document said the government nevertheless supported overseas investments in sectors such as oil and gas and in China’s “One Belt, One Road” program, which aims to promote infrastructure projects along the historic Silk Road trading route.

“It’s the loudest yet of wake-up calls that the government holds the keys to the lockbox of the country’s wealth, public and private,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank, said in an emailed response to questions. “Bad M&A is all but criminalized.”

A surge in overseas acquisitions by Chinese investors in recent years has ignited fears that soaring corporate debt levels could destabilize the country’s economy, the world’s second largest, and further weaken its currency.

Companies like Anbang Insurance Group, Fosun International, the HNA Group and Dalian Wanda Group have capitalized on cheap loans provided by state banks to snap up trophy assets such as the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York and AMC Theaters.

Beijing’s clampdown on overseas investments shows how the interests of private business can collide with those of the Communist Party government. Beijing has made financial stability a priority this year, with the party’s congress scheduled in the fall. Among the party’s top concerns: controlling debt, stemming the flow of capital leaving the country, and China’s opaque “shadow banking” system.

But while the latest statement from the State Council is likely to have an impact on mergers and deals, a lot of Chinese money is already offshore and thus not easily restricted by the government in Beijing, said Alexander Jarvis, chairman of Blackbridge Cross Borders, which has advised Chinese companies on several soccer acquisitions.

“Deals are still going to happen,” Mr. Jarvis said. “There is plenty of Chinese capital overseas in offshore tax havens, in the U.S., across Europe, Hong Kong. I’m not sure they can fully control that capital.”

In a sign of that deal making, a Chinese businessman, Gao Jisheng, struck a deal to buy an 80 percent stake in Southampton Football Club, a soccer team in the English Premier League, for about $271 million. Mr. Gao obtained the loan from a bank in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China that is administered under separate laws, Bloomberg reported on Thursday.

Geoffrey Sant, a partner at New York-based law firm Dorsey and Whitney, said it is likely that the latest announcement from Beijing will result in a “temporary pause” in overseas acquisitions.

“I think they are thinking there’s a bit of irrational exuberance in the market right now and they just want to cool that off,” said Mr. Sant, who represents Chinese companies. “It doesn’t make sense to permanently ban some of these areas.”

The State Council statement comes amid increased scrutiny of China’s “gray rhinos” — threats that are large and obvious but often neglected even so.

In recent months, the government has said it would increase scrutiny of companies’ balance sheets, warning that some of the largest companies could pose a systemic risk to the economy.

Encouraged by the slew of acquisitions made by some of the country’s most powerful tycoons, many smaller Chinese companies started looking overseas, spurred by China’s slowing economic growth to look for new markets.

Many, however, had no experience running the businesses they were targeting. In one such example, Anhui Xinke New Materials, a copper processing company in central China, made a deal to buy Voltage Pictures, an American film financing and production firm, for $350 million. A month later, Anhui Xinke pulled out of the transaction.

In other cases, it was not clear whether many of the big trophy acquisitions were actually good deals.

In 2015, Legendary chalked up a net loss of $540 million, according to a regulatory filing that Wanda Film filed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Fosun International, meanwhile, paid a premium to buy French resort operator Club Med, which was until then an unprofitable company, eventually agreeing to a $1.1 billion price tag in 2015 after a long takeover battle. The firm made a small profit last year, according to Fosun’s filings. And last year, AC Milan, the Italian soccer club that was acquired by a Chinese consortium for about $870 million, made a net loss of about $88 million.

“I agree with the Chinese government. A lot of these deals are bad,” said Mr. Jarvis.

Companies have already started feeling the pinch of Beijing’s clampdown on overseas investments, which started in earnest in December.

The number of newly announced outbound mergers and acquisitions by Chinese firms fell by 20 percent in the first six months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016, though it picked up in May and June, according to Rhodium Group, a New York-based research firm.

In March, Dalian Wanda, the Chinese conglomerate that owns AMC Theaters and Legendary Entertainment, was forced to abandon its $1 billion deal to buy Dick Clark Productions, the firm behind the Golden Globes and Miss Universe telecast after Beijing tightened its controls on capital outflows. Months later, Wanda sold a majority stake in 13 theme parks to property firm Sunac China Holdings and handed 77 hotels to R&F Properties, another real estate company based in the southern city of Guangzhou, for $9.5 billion.

As published in The New York Times.

The New York Times Interview Transcript

Turbulence and Paralysis: the Year Ahead in US-China Relations — Financial Times

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A month before his official inauguration, Donald Trump is already tossing diplomatic grenades in China’s direction. It is a sign of things to come. 2017 is shaping up to be a highly eventful, taut and precarious year for China-US relations. This is partly due to a simple scheduling coincidence.

2017 will be the first time ever when both the US and the PRC in the same year will usher in new governments. The US will kick things off on January 20th by swearing in Donald Trump as President. China, meanwhile, will undertake its own large political upheaval, its five-yearly change in political leadership, culminating in the 19th Communist Party Congress sometime late in the year. Virtually the entire government hierarchy, from local mayors on up, will be changed in a monumental job-swapping exercise orchestrated by Xi Jinping, China’s president.

The US under Mr Trump, with a Republican Congress at his back, seems intent to challenge China more assertively in trade, investment and as a currency manipulator while intensifying the military rivalry. China’s leadership, meantime, will become deeply absorbed in its own highly secretive, inward-looking and internecine political maneuvering. While Mr Xi tries to further consolidate his power, Mr Trump will likely be asserting his, leading to a globally ambitious US and an introspective China. This would represent something of a role reversal from recent precedent.

With the chess pieces all in motion, businesses should be plotting their moves in China with caution. The proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal is dead, leaving China’s still-evolving “One Belt,One Road” initiative as the main impetus for new trade flows in Asia. Donald Trump says he will push for what he claims to be more “more fair” bilateral trade deals. China, with its $365bn trade surplus with the US and high barriers to much inward investment, is clearly in his sights.

How will China react? The only certainty is that as the year progresses, China’s government apparatus will slow, and with it decision-making at policy-making bodies and many State-owned enterprises (SoEs). All will wait to hear what new tunes to march to, once the new ruling Politburo is revealed to the public in the fourth quarter.

Chinese officials at all levels are already jockeying for promotion. That means falling into line with Mr Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. The Party Secretary in Jiangsu province, one of China’s wealthiest, got an early head start. He instituted his own form of localized prohibition, ordering that government officials could no longer drink alcohol at any time, in any kind of setting, anywhere in Jiangsu.

The booze embargo did include one loophole. If senior foreign guests are present, alcohol can flow as before, like an undammed torrent.

As the Party Congress approaches, it will be even harder to get a deal with a Chinese SoE lined up and closed within any kind of reasonable time frame. Even after the Party Congress ends, it will likely take more months for any real deal momentum to return. Investment banking bonuses along with billings at global law, accounting and consulting firms are all likely to take a hit.

One other certainty: the renminbi will come under increasing pressure as the US ratchets up its moves to apply tariffs to Chinese exports and China’s own economy remains, relatively speaking, in the doldrums. How much pressure, though, is another question.

Anyone making predictions about the speed and degree of the renminbi’s decline is playing with a loaded weapon. A year ago some of the world’s biggest and loudest hedge fund bosses, including Kyle Bass, David Tepper and Bill Ackman, were proclaiming the imminent collapse of the renminbi. The renminbi, despite slipping by about 6 per cent during 2016, has yet to behave as the money guys predicted.

The Chinese government uses non-market mechanisms to slow the renminbi’s decline. A recent example: its abrupt move in November to tightly control outbound investment and M&A. But shoring up the currency will undercut one of China’s larger economic imperatives, the need to upgrade the country’s industrial and technological base. That will require a prodigious volume of dollars to acquire US and European technology companies such as recent Chinese deals to acquire German robot-maker Kuka and US semiconductor company Omnivision.

Chinese investors and acquirers not only face tighter controls on the outflow of US dollars. The US is also becoming more antagonistic toward Chinese acquisitions in the US and globally. Deals of any significant size need to pass a national security review overseen by a shadowy interagency body known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS.

CFIUS works in secret. In recent months, it has blocked Chinese investment in everything from a San Diego hotel, to Dutch LED light bulbs as well as US and European companies more explicitly involved in high-tech industry including semiconductor design and manufacturing. The strong likelihood is CFIUS will become even more restrictive once Mr Trump takes over.

Unlike most areas of bilateral tension between the US and China, this is one area where the Chinese have no room to retaliate in kind. China already has a blanket prohibition on investment by US, indeed all foreign companies, into multiple sectors of the Chinese economy, from tech industries like the internet and e-commerce all the way to innocuous ones like movies, cigarettes and steel smelting. So, for now, China quietly seethes as the US intensifies moves to prevent China investment deals from being concluded.

China will probably need to regroup and start playing the long game. That means investing more in earlier stage tech companies, especially in the Silicon Valley, and hoping some then strike it big. These venture capital investments generally fall outside the tightening CFIUS net. China wants to spend big and spend fast, but will find it often impossible to do so.

Even as political and military tensions rise between the US and China in 2017, one ironic certainty will be that a record number of Chinese are likely to go to the US as tourists, home buyers or students and spend ever more there. China’s ardour for all things American – its clean air, high-tech, good universities, relatively cheap housing, and retail therapy – is all but unbounded.

If informal online surveys are to be believed, ordinary Chinese seem to like and admire Mr Trump, especially for his business acumen. Mr Xi, understandably, may view the new US President in a harsher light. Xi faces cascading complexities as well as factional opposition within China. He could most use a US leader cast in the previous mold, committed to constructive cooperation with China. Instead, he’s likely to contend with an unpredictable, disapproving and distrustful adversary.

https://www.ft.com/content/b1801637-4219-3222-9f45-658740aa1187

Bill Gross, America’s “Mr. Unicorn”, Plots A Future in Asia

 

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Few technology entrepreneurs start one unicorn, a tech company with a market valuation of over $1 billion. Elon Musk has started three. Xiaomi’s Lei Jun two. Bill Gross has started and exited from seven, and has another two in his active porfolio.

Gross is the founder and chairman of Idealab, one of America’s oldest and probably still most successful technology incubators. Idealab was established in 1996. Gross was 38 years old then. He had already started and sold two software companies. He decided to take some of that money, as well as some from investors he knew, and start his own incubator.

From the beginning, Idealab has pursued a unique path among technology investors in California. Unlike most other incubators and VC funds, Gross himself comes up with most of the ideas for the new Idealab companies. Idealab then provides the first round of capital for each new company, hires a CEO and Gross takes on the role as non-executive chairman. Idealab has a full-time team to manage the back office work like HR and accounting for new companies during their early stages.  Idealab headquarters is in an old brick warehouse in the California city of Pasadena, near Los Angeles, and close to Caltech, where Gross went to school.

In the last 20 years, Gross has started 150 businesses. Of these, 45 have had successful exits, either through IPOs or M&A. A similar number are still in the Idealab portfolio.

The unicorns Gross created include some of the most successful early successes in e-commerce and online advertising. The companies are: eToys, Overture, Tickets.com, Netzero, Centra, Shopping.com and  Citysearch. Two other Idealab companies have recently merged with other tech startups. These merged companies, Twilio and Taboola, also now have valuations above $1 billion. Over the years, Gross also started and sold companies to Google, eBay, AOL, AirBNB. Along with internet companies, Gross has also started companies in solar and renewable energy, robotics, online education, wireless networking, 3D printing machinery, home medical care.

Gross long ago stopped raising money from outside investors. Idealab is a corporation, not a fund. Gross has the kind of freedom most tech entrepreneurs can only dream of – the imagination and drive to start new technology companies, a few new ones every year, and the capital to help them grow. Idealab’s capital contribution into each new company is about $250,000. If a company begins to grow according to plan, Idealab then raises outside money from VC firms, mainly the large ones based in Silicon Valley. Idealab’s return on invested capital up to now: 13.5 times.

Gross was born in Japan, but moved to California as a boy and got his start as an entrepreneur while in middle school. For 20 years, he has seen technology business opportunities earlier than most people. Anyone interested in where technology is headed, the important problems it may solve, how to incubate successful startups, and how China and East Asia may become more deeply integrated into California’s innovation ecosystem should listen to what Gross has to say.

 

Venture capital investing and incubators have grown very large in the last few years, both in the US and also elsewhere including China. There’s still a lot of capital looking for good ideas. Let’s dissect please how you look at the world. What are the key “metatrends” you see that will impact the shape and size of the global economy over the next 35 years?

Let me take you through those quickly. Start with population growth. The projections are there will be 9.7 billion people on the planet by 2050, up from 7.4 billion today. Larger population means lots of possibly negative impacts and so areas where technology needs to come up with new solutions. What are the major challenges in the future? I think mostly about six. I’m an engineer, so let me give you a list:

  1. climate change;
  2. how to the meet the need to provide better, more affordable healthcare and prevention against global epidemics
  3. food security, having enough safe food available across the world
  4. the growing technological divide between people living with the benefits of modern technologies and those who are left behind
  5. the workforce of the future, how to make sure people have the right skills to find productive jobs
  6. the future of the internet, how to provide security and privacy to everyone using it.

 

The people working to solve these problems probably hope to win Nobel Prizes, not become technology entrepreneurs.  So, where do you see the concrete business opportunities, where there’s both a future market and a potential for some kind of new technology breakthrough?

Of course, you wouldn’t expect me to hand over the keys to my kingdom, to give you the exact business areas we are now working on. But, I can share the industries where I think there’s lots of opportunity worldwide and where we’re actively coming up with new business ideas and looking to start new companies. Again, if you don’t mind, let me give it to you as a list.

  1. Autonomous cars and drones
  2. Clean water and clean energy
  3. New education models, including MOOCs
  4. Agriculture technology, including urban farming, growing food closer to population centers
  5. Advanced machine-meaning and deep neural networks to provide better, smarter data and decision-making
  6. 3D Printing, using metal, new materials
  7. IoT consumer and business
  8. Home automation
  9. Virtual reality and human-computer interaction
  10. New forms of transportation, including hyperloop and perhaps even flying cars
  11. Space, inexpensive launches, to space mining and microsatellites
  12. Software and information security systems to manage each of these

While it’s still possible to start successful companies with limited capital and get to market quickly as we’ve been doing for the last 20 years, some of the newer business opportunities I like will need much larger amounts of money and a longer incubation period. But, the rewards for success will be larger than anything we’ve seen up to now.

 

Up to now, you’ve focused only on building breakthrough tech companies in California to serve to US market. There are other places in the world with money and markets for good technology.

Yes, I definitely see a fusion of powerful and positive forces taking place in Asia that could allow Greater China to emerge as an important constituent in globally-important innovation, both as a market and as a base of ideas and manufacturing. This will be good for China, good for Asia, good for the US, good for the world.

I’m an inventor, and so have always looked to China. I have huge respect for the ingenuity, diligence and entrepreneurship of the Chinese people. Look at the example of China’s greatest inventor, Lu Ban, who lived almost 2,500 years before America’s Thomas Edison. He came up with ideas for flying machines and all kinds of advanced wooden implements .

 

So what role can you envision China playing as one of the world’s centers of technology innovation?

China, like the US, is a place where a large domestic market, manufacturing strength, capital and entrepreneurial culture all come together.

A few years ago, I gave myself a challenge, to come up with one new business idea every day.  I’ve mainly been able to keep up that pace. We could start even more companies, but there’s often one big constraint. We can’t find enough great people to run each new company. Greater China is blessed with having a large number of talented managers and engineers. That’s a huge and valuable resource. On the downside, intellectual property protection in China isn’t nearly as robust as it needs to be.

 

All of Idealab’s billion dollar exits happened during the early years of the internet, with IPOs for companies including eToys, Citysearch, Tickets.com and the sale of online-advertising business Overture to Yahoo. Have big exits become harder?

IPOs have certainly slowed down. The total number of annual IPOs in the US has been falling since we got started 20 years ago. It used to be over 300 companies on average IPOd every year in the US. It’s now below 100. This year is looking like one of the slowest for US IPOs. A big reason is the cost and regulatory burden of being a public company in the US. Our exits now come from M&A.  We continue to do pretty well.

Let me quickly go over our three of our most recent M&A exits. The three are all in different industries — mobile phone security, solar energy and robotics. We started Authy to provide simple but more effective mobile phone data and transaction security. We merged it last year with Twilio, which IPOd this summer on the New York Stock Exchange and now has a market cap of over $4 billion.

RayTracker is a company we started to improve the performance and energy production from solar panels by getting them to track the movement of the sun across the sky. This has been a passion of mine since high-school, to make solar energy more affordable and efficient. We sold RayTracker to First Solar, a Nasdaq-listed company. Today ground mounted trackers like RayTracker invented account for more than 90% of all solar installations in the US and First Solar is a leader the field.

The other recent exit is a little bittersweet, because we may have come to market a little too early with a product consumers originally didn’t really understand. They do now. Being too early with an idea can lead to failure just as quickly as being too late.  Our company was Evolution Robotics, which was probably the first company to design hardware and software for a home robot to clean floors. We had to come up with substantial new technology in vision recognition and spatial mapping, including our own proprietary indoor GPS system using infrared. We sold our company to a competitor, iRobot, which is now by far the largest company in this industry.

 

Can we have a peek inside the current Idealab portfolio? Talk to us about companies you think have the potential to grow into billion dollar businesses within the next few years?

I mentioned already my lifelong passion for clean energy and making solar energy cheaper and more efficient. We have two companies now, Edisun and Cool Energy, that have unique solutions that are finding a lot of market acceptance. Edisun both generates and stores solar energy, so it can be delivered to the grid when it’s needed. Cool Energy uses a Stirling Engine to capture low temperature waste heat, like from machines in a large factory, and turn it into clean electricity.  It can also make electricity from waste cold, like the huge refrigeration vessels used for LNG storage.

Mark Andreesen, the guy who invented the first commercial web browser and is now a successful venture capital investor, has said that “software is eating the world”. He means that just about every product and service is going to need more and better software in the future. I agree. The problem is, where are all those new software engineers going to come from? We’ve started two companies to teach kids how to write software, CodeSpark and Ucode. We’re noticing CodeSpark has more and more kids in China using it to learn to write software. We need to come up with a Chinese version, as well as Japanese, Korean.

One other area where we see huge potential is capturing and analyzing more and better mobile data, then using it for more efficient advertising. This could be as big a future market as “Pay-per-click” online advertising that earns so much money for Google and Baidu. I have a longer history in this area than most people. Overture, a company I started and sold to Yahoo for $1.6 billion in 2003, was an early successful pioneer of online advertising.

 

In the last 20 years, you’ve started 150 businesses, and had ideas for hundreds of others. Few people anywhere at any time have done that much business creation. What you have you learned about the reasons why start-ups succeed and fail?

I believe that the startup organization is one of the greatest forms to make the world a better place. If you take a group of people with the right equity incentives and organize them in a startup, you can unlock human potential in a way never before possible. You get them to achieve unbelievable things.  But if the startup organization is so great, why do so many fail?

This matters to me as an investor and entrepreneur. I’ve started more failed companies than probably just about anyone else. They all looked promising at the beginning, had money and people in place, but ended up dying. Each time a company fails it’s heartbreaking for the entrepreneur. So, trying to get some usable analysis on this process may end up reducing the failure rate for me and I hope many others too.

I tried to look across what factors accounted the most for company success and failure. So I looked at the five key factors — the idea, the team, the execution, the business model and the timing. It accounted for 42 percent of the difference between success and failure. Team and execution came in second, and the idea, the differentiability of the idea, the uniqueness of the idea, actually came in third.

 

After 20 years at Idealab, and twenty years before that starting and running your own start-ups, aren’t you getting tired of this, the pressure, the risk, the uncertainty of starting new companies? There’s got to be an easier way to earn a living.

I think we are in a very exciting time where technology and innovation permeates everything we do, and every company.  If the previous 20 years of my life were devoted to fostering entrepreneurship, I would love my next 20 to be about pushing new technological boundaries to make the world a better place. To happen, it’s going to need Asia and California to push together.

 

Version as published by Nikkei Asian Review

Chinese version as published by Caijing Magazine (财经杂志中文版)

Bill Gross’s TED Talk on why startups succeed

 

 

In China, Yum and McDonald’s likely need more than an ownership change — Nikkei Asian Review

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HONG KONG — China’s fast-food sector has been dominated by U.S. chains like Yum’s KFC and Pizza Hut as well as McDonald’s. But now a question hangs over these household brands: Can new owners reverse their declining fortunes?

China Investment Corporation, a sovereign wealth fund, is reportedly leading a consortium that also includes Baring Private Equity Asia and KKR & Co. to acquire as much as 100% of Yum’s China division, valued at up to $8 billion. According to a Bloomberg report, Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings, teaming with Primavera Capital, is also vying for a stake in Yum China, whose spinoff plans were announced on Oct. 20 — five days after Keith Meister, an activist hedge fund manager and protege of corporate raider Carl Icahn, joined the board.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s is likely to start auctioning its North Asian businesses in three to four weeks. Among its would-be suitors are state-owned China Resources, Bain Capital of the U.S. and South Korea’s MBK Partners, among other buyout firms. The winner or winners would oversee more than 2,800 franchises — plus another 1,500 to be added during the next five years — in China, Hong Kong and South Korea.

The company on Friday reported that sales in China surged 7.2% in the first quarter ended in March.

Yum’s and McDonald’s goal to become pure-play franchisers comes as competition in China’s food services market is heating up and as middle-class consumers grow increasingly concerned about food safety and nutrition.

http://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Trends/In-China-Yum-and-McDonald-s-likely-need-more-than-an-ownership-change?page=1

China 2015 — China’s Shifting Landscape — China First Capital new research report published

China First Capital research report

 

Slowing growth and a gyrating stock market are the two most obvious sources of turbulence in China at the midway point of 2015. Less noticed, perhaps, but certainly no less important for China’s long-term development are deeper trends radically reshaping the overall business environment. Among these are a steady erosion in margins and competitiveness in many, if not most, of China’s industrial and service economy. There are few sectors and few companies that are enjoying growth and profit expansion to match last year and the years before.

China’s consumer market, while healthy overall, is also becoming a more difficult place for businesses to earn decent returns. Relentless competition is one part. As problematic are rising costs and inefficient poorly-evolved management systems.  From a producer economy dominated by large SOEs, China is shifting fast to one where consumers enjoy vastly more choice, more pricing leverage and more opportunities to buy better and buy cheaper. Online shopping is one helpful factor, since it allows Chinese to escape from the poor service and high prices that characterize so much of the traditional bricks-and-mortar retail sector. It’s hard to find anything positive to say about either the current state or future prospects for China’s “offline economy”.

Meanwhile, more Chinese are taking their spending money elsewhere, traveling and buying abroad in record numbers. They have the money to buy premium products, both at home and abroad. But, too much of what’s made and sold within China, belongs to an earlier age. Too many domestic Chinese companies are left manufacturing products no longer quite meet current demands. Adapting and changing is difficult because so many companies gorged themselves previously on bank loans. Declining margins mean that debt service every year swallows up more and more available cash flow. When the economy was still purring along, it was easier for companies and their banks to pretend debt levels were manageable. In 2015, across much of the industrial economy, the strained position of many corporate borrowers has become brutally obvious.

These are a few of the broad themes discussed in our latest research report, “China 2015 — China’s Shifting Landscape”. To download a copy click here.

Inside, you will not find much discussion of GDP growth or the stock market. Instead, we try here to illuminate some less-seen, but relevant, aspects of China’s changing business and investment environment.

For those interested in the stock market’s current woes, I can recommend this article (click here) published in The New York Times, with a good summary of how and why the Chinese stock market arrived at its current difficult state. I’m quoted about the preference among many of China’s better, bigger and more dynamic private sector companies to IPO outside China.

In our new report, I can point to a few articles that may be of special interest, for the signals they provide about future opportunities for growth and profit in China:

  1. China’s most successful cross-border M&A ever, General Mills of the USA acquisition and development of dumpling brand Wanchai Ferry (湾仔码头), using a strategy also favored by Nestle in China
  2. China’s new rules and rationale for domestic M&A – “buy first and pay later”
  3. China’s most successful, if little known, recent start-up, mobile phone brand OnePlus – in its first full year of operations, 2015 worldwide revenues should reach $1 billion, while redefining positively the way Chinese brand manufacturers are viewed in the US and Europe
  4. Shale gas – by shutting out most private sector investment, will China fail to create conditions to exploit the vast reserves, larger than America’s, buried under its soil?
  5. Nanjing – left behind during the early years of Chinese economic reform and development, it is emerging as a core of China’s “inland economy”, linking prosperous Jiangsu and Shanghai with less developed heavily-populated Hubei, Anhui, Sichuan

We’re at a fascinating moment in China’s story of 35 years of rapid and remarkable economic transformation. The report’s conclusion: for businesses and investors both global and China-based, it will take ever more insight, guts and focus to outsmart the competition and succeed.

 

US Private Equity Soars While China Stalls

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In 2014, the gap between the performance of the private equity industry in China and the US opened wide.  The US had a record-breaking year, with ten-year net annualized return hitting 14.6%. Final data is still coming in, but it appears certain US PE raised more capital more quickly and returned more profits to LPs than any year previously.  China, on the other hand, had another so-so year. Exits picked up over 2013, but still remain significantly below highs reached in 2011. As a result profit distributions to LPs and closing of new China-focused funds are also well down on previous highs.

China’s economy, of course, also had an off year, with growth trending down. But, it’s hard to place the blame there. At 7.5%, China’s economy is still growing at around triple the rate of the US. China’s publicly-traded equities market, meanwhile, turned in a stellar performance, with the overall Chinese stock exchange average up 52% in 2014, compared to a 11.4% rise in the US S&P. When stock markets do well, PE firms should also, especially with exits.

While IPO exits for Chinese companies in US, HK and China reached 221, compared to only 66 in 2013, the ultimate measure of success in PE investing is not the number of IPOs. It’s the amount of capital and profits paid back to LP investors. This is China PE’s greatest weakness.

Over the last decade, China PE firms have returned only about 30% of the money invested with them to their LPs. This compares to the US, where PE firms over the same period returned twice the money invested by LPs. In other words, in China, as 2015 commences, PE firm investors are sitting on large cash losses.

China private equity distributions to LPs

 

China PE firms say they hope to return more money to their LPs in the future.  But, this poor pay-out performance is already having an adverse impact on the China PE industry. It is getting harder for most China PE firms to raise new capital. If this trend continues, there will be two negative consequences – first, the China PE industry, now the second largest in the world,  will shrink in size. Second, and more damaging for China’s overall economic competitiveness, the investment capital available for Chinese companies will decline. PE capital has provided over the past decade much-needed fuel for the growth of China’s private sector.

What accounts for this poor performance of China private equity compared to the US? One overlooked reason: China PE has lost the knack of investing and exiting profitably from Chinese industrial and manufacturing companies. Broadly speaking, this sector was the focus of about half the PE deals done up to 2011 when new deals peaked. That mirrors the fact manufacturing accounts for half of China’s GDP and traditionally has achieved high levels (over 30%) of value-added.

Manufacturing has now fallen very far from favor in China. Partly it’s the familiar China macro story of slowing export growth and margin pressures from rising labor costs and other inputs. But, another factor is at work: China’s own stock market, as well as those of the US and Hong Kong, have developed a finicky appetite when it comes to Chinese companies. In the US, only e-commerce and other internet-related companies need apply for an IPO. In Hong Kong, the door is open more widely and the bias against manufacturing companies isn’t quite so pronounced, especially if the company is state-owned. But, among private sector companies, the biggest China-company IPO have been concentrated in financial services, real estate, food production, retail.

For China-investing PE firms, this means in most cases their portfolios are mismatched with what capital markets want. They hold stakes in thousands of Chinese industrial and manufacturing companies representing a total investment of over $20 billion in LP money.  For now, the money is trapped and time is growing short. PE fund life, of course, is finite. Many of these investments were made five to eight years ago. China PE need rather urgently to find a way to turn these investments into cash and return money to LPs. Here too the comparison with US private equity is especially instructive.

The colossus that is today’s US private equity industry, with 3,300 firms invested in 11,000 US companies, was built in part by doing successful buyouts in the 1980s and 1990s of manufacturing and industrial companies, often troubled ones. Deals like Blackstone‘s most successful investment of all time, chemicals company Celanese, together with American Axle and TRW Automotive, KKR‘s Amphenol Corporation, Bain‘s takeover of  Sealy Corporation and many, many others led the way. Meanwhile, smart corporate investors like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Emerson Electric and were also pouring billions into acquiring and shaping up industrial businesses. So successful has this strategy been over the last 30 years, it can seem like there are no decent industrial or manufacturing companies left for US PEs to target.

Along the way, US PEs became experts at selecting, acquiring, fixing up and then exiting from industrial companies. US PEs have shown again and again they are good at rationalizing, consolidating, modernizing and systematizing industrial companies and entire industrial sectors. These are all things China’s manufacturing industry is crying out for. Market shares are fragmented, management systems often non-existent, inventory control and other tools of “lean manufacturing” often nowhere to be found.

So here’s a pathway forward for China PE, to use in China the identical investing skills honed in the US. It should be rather easy, since among the US’s 100 biggest private equity firms, the majority have sizeable operations now in China, including giants like Carlyle, Blackstone, KKR, TPG, Bain Capital, Warburg Pincus. For these firms, it should be no more complicated than the left hand following what the right hand is doing.

It isn’t working out that way. This is a big reason why China PE is performing poorly compared to the US. PE partners in China in the main came into the industry after getting an MBA in the US or UK, then getting a job on Wall Street or a consulting shop. Few have experience working in,  managing or restructuring industrial companies. They often, in my experience, look a little out of place walking a factory floor. This is the other big mismatch in China PE — between the skill-sets of those running the PE firms what’s needed to turn their portfolio companies into winners.

Roll-up, about the most basic and time-tested of all US PE money-making strategies, has yet to take root in China. Inhospitable terrain? No, to the contrary. But, it requires a fair bit of sweat and grit from PE firms.

This may account for the fact that China PE firms are now mainly herding together to try to close deals in e-commerce, healthcare services, mobile games and other places where no metal gets bashed. PE firms formed such a crush to try to invest in Xiaomi, the mobile phone brand, that they drove the valuation up in the latest round of funding to $46 billion, so high none of them decided to invest. China PE is that paradoxical – fewer deals are getting done, fewer have profitable exits and yet valuations are often much higher than anywhere else.

Another worrying sign: of the big successful China company IPOs in 2014 – Alibaba, Dalian Wanda‘s commercial real estate arm, CGN, CITIC Securities, Shaanxi Coal, JD.com, WH Group  – only one had large global PE firms inside as large shareholders. That was WH Group, a troubled deal that had a hard time IPOing and has since sunk rather sharply. For the big global PE firms, 2014 had no big China IPO successes, which is probably a first.

The giant US PEs (Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR, Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, Bain Capital, TPG and the others) all voyaged to China a decade or more ago with high hopes. Some even dared predict China would become as important and profitable a market for them as the US. They were able to raise billions at the start, build big teams, but it’s been getting noticeably harder both to raise money and notch big successful deals. And so their focus is shifting back to the US.

China has so much going for it as an investment destination, such an abundance of what the US lacks. High overall growth, a government rolling in cash, a burgeoning and rapidly prospering middle class, rampant entrepreneurship, huge new markets ripe for taking. Why then are so many of the world’s most professional and successful investors finding it so tough to make a buck here?

 

Smithfield Foods – Shuanghui International: The Biggest Chinese Acquisition That Isn’t


It is, if voluminous press reports are to be believed, the biggest story, the biggest deal, ever in China-US business history. I’m talking about the announced takeover of America’s largest pork company, Smithfield Foods, by a company called Shuanghui International. The deal, it is said in dozens of media reports, opens the China market to US pork and will transform China’s largest pork producer into a global giant selling Smithfield’s products alongside its own in China, while utilizing the American company’s more advanced methods for pork rearing and slaughtering.

One problem. A Chinese company isn’t buying Smithfield. A shell company based in Cayman Islands is. Instead of a story about “China buying up the world”, this turns out to be a story of a precarious leveraged buyout deal (“LBO”) cooked up by some large global private equity firms looking to borrow their way to a fortune.

The media, along with misstating the facts, are also missing the larger story here. The proposed Smithfield takeover is the latest iteration in the “take private” mania now seizing so many of the PE firms active in China. (See blog posts hereherehere and here.) With China’s own capital markets in crisis and PE investment there at a standstill, the PE firms have turned their attention, however illogically, to finding “undervalued assets” with a China angle on the US stock market. They then attempt an LBO, with the consent of existing management, and with the questionable premise the company will relist or be sold later in China or Hong Kong. The Smithfield deal is the biggest — and perhaps also the riskiest —  one so far.

This shell that is buying Smithfield has no legal or operational connection to Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development (from here on, “Shuanghui China”) , the Chinese pork producer, China’s largest, quoted on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The shell is about as Chinese as I am.

If the deal is completed, Shuanghui China will see no obvious benefit, only an enormous risk. Its Chinese assets are reportedly being used as collateral for the shell company to finance a very highly-leveraged acquisition. The abundant risks are being transferred to Shuanghui China while all the profits will stay inside this separately-owned offshore shell. No profits or assets of Smithfield will flow through to Shuanghui China. Do Shuanghui China’s Chinese minority shareholders know what’s going on here? Does the world’s business media?

Let’s go through this deal. I warn you. It’s a little convoluted. But, do take the time to follow what’s going on here. It’s fascinating, ingenious and maybe also a little nefarious.

First, the buyer of Smithfield is Shuanghui International, a Cayman holding company. It owns the majority of Shuanghui China, the Chinese-quoted pork company. Shuanghui International is owned by a group led by China-focused global PE firm CDH, with smaller stakes owned by Shuanghui China’s senior management,  Goldman Sachs, Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, Kerry Group, and another powerful PE firm focused on China, New Horizon Fund.

CDH, the largest single owner of Shuanghui International,  is definitively not Chinese. It invests capital from groups like Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund , CALPERS, the Rockefeller Foundation, one big Swiss (Partners Group) and one big Liechtenstein (LGT) money manager, along with the private foundation of one of guys who made billions from working at eBay. So too Goldman Sachs, of course, Temasek and New Horizon. They are large PE firms that source most of their capital from institutions, pension fund and endowments in the US, Europe, Southeast Asia and Middle East. (For partial list of CDH and New Horizon Fund Limited Partners click here. )

For the Smithfield acquisition, Shuanghui International (CDH and the others) seem to be putting up about $100mn in new equity. They will also borrow a staggering $4 billion from Bank of China’s international arm to buy out all of Smithfield’s current shareholders.  All the money is in dollars, not Renminbi.

If the deal goes through, Smithfield Foods and Shuanghui China will have a majority shareholder in common. But, nothing else. They are as related as, for example, Burger King and Neiman Marcus were when both were part-owned by buyout firm TPG. The profits and assets of one have no connection to the profits or assets of the other.

Shuanghui International, assuming it’s borrowed the money from Bank of China for three years,  will need to come up with about $1.5 billion in interest and principal payments a year if the deal closes. But, since Shuanghui International has no significant cash flow of its own (it’s an investment holding company), it’s hard to see where that money will come from. Smithfield can’t be much help. It already has a substantial amount of debt on its balance sheet. As part of the takeover plan, the Smithfield debt is being assumed by Morgan Stanley, Shuanghui International’s investment bankers. Morgan Stanley says it plans then to securitize the debt. A large chunk of Smithfield’s future free cash flow ($280mn last year) and cash ($139 mn as of the first quarter of 2013) will likely go to repay the $3 billion in Smithfield debts owed to Morgan Stanley.

A separate issue is whether, under any circumstances, more US pork will be allowed into China. The pork market is very heavily controlled and regulated. There is no likely scenario where US pork comes flooding into China. Yes, the media is right to say Chinese are getting richer and so want to eat more meat, most of all pork. But, mainly, the domestic market in China is reserved for Chinese hog-breeders. It’s an iron staple of China’s rural economy. These peasants are not going to be thrown under the bus so Smithfield’s new Cayman Islands owner can sell Shuanghui China lots of Armour bacon.

Total borrowing for this deal is around $7 billion, double Smithfield’s current market cap. Shuanghui International’s piece, the $4 billion borrowed from Bank of China, will go to current Smithfield shareholders to buy them out at a 31% premium.  Shuanghui International owns shares in Shuanghui China, and two of its board members are Shuanghui China top executives, but not much else. So where will the money come from to pay off the Bank of China loans? Good question.

Can Shuanghui International commandeer Shuanghui China’s profits to repay the debt? In theory, perhaps. But,  it’s highly unlikely such an arrangement would be approved by China’s securities regulator, the CSRC. It would not likely accept a plan where Shuanghui China’s profits would be exported to pay off debts owed by a completely independent non-Chinese company. Shuanghui International could sell its shares in Shuanghui China to pay back the debt. But, doing so would likely mean Shuanghui International loses majority control, as well as flooding the Shenzhen stock market with a lot of Shuanghui China’s thinly-traded shares.

Why, you ask, doesn’t Shuanghui China buy Smithfield? Such a deal would make more obvious commercial and financial sense. Shuanghui China’s market cap is triple Smithfield’s. Problem is, as a domestic Chinese company listed on China’s stock exchange, Shuanghui China would need to run the gauntlet of CSRC, Ministry of Commerce and SAFE approvals. That would possibly take years and run a risk of being turned down.  Shuanghui International, as a private Caymans company controlled by global PE firms,  requires no Chinese approvals to take over a US pork company.

The US media is fixated on whether the proposed deal will get the US government’s go ahead. But, as the new potential owner is not Chinese after all — neither its headquarters nor its ownership — then on what grounds could the US government object? The only thing Chinese-controlled about Shuanghui International is that the members of the Board of Directors were all likely born in China. The current deal may perhaps violate business logic but it doesn’t violate US national security.

So, how will things look if Shuanghui International’s LBO offer is successful?  Shuanghui China will still be a purely-Chinese pork producer with zero ownership in Smithfield, but with its assets perhaps pledged to secure the takeover debts of its majority shareholder. All the stuff about Shuanghui China getting access to Smithfield pork or pig-rearing and slaughtering technology, as well as a Smithfield-led upgrade of China’s pork industry,  is based on nothing solid. The pork and the technology will be owned by Shuanghui China’s non-Chinese majority shareholder. It can, if it chooses, sell pork or technology to Shuanghui China. But, Shuanghui China can achieve the same thing now. In fact, it is already a reasonably big buyer of Smithfield pork. Overall, China gets less than 1% of its pork from the US.

If the deal goes through, the conflicts of interest between Shuanghui International and Shuanghui China will be among the most fiendish I’ve ever seen. Shuanghui China’s senior managers, including chairman Wan Long, are going to own personally a piece of Smithfield, and so will have divided loyalties. They will likely continue to manage Shuanghui China and collect salaries there, while also having an ownership and perhaps a management role in Smithfield. How will they set prices between the two fully separate Shuanghuis? Who will watch all this? Isn’t this a case Shuanghui China’s insiders lining their own pockets while their employer gets nothing?

On its face, this Smithfield deal looks to be among the riskiest of all the  “take private” deals now underway. That is saying something since several of them involve Chinese companies suspected of accounting frauds, while the PE firms in at least two cases (China Transinfo and Le Gaga) doing the PE version of a Ponzi Scheme by seeking to use new LP money to bail out old, severely troubled deals they’ve done.

Let’s then look at the endgame, if the Smithfield deal goes through. Shuanghui International, as currently structured,  will not, cannot, be the long-term owner of Smithfield. The PE firms will need to exit. CDH, New Horizon, Goldman Sachs and Temasek have been an indirect shareholders of Shuanghui China for many years — seven in the case of CDH and Goldman.

According to what I’m told, Shuanghui International is planning to relist Smithfield in Hong Kong in “two to three years”. The other option on the table, for Shuanghui International to sell Smithfield (presumably at a mark-up) to Shuanghui China, would face enormous, probably insurmountable,  legal, financial and regulatory hurdles.

The IPO plan, as of now, looks crackpot. Hong Kong’s IPO market has basically been moribund for over a year. IPO valuations in Hong Kong are anyway far lower than the 20X p/e Shuanghui International is paying for Smithfield in the US. A separate tactical question for Shuanghui International and its investment bankers: why would you believe Hong Kong stock market investors in two to three years will pay more than US investors are now paying for a US company, with most of its assets, profits and revenues in the US?

But, even getting to IPO will require Shuanghui International to do something constructive about paying off the enormous $4 billion in debt it is taking on. How will that happen? Shuanghui International is saying Smithfield’s current American management will stay on. Why would one assume they can run it far more profitably in the future than they are running it now? If it all hinges on “encouraging” Shuanghui China to buy more Smithfield products, or pay big licensing fees, so Shuanghui International can earn larger profits, I do wonder how that will be perceived by both Shuanghui China’s minority investors, to say nothing of the CSRC. The CSRC has a deep institutional dislike of related party transactions.

Smithfield has lately been under pressure from some of its shareholders to improve its performance. That may have precipitated the discussions that led to the merger announcement with Shuanghui International. Smithfield’s CEO, C. Larry Pope, stands to earn somewhere between $17mn-$32mn if the deal goes through. He will stay on as CEO. His fiscal 2012 salary, including share and option awards, was $12.9mn.

Typical of such LBO deals, the equity holders (in this case, CDH, Goldman, Temasek, Kerry Group, Shuanghui China senior management, New Horizon) would stand to make a killing, if they can pay down the debt and then find a way to either sell or relist Smithfield at a mark-up. If that happens, profits will go to the Shuanghui insiders along with the partners in the PE firms, CALPERS, the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations, Goldman Sachs shareholders and other LPs. Shuanghui China? Nothing, as far as I can tell. China’s pork business will look pretty much exactly as it does today.

In their zeal to proclaim a trend — that of Chinese buying US companies — the media seems to have been blinded to the actual mechanics of this deal. They also seem to have been hoodwinked by the artfully-written press release issued when the deal was announced. It mentions that Shuanghui International is the ” majority shareholder of Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development Co. (SZSE: 000895), which is China’s largest meat processing enterprise and China’s largest publicly traded meat products company as measured by market capitalization.” This then morphed into a story about “China’s biggest ever US takeover”, and much else besides about how China’s pork industry will now be upgraded through this deal, about dead pigs floating in the river in Shanghai, about Chinese companies’ targeting US and European brands.

China may indeed one day become a big buyer of US companies. But, that isn’t what’s happening here. Instead, the world’s leading English-language business media are suffering a collective hallucination.

China M&A: Three Recent Deals

In the last month, three large takeovers were announced involving Chinese companies. In two of these, PE buyout firms (CITIC Capital and Blackstone)  are offering to take private Chinese companies (AsiaInfo-Linkage and Pactera) quoted on the US stock exchange. In the third, a Chinese acquirer (Shuanghui International) has offered to purchase all shares of US pork producer Smithfield Foods.

I’ve done a quick comparison of these deals across a range of financial variables — premium offered to current shareholders, p/e ratio, profit growth, last two years’ share price performance. I’ve also offered my own judgment on the risks and the industrial logic of the deal, on a scale of 1-10.

The results: the troubled deals, the ones with the highest risks and deepest uncertainties about future performance, with the most anemic share prices up to the date of the offer, with claims or investigations of accounting fraud, with the least industrial logic, are commanding the higher price.

Ah, the Mysterious Orient.

 

Correction: I wrote this article based on the first day’s English-language media coverage of the Smithfield-Shuanghui International takeover. Big mistake. I took at face value the media’s account that this was a merger between China’s largest pork producer and America’s. Turns out the coverage was wrong, and so my conclusion was also. In the software business, it’s called GIGO, “Garbage in, garbage out.” The Smithfield-Shuanghui deal is every bit as precarious an LBO as the other two. The only improvement is that the target company, Smithfield, is a better and more transparent business than AsianInfo-Linkage or Pactera. For the real situation on this Smithfield deal, see this blog post.

 –

Pactera ‘Challenged By Investors Every Day’ — Wall Street Journal

WSJ

By Paul Mozur

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal  on May 10th,  the chief executive of China’s largest software outsourcing company Pactera Inc. PACT -1.04% said investors had been pestering the company “every day” to carry out share buybacks to bolster the company’s share price.

“Our shares are trading very badly, it’s at a multiple that I can’t even imagine,” CEO Tiak Koon Loh said during the interview.

Since that interview, Mr. Loh, along with Blackstone Inc. BX -0.58% and several other Pactera executives, decided to try to cash in on that low price with a bid to take the company private for $7.50 a share or a 42.5% premium to where shares closed Friday on the Nasdaq Stock Market NDAQ -0.19%.

Following on the heels of a bid by a CITIC Capital Partners-led consortium to take private another Chinese IT services company AsiaInfo-Linkage Inc. ASIA -0.17%, the Pactera deal has led bankers and commentators to wonder whether the recent trend of private equity firms jumping to take Chinese companies listed in the U.S. private  is looking a little frothy.

“The [Pactera] deal may go down in the annals of most expensive [leveraged buyouts] ever launched. Blackstone is offering current shareholders a price equal to over 200 times 2012 net income,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital.

Nonetheless, in the interview before the deal, Mr. Loh laid out his reasoning for why Pactera has good growth potential ahead of it. In particular, he said the company stands to benefit over the next decade, not just in the industry of software outsourcing, but also in tech consulting services as China’s technology industry booms.

For example, Pactera partnered with Microsoft Corp. MSFT -1.33% and 21Vianet Group Inc. to help develop Windows and Office cloud services in China, which launched on Wednesday.  Mr. Loh said that the company has a number of other cloud projects it is working on, in particular helping provincial governments build cloud infrastructure.

“China has always grown faster than the global [outsourcing] market,” Mr. Loh said.

But there are reasons to be more bearish on Pactera, especially in the short term. With more than 10% of its revenues coming from Japan, the company is likely to be hit hard this year by the falling Yen, according to Mr. Loh.

“Everything you do is in Japanese Yen, and every contract is signed in Japanese Yen, and it has just dropped 25%,” he said, adding that business has grown despite recent political difficulties between China and Japan.

Another issue is integration. Pactera was formed by the 2012 merger of HiSoft Technology International Ltd. and VanceInfo Technologies Inc. Mr. Loh acknowledged that there had been some “leakage” of productivity as the two companies work to integrate cultures and some employees or teams had left, but he nonetheless said that he expected growth to return.

“But beyond this year and getting back to the norm we should see ourselves growing…. no less than the industry and no less than the industry is at least 16% [revenue growth] year on year,” he said.

More than just saying it, Mr. Loh is betting on it. Now it’s a matter of whether shareholders believe that kind of growth in the coming years could get them more than the $7.5 per share on offer from the deal.

Blackstone did not immediately return calls.

Anti-Dumping or Blatant US Protectionism? How the US Tried and Failed to Destroy a Great Chinese Entrepreneur

Reckless or evil? You decide. In July 2009, the US Department of Commerce started an anti-dumping investigation of the “narrow woven ribbon with woven selvedge” industry. Never heard of it?  It’s the colored ribbon Americans use primarily in gift-wrapping. It’s not a particularly big industry, probably less than $500 million a year in retail sales in the US. But, adding ribbon to gift-wrapped packages is a staple of American culture. The major store chains like Target, Wal-Mart, Michael’s and Costco all stock a wide variety of ribbon in different colors and widths, and sell it for a few dollars per pack.

Back when I was a kid, the ribbon was made by American manufacturers. Gradually, of course, much of the production shifted to Asia, first Taiwan, then China. Lowering manufacturing costs also kept retail prices down, which has likely allowed more Americans to use more ribbon to decorate their gifts.  Who could complain about that?

There remains one large American manufacturer called Berwick Offray, based in Pennsylvania. They’ve been in the woven ribbon business for over 100 years. They launched the complaint that led to the US government action, claiming they were suffering “material harm” because of Chinese ribbon being dumped in the US. According to the official document issued by the Department of Commerce in July 2009, the US government’s preliminary investigations seemed to confirm Berwick Offray’s contention that Chinese manufacturers were receiving state subsidies as a way to flood the US market and steal market share, harming Berwick’s business. The US government signaled its intention to levy punitive tariffs on the Chinese imports.

In its 142-page 2009 preliminary report, (click here to download) the Department of Commerce offers a feedlot of industry data, manufacturing techniques and product descriptions, all of which are aimed to substantiate the claim that Chinese manufacturers, who now hold the largest share of the US market, are selling the ribbon in the US below cost, with the loss being covered through a variety of unspecified subsidies from the Chinese government. Keep in mind that the total amount of US imports of woven ribbon from China seemed then to be below $100mn. A lot of market share data in the report was blacked out, presumably for commercial secrecy reasons. A lot of other information was absent because the Commerce investigators said they couldn’t find people willing or able to answer its questions.

So, the entire US federal government investigation, and preliminary finding of Chinese ribbon dumping was based both on incomplete data, and the dubious premise that the Chinese government would actively intervene with subsidies in such a small market. Total Chinese exports to the US in 2011 exceeded $400 billion. So, if the data is right, Chinese woven ribbon represents about 0.025% of total Chinese exports. The manufacturers are mainly privately-owned Chinese companies, not big SOEs with political clout in Beijing.

Among those Chinese manufacturers, one stands out for its scale, its variety of products and leading market share in the US. The company is called Yama Ribbon. They are based in Xiamen and dominate the industry in China. Yama is named in the Commerce Department report as one of the major exporters to the US. Since Yama is the biggest Chinese exporter, and the US government is suggesting Chinese government subsidies allow Chinese manufacturers to sell their ribbon below cost, it stands to reason that Yama should be fingered in the report as the main beneficiary of these subsidies. Right? The US government couldn’t possibly allege the Chinese government is subsidizing a product unless they’ve already confirmed the main Chinese producer is receiving such subsidies. Right?

Wrong. Trade policy, anti-dumping actions, punitive tariffs are very often a political toy in the US. Too often, US companies can use lobbyists or friendly politicians to pressure the Commerce Department to initiate an investigation. That alone can often cause exporters, whether they are dumping or not, to increase their prices, just to try to avoid any unilateral action by Washington. This, then, boosts the competitive position, and so the profits, of the US company that started the anti-dumping ball rolling. It isn’t called corruption, but often it should be understood as such.

Is this the case with Berwick Offray and woven ribbon? Did it use the US political process to help its foundering business in the US? That seems the case to me. Here’s why. After its initial report in 2009, the Commerce Department launched a more detailed analysis to identify all the subsidies Yama Ribbon and other Chinese manufacturers were receiving from the Chinese government.

In July 2010, the US officials announced they could find no evidence of Yama receiving any subsidies whatsoever. Yama Ribbon products were assigned an “anti-dumping” duty of 0%. It was a complete victory for Yama and a repudiation of misguided US protectionist trade policies. It received about zero press coverage, in China and the US, which is a shame.  Next time you hear someone spouting off about “unfair China trade practicies” or “predatory pricing”, think about Yama.

Several other Chinese manufacturers were found to be receiving subsidies, and their products were slapped with punitive duty rates of 125% to 249%. But, Yama is the main producer and exporter. If it’s receiving no subsidies, then it is impossible to claim the Chinese government is rigging the market to the detriment of Berwick Offray and the few other remaining US producers of woven ribbon.

How, you might ask, could the US government have even issued the preliminary 2009 report before establishing beyond doubt that Yama was getting favors from the Chinese government? The same question occurred to Yama’s founder and CEO, Yao Ming. (Yes, same name, but no relation to — physically or by bloodline —  to the Chinese basketball star.)  When he heard about the 2009 investigation and preliminary finding, Yao understood immediately it had the potential to damage, if not ruin his entire business, with 2011 revenues of over USD$50mn and over 1,000 employees. The US is his key market, over 70% of total turnover.

I’m fortunate enough to know Yao Ming. He’s a modest, hard-working entrepreneur, among the best I’ve ever met. My guess is as a businessman he could run circles around the people who manage Berwick Offray.  He’s not a political creature, speaks very little English, and until then, was unschooled in the ways of US trade policy. The US government was asserting Chinese ribbon exporters were getting subsidies and yet Yao knew he was receiving nothing. Knowing, and proving it to Washington, of course, are very different stories. He tried getting help from the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. But, they told him, effectively, he would have to fight this one on his own. They have bigger trade battles to wage with the US than this tiny one over gift ribbon.

So Yao hired lawyers, both in China and the US, and fought back. He’s the only Chinese entrepreneur I’ve heard about with this kind of character and self-confidence to spend a not-small amount of money to fight back against the US government. Even more remarkably, he won a resounding and speedy victory.

He more or less dared the US government to prove he was getting subsidies, including indirect ones like loan subsidies, special deals to buy factory land or tax holidays. When the US government couldn’t find a thing, it gave up pursuing Yama. Justice, in this case, was served. But, Yao was also lucky. His business is unusual in China. At that time, he has no bank loans, and his factories are rented. Both are rare among manufacturers in China. For any other manufacturer in China, it would be far harder to prove as quickly an absence of subsidies, direct or indirect. Yao needed to act, before the threat of an anti-dumping action permanently damaged his business in the US.

As an American citizen, I’m more than a little disgusted by what the US government did in this case: it made that 2009 announcement, declaring a preliminary finding, without really checking its facts. Had Yao not acted quickly, hired lawyers and proved his case, his business would have been sunk, and Americans would end up paying much more to decorate their gifts.

Had Commerce wanted to, it would have taken almost no time or effort to establish that Yama, as the largest Chinese ribbon exporter, was likely getting nothing from the Chinese government. But, they didn’t bother. That’s the worst of it. People at the Department of Commerce know how damaging an investigation and preliminary finding like this can be to any businesses implicated in wrongdoing.

In the end, from what I can tell, Commerce cared more about placating Berwick Offray than in making sure it didn’t unjustly harm a company faraway in China. Everything, in the end, has turned out well for Yao Ming and Yama. His business, including exports to the US, continue to thrive. He has some of the highest net margins I’ve seen in a Chinese manufacturing company. His revenues this year will approach USD$100mn. He has opened an office now in New Jersey to help handle all the orders. His Chinese competitors are now largely shut out of the US market because of the punitive duties. None seems to have had the scale or cash to hire lawyers and go to court in the US, as Yao Ming did. So whether these punitive duties are justified is, to me, an open question.

Yama’s business is number one in the US not because it sells product at the lowest price. It doesn’t. It has a better business model, thanks to the business smarts of its founder Yao Ming. He keeps a large stock of ribbon in a huge array of sizes and colors in inventory in the US, to meet spot orders. While it increases his costs, because of the extra working capital needed to finance the inventory, distributors and retailers can get orders filled more quickly. So, they buy from Yama. The company’s scale and service allow it now to earn margins that would be the envy of just about every other manufacturer operating in China.

Yao Ming is Chinese. But, he is the kind of Horatio Alger entrepreneur many in the US most admire. He makes a good product, sells it at a fair price, is good to his workers, and fought back against knuckle-headed Washington bureaucrats and won.

 

 

The Ambow Massacre — Baring Private Equity Fails in Its Take Private Plan

 

In the last two years, more than 40 US-listed Chinese companies have announced plans to delist in “take private” deals.  About half the deals have a PE firm at the center of things, providing some of the capital and most of the intellectual and strategic firepower. The PE firms argue that the US stock market has badly misunderstood, and so deeply undervalued these Chinese companies. The PE firms confidently boast they are buying into great businesses at fire sale prices.

The PE firm teams up with the company’s owner to buy out public shareholders, with the plan being at some future point to either sell the business or relist it outside the US. At the moment, PE firms are involved in take private deals worth about $5 billion. Some of the bigger names include Focus Media, 7 Days Inn, Simcere Pharmaceutical.

The ranks of “take private” deals fell by one yesterday. PE firm Baring Private Equity announced it is dropping its plan to take private a Chinese company called Ambow Education Holding listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Baring, which is among the larger Asia-headquartered private equity firms, with over $5 billion under management,  first announced its intention to take Ambow private on March 15. Within eleven days, Baring was forced to scrap the whole plan. Here’s how Baring put it in the official letter it sent to Ambow and disclosed on the SEC website, “In the ten days since we submitted the Proposal, three of the four independent Directors and the Company’s auditors have resigned, and the Company’s ADSs have been suspended from trading on the NYSE. As a result of these unexpected events, we have concluded that it is not possible for us to proceed with the Transaction as set forth in our Proposal.”

Baring’s original proposal offered Ambow shareholders $1.46 a share, a 45% premium over the price at the time. Baring is already a shareholder of Ambow, holding about 10% of the equity. It bought the shares earlier this year.  Assuming the shares do start trading again, Baring is likely sitting on a paper loss of around $8mn on the Ambow shares it owns, as well as a fair bit of egg on its face. Uncounted is the amount in legal fees, to say nothing of Baring’s own time, that was squandered on this deal. My guess is, this is hardly what Baring’s LPs would want their money being spent on.

Perhaps the only consolation for Baring is that this mess exploded before it completed the planned takeover of the company. But, still, my question, “what did Baring know about any big problems inside Ambow when it tabled its offer ten days ago?” If the answer is “nothing”, well what does that say about the quality of the PE firm’s due diligence and deal-making prowess? How can you go public with an offer that values Ambow at $105 million and only eleven days later have to abandon the bid because of chaos, and perhaps fraud, inside the target company?

It is so easy, so attractive,  to think you can do deals based largely on work you can do on a Bloomberg terminal. Just four steps are all that’s needed. Download the stock chart? Check. Read the latest SEC filings, including financial statements? Check. Discover a share trading at a fraction of book value? Check. Contact the company owner and say you want to become his partner and buy out all his foolish and know-nothing US shareholders? Check. All set. You can now launch your bid.

Here the stock chart for Ambow since it went public on the NYSE:

 

 

So, in a little more than two years, Ambow’s market cap has fallen by 92%, from a high of over $1 billion, to the current level of less than $90mn. That’s not a lot higher than the company’s announced 2011 EBITDA of $54mn, and about equal to the total cash Ambow claimed, in its most recent annual report filed with the SEC, it had in the bank. Now really, who wouldn’t want to buy a company trading at 1.5X trailing EBITDA and 1X cash?

Well, start with the fact that it now looks like those numbers might not be everything they purport to be. That would be the logical inference from the fact that the company’s auditors and three of its board members all resigned en masse.

That gets to the heart of the real problem with these “PtP” (public to private) deals involving US-listed Chinese companies. The PE firms seem to operate on the assumption that the numbers reported to the SEC are genuine, and therefore that these companies’ shares are all trading at huge discounts to their intrinsic worth. Well, maybe not. Also, maybe US shareholders are not quite as dumb as some of the deal-makers here would like to believe. From the little we know about the situation in Ambow, it looks like, if anything, the US capital market was actually being too generous towards the company, even as it marked down the share price by over 90%.

A share price represents the considered assessment of millions of people, in real time. Some of those people (suppliers, competitors, friends of the auditor) will always know more than you about what the real situation is inside a company. Yes, sometimes share prices can overshoot and render too harsh a judgment on a company’s value. But, that’s assuming the numbers reported to the SEC are all kosher.  If we’ve learned anything in these last two years it’s that assuming a Chinese company’s SEC financial statement is free of fraud and gross inaccuracy is, at best, a gamble. There simply is no way a PE firm can get complete comfort, before committing to taking over one of these Chinese businesses listed in the US, that there are no serious dangers lurking within. Reputation risk, litigation risk, exit risk — these too are very prominent in all PtP deals.

Some of the other announced PtP deals are using borrowed money, along with some cash from PE firms, to pay off existing shareholders. In such cases, the risk for the PE fund is obviously lower. If the Chinese company genuinely has the free cash to service the debt, well, then once the debt is paid off, the PE firm will end up owning a big chunk of a company without having tied up a lot of cash.  Do the banks in these cases really know the situation inside these often-opaque Chinese companies? Is the cash flow on the P&L the same cash flow that passes through its hands each month?

There’s much else that strikes me as questionable about the logic of doing these PtP, or delist-relist deals. For one thing, it seems increasingly unlikely that these businesses will be able to relist, anytime in the next three to five years, in Hong Kong or China. I’ve yet to hear a credible plan from the PE firms I’ve talked to about how they intend to achieve ultimate exit. But, mainly, my concerns have been about the rigor and care that goes into the crafting of these deals. Those concerns seem warranted in my opinion, based on this 11-day debacle with Baring and Ambow.

Some of the Chinese-listed companies fell out of favor for the good reason that they are dubious businesses, run with shoddy and opaque practices, by bosses who’ve shown scant regard for the letter and spirit of the securities laws of the US. Are these really the kind of people PE funds should consider going into business with?

 

Correction: I see now Barings actually has owned some Ambow shares for longer, and so is likely sitting on far larger losses on this position. This raises still more starkly the issue of how it could have put so much of its LPs money at risk on a deal like this, upfront, and without having sufficient transparency into the true situation at the company. This looks more like stock speculation gone terribly wrong, not private equity.

Addition: Three other large, famous institutional investors also all piled into Ambow in the months before Baring made its bid. Fidelity, GIC and Capital Group reported owning 8.76%, 5.2% and 7.4% respectively, or a total of 21.3% of the equity. They might have made a quick buck had the Baring buyout gone forward. Now, they may end up stranded, sitting on large positions in a distressed stock with no real liquidity and perhaps nowhere to go but down.

 

 

Out of Focus: China’s First Big LBO Deal is a Headscratcher

The first rule of capitalism is the more buyers you attract, the higher the price you get. So, having just one potential buyer is generally a lousy idea when your goal is to make as much money as possible.

What then to make of the recently-announced plan by an all-star team of some of China’s largest PE firms, including CDH, Fountainvest, CITIC Capital, as well global giant Carlyle,  to participate in a $3.5 billion proposed leveraged buyout deal to take private the NASDAQ-listed Chinese advertising company Focus Media. Any profit from this “take private” deal, as far as I can tell,  hinges on later flipping Focus Media to a larger company. That’s because the chances seem slight a privatized Focus Media will be later approved for domestic Chinese IPO. But, what if Focus turns out to be flip-proof?

With so much money — as so many big name PE firms’ reputations —  on the line, you’d think there would a clear, persuasive investment case for this Focus Media deal. As far as I can tell, there isn’t. I have the highest respect for the PE firms involved in this deal, for their financial and investing acumen. They are the smartest and most experienced group of PE professionals ever assembled to do a single Chinese deal. And yet, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what they are thinking with this deal and why they all want a piece of this action.

If the goal is to try to arbitrage valuation differences between the US and Chinese stock markets, this deal isn’t likely to pan out. It’s not only that Focus Media will have a tough time convincing China’s securities regulator, the CSRC, to allow it to relist in China. Focus Media is now trading on the NASDAQ at a trailing p/e multiple of 18. That is on the high side for companies quoted in China.

Next problem, of course, is the impact on the P&L from all the borrowing needed to complete the deal. There’s been no clear statement yet about how much equity the PE firms will commit, and how much they intend to borrow. To complete the buyout, the investor group, including the PE firms along will need to buy about 65% of the Focus equity. The other 35% is owned by Focus Media’s chairman and China’s large private conglomerate Fosun Group. They both back the LBO deal.

So, the total check size to buy out all other public shareholders will be around $2.4 billion, assuming they investor group doesn’t need to up its offer. If half is borrowed money, the interest expense would swallow up around 50% Focus Media’s likely 2012 net income. In other words, the LBO itself is going to take a huge chunk out of Focus Media’s net income.  In other words, the PE group is actually paying about twice the current p/e to take Focus Media private, since its purchase mechanism will likely halve profits.

A typical LBO in the US relies on borrowed money to finance more than half the total acquisition cost. The more Focus Media borrows, the bigger the hit to its net income. Now, sure, the investors can argue Focus Media should later be valued not on net income, but on EBITDA. That’s the way LBO deals tend to get valued in the US. EBITDA, though,  is still something of an unknown classifier in China. There isn’t even a proper, simple Chinese translation for it. Separately, Focus Media is already carrying quite a bit of debt, equal to about 60% of revenues. Adding another big chunk to finance the buyout, at the very least,  will create a very wobbly balance sheet. At worst, it will put real pressure on Focus Media’s operating business to generate lots of additional cash to stay current on all that borrowing.

I have no particular insight into Focus Media’s business model, other than to note that the company is doing pretty well while already facing intensified competition. Focus Media doesn’t meet the usual criteria for a successful LBO deal, since it isn’t a business that seems to need any major restructuring, refocusing or realignment of interests between owners and management.

Focus Media gets much of its revenue and profit from installing and selling ads that appear on LCD flatscreens it hangs in places like elevators and retail stores. It’s a business tailor-made for Chinese conditions. You won’t find an advertising company quite like it in the US or Europe. In a crowded country, in crowded urban shops, housing blocks and office buildings, you can get an ad in front of a goodly number of people in China while they are riding up in a jammed elevator or waiting at a checkout counter.

The overall fundamentals with Focus Media’s business are sound. The advertising industry in China is growing. But, it’s hard to see anything on the horizon that will lift its current decent operating performance to another level. Without that, it gets much harder to justify this deal.

This is, it should be noted, the first big LBO ever attempted by a Chinese company. It could be that the PE firms involved want to get some knowledge and experience in this realm, assuming that there could be more Chinese LBOs coming down the pike. Maybe. But, it looks like it could be pretty expensive tuition.

Assuming they can pull off the “delist” part of the deal, the PE firms will need to find a way to exit from this investment sometime in the next three to five years. Focus Media’s chairman has been vocal in complaining about the low valuation US investors are giving his company. In other words, he believes the company’s shares can be sold to someone else, at some future date, at a far higher price. (He personally owns 17% of the equity.)

Who exactly, though, is this “someone else”? Relisting Focus Media in China is a real long shot, and anyway, the current multiples, on a trailing basis, are comparable with NASDAQ’s . This is before calculating the hit Focus Media’s earnings will take from leveraging up the company with lots of new debt. How about the Hong Kong Stock Exchange? Focus Media would likely be given a warm welcome to relist there. One problem: with Hong Kong p/e multiples limping along at some of the lowest levels in the world, the relisted Focus Media’s market value would almost certainly be lower than the current price in the US. Throw in, of course, millions of dollars in legal fees on both sides of the delist-relist, and this Hong Kong IPO plan looks like a very elaborate way to park then lose money.

That leaves M&A as the only viable option for the PE investor group to make some money. I’m guessing this is what they have on their minds, to flip Focus Media to a larger Chinese acquirer.  They may have already spoken to potential acquirers, maybe even talked price. The two most obvious acquirers, Tencent Holdings and Baidu, both may be interested. Baidu has done some M&A lately, including the purchase, at what looks to many to be a ridiculously high price, of a majority of Chinese online travel site Qunar.  So far so good.

The risk is that neither of these two giants will agree to pay a big price down the line for a company that could buy now for much less. The same logic applies to any other Chinese acquirer, though they are few and far between. I’d be surprised if Tencent or Baidu haven’t already run the numbers, maybe at Focus Media’s invitation. But, they didn’t make a move. Not up to now.

Could it be they don’t want to do the buyout directly, out of fear it could go wrong or hurt their PR? Maybe. But, I very much doubt they will be very eager to play the final owner in a very public “greater fool” deal.

I’m fully expecting to be proven wrong eventually by this powerhouse group of PEs, and that they will end up dividing a huge profit pile from this Focus Media LBO. If so, the last laugh is on me. But,  as of now, the Focus deal’s investment logic seems cockeyed.