Chinese companies OTCBB

The Reverse Merger Minefield

Song porcelain from China First Capital blog post

Since 2005, 380 Chinese companies have executed reverse mergers in the US. They did so, in almost all cases, as a first step towards getting listed on a major US exchange, most often the NASDAQ. Yet, as of today, according to a recent article in Dow Jones Investment Banker, only 15% of those Chinese companies successfully “uplisted” to NASDAQ. That’s a failure rate of 85%. 

That’s a rather stunning indictment of the advisers and bankers who promote, organize and profit from these transactions. The Chinese companies are left, overwhelmingly, far worse off than when they started. Their shares are stuck trading on the OTCBB or Pink Sheets, with no liquidity,  steep annual listing and compliance fees, often pathetically low valuations,  and no hope of ever raising additional capital. 

The advisors, on the other hand, are coining it. At a guess, Chinese companies have paid out to advisors, accountants, lawyers and Investor Relations firms roughly $700 million in fees for these US reverse mergers. As a way to lower America’s balance of payments deficit with China, this one is about the most despicable. 

You would think that anyone selling a high-priced service with an 85% failure rate would have a hard time finding customers. Sadly, that isn’t the case. This is an industry that quite literally thrives on failure. The US firms specializing in reverse mergers are a constant, conspicuous presence as sponsors at corporate finance conferences around China, touting their services to Chinese companies.

I was at one this past week in Shenzhen, with over 1,000 participants, and a session on reverse mergers sponsored by one of the more prominent US brokerage houses that does these deals. The pitch is always the same: “we can get your company listed on NASDAQ”. 

I have no doubt these firms know that 85% of the reverse mergers could be classified as expensive failures, because the companies never migrate to NASDAQ.  Equally, I have no doubt they never disclose this fact to the Chinese companies they are soliciting. I know a few “laoban” (Chinese for “company boss”)  who’ve been pitched by the US reverse merger firms. They are told a reverse merger is all but a  “sure thing”. I’ve seen one US reverse merger firm’s Powerpoint presentation for Chinese clients that contained doctored numbers on performance of firms it brought public on OTCBB.  

Accurate disclosure is the single most important component of financial market regulation. Yet, as far as I’ve been able to determine, the financial firms pushing reverse mergers offer clients little to no disclosure of their own. No other IPO process has such a high rate of failure, with such a high price tag attached. 

Of course, the Chinese companies are often also culpable. They fail to do adequate due diligence on their own. Chinese bosses are often too fixated on getting a quick IPO, rather than waiting two to three years, at a minimum, to IPO in China. There’s little Chinese-language material available on the dangers of reverse mergers. These kinds of reverse mergers cannot be done on China’s own stock exchanges. Overall knowledge about the US capital markets is limited. 

These are the points cited by the reverse merger firms to justify what they’re doing. But, these justifications ring false. Just because someone wants a vacation house in Florida doesn’t make it OK to sell them swampland in the Everglades. 

The reverse mergers cost China dear. Good Chinese SME are often bled to death. That hurts China’s overall economy. China’s government probably can’t outlaw the process, since it’s subject to US, not Chinese, securities laws. But, I’d like to see the Chinese Securities Regulatory Commission (中国证监会), China’s version of the SEC, publish empirical data about US reverse mergers, SPACs, OTCBB listings. 

There is not much that can be done for the 325 Chinese companies that have already completed a US reverse merger and failed to get uplisted to NASDAQ. They will continue to waste millions of dollars a year in fees just to remain listed on the OTCBB or Pink Sheets, with no realistic prospect of ever moving to the NASDAQ market.

For these companies, the US reverse merger is the capital markets’ version of , or death by a thousand slices.

Built to Fail – Case Studies on Chinese SME Companies Damaged By Greed, Deception and Crooked Investment Banking

Qing Dynasty Lacquer in China First Capital blog post

My last post dealt with the often-unprincipled conduct of the advisors, bankers and lawyers who created many of the disaster stories among Chinese SME companies seeking a stock-market listing. It’s not a topic that will win me a lot of friends and admirers among the many advisors, lawyers, and investment banker-types still active, sadly, sponsoring OTCBB and reverse merger deals in China. In my experience, they tend to put the blame elsewhere, most often on Chinese bosses who (in their view) were blinded by the prospect of quick riches and so readily agreed to these often-horrible transactions. 

There’s some truth to this, of course. But, it’s a little like a burglar blaming his victim for leaving a second-story window unlocked. Culpability – legal and moral – rests with those who are profiting most from these bad IPO deals. That’s the advisers, bankers and lawyers.  They are the ones getting rich on these deals that, too often, leave the Chinese company broken beyond repair. 

The bad IPO deals are numerous, and depressingly similar. I don’t make any effort to keep tabs on this activity. I usually only learn specifics if I happen to meet a Chinese SME boss who has had his company crippled by doing an OTCBB listing or reverse merger, or an SME that is in the process of doing a deal like this. 

Here are a few “case studies” from among the companies I’ve met. They make for depressing reading. I’m omitting the names of the companies and their advisers.  The investment bankers on these deals deserve to be publicly shamed (if not flogged) for what they’ve done. But, the stories here are typical of  many more involving crooked investment bankers and advisers working with Chinese SME. The story lines are sadly, very familiar. 

COMPANY 1

A Guangdong electrical appliance company, with 1,500 employees, had 2008 revenues of $52mn, and net profit of $4mn, did a “reverse merger” in 2007 and then listed its shares on the OTCBB. Despite the company’s good performance (revenues and profits grew following the IPO), the share price fell by 90% from $4.75 to under 5 cents. At the IPO, the “investment advisors” sold their shares. The company also raised some cash, about $8mn in all.  But, quickly, the share price started to fall, and the market capitalization fell from high of $300mn to under $4mn. The company’s management didn’t have a clue how to manage a US publicly-traded company (none spoke English, for one thing), and so started making regulatory mistakes and had other problems with filing SEC documents. The company’s management, still with much of the $8mn raised in the IPO in its corporate bank account,  then started selling personal assets at wildly inflated prices to the company, and so used these related party transactions to take most of the remaining cash from the business into their pockets. No surprise, the company’s auditors discovered problems during its annual SEC audit, and then resigned.

The company’s share price is so low it triggered the “penny stock” rules in the US, which limit the number of investors who are allowed to buy the shares.

 

COMPANY 2

An agricultural products company with $73 million in 2008 revenues chose to do a “reverse merger” in the US, to complete a fast IPO early in 2009. The company got the idea for this reverse merge from an investment adviser in China who promised to raise $10 million of new capital as part of the reverse merger. The agricultural products company believed the promise, and spent over $1 million to buy the listed US shell company, including high fees to US lawyers, accountants and advisers.   

After buying the shell and spending the money, the company learned that the advisor had failed to raise any new capital. The company now has the worst possible situation: a listing on the OTCBB, with no new capital to expand its business, a steadily falling share price, and annual costs of being listed on the OTCBB of over $500,000 a year. At this point, no new investor is likely to invest in the company, because it already has a public listing, and a very low share price.

Because of this reverse merger, the company’s financial situation is now much worse than it was in 2008, and the company’s founder effectively now has no options to finance the expansion of his business which, up until the time of this reverse merger, was thriving.

 

 COMPANY 3

In 2008, an outstanding Guangdong SME manufacturing company signed an agreement with a Guangdong  “investment advisor” and a small US securities company that specializes in doing “Form 10 Listings” of Chinese SME on the OTCBB. They told the company’s boss they were a “Private Equity firm”. The investment advisor and the US securities company were working in concert to take as much money from this company as possible. Their contract with the company gave them payments of over $1.5 million in cash for raising $6mn for the company, a fee of 17%, and warrants equal to over 20% of the company’s shares. The $6mn would come from the securities company itself, so it could claw back a decent chunk of that in capital-raising fees, and also grab a huge slug of the equity through warrants. 

The securities company quickly scheduled a “Form 10” IPO for summer of 2008, and arranged it so the shares to be sold would be the warrants owned by this securities company and the Chinese investment advisor. So, according to this scheme, the Chinese SME would have received no money from the IPO, and all the money (approximately $10 million) would have gone direct to the securities company and the advisor.

The securities company deliberately misled the SME founder into thinking his shares would IPO on NASDAQ. Further, they gave the founder false information about the post-IPO performance of the other Chinese SME they had listed through “Form 10 Listings” on the OTCBB. Most had immediately tanked after IPO. 

In this case, the worst did not happen. I had met the boss a few months earlier, through a local bank in Shenzhen, and liked him immediately.  Before the IPO process got underway, I offered him my help to get out of this potentially terrible transaction. This was before I’d set up China First Capital, so the offer really was one of friendship, not to earn a buck. I promised him if he could get out of the IPO plan, I’d raise him money at a much higher valuation from one of the best PE firms in China. 

The boss was able to cancel the IPO plan, and I started China First Capital with the first goal of fulfilling my promise to this boss.  CFC quickly raised the company $10mn in private equity from one of the top PE companies , and the valuation was over twice the planned IPO valuation from the “investment advisor” and the securities company. This SME used the $10mn in pre-IPO capital to build a new factory to fill customer orders. 2009 profits will double from 2008. The company is on path to an IPO in 2011, and at that time, the valuation of the company will likely be over $300mn, +7X higher than at the time of PE investment.

 

 

 

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