I see some rather disturbing signs of this happening. Underwriters, with the pipeline of viable IPO deals drying up, are fanning out across China searching for mandates and making promises every bit as mendacious and self-serving as the rogues who steered so many Chinese companies to their doom on the US OTCBB.
The Hong Kong Stock Exchange (“HKSE”) may be going wrong because so much, until recently, was going right. Thanks largely to a flood of IPO offerings by large Chinese companies, the HKSE overtook New York in 2009 to become the top capital market for new flotations. While the IPO markets turned sharply downward last year, and the amount of IPO capital raised in Hong Kong fell by half, the HKSE held onto the top spot in 2011. US IPO activity remains subdued, in part due to regulatory burdens and compliance costs heaped onto the IPO process in the US over the last decade.
During the boom years beginning around 2007, all underwriting firms bulked up by adding expensive staff in expensive Hong Kong. This includes global giants like Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Morgan Stanley, smaller Asian and European firms like DBS, Nomura, BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank and the broking arms of giant Chinese financial firms CITIC, ICBC, CIIC, and Bank of China. The assumption among many market players was that the HKSE’s growth would continue to surge, thanks largely to Chinese listings, for years to come. With the US, Europe and Japan all in the economic and capital market doldrums, the investment banking flotilla came sailing into Hong Kong. Champagne corks popped. High-end Hong Kong property prices, already crazily out of synch with local buying power, climbed still higher.
The underwriting business relies rather heavily on hype and boundless optimism to sell new securities. It’s little surprise, then, that IPO investment bankers should be prone to some irrational exuberance when it comes to evaluating their own career prospects. The grimmer reality was always starkly clear. For fundamental reasons visible to all but ignored by many, the flood of quality Chinese IPOs in Hong Kong was always certain to dry up. It has already begun to do so.
In 2006, the Chinese government closed the legal loophole that allowed many PRC companies to redomicile in Hong Kong, BVI or Cayman Islands. This, in turn, let them pursue IPOs outside China, principally in the US and Hong Kong. Every year, the number of PRC companies with this “offshore structure” and the scale and growth to qualify for an IPO in Hong Kong continues to decline. A domestic Chinese company cannot, in broad terms, have an IPO outside China.
Some clever lawyers came up with some legal fixes, including a legally-dubious structure called “Variable Interest Entity”, or VIE, to allow domestic Chinese companies to list abroad. But, last year, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce began moving to shut these down. The efficient, high-priced IPO machine for listing Chinese companies in Hong Kong is slowly, but surely, being starved of its fuel: good Chinese private companies, attractive to investors.
Yes, there still are non-Chinese companies like Italy’s Prada, Russia’s Rusal or Mongolia’s Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi still eager to list in Hong Kong. There is still a lot of capital, while listing and compliance costs are well below those in the US. But, the Hong Kong underwriting industry is staffed-up mainly to do Chinese IPOs. These guys don’t speak Russian or Mongolian.
So, the sorry situation today is that Hong Kong underwriters are overstuffed with overhead for a “coming boom” of Chinese IPOs that will almost certainly never arrive. China-focused Hong Kong investment bankers are beginning to show signs of growing desperation. Their jobs depend on winning mandates, as well as closing IPOs. To get business, the underwriters are resorting, at least in some cases, to behaviors that seem not that different from the corrupt world of OTCBB listing. This means making some patently false promises to Chinese companies about valuation levels they could achieve in an Hong Kong IPO.
The reality now is that valuation levels for most of the Chinese companies legally structured for IPO in Hong Kong are pathetically low. Valuations keep getting slashed to attract investors who still aren’t showing much interest. Underwriters are finding it hard to solicit buy offers for good Chinese companies at prices of six to eight times this year’s earnings. Some other deals now in the market and nowhere near close are being priced below four times this year’s net income. At those kind of prices, a HK IPO becomes some of the most expensive equity capital around.
In their pursuit of new mandates, however, these Hong Kong underwriters will rarely share this information with Chinese bosses. Instead, they bring with them handsomely-bound bilingual IPO prospectuses for past deals and suggest that valuation levels will go back into double digits in the second half of this year. In other words, the pitch is, “don’t look at today’s reality, focus instead at yesterday’s outcomes and my rosy forecast about tomorrow’s”.
This is the same script used by the advisors who peddled the OTCBB listings that damaged or destroyed so many Chinese companies over the last five years. Another similar tactic used both by OTCBB rogues and HK underwriters is to pray on fear. They suggest to Chinese bosses that they should protect their fortune by listing their company offshore, at whatever price possible and using whatever legally dubious method is available. They also play up the fact a Chinese company theoretically can go public in Hong Kong whenever it likes, rather than wait in an IPO queue of uncertain length and duration, as is true in China.
In other words, the discussion concerns just about everything of importance except the fact that valuation levels in Hong Kong are awful, and there is a decent probability a Chinese company’s HK IPO will fail. This is particularly the case for Chinese companies with less than USD$25 million in net income. The cost to a Chinese company of a failed IPO is a lot of wasted time, at least a million dollars in legal and accounting bills as well as a stained reputation.
There is, increasingly, a negative selection bias. Investors rightly wonder about the quality of Chinese companies, particularly smaller ones, being brought to market by underwriters in Hong Kong.
“No one has a crystal ball”, is how one Hong Kong underwriter, a managing director who spends most of his time in China scouring for mandates, explains the big gap between promises made to Chinese bosses, and the sad reality that many then encounter. In a real sense, this is on par with him saying “I’ve got to do whatever I’ve got to do to earn a living”. He can hold onto his job for now by bringing in new mandates, then hope markets will turn around at some point, the valuation tide will rise, and these boats will lift. This too is a business strategy used for many years by the OTCBB advisor crowd.
The OTCBB racket is now basically shut down. Those who profited from it are now looking for work or looking elsewhere for victims, er mandates. Tiny cleantech deals are apparently now hot.
My prediction is a similar retrenchment is on the way in Hong Kong, only this time those being retrenched won’t be fast-buck types from law firms and tiny OTCBB investment banks no one has heard of. Instead, it’ll be bankers with big salaries working at well-known brokerage companies. The pool of IPO fees isn’t big enough to feed them all now. And, that pool is likely going to evaporate further, as fewer Chinese companies sign on for Hong Kong listings and successfully close deals.