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China SOE Buyouts — Case Study Part 2

Jin finial

When you can find them, State-Owned Enterprise (“SEO”)  buyouts are among the better investments in China. The reasons: the companies are cheap, professionally-managed and free of accounting fraud. The not-trivial challenge: finding good SOEs that can be bought.

For such an important part of the world’s second-largest economy, Chinese SOEs are widely misunderstood. They account for at least 20% of China’s GPD. Some estimates put SOEs’ contribution to GPD at 60% or higher. But, SOEs are often characterized, to quote from a World Bank analysis, as “dying dinosaurs that continuously absorb resources from the economy but produce little economic value.”

To be sure, there are many SOEs that fit this description. But, equally, there are plenty of good businesses among China’s more than 150,000 SOEs. The good ones, quite often, can be made substantially better by bringing in outside capital and chopping away at the heavy bureaucratic crust.

Buyouts make money when a new owner buys an business for less than it’s worth, then reinvigorates it. Generally that’s done by buying lazily-run subsidiaries inside larger conglomerates.

No conglomerate anywhere, at any time,  has been more laid-back about managing its assets than SASAC, the huge government organization that is the legal owner of most Chinese SOEs.

SOEs operate in, but are not entirely of, the market economy. They benefit from cheap and plentiful capital via loans from state-owned banks. But, SASAC is generally far more concerned with increasing revenues and investment than profits. SASAC generally doesn’t demand SOEs pay it dividends. Instead, it asks for an audit every year that shows an SOE’s revenues and assets are growing, and no money is actually being lost or assets pilfered. SASAC doesn’t act like an owner so much as a custodian.

SASAC’s casual attitude to profit-making filters down to all levels within an SOE.  Given the choice to maximize or minimize profits, most SOEs will choose the latter.  The goal is to make a little more than last year, but not so much that SASAC, or more senior levels in government, begin to ask questions. With few exceptions (mainly larger centrally-administered SOEs quoted in the US like China Mobile and PetroChina) the corporate equivalent of a “gentleman’s C“, a net margin of around 2.5%, is considered satisfactory.

You don’t need to be a Buffett, Bonderman, Kravis, or Rubenstein to make money buying the right Chinese SOE. You generally don’t need to get your hands too dirty, launch a hostile takeover, borrow a ton of money, or make yourself unpopular by firing surplus workers. It’s going to be enough in most cases just to retain and incentivize current managers, and inform them that their goal now is to deliver net margins as good as, if not better, than private sector competitors.

Not in all cases but many, the current management of an SOE is quite good, professional, dedicated. The managers operate within a system that downplays the importance of maximizing profit. So, they behave correspondingly. But, that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to do so, especially when they have their salary or share options tied to profitability.

In a previous post I mentioned our two new SOE clients. We are working now to privatize them by selling majority ownership to a private sector investor. Both are 100%-owned by one state-owned holding company which, in turn, is fully-owned by another, even larger SOE holding group. Above them, is the local SASAC in the city where the holding companies are both headquartered. No sooner did we start asking the managers how to improve profits, then they began to share information on how much additional profit was being left unclaimed — unnecessary commission payments, tax rebates not filed for, revenues booked through unrelated group companies.

In the case of these two companies, the current CEOs have been running the businesses since they were started more than five years ago. They are about as far from a stereotyped paper-pushing “SOE Manager” as one could imagine. They are in their mid-40s, and take evident pride in running their businesses as efficiently as any Western manager would. The difference is, a lot of the profit they earn is siphoned off through lots of internal layers within the holding group. At the moment, that’s of little concern to them. They are ordinary salaried workers giving SASAC precisely what it wants. Giving more would do nothing to advance their careers, or fatten their pay packets.

These two CEOs are excited and ambitious to run independent private sector companies that will be free to make and keep as much money as the market and tax laws allow. I have confidence that in both cases, net income would more than double within two years, and triple within five.

What’s needed isn’t restructuring. It’s gardening. You weed out all the unnecessary fees, commissions and chop back the overheads. This reveals the companies’ genuine – and impressive – bottom line.

We are still doing our internal work with the companies, but will soon start the search for new majority owners for each company. All the layers above, up to and including the local SASAC, seem to support these transactions. Why? The holding company already has one very successful publicly-traded company. Once spun off, these two subsidiaries should follow a similar path and one day go public. That is the surest way to assure the companies have sufficient access to low-cost capital and so finance continued growth. Both companies, with revenues of over $100mn, are growing quickly.

Everyone is currently in agreement that the best way for these two subsidiaries to become not just the largest but the most profitable companies in their industry in China is by bringing in majority private shareholders, both to invest in the business and provide more focused, profit-oriented ownership. They sought our investment banking and advisory help to do so.

This isn’t to say these deals, or any SOE takeover, is as effortless as body-surfing. The privatization process in China is still evolving. Any transaction like this will likely generate some opposition. From whom? And from what level? Both are impossible to say.

A separate concern of mine: there are far too few capable and experience takeover firms active in China. Among those that are around, the level of experience and comfort with buying control of an SOE is not uniformly high. Done right, the new owners would be able to profit from a large gap between the current asset value as calculated using SASAC rules and each company’s level of underlying and future profitability. In other words, you buy using NAV but sell later on a p/e multiple.

Making money on that swap, from NAV-to-p/e, is the simple idea at the heart of many of the world’s most successful takeovers. Opportunities to do this are now quite rare in the US and Europe, which is one reason the returns for big buyout firms like KKR, Blackstone and Carlyle has generally been trending down over the last 25 years, and why it’s harder for Warren Buffett to find the kind of underpriced gems he treasures most.

The best days of takeovers have passed, right? Or should Buffett, Rubenstein, Bonderman and Kravis be booking flights to China?

 

 

M&A in China – China First Capital’s New Research Report


CFC’s latest Chinese-language research report has just been published. The topic: M&A Strategy for Chinese Private Companies. Our conclusion: propelled by rapidly-growing domestic market and the continuing evolution of China’s capital markets, China will overtake the USA within the next decade as the world’s largest and most active market for mergers and acquisitions.

The report, titled “ 并购- 中国企业的成功助力”,can be downloaded by clicking here.

The report identifies five key drivers that fueling M&A activity among private sector companies in China.  They are: (1) a once-in-a-business-lifetime opportunity to seize meaningful market share in the domestic market; (2) the coming generational shift as China’s first generation of entrepreneurs moves toward retirement age; (3) a widening valuation gap between private and publicly-traded companies; (4) regulatory changes that will make it easier to pay for acquisitions using shares as well as cash; (5) increased access to IPO market in China for companies that have augmented organic growth through strategic M&A.

Several case studies from our work feature in the report, including a cross-border M&A deal we are doing, and one purely domestic trade sale. We take on a select number of M&A clients, and work as a sell-side advisor.

M&A in China has myriad challenges that do not often arise in other parts of the world. One we see repeatedly is that few Chinese acquirers have in-house M&A teams or investment banks on call to provide help with structure and valuation. Talking with anyone less than the company chairman is often a waste of time.

Another unique hurdle: “GIGO DD” or, more prosaically, “garbage in, garbage out due diligence.” Potential acquirers unfortunately will often start their industry research by doing a Chinese language web search using Baidu. There is a lot of dubious stuff out there that is given some credence, including phony websites and bizarre claims posted to people’s personal blogs or chatrooms.

In the cross-border deal we’re working on, several companies backed out of the process after finding Chinese companies claiming on their corporate website to make equipment identical to our client’s. This convinced these potential bidders that our client had technology and assets of little value. We actually took the time, unlike the potential acquirers, to call the phone numbers on these websites, posing as potential customers. None of the companies had any similar equipment for sale or in development. The material on their websites was bogus.

Market data from online sources is also usually specious. Few people, including lawyers, have working knowledge of how an M&A deal might impact a company’s plans for domestic IPO in China.

I’ve been inside some M&A deals in the US,  with their online data rooms, cloak-and-dagger codenames, and a precisely orchestrated bidding process. In China, the process is more unscripted.

Until recently, the only Chinese companies able and willing to do M&A were larger State-Owned Enterprises (SOE). The deals were done to buy oil and other natural resources on the stock market, or to acquire European brand names to put on Chinese-made products. Those deals include Sinopec’s purchase of shares in Canadian company AddaxCNOOC’s failed acquisition of UnoCal, TCL’s purchase of Thomson TVs and Alcatel phones, and Nanjing Automotive’s buying the MG brand.

These kind of deals will likely continue. But, in the future, M&A deals will become more numerous, more necessary for private entrepreneur-founded companies and have more complex strategic goals.

M&A is one of only two ways for founders and shareholders to achieve exit. The other is IPO. But, the number of private companies who can IPO in China will always be limited. At the moment, the number is about 250 per year. Compare that to the 70 million or so private companies in China.

The IPO process creates a special competitive dynamic in China. The first company in an industry to become publicly-traded usually has a huge advantage over competitors. They disrupt the previous equilibrium in an industry.

This means there are only two choices for many entrepreneurs. Both choices involve M&A. If you aren’t going to become a public company or a competitor has already gone public, you need to consider selling your company. If you want to become a public company,  you will need to become an expert at buying other companies.

The economic destiny of China, and many of its better private companies, is M&A.

 

China Needs Shale Gas as Much, If Not More, Than US

Shale gas is the most important major new source of energy on the planet, as well as the most important development in the petroleum economy since deep water drilling. Shale gas is reshaping the world’s energy market in a way that even a decade ago seemed unthinkable. This is especially true in the US, where most of the shale gas development is now taking place. Ten years ago, shale gas was just 1% of American natural-gas supplies. Today, it is about 25% and could rise to 50% within two decades. Estimates are that US has more than a 100-year supply of natural gas, thanks to the development of shale gas. Natural gas is used for everything from home heating and cooking to electric generation, industrial processes and petrochemical feedstocks.

Shale gas was first discovered over a century ago. But, it’s only become a commercially-viable source of natural gas with the invention, over the last twenty years, of new drilling technology to break layers of rock and release the gas trapped within. The technology is known as hydraulic fracturing (now widely known as “fracking” or “fracing”). The companies that have played the leading role in developing this technology are mainly all American. They are already making billions of dollars using their techniques to drill deep under the surface across the continental US and harvest the gas trapped there.  The US, which just a few years ago looked to be running out of natural gas, now may someday begin exporting, thanks to its large deposits of shale gas.

The US has long been the world’s largest user and importer of energy. Last year, it was announced that China has overtaken the US in overall energy consumption. Its energy imports are on track to overtake America’s. Although natural gas use is increasing in China, it only comprised 4 percent of the country’s total energy consumption in 2008.

Beneath China’s surface also lies shale gas, most likely quite a lot of it. According to information released by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) in April, China has 1,275 tcf of technically recoverable shale gas resources, nearly 50% more than the US.  Those estimated recoverable reserves are more than one thousand times the amount of natural gas used in China in 2010.

For China in decades to come, as much as for America, shale gas could be the energy “game-changer”, increasing energy self-reliance and helping to shift the country away from its heavy reliance on coal for electricity generation. Domestic shale gas, if fully exploited, would have enormous impacts not only in China, but worldwide. It could moderate China’s skyrocketing demand for petroleum, one of the primary drivers of higher oil prices. It would mean less coal gets mined and burned, which would have widespread environmental benefits and also ease the strain on the nation’s transportation infrastructure, a large part of which is now devoted to moving coal from where its mined to where its burned for electricity.

China already has more cars and busses running on natural gas than the US. Quite a few cities, including some large ones like Chongqing and Urumqi in Xinjiang, have many of their taxis running on natural gas. There is already a large infrastructure of “natural gas stations” across China. In other words, China stands to benefit, proportionately, even more from the US from a large supply of cheap, domestic natural gas.

The key question is: will China be able to tap its shale gas efficiently? In fact, it may be one of the most important questions in world energy markets over the next five to ten years. The technology is new, complex and almost entirely American. The owners may not be interested to share it with Chinese companies. For one thing, most of the companies with core technology and experience in tapping shale gas are themselves producers, not just suppliers of drilling equipment. Under current rules, they might not find China a very attractive market, especially when the US has so much untapped natural gas, as does neighboring Canada.

China’s leaders clearly understand the importance of shale gas to its economy and the importance of US shale gas technology. China’s goal is to produce 30 billion cubic meters a year from shale, equivalent to almost half the country’s gas consumption in 2008.  In November 2009, US President Barack Obama agreed to share US gas-shale technology with China, and to promote US investment in Chinese shale-gas development.

That sounds more significant than it probably is. President Obama cannot do much to help China, since the US government has little shale gas technology of its own, nor can he provide any real economic incentive for US companies to share technology with China. If there is a good market reason for US companies to drill for shale gas in China, they will surely do it. That is not the case now, as far as I can tell. Energy production and pricing are both heavily controlled by the Chinese government. A US shale gas producer would probably not be able to fully-own a shale gas field in China, nor sell its output at world market prices.  So, my guess is the owners of the best shale gas technology will not likely share it with China.

PetroChina and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) bought stakes in North American shale drillers like Chesapeake Energy and EnCana with the intent of acquiring technology and ramping up production at home. But, it is not certain, to say the least, that this strategy will pay off — becoming a small shareholder is not the same as buying a right to that company’s technology and expertise.

That leaves China with two choices, neither of which is appetizing: first, rely on domestic technology; second, try to obtain US technology by other than legal means. It could take domestic producers a long time to master the technology, and even then, it may not be equal to the best of what the US now has. With the second route, the problem is that it’s not enough just to get hold of drilling equipment. Exploiting shale gas reserves requires a mix of special equipment and know-how, which is far harder to obtain. A lot of the most successful shale gas fields in the US, for example, use horizontal drilling, a method pioneered in US, that allows operators to “ drill down to a certain depth and then to drill at an angle or even sideways. This exposes more of the reservoir, permitting the recovery of a much greater amount of gas,” according to the noted energy researcher Daniel Yergin.

China needs its shale gas, now. It is of vital importance to China, as well as the rest of the developed world. Everyone is hurt if Chinese demand for petroleum continues to push prices higher and higher, especially when there is an attractive alternative, that China shifts more of its energy consumption to natural gas, produced at home.

It’s a troubling sign that China’s Ministry of Land and Resources continues to delay distribution of the country’s first official shale gas blocks. Its first announcements indicated that only Chinese state-owned energy companies could bid on rights to these shale gas deposits.

My preference would be for China’s government to make it as financially rewarding to exploit shale gas there as it is in the US. It can do this with a mix of tax incentives and various rebates available, for example, to US companies that develop shale gas fields in China. The US oil industry doesn’t bother much with politics. They go where there is money to be made.

China will likely spend over $180 billion this year on oil imports, enriching foreigners in places like Iran, Russia and Venezuela. Based on that uncomfortable fact, and that using more natural gas will cut the environmental damage caused by burning so much coal, the rational policy choice is to do about whatever it takes to get US shale gas producers to come to China and start drilling, fraccing and pumping.

My advice: let it be done, and let it be done soon.