CSRC

China IPO, the media headline and reality could hardly be more worlds apart — Reuters

Reuters

Reuters headline

 

 

Spot the difference between the headline and the factual content of the article? One is designed to capture your attention, if not ruin your day. The other conveys less alarmist, less hyperventilated facts.

Something similar is at work in this article published by Reuters yesterday on China’s IPO market, the recent delays and the prospect for resumption later this year. Click here to read the Reuters article.

Reading just the headline, “China IPO promised land turns to desert as regulator review stokes confusion“, and you would likely conclude China’s IPO market had turned to a barren wasteland, where no Chinese company would anytime soon be able to tap the public markets for capital. One certainly would not expect, 24 hours earlier, another respected business publication, in this case the Wall Street Journal,  to publish an article that suggests the IPO process in China is about to boom.

Yet, that’s what happened. Same weekend. Same China. Wildly divergent realities.  Here’s the Journal article.

So, what’s going on here? Well, first off, the Wall Street Journal article is, both headline and body, a lot closer to the truth, at least as far as I’m able to judge. IPOs in China, after a two month hiatus, are about to start up again. The country’s securities regulator, the CSRC, is introducing a new market-based process of IPO approval. It’s a 180-degree change over the IPO system in China prevailing until the start of this year. Big change, and some big bumps along the road. But, overall, China is heading clearly in the direction where IPOs — which companies, when and at what listing price — will be decided by the market, by investor demand, not regulatory fiat.

The Reuters story, on the other hand, tries to mount a case that things have broken down rather seriously. The text of the article, to be fair, doesn’t entirely reflect the content of that headline. This sometimes happens, based on my experience back some twenty years ago working as a journalist. But, the gap here between headline and story, as well as between headline and fact, is larger than one might like to see.

My guess is the Reuters reporters started out with a plan to write about the breakdown in China’s IPO market, gathered up some quotes, as well as a bit of evidence, in the form of 24 companies (out of a total of over 700) dropping off the IPO waiting list. They called me ten days ago asking for a comment, probably knowing I don’t see things to be quite so dark and hopeless. That quote appears at the very bottom of the article. Here’s the full text of what I told them.

The Reuters article was written, edited and was waiting to be published when, perhaps inconveniently for Reuters,  the CSRC unexpectedly announced late Friday that 28 Chinese companies are well-along in their IPO plans and should close their fund-raising soon. That’s the story the Journal published.

Reuters went ahead and published its story. It didn’t bother to change that gloomy headline, and didn’t mention this news about a large batch of IPOs about to move forward. The “desert” Reuters describes apparently can sustain IPO life after all.

 

 

 

 

China’s New IPO Regime — manipulation or emancipation? — Reuters

Reuters

reuters

In English we use the phrase ” bee in one’s bonnet” to explain someone with an obsession for a particular point of view. In Chinese, a similar idiom is 挥之不去, meaning you can’t wipe out the stain.

Have a  look at this article today by Reuters, about the IPO process in China. To me, the reporters started off this story with a bee in their hats, that China’s domestic IPO industry remains a nest of corruption, manipulation and ominous doings by the regulator, the CSRC. They found someone to quote, and then asked me for my opinion. I shared it across several emails. As you’ll see, I end up being quoted in the article providing something of an antidote to all the negativity. I don’t think, to switch back to the Chinese,  I quite wiped away the stain.

Here’s the story that didn’t get reported. In the last five weeks, China’s domestic stock markets had 48 successful IPOs. That is exactly 48 more than China had in all of 2013, and ahead of the successful IPOs so far this year in Hong Kong and the US. In my view, China is on track, as I said in one of those emails to the Reuters reporter, “to shatter all worldwide records for number of IPOs in a year and money raised.”

That’s big news. Instead, the article focuses on a whole lot else that all boils down to dark mutterings, but not a lot of facts, suggesting that insider trading  is or may become rife; that there’s some form of “moral hazard” at work here. Hard to refute. Equally hard to confirm.

The one example cited, of the cancelled Jiangsu Aosaikang, is said by a source to be “most heavily intervened IPO in the history of China”. IPOs, for those keeping score, get pulled all the time, everywhere, most often because investors wouldn’t commit to buying all the shares on offer. What happened with the Jiangsu Aosaikang IPO no one can say for sure. But, the quote is just silly.

Until two months ago, all China IPOs involved a level of direct, disclosed, intensive intervention by the CSRC that covered not only the IPO offering price, but included too the CSRC making decisions on which Chinese companies should IPO, when, with what level of profits. This was intervention on a grand, intentional and absolutist scale.

We’re only in the second month of the new IPO regime in China. Things might degenerate. The CSRC and market participants like underwriters are still feeling their way forward. But, there’s ample room for optimism here: a highly-damaging IPO embargo is over, Rmb 30 billion  ($5 bn) has been raised, and there’s clearly investor appetite for more new issues.

Reuters

The Misfortunes of the Big Four in China

China First Capital blog

Last week, an SEC judge in the US delivered a spanking to the Big Four accounting firms, barring their Chinese affiliates for six months from doing audit work for US-quoted Chinese companies. “To the extent [the Big Four] found themselves between a rock and a hard place,” the judge’s decision declares, “it is because they wanted to be there. A good faith effort to obey the law means a good faith effort to obey all law, not just the law that one wishes to follow.”

Overall, the judge’s 112-page ruling on the audit work of the Big Four in China makes for interesting, and at times damning, reading. You can click here to access it.The judge’s decision should probably be required reading for anyone working in Chinese private equity and capital markets transactions with Chinese companies. Investments in Chinese companies worth many tens of billions of dollars rely, at least to some extent, on the accuracy and reliability of Big Four audits. That audit bedrock looks shakier now than it did a week ago.

The Big Four are appealing the decision meaning that for now at least, they can continue to serve their US-listed Chinese clients, continue to audit their accounts, and continue to earn sizable fees for doing so. If they lose the appeal, they will need to suspend for six months their main activity in China. The Big Four have a near-monopoly on audit work for the over 160 Chinese companies listed in the US. Will their Chinese clients permanently go elsewhere? What about the 15,000 people working for the Big Four in China? How will the firms pay them during the half-year suspension? How will they spend their working days if not engaged in audit work?

This much is clear: whatever happens with the appeal, the reputation and trustworthiness of the Big Four’s work in China has taken a recent beating. The judge’s decision last week is particularly ill-timed. Chinese companies have only just regained some of the lost trust of US investors, allowing IPOs to resume. I have friends at all Big Four firms, and have worked with all of them over the last six years in China.

This dispute between the SEC and the Big Four has been bubbling away for over two years. It was triggered by a series of SEC investigations into serious misbehavior by some Chinese companies then-quoted in the US — fraudulent financial accounts, incomplete disclosure, faked revenues. The companies were punished, and their shares delisted from the US stock exchange. But, what about the Big Four auditors? Why hadn’t they uncovered and reported their clients’ misconduct to the SEC? Were the Big Four in China careless?  Negligent? Or even complicit in these Chinese companies’ attempts to mislead US investors?

This quickly became a focus of the SEC investigation. To determine if the Big Four audits were performed thoroughly and in compliance with US securities laws, the SEC asked the Big Four in China for their audit papers — that is, the complete written documentation showing what they did and with what level of diligence and accuracy. The Big Four refused the SEC requests to hand over the audit papers, saying that to do so would violate Chinese state secrecy laws.

They used the same argument with the judge. He rejected it outright. Instead, he says the Big Four demonstrated “gall” in “flouting” the SEC, were “oblivious” to some core legal issues, and took a “calculated risk” they wouldn’t get punished. Strong stuff. While the judge doesn’t say directly that greed was a major factor in the Big Four’s decision to disobey SEC orders, but it may be fair to make that inference. Their strategy seems basically having one’s cake and eating it too. They wanted to keep earning big fees for China audit work, while not fully complying with US securities laws. In specific cases cited by the judge, accounting fraud at US-listed Chinese companies was first brought to light by short-sellers, rather than by the Big Four audits.

The judge’s ruling notes the fact that over the last decade, the Big Four have built very large businesses in China. KPMG China and Ernst & Young China both tripled in size from 2004-2012. PWC grew fastest, increasing its staff four-fold to over 8,000 people. Such rapid growth is unprecedented as far as I know in the history of large accounting firms.

One large irony here is that the Big Four are accused by the judge of violating Sarbanes-Oxley. That law has overall been very good to the Big Four, since it gave accountants increased responsibility to police US-listed companies’ financial accounts. The scope of audits increased and with it the fees. But, when things go wrong, as they have with quite a number of Chinese quoted companies listed in the US, the auditors can potentially be held legally liable.

The Big Four all argued to the judge they should be treated leniently because if banned, no other accountants in China have the training and professionalism to do audit work that meets SEC standards for investor protection.  Any Chinese company that can’t find a new auditor would need to delist from the US stock exchanges. The judge dismissed this argument, and helpfully lists a group of five other accounting firms that have done audits in China and, unlike the Big Four, turned over audit papers to the SEC when asked.

Some big US multinationals including P&G, Amazon.com, Apple, The Coca-Cola Company and Nike, with large revenues and operations in China, would probably also need to find new Chinese auditors if the ban is upheld. Investing or operating a US-owned business in China, never easy, will become even trickier if the Big Four are forced to down pencils in China and serve the six-month SEC suspension.

 

China’s Capital Markets Go From Feast to Famine and Now Back Again, China First Capital New Research Report

China First Capital 2014 research report cover

The long dark eclipse is over. The sun is shining again on China’s capital markets and private equity industry. That’s good news in itself, but is also especially important to the overall Chinese economy. For the last two years, investment flows into private sector companies have dropped precipitously, as IPOs disappeared and private equity firms went into hibernation. Rebalancing China’s economy away from exports and government investment will take cash. Lots of it. Expect significant progress this year as China’s private sector raises record capital and China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) gradually transform into more competitive, profit-maximizing businesses.

These are some of the conclusions of the most recent Chinese-language research report published by China First Capital. It is titled, “2014民企国企的转型与机遇“, which I’d translate as “2014: A Year of Transformation and Opportunities for China’s Public and Private Sectors”. You can download a copy by clicking here or visiting the Research Reports section of the China First Capital website, (http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/en/research-reports).

We’re not planning an English translation. One reason:  the report is tailored mainly to the 8,000 domestic company bosses as well as Chinese government policy-makers and officials we work with or have met. They have already received a copy. The report has also gotten a fair bit of media coverage over the last week here in China.

Our key message is we expect this year overall business conditions, as well as capital-raising environment,  to be significantly improved compared to the last two years.  We expect the IPO market to stage a significant recovery. Our prediction, over 500 Chinese companies will IPO worldwide during this year, with the majority of these IPOs here in China.

We also investigate the direction of economic and reform policy in China following the Third Plenum, and how it will open new opportunities for SOEs to finance their growth and improve their overall profitability, including through carve-out IPOs and strategic investment. SOEs will become an important new area of investment for PE firms and global strategics.

The SOEs we work with are all convinced of the need to diversify their ownership, and bring in profit-driven experienced institutional investors. For investors, SOE deals offer several clear advantages: scale is larger and valuations are usually lower than in SME deals; SOEs are fully compliant with China’s tax rules, with a single set of books; the time to IPO or other exit should be quicker than in many SME deals.

As financial markets mature in China, we think one unintended consequence will be a drop in activity on China’s recently-established over-the-counter exchange, known as the “New Third Board” (新三板).  The report offers our reasons why we think this OTC market is a poor, inefficient choice for Chinese businesses looking to raise capital. While the aims of the Third Board are commendable, to open a new fund-raising channel for private sector companies, the reality is that it offers too little liquidity, low valuations and an uncertain path to a full listing on China’s main stock exchanges.

Over the last three years, China has had the highest growth rate and the worst performing stock market among all major economies. In part, the long stock market slide is both necessary and desirable, to bring China’s stock market valuations more in line with those of the US and Hong Kong. But, it also points to a more uncomfortable reality, that China’s listed companies too often become listless ones. Once public, many companies’ profit growth and rates of return go into long-term decline. IPO proceeds are hoarded or misspent. Rarely do managers make it a priority to increase shareholder value.

A small tweak in the IPO listing rules offers some promise of improvement. Beginning this year, a company’s control shareholder, usually the owner or a PE firm, will be locked-in and prevented from selling shares for five years if the share price stays below the original IPO level.

Spare a moment to consider the life of a successful Chinese entrepreneur, both SOE and private sector. In two years, access to capital went from feast to famine. And now maybe back again. An IPO exit went from a reachable goal to an impossibility. And now maybe back again. Meanwhile, markets at home surged while those abroad sputtered. Government reform went from minimal to now ambitious.

2014 is going to be quite a year.

IPO rules overhauled for PE and VC firms — China Daily

China Daily article

Shanghai stock exchange trading floor

Friday, January 3, 2014

Private equity and venture capital firms will have to conduct their business differently in China in 2014, after regulators overhauled initial public offering rules.

Chinese PE and VC companies used to evaluate the companies by the standards of the China Securities Regulatory Commission for quicker IPOs, but now the market will play a more important role, said Peter Fuhrman, chairman, founder and chief executive officer at China First Capital.

“Under the new IPO system, the share pricing of an IPO company is decided by its strength and competitiveness, so investors will choose companies with real potential to invest in and provide them with the resources of strategy, management and market development to make their own return the best,” said Fuhrman *.

Private equity and venture capital firms will not find it easy to earn money any more after the new share-listing reform plan is carried out, because even if the companies they invested in get listed, they will still face the risk of losses, said Jin Haitao, chairman of leading Chinese equity investment firm Shenzhen Capital Group Co Ltd.

Jin said PE and VC institutions should cultivate real investment capabilities including those in value-discovery and negotiating. Pre-IPO deals cannot be guaranteed to earn money any more.

A total of 83 Chinese companies completed the examination and received approval from the China Securities Regulatory Commission. About 50 are expected to have finished all IPO procedures and be listed before the end of January. More than 760 companies are in line for approval. It will take about a year to audit all the applications.

In the IPO reform plan announced at the end of November, information disclosure has become more important and the China Securities Regulatory Commission will only be responsible for examining applicants’ qualifications, leaving investors and the markets to make their own judgments about a company’s value and the risks of buying its shares.

More and more Chinese companies applying for IPOs asked for cooperation with multinational accounting institutions, according to Hoffman Cheong, an assurance leader at Ernst & Young China North Region.

Cheong said the information disclosed can be different after the IPO reform plan is carried out.

According to the IPO reform plan, so long as an issuer’s prospectus is received by the commission, it will be released on the commission’s website. The company should buy back shares if there is a false statement or major omission. Also it should compensate investors if they lose money in certain situations.

http://www.chinadailyasia.com/business/2014-01/03/content_15109395.html

(* Note: I never spoke to the reporter. As far as I can tell, the quote was translated into English, rather clumsily, from a Chinese-language commentary of mine published recently in a Chinese business publication. If asked, I would have said that companies need to choose PE investors carefully, and vice versa.)

China’s IPO Freeze to Melt in Midwinter

Kesi embroidery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The China IPO Embargo: How and When IPOs May Resume

China IPO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Why China PE will rise again — Interview in China Law & Practice Annual Review 2013

CLP

 

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Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, talks to David Tring about his company’s disciplined focus, what the IPO freeze means for PE investors and how a ruling from a court in China has removed a layer of safety for PE firms

What is China First Capital?

China First Capital is a China-focused international bank and advisory firm. I am its chairman and founder. Establishing, and now running, China First Capital is the fulfilment of a deeply-held ambition nurtured for over 30 years. I first came to China in 1981, as part of a first intake of American graduate students in China. I left China after school and then built a career in the US and Europe. But, throughout, I never lost sight of the goal to return to China and start a business that would contribute meaningfully and positively to the country’s revival and prosperity.

China First Capital is small by investment banking industry standards. Our transaction volume over the preceding twelve months was around $250 million. But, we aim to punch above our weight. China First Capital’s geographical reach and client mandates are across all regions of China, with exceptional proprietary deal flow. We have significant domain expertise in most major industries in China’s private and public sector, structuring transactions for a diversified group of companies and financial sponsors to help them grow and globalise. We seek to be a knowledge-driven company, committed to the long-term economic prosperity of Chinese business and society, backed by proprietary research (in both Chinese and English), that is generally unmatched by other boutique investment banks or advisory firms active in China.

What have been some of the legislative changes to the PE sector this year that are affecting you?

The recent policy and legislative changes are mainly no more than tweaks. There has been some sparring within China over which regulator would oversee private equity. But, overall, the PE industry in China is both lightly and effectively regulated. A key change, however, occurred through the legal system within China, when a court in Western China invalidated the put clause of a PE deal done within China, ruling that the PE firm involved had ignored China’s securities laws in crafting this escape mechanism for their investment.  While the court ruled on only a single example, the logic applied in this case seems to me, and many others, to be both persuasive and potentially broad-reaching. For PE firms that traditionally added this put clause to all contracts they signed to invest in Chinese companies, and came to rely on it as a way to compel the company to buy them out after a number of years if no IPO took place, there is now real doubt about whether a put clause is worth the paper it’s printed on. Simply put, for PE firms, it means their life-raft here in China has perhaps sprung a leak.

What are some of the hottest sectors in China that are attracting PE investors?

At the moment, with IPOs suspended within China and Chinese private companies decidedly unwelcome in the capital markets that once embraced them by the truckload – the US and Hong Kong – there are no hot sectors for PE investment in China now. The PE industry in China, once high-flying, is now decidedly grounded and covered in tarpaulin. What is perhaps most unfortunate about this is that what we are seeing mainly is a crisis within China’s PE industry, not within the ranks of China’s very dynamic private entrepreneurial economy. In other words, while financing has all but dried up, China’s private companies continue, in many cases, to excel and outperform those everywhere else in the world. The PE firms made a fundamental miscalculation by pouring money into too many deals where their only method of exit, of getting their money back with a profit, was through an IPO. By our count, there are now over 7,500 PE-invested deals in China all awaiting exit, at a time when few, if any exits are occurring. Since PE firms themselves have a finite life in almost all cases, this means over $100bn in capital is now stuck inside deals with no high-probability way to exit before the PE funds themselves reach their planned expiry. The PE industry has never seen anything quite like what is happening now in China.

What is a typical day like for you at China First Capital?

We are lucky to work for an outstanding group of companies, mainly all Chinese domestic. Indeed, I am the only non-Chinese thing about the business. I am in China doing absolutely what I love doing. There are no aspects of my working day that I find tedious or unpleasant. Even at my busiest, I am aware I am at most a few hours away from what the next in an endless series of totally delicious Chinese meals. That alone has a levitating effect on my spirit. But, the real source of pleasure and purpose is in befriending and working beside entrepreneurs who are infinitely more skilled, more driven and wiser to the ways of the world and more successful than I ever could hope to be.

We are quite busy now working for one of China’s largest SOEs. It’s something of a departure for us, since most of our work is with private sector companies. But, this is a fascinating transaction that provides me with a quite privileged insider’s view of the way a large state-owned business operates here in China, the additional layers of decision-making and the unique environment that places far greater onus on increasing revenues than profits.

What do you find are some of the major issues or concerns for foreign PE clients when doing deals in China?

All investors looking to make money in China, whether on the stock market or through private equity and venture capital,  must confront the same huge uncertainty – not that China itself will stop its remarkable economic transformation and stop growing at levels that leave the rest of the developed world behind in the dust. This growth I believe will continue for at least the next 20 years. The big unknown has to do with the actual situation inside the Chinese company you are buying into. Can the financial statements and Big Four audits be relied on? Are the actual profits what the company asserts them to be? How great is the risk that investors’ money will disappear down some unseen rat hole?

Some frightening stories have come to light in the last two years. How widespread is the problem of accounting fraud in China? Part of the problem really is just the law of big numbers. With a population almost triple that of the US and Western Europe combined, China has a lot of everything, including both remarkable businesses run by individuals who are the entrepreneurial equal of Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, and well as some shady operators.

What is your outlook for China’s PE sector in the coming 12 months?

I believe the current crisis will abate, and stock markets will once again welcome Chinese private sector companies to do IPOs. The IPOs will be far fewer in number than in 2010, but still the revival of IPO exits will also thaw the current deep-freeze that has shut down most PE activity across China. PE firms will again start to invest, and put a dent in the $30 billion or more in capital they have raised to invest in China but have left untouched. The PE industry in China, since its founding a little more than a decade ago, grew enormously large but never really matured. There are now too many PE firms. By some count, the number exceeds 1,000, including hundreds of Renminbi PE firms started and run by people with no real experience investing in private companies. Their future appears dire. At the same time, the global PE firms that bestride the industry, including Carlyle, Blackstone, TPG, KKR, have yet to fully establish they can operate as efficiently and profitably in China as they do in Europe and the US.

While the China PE industry struggles to recover from many self-inflicted wounds, China’s private sector companies will continue to find and exploit huge opportunities for growth and profit in China, as the nation’s one billion consumers grow ever-richer and ever more demanding.

 

Private Equity in China 2013: the Opportunity & The Crisis — China First Capital Research Report

Making money from private equity in China has become as challenging as “trying to catch a fish in a tree*. The IPO exit channel is basically shut. Fundraising has never been harder. One hundred billion dollars in capital is locked up inside unexited deals. LPs are getting very anxious. Private companies are suffocating from a lack of new equity financing. PE firms are splintering as partners depart the many struggling firms.

Looking beyond today’s rather grim situation, there are some points of light still shining bright. China remains the world’s fastest-growing major economy with the world’s most enterprising private sector. Entrepreneurship remains China’s most powerful, as well as inexhaustible, natural resource. So long as these two factors remain present, as I’m sure they will for decades to come, China will remain an attractive place to put money to work. But, where? With whom?

China First Capital has published its latest survey covering China PE, M&A and capital markets. The report is titled, ” Private Equity in China 2013 — The Opportunity & The Crisis“. It can be downloaded by clicking here.

During the last year, as China PE first stumbled, then fell into a deep pit, a lot of people I talk to in the industry suggested this was a positive development, that the formation of funds and fundraising had both gotten out of hand. Usually, the PE firm partners saying this quickly added, “but this doesn’t apply to us, of course”.  In other words, as the American saying has it,  “Don’t blame you. Don’t blame me. Blame the guy behind the tree.” It’s all somebody else’s fault.

That’s an interesting take. But, not one that holds up to a lot of scrutiny. The reality is that everyone in the business of financing Chinese companies, myself included, got a little drunk and disorderly. China, in business terms, is the world’s largest punchbowl filled with the world’s most intoxicating liquor. Too many good companies. Too much money to be made. Too much money to be had.

It was ever thus. From the first time outside investors and dealmakers got a look at China, they all went a little berserk with excitement.  This was as true of Marco Polo in the 14th century as British opium houses in the 19th century and American endowments and pension funds in the last decade. The scale of the place,  of the market,  is just so stupefying.

The curse of all China investing is counting one’s fortune before it’s made.  In the latter half of the 19th century, for example, European steel mills dreamed of the profits to be made from getting Chinese to switch from chopsticks to forks and knives.

PE firms did a lot of similar fantasizing. Pour money in at eight times earnings, and pull it out a few years later after an IPO at eighty.   All the spreadsheets, all the models, all the market research and top-down analytics — in the end, it all came back to this intoxicating formula. Put a pile of chips on number 11 then spin the roulette wheel. There were a few winners in China PE, a few deals that hit the jackpot. But, the odds in roulette, at 36-to-one, turned out to be much more favorable.

For every PE deal that made a huge return, there are 150 that either went bust or now sit in this near-endless queue of unexited deals, with scant likelihood of an IPO before the PE fund’s life expires.

The China First Capital research report, rather than making any predictions on when, for example, IPOs will resume and at what sort of valuation,  delves more deeply into some more fundamental issues. These include ideas on how best to resolve the “principal-agent dilemma”, and the growing risks to China’s economic reform and rebalancing strategy caused by the drying up of IPO and PE financing of private sector companies.

We hope our judgments have merit. But, above all, they are independent. Unconflicted. That seems more and more like a rarity in our profession.

 

* A prize to the first person who successfully identifies the source of this quote. A hint: it was said by a former, often-maligned ruler of China.

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 private equity bitten again by Fang — Financial Times

FT

 

 

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By Simon Rabinovitch in Beijing

Financier Fang Fenglei is betting on private equity recovery

China’s unruly markets have vanquished many a savvy investor, but if one man knows how to play them it is Fang Fenglei.

From the establishment of the country’s first investment bank in 1995 to the complex partnership that brought Goldman Sachs into China in 2004 and the launch from scratch of a $2.5bn private equity fund in 2007, Mr Fang has been at the nexus of some of the biggest Chinese deals of the past two decades.

Even his abrupt decision in 2010 to start winding down Hopu, his private equity fund, was impeccably well timed. Since he left the scene, the Chinese stock market has been among the worst performers in the world and the private equity industry, once booming alongside the country’s turbocharged economy, has gone cold.

So the news that Mr Fang, the son of a peasant farmer, will return with a new $2bn-$2.5bn investment fund is more than a passing curiosity. The financier is betting that China’s beleaguered private equity industry will recover – a wager that at the moment has long odds.

The most immediate obstacle for the private equity industry in China is a bottleneck on exits from investments. Regulators have halted approvals for all initial public offerings since October, a tried and tested method for putting a floor under the stock market by limiting the availability of shares. But a side effect has been eliminating the preferred exit route of private equity companies.

Even before the IPO freeze, the backlog was already building up. China First Capital, an advisory firm, estimates that there are more than 7,500 unexited private equity investments in China from deals done since 2000. Valuations may have appreciated greatly but private equity groups are struggling to sell their assets.

More…

China’s GPs search for exits — Private Equity International Magazine

Chinese GPs are running low on exit options, but the barriers to unconventional routes – like secondary sales to other GPs – remain high.

By Michelle Phillips

China’s exit woes are no secret. With accounting scandals freezing the IPO route both abroad and domestically, the waiting list for IPO approval on China’s stock exchanges has come close to 900 companies.  Fund managers have at least 7,550 unexited investments worth a combined $100 billion, according to a recent study by China First Capital. However, including undisclosed deals, the number of companies could be as high as 10,000, says CFC’s founder and chairman Peter Fuhrman.
CITIC Capital chief executive Yichen Zhang told the Hong Kong Venture Capital Association Asia Private Equity Forum in January that because many GPs promised high returns in an unrealistic timeframe (usually three to five years), LPs were already starting to get impatient. He also predicted that around 80 percent of China’s smaller GPs would collapse in the coming years. “The worst is yet to come,” he said.
What ought to become an attractive option for these funds, according to the CFC study, are secondary buyouts. Even if it lowers the exit multiple, secondaries would provide liquidity for LPs, as well as potentially giving the companies an influx of cash, Fuhrman says.

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Goldman Sachs Predicts 349 IPOs in China in 2013 — Brilliant Analysis? Or Wishful Thinking?

We’re one-quarter of the way through 2013 and so far no IPOs in China. Capital flows to private companies remain paralyzed. Never fear, says Goldman Sachs. In a 24-page research report published January 23rd of this year (click here to read an excerpt), Goldman projects there will be 349 IPOs in China this year, a record number. Its prediction is based on Goldman’s calculation that 2013 IPO proceeds will reach a fixed percentage (in this case 0.7%) of 2012 year-end total Chinese stock market capitalization.

This formula provides Goldman Sachs with a precise amount of cash to be raised this year in China from IPOs: Rmb 180bn ($29 billion), an 80% increase over total IPO proceeds raised in China last year. It then divvies up that Rmb 180 billion into its projected 349 IPOs,  with 93 to be listed in China’s main Shanghai stock exchange, 171 on the SME board in Shenzhen, and 85 on the Chinext (创业板)exchange. To get to Goldman’s numbers will require levels of daily IPO activity that China has never seen.

The report features 35 exhibits, graphs, charts and tables, including scatter plots, cross-country comparisons, time series data on what is dubbed “IPO ratios (IPO value as % of last year-end’s total market cap)”. It’s quite a statistical tour de force, with the main objective seeming to be to allay concerns that too many new IPOs in China will hurt overall China share price levels. In other words, Goldman is convinced a key issue that is now blocking IPOs in China is one of supply and demand. The Goldman calculation, therefore, shows that even the 349 new IPOs, taking Rmb180 billion in new money from investors, shouldn’t have a particularly adverse impact on overall share price levels in China.

I’ve heard versions of this analysis (generally not as comprehensive or data-driven as Goldman’s) multiple times over the last year, as China IPO activity first slowed dramatically, then was shut down completely six months ago. The CSRC itself has never said emphatically why all IPOs have stopped. So, everyone, including Goldman,  is to some extent guessing. Goldman’s guess, however, comes accessorized with this complex formula that uses December 31, 2012 share prices as a predictor for the scale of IPOs in 2013.

I’m grateful to a friend at China PE firm CDH for sending me the Goldman report a few days ago. I otherwise wouldn’t have seen it. I’m not sure if Goldman Sachs released any follow-up reports or notes since on China IPOs. Goldman was the first Wall Street firm to win an underwriting license in China. It’s impossible to say how much Goldman’s business has been hurt by the near-year-long drought in China IPOs.

Goldman shows courage, it seems to me, in making a precise projection on the number of IPOs in China this year, and relying on their own mathematical equation to derive that number. Here’s how all IPO activity in China since 1994 looks when the Goldman formula is plotted:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not a gambling man, and personally hope to see as many IPOs as possible this year of Chinese companies. Even a fool knows the easiest way to lose money in financial markets is to be on the other side of a bet with Goldman Sachs. That said, I’m prepared to take a shot.  I’d be delighted to make a bet with the Goldman team that wrote the report. A spread bet, with “over/under” on the 349 number. I take the “under”. We settle up on January 1, 2014. Any takers?

My own guess – and that’s all it is –  is that there will be around 120 IPOs in China this year. But, this prediction admittedly does not rely on any formula like Goldman Sachs and so lacks exactitude. In fact, I approach things from a very different direction. I don’t think the only, or even main,  reason there are no IPOs in China is because of concerns about how new IPOs might impact overall share prices.

I put as much, or more, importance on rebuilding the CSRC’s capacity to keep fraudulent companies from going public in China. The CSRC seems to have had quite stellar record in this regard until last summer, when a company called Guangdong Xindadi Biotechnology got through the CSRC approval process and was in the final stages of preparing for its IPO. Reports in the Chinese media began to cast doubt on the company and its finances. Within weeks, the Xindadi IPO was pulled by the CSRC. The company and its accountants are now under criminal investigation.

The truth is still murky. But, if press reports are to be believed, even in part, Xindadi’s financial accounts were as fraudulent as some of the more notorious offshore Chinese listed companies like Sino-Forest and Longtop Financial targeted by short sellers and specialist research houses in the US.  The CSRC process — with its multiple levels of “double-blind” control, audit, verification —   was designed to eliminate any potential for this sort of thing to happen in China’s capital markets.

But, it seems to have happened. So, in my mind, getting the CSRC IPO approval process back on track is a key variable determining when, and how many, new IPOs will occur this year in China. This cannot be rendered statistically. The head of the CSRC was just moved to another job, which complicates things perhaps even more and may lead to longer delays before IPOs are resumed and get back to the old levels.

How far is the CSRC going now to try to make its IPO approval process more able to detect fraud? It has instructed accountants and lawyers to redo, at their own expense, the audits and legal diligence on companies they represent now on the CSRC waiting list.  Over 100 companies just dropped off the CSRC IPO approval waiting list, leaving another 650 or so stranded in the approval process, along with the 100 companies that have already gotten the CSRC green light but have been unable to complete their IPO.

A friend at one Chinese underwriter also told us recently that meetings between CSRC officials, companies waiting for IPO approval and their advisers are now video-taped. A team of facial analysis experts on the CSRC payroll then reviews the tapes to decide if anyone is telling a lie. If true, it opens a new chapter in the history of securities regulation.

If, as I believe,  restoring the institutional credibility of the CSRC approval process is a prerequisite for the resumption of major IPO activity in China, a statistical exhibit-heavy analysis like Goldman’s is only going to capture some, not all, of the key variables. Human behavior, fear of punishment, organizational function and dysfunction, as well as darker psychological motives also play a large role. An expert in behavioral finance might be more well-equipped to predict accurately when and how many IPOs China will have this year than Goldman’s crack team of portfolio strategists.

Buyout Firms Lack Exit Ramp in China — Wall Street Journal

 

WSJ

With the door to initial public offerings in China largely shut, private-equity firms invested there are having a tough time cashing out. The alternative—selling to another buyout firm or a company looking to expand via acquisition—remains rare in a market where buyers are relatively few.

Private-equity firms are sitting on more than $130 billion of investments in China and are under pressure from investors to find an exit, Shenzhen-based advisory firm China First Capital said in a report last week.

Gary Rieschel, founder of Shanghai-based Qiming Venture Partners, said, “There needs to be a broader number of choices in buyers” in China.

Private-equity firms have generally exited their China investments through IPOs, but the number of private-equity-backed IPOs approved by mainland regulators has plummeted. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong IPO market has softened and sentiment toward Chinese companies in the U.S. has soured because of accounting scandals.

In October, the China Securities Regulatory Commission shut the IPO door completely on the mainland, halting the approval of new listings over worries that a glut of offerings would further weigh on sagging share prices. The Shanghai Composite Index was one of the world’s worst performers in 2012, sinking to a near four-year low in early December before a rally pulled the index up slightly for the year.

Analysts say they don’t expect the CSRC to approve any IPOs until at least March, when Beijing’s top lawmakers usually hold important annual planning meetings.

The regulator approved 220 IPOs of companies backed by private-equity or venture-capital firms in 2010, but that fell to 165 the following year and 97 last year, research firm China Venture said. There are now nearly 900 companies waiting to list in China, the CSRC said on its website.

Hong Kong’s market, meanwhile, has seen fewer IPOs over the past year as investors soured on new listings after several underperformed the broader market. U.S. private-equity firm Blackstone Group, which owns 20% of chemical company China National Blue Star, scrapped a planned Hong Kong listing of a unit called Bluestar Adisseo Nutrition Group in 2010 due to weak markets. It has yet to list that firm.

Carlyle Group has struggled to exit some of its deals, including two deals it made in 2007, a $20 million investment in Shanghai-based language-training firm NeWorld Education Group and a $100 million investment in Zhejiang Kaiyuan Hotel Management Co. A company spokesman said the holding periods for those investments are normal because private-equity firms usually stay invested for four to seven years. The spokesman also said Carlyle has successfully exited many deals, including the recent sale of its stake in China Pacific Insurance, which generated a profit of more than $4 billion.

In more-developed markets, private-equity firms can count on exiting their investments through sales to rival buyout firms or to companies looking to grow through strategic acquisitions. But in China, private-equity firms have sold stakes to rival firms or other companies only an average of 15 times a year over the past three years, according to data provider Dealogic.

China’s secondary buyout market—where private-equity firms sell to each other—remains immature. Among the handful of such deals, Actis Capital sold a majority stake last month in Beijing hot-pot chain Xiabu Xiabu, for which it had paid $50 million in 2008, to U.S. firm General Atlantic for an undisclosed amount.

Domestic consolidation is rare compared with the activity in developed countries. Chinese companies that are still growing quickly may prefer to hold off selling, and there are fewer big corporate domestic buyers.

“China is still a relatively fragmented economy with a disproportionately small number of large businesses relative to the size of its economy and very few national businesses,” said Vinit Bhatia, head of China private equity for Bain & Co.

When a private-equity firm does sell a Chinese portfolio company, the size of the deal tends to be small. Last year’s biggest sale was MBK Partners’ $320 million sale of a majority stake in Luye Pharma Group, which it bought in 2008. The buyer was AsiaPharm Holdings Ltd.

Usually, though, foreign private-equity firms hold only minority stakes in Chinese companies because full control is tough to get, in part for regulatory reasons. Domestic private-equity firms, meanwhile, are often content to hold minority stakes in fast-growing companies, which can offer healthy returns.

Management may not be on board when a minority investor wants to put the whole company up for sale. Chinese chairmen, who are often the founders of their businesses, prefer to remain at the helm, said Lei Fu, co-founder of Shanghai-based private-equity firm Ivy Capital.

Still, private-equity investors say they are hopeful that more buyers will emerge in China this year, even if the IPO markets stay shut.

The number of strategic Chinese buyers should increase as the government encourages consolidation across industries and as medium-size companies begin growing more rapidly with a rebound in the economy, they say.

“Five years ago we would think of multinationals…Now we think more local companies” when looking for buyers, says Huaming Gu, Shanghai-based partner at private-equity firm Baird Capital.

 

http://blogs.wsj.com/deals/2013/01/15/buyout-firms-lack-exit-ramp-in-china/

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China Private Equity Secondaries — the new China First Capital research report

 

In the current difficult market environment for private equity in China, secondary transactions provide a valuable way forward.  Staging successful IPOs or M&A will remain severely challenging. This is the conclusion of a proprietary research report recently completed and published by China First Capital. An abridged version is available by clicking here.  You can also visit the Research Reports section of the China First Capital website.

Secondaries potentially offer some of the best risk-adjusted investment opportunities, as well as the most certain and efficient way for private equity and venture capital firms to exit investments. And yet these secondary deals still remain rare. As a result, General Partners, Limited Partners and investee companies, as well as China’s now-large private equity industry,  are all at risk from serious adverse outcomes.

This new CFC research report is a data-driven examination of the potential market for secondary transactions in China, the significant scope for profit on all sides of the transaction, as well as the no less significant obstacles to the development of an efficient, liquid, stable long-term market in these secondary positions in China.

The report’s conclusion is that secondaries have the potential to benefit all three core constituencies in the China PE industry — GPs, LPs and investee companies. The universe of deals potentially available for secondary exit is large, over 7,500 unexited investments made in China by PE firms since 2000.

However, the greatest potential for both PE sellers and buyers across the short to medium term is in a group of select companies CFC terms “Quality Secondaries“. These are PE investments that fulfill four criteria:

  1. unexited and not in IPO approval process, domestically or internationally
  2. investee companies have grown well (+25% a year) since the original round of PE investment, and have continuing scope to expand enterprise value and achieve eventual capital markets or trade sale exit in 3-6 year time frame
  3. businesses are sound from legal and regulatory perspective, have effective corporate governance, and a majority owner  that will support secondary sale to another PE institution
  4. current PE investor seeks secondary exit because of fund life or portfolio management reasons

CFC’s  analysis reveals that the potential universe of “Quality Secondaries” is at least 200 companies. This number will likely grow by approx. 15%-25% a year, as funds reach latter stage of their lives and if other exit options remain limited.

At the current juncture, in this market environment, and assuming “Quality Secondary” deals are done at market valuations, these investment represent some of the better values to be found in growth capital investing in China.  DD risk is significantly lower than in primary deals, and contingent risks (opportunity costs, and legal risks of pursuing other non-IPO exits) are lower.

Despite the current lack of significant deal-making activity in this area, secondaries will likely go from current low levels to gain a meaningful share of all PE exits in China.

The secondaries market in China will have unique factors compared to the US, Europe and elsewhere. There will likely be limited investor interest in any secondary deal involving a Chinese company or a portfolio that has underperformed since PE investment, or could otherwise be characterized as a  “distress” situation.

Quality Secondaries transactions in China will involve PE investors “cherry-picking” good companies at fair valuations.  The primary motivation for selling PEs is misalignment between its remaining fund life and the time required and risk inherent in achieving  domestic or offshore IPO or trade sale exit during that shortened time frame.

In contrast with secondary deals done outside China, we do not expect to see much activity involving the sale of all or most of a PE firm’s portfolio of investments. Specialist secondary firms operating elsewhere (e.g. Coller Capital, Harbourvest) do not currently have the experience or manpower in China to take on the complexities of managing and liquidating all or most of an existing portfolio of minority investments.

Rather, we expect those PEs with strong operating performance in growth capital investing in China to exploit favorable market conditions by becoming active buyers of Quality Secondaries.   GPs that prefer larger deals, (+USD25mn/Rmb200mn), should be particularly interested in Quality Secondaries, since company scale and investment amount will likely be larger, on average, than primary deals in China.

Selling PEs can pursue exit strategies based on option of selling either part or all of a successful unexited deal. A part liquidation in Quality Secondary transaction can mitigate risk and return capital to LPs while still retaining future upside. A full exit through secondary can increase fund’s realized IRR and so assist future fundraising. Importantly, a selling PE needs to act before pricing leverage is transferred mainly to buyers — generally this means secondary deals should be evaluated and priced in market when fund still has minimum of two years left of active period.

While clearly the most acute need for exit will be investments made before 2008, more recent investments need also to be assessed based on current market conditions. Many GPs are adopting what looks to be an unhedged strategy across a portfolio of invested deals waiting for capital markets conditions to improve.

In particular, much of this “wait and see” approach is based on the hope that Hong Kong’s once-vibrant, now-moribund IPO market for Chinese companies returns to its earlier state. The US stock market will certainly remain off limits to most Chinese companies for a long time to come. Exit through China’s domestic stock market is now seriously blocked by bureaucratic slowdowns and an approval backlog that even under optimistic scenarios could take three to five years to clear.

The need for diversification is no less paramount for exits than entries. Many of the same PEs that wisely spread their LPs money across a range of industries, stages and deal sizes, have become over-reliant now on  a single path to exit: the Hong Kong IPO.  By itself, such dependence on a single exit path is risky. In the current environment, it looks even more so.

The flood of Chinese IPOs in Hong Kong basically came to a halt a year ago.  When they do resume, it may prove challenging for all but the best and biggest Chinese companies to successfully issue shares there. What will become of the other deals? How will GPs and LPs profit from investments already made? That’s the focus on this new report, titled, “China Secondaries:  The Necessary & Attractive Exit For Private Equity Deals in China“.