due diligence

Crawling Blindfold & Naked Through A Minefield

 

Making a failed investment is usually permissible in the PE industry. Making a negligent investment is not. The PE firms now considering the “delist-relist” transactions I wrote about last time (click here to read)  are jeopardizing not only their investors’ money, but the firm’s own survival.  The risks in these deals are both so large and so uncontrollable that if a deal were to go wrong, the PE firm would be vulnerable to a lawsuit by its Limited Partners (“LPs”) for breach of fiduciary duty.

Such a lawsuit, or even the credible threat of one, would likely put the PE firm out of business by making it impossible for the firm to ever raise money from LPs again. In other words, PE firms that do “delist-relist” are taking existential risk. To this old guy, that is just plain dumb.

Before making any investment, a PE firm, to fulfill its fiduciary duty, will do extensive, often forensic, due diligence. The DD acts as a kind of inoculation, protecting the PE firm in the event something later goes wrong with the investment. As long as the DD was done properly, meaning no obvious risks were ignored, then a PE firm can’t easily be attacked in court for investing in a failed deal.

With the “delist-relist” deals however, there is no way for the DD process to fully determine the scale of the largest risks, nor can the PE firm do much to hedge, manage or alleviate them. This is because the largest risks are inherent in the deal structure.

The two main ones are the risk of shareholder lawsuits and the risk that the company, after being taken private, will fail to win approval for an IPO on a different stock market. If either occur, they will drain away any potential profit. Both risks are fully outside the control of the PE firm. This makes these deals a blindfolded and naked crawl through a minefield.

Why, then, are PE firms considering these deals? From my discussions, one reason is that they appear easy. The target company is usually already trading on the US stock market, and so has a lot of SEC disclosure materials available. All one needs to do is download the documents from the SEC’s Edgar website. Investing in private Chinese companies, by contrast, is almost always a long, arduous and costly slog – it involves getting materials, like an audit, and then making sure everything else provided by the company is genuine and accurate.

Another reason is ignorance of or indifference to the legal risks: many of the PE firms I’ve talked to that are considering these “delist-relist” deals have little direct experience operating in the US capital markets. Instead, the firm’s focus on what they perceive to be the “undervaluation” of the Chinese companies quoted in the US. One PE guy I know described the Chinese companies as “miss-killed”, meaning they are, to his way of thinking, basically solid businesses that are being unfairly scorned by US investors. There may well be some good ones foundering on US stock markets. But, finding them and putting the many pieces together of a highly-complex “delist-relist” deal is outside the circle of competence and experience of most PE firms active in China.

This investment approach, of looking for mispriced or distressed assets on the stock market,  is a strategy following by many portfolio managers, distress investors and hedge funds. PE firms operating in China, however, are a different breed, and raised money from their LPs, in most cases, by promising to do different sorts of deals, with longer time horizons and a focus on outstanding private companies short of growth capital. The PE firm acts as supportive rich uncle, not as a crisis counselor.

Abandoning that focus on strong private companies, to pursue these highly risky “delist-relist” deals seems not only misguided, but potentially reckless. Virtually every working day, private Chinese companies go public and earn their PE investors returns of 400% or more. There is no shortage of great private companies looking for PE in China. Just the opposite. Finding them takes more work than compiling a spreadsheet with the p/e multiples of Chinese companies traded in the US.  But, in most cases, the hard work of finding and investing in private companies is what LPs agreed to fund, and where the best risk-adjusted profits are to be made.  How will LPs respond if a PE firm does a “delist-relist” deal and then it goes sour? This, too, is a suicidal risk the PE firm is taking.

Private Equity Firms in China in the Firing Line – Ratcheting Up the Criticism of Performance Ratchets

Ming Dynasty Cloisonne

In an interesting discussion this week in Shenzhen with a very smart and capable lawyer (Ke Luo of Fangda Partners), I learned about a small, but growing backlash against the Top Tier private equity firms working China. Evidently there have been some articles in the Chinese press voicing criticisms of their approach and methods, and comparing them unfavorably with Chinese domestic investment companies. 

Upfront disclosure: we choose to work only with the 70 or so Top Tier private equity firms active in China, as we believe they are the best investors for companies with the greatest potential, adding more value, beyond just capital, than any other source of investment. 

A main point of contention: the ratchet and performance provisions of most of the top private equity investment deals in China (and everywhere else in the world). These are the provisions, incorporated into the final closing share purchase agreement, through which the PE firm gains greater ownership in a company they’ve invested in if the company fails to meet previously agreed revenue, profit or margin targets.   

It’s a penalty for underperformance. And a very effective and focusing one. It’s not uncommon for these ratchets provisions to specify that the PE firm can gain an additional 10-15% ownership, at no additional cost,  in a company that fails to meet the annual targets. 

In good economic times and in solidly-run companies, ratchet provisions are very rarely put into effect. So, they are a generally just a ghoulish contingent presence in every PE investment contract, the stick that compliments the carrot of a PE firm investing in your business. I know from personal experience that the concept can seem very off-putting – even frightening – to some Chinese bosses: that the PE firm will, for example, go from owning 25% of his company to 40% of his company if the owner has one year that falls below the projected levels of profit and revenue. 

We’re not in good economic times at the moment, so it’s a certainty that more ratchet provisions will be triggered this year. This is what is behind some of the complaining in the Chinese press about international PE firms. Chinese investment firms apparently don’t often include ratchet provisions. The implication of the articles is that a Chinese company is better off taking money from a Chinese investment company, and so free itself from the possibility of a sort of “takeover by stealth”, as the PE firm’s ownership ratchets upward with each year of under-target performance. 

On the surface, ratchet provisions are a very fat, very easy target. So, no surprise some in the Chinese press are attacking them. But, it’s a very incomplete, unfair – and even financially illiterate – criticism to say that because of performance ratchet provisions, a Chinese company is better off taking money from a Chinese investment company. 

Chinese investment firms may not use performance ratchets, but they have a variety of other serious weaknesses. Believe me, I’m no fan of ratchets of any kind, and work hard in negotiations with PE firms to eliminate their potential for causing harm to our clients’ businesses.  But, I still think, in almost all cases, a good Chinese private company is far better off taking money from a reputable PE firm than from a more loosely-run Chinese investment business. 

The reasons are many. But, the most deep-seated are based on an appreciation of what an outside investor can and should provide a strong Chinese SME company besides just capital. Money, famously, all spends the same. So, taking $10mn from a rich uncle or from a leading private equity firm is no different, in terms of what the money can buy – a new factory perhaps, or expanded marketing and sales, or an acquisition. 

The key difference is that the best PE firms are going to do a lot more than just write a check and then wait for the riches to flow three years later at IPO. They are going to get deeply involved assisting the company to improve all areas of its operations, implementing best practices in areas like financial accounting and corporate governance, as well as providing real expertise on hard core sales and operational issues. They also know, from past successful experience, how best to guide a private company towards a successful IPO, whether on China’s domestic stock market, or abroad.

A Chinese investment company, from what I can gather, does not have the experience, the management talent – or even the inclination – to be involved in such a detailed fashion with the companies it invests in. 

I believe, based on my own practical experience,  that the good PE firms often really do make a significant difference inside a company, enabling it to get further faster than it otherwise would. Of course, PE firms can be a pain to work with. This goes way beyond the potential for a ratchet provision to be triggered. The good PE firms act as fiduciaries for their Limited Partners, and so require a massive amount of due diligence before investing, and no less enormous information flows (generally on financial performance) after an investment is made. They want quarterly board meetings, and often hold veto rights on any spending above $500,000 or so. 

But, in return, the PE firm will go to the furthest limits of its collective abilities to make sure the Chinese company succeeds above and beyond even what the boss of that company could expect. A domestic Chinese investment company? Most likely, they have had little experience with leading good companies toward successful IPOs, little operational knowledge, little desire to commit so thoroughly to adding value inside a company. 

So, yes, performance ratchet provisions are nasty. However, they should never come into effect – if the company and the PE firm are doing everything in their power to keep the business growing. The PE firms, contrary to the way it may appear, do not  want performance ratchets triggered any more than the company’s owner does. It’s also going to reflect badly on the PE firm’s judgment and abilities, and so make it harder for them to continue to raise money for future investment.

In other words, every time a performance ratchet is triggered, it gets harder for that PE firm to continue to thrive. They would rather own a smaller share of a solid company that’s meeting its targets, than a bigger share of one that isn’t.

 

DD Done Right

Due diligence is rarely anyone’s idea of fun and games. Nor should it be. And yet, several days into the process now I’m struck just how positive the process can be, when it’s done right, done well, done in an atmosphere of shared goals and shared respect. At its best, DD sets the tone for a long period of successful partnership and value-creation between a company and an investor. 

This week, DD kicked off between one of our China First Capital clients and the Private Equity firm intending to invest in the company’s first round of equity finance. The PE firm is among the best, and it operates with the precision of a Geneva watchmaker. The DD checklists sent in advance were exhaustive, prepared both in Chinese and English, encompassing legal, financial and managerial topics. 

Our client – after recovering from the initial shock on seeing the sheer volume of information to be collected and presented – dug in and worked until late each night over the weekend to get the material ready.  The laoban struck exactly the right note from the beginning, explaining to his sometimes-beleaguered staff, that the volume of DD material was conclusive proof that this PE firm would make a professional, highly-competent and valuable partner if the deal closes. 

In other words, it’s a step in a process of increased transparency, meticulousness and accuracy. This will benefit the company immediately, in its operations and planning, and ultimately put it in a far stronger position as it moves toward a successful public listing down the road.   

We insist to our clients that they embrace this approach:  “even as a private company, you should adopt the standards of a public one.” This makes the transition to a publicly-traded company, accountable to both to regulators and shareholders, infinitely smoother.  It’s also just good business. 

On Monday, the PE firm’s DD team arrived at our client’s office, and set right to work. The highest standards clearly pervade all aspects of the PE firm’s operation, from the team — led by a woman of uncommon intelligence, poise and grace —  to the lawyers and Big Four accountants chosen to assist. 

They set the right mood from the outset: one of professional collaboration and partnership, rather than of abrasive investigation. In two days of highly-focused scrutiny, with lawyers, accountants and the PE firm’s team working on parallel tracks, the investor got an enormous amount of its preliminary due diligence completed. On Day Three, they headed out to visit the client’s factory in a neighboring province. 

It’s an old truism of PE and VC investing that the one certainty of the DD process is that there will be surprises, generally of an unwelcome variety. The real question is how large are the surprises and how well they are addressed, by both PE firm and the target company. 

I have confidence that in this case, the DD process will continue in a spirit of shared purpose and reciprocal transparency. As a result, I foresee a great outcome for both our client and this PE investor.