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New capital drought threatens growth in China — China Daily

Continued lack of IPO proceeds and private equity input will damage China’s economic reform

By Peter Fuhrman

China’s private sector is experiencing an unprecedented shortage of new investment capital. The two predominant flows of growth capital for China’s private sector – initial public offering proceeds and new investments by more than 1,000 private equity firms active in China – have both dried up.

As recently as 2011, IPOs and PE firms pumped $20 billion (15 billion euros) to $30 billion a year of new capital into private companies in China. In the past nine months, that figure has dropped to almost zero.

Even when IPOs cautiously resume, the flow of capital to private companies will likely remain at levels far below recent years. If so, it will quite possibly damage the plans of the Chinese government, as well as the hopes of many of its citizens, to “rebalance” the Chinese economy away from reliance on state-owned enterprises and toward one oriented more toward meeting the needs and fulfilling the hopes of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

All companies need capital to grow. This is especially true among China’s private sector businesses. They operate in a particularly fast-growing market, where both opportunities and competitors are plentiful. Private sector companies are also the main source of new jobs in China, and an increasingly vital contributor to overall GDP growth.

Over the past decade, these Chinese companies became perhaps the world’s hottest investment targets. China’s PE industry, both dollar and yuan, grew from basically zero to become the second-largest in the world. PE firms raised more than $200 billion to invest in China and then put money in more than 10,000 Chinese companies. At the same time, Hong Kong, New York and China each year vied for the title of world’s largest IPO market, with most of the deals being new offerings by Chinese companies.

New capital drought threatens growth

China still has more of the world’s best, most talented private sector entrepreneurs than any country. Investing in their companies remains one of the best ways to make money anywhere. But, for the moment, only a few are willing to try.

This problem is at its core a market failure caused by the loss of investor confidence inside and outside China in the true financial situation of its private sector companies. Questions are raised about financial fraud inside Chinese private companies. Though the concerns are real, the problems are of limited scope, often technical, and the market’s reaction has been severely overblown.

The accounting issues first arose in the US, with the uncovering of several cases of phony accounts among Chinese private companies quoted there. The contagion of doubt spread first to other Chinese private sector companies already listed or seeking to IPO in the US, then to those waiting for an IPO in Hong Kong, until recently the largest market in the world for new IPOs.

Finally, from the summer of 2012, the stock markets on the Chinese mainland began shutting down new IPOs. When the IPOs stopped, most PE firms stopped investing.

The PE firms are sitting on more than $40 billion in capital that they say is for investing in China’s fast-growing private sector companies. But that money is now idle in bank accounts, not going to help good companies become better.

The longer China’s private sector goes without access to major new capital, the more unbalanced the Chinese economy may become.

I first came to China in 1981. During the past 32 years, China’s private sector has gone from non-existent to producing more than half of the country’s GDP. The private sector produces just about everything ordinary Chinese rely on to better the quality of their lives – not just more and better-paying jobs, but also new housing, shops, clothing, restaurants, tutoring for their children and a vibrant Internet and e-commerce industry.

As these private companies have gone from small mom-and-pops to some giant businesses, including virtually all China’s leading domestic consumer brands, the dependence on IPO proceeds and PE money has become almost absolute. So, the dramatic slowdown in the flow of capital to private companies will have an impact on these businesses, their customers and ultimately China’s GDP.

At this point, the only outside financing available for Chinese private companies are bank loans, which remain difficult and costly to arrange. The banking system is, however, fixated on lending to state-owned enterprises. That leaves only the so-called “shadow banking system”, where loan sharks provide short-term money at interest rates of at least 25 percent per year. But, recently, even many loan sharks have fled the marketplace.

The Chinese government has created a set of policies that allowed the private sector to flourish. It also encouraged the flow of capital from the PE industry and IPOs. The plan had been to rely on the private economy to shoulder much of the burden of restructuring the Chinese economy away from SOEs and exports, while creating new jobs and supplying the goods consumers most want.

But that planned rebalancing cannot happen without money, without new capital for the private sector. Instead of a rebalance, China’s economy is possibly headed toward a more lopsided reliance on the state sector and big-ticket government spending projects.

(The author is founder and chairman of China First Capital, a China-focused investment banking and advisory firm. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.)

 

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Shenzhen: A beacon for private enterprises — China Daily


 

A beacon for private enterprises

2013-04-20

By Hu Haiyan and Chen Hong ( China Daily)

Shenzhen bears a superficial resemblance to Shanghai. There are dozens of multinationals and gleaming skyscrapers casting their shadows over narrow lanes. Their respective economic performances last year were also similar: Shenzhen’s GDP hit 1.3 trillion yuan ($210 billion), gaining by 10 percent from 2012. Shanghai GDP reached 2 trillion yuan, increasing by 7.5 percent from 2011.

Both are testing grounds for China’s economic reform policies. Still, for Peter Fuhrman, 54, Shenzhen is a private-sector city, a city that has its face pointed toward the future.

In 2009, Fuhrman moved to Shenzhen from California. The chairman and CEO of China First Capital, an international investment bank and advisory firm focused on China, he is always struck by how similar Shenzhen and California are.

“Both are places where new technologies, and valuable new technology companies, are born and nurtured. I treasure the role Shenzhen has played over these last 30 years in helping architect a new China of renewed purpose and importance in the world,” Fuhrman says. “It is impossible to imagine a US without California. It is so much the source of what makes America great. Shenzhen, too, is a major source of what makes China great, what makes this country such a joy for me to live in. “

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The New Equilibrium – It’s the Best Time Ever to be a Chinese Entrepreneur

China Private Equity blog post

As I wrote the last time out, the game is changed in PE investing in China. The firms most certain to prosper in the future are those with ability to raise and invest renminbi, and then guide their portfolio companies to an IPO in China. For many PE firms, we’re at a hinge moment: adapt or die. 

Luckily for me, I work on the other side of the investment ledger, advising private Chinese companies and assisting them with pre-IPO capital raising. So, while the changes now underway are a supreme challenge for PE firms, they are largely positive for the excellent SME businesses I work with.

They now have access to a greater pool of capital and the realistic prospect of a successful domestic IPO in the near future. Both factors will allow the best Chinese entrepreneurs to build their businesses larger and faster, and create significant wealth for themselves. 

As my colleagues and me are reminded every day, we are very fortunate. We have a particularly good vantage point to see what’s happening with China’s entrepreneurs all over the country. On any given week, our company will talk to the bosses of five and ten private Chinese SME. Few of these will become our clients, often because they are still a little small for us, or still focused more on exports than on China’s burgeoning domestic market. We generally look for companies with at least Rmb 25 million in annual profits, and a focus on China’s burgeoning domestic market. 

For the Chinese companies we talk to on a regular basis, the outlook is almost uniformly ideal. China’s economy is generating enormous, once-in-a-business-lifetime opportunities for good entrepreneurs.

Here’s the big change: for the first time ever, the flow of capital in China is beginning to more accurately mirror where these opportunities are. 

China’s state-owned banks have become more willing to lend to private companies, something they’ve done only reluctantly in the past. The bigger change is there is far more equity capital available. Every week brings word that new PE firms have been formed with hundreds of millions of renminbi to invest.

The capital market has also undergone its own evolutionary change. China’s new Growth Enterprise Market, known as Chinext, launched in October 2009. In two months, it has already raised over $1 billion in new capital for private Chinese companies. 

In short, the balance has shifted more in favor of the users rather than the deployers of capital. That because capital is no longer in such short supply. This is among the most significant financial changes taking place in China today: growth capital is no longer the scarcest resource. As recently as a year ago, PE firms were relatively few, and exit opportunities more limited. Within a year, my guess is the number of PE firms and the capital they have to invest in private Chinese companies will both double. 

Of course, raising equity capital remains a difficult exercise in China, just as it is in the US or Europe. Far fewer than 1% of private companies in China will attract outside investment from a PE or VC fund. But, when the business model and entrepreneur are both outstanding,  there is a far better chance now to succeed.

Great business models and great entrepreneurs are both increasingly prevalent in China. I’m literally awestruck by the talent of the Chinese entrepreneurs we meet and work with – and I’ve met quite a few good ones in my past life as a venture capital boss and technology CEO in California, and earlier as a business journalist for Forbes

So, while life is getting tougher for the partners of PE firms (especially those with only dollars to invest), it is a better time now than ever before in Chinese history to be a private entrepreneur. That is great news for China, and a big reason why I’m so thrilled to go to work each day.  


American and Chinese entrepreneurs: they are very different, but the best are equally good at making their investors rich

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Held each year in Los Angeles, the technology conference organized by the investment bank Montgomery & Co. is one of the best of its kind, anywhere. It brings together about 1,000 people from the top American venture capital and private equity firms along with senior management at some of the most accomplished privately-owned technology companies in the US. It provides a very focused snapshot of some of the strongest new tech business models and where venture capital and private equity firms are looking to invest this year.  

I was at the conference from start to finish, in meetings and panels. It was a great gathering in every respect, with a level of optimism that runs counter to much of the economic gloom that dominates the headlines. One reason: good technology can thrive in bad times. Corporate budgets are getting squeezed and each purchase is more tightly scrutinized. This means that many new tech solutions, offering good or better performance at lower price, have a great opportunity to gain market share against more lumbering competitors. 

I saw some interesting companies with interesting business models, in particular several that were focused on SaaS (“Software-as-a-Service”) solutions that can dramatically lower for businesses large and small the cost (both hardware and software) of implementing enterprise software. SaaS makes so much sense because companies can switch to a powerful software solution, but without the need to buy and install any of the software or hardware to run it. It’s all done using an internet browser as the main interface. The software is hosted and managed on a central server by the company that developed it. Users pay a monthly or annual fee to use the software. 

SaaS is an area where I have a special interest. I’m lucky enough to be CEO of Awareness Technologies (www.awarenesstechnologies.com), which develops and sells SaaS-based corporate security software. Awareness also has as its founders two of the best entrepreneurs I’ve ever met, Ron and Mike. They are superstars.

Great entrepreneurs are rare, even in a conference of hot technology companies. Of the 100 tech companies at the Montgomery conference, very few – by my very unscientific study — seemed to have a great entrepreneur at the controls. Most are venture-backed, and so tend to have very experienced professional managers at the top. Often, the founding entrepreneurs have been pushed out, or given different roles, after the venture capital money arrives. One obvious reason for this: the venture capital and private equity partners are usually from similar backgrounds as the professional managerial class, with gold-plated resumes and MBA degrees from the best universities in the US.  Institutional investors often look for a safe pair of hands, and not a visionary, to run a company once their money is committed. This is sometimes the right choice.

That’s the usual pattern in the US. I was struck, not surprisingly, by the differences in China. Great entrepreneurs are no less rare, but it’s almost impossible for me to imagine a situation where the founder of a Chinese company is pushed aside by the venture capital or private equity firm after its put its money in. That would, in most cases, be sheer madness. First, there is no large “professional managerial class” in China at this point, with experienced managers who have run successful businesses previously, and then either sold them or led them to IPO.

Second, and perhaps even more important, good Chinese companies, in my experience and to an extent rarely seen in the US, are one-man shows. There is usually as boss and owner one superbly talented, charismatic, driven and shrewd individual, who saw a market opportunity and seized it. Against unimaginable odds – including the severe ack of capital, continually changing regulations, predatory officials, the primitive market economy of ten years ago in China, and the fiercest competitors – these successful Chinese business owners managed to build large and thriving companies. Single-handedly. There is usually no “management team” to speak of — just one man of outsized abilities and an equally outsized will to succeed.

Another difference with the US: the best entrepreneurs in China, and so the best investment opportunities for venture capital and private equity firms,  aren’t likely in the technology business. They most often are in what are considered, in the US, old-line, low-growth businesses like manufacturing, retailing, branded consumer goods. In the US, companies in these sectors find it nearly impossible to raise money from venture capital and private equity companies. In China, it’s where most of the VC and PE investment goes.

It’s what makes China such an interesting place to be for venture capital and private equity, and why I feel so lucky to have a business there in that field. China has both the most sophisticated global investors and the most well-run, entrepreneurial smokestack industries.

Of the 100 companies at the Montgomery conference, I can’t think of a single one that runs a factory and manufactures a tangible product. The guys who run these companies are almost certainly all college graduates, often with advanced degrees, looking for money to complete or market a website, a software application, an internet advertising platform. In China, conversely, a conference filled with some of the better, more promising private companies would have 100 men, most with only a high-school education, looking for money to expand their factories, fulfill more customer orders and so double their revenues and profits in the next year or  two.

As someone who has spent a big part of his life managing technology and venture capital businesses, I see great opportunities to make money investing in both China and the US. The big difference is that in the US, the biggest risks for venture capital and early stage private equity investors tend to be technological, that the company you’ve invested in may not succeed because its product or service doesn’t work as planned, or isn’t as good as a competitor’s. In China, technology risk is usually minimal. The big risk for venture and private equity firms is that the rules may change, and the company you’ve invested will not be able to freely operate in the domestic market in China.

How do I manage risk personally? I try to eliminate it, by working with the best entrepreneurs. I’m confident Awareness Technologies will widen its technological lead, become the dominant SaaS-based security software company and make its investors a ton of money. Equally, I’m confident the Chinese companies we work with at China First Capital will become dominant in their industries in China and make their investors a ton of money. Along the way, the men running these Chinese businesses will continue to do what they’ve always done: find ingenious ways to stay one step ahead of competitors and any changes in the country as a whole.