Focus Media

China to fine-tune back-door listing policies for US-listed companies — South China Morning Post

 

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China reverse mergers

Mainland China’s securities regulator will fine-tune policies related to back-door listing (reverse merger)attempts by US-listed Chinese companies, industry insiders say, but it is unlikely to ban them or impose other rigid restrictions.

“It is clear that the regulator does not like the recent speculation on the A-share markets triggered by the relisting trend and will do something to curb such conduct, but it seems impossible they would shut good-quality companies out of the domestic market,” Wang Yansong, a senior investment banker based in Shenzhen, said.

The China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) was considering capping valuation multiples for companies seeking relisting on the A-share market after delisting from the US market, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday. Another option being discussed was introducing a quota to limit the number of reverse mergers each year from companies formerly listed on a foreign bourse.

To curb speculation, it is most important to show the authorities have clear and strict standards for approving these deals
Wang Yansong.

However, Wang said the CSRC was more likely to strengthen verification of back-door listing deals on a case-by-case basis.

“To curb speculation, it is most important to show the authorities have clear and strict standards for approving these deals, and won’t allow poor-quality companies to seek premiums through this process,” she said.

US-listed mainland companies have been flocking to relist on the A-share market since early last year, when the domestic market started a bull run, in order to shed depressed valuations in American markets.

The valuations of relisted companies have boomed, and that has triggered a surge in speculation on possible shell companies – poorly performing firms listed on the Shanghai or Shenzhen bourses. In a process called a reverse takeover or back-door listing, a shell can buy a bigger, privately held company through a share exchange that gives the private company’s shareholders control of the merged entity.

The biggest such deal was done by digital advertising company Focus Media. Its valuation jumped more than eightfold to US$7.2 billion after it delisted from America’s Nasdaq in 2013 and relisted in Shenzhen in December last year, with private equity funds involved in the deal reaping lucrative returns.

Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank and advisory firm, said the trend of delisting and relisting was “one of the biggest wealth transfers ever from China to the US”.

“The money spent by Chinese investors to privatise Chinese companies in New York ended up lining the pockets of rich institutional investors and arbitrageurs in the US,” he said.

However, a tightening or freeze on approval of such deals would threaten not only US-listed Chinese companies in the process of buyouts and shell companies, but also the buyout capital sunk into delistings and relistings.

“The more than US$80 billion of capital spent in the ‘delist-relist’ deals is perhaps the biggest unhedged bet made in recent private equity history … if, as seems true, the route to exit via back-door listing may be bolted shut, this investment strategy could turn into one of the bigger losers of recent times,” he said.

On Friday, CSRC spokesman Zhang Xiaojun sidestepped a question about a rumoured ban on reverse takeover deals by US-listed Chinese companies in the A-share market, saying it had noticed the great price difference in the domestic and the US markets, and the speculation on shell companies, and was studying their influences.

http://www.scmp.com/business/markets/article/1943386/china-fine-tune-back-door-listing-policies-us-listed-companies

For article on a related topic published in “The Deal”, please click here

 

Leapfrogging the IPO gridlock: Chinese companies get a taste for reverse takeovers — Reuters

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Leapfrogging the IPO gridlock: Chinese companies get a taste for reverse takeovers

How Renminbi funds took over Chinese private equity (Part 2) — SuperReturn Commentary

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How Renminbi funds took over Chinese private equity

(Part 2)

 
Large and small ships traverse the Huangpu River 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year.

Part two of a series. Read part one.

Gresham’s Law, as many of us were taught a while back, stipulates that bad money drives out good. There’s something analogous at work in China’s private equity and venture capital industry. Only here it’s not a debased currency that’s dominating transactions. Instead, it’s Renminbi private equity (PE) firms. Flush with cash and often insensitive to valuation and without any clear imperative to make money for their investors, they are changing the PE industry in China beyond recognition and making life miserable for many dollar-based PE and venture capital (VC) firms.

Outbid, outspent and outhustled

From a tiny speck on the PE horizon five years ago, Reminbi (RMB) funds have quickly grown into a hulking presence in China. In many ways, they now run the show, eclipsing global dollar funds in every meaningful category – number of active funds, deals closed and capital raised. RMB funds have proliferated irrespective of the fact there have so far been few successful exits with cash distributions.

The RMB fund industry works by a logic all its own. Valuations are often double, triple or even higher than those offered by dollar funds. Term sheets come in faster, with fewer of the investor preferences dollar funds insist on. Due diligence can often seem perfunctory.  Post-deal monitoring? Often lax, by global standards. From the perspective of many Chinese company owners, dollar PE firms look stingy, slow and troublesome.

The RMB fund industry’s greatest success so far was not the IPO of a portfolio company, but of one of the larger RMB general partners, Jiuding Capital. It listed its shares in 2015 on a largely-unregulated over-the-counter market called The New Third Board. For a time earlier this year, Jiuding had a market cap on par with Blackstone, although its assets under management, profits, and successful deal record are a fraction of the American firm’s.

The main investment thesis of RMB funds has shifted in recent years. Originally, it was to invest in traditional manufacturing companies just ahead of their China IPO. The emphasis has now shifted towards investing in earlier-stage Chinese technology companies. This is in line with China’s central government policy to foster more domestic innovation as a way to sustain long-term GDP growth.

The Shanghai government, which through different agencies and localities has become a major sponsor of new funds, has recently announced a policy to rebate a percentage of failed investments made by RMB funds in Shanghai-based tech companies. Moral hazard isn’t, evidently, as high on their list of priorities as taking some of the risk out of risk-capital investing in start-ups.

Dollar funds, in the main, have mainly been observing all this with sullen expressions. Making matters worse, they are often sitting on portfolios of unexited deals dating back five years or more. The US and Hong Kong stock markets have mainly lost their taste for PE-backed Chinese companies. While RMB funds seem to draw from a bottomless well of available capital, for most dollar funds, raising new money for China investing has never been more difficult.

RMB funds seldom explain themselves, seldom appear at industry forums like SuperReturn. One reason: few of the senior people speak English. Another: they have no interest or need to raise money from global limited partners. They have no real pretensions to expand outside China. They are adapted only and perhaps ideally to their native environment. Dollar funds have come to look a bit like dinosaurs after the asteroid strike.

Can dollar-denominated firms strike back?

Can dollar funds find a way to regain their central role in Chinese alternative investing? It won’t be easy. Start with the fact the dollar funds are all generally the slow movers in a big pack chasing the same sort of deals as their RMB brethren. At the moment, that means companies engaged in online shopping, games, healthcare and mobile services.

A wiser and differentiated approach would probably be to look for opportunities elsewhere. There are plenty of possibilities, not only in traditional manufacturing industry, but in control deals and roll-ups. So far, with few exceptions, there’s little sign of differentiation taking place. Read the fund-raising pitch for dollar and RMB funds and, apart from the difference in language, the two are eerily similar. They sport the same statistics on internet, mobile, online shopping penetration: the same plan to pluck future winners from a crop of look-alike money-losing start-ups.

There is one investment thesis the dollar PE funds have pretty much all to themselves. It’s so-called “delist-relist” deals, where US-quoted Chinese companies are acquired by a PE fund together with the company’s own management, delisted from the US market with the plan to one day IPO on China’s domestic stock exchange. There have been a few successes, such as the relisting last year of Focus Media, a deal partly financed by Carlyle. But, there are at least another forty such deals with over $20bn in equity and debt sunk into them waiting for their chance to relist. These plans suffered a rather sizeable setback recently when the Chinese central government abruptly shelved plans to open a new “strategic stock market” that was meant to be specially suited to these returnee companies. The choice is now between prolonged limbo, or buying a Chinese-listed shell to reverse into, a highly expensive endeavor that sucks out a lot of the profit PE firms hoped to make.

Outspent, outbid and outhustled by the RMB funds, dollar PE funds are on the defensive, struggling just to stay relevant in a market they once dominated. Some are trying to go with the flow and raise RMB funds of their own. Most others are simply waiting and hoping for RMB funds to implode.

So much has lately gone so wrong for many dollar PE and VC in China. Complicating things still further, China’s economy has turned sour of late. But, there’s still a game worth playing. Globally, most institutional investors are under-allocated to China.  A new approach and some new strategies at dollar funds are overdue.

Peter Fuhrman moderates our SuperReturn China 2016 Big Debate: ‘How Do You Best Manage Your Exposure To China?’. Discussants include:

  • John Lin, Managing Partner, NDE Capital (GP)
  • Xisheng Zhang, Founding Partner & President, Hua Capital (GP)
  • Bo Liu, Chief Investment Officer, Wanda Investment (LP)
The Big Debate takes place on Tuesday 19 April 2016 at 11:55 – 12:25 at SuperReturn China in Beijing. Can’t make it? Follow the action on Twitter.

Focus Media Reaches $7.4 Billion Deal to List in Shenzhen — New York Times

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HONG KONG — Years after delisting in the United States after a short-selling attack, one of China’s biggest advertising companies is hoping to cash in on a market rally on its home turf.

Focus Media, a company based in Shanghai that was privatized and delisted from the Nasdaq two years ago after being targeted by short-sellers, on Wednesday reached a 45.7 billion renminbi, or about $7.4 billion, deal for a listing on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. The transaction values Focus at about twice the $3.7 billion that its management and private equity backers — led by the Carlyle Group — paid to take the company private in 2013.

Focus and its investors, which also include the Chinese companies FountainVest Partners, Citic Capital Partners, CDH Investments and China Everbright, are trying to tap into China’s surging domestic stock markets. The main Shanghai share index has risen 51 percent this year, while the Shenzhen index, where Focus will be listed, has more than doubled, increasing by 114 percent.

Other Chinese companies that retreated from American markets, as well as their private equity backers, are likely to be watching the Focus deal closely. If it goes through and the new shares rise sharply, it could offer an incentive for others to follow suit — and give private equity firms an easier way to sell their stakes.

Some other big Chinese companies that delisted from the United States market in recent years include Shanda Interactive Entertainment, which was valued at $2.3 billion when it was privatized by its main shareholders in 2012; and Giant Interactive, which was privatized last year in a $3 billion deal.

Focus is coming back to the market through a so-called backdoor listing, in which its main assets are sold to a company already listed in exchange for a controlling stake in the listed firm. Such an approach can offer a more direct path to the market than an initial public offering — especially in mainland China, where hundreds of companies are waiting for regulatory approval for their I.P.O.s.

But such deals can also be complex. In mainland China, they often subject shareholders to lengthy periods during which they are prohibited from selling or transferring shares. Also, unlike an I.P.O., the moves tend not to help the companies involved raise cash.

“All backdoor listings are convoluted exercises, not capital-raising events,” said Peter Fuhrman, the chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank based in Shenzhen, which is in southern China. “When you do them domestically in China, they become even more hair-raising.”

Dozens of Chinese companies retreated from American exchanges in the last five years after a wave of accounting scandals and attacks by short-sellers. Some of those companies were forcibly delisted by the Securities and Exchange Commission; others were taken private by management after their share prices slumped.

Focus was the biggest of those privatizations. In November 2011, the company was targeted by Muddy Waters Research, a short-selling firm founded by Carson C. Block. Muddy Waters accused Focus of overstating the number of digital advertising display screens it operated in China, and of overpaying for acquisitions.

Focus rejected the accusations, but its shares fell 40 percent on publication of the initial report by Muddy Waters. In summer 2012, the company’s chairman, Jason Jiang, and a group of Chinese and foreign private equity firms announced plans to delist Focus and take it private, a deal that was completed in early 2013.

On Wednesday, Jiangsu Hongda New Material, a Shenzhen-listed manufacturer of silicone rubber products, said it would pay 45.7 billion renminbi, mostly by issuing new stock, to acquire control of Focus. Shares in Jiangsu Hongda have been suspended from trading since December, when it first announced plans for a restructuring that did not mention Focus. The shares remain suspended pending further approvals of the Focus deal, including from shareholders and regulators in China.

If completed, the deal would leave Mr. Jiang, the Focus chairman, as the biggest single shareholder of Jiangsu Hongda, with a 25 percent stake.

The mainland China brokerages Huatai United Securities and Southwest Securities are acting as financial advisers on the deal.

Just a few of the Chinese companies delisted from stock exchanges in the United States in recent years have attempted a new listing elsewhere.

Last year, China Metal Resources Utilization, a small metal recycling company, successfully listed in Hong Kong. It had been listed on the New York Stock Exchange, under the name Gushan Environmental Energy.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/04/business/dealbook/focus-media-in-shenzhen-listing-deal.html?_r=0

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Blackstone Leads Latest Chinese Privatization Bid — New York Times

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MAY 21, 2013, 7:07 AM

Blackstone Leads Latest Chinese Privatization Bid

By NEIL GOUGH

A fund run by the Blackstone Group is leading a $662.3 million bid for a technology outsourcing firm based in China, the latest example of a modest boom among buyout shops backing the privatization of Chinese companies listed in the United States.

A consortium backed by a private equity fund of Blackstone that includes the Chinese company’s management said on Monday that it would offer $7.50 a share to acquire Pactera Technology International, which is based in Beijing and listed on Nasdaq.

The offer, described as preliminary, represents a hefty 43 percent premium to Pactera’s most recent share price before the deal was announced. The news sent the company’s stock up 30.6 percent on Monday, to $6.87 — still more than 8 percent below the offer price, in a sign that some investors remain wary that a deal will be completed.

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The Fatal Flaws of China “Take Private” Deals on the US Stock Market

Every one of the twenty  “take private” deals being done now by private equity firms with Chinese companies listed in the US, as well as the dozens more being hotly pursued by PE firms with access to a Bloomberg terminal, all suffer from the same fatal flaws. They require the PE firm to commit money, often huge loads of money, upfront to companies about which they scarcely know anything substantive. This turns the entire model of PE investing on its head. The concept behind PE investment is that a group of investment professionals acquires access to company information not readily available to others, and only puts LPs’ money at risk after doing extensive proprietary due diligence. This is, after all,  what it means to be a fiduciary — you don’t blow a lot of other people’s money on a risky deal with no safeguards.

And yet, in these “take private” deals, the only material information the PE firms often have at their disposal before they start shoveling money out the door are the disclosure documents posted on the SEC website. This is the same information available to everyone else, the contents of which will often reveal why it is that these Chinese-quoted companies’ share prices have collapsed, and now trade at such pathetically low multiples. In other words, professional investors in the US read the SEC filings of these Chinese companies and decide to dump the shares, leading to large falls in the share price. PE firms, with teams based in Asia, download the same documents and decide it’s a buy opportunity, and then swoop in to purchase large blocks of the company’s distressed equity, then launch a bid for the rest of the free float. There’s something wrong here, right?

Let’s start with the fact that these Chinese companies being “taken private” are not Dell Inc. The reliability, credibility, transparency of the SEC disclosure documents are utterly different. In addition, their CEOs are not Michael Dell. There is as much similarity between Dell and Focus Media, or Ambow Education as there is between buying a factory-approved and warrantied used car, with complete service history, and buying one sight-unseen that’s been in a wreck.

The Chinese companies being targeted by PEs have, to different degrees, impenetrable financial statements, odd forms of worrying related party transactions,  a messy corporate structure that in some cases may violate Chinese law, and audits prepared by accounting firms that either are already charged with securities violations for their China work by the SEC (the Big Four accountants) or a bunch of small outfits that nobody has ever heard of.  It is on the basis of these documents that take private deals worth over $5 billion are now underway involving PE firms and US-quoted China companies.

Often,  the people at the PE firm analyzing the SEC documents, and the PE partners pulling the trigger, are non-native English speakers, with little to no experience in the world of SEC disclosure statements, the obfuscations, the specialist nomenclature, the crucial arcana buried in the footnotes. (I spent over nine years combing through SEC disclosure documents while at Forbes, and still frequently read them, but consider myself a novice.) The PE firms persuade themselves, based on these documents, that the company is worth far more than US investors believe, and that their LPs’ cash should be deployed to buy out all these US shareholders at a premium while keeping the current boss in his job. Are the PE firms savvy investors? Or what Wall Street calls the greater fool?

The PE firms, to be sure, would probably like to have access to more information from the company before they start throwing money around buying shares.  They’d like to be able to pour over the books, commission their own independent audit and legal DD, talk to suppliers and customers — just as they usually insist on doing before committing money to a typical China PE deal involving a private company in China. But, the PE firms generally have no legal way to get this additional — and necessary — information from the “take private” Chinese companies before they’re already in up to their necks. By law, (the SEC’s Reg FD rules) a public company cannot selectively provide additional disclosure materials to a PE firm or any other current or potential investor. The only channel a company can use is the SEC filing system. This is the salient fact, and irresolvable dilemma at the heart of these PtP deals. The PE firms know only what the SEC documents tell them, and anybody else with internet access.

The PE firms can, and often do, pay lawyers to hunt around, send junior staff to count the number of eggs on supermarket shelves, use an expert network, or bring in McKinsey, or other consultants, to produce some market research of highly dubious value. There are no reliable public statistics, and no way to obtain them, about any industry, market or product in China. Market research in China is generally a well-paid form of educated guesswork.

So, PE firms enter PtP deals based on no special access to company information and no reliable comprehensive data about the company’s market, market share, competitors, cash collection methods in China. Throw in the fact these same companies have been seriously hammered by the US public markets, that some stand accused of fraud and deception, and the compelling logic behind PtP deals begins to look rather less so.

Keep in mind too the hundreds of millions being wagered by PE firms all goes to buy out existing shareholders. None of it goes to the actual company, to help fix whatever’s so manifestly broken. The same boss is in charge, the same business model in place that caused US investors to value the company like broken-down junk. In cases where borrowed money is used, the PE firm has the chance to make a higher rate of return. But, of course, the Chinese company’s balance sheet and net income will be made weaker by the loans and debt service. Chances are there are lawsuits flying around as well. Fighting those will drain money away from the company, and further defocus the people running things. Put simply the strategy seems to be try to fix a problem by first making it worse.

There’s not a single example I know of any PE firm making money doing these Chinese “take privates” in the US and yet so many are running around trying to do them. If nothing else, this proves again the old saying it’s easy to be bold with someone else’s money.

OK, we’re all grown-ups here. I do understand the meaning of a “nudge and a wink”, which is what I often get when I ask PE firms how they get around this information deficiency. The suggestion seems to be they possess, directly from the company owner, some valuable insider information — maybe about the name of a potential buyer down the road, or a new big contract, or the fact there’s lot of undisclosed cash coming into the company. Remember, the PE firms have extensive discussions with the owner before going public with the “take private” bids. The owners always need to commit upfront to backing the PE take private deal, to keep, rather than tender,  their shares and so become, with the PE firm, the 100% owner of the business after the PtP deal closes.

These discussions between the PE firm a Chinese company boss should legally be very narrowly focused, and not include any material information about the business not disclosed to all public shareholders. These discussions happen in China, in Chinese. Is it possible that the discussions are, shall we say, more wide-ranging? Could be. The PE firm thus may have an informational advantage they believe will help them make money. The problem is they’ve gotten it from a guy whose probably committed a felony under US law in supplying it. The PE firm, meantime, is potentially now engaged in insider trading by acting on it. Another felony.

All this risk, all this headache and contingent liability, so a private equity firm can put tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of third party money at risk in a company that the US stock market has concluded is a dog. Taking private or taking leave of one’s senses?

 

 

 

The Ambow Massacre — Baring Private Equity Fails in Its Take Private Plan

 

In the last two years, more than 40 US-listed Chinese companies have announced plans to delist in “take private” deals.  About half the deals have a PE firm at the center of things, providing some of the capital and most of the intellectual and strategic firepower. The PE firms argue that the US stock market has badly misunderstood, and so deeply undervalued these Chinese companies. The PE firms confidently boast they are buying into great businesses at fire sale prices.

The PE firm teams up with the company’s owner to buy out public shareholders, with the plan being at some future point to either sell the business or relist it outside the US. At the moment, PE firms are involved in take private deals worth about $5 billion. Some of the bigger names include Focus Media, 7 Days Inn, Simcere Pharmaceutical.

The ranks of “take private” deals fell by one yesterday. PE firm Baring Private Equity announced it is dropping its plan to take private a Chinese company called Ambow Education Holding listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Baring, which is among the larger Asia-headquartered private equity firms, with over $5 billion under management,  first announced its intention to take Ambow private on March 15. Within eleven days, Baring was forced to scrap the whole plan. Here’s how Baring put it in the official letter it sent to Ambow and disclosed on the SEC website, “In the ten days since we submitted the Proposal, three of the four independent Directors and the Company’s auditors have resigned, and the Company’s ADSs have been suspended from trading on the NYSE. As a result of these unexpected events, we have concluded that it is not possible for us to proceed with the Transaction as set forth in our Proposal.”

Baring’s original proposal offered Ambow shareholders $1.46 a share, a 45% premium over the price at the time. Baring is already a shareholder of Ambow, holding about 10% of the equity. It bought the shares earlier this year.  Assuming the shares do start trading again, Baring is likely sitting on a paper loss of around $8mn on the Ambow shares it owns, as well as a fair bit of egg on its face. Uncounted is the amount in legal fees, to say nothing of Baring’s own time, that was squandered on this deal. My guess is, this is hardly what Baring’s LPs would want their money being spent on.

Perhaps the only consolation for Baring is that this mess exploded before it completed the planned takeover of the company. But, still, my question, “what did Baring know about any big problems inside Ambow when it tabled its offer ten days ago?” If the answer is “nothing”, well what does that say about the quality of the PE firm’s due diligence and deal-making prowess? How can you go public with an offer that values Ambow at $105 million and only eleven days later have to abandon the bid because of chaos, and perhaps fraud, inside the target company?

It is so easy, so attractive,  to think you can do deals based largely on work you can do on a Bloomberg terminal. Just four steps are all that’s needed. Download the stock chart? Check. Read the latest SEC filings, including financial statements? Check. Discover a share trading at a fraction of book value? Check. Contact the company owner and say you want to become his partner and buy out all his foolish and know-nothing US shareholders? Check. All set. You can now launch your bid.

Here the stock chart for Ambow since it went public on the NYSE:

 

 

So, in a little more than two years, Ambow’s market cap has fallen by 92%, from a high of over $1 billion, to the current level of less than $90mn. That’s not a lot higher than the company’s announced 2011 EBITDA of $54mn, and about equal to the total cash Ambow claimed, in its most recent annual report filed with the SEC, it had in the bank. Now really, who wouldn’t want to buy a company trading at 1.5X trailing EBITDA and 1X cash?

Well, start with the fact that it now looks like those numbers might not be everything they purport to be. That would be the logical inference from the fact that the company’s auditors and three of its board members all resigned en masse.

That gets to the heart of the real problem with these “PtP” (public to private) deals involving US-listed Chinese companies. The PE firms seem to operate on the assumption that the numbers reported to the SEC are genuine, and therefore that these companies’ shares are all trading at huge discounts to their intrinsic worth. Well, maybe not. Also, maybe US shareholders are not quite as dumb as some of the deal-makers here would like to believe. From the little we know about the situation in Ambow, it looks like, if anything, the US capital market was actually being too generous towards the company, even as it marked down the share price by over 90%.

A share price represents the considered assessment of millions of people, in real time. Some of those people (suppliers, competitors, friends of the auditor) will always know more than you about what the real situation is inside a company. Yes, sometimes share prices can overshoot and render too harsh a judgment on a company’s value. But, that’s assuming the numbers reported to the SEC are all kosher.  If we’ve learned anything in these last two years it’s that assuming a Chinese company’s SEC financial statement is free of fraud and gross inaccuracy is, at best, a gamble. There simply is no way a PE firm can get complete comfort, before committing to taking over one of these Chinese businesses listed in the US, that there are no serious dangers lurking within. Reputation risk, litigation risk, exit risk — these too are very prominent in all PtP deals.

Some of the other announced PtP deals are using borrowed money, along with some cash from PE firms, to pay off existing shareholders. In such cases, the risk for the PE fund is obviously lower. If the Chinese company genuinely has the free cash to service the debt, well, then once the debt is paid off, the PE firm will end up owning a big chunk of a company without having tied up a lot of cash.  Do the banks in these cases really know the situation inside these often-opaque Chinese companies? Is the cash flow on the P&L the same cash flow that passes through its hands each month?

There’s much else that strikes me as questionable about the logic of doing these PtP, or delist-relist deals. For one thing, it seems increasingly unlikely that these businesses will be able to relist, anytime in the next three to five years, in Hong Kong or China. I’ve yet to hear a credible plan from the PE firms I’ve talked to about how they intend to achieve ultimate exit. But, mainly, my concerns have been about the rigor and care that goes into the crafting of these deals. Those concerns seem warranted in my opinion, based on this 11-day debacle with Baring and Ambow.

Some of the Chinese-listed companies fell out of favor for the good reason that they are dubious businesses, run with shoddy and opaque practices, by bosses who’ve shown scant regard for the letter and spirit of the securities laws of the US. Are these really the kind of people PE funds should consider going into business with?

 

Correction: I see now Barings actually has owned some Ambow shares for longer, and so is likely sitting on far larger losses on this position. This raises still more starkly the issue of how it could have put so much of its LPs money at risk on a deal like this, upfront, and without having sufficient transparency into the true situation at the company. This looks more like stock speculation gone terribly wrong, not private equity.

Addition: Three other large, famous institutional investors also all piled into Ambow in the months before Baring made its bid. Fidelity, GIC and Capital Group reported owning 8.76%, 5.2% and 7.4% respectively, or a total of 21.3% of the equity. They might have made a quick buck had the Baring buyout gone forward. Now, they may end up stranded, sitting on large positions in a distressed stock with no real liquidity and perhaps nowhere to go but down.

 

 

Out of Focus: China’s First Big LBO Deal is a Headscratcher

The first rule of capitalism is the more buyers you attract, the higher the price you get. So, having just one potential buyer is generally a lousy idea when your goal is to make as much money as possible.

What then to make of the recently-announced plan by an all-star team of some of China’s largest PE firms, including CDH, Fountainvest, CITIC Capital, as well global giant Carlyle,  to participate in a $3.5 billion proposed leveraged buyout deal to take private the NASDAQ-listed Chinese advertising company Focus Media. Any profit from this “take private” deal, as far as I can tell,  hinges on later flipping Focus Media to a larger company. That’s because the chances seem slight a privatized Focus Media will be later approved for domestic Chinese IPO. But, what if Focus turns out to be flip-proof?

With so much money — as so many big name PE firms’ reputations —  on the line, you’d think there would a clear, persuasive investment case for this Focus Media deal. As far as I can tell, there isn’t. I have the highest respect for the PE firms involved in this deal, for their financial and investing acumen. They are the smartest and most experienced group of PE professionals ever assembled to do a single Chinese deal. And yet, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what they are thinking with this deal and why they all want a piece of this action.

If the goal is to try to arbitrage valuation differences between the US and Chinese stock markets, this deal isn’t likely to pan out. It’s not only that Focus Media will have a tough time convincing China’s securities regulator, the CSRC, to allow it to relist in China. Focus Media is now trading on the NASDAQ at a trailing p/e multiple of 18. That is on the high side for companies quoted in China.

Next problem, of course, is the impact on the P&L from all the borrowing needed to complete the deal. There’s been no clear statement yet about how much equity the PE firms will commit, and how much they intend to borrow. To complete the buyout, the investor group, including the PE firms along will need to buy about 65% of the Focus equity. The other 35% is owned by Focus Media’s chairman and China’s large private conglomerate Fosun Group. They both back the LBO deal.

So, the total check size to buy out all other public shareholders will be around $2.4 billion, assuming they investor group doesn’t need to up its offer. If half is borrowed money, the interest expense would swallow up around 50% Focus Media’s likely 2012 net income. In other words, the LBO itself is going to take a huge chunk out of Focus Media’s net income.  In other words, the PE group is actually paying about twice the current p/e to take Focus Media private, since its purchase mechanism will likely halve profits.

A typical LBO in the US relies on borrowed money to finance more than half the total acquisition cost. The more Focus Media borrows, the bigger the hit to its net income. Now, sure, the investors can argue Focus Media should later be valued not on net income, but on EBITDA. That’s the way LBO deals tend to get valued in the US. EBITDA, though,  is still something of an unknown classifier in China. There isn’t even a proper, simple Chinese translation for it. Separately, Focus Media is already carrying quite a bit of debt, equal to about 60% of revenues. Adding another big chunk to finance the buyout, at the very least,  will create a very wobbly balance sheet. At worst, it will put real pressure on Focus Media’s operating business to generate lots of additional cash to stay current on all that borrowing.

I have no particular insight into Focus Media’s business model, other than to note that the company is doing pretty well while already facing intensified competition. Focus Media doesn’t meet the usual criteria for a successful LBO deal, since it isn’t a business that seems to need any major restructuring, refocusing or realignment of interests between owners and management.

Focus Media gets much of its revenue and profit from installing and selling ads that appear on LCD flatscreens it hangs in places like elevators and retail stores. It’s a business tailor-made for Chinese conditions. You won’t find an advertising company quite like it in the US or Europe. In a crowded country, in crowded urban shops, housing blocks and office buildings, you can get an ad in front of a goodly number of people in China while they are riding up in a jammed elevator or waiting at a checkout counter.

The overall fundamentals with Focus Media’s business are sound. The advertising industry in China is growing. But, it’s hard to see anything on the horizon that will lift its current decent operating performance to another level. Without that, it gets much harder to justify this deal.

This is, it should be noted, the first big LBO ever attempted by a Chinese company. It could be that the PE firms involved want to get some knowledge and experience in this realm, assuming that there could be more Chinese LBOs coming down the pike. Maybe. But, it looks like it could be pretty expensive tuition.

Assuming they can pull off the “delist” part of the deal, the PE firms will need to find a way to exit from this investment sometime in the next three to five years. Focus Media’s chairman has been vocal in complaining about the low valuation US investors are giving his company. In other words, he believes the company’s shares can be sold to someone else, at some future date, at a far higher price. (He personally owns 17% of the equity.)

Who exactly, though, is this “someone else”? Relisting Focus Media in China is a real long shot, and anyway, the current multiples, on a trailing basis, are comparable with NASDAQ’s . This is before calculating the hit Focus Media’s earnings will take from leveraging up the company with lots of new debt. How about the Hong Kong Stock Exchange? Focus Media would likely be given a warm welcome to relist there. One problem: with Hong Kong p/e multiples limping along at some of the lowest levels in the world, the relisted Focus Media’s market value would almost certainly be lower than the current price in the US. Throw in, of course, millions of dollars in legal fees on both sides of the delist-relist, and this Hong Kong IPO plan looks like a very elaborate way to park then lose money.

That leaves M&A as the only viable option for the PE investor group to make some money. I’m guessing this is what they have on their minds, to flip Focus Media to a larger Chinese acquirer.  They may have already spoken to potential acquirers, maybe even talked price. The two most obvious acquirers, Tencent Holdings and Baidu, both may be interested. Baidu has done some M&A lately, including the purchase, at what looks to many to be a ridiculously high price, of a majority of Chinese online travel site Qunar.  So far so good.

The risk is that neither of these two giants will agree to pay a big price down the line for a company that could buy now for much less. The same logic applies to any other Chinese acquirer, though they are few and far between. I’d be surprised if Tencent or Baidu haven’t already run the numbers, maybe at Focus Media’s invitation. But, they didn’t make a move. Not up to now.

Could it be they don’t want to do the buyout directly, out of fear it could go wrong or hurt their PR? Maybe. But, I very much doubt they will be very eager to play the final owner in a very public “greater fool” deal.

I’m fully expecting to be proven wrong eventually by this powerhouse group of PEs, and that they will end up dividing a huge profit pile from this Focus Media LBO. If so, the last laugh is on me. But,  as of now, the Focus deal’s investment logic seems cockeyed.