greater fool theory

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?

 

 

 

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.