Hong Kong IPO
WH’s canceled IPO shows dangers of misjudging demand
By Michael Barris (China Daily USA)
It could have been the largest IPO in a year. Instead the canceled initial offering of Chinese pork producer WH Group became an epic flop and an example of the pitfalls of failing to accurately gauge investor demand for IPOs.
Eight months ago, in the biggest-ever Chinese acquisition of a US company, WH, then known as Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd, acquired Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc, the world’s largest hog producer, for $4.7 billion. Awash in kudos for tapping into China’s increasing demand for high-quality pork, a Shuanghui team began working on a planned Hong Kong IPO.
By late April, however, the proposed offering was in deep trouble. Bankers slashed the deal’s marketed value to $1.9 billion from $5.3 billion. Finally, the company, now renamed WH Group, announced it would not proceed with the IPO because of “deteriorating market conditions and recent excessive market volatility”.
The decision handed the company a setback in its effort to cut the more than $2.3 billion of debt it took on in the Smithfield purchase and dealt a blow to Asia’s already struggling IPO market and the stock prices of some formerly high-flying Asian companies. The WH IPO debacle is even seen as possibly hampering the much-anticipated New York IPO of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, expected to occur later this year and valued at an estimated $20 billion.
What went wrong? To put it simply, investors scoffed at the idea of paying top price for WH shares without any clear indication of how the Smithfield acquisition would save money.
The price range of HK$ 8 to HK$ 11.25 per share ($1.03 to $1.45) was at a valuation of 15 to 20.8 times forward earnings. “The synergies between Shuanghui and Smithfield are untested. Why do investors have to buy in a hurry?” Ben Kwong, associate director of Taiwanese brokerage KGI Asia Ltd, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal. “They would rather wait until the valuation is attractive.”
A disease that infected pigs, inflating US prices, also turned off investors. US pork typically trades at about half the meat’s price in China, because US feed tends to be cheaper. But Chicago hog futures have soared 47 percent this year to $1.25 a pound. Investors also saw corporate governance practices which awarded shares to two executives before the listing occurred as worrisome.
“I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents filed at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it,” China First Capital CEO and Chairman Peter Fuhrman wrote on the Seeking Alpha investment website. “These big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausage bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to Hong Kong investors and institutions.
The Smithfield acquisition “never made much of any industrial sense”, Fuhrman wrote. The private equity firms behind WH – CDH Investments, Singapore state investor Temasek Holdings and New Horizon – “have no experience or knowledge how to run a pork business in the US. In fact, they don’t know how to run any business in the US”, he wrote.
One man’s meat, however, is another man’s poison. As Fuhrman wrote, the debacle has ended up putting smiles on the faces of the mainly-US shareholders who last year reluctantly sold their Smithfield shares at a 31 percent premium above the pre-bid price. Some of these same shareholders had protested that the Chinese company’s offer for the pork producer was too low. Ultimately, the sellers received the satisfaction of knowing they got the “far better end of a deal against some of the bigger, richer financial institutions in Asia and Wall Street,” Fuhrman wrote. And that, he said, has likely made them as delighted as pigs in muck.
It took my friend and client Laowu 20 years to build his business, but less than four months from the IPO in Hong Kong to reach dollar billionaire status. While I hardly doubted he’d someday make it, it certainly happened quicker than I would have hoped or guessed. You can read my account of this remarkable businessman, his humble beginnings and his high-flying real estate development company, by clicking here.
Laowu’s company, Hydoo, has had a torrid run on the Hong Kong exchange. The share price is up over 70% since the listing on the last day of October 2013. That’s lifted the value of his family’s shares to north of $1 billion. I hadn’t kept track of the stock price, so didn’t know my friend had reached the milestone. Bloomberg’s China Billionaires reporter called today to ask if I would comment for the story he’s doing.
Welcome good news today from Hong Kong’s capital markets. The Chinese commercial real estate developer Hydoo (Chinese name 毅德) successfully IPOs on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, raising over USD$200mn in new capital. With IPO channels for Chinese companies mainly blockaded, it’s especially welcome to see a Chinese private sector company raising so much from the stock market. In this case, the delight is greater because Hydoo is a client of China First Capital. We acted as Hydoo’s investment bankers raising USD$80mn from Chinese private equity firm Hony Capital. Hony’s 2011 investment, based on today’s IPO price, is now worth USD$150mn.
In addition to Hony, China’s giant financial services group Ping An also invested before IPO. In total, Hydoo raised USD$140mn (Rmb 860mn) of institutional capital before IPO. Over 60% of the IPO shares (worth over $120mn) were sold by underwriters ahead of time to so-called “cornerstone investors“, including two large Chinese SOEs, Huarong and China Taiping Insurance, as well as retailer Suning (in which Hony owns a share).
I’m happy for Hony and the other investors, but happier still for Hydoo founders, particularly its chairman, Wang Zaixing, known to friends and family as “Laowu”, literally “Venerable Fifth”. He is the fifth-born of ten children all of whom played a part in building Hydoo. The family is originally from Chaozhou in Guangdong, and speak the distinctive Chaozhou dialect. But, they ended up after 1949 in Ganzhou, Jiangxi Province.
The business Laowu started 18 years ago is now worth over $1 billion. The first time I met him, I told Laowu my goal as his investment banker, and my emphatic expectation, was that his company would be worth at least that much at the time of its IPO. Another priority of mine was that he and his family members would still hold majority control after IPO. That too has been achieved. They hold almost 60% of the now publicly-traded business.
For me, Laowu personifies in many ways the large economic changes China has undergone in the last 30 years. He started life as a long-distance truck driver and from that humble start saw and grasped an opportunity to build wholesale trading centers for the emerging army of small businesspeople in China.
I first met Laowu and his company in 2009. The business was then called Haode (豪德). It was then still an old-school Chinese family business. There was no corporate structure in the traditional sense. Laowu and his brothers, sister and nephews would pair up, or act independently, to do individual large wholesale trading centers around China. When I met them, the family had already done 19 such projects. All had done very well. At the time, I’d never met a Chinese private company as profitable over as many years as Haode.
Over the last three years, the company has been transformed into a more professional enterprise. Hydoo provides a useful excellent template for how a Chinese family-owned business can make this transition to a publicly-traded company. Part of that process was splitting up the family’s existing business between a group that would follow Laowu and become shareholders of Hydoo, and five other siblings who chose not to participate, but remain active in some cases building their own wholesale trading centers.
As the IPO prospectus puts it, this division was “a complex, delicate process involving the allocation of assets or interests in the existing businesses among a group of closely connected family members, who decided to split up into two independent groups with diverging goals going forward. Under the special circumstances, no written agreements were entered into in respect of the Family Allocation and no valuation appraised by independent valuers was undertaken when negotiating the Family Allocation. Instead, the Wang Family Group placed their focus on more subjective, personal factors.”
Me and my firm played a small part by advising Laowu and his siblings on the pros and cons of being part of a company planning for an IPO. But, as you’d expect, most of this was done within the private confines of a large, closely-knit family. Along the way, though, I gained a deeper appreciation of the unique ways Chaozhou people do business.
Chaozhou natives are rightly famous both in China and throughout much of Southeast Asia for their business acumen. They are often described by other Chinese as “the Jews of China”. As a Jew in China, I tend to think the description flatters my people. Chaozhou people seem to have an instinctive and unsurpassed talent for making money and entrepreneurship. Look around the world at the most successful Chinese business people, including the leading business families in Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Hong Kong, and a large percentage, including Asia’s richest magnate, Li Ka-shing, Thailand’s richest businessman Dhanin Chearavanont and Indonesia’s top tycoon, Mochtar Riady, are either from Chaozhou or are descended from people who immigrated from there.
As this suggests, Chaozhou people are able and willing to uproot themselves and chase opportunities. Laowu didn’t leave China, but in building Hydoo, he did venture far afield from where he and his family were raised. He saw very early and profited richly from an economic shift within China that few others noticed 15 years ago. At the time, much of China’s economic growth was centered in southern China, and large coastal cities like Shanghai, Shenzhen, Xiamen. Laowu looked inland, especially in Shandong Province, one thousand miles north of Chaozhou.
As the economies of Shanghai and big southern coastal cities began to cool, inland areas, led by Shandong, began to boom. Shandong’s GDP growth, over the last ten years, has been among the highest of any part of China. Shandong is a huge market to itself (population 95mn) as well as a vital crossroads for commerce between north and south, east and west in China. Laowu built large wholesale parks to accommodate thousands of small traders, creating new clusters of small-scale commerce and entrepreneurship.
When you visit one of these centers, you get the impression that half of Shandong’s gdp is going in and out the doors. It’s crowded and vibrant. Even the smallest traders own their own small shop inside the Hydoo centers. That’s Hydoo’s model: they build the buildings, and as they do, sell off most of the units to thousands of individual small traders. Hydoo helps them get mortgages and often acts as guarantor on the loans. This lets thousands of small businesspeople become property-owners. As the Hydoo centers thrive (and they all do, as far as I know) the value of the real estate rises.
I know of no other businessman in China that has done as much as Laowu to build wealth and provide an entrepreneurial hub for such a large number of people in China. Hydoo is now spreading across more areas of China. It’s is building huge new wholesale parks in Sichuan, Hunan, Guangxi, Gansu.
I see Laowu infrequently these days. But, I’m as impressed now as I was when I first met him by his accomplishments. He and his family founded a business back when China was a different and less developed place. They stuck with it, kept reinvesting and now, through today’s IPO, own shares worth more money than I can imagine. But, more important for me is that they still own the business, still own the majority and so answer to no one else. As an entrepreneur who helped create and sustain so many other entrepreneurs, Laowu deserves nothing less.
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:
- unexited and not in IPO approval process, domestically or internationally
- 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
- 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
- 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“.
Cornerstone investing is among the latest new investment strategies favored by some in the private equity industry in China. It is still early. But, cornerstone deals may prove to be among the least successful risk-adjusted ways to make money investing in Chinese companies. Cornerstone investing involves putting big money up to buy shares in a company at the time of its IPO. In essence, it’s no different than buying any other publicly-traded share through your stockbroker, except a little worse in one respect. The cornerstone investors usually accept restrictive covenants that prevent them from exiting until months after the IPO. The investment strategy, such as it is, amounts to hoping the stock price will go up.
This is obviously quite a departure from the way PE firms typically operate in China: discovering a great private company, putting money in while the company is still illiquid, then nurturing their growth for several years up to and beyond a public offering. Done well, this process will earn a PE investor returns of 500% or more. Generally, PE firms also can indemnify themselves against losing money by exercising a put to sell their shares back to a company that fails to IPO successfully. It’s hard to imagine any scenario where cornerstone investing can do as well, and many where it will be significantly worse. One example: the possibility that the overall stock market performs poorly, as it has in Hong Kong for the last year or so.
Cornerstone investing is a well-established practice in Hong Kong IPOs. Previously, it was only rich Hong Kong plutocrats who did these deals, at a time when most IPOs were heavily oversubscribed and likely to record a big first day jump in price. Now, the plutocrats are gone, new IPOs have fallen steeply, valuations are way down, and PE firms have taken their place. What is it they say about fools going where wise men dare not tread?
How popular are these cornerstone deals now in Hong Kong? Hundreds of millions of dollars of PE capital have already been deployed. According to data from Bank of America Merrill Lynch cited by the Wall Street Journal, “private-equity funds… [make] up 41% of cornerstone investors in Hong Kong IPOs in 2012, compared with just 5% last year.” The only limiting factor seems to be the big falloff in the number of Chinese companies going public in Hong Kong this year. PE firms appetite to do these deals seems, if anything, to be getting stronger.
Finding a cornerstone investor is usually a great deal for the company staging an IPO, since it means there are fewer shares that need to be sold to the general public, and the lock-in provisions provide comfort to other investors that the company should be worth more later than it is at time of IPO. So, price volatility is reduced.
And the corresponding benefits for the PE firm are? Good question. The PE firms will claim they are buying into a good company at a comparatively good price, that they’ve done extensive DD and are confident of long-term stock price appreciation, with moderate to low risk. In other words, it’s a good place to invest their LPs money. That might be more plausible if cornerstone investing was producing large returns of late. It hasn’t. The Hong Kong stock market remains at a very low level. Yes, maybe the Hong Kong stock market will rally, and so lift these shares, conveniently after the lock-in has expired, allowing the PE firms a nice trading profit.
As an investment strategy, this basically amounts to market timing. And as most financial theory teaches us, all market timing is as likely to lose money as earn it. The PE firms will argue otherwise, that they are acting like good “value investors”, buying the shares at what they deem to be a low IPO price. As the company grows, its stock price will as well. Could be. But, there is an argument that this is what hedge funds and mutual funds are designed to do. They bet on the earnings momentum and so share price direction of publicly-traded equities. Is PE investing in China so difficult, so profit-constrained that PE firms now need to appropriate someone else’s business model? And do so without having much, if any, of a track record in this sort of investing?
That’s really the challenge here. Why should PE firms do these deals if there are still many outstanding pre-IPO equity investment opportunities available in China? PE firms can acquire a meaningful ownership stake in a dynamic private Chinese company, at low valuation, enjoy all kinds of special investor rights and privileges, including that guaranteed buy-back, that aren’t available to cornerstone investors.
With cornerstone investing, a PE firm is mainly at the mercy of the stock market. Will overall share prices go up or down or stay the same? It’s passive. With typical PE investing, the potential rewards, as well as downside protections, are obviously much better. But, so is the work you need to do.
That may explain a lot of the appeal of cornerstone investing. Cornerstone investing is simple. You get the IPO prospectus from a well-known underwriter, parse the audited financials, study other quoted comps, maybe talk to management about their growth prospects and how the IPO proceeds will be spent. You then make a determination about whether the company looks to be a good medium-to-long term bet. You never need to leave the office.
Compare that to PE deals in China. Due diligence is messy, slow, expensive and hazardous. Many deals never close because the PE firm discovers, during DD, that a Chinese firm’s financials are not compliant with tax laws, or the founder’s main supplier is his cousin’s husband or the company has failed to acquire the appropriate licenses. In these cases, the PE firm has to swallow the cost of the DD, which can run to $250,000 or more per deal. Too many examples of this kind of loss-making and a PE firm will start to find its LPs are less willing to commit money in the future.
This kind of “DD risk” is largely absent from cornerstone deals. A company staging an IPO has gone through multiple rounds of vetting, approval and audits. All paid for by parties other than the PE firm. So, cornerstone investing can look, from a certain crooked perspective, like typical PE investing minus all the costs and hassle of “DIY DD”. After all, the companies going public are usually similar in scale, business model and growth to purely-private deals the PE firm will look at in China.
Cornerstone investing is suddenly popular with some PE firms because stock market valuations have fallen so far in Hong Kong. Valuations, in p/e terms, are usually lower now in a Hong Kong IPO than for a comparable company raising money in a private placement in China: 4-8X this year’s net income for the HK IPOs, and 8-10X for the private placements.
PE firms are given money by investors, and usually paid an annual management fee, to take on this risk and trouble of finding good companies, screening them, negotiating a good deal, and then remaining actively engaged, after investment, on the board, to help the company achieve its targets and an eventual exit. This is where the big money has been made in China PE, not in betting on the direction of publicly-traded share prices.
As a stock picking strategy, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that Hong Kong stock prices are now at a cyclical low, and will start to move closer to the valuations on China’s domestic stock markets. If so, then some cornerstone deals may end up making decent money.
But, PE firms are not, or should not be, stock-pickers, market-timers, valuation arbitrageurs. This is truest of all for those PE firms that raised money to invest – actively and passionately — in China’s outstanding private entrepreneurial companies.
I see some rather disturbing signs of this happening. Underwriters, with the pipeline of viable IPO deals drying up, are fanning out across China searching for mandates and making promises every bit as mendacious and self-serving as the rogues who steered so many Chinese companies to their doom on the US OTCBB.
The Hong Kong Stock Exchange (“HKSE”) may be going wrong because so much, until recently, was going right. Thanks largely to a flood of IPO offerings by large Chinese companies, the HKSE overtook New York in 2009 to become the top capital market for new flotations. While the IPO markets turned sharply downward last year, and the amount of IPO capital raised in Hong Kong fell by half, the HKSE held onto the top spot in 2011. US IPO activity remains subdued, in part due to regulatory burdens and compliance costs heaped onto the IPO process in the US over the last decade.
During the boom years beginning around 2007, all underwriting firms bulked up by adding expensive staff in expensive Hong Kong. This includes global giants like Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Morgan Stanley, smaller Asian and European firms like DBS, Nomura, BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank and the broking arms of giant Chinese financial firms CITIC, ICBC, CIIC, and Bank of China. The assumption among many market players was that the HKSE’s growth would continue to surge, thanks largely to Chinese listings, for years to come. With the US, Europe and Japan all in the economic and capital market doldrums, the investment banking flotilla came sailing into Hong Kong. Champagne corks popped. High-end Hong Kong property prices, already crazily out of synch with local buying power, climbed still higher.
The underwriting business relies rather heavily on hype and boundless optimism to sell new securities. It’s little surprise, then, that IPO investment bankers should be prone to some irrational exuberance when it comes to evaluating their own career prospects. The grimmer reality was always starkly clear. For fundamental reasons visible to all but ignored by many, the flood of quality Chinese IPOs in Hong Kong was always certain to dry up. It has already begun to do so.
In 2006, the Chinese government closed the legal loophole that allowed many PRC companies to redomicile in Hong Kong, BVI or Cayman Islands. This, in turn, let them pursue IPOs outside China, principally in the US and Hong Kong. Every year, the number of PRC companies with this “offshore structure” and the scale and growth to qualify for an IPO in Hong Kong continues to decline. A domestic Chinese company cannot, in broad terms, have an IPO outside China.
Some clever lawyers came up with some legal fixes, including a legally-dubious structure called “Variable Interest Entity”, or VIE, to allow domestic Chinese companies to list abroad. But, last year, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce began moving to shut these down. The efficient, high-priced IPO machine for listing Chinese companies in Hong Kong is slowly, but surely, being starved of its fuel: good Chinese private companies, attractive to investors.
Yes, there still are non-Chinese companies like Italy’s Prada, Russia’s Rusal or Mongolia’s Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi still eager to list in Hong Kong. There is still a lot of capital, while listing and compliance costs are well below those in the US. But, the Hong Kong underwriting industry is staffed-up mainly to do Chinese IPOs. These guys don’t speak Russian or Mongolian.
So, the sorry situation today is that Hong Kong underwriters are overstuffed with overhead for a “coming boom” of Chinese IPOs that will almost certainly never arrive. China-focused Hong Kong investment bankers are beginning to show signs of growing desperation. Their jobs depend on winning mandates, as well as closing IPOs. To get business, the underwriters are resorting, at least in some cases, to behaviors that seem not that different from the corrupt world of OTCBB listing. This means making some patently false promises to Chinese companies about valuation levels they could achieve in an Hong Kong IPO.
The reality now is that valuation levels for most of the Chinese companies legally structured for IPO in Hong Kong are pathetically low. Valuations keep getting slashed to attract investors who still aren’t showing much interest. Underwriters are finding it hard to solicit buy offers for good Chinese companies at prices of six to eight times this year’s earnings. Some other deals now in the market and nowhere near close are being priced below four times this year’s net income. At those kind of prices, a HK IPO becomes some of the most expensive equity capital around.
In their pursuit of new mandates, however, these Hong Kong underwriters will rarely share this information with Chinese bosses. Instead, they bring with them handsomely-bound bilingual IPO prospectuses for past deals and suggest that valuation levels will go back into double digits in the second half of this year. In other words, the pitch is, “don’t look at today’s reality, focus instead at yesterday’s outcomes and my rosy forecast about tomorrow’s”.
This is the same script used by the advisors who peddled the OTCBB listings that damaged or destroyed so many Chinese companies over the last five years. Another similar tactic used both by OTCBB rogues and HK underwriters is to pray on fear. They suggest to Chinese bosses that they should protect their fortune by listing their company offshore, at whatever price possible and using whatever legally dubious method is available. They also play up the fact a Chinese company theoretically can go public in Hong Kong whenever it likes, rather than wait in an IPO queue of uncertain length and duration, as is true in China.
In other words, the discussion concerns just about everything of importance except the fact that valuation levels in Hong Kong are awful, and there is a decent probability a Chinese company’s HK IPO will fail. This is particularly the case for Chinese companies with less than USD$25 million in net income. The cost to a Chinese company of a failed IPO is a lot of wasted time, at least a million dollars in legal and accounting bills as well as a stained reputation.
There is, increasingly, a negative selection bias. Investors rightly wonder about the quality of Chinese companies, particularly smaller ones, being brought to market by underwriters in Hong Kong.
“No one has a crystal ball”, is how one Hong Kong underwriter, a managing director who spends most of his time in China scouring for mandates, explains the big gap between promises made to Chinese bosses, and the sad reality that many then encounter. In a real sense, this is on par with him saying “I’ve got to do whatever I’ve got to do to earn a living”. He can hold onto his job for now by bringing in new mandates, then hope markets will turn around at some point, the valuation tide will rise, and these boats will lift. This too is a business strategy used for many years by the OTCBB advisor crowd.
The OTCBB racket is now basically shut down. Those who profited from it are now looking for work or looking elsewhere for victims, er mandates. Tiny cleantech deals are apparently now hot.
My prediction is a similar retrenchment is on the way in Hong Kong, only this time those being retrenched won’t be fast-buck types from law firms and tiny OTCBB investment banks no one has heard of. Instead, it’ll be bankers with big salaries working at well-known brokerage companies. The pool of IPO fees isn’t big enough to feed them all now. And, that pool is likely going to evaporate further, as fewer Chinese companies sign on for Hong Kong listings and successfully close deals.