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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?

 

 

 

China’s GPs search for exits — Private Equity International Magazine

Chinese GPs are running low on exit options, but the barriers to unconventional routes – like secondary sales to other GPs – remain high.

By Michelle Phillips

China’s exit woes are no secret. With accounting scandals freezing the IPO route both abroad and domestically, the waiting list for IPO approval on China’s stock exchanges has come close to 900 companies.  Fund managers have at least 7,550 unexited investments worth a combined $100 billion, according to a recent study by China First Capital. However, including undisclosed deals, the number of companies could be as high as 10,000, says CFC’s founder and chairman Peter Fuhrman.
CITIC Capital chief executive Yichen Zhang told the Hong Kong Venture Capital Association Asia Private Equity Forum in January that because many GPs promised high returns in an unrealistic timeframe (usually three to five years), LPs were already starting to get impatient. He also predicted that around 80 percent of China’s smaller GPs would collapse in the coming years. “The worst is yet to come,” he said.
What ought to become an attractive option for these funds, according to the CFC study, are secondary buyouts. Even if it lowers the exit multiple, secondaries would provide liquidity for LPs, as well as potentially giving the companies an influx of cash, Fuhrman says.

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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.

 

 

Private Equity Slows in China as Investors Can’t Find the Exit — Institutional Investor

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12 FEB 2013 – ALLEN T. CHENG

China’s once-booming private equity industry is facing a logjam as a dearth of exit possibilities is slowing the flow of new deals in the sector, analysts and industry executives say.

The volume of private equity activity slowed dramatically last year, with some $17 billion invested in more than 700 companies, down from more than $30 billion invested in more than 1,700 companies in 2011, according to China First Capital, a Shenzhen-based investment advisory firm. Virtually all deals in China are minority equity investments in fast-growing private companies rather than buyouts of public companies as in the West. The industry was virtually nonexistent in China at the start of the 2000s but grew rapidly as Western investors rushed to participate in the country’s economic boom.

“You had an industry that grew very quickly but is not yet fully matured,” says Peter Fuhrman, chairman and CEO of China First Capital. “The PE firms raised huge money from LPs around the world and now face the challenge of not being able to exit their investments before the life cycle of their funds run out,” Fuhrman says. More…

 

Five Minutes with Peter Fuhrman — Private Equity International Magazine

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The chairman of research firm China First Capital discusses China’s growing exit problem, and its possible impact on private equity in 2013.

A growing concern for private equity in China is the lack of IPO exits. How do you see that playing out in 2013?

“I don’t expect any substantial improvement or change in the problems that are blocking IPO exits domestically and internationally. And because the China private equity industry is significantly over-allocated to IPO exits, along with diminishing fund life, [this] will be a time of increasing difficulty for GPs. At the same time, the inability to exit will also continue to prevent [GPs] from doing new deals, and that is where the greatest economic harm will be done. Of course I don’t trivialise the importance of the $100 billion that’s locked away in unexited PE investments, but the real victims of this are going to be the private entrepreneurs of China. At this point, over half of all [China’s] GDP activity is generated from the private sector. The private equity money and the IPO money is what [businesses] need to grow, because private companies in China basically can’t borrow. They need private equity money and IPO proceeds to continue to thrive. ”  More…

China private equity specialist says IPO drought means investors must rethink — Week in China

 

week in china

 

 

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With China’s IPO gusher now reduced to a trickle, prospects for some of the privately-owned companies which have traditionally boosted much of China’s economic growth could be at risk.

So says Peter Fuhrman, founder and chief executive at China First Capital, a boutique investment bank and advisory firm. His firm has just released a new report warning that new private equity investment has basically come to a halt in China since the middle of last year.

Fuhrman talked to WiC this week about the reasons for the slowdown, and why he would like to see more investors considering alternative exits, including sales in the secondary market. More…

China Private Equity Secondaries — the new China First Capital research report

 

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:

  1. unexited and not in IPO approval process, domestically or internationally
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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: Brilliant New Idea or Mistaken Strategy for China Private Equity Firms?

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.

 

 

Dollars No Longer Welcome

2012 is going to be a bad year for new dollar investment in Chinese financial assets. This reverses what was thought to be, only a few years ago, an irreversible trend as more of the world’s largest and most sophisticated investors sought to increase the asset allocation in China. It’s not that China has fallen out of favor with institutional investors. If anything, China’s comparative strengths — in terms of solid +7% economic growth, a vibrant domestic consumer market, reasonably healthy banks, prudent fiscal policy — stand in ever starker contrast with the insipid economies and improvident governments of Europe, the US, Japan.

So, how come fewer dollars are flowing into China? The main reason is that the stock markets in the US and Hong Kong have fallen out of love with Chinese IPOs. These two stock markets have been the primary source for more than a decade of new dollar funding for domestic Chinese companies. Just two years ago, Chinese companies accounted for one-third of all IPOs in the US. The IPO market for Chinese companies listing in Hong Kong was even hotter. Last year, almost $70 billion was raised by Chinese companies listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Dollars raised in New York or Hong Kong IPOs were converted into Renminbi, then invested to fuel the growth of hundreds of Chinese private companies and SOEs. Stock markets in London, Frankfurt, Seoul, Singapore, Sydney also provided access for Chinese companies to list and raise capital there. Overall, the international capital markets have been a key source of growth capital for Chinese companies, and so an important part of China’s overall economic transformation.

This year, the US will probably host fewer than five Chinese IPOs, and the total amount raised by Chinese companies in Hong Kong will be down by at least 65% from last year. The two other sources of dollar investment in Chinese companies — private equity and institutional purchases of Chinese shares — are also trending downward. Of the two, PE money was by far the more important, particularly over the last decade. In a good year, over $5 billion of capital was invested into private Chinese companies by PE firms. But, rule changes in China began to make dollar PE investing more difficult starting five years ago. It’s harder now to get permission to convert dollars into Renminbi, and Chinese companies can no longer easily create offshore holding company structures to facilitate dollar investment and an eventual exit through offshore IPO.

Rule changes slowed, but didn’t stop, dollar PE investing in China. The bigger problem now is that stock market investors in the US, and to a slightly lesser extent those in Hong Kong, no longer want to buy Chinese shares at IPO. It’s mainly because retail and institutional investors outside China distrust the quality and truthfulness of Chinese corporate accounting. If offshore IPOs dry up, dollar PE investors have no way to cash out. M&A exit is still rare. The twin result this year: less dollar PE money entering China, and also a steep drop in offshore IPO fundraising for Chinese companies.

Consider what this means: the world’s largest pools of institutional capital are finding it more difficult to invest in the world’s fastest growing major economy. This makes no financial sense. Chinese companies have a huge appetite for growth capital, and have the potential to achieve high rates of return for investors. Investment in China’s private entrepreneurial companies remains perhaps the best risk-adjusted investment class in the world. But, all the same, this year will see a steep drop of new international investment in Chinese companies.

Perhaps partially to compensate, China this year has liberalized the rules somewhat to allow international institutions to buy shares quoted in China. But, since that money goes to buy shares held by other investors, rather than to the company itself, investing in Chinese-quoted shares has little, if any impact, in filling Chinese companies’ need for growth capital. The appeal of owning China-quoted shares is hardly overpowering, as the market has been a poor performer overall, and share prices are more propelled by rumor than fundamental value.

At any earlier time in recent history, a dramatic drop like this year’s in new dollar investment into China would be felt acutely by Chinese companies. But, as dollar investing has dried up, Renminbi investing has more than filled the gap. The Shenzhen and Shanghai stock markets are now far larger sources of fresh IPO capital for Chinese companies than New York or Hong Kong ever were. Also, Renminbi PE firms have proliferated.

For a mix of reasons, China is now, arguably, more financially self-reliant than it has been since Mao’s day. Autarky used to be state policy. Now, it is a consequence of China’s own rising affluence and capital accumulation, together with some nationalistic policy changes and the fall-off in interest among international investors to finance Chinese IPOs. Ironically, as China has been drawn more into the global trade and financial system, its need for external capital has lessened.

That is unfortunate. Dollar investment in China benefits both sides. It offers dollar investors higher potential rates of return than investing in mature developed economies. This means better-funded and more generous pensions for American and European retirees. For Chinese companies, dollar investors usually tend to be more hands-on, in a good way, than Renminbi funds. So, they help improve the overall competitiveness, professionalism, corporate governance and strategic planning of the Chinese firms they invest in. Many of China’s best entrepreneurial companies — including well-known firms like Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, as well as hundreds of domestic Chinese brand-name companies few outside of China have heard of– were nurtured towards success by dollar investors.

Since just about everyone wins from new dollar investing in China, what can be done to reverse this year’s big slide? The answer is “not a lot”. I don’t see any strong likelihood that international investors will grow less allergic to Chinese IPOs. Renminbi PE and IPO funding for Chinese companies will continue to grow strongly. Only the removal of capital controls in China, and full Renminbi convertibility, would change the current situation, and lead, most likely, to large new flows of offshore capital into China.

But, full Renminbi convertibility is nowhere in sight. For the foreseeable future, China’s growth mainly will be financed at home.

 

 

 

Private Equity Valuation: Terminal Multiple Is All That Matters

A lot gets written, and even more gets discussed, about how to value private companies for the purposes of PE or VC investment. There is an awful lot of “Mongolian talk” going around, a translation of the Chinese term, 胡说 , meaning senseless drivel. PEs often use irrelevant or misleading comps to justify a lowball valuation. Companies are no less guilty, setting their valuation expectations unrealistically high, based on hear-say about other deals being done or a misreading of current stock market p/e multiples.

So, how do you work out a fair valuation? The only way I know is if both sides agree on the same set of facts to advance from. That is already challenge enough. How big a challenge?

Below, I share part of an email memo I sent to a large Chinese industrial equipment manufacturer. Their controlling shareholder hopes to sell down some of its shares, while also raising some new capital for the business. They are a sophisticated group, with strong management. They approached several investment banks, including ours, to represent them in the capital raising. We made the final cut, and they then insisted that the advisor they choose must achieve a valuation for them of at least 10X this year’s net income.

In more than just the two words “that’s unreasonable”,  I set out why they need to be more accommodating with reality.

“Your goal, which I thoroughly share, is to bring in a first-rate PE and get the best price for a valuable asset. I would work with all my diligence to achieve that.  But, let’s look frankly and factually at current market conditions. At the moment, domestically-listed Chinese companies in [your]  industry are trading at a trailing p/e of 28X and forward (this year’s) p/e of 22x. Both have fallen by approx. one-third in the last year. (The 22X is the basis we should use, to compare like-with-like. You have set your valuation target of +10X based on this year’s net income.) 

Your valuation target of +10X is a discount to quoted comps of 50% or narrower. That is a smaller discount, and so higher entry valuation for PE firms, than deals being done now. 

As you know, all PE deals, since they involve illiquid companies often years away from IPO exit, are always done at discount to quoted comps. The discount is not fixed, but the only time PE deals were closed routinely at prices over 10X (rarely if ever above 15X) was two years ago or more when comparable stock market p/e valuations (generally on the CHINEXT)  were 70X-100X previous year’s net.   A rich price indeed, and for a while, it had a levitating effect on PE valuations.

Current market conditions are that there are no investments from first-line PEs with terminal multiples at +10X. I emphasize the word “terminal multiple” because quite often — too often in our experience — a PE will offer a higher multiple at term sheet stage, to win the competitive right to pursue exclusive due diligence. These deals are almost always “repriced” at closing to a level below 10X, when PE firm has most of the leverage. PE will claim they turned up “new facts” in DD, as they always do, that justify the repricing.  They promise you +10x in a term sheet knowing they will only close the deal at a lower price, when all other interested investors have vanished from the scene. Unfair? Duplicitous? Get used to it. It’s the way the game is played.

The other common occurrence in China PE is that there is a headline multiple of +10X but it is linked to an aggressive next year + this year (sometime even three year) profit guarantee. The level is set by PE firm in full expectation that company will not meet the profit targets, so triggering the ratchet, often quite punitive. This process will bring the terminal multiple down significantly. We’ve seen and heard of deals where this terminal multiple is half the headline number at signing of term sheet or Share Purchase Agreement. In other words, the SPA has a headline multiple of 12X, but terminal multiple, after ratchet is triggered,  works out to 6X-7X.

From my experience, the ratchet is triggered in over half PE deals done in China. In the case of some leading China PEs, [names omitted to shield the guilty], the ratchet is triggered in over 80% of the deals they do. The ratchet trigger is very unfortunate for the company, and reflects the fact they are badly advised, by advisory firms paid a fee based on “headline valuation at closing” not terminal valuation.  

The other condition attached to deals with headline p/e of +10X is a high IRR (usually +20% p.a. simple interest) for buybacks triggered by “no qualifying IPO”. The buyback is a feature of almost all PE deals done in China. As you would be financially liable for such a payment, if I work as your investment banker, I’d want to negotiate this mechanism very carefully with PE, to assure your best interests are fully protected. It’ll mean a fight with the PE firms, but it will be gentlemanly. You want an IRR of no more than 10%. Why? One way to think of it is that for every 100 basis points the buyout IRR is fixed above LIBOR, you can argue the terminal multiple falls by 0.3X to 0.5X, because of the contingent liability.  

Yours is a highly cyclical industry. We are now in the downward loop, heading for the bottom of cycle. This negatively impacts valuation. Your cap table, particularly the fact the company is controlled by a CEO who has no capital directly invested in the business, also negatively impacts valuation. For last three years (2009, 2010, 2011) your net income has been flat, and net margins have fallen by almost half. This too negatively impacts valuation.  That’s three strikes already. You’re not “out”, as in baseball. But, it’s a three-ton weight pushing down your terminal multiple. 

I can promise you that if we work together, you will get the best outcome available in current marketplace, and be working with a firm that shares your commitment to integrity, professionalism and accountability.  

But, if you do decide to move forward with the other advisor, I’d urge you to ask them to address the specific points raised here, and structure their compensation on an “all or nothing” basis: they only earn a fee if the terminal multiple is above 10X, as they are now promising.  

A seller’s focus on valuation is understandable. But, too often in our experience, it can play into the hands of both the PE investor and your investment banker. Both will encourage your expectations knowing that the final bill on valuation will only be presented to you in two to three year’s time.  More often than not, only they will be feeling victorious at that point.

Cordially,
Peter”

This company decided to retain the other investment bank.

 

 

The “OTCBB-ization” of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange

From the world’s leading IPO stock market to a grubby financial backwater with the sordid practices of America’s notorious OTCBB. Is this what’s to become of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange ?

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.

CFC’s New Research Report on Capital Allocation and Private Equity Trends in China

 

Capital allocation, not the amount of capital,  is the largest financial challenge confronting the private equity industry in China. Capital continues to flood into the PE sector in China. 2011 was a record year, with over $30billion in new capital raised by PE firms, including both funds investing in dollars and those investing in Renminbi. China’s private equity industry seems destined now to outstrip in size that of every other country, with exception of the US. Ten years ago, the industry hardly existed in China.

Yes, it is a time of plenty. Yet, plenty of problems remain. Many of the best private companies remain starved of capital, as China’s domestic banks continue to choke back on their lending. As a result, PE firms will play an increasingly vital role in providing growth capital to these companies. 

These are some of the key themes addressed in CFC’s latest research report, titled “2012-2013: 中国私募股权融资与市场趋”. It can be downloaded from the CFC website or by clicking here.

The report is available in Chinese only.

Like many of CFC’s research reports, this latest one is intended primarily for reference by China’s entrepreneurs and company bosses. Private equity, particularly funds able to invest Renminbi into domestic companies,  is still a comparatively new phenomenon in China. Entrepreneurs remain, for the most part, unfamiliar with all but the basics of growth capital investment. The report assesses both costs and benefits of raising PE.

This calculus has some unique components in China. Private equity is often not just the only source for growth capital, it is also, in many cases, a pre-condition to gaining approval from the CSRC for a domestic IPO. It’s a somewhat odd concept for someone with a background only in US or European private equity. But, from an entrepreneur’s perspective, raising private equity in China is a kind of toll booth on the road to IPO. The entrepreneurs sells the PE firm a chunk of his company (usually 15%-20%) for a price significantly below comparable quoted companies’ valuation. The PE firm then manages the IPO approval process.

Most Chinese companies that apply for domestic IPO are turned down by the CSRC. Bringing in a PE firm can often greatly improve the odds of success. If a company is approved for domestic IPO, its valuation will likely be at least three to four times higher (on price/earnings basis) than the level at which the PE firm invested. Thus, both PE firm and entrepreneur stand to benefit.

The CSRC relies on PE firms’ pre-investment due diligence when assessing the quality and reliability of a company’s accounting and growth strategy. If a PE firm (particularly one of the leading firms, with significant experience and successful IPO exits in China) is willing to commit its own money, it provides that extra level of confidence the CSRC is looking for before it allows a Chinese company to take money from Chinese retail investors.

From a Chinese entrepreneur’s perspective, the stark reality is “No PE, No IPO”.

CFC’s Jessie Wu did most of the heavy lifting in preparing this latest report, which also digests some material previously published in columns I write for “21 Century Business Herald” (“21世纪经济报道) and “Forbes China”  (“福布斯中文”). The cover photo is a Ming Dynasty Xuande vase.

Investment Banking in China — What I’ve Learned & Unlearned

Anyone seeking to succeed in investment banking in China should live by one rule alone: it’s not who you know, but how well you know them. In China, more than any other country where I’ve worked, the professional is also the personal. Comradeship, if not friendship, is always a necessary precondition to doing business together. If you haven’t shared a meal – and more importantly, shared a few hundred laughs – you will never share a business deal. Competence, experience, education and reputation all matter, of course. But, they all play supporting roles.

The stereotypical hard-charging pompous Wall Street investment banker wouldn’t stand much of a chance here. A “Master of the Universe” would need to master a set of different, unfamiliar skills. Personal warmth, ready humor and a relaxed and somewhat deferential attitude will go a lot farther than spreadsheet modeling, an Ivy League MBA and financial dodges to increase earnings-per-share.

I’ve been around a fair bit in my +25 year business career, doing business is over 40 countries and managing companies in the US, Europe and Asia. Everywhere, it helps to be likeable, attentive, courteous. We all prefer working with people we like.  But, since moving to China and opening a business, I’ve learned things work differently here. Making money and making friends are interchangeable in China. You can’t do the first without doing the second.

Investment banking is so personal in China because most private Chinese companies, from the biggest on down, are effectively one-man-shows, with a boss whose authority and wisdom are seldom challenged. Usually, there is  no “management team” in the sense this term is applied in the US and Europe. A Chinese boss is the master of all he (or often she, as women entrepreneurs are common here) surveys.

A substantial percentage of my time is spent getting to know, and winning the friendship, of Chinese bosses. This alone makes me a lucky guy. Without fail, the bosses I meet are smart, gifted, able, hospitable, warm. We don’t select for these qualities. They are prerequisites for success as a private business in China.

Bosses are also usually guarded about meeting new people. It comes with the territory. Anyone with a successful business in China is going to be in very large demand from a very large “catchment pool”, including just about everyone in the extended circle of the boss’s friends, relatives, employees, suppliers, political contacts. Everyone is selling or seeking something. Precious few will succeed. Being a boss in China requires enormous stamina, to deal with all those making a claim on your time, and a gift for saying “No” in ways that don’t offend.

For investment bankers, successful deal generation in China will usually follow an elliptical path. The biggest mistake is to start pitching your company, or a transaction, the moment you meet a prospective client. You need first to win the boss’s trust and friendship, then you can discuss how to work together. In my working life in China, it’s axiomatic that in a first meeting with a company boss, one or the other of us will say, “我们先做朋友”,  or “let’s become friends be first”. It’s not some throwaway line. It’s an operating manual.

The Chinese use a specific word to define the engagement between an investment banker and client. It speaks volumes about the way new business is won here. It’s “合作” or cooperation. You don’t work for a Chinese company, you cooperate with it. There’s got to be a real personal bond in place, a tangible sense of shared purpose and shared destiny.

I could probably teach a class in the cross-cultural differences of investment banking in China and the US. I’ve not only been active in both places, I’ve been on both sides of the table. Before starting CFC, I was CEO of an American company that retained one of the most renowned investment banks in the US to handle an M&A deal for us. At that company, we had a deep senior management team, including two supremely capable founders. We dealt individually and collectively with the investment bank, which had a similarly-sized team assigned to the project.

The relationships were professional, cordial. But, the investment bankers never made any real effort to become my friend, nor did I want them to. Rarely, if ever, did discussions veer away from how to create the conditions to get the best price. The bankers were explicitly pursuing their fee, and we were pursuing our strategic goal.

The deal went pretty smoothly, following a tightly-scripted and typical M&A process. The investment bank’s materials and research were first-rate, and they had no difficulty getting directly to decision-makers at some of the largest software companies in the world. They performed with the intricate precision and harmony of the Julliard Quartet.

I can count the number of times I sat down with the bankers for a nice meal where business was not discussed. Or the number of times when the meeting room rang with peals of friendly laughter. Zero. Both would be unthinkable in China.

Here, a deal is more than just a deal. Price is not the only, or even the main objective. Instead, as an investment banker, you must knit souls together, their lives, fortunes, careers, goals and temperaments. There is no spreadsheet, no due diligence list, no B-school case study, no insider jargon to consult.

Be likeable and be righteous. But. above all, do not be transparently or subliminally motivated mainly by personal greed. A successful Chinese boss will smell that coming from miles away, and recoil. You’ll rarely get past “ 您好” , the polite form of “hello”.

 

In Full Agreement

pyramid

I commend unreservedly the following article from today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page. It discusses US reverse mergers and OTCBB IPOs for Chinese companies, identifying reasons these deals happen and the harm that’s often done.


What’s Behind China’s Reverse IPOs?


A dysfunctional financial system pushes companies toward awkward deals in America.
By JOSEPH STERNBERG

As if China Inc. didn’t already have enough problems in America—think safety scares, currency wars, investment protectionism and Sen. Chuck Schumer—now comes the Securities and Exchange Commission. Regulators are investigating allegations of accounting irregularities at several Chinese companies whose shares are traded in America thanks to so-called reverse mergers. Regulators, and not a few reporters, worry that American investors may have been victims of frauds perpetrated by shady foreign firms.

Allow us to posit a different view: Despite the inevitable bad apples, many of the firms involved in this type of deal are as much sinned against as sinning.

In a reverse merger, the company doing the deal injects itself into a dormant shell company, of which the injected company’s management then takes control. In the China context, the deal often works like this: China Widget transfers all its assets into California Tallow Candle Inc., a dormant company with a vestigial penny-stock listing left over from when it was a real firm. China Widget’s management simultaneously takes over CTC, which is now in the business of making widgets in China. And thanks to that listing, China Widget also is now listed in America.

It’s an odd deal. The goal of a traditional IPO is to extract cash from the global capital market. A reverse merger, in contrast, requires the Chinese company to expend capital to execute what is effectively a purchase of the shell company. The company then hopes it can turn to the market for cash at some point in the future via secondary offerings.

Despite its evident economic inefficiencies, the technique has grown popular in recent years. Hundreds of Chinese companies are now listed in the U.S. via this arrangement, with a combined market capitalization of tens of billions of dollars. Some of those may be flim-flammers looking to make a deceitful buck. But by all accounts, many more are legitimate companies. Why do they do it?

One relatively easy explanation is that the Chinese companies have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous foreign banks and lawyers. In China’s still-new economy with immature domestic financial markets, it’s entirely plausible that a large class of first-generation entrepreneurs are relatively naïve about the art of capital-raising but see a listing—any listing—as a point of pride and a useful marketing tool. There may be an element of truth here, judging by the reports from some law firms that they now receive calls from Chinese companies desperate to extract themselves from reverse mergers. (The news for them is rarely good.)

More interesting, however, is the systemic backdrop against which reverse mergers play out. Chinese entrepreneurs face enormous hurdles securing capital. A string of record-breaking IPOs for the likes of Agricultural Bank of China, plus hundred-million-dollar deals for companies like Internet search giant Baidu, show that Beijing has figured out how to use stock markets at home and abroad to get capital to large state-owned or well-connected private-sector firms. The black market can deliver capital to the smallest businesses, albeit at exorbitant interest rates of as much as 200% on an annual basis.

The weakness is with mid-sized private-sector companies. Bank lending is out of reach since loan officers favor large, state-owned enterprises. IPOs involve a three-year application process with an uncertain outcome since regulators carefully control the supply of new shares to ensure a buoyant market. Private equity is gaining in popularity but is still relatively new, and the uncertain IPO process deters some investors who would prefer greater clarity about their exit strategy. In this climate, it’s not necessarily a surprise that some impatient Chinese entrepreneurs view the reverse merger, for all its pitfalls, as a viable shortcut.

So although the SEC investigation is likely to attract ample attention to the U.S. investor- protection aspect of this story, that is the least consequential angle. Rules (even bad ones) are rules. But these shares are generally held by sophisticated hedge-fund managers and penny-stock day traders who ought to know that what they do is a form of glorified gambling.

Rather, consider the striking reality that some 30-odd years after starting its transformation to a form of capitalism, China still has not figured out one of capitalism’s most important features: the allocation of capital from those who have it to those who need it. As corporate savings pile up at inefficient state-owned enterprises, potentially successful private companies find themselves with few outlets to finance expansion. If Beijing can’t solve that problem quickly, a controversy over some penny stocks will be the least of anyone’s problems.

Mr. Sternberg is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia.

CFC’s New Research Report, Assessing Some Key Differences in IPO Markets for Chinese Companies

China First Capital research report cover

For Chinese entrepreneurs, there has never been a better time to become a publicly-traded company.  China’s Shenzhen Stock Exchange is now the world’s largest and most active IPO market in the world. Chinese companies are also active raising billions of dollars of IPO capital abroad, in Hong Kong and New York.

The main question successful Chinese entrepreneurs face is not whether to IPO, but where.

To help entrepreneurs make that decision, CFC has just completed a research study and published its latest Chinese language research report. The report, titled “民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市” (” Offshore or Domestic IPO – Assessing Choices for Chinese SME”) analyzes advantages and disadvantages for Chinese SME  of IPO in China, Hong Kong, USA as well as smaller markets like Singapore and Korea.

The report can be downloaded from the Research Reports section of the CFC website , or by clicking here:  CFC’s IPO Difference Report (民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市)

We want the report to help make the IPO decision-making process more fact-based, more successful for entrepreneurs. According to the report, there are three key differences between a domestic or offshore IPO. They are:

  1. Valuation, p/e multiples
  2. IPO approval process – cost and timing of planning an IPO
  3. Accounting and tax rules

At first glance, most Chinese SME bosses will think a domestic IPO on the Shanghai or Shenzhen Stock Exchanges is always the wiser choice, because p/e multiples at IPO in China are generally at least twice the level in Hong Kong or US. But, this valuation differential can often be more apparent than real. Hong Kong and US IPOs are valued on a forward p/e basis. Domestic Chinese IPOs are valued on trailing year’s earnings. For a fast-growing Chinese company, getting 22X this year’s earnings in Hong Kong can yield more money for the company than a domestic IPO t 40X p/e, using last year’s earnings.

Chasing valuations is never a good idea. Stock market p/e ratios change frequently. The gap between domestic Chinese IPOs and Hong Kong and US ones has been narrowing for most of this year. Regulations are also continuously changing. As of now, it’s still difficult, if not impossible, for a domestically-listed Chinese company to do a secondary offering. You only get one bite of the capital-raising apple. In Hong Kong and US markets, a company can raise additional capital, or issue convertible debt, after an IPO.  This factor needs to be kept very much in mind by any Chinese company that will continue to need capital even after a successful domestic IPO.

We see companies like this frequently. They are growing so quickly in China’s buoyant domestic market that even a domestic IPO and future retained earnings may not provide all the expansion capital they will need.

Another key difference: it can take three years or more for many Chinese companies to complete the approval process for a domestic IPO. Will the +70X p/e  multiples now available on Shenzhen’s ChiNext market still be around then? It’s impossible to predict. Our advice to Chinese entrepreneurs is make the decision on where to IPO by evaluating more fundamental strengths and weaknesses of China’s domestic capital markets and those abroad, including differences in investor behavior, disclosure rules, legal liability.

China’s stock market is driven by individual investors. Volatility tends to be higher than in Hong Kong and the US, where most shares are owned by institutions.

One factor that is equally important for either domestic or offshore IPO: an SME will have a better chance of a successful IPO if it has private equity investment before its IPO. The transition to a publicly-listed company is complex, with significant risks. A PE investor can help guide an SME through this process, lowering the risks and costs in an IPO.

As the report emphasizes, an IPO is a financing method, not a goal by itself. An IPO will usually be the lowest-cost way for a private business to raise capital for expansion.  Entrepreneurs need to be smart about how to use capital markets most efficiently, for the purposes of building a bigger and better company.


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