IPO

Navigating China’s Treacherous IPO Markets

Song plate from China First Capital blog post

How do you say “Scylla and Charybdis”  in Chinese? Thankfully, you don’t need to know the translation, or even reference from Homer’s The Odyssey, to understand the severe dilemma faced by China’s stock exchange regulator, the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC). 

Scylla and Charybdis were a pair of sea monsters guarding opposite sides of a narrow straight. Together, they posed an inescapable threat to sailors’ lives. By avoiding one, you sailed directly into the lair of the other. 

The CSRC has been trying to navigate between twin perils over the last months, since the October launch of ChiNext , the new Shenzhen stock exchange for smaller-cap private companies. They have tried to stamp out the trading volatility and big first day gains that characterized earlier IPOs in China. But, in doing so, they’ve created circumstances where the valuations of companies going public on the ChiNext have reached dangerous and unsustainably high levels. 

Monsters to the left, monsters to the right. The regulators at CSRC deserve combat pay. 

Based on most key measures, ChiNext has been a phenomenal success. So far, through the end of 2009, 36 companies have IPO’d on ChiNext, raising a total of over $2 billion from investors. That’s more than double the amount these 36 companies were originally seeking to raise from their IPOs. Therein lies the Scylla-Charybdis problem. 

Before ChiNext  opened, the CSRC was determined to avoid one common problem with Chinese IPOs on the main Shanghai and Shenzhen markets – that the price on the first day of trading typically rose very sharply, with lots of volatility. A sharp jump in the price on the first day is great for investors who were able to buy shares ahead of the IPO. In China, those lucky few investors are usually friends and business contacts of the underwriters, who were typically rewarded with first-day gains of over 20%. These investors could hold their shares for a matter of minutes or hours on the day of the IPO, then sell at a nice profit. 

But, while a first-day surge may be great for these favored investors, it’s bad news for the companies staging the IPOs. It means, quite simply, their shares were underpriced (often significantly so) at IPO. As a result, they raised less money than they could have. The money, instead, is wrongly diverted into the hands of the investors who bought the shares at artificially low prices. An IPO that has a 25% first-day gain is an IPO that failed to maximize the amount the company could raise from investors. 

Underwriters are at fault. When they set the price at IPO, they can start trading at a level that all but guarantees an immediate increase. This locks in profits for the people they choose to allocate shares to ahead of the start of trading. 

The CSRC, rightly,  decided to do something about this. They mandated that the opening price for companies listing on the CSRC should be set more by market demand, not the decision of an underwriter. The result is that the opening day prices on ChiNext have far more accurately reflected the price investors are willing to pay for the new offering.

Gains that used to go to first-day IPO investors are now harvested by the companies. They can raise far more money for the fixed number of shares offered at IPO. So far so good. The problem is: Chinese investors are bidding up the prices of many of these new offerings to levels that are approaching madness. 

The best example so far: when Guangzhou Improve Medical Instruments Co had its IPO last month, its shares traded at an opening price 108 times its 2008 earnings.  The most recent  group of companies to IPO on ChiNext had first-day valuations of over 80 times 2008 earnings. Because of the high valuations, these ChiNext-listed companies have raised more than twice the amount of money they planned from their IPO. 

On one hand, that’s great for the companies. But, the risk is that the companies will not use the extra money wisely (for example by speculating in China’s overheated property market), and so the high valuations they enjoy now will eventually plummet. Indeed, valuations at over 80x  are no more sustainable on the ChiNext now than they were on the Tokyo Stock Exchange a generation ago. 

Having steered ChiNext away from the danger of underpriced IPOs, the CSRC is now trying to cope with this new menace. They have limited tools at their disposal. They clearly don’t want to return pricing power to underwriters. But, neither do they want ChiNext to become a market with insane valuations and companies that are bloated with too much cash and too many temptations to misuse it.   

CSRC’s response: they just introduced new rules to limit the ways ChiNext companies can use the extra cash raised at IPO.  CSRC is also reportedly studying ways to lower IPO valuations on ChiNext. 

The new rules restrict the uses of the extra cash. Shareholder approval is required for any investment over Rmb 50 million, or more than 20% of the extra IPO proceeds on a single project. The CSRC also reiterated that ChiNext companies should use the additional proceeds from their IPOs to fund their main businesses and not for high-risk investments, such as securities, derivatives or venture capital.

The new rules are fine, as far as they go. But, they don’t go very far towards resolving the underlying cause of all these problems, of both underpriced and overpriced IPOs in China.

The problem is that CSRC itself limits the number of new IPOs, to try to maintain overall market stability. Broadly speaking, this restricted supply creates excessive demand for all Chinese IPOs. Regulatory interventions and tinkering with the rules won’t do much. There remains the fundamental imbalance between the number of domestic IPOs and investor interest in new offerings.

Faced with two bad options, Odysseus chose to take his chances with the sea monster Scylla, and survived, while losing quite a few of his crew. The alternative was worse, he figured, since Charybdis could sink the whole ship.

The CSRC may well make a similar decision and return some pricing power to underwriters, to bring down ChiNext’s valuations.  But, without an increased supply of IPOs in China,  the two large hazards will persist. CSRC’s navigation of China’s IPO market will certainly remain treacherous.  


The End of the Line for Old-Style PE Investing in China

Ming Dynasty flask, from China Private Equity blog post

As 2010 dawns, private equity in China is undergoing epic changes. PE in China got its start ten years ago. The founding era is now drawing to a close.  The result will be a fundamental realignment in the way private equity operates in China. It’s a change few of the PE firms anticipated, or can cope with. 

What’s changed? These PE firms grew large and successful raising and investing US dollars,  and then taking Chinese companies public in Hong Kong or New York. This worked beautifully for a long time, in large part because China’s own capital markets were relatively underdeveloped. Now, the best profit opportunities are for PE investors using renminbi and exiting on China’s domestic stock markets. Many of the first generation PE firms are stuck holding an inferior currency, and an inferior path to IPO. 

The dominant PE firms of yesterday, those that led the industry during its first decade in China, are under pressure, and some will not survive. They once generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. Now, these same firms seem antiquated, their methods and approach ill-suited to conditions in China. 

In the end, success in PE investing comes down to one thing: maximizing the difference between your entry and exit price. This differential will often be twice as large for investors with renminbi as those with dollars. The basic reason is that stock market valuations in China, on a current p/e basis, are over twice as high as in Hong Kong and New York – or an average of about 30 times earnings in China, compared to fifteen times earnings in Hong Kong and US. 

The gap has remained large and persistent for years. My view is that it will continue to be wide for many years to come. That’s because profits in China (in step with GDP) are growing faster than anywhere else, and Chinese investors are more willing to bid up the price of those earnings. 

For PE firms, the stark reality is: if you can’t enter with renminbi and exit in China, you cut your profit potential in half. 

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If given the freedom, of course, any PE investor would choose to exit in China. The problem is, they don’t have that freedom. Only fully-Chinese companies can IPO in China. It’s not possible for Chinese companies with what’s called an “offshore structure”, meaning the ultimate holding company is based in Hong Kong, BVI, the Caymans or elsewhere outside China. Offshore companies could take in dollar investment from PE firms, swap it into renminbi to build their business in China, then IPO outside China. The PE firms put dollars in and took dollars out. That’s the way it worked, for example, for the lucky PE firms that invested in successful Chinese companies like Baidu, Suntech, Alibaba, Belle – all of which have offshore structure. 

In September 2006, the game changed. New securities laws in China made it all but impossible for Chinese companies to establish holding companies outside China. Year by year, the number has dwindled of good private companies in China with offshore structure. First generation PE firms with only dollars to invest in China have fewer good deals to chase. At the same time, the appeal of a domestic Chinese IPO has become stronger and stronger. Not only are IPO prices higher, but the stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen have become larger, more liquid, less prone to the kind of wild price-swings that were once a defining trait of Chinese investing. 

Of course, it’s not all sweetness and light. A Chinese company seeking a domestic IPO cannot choose its own timing. That’s up to the securities regulators. To IPO in China, a company must first apply to China’s securities market regulator, the CSRC, and once approved, join a queue of uncertain length. At present, the process can take two years or more. Planning and executing an IPO in Hong Kong or the US is far quicker and the regulatory process far more transparent. 

In any IPO, timing is important, but price is more so. That’s why, on balance, a Chinese IPO is still going to be a much better choice for any company that can manage one. 

Some of the first generation PE firms have tried to get around the legal limitations. For example, there is a way for PE firms to invest dollars into a purely Chinese company, by establishing a new joint venture company with the target Chinese firm. However, that only solves the smaller part of the problem. It remains difficult, if not impossible, for these joint venture entities to go public in China. 

For PE investors in China, if you can’t go public in Shanghai or Shenzhen, you’ve cut your potential profits in half. That’s a bad way to run a business, and a bad way to please your Limited Partners, the cash-rich pension funds, insurance firms, family offices and endowments that provide the capital for PE firms to invest.   

The valuation differential has other knock-on effects. A PE firm can afford to pay a higher price when investing in a Chinese company if it knows it can exit domestically.  That leaves more margin for error, and also allows PE firms to compete for the best deals. The only PE firms, however, with this option are those already holding renminbi. This group includes some of the best first generation PE firms, including CDH, SZVC, Legend. But, most first generation firms only have dollars, and that means they can only invest in companies that will exit outside China. 

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, many of the other first generation PE firms are now scrambling to raise renminbi funds. A few have already succeeded, including Prax and SAIF. But, raising an renminbi fund is difficult. Few will succeed. Those that do will usually only be able to raise a fraction of the amount they can raise is dollars. 

Add it up and it spells trouble – deep trouble – for many of the first generation PE firms in China. They made great money over the last ten years for themselves and their Limited Partners. But, the game is changed. And, as always in today’s China, change is swift and irreversible. The successful PE firms of the future will be those that can enter and exit in renminbi, not dollars.


Foshan Saturday’s Textbook Case of How to Grow, Prosper and Stage a Successful IPO in China

Painting detail from China First Capital Blog Post

Though not in a ringside seat, I nonetheless had a privileged, up-close view of last week’s IPO for Foshan Saturday Shoes. That’s thanks to my friendship with Cao Yuhui, a partner at King & Wood law firm, and Foshan Saturday’s main corporate lawyer for the last several years.  It was a successful IPO by a very successful, well-run company. Foshan Saturday, a maker of high-end women’s shoes, raised over Rmb900mn in the IPO, selling about 20% of its equity. The share price closed up almost 20% on the first day of trading. The market cap is now closing in on Rmb5 billion. 

For Yuhui, it’s a great personal success. He first started advising the company when they were well along in their planning for what would have been a very ill-advised IPO in Singapore in 2006. Instead, Yuhui worked with the company to close a round of PE finance in 2007. Legend Capital, the venture capital arm of China’s largest computer manufacturer, invested Rmb 40 million in 2007. Over the following two years, sales and profits at Foshan Saturday more than doubled. It’s now the fourth-largest women’s shoe company in China, with a widely-known brand, and sales this year of over Rmb 1 billion. 

Legend is expected to liquidate its ownership in Foshan Saturday, and should earn a return of five times on its original investment – which is another way of saying that Foshan Saturday’s enterprise value increased five-fold during the time Legend was involved. So, while the VC firm did well, Foshan Saturday’s owner did even better. He is now sitting on a personal stake in the company worth over $350 million. He started the company just seven years ago. 

Foshan is a relatively small city by Chinese standards, with a population of about 5.5 million. It’s about two hours drive up the Guangdong coast from Shenzhen. It’s residents are known both for business acumen and personal modesty. 

Foshan Saturday is a textbook case of everything going right for a Chinese SME. The company was among the first to see the great potential for developing native Chinese fashion brands. They never bothered with OEM export manufacturing, but focused from the start on building a brand for young, Chinese urban females.

Even more crucial to its success, the company backed away from plans for that early IPO in 2006. The company then was a third of its current size. Many Chinese companies who chose to list in Singapore have since lived to regret it. The market has had few stellar performers among the Chinese SME listed there. Most have stumbled along with low earnings multiples, and as a result, quite a few have tried to delist in Singapore and try to float their shares on China’s domestic market. 

Foshan Saturday took the far better course of raising pre-IPO capital, from one of the better firms active in China. They raised only Rmb 40 million, but put it to use efficiently enough to accelerate growth by over 200%. In other words, as in all good investment opportunities among China’s SME, there was a very good place to put a reasonably small amount of capital to work, and earn significant returns. 

A lot of that growth came from an efficient strategy of opening retail counters inside shopping malls, where in lieu of rent, Foshan Saturday pays a share of revenue to the landlord. This limits the amount of capital needed to open new outlets. Foshan Saturday now has 1,200. About half the money raised in the IPO will go to opening still more retail outlets. 

A recent blog post by the Forbes bureau chief in China took a little swipe at me, saying Fuhrman “claims it is not too hard to pick winners that will quadruple your money in just a few years.” The Forbes writer (who I’ve never met) seems to think I’m daft. Yet, as the example of Foshan Saturday shows, it’s not all that hard to that well, or better.

From what I could gather, Legend Capital didn’t play a highly active role in the company. They knew a solid strategy when they saw one. So, they let the Foshan Saturday team execute, and then sat back and let the money start to roll in.  Result: profit to the VC firm of about $30 million on an investment of under $6 million. 

My friend Yuhui threw a big party at one of Shenzhen’s swankiest nightclubs to celebrate the IPO’s success. I wasn’t able to go, since I was traveling in Zhejiang. He told me later that there were about 60 guests, mainly mid and senior management from Foshan Saturday. They ran up a bar tab of around $1,500. 

I’m not big on drinking, but would have been happy to celebrate with them. Not just Foshan Saturday and Cao Yuhui did well from the IPO. It’s going to make it easier for other strong Chinese SME to achieve a similar success in years to come.

The roadmap is clear. It’s a three-step path to success for a successful IPO by a Chinese SME : (1) resist the lure of an early IPO; (2) bring in a good PE or VC investor to put more capital to work in ways that will earn a high return; and (3) stage an IPO several years later when the business has at least doubled its size. 


Shenzhen’s New Small-Cap Stock Market — A Faster Path to IPO. Not Always a Smarter Path

lichi painting from blog post by China First Capital

One of the main themes of the PE conference I attended last week in Shanghai was the launch of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange’s new Growth Enterprise Market “GEM”, for smaller-cap, mainly high-tech companies.

It’s been a long time in the planning – since at least 1999. In March 2008, China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, tried to kickstart the process and announced plans to open soon this second market in Shenzhen. Events then intruded – the credit crisis struck, financial markets tanked, and so plans for China’s GEM went into limbo.

Things are now back on track. Trading is likely to begin in October. At the conference, most of the speakers focused on hows and whys the GEM would open new opportunities for smaller companies to raise money from China’s capital market.

Overall, it’s a development I applaud. Private companies in China are often starved of growth capital, and the GEM will mean more of the country’s capital gets allocated to these businesses.

There is one aspect, however, of the GEM that I personally find a little less positive. It’s a small quibble, but my concern is that the opening of the GEM will lead still more Chinese companies to divert time and resources away from building their profits and market share and instead devote energy and cash towards going public. The smaller the company, the more potentially harmful this diversion of attention can be.

China is, to use a military analogy, a “target-rich environment”. Companies often have more opportunities than they have time or resources. This is the product of an economy growing very strongly (8% this year) and modernizing at lightning speed. Large companies can also suffer when they shift focus from gaining customers to gaining a public listing. But, they will usually operate in an established market with established customers. This gives them more of a cushion.

Smaller, high-tech companies don’t have as much leeway. For these companies (last year’s revenues under $5o million) the risk is that the time-consuming and expensive process of planning an IPO on GEM will severely impact current operations, causing it to miss chances to expand, and so lose out to better-focused competitors.

In other words, there’s a trade-off here that tends to get overlooked in all the excitement about the opening of this new stock market in China. The trade-off is between focusing on capital-raising and focusing on building your business.

In my experience, private Chinese companies are already often a little too fixated on an IPO. It’s the main reason so many have made the poor, and often fatal, choice to go public on the American OTCBB. The GEM, I fear, will add fuel to this fire. Often, the best choice for a fast-growing private Chinese company will be to ignore the many pitches they’ll hear from advisors to IPO, and hunker down by focusing on their business for the next year or two.

Yes, being a boot-strapped company is tough. There’s never enough cash around. I know this at first-hand, since along with running China First Capital, I’m also CEO of a boot-strapped security software company in California, Awareness Technologies. Our growth opportunities far exceed our ability to finance them. So, I can understand why the thought of raising an “easy” $5 million – $15 million by going public on the GEM is very attractive to any Chinese boss running a similar cash-short and opportunity-rich company.

But, capital always has a cost. In this case, the main costs will be both the cash paid to advisors and regulators, along with the indirect cost of being a beat slower to seize available opportunities to grow. In China at the moment, any slowness is not just a problem. It can be life-threatening. Every business here operates in a hyper-competitive marketplace.

Of course, any company that can raise money by going public on the GEM will eventually enjoy a big advantage over competitors. It will have the cash and the stronger balance sheet to finance growth. But, the IPO process in China remains far slower than in the US or Hong Kong. A company planning and funding its GEM IPO now, may need to wait two years or more to get all necessary approvals and so finally raise that money with an IPO. Meantime, competitors are, as Americans like to say, eating this company’s lunch.

It’s a discussion we often have with SME bosses – how to time optimally an IPO. A rule of thumb with IPOs is: “small is not beautiful.” Going public on the strength of still limited earnings and revenues will likely result in a small market cap. This can adversely affect share price performance, and so limit the company’s ability to raise additional equity capital. To avoid this trap, it’s often going to be better to wait. Let competitors get bogged down in IPO planning. You can then grow at their expense.

In one way, though, the establishment of the GEM market is an unqualified triumph. It sends the signal far and wide that private SME companies will play an ever larger role in fueling the growth of China’s economy.

 

 

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How the Bad IPO Deals Happen: Exploiting the Lack of Information and Knowledge to Bamboozle Chinese SMEs

Qing Dynasty official statue, from China First Capital blog

In recent years, a large percentage of all OTCBB IPOs have been for Chinese SME companies. This is largely because too many Chinese SME fall too easily into the pit of investment vipers – the lawyers, accountants and self-described “investment bankers” and “private equity investors” that promote these OTCBB listings, reverse mergers and other schemes concocted by advisors generally for their own self-enrichment.

Once caught in the trap, the prospects for the SME are generally pretty bleak. They’ll be bled of badly-needed cash to pay the advisors, bankers and lawyers their fees, and later, by the costs of remaining a listed company. The bosses come to learn that a “US IPO” isn’t at all what it’s cracked up to be when it takes place on OTCBB: there are no celebratory news reports, no huge sums flowing into their personal or corporate bank accounts, no boost in company prestige or brand awareness. At best, it turns out to be a very expensive lesson. At worst, it’s the transaction that leads to the company’s premature demise.

Of course, by the time the SME realizes the scale of the mistake it made by agreeing to IPO on OTCBB, the advisors, lawyers and bankers are all long gone. I’ve heard from a Chinese lawyer friend that these advisors will change their mobile phone numbers after the IPO so the SME boss can no longer contact them.

Indeed, the distinguishing characteristic of these advisors and bankers is their disregard for the future condition of the Chinese SMEs once they’ve done the OTCBB transaction. They have no stake in the long-term success of the company, because they cash out at IPO, and move onto their next victim, er client.

It is not unusual that advisors earn millions of dollars from these OTCBB deals. It may be the most successful and durable investment banking racket of all time. Hundreds of Chinese companies have been ensnared over the last seven years.

How has it gone on for so long? For one thing, the OTCBB is not regulated in any real sense of the word. So, the SEC has little or no power to crack-down. The larger factor, though, is the complete lack of adequate scrutiny by the Chinese SME bosses. They put their business’s future in the hands of a bunch of guys with a proven talent (and mile-long rap sheets) for destroying companies, not building them.

I’m constantly amazed that great Chinese SME bosses I’ve met will do no independent due diligence on financial advisors. They don’t ask for a full track record of past deals, or partner bios, or a list of satisfied past customers to consult. Everything is taken at face value, and appropriately enough, the common result is a very large loss of face for the Chinese boss, after these bad deals have closed, and the damage is calculated.

Even if a Chinese boss wanted to do some proper due diligence, it’s by no means simple. There’s a notable lack of good, current information about the OTCBB in Chinese. Chinese journalists don’t ever seem to write about it, perhaps because these IPOs take place outside China. I did a search of OTCBB on China’s main search engine, Baidu.com, and the top results included information that’s three to four years old, and a site called OTCBB.com.cn that offers very little information, and seems to be owned and run by the kind of advisory firm that specializes in (you guessed it) doing OTCBB listings of Chinese companies. You won’t find anything too useful here.

It doesn’t take a lot of digging, assuming one can speak some English and knows where to look, to discover information that should start alarm bells ringing loud enough to wake the dead. For example, the Chinese government doesn’t recognize the OTCBB as a legitimate stock market for many transactions. Here’s a kernel of disclosure language from the SEC filing of a Chinese company that listed on OTCBB. (Underlined for emphasis:)

“The stock portion of the purchase price of Weihe to Weihe’s stockholders because the delivery of shares of the Company’s common stock in connection with the acquisition of Weihe is not permitted pursuant to applicable PRC law, so long as the Company is listed and traded on the OTCBB, rather than an exchange recognized by the applicable PRC governmental authorities, such as Nasdaq, AMEX and the NYSE.”

Imagine for a second you’re a lawyer, working with a Chinese SME on a proposed OTCBB listing. You must know this fact, that the Chinese government doesn’t recognize that stock market as legitimate. What do you do? Do you exercise your duty-of-care, and tell the client of the danger of an OTCBB listing? Or, do you just gloss over it, so that the deal will go through and you’ll earn big legal fees?

No prizes for guessing which course many of the lawyers take who advise Chinese SME on OTCBB listing. This is why it’s not, in my mind, exaggerating to say that these advisors are often a disgrace to their professions.

What can be done about all of this? It’s already too late for hundreds of Chinese companies that went down this road. For the other thousands of good SME bosses, however, access to better information in Chinese is obviously going to be important, to give them a solid basis to decide which kind of capital markets transaction to pursue.

I’ve done my share lately of cursing the darkness in this blog, remonstrating against the advisors, lawyers and bankers who’ve grown rich off promoting OTCBB and Pink Sheet listings, reverse mergers and SPAC deals. It’s time I also lit a candle.

Together with my colleagues at China First Capital, we’ve been working on a Chinese-language publication called “如何选择上市的时机和地点” or “When and Where to IPO”. It discusses at some length the problems with listing on OTCBB, or doing other kinds of rushed IPOs.

We’ll be completing it this week, and once done, we’ll do our utmost to make it as widely available as possible, in print and online.

 

 

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Size Matters – Why It’s Important to Build Profits Before an IPO

Qing Dynasty plate -- in blog post of China First Capital

Market capitalization plays a very important part in the success and stability of a Chinese SME’s shares after IPO. In general, the higher the market capitalization, the less volatility, the more liquidity. All are important if the shares are to perform well for investors after IPO.

There is no simple rule for all companies. But, broadly speaking, especially for a successful IPO in the US or Hong Kong, market capitalization at IPO should be at least $250 million. That will require profits, in the previous year, of around $15mn or more, based on the sort of multiples that usually prevail at IPO.

Companies with smaller market capitalizations at IPO often have a number of problems. Many of the larger institutional investors (like banks, insurance companies, asset management companies) are prohibited to buy shares in companies with smaller market capitalizations. This means there are fewer buyers for the shares, and in any market, whether it’s stock market or the market for apples, the more potential buyers you have, the higher the price will likely climb.

Another problem: many stock markets have minimum market capitalizations in order to stay listed on the exchange. So, for example, if a company IPOs on AMEX market in the US with $5mn in last year’s profits, it will probably qualify for AMEX’s minimum market capitalization of $75 million. But, if the shares begin to fall after IPO, the market capitalization will go below the minimum and AMEX will “de-list” the company, and shares will stop trading, or end up on the OTCBB or Pink Sheets. Once this happens, it can be very hard for a company’s share price to ever recover.

In general, the stock markets that accept companies with lower profits and lower market capitalizations, are either stock markets that specialize in small-cap companies (like Hong Kong’s GEM market, or the new second market in Shenzhen), or stock markets with lower liquidity, like OTCBB or London AIM.

Occasionally, there are companies that IPO with relatively low market capitalization of around RMB300,000,000 and then after IPO grow fast enough to qualify to move to a larger stock market, like NASDAQ or NYSE. But, this doesn’t happen often. Most low market capitalization companies stay low market capitalization companies forever.

Another consideration in choosing where to IPO is “lock up” rules. These are the regulations that determine how long company “insiders”, including the SME ownerand his family, must wait before they can sell their shares after IPO. Often, the lock up can be one year or more.

This can lead to a particularly damaging situation. At the IPO, many investment advisors sell their shares on the first day, because they are often not controlled by a lock up and aren’t concerned with the long-term, post-IPO success of the SME client.  They head for the exit at the first opportunity.

These sales send a bad signal to other investors: “if the company’s own investment advisors don’t want to own the shares, why should we?” The closer it gets to this time when the lock up ends, the further the share price falls. This is because other investors anticipate the insiders will sell their shares as soon as it becomes possible to do so.

There are examples of SME bosses who on day of IPO owned shares in their company worth on paper over $50 million, at the IPO price. But, by the time the lock up ends, a year later, those same shares are worth less than $5mn. If it’s a company with a lot market capitalization, there is probably very little liquidity. So, even when the SME bosshas the chance to sell, there are no buyers except for small quantities.

The smaller the market capitalization at IPO, the more risky the lock-in is for the SME boss. It’s one more reason why it’s so important to IPO at the right time. The higher an SME’s profits, the higher the price it gets for its shares at IPO. The more money it raises from the IPO, the easier it is to increase profits after IPO and keep the share price above the IPO level.   This way, even when the lock up ends, the SME boss can personally benefit when he sells his shares.

Of all the reasons to IPO, this one is often overlooked: the SME boss should earn enough from the sale of his shares to diversify his wealth. Usually, an SME boss has all his wealth tied up in his company. That’s not healthy for either the boss or his shareholders. Done right, the SME boss can sell a moderate portion of his shares after lock in, without impacting the share price, and so often for the first time, put a  decent chunk of change in his own bank account.

We give this aspect lot of thought in planning the right time and place for an SME’s IPO. We want our clients’ owners and managers to do well, and have some liquid wealth. Too often up to now, the entrepreneurs who build successful Chinese SMEs do not benefit financially to anything like the extent of the cabal of advisors who push them towards IPO. 

 

 

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How to Time an IPO – the Right Path to the Stock Market for a Strong Chinese SME

Ching Dynasty snuff bottle in China First Capital blog post

 

The timing of IPO is the most important question for all Chinese SME preparing for a public listing. Unfortunately, the correct answer is often the one most rarely heard. Instead, many investment bankers and advisors in China tell the SME boss that an IPO should be scheduled “as soon as possible”.

This is often music to the bosses untrained ears, since they’re wrongly assuming that the proceeds of an IPO will go directly into their pockets – a misconception these same investment bankers and advisors can literally cash in on. They’ll tell the SME boss the “bad” news — that the IPO proceeds must go to the company not to his personal bank account, and that the boss won’t be able to sell any of his own shares for a year or more after the IPO – towards the end of the expensive pre-IPO planning process, when it’s usually too late to pull out, without losing a huge amount of money.

This is if they bother to mention it at all. I’ve heard of instances where the Chinese boss is never told directly by his investment bankers, lawyers and advisors, but only finds out if his staff prepares a Chinese translation of the SB-2 prospectus used in OTCBB listings.

So, if not “right away”, what is the correct answer to the question: “when should a Chinese SME IPO”? Of course, circumstances will differ for each company. But, as a general principle, an IPO should come at the apex of an SME’s growth curve, when the company is achieving its historical highest return on equity and return on investment. This way, the SME will get a fuller value for its shares when it does list them publicly.

This also explains why pre-IPO private equity can have such a key role to play in the process. The purpose: put more capital to work than the company can generate internally, or can borrow from banks. This equity capital is then invested where it will earn the highest return over a two to three year period – for example, increasing production and improving economies of scale, or accelerating the pace of opening new distribution outlets.

The PE firm will also help improve efficiencies – in their role as risk-sharing partner with the SME boss – that can lead to significant improvement in net margins. In most cases, the pre-IPO PE capital can result in a doubling of profits. Done right, the pre-IPO capital will result in only modest level of dilution for existing owners – usually no more than 25%. It’s like switching on the after-burners: the SME can speed up its growth, improve its margins, seize large available market opportunities, and so position itself for a far more successful IPO in two to three years’ time.

An IPO has one great value above everything else: it will be the cheapest and most efficient way for an SME to raise the capital it needs to expand its business. The shares will likely be valued at multiples two times higher than a pre-IPO PE investor will pay. Since the amount of capital raised will be a multiple of profits, the higher the profits at IPO the better.

To illustrate this, let’s imagine a company with profits last year of RMB75 million. It has its IPO now, at a PE of 15 and its market capitalization at IPO is RMB 1,125,000,000. The company sells 25% of its shares in the IPO, and so it raises RMB 281,250,000. If instead the company waits another year, it raises a RMB50 million of pre-IPO private equity to help push its profit growth. A year later, profits have reached RMB120 million. If the company now has its IPO, at the same PE of 15, and sells 25% of the shares, it will raise RMB450,000,000 or 60% more.

Let’s  assume  the company continues to maintain a high return-on-investment, after IPO. If so, the more money raised at IPO, the higher profits should be able grow in the future. This is perhaps the most important predictor of overall share performance after IPO. By waiting to IPO, so that its size and profits would be larger, this company will be able to raise much more at IPO and so continue generate higher profits for many years into the future.

A company can IPO only once. So, it is important to raise the optimal amount during this one IPO. If a company IPOs too early, it will sacrifice its ability to finance its growth in the future. Many of the most successful IPOs in China were for private SME companies that had pre-IPO investment from private equity companies: Baidu, Alibaba, Suntech, Belle. That isn’t a coincidence. It’s the result of the sort of smart IPO-planning that is too rare in China.

 

 

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Voices From the Abyss: the Crooked Dealmakers Write Back, Offering to Work Together — and Why I’ll Always Say No

One of the earliest bonds issued in China     One of first bonds issued in China

 

My last two posts have elicited an unusual amount of feedback. The posts deal with the underhandedness, deceit, negligence and shameless greed of so many of the advisors, lawyers and investment bankers doing IPOs of Chinese companies outside China. 

It’s always nice to get mail. Well, mostly. A lot of the comments and emails were complimentary. But, probably half of the email traffic came from various ethically-challenged financial advisors, brokers, lawyers and fixers asking to work with me on their different China IPO schemes. All of them were, from what I could tell, the sort of transactions I railed against in my recent posts – particularly OTCBB listings, reverse mergers. In other words, the same people I would like to see neutered wrote to see if I wanted to go whoring around with them. 

I even got invited to a reverse merger conference in Las Vegas — hard to decide which part I’d least prefer, the conference or the setting.

In one sense, this is more than a little depressing. Either these guys hadn’t understood what I wrote, or figured I would be a useful shill for them somehow: “Look, we even convinced that guy Fuhrman who criticized OTCBB listings to get in on the game.” If so, they seriously miscalculated. 

There is another, more hopeful explanation for these wildly off-target emails. I know that times have gotten very tough for this whole crowd who made all the money wrecking what were often quite promising Chinese SME companies by convincing them to do bad IPO deals. The stock market, of course, is still limping, and most IPO activity (both the good and the debased) has all but dried up. 

Perhaps, then,  these emails to me are a last dying gasp, a tangible sign that the low practices that flourished over the last ten years are doomed. That would be great news, that bad advisors are contacting me as a last resort, because they’ve tried everything else and failed to revive a once-lucrative franchise fleecing good Chinese companies. 

You know what they say about things that sound too good to be true… We’ll see. 

For the record, as well as for those who may harbor any lingering hope I might be able to revive their business doing OTCBB listings or reverse mergers, I wanted to set out, clearly, what it is we do:

  • We only work with some of China’s best, fully-private SME
  • We only work with them on the basis of a long-term partnership, and we will only succeed financially, as a firm, if our SME clients do so. To assure this is the case, we take a significant part of our fees in shares that are likely to be illiquid for 3-5 years
  • We focus on raising our SME clients pre-IPO capital from any of the 50 or so Top Tier Private Equity firms active in China, and providing other financial advisory services over the longer-term, including subsequent capital-raisings, M&A work
  • In most cases, our clients will remain private for at least 2-3 years from the time we begin working with them
  • We are never involved in any kind of “rush to market” IPO, or any deal involving an OTCBB listing, reverse merger, SPAC, PIPEs

Now, I can imagine what a few of my recent email correspondents must be thinking, “What a dope. Why would anyone bother with this ‘high integrity’ stuff when you can make a fortune pushing Chinese companies through the IPO meat grinder?” 

That sort of approach, of grabbing fees while mutilating your client,  is so far removed from what I built China First Capital to do that it’s like asking a ballerina to enter a demolition derby. I’m lucky (or crazy, take your pick), but I didn’t start CFC with the primary motive of making money. I started it for three reasons:

(1) to have a chance, after achieving some career success elsewhere, to give something back to China, a country that’s been the deep and abiding love of mine since I was a little boy;  (2) to work alongside world-class founder/entrepreneurs, and help them get the financing they need to go farther and faster, and so become industry leaders in China over the next 10-20 years; and (3) to provide Chinese SMEs with at least one alternative to the sort of noxious advisory firms that have preyed on them for over 10 years. 

It’s demanding work. We refuse to cut corners, or get involved with a deal because there’s easy money to be made. We view our clients as our partners, not as a meal ticket.  In all these ways, I know I come from a different planet than the guys who arrange OTCBB deals, reverse mergers, or other quickie IPOs.

There’s another difference: I feel profoundly lucky every day to do what I get to do. I doubt they do. 

 

 

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Ethics and Investment Banking – how disreputable advisors, bankers and lawyers damaged Chinese SMEs through OTCBB listings, reverse mergers

 

Qing Dynasty bowl from article by China First Capital

 

Back again in Shenzhen, with plenty of food for thought, as well as food for the belly. I go through the same “immersion program” whenever I arrive back here: it involves stopping for a plate of dumplings or bowl of noodles once every 30 paces. Or anyway, it certainly seems that way. 

The food for thought, as always, centers on ways to deliver enhanced value and service to clients and business partners. We have a set of core principles, that we build our business on, and that collectively represent our main differentiators. They are disarmingly simple – to work with integrity and honesty,  and always put the success of our clients’ first. We know that if we do this, our own success will follow. 

Simple, but not nearly as universal as they should be in our business. A lot of investment banking, IPO and advisory work in China has bordered on the criminal. Hundreds of SME companies were damaged, if not destroyed, by advisors, lawyers and others who neglected entirely to put their clients’ interests first. Instead, they pushed for companies to take various fast routes to IPO in the US, typically reverse mergers, OTCBB Listings, Form 10, SPAC deals. The reason: the advisors, lawyers, bankers all made a pile of money, quickly, through these kinds of deals. When things turned sour, as they often did, the advisers, bankers and lawyers were generally nowhere to be found, and the Chinese companies were left in dire straits.

Obviously, the bosses of the Chinese companies were complicit, since they agreed to these kinds of schemes to achieve a fast IPO. But, in my experience, the bosses main sin was that of ignorance. They simply didn’t understand all the workings of these kinds of deals, or even the fee-structure that would disproportionately reward the advisers, lawyers and bankers. In other words, the Chinese bosses didn’t do their DD, didn’t check the dismal track record of the many Chinese companies that already opted for OTCBB listings or reverse mergers.

I sometimes think the Chinese term for IPO, “上市” ( “shang shi”) has magical, intoxicating effect on some Chinese bosses. They hear it and suspend all their normal caution and suspicion. Soon, they end up agreeing to what are often truly disastrous transactions that don’t even deserve the name IPO.

There are, by some estimates, several hundred Chinese companies now listed on the OTCBB that are somewhere between “on life support” and “clinically dead”. Their share prices fell steeply immediately after listing (by which time the advisers, bankers and lawyers all pocketed their fees and lined up their next victims) and are below $1. There is little to no liquidity. They often trade at PE multiples of 1-2x. The costs of retaining the OTCBB listing are bleeding the companies of badly-needed money. They have no chance to raise additional capital, nor to do much of anything (except waste money on Investor Relations firms) to lift their share price.

I get angry just thinking about this. I’m offended that people in my field of work would be involved in such self-serving, greed-ridden transactions. Secondly, it’s also brought a lot of harm, and sometimes complete failure, to what were very good Chinese SME companies that once had bright futures, until they had the misfortune of putting their financial futures in the hands of these advisors.

Of course, the guiding principle behind all investment decisions must be “caveat emptor”. Chinese bosses clearly didn’t “caveat” enough. That’s regrettable. But, the gains made by the advisors, lawyers and bankers were so enormous, and so ill-gotten. That’s the heart of the matter: Chinese companies were ruined so that a bunch of ethically-challenged finance people could get rich.  For me, this is contemptible.  How these people sleep at night I don’t know.

I do know this: we try to do everything we can to make it less likely that a good Chinese SME goes the same route, and ends up in the same sad condition. One way is through information. We’re producing Chinese-language materials meant to explain the hazards of transactions like OTCBB listings and reverse mergers. Our plan is to distribute the materials as widely as possible, both online and off. It may not put the bad guys out of business, but at least it will make it easier for Chinese SME bosses to know which questions to ask, what kind of track record to look for or, more often,  run away from.

I’ll be sharing soon on this blog  the English version of some of this information.

 

 

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