Jiuding Capital

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

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How Renminbi funds took over Chinese private equity

(Part 2)

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

Part two of a series. Read part one.

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

Outbid, outspent and outhustled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Can dollar-denominated firms strike back?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outbid, outspent and outhustled: How Renminbi funds took over Chinese private equity (Part 1) — SuperReturn Commentary

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Outbid, outspent and outhustled

Renminbi-denominated private equity funds basically didn’t exist until about five years ago. Up until that point, for ten golden years, China’s PE and VC industry was the exclusive province of a hundred or so dollar-based funds: a mix of global heavyweights like Blackstone, KKR, Carlyle and Sequoia, together with pan-Asian firms based in Hong Kong and Singapore and some “China only” dollar general partners like CDH, New Horizon and CITIC Capital. These firms all raised money from much the same group of larger global limited partners (LPs), with a similar sales pitch, to make minority pre-IPO investments in high-growth Chinese private sector companies then take them public in New York or Hong Kong.

All played by pretty much the same set of rules used by PE firms in the US and Europe: valuations would be set at a reasonable price-to-earnings multiple, often single digits, with the usual toolkit of downside protections. Due diligence was to be done according to accepted professional standards, usually by retaining the same Big Four accounting firms and consulting shops doing the same well-paid helper work they perform for PE firms working in the US and Europe. Deals got underwritten to a minimum IRR of about 25%, with an expected hold period of anything up to ten years.

There were some home-run deals done during this time, including investments in companies that grew into some of China’s largest and most profitable: now-familiar names like Baidu, Alibaba, Pingan, Tencent. It was a very good time to be in the China PE and VC game – perhaps a little too good. Chinese government and financial institutions began taking notice of all the money being made in China by these offshore dollar-investing entities. They decided to get in on the action. Rather than relying on raising dollars from LPs outside China, the domestic PE and VC firms chose to raise money in Renminbi (RMB) from investors, often with government connections, in China. Off the bat, this gave these new Renminbi funds one huge advantage. Unlike the dollar funds, the RMB upstarts didn’t need to go through the laborious process of getting official Chinese government approval to convert currency. This meant they could close deals far more quickly.

Stock market liberalization and the birth of a strategy

Helpfully, too, the domestic Chinese stock market was liberalized to allow more private sector companies to go public. Even after last year’s stock market tumble, IPO valuations of 70X previous year’s net income are not unheard of. Yes, RMB firms generally had to wait out a three-year mandated lock-up after IPO. But, the mark-to-market profits from their deals made the earlier gains of the dollar PE and VC firms look like chump change. RMB funds were off to the races.

Almost overnight, China developed a huge, deep pool of institutional money these new RMB funds could tap. The distinction between LP and GP is often blurry. Many of the RMB funds are affiliates of the organizations they raise capital from. Chinese government departments at all levels – local, provincial and national – now play a particularly active role, both committing money and establishing PE and VC funds under their general control.

For these government-backed PE firms, earning money from investing is, at best, only part of their purpose. They are also meant to support the growth of private sector companies by filling a serious financing gap. Bank lending in China is reserved, overwhelmingly, for state-owned companies.

A global LP has fiduciary commitments to honor, and needs to earn a risk-adjusted return. A Chinese government LP, on the other hand, often has no such demand placed on it. PE investing is generally an end-unto-itself, yet another government-funded way to nurture China’s economic development, like building airports and train lines.

Chinese publicly-traded companies also soon got in the act, establishing and funding VC and PE firms of their own using balance sheet cash. They can use these nominally-independent funds to finance M&A deals that would otherwise be either impossible or extremely time-consuming for the listed company to do itself. A Chinese publicly-traded company needs regulatory approval, in most cases, to acquire a company. An RMB fund does not.

The fund buys the company on behalf of the listed company, holding it while the regulatory approvals are sought, including permission to sell new shares to raise cash. When all that’s completed, the fund sells the acquired company at a nice mark-up to its listed company cousin. The listco is happy to pay, since valuations rise like clockwork when M&A deals are announced. It’s called “market cap management” in Chinese. If you’re wondering how the fund and the listco resolve the obvious conflicts of interest, you are raising a question that doesn’t seem to come up often, if at all.

Peter continues his discussion of the growth of Renminbi funds next week. Stay tuned! He also moderates our SuperReturn China 2016 Big Debate: ‘How Do You Best Manage Your Exposure To China?’.

http://www.superreturnlive.com/

Private Equity in China 2014: A Dialogue

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PE in China is changing. But, from what and into what?

Over the last week, I had an email discussion with a managing director in China of one of the world’s five largest private equity firms. He wrote to tell me about the fund’s recent change in China strategy, which then triggered an email dialogue on the specific challenges his firm is trying to overcome, and the larger tides that are shaping the private equity industry in China.

I’ll share an edited version here. I’ve taken out the firm’s name and any references that might make it identifiable.

Think it’s easy to be a private equity boss in China, to keep your job and keep your LPs happy? It’s anything but.

PE Firm Managing Director: Peter, I want to share some change in our fund strategy with you and get your opinion on it.

We have optimized our investment strategy for our US$ fund. We will focus more on late-stage companies that can achieve an IPO within 1-2 years and exit/partial exit perhaps 3-4 years or less. Total investment amount is still $30-80M but we prefer larger deal sizes within the range. Since these are high quality companies, we have lowered our criteria and is willing to be more competitive and pay higher valuation and take less % ownership (minimum 4-5% is still OK). We can also buy more old shares and participate in small club deals as long as the minimum investment size is met.

We are also willing to work with high quality listed companies in terms of PIPE/CB. In sum, our strategy should be more flexible and competitive versus before.

Me: Thanks for sending me the summary on the new investment strategy. You could guess I wouldn’t just reply, “sounds fine to me”.

Here’s my view of it, after a day’s thought. If I didn’t know it was from [your firm], or didn’t focus on the larger check size, I’d say the strategy was identical to every RMB PE firm active in China, starting with Jiuding and then moving downward. That by itself is a problem since in my mind, [your firm] operates in a different universe from those guys — you are thoroughly professional, experienced, global, proper fiduciaries. Maybe that’s your opportunity, to be the ” thoroughly professional, experienced, global, proper fiduciary” version of an RMB fund?

Other problem is, unless your firm is even smarter and more well-connected in Zhongnanhai than I think, no one can have any real idea at this point which Chinese companies, other than Alibaba Group,  can gain an IPO in next two years. The English idiom here is “making yourself a hostage to fortune”. In other words, the only way a PE could consistently achieve the goal of “IPO exits within 24 months” is based more on luck than planning and deal execution.

If you asked me, I’d think the way to frame it is you will opportunistically seek early exits, but will focus always on companies where you have confidence EV will increase by +30% YOY over short- and medium-term, in part due to the money and know-how you provide. It’s kind of a hedge, rather than just hoping IPO exits will come roaring back after almost two years with basically zero Chinese IPOs.

The good news for you and for me is that China has so many great companies, great entrepreneurs that all of us can “free ride”, to some extent, on their genius and ability to generate growth and wealth.

PE MD: Thanks for the detailed message and for thinking so hard to help us.

First let me explain why the changes were made. Through extensive recent discussion with limited partners, it appears that a hybrid fund with small early stage, mid-sized growth stage and larger sized late stage or PIPE is not what LPs want as they are in the business of allocating funds to a variety of focused managers rather than just put the money to a single fund doing it all. For example, it could allocate a small portion of its capital to Sequoia or Qiming for early stage and pray they can get a huge return back in five years. For other (major) part of their allocation, they desire some fund which can focus more on IRR increase of Multiple of Capital.

I think this is where we are attempting to position our latest fund. Even though our returns are decent, our previous funds took too long to return distributions and result in lower IRRs.

As you know, my firm has [over $100 billion] AUM. Although the company including the Founder is extremely supportive of our fund, we have to do more to make our fund relevant to the firm financially. Therefore, we need to focus on bigger/latter stage project which can allow us to deploy/harvest capital more quickly than before (3-4 years versus 5-7 years) and building up more AUM per investment professional to reach at least the average for the firm.

Doing many small projects ($10-20 million) has also put a very high administrative burden/cost on our back-office. While the strategy means that we will go in a little bit later stage, taking a smaller-stake sometimes and perhaps pay a higher valuation (since the companies are more expensive as risks are lower closer to liquidity), it doesn’t change our commitment to each investment. In fact, due to the reduced number of investment, we can focus our value creation efforts on each one more. This is very different than the shoot and forget method of Jiuding.

It is true having a smaller stake will reduce our influence and perhaps reduce our ability to persuade the founder to sell in case an IPO is impossible. However, a smaller stake means it is more liquid after IPO and we can be more flexible in selling the stake pre-IPO to another PE. Of course we are not explicitly targeting IPO in 24 month but we are trying to be as late stage as possible while meeting our IRR stand. We do have some idea of what kind of company can IPO sooner based on years of experience. If the markets or regulatory agencies don’t cooperate on the IPO schedule, then we just have to make sure our investments can keep growing without an IPO.

Me: As a strategy, it can’t be faulted. In a nutshell, it’s “Get in, get out, get carry and get new capital allocations from one’s LPs.”

My doubts are down on the practical level. Are there really deals like this in the market? If so, I certainly don’t see them. I’m just one guy feeling the elephant’s tail, and so have nothing like the people, sources that your firm has in China. Maybe there are lots of these kinds of opportunities, well-run Chinese companies with pre-money valuations of +USD$200mn (implying net income of +USD$20mn), and so probably large enough to IPO now, but still looking, somewhat illogically,  to raise outside PE money from a dollar fund at a discount to public markets.  Maybe too there are enough to go around to fill the strategic needs of not just your firm but about every other one active here, including not only the RMB crowd, but all the other big global guys, who also say they want to find ways to write big dollar checks in China and exit these deals within 2-3 years. (This is, after all, the genesis of the craze to throw money into PtP deals in the US, none of which have made anyone any money up to this point.)

Is China deal flow a match for this China strategy? That’s the part I’ll be watching most closely.

My empirical view is that the gap may be growing dangerously ever wider between what China PEs are seeking and what the China market has to offer. This is a country where the best growth capital deals and best risk-adjusted investments are concentrated among entrepreneurial private sector businesses with (sane) valuations below $100mn. In other markets, scale is inversely correlated with risk. In China, it is probably the opposite. Bigger deals here usually have more hair on them than an alpaca.

From our discussions over the years, I know you’re someone who looks at deals through a special, somewhat contrarian prism. Your firm’s new strategy pulls in one direction, while your own inclinations, judgment and experience may perhaps pull you in another.

We’re finishing up now a “What’s ahead in 2014″ Chinese-language report that we’ll distribute to the +6,500 Chinese company bosses, senior management and Chinese government officials in our database.  I’ll send a copy when it’s done. You’ll see we’re basically forecasting 2014 will be a better year to operate and finance a business in China than the last two years. Our view is good Chinese companies should seize the moment, and try to outrun and outgun their competitors.  Your role: supply the fuel, supply the ammo.

 

Jiuding Capital: China’s “PE Factory” Breaks Down

Less than 18 months ago, Harvard Business School published one of its famed “cases” on Kunwu Jiuding Capital (昆吾九鼎投资管理有限公), praising the Chinese domestic private equity firm for its ” outstanding performance ” and “dazzling investment results”. (Click here to read abridged copy.) Today,  the situation has changed utterly. Jiuding’s “dazzling results”, along with that HBS case, look more like relics from a bygone era.

Jiuding developed a style of PE investing that was, for awhile, as perfectly adapted to Chinese conditions as the panda is to predator-free bamboo jungles in Sichuan. Jiuding kept it simple. Don’t worry too much about the company’s industry, its strategic advantage, R&D or management skills. Instead,  look only for deals where you could make a quick killing. In China, that meant looking for companies that best met the requirements for an immediate domestic IPO. Deals were conceived and executed to arbitrage consistently large valuation differentials between public and private markets, between private equity entry multiples and expected IPO exit valuations.

Jiuding’s pre-investment work consisted mainly of simulating the IPO approval process of China’s securities regulator, the CSRC. If these simulations suggested a high likelihood of speedy CSRC IPO approval, a company got Jiuding’s money. The objective was to invest and then get out in as short a period as possible, preferably less than two years. A more typical PE deal in China might wait four years or more for an opportunity to IPO.

Jiuding did dozens of deals based on this investment method. When things worked according to plan, meaning one of Jiuding’s deals got quickly through its IPO, the firm made returns of 600% or more. After a few such successes, Jiuding’s fundraising went into overdrive. Once a small domestic Renminbi PE firm, Jiuding pretty soon became one of the most famous and largest, with the RMB equivalent of over $1 billion in capital.

Then, last year, a capital markets asteroid wiped out Jiuding’s habitat.  The CSRC abruptly, and without providing any clear explanation, first slowed dramatically the number of IPO approvals, then in October 2012, halted IPOs altogether. This has precipitated a crisis in China’s private equity industry. Few other PE firms are as badly impacted as Jiuding. The CSRC’s sudden block on IPOs revealed the fact that Jiuding’s system for simulating the IPO approval process had a fatal flaw. It could not predict, anticipate or hedge against the fact that IPOs in China remain not a function of market dynamics, but political and institutional policies that can change both completely and suddenly.

If Jiuding made one key mistake, it was assuming that the IPO approval system that prevailed from 2009 through mid-2012 was both replicable and likely to last well into the future. In other words, it was driving ahead at full speed while looking back over its shoulder.

Jiuding’s deals are now stranded, with no high probability way for many to achieve IPO exit before the expiry of fund life. That was another critical weakness in the Jiuding approach: it raised money in many cases by promising its RMB investors to return all capital within four to six years, about half the life cycle of a typical global PE firm like Carlyle or Blackstone.

Jiuding’s deals, like thousands of others in China PE,  are part of a backlog that could take a decade or more to clear. The numbers are stupefying: at its height the CSRC never approved more than 125 IPOs a year for PE-backed companies in China. There are already 100 companies approved and waiting to IPO, 400 more with applications submitted and in the middle of CSRC investigation, and at least another 2,000-3,000 waiting for a time when the CSRC again allows companies to freely submit applications.

Jiuding’s assets and liabilities are fundamentally mismatched. That’s as big a mistake in private equity as it is in the banking and insurance industries. Jiuding’s assets —  its shareholdings in well over a hundred domestic companies — are and will likely remain illiquid for years into the future. Meantime, the people whose capital it invests,  mainly rich Chinese businesspeople, will likely demand their money back as originally promised, sometime in the next few years. There’s a word for a situation where a company’s near-term liabilities are larger than the liquidatable value of its assets.

In the Harvard Business School case, Jiuding’s leadership is credited with perfecting a “PE factory”,  which according to the HBS document “subverted the traditional private equity business model.”  They might as well have claimed Jiuding also subverted the law of gravity. There are no real shortcuts, no assembly line procedure, for making and exiting successfully from PE investments in China.

In an earlier analysis, written as things turned out just as the CSRC’s unannounced block on IPOs was coming into effect, I suggested Jiuding would need to adjust its investment methods, and more closely follow the same process used by bigger, more famous global PE firms. In other words, they would need to get their hands dirty, and invest for a longer time horizon, based more on a company’s medium term business prospects, not its likelihood of achieving an instant IPO.

Jiuding, in short, will need to focus its investing more on adding value and less on extracting it. Can it? Will it? Or has its time, like the boom years of CSRC IPO approval and +80X p/e IPO valuations in China,  come and gone?

 

 

Jiuding Capital: Local Boy Makes Good Atop China’s PE Industry

In China’s PE jungle, a mouse is king. Started just five years ago, Kunwu Jiuding Capital (昆吾九鼎投资管理有限公) has probably achieved the best results and best returns for investors in China’s private equity industry over the last three years. Indeed, few if any PE investors anywhere have out-performed Jiuding in recent years. (For a more recent analysis on challenges facing Jiuding, please click here. )

With only around $1 billion in assets, Jiuding is around 1%-2% the size of the leading global PE firms like Blackstone, KKR, Bain Capital and Carlyle. Yet, none of these firms matches Jiuding’s recent record at investing, exiting, and pocketing big returns in China. The firm is about as different from the likes of TPG, KKR and Carlyle as firms in the same industry can get. Jiuding isn’t staffed with Ivy League MBAs, operates out of modest offices, makes no claim to particular expertise in business operations, nor does it reward its partners with hundreds of millions in profits from carried interest.

Jiuding has mastered a form of PE investing devoid of glamour, prestige or deal-making genius. Rather than “Barbarians at the Gate“, think more “Accountants at the Cash Till“. Jiuding may want to savor its current status as “king of the China PE jungle”. The money-making formula Jiuding has used so effectively is getting tougher all the time.

The Jiuding investment method is blunt: it invests only in Chinese companies it believes will very soon thereafter get approved for domestic IPO. It’s not trying to guess which industries will flourish, or how Chinese consumers will spend their money in the future. It makes no bets on unproved technologies, or companies that may be growing fast, but are still years away from an IPO. Its investment technique is based on reproducing internally, as much as possible, the lengthy, opaque approval IPO process of China’s all-powerful securities regulator the CSRC.

Jiuding focuses more on guessing what the CSRC will do, rather than how a particular company will fare. This way, it hopes to capture a big valuation differential between its entry price and exit price after IPO. At its high point two years ago, there was a ten-fold gap between Jiuding’s entry and exit multiples. Jiuding bought in at a p/e of less than 10X, and could exit at over 80X. Though share prices and p/e multiples have fallen, the gap remains ample, still under 10X going in, and a likely 25X-30X going out.

Here’s the way it works: the CSRC IPO approval process can take anywhere from two to five years. Jiuding times its investment as close as legally permissible to the time when the company will file for IPO. It then gets to work doing everything it can to improve the likelihood of CSRC approval, attending meetings at the CSRC, lobbying backstage. When things go smoothly, Jiuding can enter and exit an investment in three years, including the mandatory one-year lockup after IPO.

The average hold time for other PE firms investing in China can be as long as six to eight years. These other firms are willing to invest earlier and then help the company transition, often over a two to three year period, to full tax and regulatory compliance. This is a prerequisite before filing for IPO. Change in China is perpetual, sudden, frenetic. The longer a PE firm holds an investment, the greater the risk some change in the rules, or the domestic market, or the exchange rate, or the competitive landscape will ruin a once-strong company.

These uncertainties, as well as the significant risk a Chinese company will not pass CSRC’s IPO approval process, are the two largest China PE investment risks that Jiuding tries to eliminate. For Jiuding, this means a hyper-technical focus on whether a company is paying all its taxes and whether its main customer is actually the founder’s brother-in-law. In other words, are there serious related party transactions? This is often the main reason the CSRC turns down an IPO application.

Other PEs, particularly the global giants,  take a different approach. They expend huge energy on the process of analyzing and predicting the future course of a company’s products, markets, competitive position. This involves a lot of brain power and also some guesswork. The results are mixed. A lot of deals never close, because the PE firm, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and lots of man-hours, can’t complete due diligence. Others will never reach the stage of even applying for IPO, let alone getting approval.

Jiuding seems perfectly-adapted to the Chinese investment terrain. When its process works, its bets pay off handsomely, often delivering returns of at least three times capital invested. Jiuding calls this a “PE factory method”. It tries to systematize as much of the investment process as possible. Jiuding has a huge staff of at least 250 people, ten times the size of other PEs in China. They are kept busy doing this work of collecting company data and then simulating the CSRC’s approval process. It invites its LPs, mainly wealthy Chinese bosses, to participate in deal screening and approval. If the majority of LPs doesn’t approve of a deal, it doesn’t get done. In the PE industry, this is often known as “letting the lunatics run the asylum”.

To be sure, Jiuding doesn’t always get it right. It does more deals each year than just about every other PE firm in China. Quite a few will flame out before IPO. But, Jiuding will usually get its original investment back, by forcing companies to buy back the shares. Meantime, its IPO hit rate is high, as far as I can tell. The company discloses information only sporadically, and its website lists only fourteen IPOs. Its actual tally is certainly far higher. Jiuding regards everything about its business — its portfolio of investments, its total capital, its staff size — as commercial secrets.

Jiuding differs in another important way from larger, better-known PE firms: it helps itself to less of its LPs’ money . Jiuding takes a lower management fee, usually a one-time 3% charge, rather than annual 1%-3%, and awards itself with a smaller carry on successful deals. Jiuding’s almost as efficient at raising money as it is investing it. It’s already raised at least ten different funds, including, recently, a dollar one.

With everything going so well, Jiuding, and its stripped-down approach to PE investing, looks unstoppable. But, there are some signs of serious problems ahead for Jiuding. Its main problems now aren’t raising money or even finding good companies. Partly, it’s a challenge familiar to most successful Chinese companies, including many Jiuding has invested in: copycats start springing up everywhere. In the last two years, hundreds of new Renminbi PE firms were founded. Many are trying to duplicate Jiuding’s formula. They also focus on companies ready to apply for IPO, and also try to anticipate the way the CSRC will rule on the application. Jiuding needs to fight harder now to win deals, and often does this by agreeing to invest at higher price than others. That will inevitably lower potential returns.

The second, larger problem is the CSRC’s IPO approval process itself. It is becoming slower, and also even more impenetrable and unpredictable, even to the savants at Jiuding. It’s harder now for Jiuding to get in and out of deals quickly, a key to its success. The backlog of Chinese companies with CSRC approval and waiting to IPO is now at around 500. In most cases, that means a wait of at least two years after the laborious CSRC process is complete. A lot can go wrong during that time. So, an investor like Jiuding will need to understand, before going in, more about a company and its longer-term prospects.

In China’s PE market, where good companies are plentiful and IPO exits are limited, Jiuding has prospered by focusing more on understanding the regulator than on understanding a company’s business model and industry. It never needed to bother much with monitoring the day-to-day dramas of running a company, or offering sage advice as a board member, or helping a company expand its partnerships and improve marketing. Yet, all this is becoming more and more necessary. These aren’t skills Jiuding has mastered. Who has? The same big global PE firms (including Carlyle, TPG, Blackstone, KKR, Bain Capital) that Jiuding has lately run circles around. Jiuding’s “PE factory” must adapt or die.