Limited Partners

US Private Equity Soars While China Stalls

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In 2014, the gap between the performance of the private equity industry in China and the US opened wide.  The US had a record-breaking year, with ten-year net annualized return hitting 14.6%. Final data is still coming in, but it appears certain US PE raised more capital more quickly and returned more profits to LPs than any year previously.  China, on the other hand, had another so-so year. Exits picked up over 2013, but still remain significantly below highs reached in 2011. As a result profit distributions to LPs and closing of new China-focused funds are also well down on previous highs.

China’s economy, of course, also had an off year, with growth trending down. But, it’s hard to place the blame there. At 7.5%, China’s economy is still growing at around triple the rate of the US. China’s publicly-traded equities market, meanwhile, turned in a stellar performance, with the overall Chinese stock exchange average up 52% in 2014, compared to a 11.4% rise in the US S&P. When stock markets do well, PE firms should also, especially with exits.

While IPO exits for Chinese companies in US, HK and China reached 221, compared to only 66 in 2013, the ultimate measure of success in PE investing is not the number of IPOs. It’s the amount of capital and profits paid back to LP investors. This is China PE’s greatest weakness.

Over the last decade, China PE firms have returned only about 30% of the money invested with them to their LPs. This compares to the US, where PE firms over the same period returned twice the money invested by LPs. In other words, in China, as 2015 commences, PE firm investors are sitting on large cash losses.

China private equity distributions to LPs

 

China PE firms say they hope to return more money to their LPs in the future.  But, this poor pay-out performance is already having an adverse impact on the China PE industry. It is getting harder for most China PE firms to raise new capital. If this trend continues, there will be two negative consequences – first, the China PE industry, now the second largest in the world,  will shrink in size. Second, and more damaging for China’s overall economic competitiveness, the investment capital available for Chinese companies will decline. PE capital has provided over the past decade much-needed fuel for the growth of China’s private sector.

What accounts for this poor performance of China private equity compared to the US? One overlooked reason: China PE has lost the knack of investing and exiting profitably from Chinese industrial and manufacturing companies. Broadly speaking, this sector was the focus of about half the PE deals done up to 2011 when new deals peaked. That mirrors the fact manufacturing accounts for half of China’s GDP and traditionally has achieved high levels (over 30%) of value-added.

Manufacturing has now fallen very far from favor in China. Partly it’s the familiar China macro story of slowing export growth and margin pressures from rising labor costs and other inputs. But, another factor is at work: China’s own stock market, as well as those of the US and Hong Kong, have developed a finicky appetite when it comes to Chinese companies. In the US, only e-commerce and other internet-related companies need apply for an IPO. In Hong Kong, the door is open more widely and the bias against manufacturing companies isn’t quite so pronounced, especially if the company is state-owned. But, among private sector companies, the biggest China-company IPO have been concentrated in financial services, real estate, food production, retail.

For China-investing PE firms, this means in most cases their portfolios are mismatched with what capital markets want. They hold stakes in thousands of Chinese industrial and manufacturing companies representing a total investment of over $20 billion in LP money.  For now, the money is trapped and time is growing short. PE fund life, of course, is finite. Many of these investments were made five to eight years ago. China PE need rather urgently to find a way to turn these investments into cash and return money to LPs. Here too the comparison with US private equity is especially instructive.

The colossus that is today’s US private equity industry, with 3,300 firms invested in 11,000 US companies, was built in part by doing successful buyouts in the 1980s and 1990s of manufacturing and industrial companies, often troubled ones. Deals like Blackstone‘s most successful investment of all time, chemicals company Celanese, together with American Axle and TRW Automotive, KKR‘s Amphenol Corporation, Bain‘s takeover of  Sealy Corporation and many, many others led the way. Meanwhile, smart corporate investors like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Emerson Electric and were also pouring billions into acquiring and shaping up industrial businesses. So successful has this strategy been over the last 30 years, it can seem like there are no decent industrial or manufacturing companies left for US PEs to target.

Along the way, US PEs became experts at selecting, acquiring, fixing up and then exiting from industrial companies. US PEs have shown again and again they are good at rationalizing, consolidating, modernizing and systematizing industrial companies and entire industrial sectors. These are all things China’s manufacturing industry is crying out for. Market shares are fragmented, management systems often non-existent, inventory control and other tools of “lean manufacturing” often nowhere to be found.

So here’s a pathway forward for China PE, to use in China the identical investing skills honed in the US. It should be rather easy, since among the US’s 100 biggest private equity firms, the majority have sizeable operations now in China, including giants like Carlyle, Blackstone, KKR, TPG, Bain Capital, Warburg Pincus. For these firms, it should be no more complicated than the left hand following what the right hand is doing.

It isn’t working out that way. This is a big reason why China PE is performing poorly compared to the US. PE partners in China in the main came into the industry after getting an MBA in the US or UK, then getting a job on Wall Street or a consulting shop. Few have experience working in,  managing or restructuring industrial companies. They often, in my experience, look a little out of place walking a factory floor. This is the other big mismatch in China PE — between the skill-sets of those running the PE firms what’s needed to turn their portfolio companies into winners.

Roll-up, about the most basic and time-tested of all US PE money-making strategies, has yet to take root in China. Inhospitable terrain? No, to the contrary. But, it requires a fair bit of sweat and grit from PE firms.

This may account for the fact that China PE firms are now mainly herding together to try to close deals in e-commerce, healthcare services, mobile games and other places where no metal gets bashed. PE firms formed such a crush to try to invest in Xiaomi, the mobile phone brand, that they drove the valuation up in the latest round of funding to $46 billion, so high none of them decided to invest. China PE is that paradoxical – fewer deals are getting done, fewer have profitable exits and yet valuations are often much higher than anywhere else.

Another worrying sign: of the big successful China company IPOs in 2014 – Alibaba, Dalian Wanda‘s commercial real estate arm, CGN, CITIC Securities, Shaanxi Coal, JD.com, WH Group  – only one had large global PE firms inside as large shareholders. That was WH Group, a troubled deal that had a hard time IPOing and has since sunk rather sharply. For the big global PE firms, 2014 had no big China IPO successes, which is probably a first.

The giant US PEs (Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR, Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, Bain Capital, TPG and the others) all voyaged to China a decade or more ago with high hopes. Some even dared predict China would become as important and profitable a market for them as the US. They were able to raise billions at the start, build big teams, but it’s been getting noticeably harder both to raise money and notch big successful deals. And so their focus is shifting back to the US.

China has so much going for it as an investment destination, such an abundance of what the US lacks. High overall growth, a government rolling in cash, a burgeoning and rapidly prospering middle class, rampant entrepreneurship, huge new markets ripe for taking. Why then are so many of the world’s most professional and successful investors finding it so tough to make a buck here?

 

Investors Vs. Asset Managers: A Dysfunction at the Heart of China Private Equity

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Assuming the same level of risk, would you rather make $100 from investing $10 or from investing $50? Easy, right? Who wouldn’t choose to make ten times your money, rather than just double it? There is one group I know. Private equity firms active in China. At least some of them. They care more about the amount they can invest in a deal than the profits they stand to make.

The illogic at work here is the direct result of some particular, not very appealing characteristics,  of the PE industry in China. PE firms lately have more confidence in their ability to raise money than to invest it profitably by achieving a timely exit. To raise money, though, a PE firm needs first to spend most of what it already has. Result: a rush to get money out the door and parked in deals.

In industry parlance, “check size” is often more important than potential risk-adjusted returns.This is one reason for the recent rash of “take private” PtP deals of Chinese companies quoted in the US. (See previous articles, including here, here, here. ) The transactions seem to me ill-considered. PEs have invested billions of dollars in such deals but there is not a single successful example they can point to of such PtP deals done in the US making money for investors. This must be a PE industry first — so much LP money put at risk against an investment idea that is totally unproved.

Who’s most harmed from focus on “check size” over deal quality and prospective returns? Of course it’s the LPs whose money is put into these deals. They want and need high returns, not bigger deals done using their money to aid PE firms’ future fund-raising.

But, Chinese entrepreneurs also suffer in this environment, because many PE firms now simply won’t look at deals where they can’t invest at least $25mn for around 25% of the company. There are few deals out there in that size range, meaning deserving entrepreneurs can’t find investors.

The big picture here: PE in China has become more and more a business dominated by asset managers not investors. How to tell the two apart? An asset manager enjoys the comfort and certainty of making a steady 2% a year managing other people’s money. The more money they raise, the more money they keep. Good markets or bad, the money keeps rolling in.

An investor, on the other hand, is a whole different animal. They share some DNA with the entrepreneurs they back. They love the sport of finding and evaluating deals, spotting where big money can be made, putting money at risk. When it works, they make big sums for their investors, and keep a nice chunk themselves.

Needless to say, LPs give money to PE firms in hopes they have chosen investors not asset managers. PE firms know this, of course, and tailor their money-raising pitch accordingly. They stress their deal-making prowess, not the fact that over the life of a typical 10-year fund, an LP will start with a 20% cumulative loss, because of the typical annual management fee deductions.

In China, it used to be fairly easy to make money in PE. But, over the last three years, returns began to head south. More recently,  over the last 18 months, the performance has mainly been dismal, with few successful deals exiting with big profits. It’s getting harder and harder for LPs to make money in China PE, after those accumulated management fees have been deducted.

But, there’s a time lag — as well as an information asymmetry — at work here. While recent performance has been, on the whole, lousy, there’s still appetite among LPs to allocate more money to China. A big reason is that China’s economy, and capital markets, are both the second-biggest in the world. Most LPs are seriously underweight China and want to change that.

And so we arrive at the current paradoxical situation, where it’s still comparatively easier to collect money to invest in China than to make money deploying it. Now, of course, PE firms can only succeed in raising capital if they can point to some successful past deals. Here too there’s an information asymmetry at work. Many PE firms did well from 2005-2010, and so their fund-raising documents emphasize deals done during this era. But, the game has changed out of all recognition since then.

Few, if any, PE firms have shown they can continue to earn investors good money when markets become less accommodating. It’s no longer possible to play the game of valuation arbitrage, of investing in China deals at single digit p/e multiples, and exiting them soon after at 5-10 times higher multiples through an IPO.

Earning a profit on an investment takes preparation, luck and time. Making money by convincing people to pay you a fee to manage theirs, by contrast, is a much simpler proposition, as well as a no-lose one.

And so the gulf widens between the objectives of PE firms and the fiduciary responsibilities and performance goals of the institutions whose money they manage.

This can be a problem everywhere in the PE and VC industry, as well as more broadly wherever people get paid to manage assets owned by someone else. (See principal-agent dilemma.)   But, it’s probably especially pernicious in China PE.

The industry is staffed mainly be ex-investment bankers, who by background and temperament understand more about fee-based, than performance-based, compensation. Few have a background of actually managing a company, investing its capital to produce a return. Without this first-hand understanding, it’s far harder as an investor to plot how to make an operating business more valuable. The result: PE firms in China will often opt for an easier path: making money by raising money from, and managing for,  other financial professionals.

The Term Sheet Goes Global

Time zones, languages, continents and business models may change as you cross the Pacific, but the Private Equity Term Sheet remains the same.

This is my conclusion after seeing the first Term Sheets arrive for our China First Capital clients recently. This is a happy moment – not so much for ourselves, of course, but for the entrepreneurs and PE firms we are fortunate to work with. For me, seeing these first Term Sheets is cause for reflection and, I hope,  some insight, on the constant truths of the equity investment process. 

I’ve been involved in quite a few Term Sheets for US venture deals over the years. I was surprised to find the Term Sheets this week very familiar, even though the investor and the target company are both based in China. In every other respect except the Term Sheet, the circumstances couldn’t be more different than a typical US venture deal — the governing law,  the industry, the company’s ownership, the likely timing and nature of the exit. 

So, why, despite all these vast differences, are there such deep similarities in Term Sheets? Start with the fact that there’s commonality in the approach of all good institutional investors: they all must exercise fiduciary responsibility on behalf of those whose money they are investing. This, in turn,  means the due diligence process needs to be thorough and professional, and the terms under which investments are made be sufficiently protective of the source of the invested capital. 

This fiduciary duty is made concrete in many of the standard provisions of a Term Sheet, whether that Term Sheet originates in Palo Alto or Shanghai. Indeed, the majority of the text in a Term Sheet is there to protect the fund’s Limited Partners from bad outcomes: share structure (preferred), board seats, liquidation preferences, anti-dilution provisions, preemptive rights, matters requiring special approval, performance guarantees. 

So far so familiar. 

The other big element of any Term Sheet, of course, is where the PE or VC firm is asserting primarily its own interests. The two most obvious areas: expiration dates and “no shop clauses”.  I was mildly surprised to see these in the Term Sheets recently submitted to clients of China First Capital. I’d mistakenly thought the “no shop clause”, in particular,  expressed a very local, American legalistic reality. In business negotiations, Americans need to specify as much as possible in writing, to protect against the ultimate evil of American business life: business litigation. 

Chinese, though, seem to have a far less obsessive need to document everything in writing, and certainly don’t have the same persistent, gnawing fear of litigation. It’s a “guanxi” society, where trust between individuals forms a more insoluble bond than any contractual term. 

A part of me, therefore, wishes the “no shop” clause hadn’t crossed the Pacific. I view them as the Pre Nuptial Agreement of the PE and VC investing world. They can create an air of mutual distrust, at a time when both sides are trying very hard to build a lasting partnership. 

A Term Sheet should serve the same fundamental goal: to allow great PE investors to put capital to work in truly outstanding investment opportunities, while limiting risk for the owners of that capital. I’m excited that the Term Sheets I’ve reviewed this week, once finalized,  will achieve this goal, and achieve phenomenal outcomes for everyone involved.