London

International Investors Miss The Boat in China – Because They’re Not Allowed Onboard

China First Capital blog post Ming jar

Despite my fourteen years living in London,  I needed to fly all the way back to that city this week, from China, to finally get a look at Westminster Central Hall, a stately stone pile across the street from the even statelier, stonier pile that is Westminster Abbey. Central Hall does double duty, both as a main meeting place for British Methodists, and also as an impressive venue for conferences, including the first meeting of the United Nations in 1946. 

This week, it was site of the annual Boao Forum for Asia International Capital Conference. I flew in to attend, and participate in a panel discussion on private equity in China. The Boao Forum is something like the more renowned Davos Forum, but with a particular focus on Asia and China. This annual meeting focused on finance and capital, and drew a large contingent of about 120 Chinese officials and businesspeople, along with an equal number of Western commercial bankers, lawyers, accountants, investors, politicians, academics and a few other investment bankers besides me. 

Central Hall is crowned by a large domed ceiling, said to be the second-largest in the world. I enjoyed sending back a brief live video feed to my China First Capital colleagues in Shenzhen, whirling my laptop camera up towards the dome, and then down to show the conference. It was also the first time any of my colleagues had seen me in a suit. 

The weather was a perfect encapsulation of British autumn climate, with blustery and frigid winds, occasional radiant sunshine and torrential rain. It was my first trip back to London in over two years, and nothing much had changed. What a contrast to China, where in two years, most major cities seem to undergo a radical facelift. 

“How can a non-Chinese invest in Chinese private company?” It was a straightforward question, by a London-based money manager, for the panel I was on. Straightforward, even obvious, but it was actually one I’d never really considered before, to my embarrassment. In my talk (see Powerpoint here: http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/trends-in-private-equity.pdf) , I made the case about why Chinese SME are among the world’s best investment opportunities for private equity firms.  It’s an argument I’m used to making to conference audiences in China. This is the first time I’ve done so anywhere else. The question, though, made me feel a bit like a guy telling his friends about the new Porsche Carrera for sale for $8,000, but then saying, “unfortunately, you’re not allowed to buy one.” 

The reality is that it’s effectively impossible for a non-Chinese investor, other than the PE firms we regularly work with,  to buy into a great private Chinese SME. For one thing, the investor would need renminbi to do so, and there’s no legal way to obtain it, for purposes like this. Even if you found a way around that problem, you’d face an even steeper one when you wanted to exit the investment and convert your profits back into dollars or sterling. 

The money manager came up to me later, and I could see the vexation in her eyes. I had persuaded her there were great ways for investors to make money investing in SME in China. Disappointingly, her clients aren’t allowed to do so. Cold comfort was all I could offer,  pointing out the same basic problem exists for any non-Chinese seeking to buy shares quoted on the Shenzhen and Shanghai stock markets. 

It’s a reasonable bet that China eventually will liberalize its exchange rate controls and ultimately allow freer convertibility of the renminbi. But, that doesn’t exist now. As a result, financial investment in renminbi in China is, for the most part, reserved exclusively for Chinese. Unfair? It must seem that way to the sophisticated, well-paid money managers in London, who these days have few, if any,  similarly “sure fire” investment options for their clients. 

China is, itself, awash in liquidity, and sitting on a hoard of over $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. So, there really is no shortage of capital domestically. Allowing foreign investors in, of course, would increase the capital available to finance the growth of great companies. But,  it will also add to the mountain of foreign reserves and put more upward pressure on the renminbi. That’s the last thing Chinese authorities need at the moment. So, most of the best investment opportunities in China are likely to remain, for quite a lot longer, open only to Chinese investors. 

Overall, this is a very good time to be Chinese. By my historical reckoning, it’s the best since at least the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago. China has changed out of all recognition over the last 30 years, creating enormous material and social gains. That beneficial change, if anything, is accelerating. The fact Chinese also have some of the world’s best investment opportunities to themselves is just another dividend from all this positive change. 

If I were a money manager, I’d also be asking myself “how can I get some of this?” But, I’m not a money manager, and I formulate things very differently. I’m so happy and privileged to have a chance to help some of China’s great private entrepreneurs. Me and my team invest all our waking hours and all our collective passion in this. We are rewarded daily, by the trust put in us by these entrepreneurs, and by our very small contribution to their continued success. That’s more than adequate return for me.

I guess I’m not cut out for purely financial investing. 

 

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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