M&A Advisory China

After Wanda Deal, Chinese Property Developer Faces Debt Risk — The New York Times

A Dalian Wanda property in Nanchang, China.

BEIJING — The Chinese property developer Sunac China Holdings has turned into one of the country’s biggest white knights, swooping in to help troubled companies with too much debt. The risk: Sunac is amassing its own large pile of debt in the process.

Sunac has more than doubled its debt load in a year to $38 billion. Its deal this week to buy a portfolio of theme parks and hotels from the Dalian Wanda Group, the heavily indebted Chinese conglomerate, will add to the tab. At $9.3 billion, the acquisition is larger than the market value of Sunac.

“The problem for Sunac is twofold,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank. “They themselves are already rather overleveraged and they are not paying distressed prices.”

Sunac is offering a much-needed lifeline.

For years, China fueled growth by providing easy credit. Chinese companies borrowed heavily, using the money to fund aggressive expansions.

As the economy now slows, companies are increasingly running into financial trouble, with some having to borrow even more to pay their debts. Policy makers are worried that the country’s Passover level of corporate debt could threaten the broader financial system.

Sunac, China’s seventh-largest property developer in terms of sales, has been able to tap into its financial strength to help companies under pressure. Since 2012, Sunac’s property sales have grown at double-digit rates nearly every year, giving it the firepower to scoop up assets and land plots.

Before the Wanda deal, Sunac in January pumped $2.2 billion into LeEco, a tech firm struggling to pay off its creditors. This May, it paid $1.5 billion for an 80 percent stake in Tianjin Xingyao, a property firm known for leaving its projects uncompleted.

In 2015, Sunac made a play to rescue Kaisa, pledging $1.2 billion to take over the troubled property company; it later pulled out after Kaisa did not meet certain conditions for the deal. That same year, it announced a partnership with the cash-poor Yurun Holding Group, which ran a business empire ranging from sausage making to property and finance.

It is a remarkable turnabout for the company’s founder, Sun Hongbin.

Mr. Sun started his career at the Lenovo Group, where he was promoted to run enterprise development. But he had a falling out with Liu Chuanzhi, the founder of Lenovo, over a business dispute. Related to the dispute, Mr. Sun was sentenced in 1992 to five years in jail for misappropriation of public funds.

After his release in 1994, he met with the founder of Lenovo and apologized, according to the website of The People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper. The Lenovo founder eventually lent Mr. Sun about $74,000, which he used to start a predecessor real estate firm to Sunac.

Lenovo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

When Mr. Sun started Sunac in 2003, he focused on the cities of Wuxi and Chongqing and then moved on to China’s most developed cities, among them Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Hangzhou, building apartments with names like Beijing Fontainebleau Chateau. Sunac built its residential projects in good locations near city centers and was aggressive in acquiring land plots — with higher debt.

 Sun Hongbin, the founder and chairman of Sunac China Holdings.

“People who have failed are those who have been defeated by themselves,” Mr. Sun told a newspaper, China Business News, in 2013. “But I often tell others: After you fail, you can start again.”

With the Wanda deal, Sunac is extending its reach into tourism, paying $9.3 billion for 76 hotels and a major chunk of its 13 tourism projects, in the country’s largest property acquisition ever. The purchase will help Sunac diversify its business, which is hurting from government restrictions on home sales as Beijing seeks to cool a frothy property market. It also strengthens the company’s hand in an industry dominated by bigwigs like the China Vanke Group and Country Garden.

“Within the housing industry, the powerhouses are really strong,” said Lu Wenxi, an analyst for Centaline Properties who is based in Shanghai. “If you don’t gobble up the fat ones, it is easy to be eaten up by others. Taking on more projects will prevent you from being eaten.”

Investors have rewarded Sunac for the deal. Shares of Sunac rose 14 percent in Hong Kong on Tuesday after they resumed trading after the deal announcement.

But the deal will add to an already significant debt load. In 2016, the company’s net gearing ratio — a measure of total debt to shareholders’ equity — rose to 121.5 percent, from to 75.9 percent in 2015. Fitch Ratings recently downgraded the company’s credit rating to BB-, saying Sunac’s acquisitive approach had made its financial profile “more volatile.”

Wanda is helping finance the acquisition. Sunac, in a statement to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Monday, said Wanda would procure a loan for the company worth about $4.4 billion.

Seller financing is not uncommon, both in China and the West. But Wanda’s role means that Sunac doesn’t have all the money upfront.

“In my experience, I’ve never seen it anywhere,” said Lester Ross, a Beijing-based partner with the law firm WilmerHale, who has advised deals in China for the last 20 years. “No client that I represent would accept a deal like that where you’re responsible for raising the money to pay for somebody else.”

Sunac did not return multiple calls for comment. The company said in a statement to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Tuesday that the deal with Wanda “will add a large number of prime land reserves and property assets for the company at a reasonable cost.”

The LeEco deal is also prompting concern.

Sunac invested $2.2 billion in LeEco, buying minority stakes in three of the conglomerate’s more stable businesses, including the smart TV affiliate Leshi Zhixin, Le Vision Pictures, and Leshi Internet. The two companies don’t have many overlapping interests, and LeEco’s finances have continued to sour. Before the Wanda deal, shares of Sunac were falling on fears that LeEco’s problems would spread.

In a January news conference, Mr. Sun said many people had tried to dissuade him from investing in LeEco, adding that several were “resolutely opposed” to it.

“I seriously considered their views, but I don’t think their opinions are sufficient to change my mind,” he said.

Article as published in the New York Times

Private Equity Secondaries in China: Hold Periods, Exits and Profit Projections

How much do you need to invest, how much profit will you make, and how long before you get your money back. These are the investment variables probed in China First Capital’s latest research note. An abridged version is available by clicking here. Titled, “Expected Returns: Hold Period, Exit and Return Projections for Direct Secondary Opportunities in China Private Equity” the report models both the length of time a private equity investor would need to hold a secondary investment before exiting, and then charts the amount of money an investor might prospectively earn, across a range of p/e valuation levels, depending on whether liquidity is achieved through IPO, M&A or sale after several years to another investor.

This new report is, like the two preceding ones (click here and click here) the result of China First Capital’s path-breaking research  to measure the scale of the problem of unexited PE investments in China,  and to illuminate strategic alternatives for GPs investing in China.  China First Capital will publish additional research reports on this topic in coming months.

As this latest report explains, “these [hold period and investment return] models tend to support the thesis that “Quality Direct Secondaries”  currently offer the best risk-adjusted opportunities in China’s PE asset class.”  Direct secondary deals involve one PE firm selling its more successful investments, individually and usually at significant profit, to another PE firm. This is the most certain way, in the current challenging environment in China, for PE firms to return capital plus a profit to the LPs whose money they invest.

“Until recently,” the China First Capital report points out, “private equity in China operated often with the mindset, strategy, portfolio allocation and investment horizon of a risk arbitrage hedge fund. 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. The planned hold period rarely extended more than three years, and in many cases, no more than a year.  Those assumptions on valuation differentials as well as hold period are no longer valid.”

There are now at least 7,500 unexited PE deals in China. Many of these deals will likely fail to achieve exit before the PE fund reaches its expiry date, triggering what could become a period of losses and dislocation in China’s still-young PE industry. PE and VC firms, wherever in the world they put money to work, only ever have four routes to exit. All four are now either blocked or difficult to execute for China private equity deals. The four are:

  1. IPO
  2. Trade sale / M&A
  3. Secondary sale
  4. Buyback / recapitalization

Our conclusion is the current exit crisis is likely to persist. “Across the medium term, all exit channels for China private equity deals will remain limited, particularly when measured against the large overhang of unexited deals.”

Direct secondaries have not yet established themselves as a routine method of exit in China. But, in our view, they must become one. Secondaries are, in many cases, not only the best, but perhaps the only,  option available for a PE firm with diminishing fund life. “Buyers of these direct secondaries will not avoid or outrun exit risk,” the report advises. “It will remain a prominent factor in all China private equity investment. However, quality secondaries as a class offer significantly higher likelihood of exit within a PE fund’s hold period. ”

The probability and timing of exit are key risk factors in China private equity. However, for the many institutions wishing to invest in unquoted growth companies in China, a portfolio including a diversified group of China “Quality Secondaries” offers defensive qualities for both GPs and LPs, while maintaining the potential for outsized returns.

Returns from direct secondary investing are modeled in a series of charts across a hold period of up to eight years. In addition, the report also evaluates the returns from the other possible exit scenario for PE deals in China: a recap/buyback where the company buys its shares back from the PE fund. The recap/buyback is based on what we believe to be a more workable and enforceable mechanism than the typical buyback clauses used most often currently in China private equity.

Please note: the outputs from the investment return models, as well as specifics of the buyback formula and structure,  are not available in the abridged version.

 

 

A Practical Guide for M&A deals for Chinese Bosses

Illustration from 中国企业跨境并购交易要点和流程浅析  or

 “What you need to know and do to complete an M&A deal”

 

Like the smart tv or a cheap fuel-efficient automobile, China M&A is the good business idea whose time never seems to arrive. There’s basically no one in the Chinese business community, or inside Wall Street investment banks, who doesn’t agree that China’s future must include a lot more M&A deals, both cross-border and domestic. Domestic industries are highly fragmented and in need of consolidation. Chinese manufacturers need to acquire brands and technology from abroad to keep growing at home and offshore.

Think of the China M&A market as a huge pile of dry sticks soaked in gasoline. You throw a lighted match on it, expecting it to explode into a spectacular bonfire. And then… nothing. M&A activity in China remains so subdued, particularly for an economy China’s size, it is almost an irrelevancy. Can this, will this, change? I’m certainly among those who think it must, and not because it promises to someday bring in fat fees for investment bankers. M&A needs to develop as a routine means to let some entrepreneurs (and the PE investors who backed them) exit, and allow others to accelerate growth and grab market share. Both should end up benefiting China’s economy.

So, where exactly are the stumbling blocks on the path to an efficient and dynamic market for corporate control in China? There are more than just a handful, and include psychological and national factors, as well as more typical business reasons. But, one of the key problems is actually a very practical, and very solvable, one — the fact most Chinese companies don’t often have a clear understanding of how to select and assess an acquisition target, and then how, if the will is there to do something,  to actually take control of another company.

Our most recent Chinese-language research paper offers some guidance here. For those with the requisite Chinese skills, you can download a copy by clicking here or visiting the Research Reports section of the China First Capital website. The research paper is titled ” 中国企业跨境并购交易要点和流程浅析“, which I’d loosely translate as  “What you need to know and do to complete an Offshore M&A deal” .

The main readership is the +4,000 Chinese company bosses and senior management of both private sector and SOE companies we have in our database. We’re also sharing it with those whose work sometimes involves facilitating or regulating M&A deals — partners at law firms, accounting companies, PE firms, brokerage houses and government officials. This adds about another 2,000 to the list of people we sent it to.

We have a reasonable amount of experience in  — and we hope knowledge of  — M&A involving Chinese companies, representing both sellers and buyers, cross-border and pure-play Chinese domestic transactions. In other words, all four quadrants on the M&A map in China.

The contents grew directly out of our client work. It’s light on theory. We’re not trying to compete with McKinsey or business school professors. Instead, we emphasize practical steps and offer a rather stripped-down timetable of how an M&A deal might go from concept to close. Investment banks, for reasons of self-interest as well as business efficiency,  are always telling companies why and how they should do M&A. You’ll need to believe me that this wasn’t our motive. I’ve been on both sides of M&A deals as a CEO and board member in the US, both as seller and buyer of companies. Now, I sit in the middle, as a banker in China. I wanted to provide a short operational guide to Chinese CEOs on when and why M&A might make sense.

A common thread among Chinese companies looking to buy is to use M&A as a way to beef up their company’s in-house technology. One example: a client of ours  is already China’s leader in the auto electronics industry but is well behind European, American, Japanese and Korean companies in developing systems to make using a mobile phone in your car both safe and efficient. That’s a very big market opportunity in China, which is now the world’s largest auto and mobile phone market by rather large margins. This client wants to buy, rather than build, to save time, and also make sure any product they eventually try to sell to their Chinese customers works smoothly, from the beginning.

This client found a good target in Europe but then got bogged down in technology DD — how to evaluate not just the obvious stuff like patents, but the trickier domain of “company know how”.  What can be learned, what can be transferred, what can walk out the door and into the arms of a competitor? So, another area our research paper tries to both explain and systematize is the process of technology due diligence. I doubt our simplification would satisfy the partners at McKinsey or the Big Four accounting firms who often get called into do this work, and make huge sums along the way. Our operative principle here is “better to light a candle than curse the darkness”. Again, we wanted to keep it practical, for busy folks mainly engaged in running companies. With few exceptions, I’ve yet to meet a Chinese company with a specialist in-house team to do M&A.

The Chinese word for M&A is 并购 , which joins together the characters for “to combine” and “to purchase”. Theoretically, it’s an appropriate choice of words. At this point, however, with M&A still very much in its infancy in China, the main requirements are “to understand” and “to execute confidently”.  I hope this research paper goes some way towards making both more common, more certain.