Making money from private equity in China has become as challenging as “trying to catch a fish in a tree“*. The IPO exit channel is basically shut. Fundraising has never been harder. One hundred billion dollars in capital is locked up inside unexited deals. LPs are getting very anxious. Private companies are suffocating from a lack of new equity financing. PE firms are splintering as partners depart the many struggling firms.
Looking beyond today’s rather grim situation, there are some points of light still shining bright. China remains the world’s fastest-growing major economy with the world’s most enterprising private sector. Entrepreneurship remains China’s most powerful, as well as inexhaustible, natural resource. So long as these two factors remain present, as I’m sure they will for decades to come, China will remain an attractive place to put money to work. But, where? With whom?
China First Capital has published its latest survey covering China PE, M&A and capital markets. The report is titled, ” Private Equity in China 2013 — The Opportunity & The Crisis“. It can be downloaded by clicking here.
During the last year, as China PE first stumbled, then fell into a deep pit, a lot of people I talk to in the industry suggested this was a positive development, that the formation of funds and fundraising had both gotten out of hand. Usually, the PE firm partners saying this quickly added, “but this doesn’t apply to us, of course”. In other words, as the American saying has it, “Don’t blame you. Don’t blame me. Blame the guy behind the tree.” It’s all somebody else’s fault.
That’s an interesting take. But, not one that holds up to a lot of scrutiny. The reality is that everyone in the business of financing Chinese companies, myself included, got a little drunk and disorderly. China, in business terms, is the world’s largest punchbowl filled with the world’s most intoxicating liquor. Too many good companies. Too much money to be made. Too much money to be had.
It was ever thus. From the first time outside investors and dealmakers got a look at China, they all went a little berserk with excitement. This was as true of Marco Polo in the 14th century as British opium houses in the 19th century and American endowments and pension funds in the last decade. The scale of the place, of the market, is just so stupefying.
The curse of all China investing is counting one’s fortune before it’s made. In the latter half of the 19th century, for example, European steel mills dreamed of the profits to be made from getting Chinese to switch from chopsticks to forks and knives.
PE firms did a lot of similar fantasizing. Pour money in at eight times earnings, and pull it out a few years later after an IPO at eighty. All the spreadsheets, all the models, all the market research and top-down analytics — in the end, it all came back to this intoxicating formula. Put a pile of chips on number 11 then spin the roulette wheel. There were a few winners in China PE, a few deals that hit the jackpot. But, the odds in roulette, at 36-to-one, turned out to be much more favorable.
For every PE deal that made a huge return, there are 150 that either went bust or now sit in this near-endless queue of unexited deals, with scant likelihood of an IPO before the PE fund’s life expires.
The China First Capital research report, rather than making any predictions on when, for example, IPOs will resume and at what sort of valuation, delves more deeply into some more fundamental issues. These include ideas on how best to resolve the “principal-agent dilemma”, and the growing risks to China’s economic reform and rebalancing strategy caused by the drying up of IPO and PE financing of private sector companies.
We hope our judgments have merit. But, above all, they are independent. Unconflicted. That seems more and more like a rarity in our profession.
* A prize to the first person who successfully identifies the source of this quote. A hint: it was said by a former, often-maligned ruler of China.