mergers and acquisitions

Leapfrogging the IPO gridlock: Chinese companies get a taste for reverse takeovers — Reuters

Reuters

Leapfrogging the IPO gridlock: Chinese companies get a taste for reverse takeovers

In China, Yum and McDonald’s likely need more than an ownership change — Nikkei Asian Review

Nikkei 1

NAR

HONG KONG — China’s fast-food sector has been dominated by U.S. chains like Yum’s KFC and Pizza Hut as well as McDonald’s. But now a question hangs over these household brands: Can new owners reverse their declining fortunes?

China Investment Corporation, a sovereign wealth fund, is reportedly leading a consortium that also includes Baring Private Equity Asia and KKR & Co. to acquire as much as 100% of Yum’s China division, valued at up to $8 billion. According to a Bloomberg report, Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings, teaming with Primavera Capital, is also vying for a stake in Yum China, whose spinoff plans were announced on Oct. 20 — five days after Keith Meister, an activist hedge fund manager and protege of corporate raider Carl Icahn, joined the board.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s is likely to start auctioning its North Asian businesses in three to four weeks. Among its would-be suitors are state-owned China Resources, Bain Capital of the U.S. and South Korea’s MBK Partners, among other buyout firms. The winner or winners would oversee more than 2,800 franchises — plus another 1,500 to be added during the next five years — in China, Hong Kong and South Korea.

The company on Friday reported that sales in China surged 7.2% in the first quarter ended in March.

Yum’s and McDonald’s goal to become pure-play franchisers comes as competition in China’s food services market is heating up and as middle-class consumers grow increasingly concerned about food safety and nutrition.

http://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Trends/In-China-Yum-and-McDonald-s-likely-need-more-than-an-ownership-change?page=1

An insider’s view of Chinese M&A — Intralinks Deal Flow Predictor

intra

Intralinks Dealflow Predictor

 

Intralinks: The meltdown of China’s equity markets that began in the summer, despite measures by officials in Beijing aimed at calming investors’ nerves, has left many global investors jittery. Is this just a correction of an overheated market or the start of something more serious, and how would you describe the mood in China at the moment?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Never once have I heard of a stock market correction that was greeted with glee by the mass of investors, brokers, regulators or government officials. So too most recently in China. The dive in Chinese domestic share prices, while both overdue and in line with the sour fundamentals of most domestically quoted companies, has caused much unhappiness at home and anxiety abroad. The dour outlook persists, as more evidence surfaces that China’s real economy is indeed in some trouble. I first came to China 34 years ago, and have lived full-time here for the last six years. This is unquestionably the worst economic and financial environment I’ve encountered in China. Unlike in 2008, the Chinese government can’t and won’t light a fiscal bonfire to keep the economy percolating. The enormous state-owned sector is overall on life support, barely eking out enough cash flow to pay interest on its massive debts. Salvation this time around, if it’s to be found, will come from the country’s effervescent private sector. It’s already the source of most job creation and non-pump-primed growth in China. The energy, resourcefulness, pluck and risk-tolerance of China’s entrepreneurs knows no equal anywhere in the world. The private sector has been fully legal in China for less than two decades. It is only beginning to work its economic magic.

 

Intralinks: Much has been made of slowing economic growth in China. What are you seeing on the ground and how reliable do you view the Chinese official growth statistics?

 

Peter Fuhrman: If there’s a less productive pastime than quibbling with China’s official statistics, I don’t know of it. Look, it’s beyond peradventure, beyond guesstimation that China’s economic transformation is without parallel in human history. The transformation of this country over the 34 years since I first set foot here as a graduate student is so rapid, so total, so overwhelmingly positive that it defies numerical capture. That said, we’re at a unique juncture in China. There are more signs of economic worry down at the grassroots consumer level than I can recall ever seeing. China is in an unfamiliar state where nothing whatsoever is booming. Real estate prices? Flat or dropping. Manufacturing? Skidding. Exports? Crawling along. Stock market prices? Hammered down and staying down. The Renminbi? No longer a one-way bet.

 

Intralinks: What impact do you see a slowing Chinese economy having on other economies in the APAC region and elsewhere?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Of course there will be an impact, both regionally and globally. There’s only one certain cure for any country feeling ill effects from slowing exports to China: allow the Chinese to travel visa-free to your country. The one trade flow that is now robust and without doubt will become even more so is the Chinese flocking abroad to travel and spend. Only partly in jest do I suggest that the U.S. trade deficit with China, now running at a record high of about $1.5 billion a day, could be eliminated simply by letting the Chinese travel to the U.S. with the same ease as Taiwanese and Hong Kong residents. Manhattan store shelves would be swept clean.

 

Intralinks: With prolonged record low interest rates and low inflation in most of the advanced economies, many multinational companies have looked to China as a source of growth, including through M&A. Which sectors in China have tended to attract the majority of foreign interest? Do you see that continuing or will the focus and opportunities shift elsewhere? Is China a friendly environment for inbound M&A?

 

Peter Fuhrman: The challenges, risks and headaches remain, of course, but M&A fruit has never been riper in China. This is especially so for U.S. and European companies looking to seize a larger slice of China’s domestic consumer market. The M&A strategy that does work in China is to acquire a thriving Chinese private sector business with revenues in China of at least $25m a year, with its own-brand products, distribution, and a degree of market acceptance. The goal for a foreign acquirer is to use M&A to build out most efficiently a sales, brand and product strategy that is optimized for China, in both today’s market conditions, as well as those likely to pertain in the medium- to long-term.

The botched deals tend to get all the headlines, but almost surreptitiously, some larger Fortune 500 companies have made some stellar acquisitions in China. Among them are Nestle, General Mills, ITW, FedEx and Valspar. They bought solid, successful, entrepreneur-founded and run companies. Those acquired companies are now larger, often by orders of magnitude. The acquirer has also dramatically expanded sales of its own global products in China by utilizing the localized distribution channels it acquired. In Nestle’s case, China is now its second-largest market in revenue-terms after the U.S. Four years ago, it ranked number seven.

Chinese government policy towards M&A is broadly positive to neutral. More consequential but perhaps less well-understood are the negative IPO environment for domestic private sector companies, as well as the enormous overhang of un-exited PE invested deals in China. These have transferred pricing leverage from sellers to buyers in China. Increasingly, the most sought-after exit route for domestic Chinese entrepreneurs is through a trade sale to a large global corporation.

 

Intralinks: After years of being seen mainly as “an interested party”, rather than an actual dealmaker, Chinese players are increasingly frequently the successful bidder in international M&A transactions. What has changed in their approach to dealmaking to ensure such success?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Yes, Chinese buyers are increasingly more willing and able to close international M&A deals. But, the commonly-heard refrain that Chinese buyers will devour everything laid in front of them stands miles apart from reality. It seems like every asset for sale in every locale is seeking a Chinese buyer. The limiting factor isn’t money. Chinese acquirers’ cost of capital is lower than anywhere else, often fractionally above zero. The issue instead is too few Chinese companies have the managerial depth and experience to close global M&A deals. There are some world-class exceptions and world-class Chinese buyers. In the last year, for example, a Chinese PE fund called Hua Capital has led two milestone transactions, the proposed acquisition for a total consideration north of $2.5bn, of two U.S.-quoted semiconductor companies, Omnivision and ISSI. Hua Capital has powerful backers in China’s government, as well as outstanding senior executives. These guys are the real deal.

 

Intralinks: When it comes to doing deals, what are the differences between private/public companies and SOEs?

 

Peter Fuhrman: With rare exceptions, the SOE sector is now paralyzed. No M&A deals can be closed. Every week brings new reports of the arrest of senior SOE management for corruption. In some cases, the charges relate directly to M&A malfeasance, bribes, kickbacks and the like. SOE M&A teams will still go on international tire-kicking junkets, but getting any kind of transaction approved by the higher tiers within the SOE itself and by the government control apparatus is all but impossible for now. That leaves China’s private sector companies, especially quoted ones, as the most likely club of buyers. We work with the chairmen of quite a few of these private companies. The appetite is there, the dexterity often less so.

 

Intralinks: China has long been a fertile dealmaking environment for PE funds – both home-grown and international. In what ways does the Chinese PE model differ from what we see in other markets?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Perhaps too fertile. For all the thousands of deals done, Chinese PE’s great Achilles heel is an anemic rate of return to their limited partner investors, especially when measured by actual cash distributions. Over the last three, five, seven years, Chinese PE as a whole has underperformed U.S. PE by a gaping margin. It’s a fundamental truth too often overlooked. High GDP growth rates do not correlate, and never have, with high investment returns, especially from alternative investment classes like PE. If there is one striking disparity between PE as practiced in China as compared to the U.S. and Europe, it’s the fact that that Chinese general partners, whether they’re from the world’s largest global PE firms or pan-Asian or China-focused funds, too often think and act more like asset managers than investors. The 2 takes precedence over the 20.

Intralinks: What opportunities and challenges are private equity investors facing?

 

Peter Fuhrman: The levels of PE and venture capital (VC) investing activity in China have dropped sharply. What money is being invested is mainly chasing after a bunch of loss-making online shopping and mobile services apps. The hope here is one will emerge as China’s next Alibaba or Tencent, the two giants astride China’s private sector. PE investment in China’s “real economy,” that is manufacturing businesses that create most of the jobs and wealth in China, has all but dried up. Though out of favor, this is where the best deals are likely to be found now. Contrarianism is an investing worldview not often encountered at China-focused PE and VC firms.

 

Intralinks: As in many other markets, PE investors are having to deal with a backlog of portfolio companies ready to be exited. Do you feel that PE’s focus on minority investments in China could prove a challenge when it comes to exiting those investments? What do you see as the primary exit route?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Exits remain both few in number and overwhelmingly concentrated on a single pathway, that of IPO. M&A exits, the main source of profit for U.S. and European PE firms, remain exceedingly rare in China. In part, it’s because PE firms usually hold a minority stake in their Chinese investments. In part, though, the desire for an IPO exit is baked into the PE investment process in China. Price/Earnings (P/E) multiple arbitrage, trying to capture alpha through the observed delta in valuation multiples between private and public markets, remains a much-beloved tactic.

 

Intralinks: Finally, what is your overall outlook on China and advice for foreign companies and investors seeking opportunities to engage in M&A or invest there?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Yes, China’s economy is slowing. But the salient discussion point within boardrooms should be that even at 5% growth, China’s economy this year is getting richer faster in dollar terms than it did in 2007 when GDP growth was 14%. That’s because the economy is now so much larger. This added increment of wealth and purchasing power in China in 2015 is larger than the entire economies of Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Much of the annual gain in China, likely to remain impressively large for many long years to come, filters down into increased middle class spending power. This is why China must matter to global businesses with a product or service to sell. M&A in China has a cadence and quirks all its own. But, the business case can often be compelling. The terrain can be mastered.

 

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“A lot hasn’t gone to plan”: SuperReturn Interview

Superretrun

Does [China’s] shift from a manufacturing-driven economy to a service-driven one make macroeconomic shocks like those seen this summer inevitable?

Peter Fuhrman: China has enjoyed something of a worldwide monopoly on hair-raising economic news of late: a stock market collapse followed by a klutzy bail-out, then a devaluation followed by a catastrophic explosion and finally near-hourly reports of sinking economic indicators. As someone who first set foot in China 34 years ago, my view is we’re in an unprecedented time of economic and financial uncertainty . Consumers and corporates are noticeably wobbling. For a Chinese government long used to ordering “Jump!” and the economy shouting back “How high?” this is not the China they thought they were commanding.  Everyone is looking for a bannister to grab.

And yet, China still has some powerful fundamentals working in its favour. Urbanization is a big one. It alone should add at least 3-4% to annual GDP a year for many years to come. The shift towards services and domestic growth as opposed to exports are two others. For now, these forces are strong enough to keep China propelling forward even as it tows heavy anchors like an ageing population, and a cohort of monopolistic state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that suck up too much of China’s capital and often achieve appalling results with it.

Look, the Chinese stock market had no business in the first place almost tripling from June last year to June of this. The correction was long, long overdue. It’s often overlooked that China’s domestic stock market has a pronounced negative selection bias. Heavily represented among the 3,000 listed companies are quite a number of China’s very worst companies, with the balance made up of lethargic, low-growth, often loss-making SOEs. The good companies, like Tencent or Baidu, predominantly expatriate themselves when it comes time to IPO. To my way of thinking, China’s domestic market still seems overpriced. The dead cats are, for now, still bouncing.

 

Given this overall picture, do you expect to see greater or fewer opportunities [in China] for alternative investments and why? 

Peter Fuhrman: The environment in China has been challenging, to say the least, for alternative investment firms not just in the last year, but for the better part of the last decade. A lot hasn’t gone to plan. China’s growth and opportunities proved alluring to both GPs and LPs. And yet too often, almost systematically, the big money has slipped between their fingers. Partly it’s because of too much competition, and with it ballooning valuations, from over 500 newly-launched domestic Chinese PE and VC firms. The fault also sits with home-grown mistakes, with errors by private equity firms in investment approach. This includes an excessive reliance on a single source of deal exit, the IPO, all but unheard-of in other major alternative investment environments.

Overall PE returns have been lacklustre in China, especially distributions, before the economy began to slip off the rails. In the current environment, challenges multiply. A certain rare set of investing skills should prove well-adapted: firms that can do control deals, including industry consolidating roll-ups. In other words, a whole different set of prey than China PE investors have up to now mainly stalked. These are not pre-IPO deals, not ones predicated on valuation arbitrage or the predilections of Chinese young online shoppers. There’s money to be made in China’s own Rust Belt, backing solid well-managed manufacturers, a la Berkshire Hathaway. There’s too much fragmentation across the industrial board. China will remain the manufacturing locus for the world, as well as for its own gigantic domestic market.

Another anomaly that needs correcting: Global alternative investing has been overwhelmingly skewed in China towards equity not debt. The ratio could be as high as 99:1. This imbalance looks even more freakish when you consider real lending rates to credit-worthy corporates in China are probably the highest anywhere in the advanced world, even a lot higher than in less developed places like India and Indonesia. Regulation is one reason why global capital hasn’t poured in in search of these fat yields. Another is the fact PE firms on the ground in China have few if any team members with the requisite background and experience to source, qualify, diligence and execute China securitized debt deals. There’s a bit of action in the China NPL and distress world. But, straight up direct collateralized lending to China’s AA-and-up corporates and municipalities remains an opportunity global capital has yet to seize. Meanwhile, China’s shadow banking sector has exploded in size, with over $2.5 trillion in credit outstanding, almost all of which is current. There’s big money being made in China’s securitized high-yield debt, just not by dollar investors.

 

What’s the overall story of alternative investors engaging with central planning? How would you characterise the regulatory environment?

Peter Fuhrman: China has had a state regulatory and administrative apparatus since Europeans were running around in pelts and throwing spears at one another. So, yes, there is a large regulatory system in China overseen by a powerful government that is very deeply involved in economic and financial planning and rule-making. One must tread carefully here. Rules are numerous, occasionally contradictory, oft-time opaque and liable to sudden change.

Less observed, however, and less harrowing for foreign investors is the core fact that the planning and regulatory system in China has a strong inbuilt bias towards the goal of lifting GDP growth and employment. Other governments talk this talk. But it’s actually China that walks the walk. The days of anything-goes, rip-roaring, pollute-as-you-go development are about done with. But, still the compass needle remains fixed in the direction of encouraging strong rates of growth.

The Chinese government has also gotten more and more comfortable with the fact that most of the growth is now coming from the highly-competitive, generally lightly-regulated private sector. Along with a fair degree of deregulation lately in industries like banking and transport, China also often pursues a policy of benign neglect, of letting entrepreneurs duke it out, and only imposing rules-of-the-game where it looks like a lot of innocents’ money may be lost or conned. To be sure, foreign investors in most cases cannot and should not operate in these more free-form areas of China’s economy. They often seem to be the first as well as the fattest targets when the clamps come down. Just ask some larger Western pharmaceutical companies about this.

 

In the long view, how long can the parallel USD-RMB system run? Do you expect to see the experiments in Shanghai’s Pilot Free Trade Zone (FTZ) replicated and extended? 

Peter Fuhrman: Unravelling China’s rigged exchange rate system will not happen quickly. Every baby step — and the steps are coming more fast of late — is one in the direction of a more open capital account, of greater liberalization. But, big change will all unfold with a kind of stately sluggishness in my view. Not because policy-makers are particularly wed to the notion of an unconvertible currency. There’s the deadweight problem of nearly $4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. What’s the market equilibrium rate of the Dollar-Renminbi? Ask someone facing competition from a Chinese exporter and they’re likely to say three-to-one, or an almost 100% appreciation. Ask 1.4 billion Chinese consumers and they will, with eminent good reason, say it should be more like 12-to-one. Prices of just about everything sold to consumers in China is higher, often markedly higher, than in the US where I’m from. This runs from fruit, to supermarket staples, to housing, brand-name clothing up to ladder to cars and the fuel that powers them.

I think the irrational exuberance about Shanghai’s FTZ has slammed into the wall of actual central government policy of late.  It will not, cannot, act like a free market pathogen.

 

Reform of China’s state-owned enterprises has been piecemeal, and private equity has had patchy success with SOEs. Do you expect this to change, and why?

Peter Fuhrman: For those keeping score, reform of SOEs has yet to really put any points on the board. The SOE economy-within-an-economy remains substantially the same today as it was three years ago. Senior managers continue to be appointed not by competence, vision and experience, but by rotation. The major shareholder of all these SOEs, both at centrally-administered level as for well as those at provincial and local level, act like indifferent absentee proprietors, demanding little by way of dividends and showing scant concern as margins and return-on-investment droop year-by-year at the companies they own.

There are good deals to be done for PE firms in the SOE patch. The dirty little secret is that the government uses a net asset value system for state-owned assets that is often out-of-kilter with market valuations. Choose right and there’s scope to make money from this. But, if you’re a junior partner behind a state owner who cares more about jobs-for-the-boys than maximizing (or even earning) profits then no asset however cheaply bought will ever really be in the money.

 

TPP has been described as ‘a club with China left out’. If it comes to pass, how do you expect China to respond?

Peter Fuhrman: China has responded. Along with its rather clumsy-sounding “One Belt, One Road” initiative it also has its Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. The logic isn’t alien to me. When American Jews were barred from joining WASP country clubs, they tried to build better clubs of their own. When Chase Manhattan, JP Morgan and America’s largest commercial banks wouldn’t hire Jews, they went instead into investment banking, where there was more money to be made anyway.

But, China may not so easily and successfully shrug off their exclusion from TPP. It increases their aggrieved sense of being ganged-up upon. The US understands this and now frets more about China’s military power. The partners China are turning to instead – especially the countries transected by the “One Belt, One Road” – look more like a cast of economic misfits, not dynamic free traders like the TPP nations and China itself. I don’t think anyone in Beijing seriously believes that increased trading with the Central Asian -stans is a credible substitute. Even so, China will not soon be invited to join the TPP. China has hardly acted like a cozy neighbour of late to the countries with the markets and with the money. Being feared may have its strategic dividends. But the neighbourhood bully rarely if ever gets invited to the block party.

 

Peter Fuhrman will be speaking at SuperReturn Asia 2015, 21-24 September 2015, JW Marriott, Hong Kong.

 

http://www.superreturnasia.com/blog/super-return-private-equity-conference/post/id/7653_A-lot-hasnt-gone-to-plan-Peter-Fuhrman-China-First-Capital-on-alternative-investments-in-the-PRC?xtssot=0

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China 2015 — China’s Shifting Landscape — China First Capital new research report published

China First Capital research report

 

Slowing growth and a gyrating stock market are the two most obvious sources of turbulence in China at the midway point of 2015. Less noticed, perhaps, but certainly no less important for China’s long-term development are deeper trends radically reshaping the overall business environment. Among these are a steady erosion in margins and competitiveness in many, if not most, of China’s industrial and service economy. There are few sectors and few companies that are enjoying growth and profit expansion to match last year and the years before.

China’s consumer market, while healthy overall, is also becoming a more difficult place for businesses to earn decent returns. Relentless competition is one part. As problematic are rising costs and inefficient poorly-evolved management systems.  From a producer economy dominated by large SOEs, China is shifting fast to one where consumers enjoy vastly more choice, more pricing leverage and more opportunities to buy better and buy cheaper. Online shopping is one helpful factor, since it allows Chinese to escape from the poor service and high prices that characterize so much of the traditional bricks-and-mortar retail sector. It’s hard to find anything positive to say about either the current state or future prospects for China’s “offline economy”.

Meanwhile, more Chinese are taking their spending money elsewhere, traveling and buying abroad in record numbers. They have the money to buy premium products, both at home and abroad. But, too much of what’s made and sold within China, belongs to an earlier age. Too many domestic Chinese companies are left manufacturing products no longer quite meet current demands. Adapting and changing is difficult because so many companies gorged themselves previously on bank loans. Declining margins mean that debt service every year swallows up more and more available cash flow. When the economy was still purring along, it was easier for companies and their banks to pretend debt levels were manageable. In 2015, across much of the industrial economy, the strained position of many corporate borrowers has become brutally obvious.

These are a few of the broad themes discussed in our latest research report, “China 2015 — China’s Shifting Landscape”. To download a copy click here.

Inside, you will not find much discussion of GDP growth or the stock market. Instead, we try here to illuminate some less-seen, but relevant, aspects of China’s changing business and investment environment.

For those interested in the stock market’s current woes, I can recommend this article (click here) published in The New York Times, with a good summary of how and why the Chinese stock market arrived at its current difficult state. I’m quoted about the preference among many of China’s better, bigger and more dynamic private sector companies to IPO outside China.

In our new report, I can point to a few articles that may be of special interest, for the signals they provide about future opportunities for growth and profit in China:

  1. China’s most successful cross-border M&A ever, General Mills of the USA acquisition and development of dumpling brand Wanchai Ferry (湾仔码头), using a strategy also favored by Nestle in China
  2. China’s new rules and rationale for domestic M&A – “buy first and pay later”
  3. China’s most successful, if little known, recent start-up, mobile phone brand OnePlus – in its first full year of operations, 2015 worldwide revenues should reach $1 billion, while redefining positively the way Chinese brand manufacturers are viewed in the US and Europe
  4. Shale gas – by shutting out most private sector investment, will China fail to create conditions to exploit the vast reserves, larger than America’s, buried under its soil?
  5. Nanjing – left behind during the early years of Chinese economic reform and development, it is emerging as a core of China’s “inland economy”, linking prosperous Jiangsu and Shanghai with less developed heavily-populated Hubei, Anhui, Sichuan

We’re at a fascinating moment in China’s story of 35 years of rapid and remarkable economic transformation. The report’s conclusion: for businesses and investors both global and China-based, it will take ever more insight, guts and focus to outsmart the competition and succeed.

 

Focus Media Reaches $7.4 Billion Deal to List in Shenzhen — New York Times

NYT

NYT2

 

HONG KONG — Years after delisting in the United States after a short-selling attack, one of China’s biggest advertising companies is hoping to cash in on a market rally on its home turf.

Focus Media, a company based in Shanghai that was privatized and delisted from the Nasdaq two years ago after being targeted by short-sellers, on Wednesday reached a 45.7 billion renminbi, or about $7.4 billion, deal for a listing on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. The transaction values Focus at about twice the $3.7 billion that its management and private equity backers — led by the Carlyle Group — paid to take the company private in 2013.

Focus and its investors, which also include the Chinese companies FountainVest Partners, Citic Capital Partners, CDH Investments and China Everbright, are trying to tap into China’s surging domestic stock markets. The main Shanghai share index has risen 51 percent this year, while the Shenzhen index, where Focus will be listed, has more than doubled, increasing by 114 percent.

Other Chinese companies that retreated from American markets, as well as their private equity backers, are likely to be watching the Focus deal closely. If it goes through and the new shares rise sharply, it could offer an incentive for others to follow suit — and give private equity firms an easier way to sell their stakes.

Some other big Chinese companies that delisted from the United States market in recent years include Shanda Interactive Entertainment, which was valued at $2.3 billion when it was privatized by its main shareholders in 2012; and Giant Interactive, which was privatized last year in a $3 billion deal.

Focus is coming back to the market through a so-called backdoor listing, in which its main assets are sold to a company already listed in exchange for a controlling stake in the listed firm. Such an approach can offer a more direct path to the market than an initial public offering — especially in mainland China, where hundreds of companies are waiting for regulatory approval for their I.P.O.s.

But such deals can also be complex. In mainland China, they often subject shareholders to lengthy periods during which they are prohibited from selling or transferring shares. Also, unlike an I.P.O., the moves tend not to help the companies involved raise cash.

“All backdoor listings are convoluted exercises, not capital-raising events,” said Peter Fuhrman, the chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank based in Shenzhen, which is in southern China. “When you do them domestically in China, they become even more hair-raising.”

Dozens of Chinese companies retreated from American exchanges in the last five years after a wave of accounting scandals and attacks by short-sellers. Some of those companies were forcibly delisted by the Securities and Exchange Commission; others were taken private by management after their share prices slumped.

Focus was the biggest of those privatizations. In November 2011, the company was targeted by Muddy Waters Research, a short-selling firm founded by Carson C. Block. Muddy Waters accused Focus of overstating the number of digital advertising display screens it operated in China, and of overpaying for acquisitions.

Focus rejected the accusations, but its shares fell 40 percent on publication of the initial report by Muddy Waters. In summer 2012, the company’s chairman, Jason Jiang, and a group of Chinese and foreign private equity firms announced plans to delist Focus and take it private, a deal that was completed in early 2013.

On Wednesday, Jiangsu Hongda New Material, a Shenzhen-listed manufacturer of silicone rubber products, said it would pay 45.7 billion renminbi, mostly by issuing new stock, to acquire control of Focus. Shares in Jiangsu Hongda have been suspended from trading since December, when it first announced plans for a restructuring that did not mention Focus. The shares remain suspended pending further approvals of the Focus deal, including from shareholders and regulators in China.

If completed, the deal would leave Mr. Jiang, the Focus chairman, as the biggest single shareholder of Jiangsu Hongda, with a 25 percent stake.

The mainland China brokerages Huatai United Securities and Southwest Securities are acting as financial advisers on the deal.

Just a few of the Chinese companies delisted from stock exchanges in the United States in recent years have attempted a new listing elsewhere.

Last year, China Metal Resources Utilization, a small metal recycling company, successfully listed in Hong Kong. It had been listed on the New York Stock Exchange, under the name Gushan Environmental Energy.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/04/business/dealbook/focus-media-in-shenzhen-listing-deal.html?_r=0

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General’s Mills’ Stunning Success in China

Wanzai Matou 湾仔码头

America’s most successful M&A deal in China is also possibly its most clandestine. The reason: an old-line Midwestern Fortune 500 company around since 1856 owns a company that is the dominant brand-name supplier in China of a vital Chinese national asset. No, it’s not missile fuel or encrypted handsets for battlefield command-and-control. It’s dumplings.

America’s General Mills, the iconic maker of US breakfast cereals Lucky Charms and Cheerios as well as Häagen-Dazs ice cream, owns a similarly iconic brand in China – Wanzai Matou (湾仔码头), or Wanchai Ferry, as it’s known in English. It is China’s major premium-priced and premium-quality supplier of frozen dumplings. Since acquiring the business thirteen years ago, it’s become a large and especially fast-growing business for General Mills, with China revenues of at least $300mn. Better still, the margins are probably a lot higher than Cheerios and just about any other product General Mills sells worldwide. The Wanzai Matou dumplings sell in China for equivalent of about $3.50 a pound. You can buy fresh hand-made ones just about everywhere in China for quite a bit less. But, people flock to the General Mills product, because it’s considered both tastier and healthier.

Dumplings are a central aspect of Chinese life and culture, a more potent part of national identity and the national diet than the Thanksgiving turkey, Big Mac, beef hotdog or apple pie are to us Americans. Dumplings (whether boiled, steamed or pan-fried) have been a daily staple of the Chinese diet, as far as anyone can judge, for about 1,800 years. They’re eaten here at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dumplings are also the mainstay for many Chinese at the most important meal of the year, the one that rings in the Chinese New Year. Dumplings symbolize a prosperous year to come.

For all the many global corporates still edgy about investing in or acquiring businesses in China, General Mills is prime evidence that inbound cross-border M&A can work in China. This one deal combines four aspects often thought to be unattainable in China deal-making: a large US company buys a smaller local Chinese brand, builds it into a national leader while piling up big profits. It is, hands down,  my favorite case study of how to do M&A right in China.

Not that General Mills is eager for the world to know. It doesn’t talk about its booming China business in its annual report. Packages of Wanzai Matou sold in China don’t include the General Mills name or famous blue logo.

While everyone knows about KFC, McDonald’s and Starbucks big success in China, they are actually doing something much easier: introducing and selling exotica, American products to Chinese with a whim to try something from afar. General Mills is making money in China the hard way. Not only do they make the most popular brand of frozen dumplings in China (estimated market share of about 50%) , they also had to convert a large number of Chinese to buy in a supermarket a frozen version of a product only available previously fresh, hand-made.

As General Mills foresaw, making dumplings at home, once a daily chore,  has become something fewer and fewer Chinese have the time routinely to do. Done properly, it can take even experienced hands two hours or longer.

General Mills got control of Wanzai Matou in 2001 when it acquired US rival Pillsbury from British company Diageo. Pillsbury had bought majority stake in Wanzai Matou in 1997, when it was a rather tiny Hong Kong company with very limited presence in the PRC. Today, the freezer section of most larger big city supermarkets in China is stocked to bursting with different flavors and fillings of Wanzai Matou dumplings, along with Wanzai Matou frozen wontons and stuffed buns.

General Mills buys some tv advertising, but mainly the success here in China was earned by word-of-mouth. I’ve been a customer for as long as I’ve been living in China. Take it from me. There is no tastier frozen food sold anywhere than the boiled Wanzai Matou pork-and-corn dumplings (see package above).

Pillsbury made a vital strategic move in the early years after buying control of the Hong Kong Wanzai Matou. It was also an atypical one for big corporate buyers. They decided to keep Wanzai Matou founder, Kin Wo Chong, involved. Her photo is still prominently-featured on every package, in much the same way as Betty Crocker used to be pictured on every box of brownie mix made by that General Mills brand.

Betty Crocker is pure fiction, a made-up name for a made-up housewife. Ms. Chong is very much a genuine entrepreneur, a Hong Kong immigrant from dumpling-loving Shandong province. She started her professional life in 1977 selling dumplings from a push cart in a not-too-tony part of Hong Kong.

Keeping Ms. Chong involved, as both a senior executive and minority shareholder, has evidently worked well for both sides. General Mills gets all the benefits of her extensive knowledge of how to make tasty dumplings. She gets a deep-pocketed partner with the skills and resources required to make her small company into a Chinese household name.

This sort of arrangement is rare in the M&A world outside China. Generally, the buyer gives the current owner a two-to-three year earn-out period and then is sent packing. That’s the way MBA textbooks recommend M&A deals get done. The thinking is founders, once they’ve put a large chunk of cash in their pockets, are distracted, demotivated and anyway not amenable to taking orders on how to run their business from a large, often bureaucratic global corporation.

But, in China, the most successful M&A deals we know of all tend to have this same structure, that the founding entrepreneur stays on, stays active, long after the earn-out period expires. By contrast, the list of failures is long where an acquirer gets control of an entrepreneur-founded Chinese company, shows the owner the door and then tries to run it on its own.

General Mills also did add something Ms. Chong never would have managed to do on her own. It started up a frozen stir-fry-it-yourself business for the US market, under the Wanchai Ferry brand. In its first year, it had revenues in the US of over $50 million. Impressive.

As anyone living here can attest, when it comes to food, Chinese are every bit as jingoistic as the French or Italians. It would shock many of them to think Americans can produce dumplings better and more profitably than any domestic competitor. But, even if General Mills is outed, and more Chinese come to know who’s behind Wanzai Matou, I’m confident they will go on buying dumplings made for them by the company from Golden Valley, Minnesota. “Eating”, as the Chinese saying aptly has it, “is more important than the Emperor”. “吃饭皇帝“.

Private Equity in China 2014: A Dialogue

pendant

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.

 

China Investment Banking Case Study: An SOE Privatization


China First Capital Signing ceremony

Anyone who’s dipped into this blog will know that I rarely, if ever, discuss directly what me and my company China First Capital do, our client work. Partly it’s because the work is usually by necessity confidential (clients, investors, deal terms) and partly because I don’t blog as a marketing tool.

But, I plan over coming months to share significant details about a “live deal” we are now working on, a buyout transaction involving a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE). The reasons: its size and structure make it an unusual transaction in China, and one that might also bust some myths about the way business in China, especially involving SOEs, actually works.

While I can’t reveal the name of the company, I can disclose why I think it’s such a compelling deal.  Our client is one of China’s largest, most well-known and most successful SOEs. The group’s overall annual profit of over Rmb12 bn (about USD$2bn) also make it one of the richest. Unlike a lot of SOEs, this one operates in highly-competitive markets, and has nothing like a monopoly in China.

The deal we’re working on is to restructure then “privatize” two profitable subsidiary companies of this SOE. Both of these subsidiaries are the largest businesses in China in their industry. Their combined revenues are about $220mn.

Privatization has two slightly different meanings in Chinese finance. First, is the type of deal, very common a decade ago, where big SOEs like China Mobile, Sinopec, PetroChina, ICBC, Air China, are converted into joint stock companies and then a minority share is listed through an IPO on stock markets in China, US or Hong Kong. The companies’ majority owner remains the Chinese state, with the shares usually held and managed by a powerful arm of the government known in Chinese as 国资委, in English known as the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, or more commonly SASAC. In theory, SASAC probably holds the world’s largest and most valuable share portfolio, far bigger than Fidelity,  Vanguard, or the world’s sovereign wealth funds.

The other, rarer,  type of privatization is where a company’s majority ownership changes hands, from state to private ownership. This is the type of control deal we are working on. The plan is to spin out the two subsidiaries by selling a majority stake to either a strategic or financial acquirer. In all likelihood, each company will one day go public either in China or Hong Kong, at which time, I’d expect their market caps to each be well over US$1bn.

In essence, the deals are structured as a recapitalization, where a new private-sector majority owner will contribute capital in excess of the company’s current assessed value. That valuation is determined by an independent accounting firm,  based on current asset value.

The privatization process is heavily regulated and tightly controlled by SASAC. It involves multiple levels of review, outside valuation, and then an open-market auction process. The system has changed out of all recognition from the first generation of government asset sales done in the 1990s. These deals involved little to no public disclosure or transparency and generated quite a lot of criticism and resentment that Chinese state assets were being sold to insiders, or the well-connected, for a fraction of their true value.

For an investment bank, working with an SOE, especially a large and famous one, has a process, logic and rhythm all its own. There are many more layers of management than at a typical Chinese private company, and many more voices involved in decision-making. In this case, we’re rather fortunate that the chairman of the holding company is also the founder of the two subsidiaries we’re now seeking to spin out. He started the companies from zero less than ten years ago, and has built them into proud, successful, fast-growing businesses.

This chairman has far more sway over the strategy and direction of the SOE than is usual in China. I first met him over a year ago. I was called to visit the company to explain the process through which an SOE like his could raise outside capital. Though curious, the chairman said at the time it seemed like more trouble than it would be worth. He had a comfortable life, and was nearing mandatory retirement age.

In fact, as I now understand, that first meeting was really just a way to kickstart a long, complicated and confidential discussion process involving the chairman, his senior management team, as well as even more senior officials at the SOE.  Over the course of a year, the chairman was able to persuade himself, as well as the many others with a potential veto, that a spin-out of the two companies was worth considering in greater detail.

The privatization offers the promise of long-term access to capital and also, most likely, a greater degree of management autonomy.  Though the two subsidiaries do not sell to, rely on or otherwise have related party transactions with the parent, they are ultimately subject to some rather heavy and often-stifling bureaucratic controls. Contrary to the reputation of many Chinese SOE, the two companies sell high-end products to large fastidious global customers. They operate in highly kinetic markets but with a corporate structure above them that is as slow, ponderous and impenetrable as a five-hour Peking Opera performance.

The chairman invited me to return for another visit in June. What followed was a rather intensive process of me and my team submitting several different financing plans and options, including the privatization of either the whole holding company or various subsidiaries, either as standalones, or grouped into mini-conglomerates. These different plans got discussed very actively inside the SOE. In under a month, the company had decided how it wanted to proceed: that its two strongest and most successful subsidiaries should be separately spun off and majority control in each offered to a new investor.

It may not sound like it, but one month is a remarkably fast time for an SOE to consider, decide and then get necessary approvals to do just about anything. We also work with another even larger Beijing-headquartered SOE and it took them almost four months to get the eleven different people needed to approve, and apply the chop to, our template Non-Disclosure Agreement.

I was summoned with one day’s advance notice to return to the company in late July to sign a cooperation agreement to advise them on the proposed privatization/recapitalization of the two subsidiaries. Again, that’s rather typical of SOEs:  meetings are called suddenly, and one needs to drop whatever one’s doing and attend. For me, that meant a hastily-booked two hour flight, then a three-and-a-half hour drive to the company’s headquarters. A photo from the signing ceremony is at the top of this page. (I have to cover over the name of the company.)

The contract signing was followed by another in a series of very elaborate and extremely tasty meals. The chairman has converted a 13-acre plot of the company’s land into an organic farm, where he grows fruits and vegetables and raises free-range pigs, ducks, chickens. Everything I’ve eaten while visiting the company has come from this farm. Everything is remarkably good. And, yes, along with the food, a rather large amount of Chinese alcohol is poured.

In future posts, I’ll talk about different aspects of the transaction, including how to parse the balance sheet and P&L of an SOE, as well as the industrial and investment logic of doing a takeover of an SOE. In the current market environment in China, where so many PE minority investments are stranded with no means to exit, there has probably never been a better time to do buyout transactions, particularly of mature and successful industrial companies with scale, good profit margins and clean accounting. Good businesses like this are few. We are now working for two of them.

 

 

Private Equity in China 2013: the Opportunity & The Crisis — China First Capital Research Report

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.

M&A in China — New China First Capital Research Report, “A New Strategy for M&A, Buyouts & Corporate Acquisitions in China”

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M&A in China is entering a new, more promising phase. At no previous time was the environment as favorable to identify and close, at attractive valuations, the acquisition of a profitable, high growth, well-run, larger private business in China.

This is the conclusion of a recently completed research study by China First Capital, as part of our M&A advisory work. (An abridged copy of the report is available by clicking here.) The report is titled, “A New Strategy for M&A, Buyouts & Corporate Acquisitions in China: Sourcing and executing successful corporate acquisitions and buyouts from unexited PE deals in China“.

The industrial logic of doing acquisitions in China has never been in doubt. The scale, high annual growth rate and fragmented nature of China’s domestic economy all create a powerful attraction for control investors. The challenge has traditionally been a negative selection bias on the sell-side, that the Chinese companies available for purchase are often troubled,  state-owned, inefficient or poorly-managed. China’s best corporate assets, its larger private companies, were not previously available to control investors.

As a result, M&A in China, for all the predictions of an impending take-off, has never gotten into gear. The theory behind most deals, if there was one, was to tie two stones together and see if they float.

The reason for the positive change in the environment for control deals in China is the serious degradation in the environment for minority ones. Specifically, China’s private equity industry is in a state of deepening crisis. Having financed the growth of many of China’s best private companies, the PE firms are now finding it increasingly difficult to engineer a liquidity event before the expiry of their fixed fund life. They are emerging as distress sellers of desirable assets — in this case, strong PE-backed companies that are left without any other viable means for investors to exit.

As elaborated in earlier research reports from China First Capital, (read  here, here, here) there is a large overhang of over 7,500 unexited private equity deals in China. Most of these deals were done on the expectation of exiting through an IPO within a few years. That was always statistically improbable. In no year did more than 150 PE-backed Chinese private companies IPO.

An IPO has gone from statistically improbable to virtually unattainable. This is not only impacting the thinking of PE firms, but of the entrepreneurs they back as well. The exit math for private company bosses in China has changed dramatically over the last 12 months. M&A looks more and more like the only viable path to exit.

For business owners, the challenge to getting a deal done are both psychological and practical. First, owners must accept that valuations are way below where they hoped them to be, as well as well below the level two years ago, when they topped out at over 100 times last year’s net income. Second, the number of companies looking to sell will quickly begin to outnumber the qualified and capable acquirers. This will put further downward pressure on valuations.

In other words, for private company bosses looking for a liquidity event, the pressure to consider selling the business is mounting. For investors, owners and acquirers, the result is the beginnings of a genuine market for corporate control for private sector businesses in China.

The new China First Capital report is directed towards all three classes of potential acquirers — 1) global businesses seeking China market entry; 2) corporate acquirers seeking market or margin expansion in China through strategic or tuck-in acquisitions; 3) China domestic or global buyout firms seeking quality operating assets that can be built up and sold.  Their methods, timetable, metrics and deal targets will often differ. But, all three will find the current situation in China more suitable than at any previous time for executing M&A transactions of USD$100mn and above.

While the number of attractive targets is increasing, the complexities of doing M&A in China remain. The invested PE firms are almost always minority investors. A control transaction will need to be structured and staged to incentivize the owner to sell at least a portion of his holding alongside the PE firm, and then likely remain for at least several years at the helm.

The report offers some possible deal structures and timing mechanisms, included using “blended valuation” to determine price. It also charts the all-important  “when does cash enter my pocket” timing from the perspective of a selling majority owner.

PE investment in China, the report concludes,  has altered permanently the business landscape in China. It has also prepared the ground for a surge now in M&A activity.

Over $150 billion in PE capital was invested to propel the growth of over 10,000 private businesses. PE finance helped create a more dynamic and powerful private sector in China. In quite a number of cases, the PE-invested businesses have emerged as industry leaders in their sectors in China, highly profitable, innovative, fast-growing, with revenues of $100mn and above.

These companies have the scale and established market presence to permit a strategic acquirer to substantially increase its activity in China, extending product range, customer relationships, distribution channels. For buyout firms or corporate acquirers, taking over a PE-invested company should offer satisfactory financial returns. Buyout ROE can be significantly enhanced in certain cases by using leverage to finance the acquisition.

The supreme irony is that this moment of opportunity in domestic M&A comes at the same time quite a number of PE firms are pursuing highly questionable “take private” deals involving troubled Chinese companies listed on the US stock market. (See earlier blog posts here, here, here, here.) The risks, and prices paid, are far higher than doing well-targeted domestic M&A in China.

When junk is priced like jewels — and vice versa — is there any doubt where the smart money should go?

 

 

 

Smithfield Foods – Shuanghui International: The Biggest Chinese Acquisition That Isn’t


It is, if voluminous press reports are to be believed, the biggest story, the biggest deal, ever in China-US business history. I’m talking about the announced takeover of America’s largest pork company, Smithfield Foods, by a company called Shuanghui International. The deal, it is said in dozens of media reports, opens the China market to US pork and will transform China’s largest pork producer into a global giant selling Smithfield’s products alongside its own in China, while utilizing the American company’s more advanced methods for pork rearing and slaughtering.

One problem. A Chinese company isn’t buying Smithfield. A shell company based in Cayman Islands is. Instead of a story about “China buying up the world”, this turns out to be a story of a precarious leveraged buyout deal (“LBO”) cooked up by some large global private equity firms looking to borrow their way to a fortune.

The media, along with misstating the facts, are also missing the larger story here. The proposed Smithfield takeover is the latest iteration in the “take private” mania now seizing so many of the PE firms active in China. (See blog posts hereherehere and here.) With China’s own capital markets in crisis and PE investment there at a standstill, the PE firms have turned their attention, however illogically, to finding “undervalued assets” with a China angle on the US stock market. They then attempt an LBO, with the consent of existing management, and with the questionable premise the company will relist or be sold later in China or Hong Kong. The Smithfield deal is the biggest — and perhaps also the riskiest —  one so far.

This shell that is buying Smithfield has no legal or operational connection to Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development (from here on, “Shuanghui China”) , the Chinese pork producer, China’s largest, quoted on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The shell is about as Chinese as I am.

If the deal is completed, Shuanghui China will see no obvious benefit, only an enormous risk. Its Chinese assets are reportedly being used as collateral for the shell company to finance a very highly-leveraged acquisition. The abundant risks are being transferred to Shuanghui China while all the profits will stay inside this separately-owned offshore shell. No profits or assets of Smithfield will flow through to Shuanghui China. Do Shuanghui China’s Chinese minority shareholders know what’s going on here? Does the world’s business media?

Let’s go through this deal. I warn you. It’s a little convoluted. But, do take the time to follow what’s going on here. It’s fascinating, ingenious and maybe also a little nefarious.

First, the buyer of Smithfield is Shuanghui International, a Cayman holding company. It owns the majority of Shuanghui China, the Chinese-quoted pork company. Shuanghui International is owned by a group led by China-focused global PE firm CDH, with smaller stakes owned by Shuanghui China’s senior management,  Goldman Sachs, Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, Kerry Group, and another powerful PE firm focused on China, New Horizon Fund.

CDH, the largest single owner of Shuanghui International,  is definitively not Chinese. It invests capital from groups like Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund , CALPERS, the Rockefeller Foundation, one big Swiss (Partners Group) and one big Liechtenstein (LGT) money manager, along with the private foundation of one of guys who made billions from working at eBay. So too Goldman Sachs, of course, Temasek and New Horizon. They are large PE firms that source most of their capital from institutions, pension fund and endowments in the US, Europe, Southeast Asia and Middle East. (For partial list of CDH and New Horizon Fund Limited Partners click here. )

For the Smithfield acquisition, Shuanghui International (CDH and the others) seem to be putting up about $100mn in new equity. They will also borrow a staggering $4 billion from Bank of China’s international arm to buy out all of Smithfield’s current shareholders.  All the money is in dollars, not Renminbi.

If the deal goes through, Smithfield Foods and Shuanghui China will have a majority shareholder in common. But, nothing else. They are as related as, for example, Burger King and Neiman Marcus were when both were part-owned by buyout firm TPG. The profits and assets of one have no connection to the profits or assets of the other.

Shuanghui International, assuming it’s borrowed the money from Bank of China for three years,  will need to come up with about $1.5 billion in interest and principal payments a year if the deal closes. But, since Shuanghui International has no significant cash flow of its own (it’s an investment holding company), it’s hard to see where that money will come from. Smithfield can’t be much help. It already has a substantial amount of debt on its balance sheet. As part of the takeover plan, the Smithfield debt is being assumed by Morgan Stanley, Shuanghui International’s investment bankers. Morgan Stanley says it plans then to securitize the debt. A large chunk of Smithfield’s future free cash flow ($280mn last year) and cash ($139 mn as of the first quarter of 2013) will likely go to repay the $3 billion in Smithfield debts owed to Morgan Stanley.

A separate issue is whether, under any circumstances, more US pork will be allowed into China. The pork market is very heavily controlled and regulated. There is no likely scenario where US pork comes flooding into China. Yes, the media is right to say Chinese are getting richer and so want to eat more meat, most of all pork. But, mainly, the domestic market in China is reserved for Chinese hog-breeders. It’s an iron staple of China’s rural economy. These peasants are not going to be thrown under the bus so Smithfield’s new Cayman Islands owner can sell Shuanghui China lots of Armour bacon.

Total borrowing for this deal is around $7 billion, double Smithfield’s current market cap. Shuanghui International’s piece, the $4 billion borrowed from Bank of China, will go to current Smithfield shareholders to buy them out at a 31% premium.  Shuanghui International owns shares in Shuanghui China, and two of its board members are Shuanghui China top executives, but not much else. So where will the money come from to pay off the Bank of China loans? Good question.

Can Shuanghui International commandeer Shuanghui China’s profits to repay the debt? In theory, perhaps. But,  it’s highly unlikely such an arrangement would be approved by China’s securities regulator, the CSRC. It would not likely accept a plan where Shuanghui China’s profits would be exported to pay off debts owed by a completely independent non-Chinese company. Shuanghui International could sell its shares in Shuanghui China to pay back the debt. But, doing so would likely mean Shuanghui International loses majority control, as well as flooding the Shenzhen stock market with a lot of Shuanghui China’s thinly-traded shares.

Why, you ask, doesn’t Shuanghui China buy Smithfield? Such a deal would make more obvious commercial and financial sense. Shuanghui China’s market cap is triple Smithfield’s. Problem is, as a domestic Chinese company listed on China’s stock exchange, Shuanghui China would need to run the gauntlet of CSRC, Ministry of Commerce and SAFE approvals. That would possibly take years and run a risk of being turned down.  Shuanghui International, as a private Caymans company controlled by global PE firms,  requires no Chinese approvals to take over a US pork company.

The US media is fixated on whether the proposed deal will get the US government’s go ahead. But, as the new potential owner is not Chinese after all — neither its headquarters nor its ownership — then on what grounds could the US government object? The only thing Chinese-controlled about Shuanghui International is that the members of the Board of Directors were all likely born in China. The current deal may perhaps violate business logic but it doesn’t violate US national security.

So, how will things look if Shuanghui International’s LBO offer is successful?  Shuanghui China will still be a purely-Chinese pork producer with zero ownership in Smithfield, but with its assets perhaps pledged to secure the takeover debts of its majority shareholder. All the stuff about Shuanghui China getting access to Smithfield pork or pig-rearing and slaughtering technology, as well as a Smithfield-led upgrade of China’s pork industry,  is based on nothing solid. The pork and the technology will be owned by Shuanghui China’s non-Chinese majority shareholder. It can, if it chooses, sell pork or technology to Shuanghui China. But, Shuanghui China can achieve the same thing now. In fact, it is already a reasonably big buyer of Smithfield pork. Overall, China gets less than 1% of its pork from the US.

If the deal goes through, the conflicts of interest between Shuanghui International and Shuanghui China will be among the most fiendish I’ve ever seen. Shuanghui China’s senior managers, including chairman Wan Long, are going to own personally a piece of Smithfield, and so will have divided loyalties. They will likely continue to manage Shuanghui China and collect salaries there, while also having an ownership and perhaps a management role in Smithfield. How will they set prices between the two fully separate Shuanghuis? Who will watch all this? Isn’t this a case Shuanghui China’s insiders lining their own pockets while their employer gets nothing?

On its face, this Smithfield deal looks to be among the riskiest of all the  “take private” deals now underway. That is saying something since several of them involve Chinese companies suspected of accounting frauds, while the PE firms in at least two cases (China Transinfo and Le Gaga) doing the PE version of a Ponzi Scheme by seeking to use new LP money to bail out old, severely troubled deals they’ve done.

Let’s then look at the endgame, if the Smithfield deal goes through. Shuanghui International, as currently structured,  will not, cannot, be the long-term owner of Smithfield. The PE firms will need to exit. CDH, New Horizon, Goldman Sachs and Temasek have been an indirect shareholders of Shuanghui China for many years — seven in the case of CDH and Goldman.

According to what I’m told, Shuanghui International is planning to relist Smithfield in Hong Kong in “two to three years”. The other option on the table, for Shuanghui International to sell Smithfield (presumably at a mark-up) to Shuanghui China, would face enormous, probably insurmountable,  legal, financial and regulatory hurdles.

The IPO plan, as of now, looks crackpot. Hong Kong’s IPO market has basically been moribund for over a year. IPO valuations in Hong Kong are anyway far lower than the 20X p/e Shuanghui International is paying for Smithfield in the US. A separate tactical question for Shuanghui International and its investment bankers: why would you believe Hong Kong stock market investors in two to three years will pay more than US investors are now paying for a US company, with most of its assets, profits and revenues in the US?

But, even getting to IPO will require Shuanghui International to do something constructive about paying off the enormous $4 billion in debt it is taking on. How will that happen? Shuanghui International is saying Smithfield’s current American management will stay on. Why would one assume they can run it far more profitably in the future than they are running it now? If it all hinges on “encouraging” Shuanghui China to buy more Smithfield products, or pay big licensing fees, so Shuanghui International can earn larger profits, I do wonder how that will be perceived by both Shuanghui China’s minority investors, to say nothing of the CSRC. The CSRC has a deep institutional dislike of related party transactions.

Smithfield has lately been under pressure from some of its shareholders to improve its performance. That may have precipitated the discussions that led to the merger announcement with Shuanghui International. Smithfield’s CEO, C. Larry Pope, stands to earn somewhere between $17mn-$32mn if the deal goes through. He will stay on as CEO. His fiscal 2012 salary, including share and option awards, was $12.9mn.

Typical of such LBO deals, the equity holders (in this case, CDH, Goldman, Temasek, Kerry Group, Shuanghui China senior management, New Horizon) would stand to make a killing, if they can pay down the debt and then find a way to either sell or relist Smithfield at a mark-up. If that happens, profits will go to the Shuanghui insiders along with the partners in the PE firms, CALPERS, the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations, Goldman Sachs shareholders and other LPs. Shuanghui China? Nothing, as far as I can tell. China’s pork business will look pretty much exactly as it does today.

In their zeal to proclaim a trend — that of Chinese buying US companies — the media seems to have been blinded to the actual mechanics of this deal. They also seem to have been hoodwinked by the artfully-written press release issued when the deal was announced. It mentions that Shuanghui International is the ” majority shareholder of Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development Co. (SZSE: 000895), which is China’s largest meat processing enterprise and China’s largest publicly traded meat products company as measured by market capitalization.” This then morphed into a story about “China’s biggest ever US takeover”, and much else besides about how China’s pork industry will now be upgraded through this deal, about dead pigs floating in the river in Shanghai, about Chinese companies’ targeting US and European brands.

China may indeed one day become a big buyer of US companies. But, that isn’t what’s happening here. Instead, the world’s leading English-language business media are suffering a collective hallucination.

China M&A: Three Recent Deals

In the last month, three large takeovers were announced involving Chinese companies. In two of these, PE buyout firms (CITIC Capital and Blackstone)  are offering to take private Chinese companies (AsiaInfo-Linkage and Pactera) quoted on the US stock exchange. In the third, a Chinese acquirer (Shuanghui International) has offered to purchase all shares of US pork producer Smithfield Foods.

I’ve done a quick comparison of these deals across a range of financial variables — premium offered to current shareholders, p/e ratio, profit growth, last two years’ share price performance. I’ve also offered my own judgment on the risks and the industrial logic of the deal, on a scale of 1-10.

The results: the troubled deals, the ones with the highest risks and deepest uncertainties about future performance, with the most anemic share prices up to the date of the offer, with claims or investigations of accounting fraud, with the least industrial logic, are commanding the higher price.

Ah, the Mysterious Orient.

 

Correction: I wrote this article based on the first day’s English-language media coverage of the Smithfield-Shuanghui International takeover. Big mistake. I took at face value the media’s account that this was a merger between China’s largest pork producer and America’s. Turns out the coverage was wrong, and so my conclusion was also. In the software business, it’s called GIGO, “Garbage in, garbage out.” The Smithfield-Shuanghui deal is every bit as precarious an LBO as the other two. The only improvement is that the target company, Smithfield, is a better and more transparent business than AsianInfo-Linkage or Pactera. For the real situation on this Smithfield deal, see this blog post.

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Blackstone Leads Latest Chinese Privatization Bid — New York Times

NYT

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MAY 21, 2013, 7:07 AM

Blackstone Leads Latest Chinese Privatization Bid

By NEIL GOUGH

A fund run by the Blackstone Group is leading a $662.3 million bid for a technology outsourcing firm based in China, the latest example of a modest boom among buyout shops backing the privatization of Chinese companies listed in the United States.

A consortium backed by a private equity fund of Blackstone that includes the Chinese company’s management said on Monday that it would offer $7.50 a share to acquire Pactera Technology International, which is based in Beijing and listed on Nasdaq.

The offer, described as preliminary, represents a hefty 43 percent premium to Pactera’s most recent share price before the deal was announced. The news sent the company’s stock up 30.6 percent on Monday, to $6.87 — still more than 8 percent below the offer price, in a sign that some investors remain wary that a deal will be completed.

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CITIC Capital’s Take Private Deal for AsiaInfo-Linkage: Is This The Chinese Way to Do an LBO?

Are we seeing the birth of “Leveraged Buyouts With Chinese Characteristics”? Or just some of the craziest, riskiest and unlikeliest buyout deals in worldwide history? That’s the question posed by the announcement this week that China buyout PE firm CITIC Capital Partners is leading the “take private” deal of NASDAQ-listed AsiaInfo-Linkage Inc., a Chinese software and telecommunications services that company whose shares have halved in value from over $20 during the last two years.

CITIC Capital first disclosed in January 2012 its intention to buy out the AsiaInfo-Linkage public shareholders. At the time, the share price was around $7. The board set up a committee to search for alternative buyers. It seems to have found none, and accepted this week CITIC’s offer to pay $12 a share, or 50% above the price on the day in January 2012 when it first notified the company of its interest. That seemed a rich premium 17 months ago. It seems no less so now.

Rule Number One in LBOs: do not pay any more than you absolutely need to acquire a majority of the shares. Few are the M&A deals where a premium of +50% is offered. Fewer still when the target company is one where the stock has been seriously battered for many years now. The share price went into something like a free fall in early 2010, from a high of $30 to reach that level of $7 when CITIC Capital first announced its move.

CITIC Capital is buying AsiaInfo-Linkage at a price that equates to well over 20 times its 2012 earnings. That sort of p/e multiple is rarely seen in buyout deals. Dell’s buyout is priced at half that level, or a p/e of 10X, and a premium of 25% above the share price the day before rumors about the “take private” deal started to spread.

It’s one of the exquisite oddities of this current craze to take Chinese companies private that PE firms are willing to pay p/e multiples to buy distressed quoted companies from US investors that are at least twice what the same PE firms generally say they will pay for a perfectly-healthy private Chinese company located in China. If anything, the reverse should be true.

Rule Number Two in LBOs: have a clear, credible plan to turn around the company to improve its performance and then look to sell out in a few years time. In this case, again, it seems far from obvious what can be done to improve things at AsiaInfo-Linkage and even more so, how and when CITIC Capital will exit. To complete the $900mn buyout, CITIC Capital will borrow $300mn. The interest payments on that debt are likely to chew up most of the company’s free cash, leaving nothing much to pay back principal. Sell off the fixed assets? Hard to see that working. Meantime, if you fail to pay back the principal within a reasonable period of time (say three to four years), the chances of exiting at a significant profit either through an IPO or a trade sale are substantially lower.

Leverage is a wonderful thing. In theory, it lets a buyout shop take control of a company while putting only a sliver of its own money at risk. You then want to use the company’s current free cash flow to pay off the debt and when you do, voila, you end up owning the whole thing for a fraction of its total purchase price.

In CITIC Capital’s case, I know they are especially enamored of leverage. They were formed specifically for the purpose of doing buyout deals in China. Problem is, you can’t use bank money for any part of a takeover of a domestic Chinese company. (AsiaInfo-Linkage is a rarity, a Chinese company that got started in the US over twenty years ago, and eventually shifted its headquarters to China. It is legally a Delaware corporation. This means CITIC Capital can borrow money to take it over.)

I met earlier this year with a now ex-partner at CITIC Capital who explained that the company’s attempts to do buyout deals in China have frequently run into a significant roadblock. Because CITIC Capital can’t borrow money for domestic takeovers, the only way it can make money, after taking control, is to make sure the company keeps growing at a high rate, and then hope to sell out at a high enough p/e multiple to earn a reasonable profit. In other words, a buyout without the leverage.

CITIC Capital is run mainly, as far as I can tell, by a bunch of MBAs and financial types, not operations guys who actually know how to run a business and improve it from the ground up. Sure, they can hire an outside team of managers to run a company once they take it over. But, in China, that’s never easy. Also, without the benefits of being able to leverage up the balance sheet, the risks and potential returns begin to look less than intoxicating.

We understand from insiders CITIC Capital’s plan is to relist AsiaInfo in Hong Kong or Shanghai within three years. Let’s see how that plays out. But, I’d rate the probability at around 0.5%. The backlog for IPOs in both markets is huge, and populated by Chinese companies with far cleaner history and none of the manifest problems of AsiaInfo.

AsiaInfo’s balance sheet claims there’s a lot of cash inside the company. But, we also understand it took many long months and a lot of “No’s” to find any banks willing to lend against the company’s assets and cash flow. In the end, the main lenders turned out to be a group of rather unknown Asian banks, along with a chunk from China’s ICBC. The equity piece is around 60% of total financing, high by typical LBO standards.

AsiaInfo-Linkage is in most ways quite similar to  “take private Chinese company” Ptp deals of the kind I’ve written about recently, here and here. It has the same manifold risks as the other 20 deals now underway — most notably, you walk a legal minefield, can only perform limited due diligence, spend huge sums to buy out existing shareholders rather than fixing what’s wrong in the company, and so end up paying a big price to buy a company that US investors have decided is a dog.

One good thing is that AsiaInfo-Linkage hasn’t been specifically targeted either by the SEC or short-sellers for alleged accounting irregularities. This isn’t the case with the other take private deal CITIC Capital is now involved with. It’s part of the consortium taking private the Chinese advertising company Focus Media, where a lot of questions have been raised about the quality and accuracy of the company’s SEC financial statements.

AsiaInfo-Linkage seems to be a decent enough company. It is growing. Its main problem is that it relies on three mammoth Chinese SOEs — China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom — for over 95% of its revenues. The company’s founder and chairman, Edward Tian, is backing the CITIC Capital deal. Along with CITIC Capital, two other PE firms, Singapore government’s Temasek Holdings and China Broadband Capital Partners (where Tian serves as chairman) are contributing the approximately $400mn in cash to buyout the public shareholders and take control.

Interestingly, Edward Tian has for seven years been a “senior advisor” to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, aka KKR, perhaps the world’s leading buyout firm. In theory, that should have put KKR in a prime position to do a deal like this — they have far more capital and experience doing buyouts than CITIC Capital, and they are already very familiar with the boss. But, they kept their wallet closed.

Disclosure: I’m a big believer in the value of doing control deals for Chinese companies. We’re just completing a research and strategy report on this area and we expect to share it soon. But, the deals we like are for the best private Chinese companies where the current PE firm investor needs to find a way to sell out before the expiry of its fund life. Such deals have their complexity, and using leverage will not be an option in most.

But, these good assets could most likely be bought at half the price (on a p/e basis) that CITIC Capital is paying to a company that shows little prospect of being able quickly to pay off in full the money CITIC is borrowing to buy it. If that happens, CITIC Capital may be lucky to get its LPs’ money back. Is CITIC Capital perhaps trying a little too hard to prove LBOs in China have their own inscrutable Chinese logic that it alone fully understands?

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