mergers and acquisitions

China’s IPO Drought Spurring Interest In M&A — FinanceAsia

FinanceAsia

 

With slim hope of exiting through a lucrative public listing, Chinese entrepreneurs and their investors are considering sales.

China’s huge backlog of initial public offerings is creating an exit crisis for maturing private equity funds — and an opportunity for international investors interested in buying something other than a bit of a state-owned enterprise.

For China’s entrepreneurs, the dream of earning a rich valuation through an IPO is over, but the result could be a healthy increase in acquisitions as owners slowly come round to reality: that selling to a foreign buyer is probably the best way of cashing out.

There is no shortage of candidates, thanks to the unsustainable euphoria at the height of China’s IPO boom. The number of firms listing in China, Hong Kong and New York was only around 350 at its height, yet private equity funds were investing at triple that rate. As a result, there are now more than 7,500 unexited private equity deals in China.

“IPOs may start again, but it will never be like it was,” says Peter Fuhrman, chief executive of China First Capital, an investment bank that specialises in advising on private equity deals. “The Golden Age is likely over. There are 10,000 deals all hoping to be one of the few hundred to reach IPO.”

As long as the window to a listing was open, China’s entrepreneurs were willing to hold out in the hope of selling their business at a valuation of 80 or 100 times earnings. Even last year, when the window to IPO was firmly closed, few bosses chose to sell.

“Private equity activity was fairly muted in 2012 — you could count the meaningful exits on one hand,” says Lindsay Chu, Asia-Pacific head of financial sponsors and sovereign wealth funds at HSBC. But sponsors still have a meaningful number of investments that they will need to exit to return capital to LPs [limited partners].”

However, both Fuhrman and HSBC note signs of growing interest in M&A — or at least weakening resistance to the idea.

“I’m conservatively optimistic about leveraged buyouts,” says Aaron Chow, Asia Pacific head of event-driven syndicate within the leveraged and acquisition finance team at HSBC. “The market is wide open to do these deals right now, as financing conditions are supportive and IPO valuations may not provide attractive exits.”

Indeed, the ability to use leverage may be decisive in helping foreign buyers emerge as the preferred exit route for China’s entrepreneurs. Leverage is not an option for domestic buyers, which are also burdened with the need to wait for approvals, without any guarantee that they will get them.

This means foreign acquirers can move quicker and earn bigger returns, which may prove enticing to bosses who want to maximise their payday and get their hands on a quick cheque.

If this meeting of the minds happens, foreign buyers will get their first opportunity to buy control positions within China’s private economy, which is responsible for most of the country’s growth and job creation.

“The beauty here is these are good companies, rather than a troubled and bloated SoE that’s just going to give you a headache,” says Fuhrman. “It’s still a bitch to do Chinese acquisitions — it’s always going to be a bitch — but private deals are doable.”

Some of those deals may involve trade sales to other financial sponsors, as a number of private equity funds have recently raised capital to deploy in Asia and are well placed to take advantage of the opportunity, despite the challenges.

“There’s a lot of talk in Europe about funds having difficulty in their fund-raising efforts, but for the most part we’ve not seen that in Asia,” says Chu. Mainland companies will attract most of the flows, he says, but there are also opportunities across the region. “China is always going to be top of the list, but Asean is becoming an even bigger focus thanks to good macro stories and stable governments. Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia are all attractive to private equity investors.”

© Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.

China’s GPs search for exits — Private Equity International Magazine

Chinese GPs are running low on exit options, but the barriers to unconventional routes – like secondary sales to other GPs – remain high.

By Michelle Phillips

China’s exit woes are no secret. With accounting scandals freezing the IPO route both abroad and domestically, the waiting list for IPO approval on China’s stock exchanges has come close to 900 companies.  Fund managers have at least 7,550 unexited investments worth a combined $100 billion, according to a recent study by China First Capital. However, including undisclosed deals, the number of companies could be as high as 10,000, says CFC’s founder and chairman Peter Fuhrman.
CITIC Capital chief executive Yichen Zhang told the Hong Kong Venture Capital Association Asia Private Equity Forum in January that because many GPs promised high returns in an unrealistic timeframe (usually three to five years), LPs were already starting to get impatient. He also predicted that around 80 percent of China’s smaller GPs would collapse in the coming years. “The worst is yet to come,” he said.
What ought to become an attractive option for these funds, according to the CFC study, are secondary buyouts. Even if it lowers the exit multiple, secondaries would provide liquidity for LPs, as well as potentially giving the companies an influx of cash, Fuhrman says.

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A Practical Guide for M&A deals for Chinese Bosses

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Private Equity in China, 2012: CFC’s New Research Report

Around the time of Confucius 2,500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus wrote, “Nothing is permanent except change.” It’s a perfect quick summary of the private equity industry in China. In its short 20 year history, PE in China has undergone continuous transformation: from dollars to Renminbi; from a focus on technology companies to a preference for traditional industries; from overseas IPO exits to domestic listings;  from a minor financing channel to a main artery of capital to profitable private companies competing in the most dynamic and fast-growing major market in the world.

Where is private equity in China headed? Can future performance match the phenomenal returns of recent years? Where in China are great entrepreneurial opportunities and companies emerging? These are some of the questions we’ve sought to answer in China First Capital’s latest English-language research report, titled “Private Equity in China, Positive Trends and Growing Challenges”.

You can download a copy by clicking:  Download “Private Equity in China, 2012 – 2013.

Our view is that 2012 will be a year of increasingly fast realignment in the PE industry. With the US capital markets effectively closed to most Chinese companies, and Hong Kong Stock Exchange ever less welcoming and attractive, the primary exit paths for China PE deals are domestic IPO and M&A. Both routes are challenging. At the same time, there are too many dollar-based investors chasing too few quality larger deals in China.

Adapt or die” describes both the Darwinian process of natural selection as well as the most effective business strategy for PE investing in China.

I’ve been working with entrepreneurs for most of my 30 year business career. It’s the joy and purpose of my life. Good entrepreneurs profit from change and uncertainty. Investors less so, if at all. This may be the biggest misalignment of all in Chinese PE. The entrepreneurial mindset is comfortable with constant change, with the destruction and opportunity created by market innovation. In my view, the PE firms most likely to succeed in China are those led by professionals with this same entrepreneurial mindset.

Chinese Private Equity Moves from IPO to IRR

Most investors, including me,  would be delighted to make 15% to 20% per year, year after year. But, for many private equity firms active in China, that kind of return would be cause for shame. The reason is that recent past returns from Chinese PE , and so the expectations of LPs, is much higher, often overall annual increases of 40%-60% a year, with successful individual deals increasing by 100% a year in value during a typical three to five year holding period.

But, it is quickly becoming much more challenging to earn those +40% annual rates of return. My prediction is that profits from PE investing in China will soon begin a rather steep downward slide. This isn’t because there are fewer good Chinese companies to invest, or that valuations are rising sharply. Neither is true. It’s simply that a declining percentage of PE deals done in China will achieve those exceptionally high profits of 500%-800% or more over the life of an investment.

The reason is that fewer and fewer PE deals in China will achieve exit through IPO. Those are the deals where the big money is made. There are no precise numbers. But, my estimate would be that in recent years, one in four PE investments made by the top 50 firms active in China managed to have an IPO. Those are the deals with the outsized rates of return that do so much to lift a PE firm’s overall IRR.

In the future, the rate of successful IPO exit may fall by 30% or more for the good firms. For lesser PE firms, including many of the hundreds of Renminbi firms set up over the last three years, the percentage of deals achieving a domestic IPO in China may not reach 10%. If so, overall returns for each PE firm, as well as the industry as a whole, will fall rather dramatically from the high levels of recent years.

The returns for most PE and VC firms across the world tend toward bell curve distribution, with a small number of highly successful deals more than covering losses at the deals gone sour, and the majority of deals achieving modest increases or declines. In China, however, the successful deals have tended to be both more numerous and more profitable.  This has provided most of the propulsive thrust for the high rates of return.

The higher the rate of return, the easier it is to raise new money. PE firms each year keep 1% to 2% of the money they raise every year as a management fee. It’s a kind of tithe paid by LPs. PE firms also usually keep 20% of the net investment profits. But, this management fee is risk-free, and usually is enough to fully pay for the PE and VC firms salaries, offices, travel and other operating expenses, with anything left over split among the partners.

So, high rates of investment return in the past ends up translating into lots of new money unlinked to actual investment performance in the future. It’s a neat trick, and explains why the PE partners currently most actively out raising capital are mainly those investing in China. The more you raise now, the longer your guaranteed years of the good life. In other words, even if overall investment results deteriorate in coming years, the guaranteed income of PE firms will remain strong. Most funds have a planned lifespan of seven to ten years. So, if you raise $1 billion in 2012, you will have perhaps $20mn a year in guaranteed management fee income all the way through 2022.

The more new capital that’s raised for PE deals in China, the more investment deals can get done. The problem is, IPOs in China are basically a fixed commodity, with about 250 private companies going public a year. These domestic Chinese IPOs are the common thread linking most of the highest return PE deals. The Chinese IPOs will continue, and most likely continue to provide some of the highest profits available to PE firms anywhere. But, with the number of IPOs static and overall PE investment surging, the odds of a PE-backed company in China getting the green light for IPO will drop — rather precipitously if the current gusher of new money for PE deals in China persists.

Meantime, the number of Chinese companies going public outside China is dropping and will likely continue to. The US has all but barred the door to Chinese companies, following a spate of stories in 2011 about fraudulent accounting and false disclosure by Chinese companies quoted there. In Hong Kong, the only Chinese companies generating investor enthusiasm at IPO are ones with both significant size (profits of at least USD$25mn) and an offshore legal corporate structure. It used to be both simple and common for Chinese companies to set up holding companies outside China. The Chinese government has moved aggressively to shut down that practice, beginning in 2006. So, the number of private Chinese companies with the legal structure permitting a Hong Kong (or US, Singapore, Korean, Australian) IPO will continue to shrink.

Add it up and the return numbers for PE firms active in China begin to look much less rosy going forward than they have in the past. More deals will end in mandatory buybacks, rather than IPOs. This is the escape mechanism written into just about every PE investment contract. It allows the PE firm to sell their shares back to the company if an IPO doesn’t take place within a specified period of time, typically three to five years. The PE gets its original investment back, plus an annual rate of return (“IRR”), usually 10% to 20%.

This way PE firms can’t get stuck in an illiquid investment. The buybacks should become an increasingly common exit route for PE deals in China. But, they only work when the company can come up with the cash to buy the PE shares back. That will not always be certain, since pooling large sums of money to pay off an old investor is hardly the best use of corporate capital. Fighting it out in court will likely be a fraught process for both sides.

The direction of Chinese PE is moving from IPO to IRR.  As this process unfolds, and PE returns in China begin to trend downward, the PE investment process and valuations are likely to change, most likely for the worse. IRR deals seldom make anyone happy—not the PE firms, their LPs or the entrepreneur.

Chinese PE still offers some of the best risk-adjusted returns of any investment class. But, as often happens, the outsized returns of recent years attracts a glut of new money, leading to an eventual decline in overall profits. In investing, big success today often breeds mediocrity tomorrow.


Too Few Exits: The PE Camel Can’t Pass Through the Eye of China’s IPO Needle

The amount of capital going into private equity in China continues to surge, with over $30 billion in new capital raised in 2011. The number of private equity deals in China is also growing quickly. More money in, however, does not necessarily mean more money will come out through IPOs or other exits. In fact, on the exit side of the ledger, there is no real growth, instead probably a slight decline, as the number of domestic IPOs in China stays constant, and offshore IPOs (most notably in Hong Kong and USA) is trending down. M&A activity, the other main source of exit for PE investors,  remains puny in China. 

This poses the most important challenge to the long-term prospects for the private equity industry in China. The more capital that floods in, the larger the backlog grows of deals waiting for exit. No one has yet focused on this issue. But, it is going to become a key fact of life, and ultimately a big impediment, to the continued expansion of capital raised for investing in China. 

Here’s a way to understand the problem: there is probably now over $50 billion in capital invested in Chinese private companies, with another $50 billion at least in capital raised but not yet committed. That is enough to finance investment in around 6,500 Chinese companies, since average investment size remains around $15mn. 

At the moment, only about 250 Chinese private companies go public each year domestically. The reason is that the Chinese securities regulator, the CSRC, keeps tight control on the supply of new issues. Their goal is to keep the supply at a level that will not impact overall stock market valuations. Getting CSRC approval for an IPO is becoming more and more like the camel passing through the eye of a needle. Thousands of companies are waiting for approval, and thousands more will likely join the queue each year by submitting IPO applications to the CSRC.

Is it possible the CSRC could increase the number of IPOs of private companies? In theory, yes. But, there is no sign of that happening, especially with the stock markets now trading significantly below their all-time highs. The CSRC’s primary role is to assure the stability of China’s capital markets, not to provide a transparent and efficient mechanism for qualified firms to raise money from the stock market. 

Coinciding now with the growing backlog of companies waiting for domestic IPOs, offshore stock markets are becoming less and less hospitable for Chinese companies. In Hong Kong, it’s generally only bigger Chinese companies, with offshore shareholder structure and annual net profits of at least USD$20 million, that are most welcome.

In the US, most Chinese companies now have no possibility to go public. There is little to no investor interest. As the Wall Street Journal aptly puts it, “Investors have lost billions of dollars over the last year on Chinese reverse mergers, after some of the companies were accused of accounting fraud and exaggerating the quality and size of their assets. Shares of other Chinese companies that went public in the United States through the conventional initial public stock offering process have also been punished out of fear that the problem could be more widespread.”

Other minor stock markets still actively beckon Chinese companies to list there, including Korea, Singapore, Australia. Their problem is very low IPO price-earnings valuations, often in single digits, as low as one-tenth the level in China. As a result, IPOs in these markets are the choice for Chinese companies that truly have no other option. That creates a negative selection bias.  Bad Chinese companies go where good companies dare not tread. 

For the time being, LPs still seem willing to pour money into funds investing in China, ignoring or downplaying the issue of how and when investments made with their money will become liquid. PE firms certainly are aware of this issue. They structure their investment deals in China with a put clause that lets them exit, in most cases, by selling their shares back to the company after a certain number of years, at a guaranteed annual IRR, usually 15%-25%. That’s fine, but if, as seems likely, more and more Chinese investments exit through this route, because the statistical likelihood of an IPO continues to decline, it will drag down PE firms’ overall investment performance.

Until recently, the best-performing PE firms active in China could achieve annual IRRs of over 50%. Such returns have made it easy for the top firms like CDH, SAIF, New Horizon, and Hony to raise money. But, it may prove impossible for these firms to do as well with new money as they did with the old. 

These good firms generally have the highest success rates in getting their deals approved for domestic IPO. That will likely continue. But, with so many more deals being done, both by these good firms as well as the hundreds of other newly-established Renminbi firms, the percentage of IPO exits for even the best PE firms seems certain to decline. 

When I discuss this with PE partners, the usual answer is they expect exits through M&A to increase significantly. After all, this is now the main exit route for PE and VC deals done in the US and Europe. I do agree that the percentage of Chinese PE deals achieving exit through M&A will increase from the current level. It could barely be any lower than it is now.

But, there are significant obstacles to taking the M&A exit route in China, from a shortage of domestic buyers with cash or shares to use as currency, to regulatory issues, and above all the fact many of the best private companies in China are founded, run and majority-owned by a single highly-talented entrepreneur. If he or she sells out in M&A deal,  the new owners will have a very hard time doing as well as the old owners did. So, even where there are willing sellers, the number of interested buyers in an M&A deal will always be few. 

Measured by new capital raised and investment results achieved, China’s private equity industry has grown a position of global leadership in less than a decade. There is still no shortage of great companies eager for capital, and willing to sell shares at prices highly appealing to PE investors. But, unless something is done to increase significantly the number of PE exits every year,  the PE industry in China must eventually contract. That will have very broad consequences not just for Chinese entrepreneurs eager for expansion capital and liquidity for their shares, but also for hundreds of millions of Chinese, Americans and Europeans whose pension funds have money now invested in Chinese PE. Their retirements will be a little less comfortable if, as seems likely,  a diminishing number of the investments made in Chinese companies have a big IPO payday.

 

 

 

M&A in China – China First Capital’s New Research Report


CFC’s latest Chinese-language research report has just been published. The topic: M&A Strategy for Chinese Private Companies. Our conclusion: propelled by rapidly-growing domestic market and the continuing evolution of China’s capital markets, China will overtake the USA within the next decade as the world’s largest and most active market for mergers and acquisitions.

The report, titled “ 并购- 中国企业的成功助力”,can be downloaded by clicking here.

The report identifies five key drivers that fueling M&A activity among private sector companies in China.  They are: (1) a once-in-a-business-lifetime opportunity to seize meaningful market share in the domestic market; (2) the coming generational shift as China’s first generation of entrepreneurs moves toward retirement age; (3) a widening valuation gap between private and publicly-traded companies; (4) regulatory changes that will make it easier to pay for acquisitions using shares as well as cash; (5) increased access to IPO market in China for companies that have augmented organic growth through strategic M&A.

Several case studies from our work feature in the report, including a cross-border M&A deal we are doing, and one purely domestic trade sale. We take on a select number of M&A clients, and work as a sell-side advisor.

M&A in China has myriad challenges that do not often arise in other parts of the world. One we see repeatedly is that few Chinese acquirers have in-house M&A teams or investment banks on call to provide help with structure and valuation. Talking with anyone less than the company chairman is often a waste of time.

Another unique hurdle: “GIGO DD” or, more prosaically, “garbage in, garbage out due diligence.” Potential acquirers unfortunately will often start their industry research by doing a Chinese language web search using Baidu. There is a lot of dubious stuff out there that is given some credence, including phony websites and bizarre claims posted to people’s personal blogs or chatrooms.

In the cross-border deal we’re working on, several companies backed out of the process after finding Chinese companies claiming on their corporate website to make equipment identical to our client’s. This convinced these potential bidders that our client had technology and assets of little value. We actually took the time, unlike the potential acquirers, to call the phone numbers on these websites, posing as potential customers. None of the companies had any similar equipment for sale or in development. The material on their websites was bogus.

Market data from online sources is also usually specious. Few people, including lawyers, have working knowledge of how an M&A deal might impact a company’s plans for domestic IPO in China.

I’ve been inside some M&A deals in the US,  with their online data rooms, cloak-and-dagger codenames, and a precisely orchestrated bidding process. In China, the process is more unscripted.

Until recently, the only Chinese companies able and willing to do M&A were larger State-Owned Enterprises (SOE). The deals were done to buy oil and other natural resources on the stock market, or to acquire European brand names to put on Chinese-made products. Those deals include Sinopec’s purchase of shares in Canadian company AddaxCNOOC’s failed acquisition of UnoCal, TCL’s purchase of Thomson TVs and Alcatel phones, and Nanjing Automotive’s buying the MG brand.

These kind of deals will likely continue. But, in the future, M&A deals will become more numerous, more necessary for private entrepreneur-founded companies and have more complex strategic goals.

M&A is one of only two ways for founders and shareholders to achieve exit. The other is IPO. But, the number of private companies who can IPO in China will always be limited. At the moment, the number is about 250 per year. Compare that to the 70 million or so private companies in China.

The IPO process creates a special competitive dynamic in China. The first company in an industry to become publicly-traded usually has a huge advantage over competitors. They disrupt the previous equilibrium in an industry.

This means there are only two choices for many entrepreneurs. Both choices involve M&A. If you aren’t going to become a public company or a competitor has already gone public, you need to consider selling your company. If you want to become a public company,  you will need to become an expert at buying other companies.

The economic destiny of China, and many of its better private companies, is M&A.

 

Private Equity Firms in China in the Firing Line – Ratcheting Up the Criticism of Performance Ratchets

Ming Dynasty Cloisonne

In an interesting discussion this week in Shenzhen with a very smart and capable lawyer (Ke Luo of Fangda Partners), I learned about a small, but growing backlash against the Top Tier private equity firms working China. Evidently there have been some articles in the Chinese press voicing criticisms of their approach and methods, and comparing them unfavorably with Chinese domestic investment companies. 

Upfront disclosure: we choose to work only with the 70 or so Top Tier private equity firms active in China, as we believe they are the best investors for companies with the greatest potential, adding more value, beyond just capital, than any other source of investment. 

A main point of contention: the ratchet and performance provisions of most of the top private equity investment deals in China (and everywhere else in the world). These are the provisions, incorporated into the final closing share purchase agreement, through which the PE firm gains greater ownership in a company they’ve invested in if the company fails to meet previously agreed revenue, profit or margin targets.   

It’s a penalty for underperformance. And a very effective and focusing one. It’s not uncommon for these ratchets provisions to specify that the PE firm can gain an additional 10-15% ownership, at no additional cost,  in a company that fails to meet the annual targets. 

In good economic times and in solidly-run companies, ratchet provisions are very rarely put into effect. So, they are a generally just a ghoulish contingent presence in every PE investment contract, the stick that compliments the carrot of a PE firm investing in your business. I know from personal experience that the concept can seem very off-putting – even frightening – to some Chinese bosses: that the PE firm will, for example, go from owning 25% of his company to 40% of his company if the owner has one year that falls below the projected levels of profit and revenue. 

We’re not in good economic times at the moment, so it’s a certainty that more ratchet provisions will be triggered this year. This is what is behind some of the complaining in the Chinese press about international PE firms. Chinese investment firms apparently don’t often include ratchet provisions. The implication of the articles is that a Chinese company is better off taking money from a Chinese investment company, and so free itself from the possibility of a sort of “takeover by stealth”, as the PE firm’s ownership ratchets upward with each year of under-target performance. 

On the surface, ratchet provisions are a very fat, very easy target. So, no surprise some in the Chinese press are attacking them. But, it’s a very incomplete, unfair – and even financially illiterate – criticism to say that because of performance ratchet provisions, a Chinese company is better off taking money from a Chinese investment company. 

Chinese investment firms may not use performance ratchets, but they have a variety of other serious weaknesses. Believe me, I’m no fan of ratchets of any kind, and work hard in negotiations with PE firms to eliminate their potential for causing harm to our clients’ businesses.  But, I still think, in almost all cases, a good Chinese private company is far better off taking money from a reputable PE firm than from a more loosely-run Chinese investment business. 

The reasons are many. But, the most deep-seated are based on an appreciation of what an outside investor can and should provide a strong Chinese SME company besides just capital. Money, famously, all spends the same. So, taking $10mn from a rich uncle or from a leading private equity firm is no different, in terms of what the money can buy – a new factory perhaps, or expanded marketing and sales, or an acquisition. 

The key difference is that the best PE firms are going to do a lot more than just write a check and then wait for the riches to flow three years later at IPO. They are going to get deeply involved assisting the company to improve all areas of its operations, implementing best practices in areas like financial accounting and corporate governance, as well as providing real expertise on hard core sales and operational issues. They also know, from past successful experience, how best to guide a private company towards a successful IPO, whether on China’s domestic stock market, or abroad.

A Chinese investment company, from what I can gather, does not have the experience, the management talent – or even the inclination – to be involved in such a detailed fashion with the companies it invests in. 

I believe, based on my own practical experience,  that the good PE firms often really do make a significant difference inside a company, enabling it to get further faster than it otherwise would. Of course, PE firms can be a pain to work with. This goes way beyond the potential for a ratchet provision to be triggered. The good PE firms act as fiduciaries for their Limited Partners, and so require a massive amount of due diligence before investing, and no less enormous information flows (generally on financial performance) after an investment is made. They want quarterly board meetings, and often hold veto rights on any spending above $500,000 or so. 

But, in return, the PE firm will go to the furthest limits of its collective abilities to make sure the Chinese company succeeds above and beyond even what the boss of that company could expect. A domestic Chinese investment company? Most likely, they have had little experience with leading good companies toward successful IPOs, little operational knowledge, little desire to commit so thoroughly to adding value inside a company. 

So, yes, performance ratchet provisions are nasty. However, they should never come into effect – if the company and the PE firm are doing everything in their power to keep the business growing. The PE firms, contrary to the way it may appear, do not  want performance ratchets triggered any more than the company’s owner does. It’s also going to reflect badly on the PE firm’s judgment and abilities, and so make it harder for them to continue to raise money for future investment.

In other words, every time a performance ratchet is triggered, it gets harder for that PE firm to continue to thrive. They would rather own a smaller share of a solid company that’s meeting its targets, than a bigger share of one that isn’t.

 

Chinese Language Report on Private Equity in China 2009: 中国的私募股权投资与战略并购

Following on from the publication of the China First Capital report, 2009 Private Equity and Strategic M&A Transactions in China — A Preview , the Chinese version is now completed. It’s more than just a change in language.

It incorporates a different but complimentary perspective to the English report, one enriched by the deep knowledge, insights and experience of my China First Capital colleague, Amy Bai. 谢谢白海鹰。

Here’s the first section. 

China First Capital Chinese language report on Private Equity, Venture Capital in China 2009

 

 

  chinese-balance

 

危机创造机遇

2008 年对于中国是不平凡的一年。2008年带给我们骄傲和欢乐,也带给我们挫折和悲伤。北京奥运会使我们感到前所未有的骄傲和自豪。刚刚战胜了冰冻灾害的我们又遭遇了汶川大地震。

从经济领域来看,2008年同样也是不平凡的一年。在年初,上海、深圳和香港的股市都出现了长势良好的喜人景象。IPO形势大好。然而,在2008年夏,股市开始暴跌 ,IPO也开始枯竭。到年底,上海、深圳和香港的股市均下跌了60%左右。 

中国的私募股权投资和风险投资出现了与股市涨跌相应的波动变化。在年初,投资活动非常活跃。上半年,私募股权投资和风险投资在中国的投资总额超过了100多亿美元。随着金融风暴的影响,私募股权投资和风险投资也放缓了在中国的投资步伐。到去年底的时候,基本上已经停止了所有投资活动。 

中国,美国和全球其他国家均以前所未有的方式采取了一系列干预措施,以期稳定经济。然而, 

当我们跨入2009年时,全球经济进入衰退期已成为不争的事实。 

大家所关心的问题是,经济复苏期何时来临?何时开始新一轮的投资比较合适?我公司愿与您们分享就上述问题的一些观点和想法。 

作为中国首创投资的董事长,凭借在资本市场,私募股权投资和商业领域20余年的经验,我经历过数次商业周期,并且成功地带领我的企业幸存了下来。例如,我曾经担任美国加州一家风险投资公司的首席执行官,目睹了网络泡沫的破灭, 当时的情形和现在类似,所有的私募股权投资活动几乎都停止了。 但是,仅仅两年以后,交易活动和企业估值又呈现回升趋势。 

所以,我们认为,就整体投资环境而言,2008年的金融风暴将会继续影响中国经济的发展,中国目前仍旧会经受各种考验。但是,对于私募股权投资、风险投资和兼并收购而言,2009年是个充满着无限机会的一年。机会与风险并存。只要你抓住了机会,成功就近在咫尺。 

2009年,企业所有人和私募股权投资公司可以期待商业主题中的下列几点。 

行业整合与质的飞跃

2009年新年伊始,我们就感受到了中国经济所面临的严峻局面。经济增长速度减慢,成千的工厂倒闭和数以万计的人失业。中国许多经济领域已经出现了一种所谓超饱和状态,也就是很多企业在一个经济领域竞争,但是每个企业的市场份额都很小。这种情况下,中国企业进行合并的时机已经成熟。

在市场经济的自由竞争规律下,缺乏竞争力的企业会逐渐被淘汰。然而,具有竞争力的企业会不断赢取市场份额。并且,在良性循环下会不断发展壮大。产量不断提高,成本继续降低,从而,提高利润。企业将所赚取的盈余再度投到生产中以降低成本,进而形成一个良性循环。 

从消费者的角度来说,一个优秀的企业,由于其管理完善、生产效率高和销售策略适当,吸引着无数消费者。除此之外,强有力的主导品牌将会适时并购其他品牌。在这种状况下,企业间的合并已经成为不可避免的趋势。 

在中国,这种合并的势头刚刚开始。中国拥有仅次于美国的巨大的国内市场。在中国的许多纵向市场(包括金融服务,消费品,分销和物流,零售,时尚等),只要多争取一分的市场份额,销售收入就能增加上千万美元。 

通常,相对于企业所处行业,中国企业的规模都相对较小。在一些国营企业和半国营企业不占主导地位的区域,优秀民营企业抢先出击,兼并和收购其他区域内的竞争者,进而成为国内行业的领军企业。

对于投资者来说,这种帮助企业进行并购活动的机会将是空前的。企业在并购后的兴盛是投资者和企业共同期待的。即使在经济衰退期,并购案中 的优胜企业也会呈现销售收入和利润长期持续增长的现象。 

利润增长为IPO

重现提供了平台

 

在过去的五年里,对于投资中国市场的私募股权投资者和风险投资者来说,IPO无疑是最可靠的退出途径。 

下面的图显示,IPO交易量在2007年达到了高峰。在2008年初,IPO交易量继续呈现高增长趋势。然而,到2008年的下半年,IPO交易量急转直下,直到2009 年年初

 chart-1

 

 

众所周知, IPO市场与股票市场紧密相连。当股票市场整体表现不好时,企业发行新股票的欲望也会相应减弱。所以,只要中国股票市场和香港股票市场继续呈现薄弱趋势,IPO活动就不会呈现上升趋势。 

对于私募股权投资者和风险投资者来说,这意味着他们需要做出巨大的改变。 

为适应当前形势,私募股权投资公司和风险投资公司需要改变他们的投资方向。较之前而言,企业IPO前的短期投资机会已大大减少。换言之,私募股权投资公司或风险投资公司以18倍的估值投资于中国企业, 18个月后,再以20倍的价值发行上市的简单套利的机会已经一去不复返了。 

取而代之的是,在中国进行投资活动的私募股权投资公司应该从价值投资者的角度考虑他们在中国的投资,而不是从套利的角度去衡量他们在中国的投资。这说明了,私募股权投资公司在中国寻找目标企业时,应以企业的长远高回报为目标注入投资基金。 

企业的利润增长为中国市场的IPO重现提供了平台。具体而言,私募股权投资的重点应该集中在帮助企业提高运作效率和利润率上。 

这是一个值得强调的财务理念,尤其是在现今中国。企业估值归根结底是一个与公司盈利能力相关的函数,而不是一个投资者愿意为公司盈利能力而支付的价格函数。在市盈率倍数的公式中,“收益”部分是关键,而不是“价格”部分。在过去的五年时间里,IPO股票价格市盈率可谓差距巨大。IPO股票价格市盈率高至超过100, 低至少于5。 

对于中国市场来讲,情况可以瞬息万变。IPO股票价格市盈率很有可能出现回升趋势。什么时候会发生?我们无法给您一个准确的答案。但是我们可以确定的是,一个优秀的私募股权投资者想要投资于有明确目标和有能力实现目标的中国优秀企业。

 换言之,企业有计划和具体步骤去提升利润和利润率。那么,选择正确的中国企业进行投资,选择适当的额度进行投资和帮助企业提升整体价值,是私募股权投资公司和风险投资公司在未来几年内成功的关键所在。

 私募股权投资公司和风险投资公司提升企业价值的方式有很多。可以通过向企业提供市场营销,业务发展,金融工程,运营效率,企业治理,审计,战略兼并和收购等方面专业人才,来帮助企业迅速提高企业价值。

无论通过上述哪种方式,企业的收益都有可能被大大提高。关键点是,帮助企业保持强劲的利润增长态势。这样,在股市复苏的时候,IPO的时机再一次到来时,我们的客户企业会从中脱颖而出,赢得最高收益。 

2009年,一个有着投资重点和帮助企业成长的私募股权投资公司会脱颖而出。

 

 


AltAssets writes on China First Capital’s Report on Private Equity in China 2009

AltAssets is among the world’s leading sources for news and analysis on the global private equity industry. They just published a summary of my firms report, 2009 Private Equity and Strategic M&A Transactions in China — A Preview“. 

AltAssets is based in London, and provides news and research to more than 1,000 institutional investors and 2,000 private equity and venture capital firms worldwide.

Here is what they wrote about the China First Capital report:

 

altassets_logo

CHINA THE MOST ROBUST EMERGING MARKET FOR PRIVATE EQUITY AND VENTURE CAPITAL SAYS REPORT”


China continues to be the world’s most robust emerging market for private equity and venture capital finance, even in a difficult global economic environment, according to the Private Equity and Strategic M&A Transactions in China 2009 report just released by China First Capital, a boutique investment bank with offices in China, Hong Kong and the USA.

Peter Fuhrman, China First Capital’s chairman and the report’s author, said, “While the overall investment environment remains challenging and the effects of 2008’s turbulence are still being felt, 2009 will be a year of unique opportunity for private equity, venture capital and M&As in China.” 

China’s economy continues to grow, powered largely by successful small and medium private businesses, many of which are among the fastest-growing companies in the world. Private equity and venture capital investment in China will likely reach record levels in 2009, the report projects, with over $1bn in new investment into high-growth Chinese SMEs with strong focus on China’s booming domestic market. 

“In 2009, China should rightly be among the most attractive and active private equity investment markets in the world,” the China First Capital report predicts. “Many of the international private equity firms we work with are expecting to invest more in Chinese SMEs in 2009 than in 2008. Chinese companies raising capital this year will enjoy significant financial advantages over competitors, improving market share and profitability.” 

The report identifies five central trends that will drive the growth in private equity and venture capital investment in China’s SMEs in 2009. They are: the drive for industrial consolidation; profit growth helping to reignite the IPO markets for Chinese companies in China, Hong Kong and the USA; increased importance of convertible debt and other hybrid financings; opportunities for strategic M&As; well-financed businesses with strong balance sheets will enjoy sustainable competitive advantage in China’s domestic market. 

“The pathways to success in China are fewer and narrower than in recent years. But, for the entrepreneurs and private equity investors that can navigate their way in 2009, this will be a year of abundant opportunity,” Fuhrman added. 

Copyright © 2009 AltAssets

China M&A: 2008 Is A Record Year, And The Strong Growth Will Continue

snuff-bottle-21

 

Even as IPO activity all but came to a standstill in 2008, China’s M&A market reached an all-time high in 2008, with almost USD$160 billion in deals completed, according to Thomson Reuters. This makes China the biggest M&A market in Asia, for the first time ever. 

This is an important development, and I expect China’s role as Asia’s largest M&A market will continue into the future, despite the current economic slowdown. The reasons: M&A deals in China will continue to make business and financial sense. China’s M&A activity in 2008 was almost equally split between purely domestic deals – where one Chinese company buys or merges with another – and the cross-border acquisitions where Chinese and foreign firms join together – either with the Chinese firm buying into the overseas business, or the foreign firm taking a stake in a Chinese one.  

I see huge scope for growth in both areas. China’s economy, though growing more slowly now than in recent years, is still expanding. Despite its vase size (China is now the world’s third-largest economy, trailing only Japan and the US) Chinese companies are still, most often, small-in-scale relative to the size of the industries they serve, particularly in areas where private companies, rather than those with partial or complete state-ownership, predominate. China’s private sector is filled with minnows, not whales. 

The result: there is ample room for consolidation in virtually every industry. Smaller firms will continue to merge, to gain both market share and scale economies. Strong regional companies will acquire competitors elsewhere in China to become national powerhouses. 

The M&A market, more than IPO activity, tends to holds up well even during sour economic times, or when stock markets fall. As share prices drop, the lower valuations make it cheaper for acquirers to act. We had evidence of this recently in the US, where one of the biggest M&A deals of all-time was recently announced: Pfizer’s planned acquisition of Wyeth Labs

In China, valuations for both quoted and private companies are lower than they were a year ago. That lowers the cost of acquiring a competitor. The cheapest way to build market share, at this point in China, will often be to buy it. 

All M&A transactions have risk. Very often, the planned-for gains in efficiency never materialize from combining two similar businesses. In China, the complexities go above and beyond this. There is due diligence risk – the difficulty of getting accurate financial information about an acquisition target – and management risk as well.  Good Chinese companies are  usually owned and run by a single strong Chairman, with scarce management talent around him. In a merger, the boss of the acquired company will often step aside, leaving a big hole in that company’s management, and so making it harder for the acquiring company to integrate its new acquisition. 

How to do M&A right in China? Good deal-structure and good advice are crucial. Structure can anticipate and resolve some of the larger post-acquisition headaches. Advice is important to make sure that the price and strategic fit are right. Just as China’s SMB’s need specialized merchant banks to serve their needs in raising capital, these SMBs, as they grow, will also need competent M&A advisors to identify target companies, manage the DD, do the valuation work, help negotiate the price, and assist with post-acquisition integration. 

Last year was a strong one for M&A in China. But, the future should be even brighter, once current economic uncertainty begins to abate.  Looking ahead, I see a real possibility that China’s M&A market will overtake America’s as the world’s largest. I’m planning for my company to play a part in this. 

Houlihan Lokey Founding Partner James Zukin Sets His Sights on China

scholars-rock

 

I had the good fortune, while in LA, to have lunch recently with James Zukin. Jim is one of the name partners of the premier middle-market investment bank in the US, Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin. Jim and his partners were so far ahead of the curve, in spotting market opportunities, that they had to wait years for the curve even to appear behind them.

Over lunch, Jim explained how the firm stayed clear of Wall Street, both literally and figuratively, locating its headquarters in Los Angeles, and making the astute strategic decision to build a highly-focused and well-differentiated fee-based investment banking franchise, rather than an “all-purpose financial supermarket” that mixes advisory work with proprietary trading, market-making and IPO underwriting. We all know now how that supermarket model holds up over a full cycle: it doesn’t. The biggest of that breed, Merrill Lynch, sold out to Bank of America, and two other titans, Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers, are both kaput.

Meantime, Houlihan Lokey (“HL”) has built and sustained a very successful business based first on providing fairness opinions and other valuation work, and then built up its lucrative practice advising on restructuring and M&A, and doing private placements. Even in dire financial times like now, HL continues to perform, doing solid, high-quality work a range of middle-market and SMB clients. HL again ranked as the number one firm in M&A advisory work in 2008 in deals of $2 billion or less, beating out Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, and others.

The race is won by the smart and focused, not the “supermarketized”.

Jim Zukin, no surprise, is the embodiment of the strategic qualities that have made his firm a consistent, anomalous success. A self-described “outsider”, he is by turns smart, charming, witty and modest. (Like me, he also likes a good burger.)

We met to talk about China, where Jim has personally spearheaded HL’s activities over the last few years, traveling back and forth frequently from LA, and opening offices in Beijing and Hong Kong. He speaks with palpable joy when discussing his visits to China. His workload at home in the US means fewer trips to China now, but he still refers to China, with heartfelt passion, as his “mistress.” It’s a description I’ve now shamelessly lifted from him, to describe my own long-term, requited love affair with China.

Jim Zukin is the one remaining “name partner” of Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin. He remains the chairman of Houlihan Lokey Asia. That’s a concrete sign of the company’s commitment to build a dynamic and durable business there.

HL has built a solid platform for growth in China. Its areas of expertise – and entrepreneurial outlook – position it well there. I know from my own experience that there is a sizable opportunity, to cite one example, to provide financial opinion, M&A and restructuring advisory work to the leading international PE firms active in China.

I have every reason to expect HL to succeed in China, with the same sort of approach that has worked so well for the firm in the US. How do they do it? Simple: Don’t run with the herd. Run with a better map.