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China to fine-tune back-door listing policies for US-listed companies — South China Morning Post

 

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China reverse mergers

Mainland China’s securities regulator will fine-tune policies related to back-door listing (reverse merger)attempts by US-listed Chinese companies, industry insiders say, but it is unlikely to ban them or impose other rigid restrictions.

“It is clear that the regulator does not like the recent speculation on the A-share markets triggered by the relisting trend and will do something to curb such conduct, but it seems impossible they would shut good-quality companies out of the domestic market,” Wang Yansong, a senior investment banker based in Shenzhen, said.

The China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) was considering capping valuation multiples for companies seeking relisting on the A-share market after delisting from the US market, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday. Another option being discussed was introducing a quota to limit the number of reverse mergers each year from companies formerly listed on a foreign bourse.

To curb speculation, it is most important to show the authorities have clear and strict standards for approving these deals
Wang Yansong.

However, Wang said the CSRC was more likely to strengthen verification of back-door listing deals on a case-by-case basis.

“To curb speculation, it is most important to show the authorities have clear and strict standards for approving these deals, and won’t allow poor-quality companies to seek premiums through this process,” she said.

US-listed mainland companies have been flocking to relist on the A-share market since early last year, when the domestic market started a bull run, in order to shed depressed valuations in American markets.

The valuations of relisted companies have boomed, and that has triggered a surge in speculation on possible shell companies – poorly performing firms listed on the Shanghai or Shenzhen bourses. In a process called a reverse takeover or back-door listing, a shell can buy a bigger, privately held company through a share exchange that gives the private company’s shareholders control of the merged entity.

The biggest such deal was done by digital advertising company Focus Media. Its valuation jumped more than eightfold to US$7.2 billion after it delisted from America’s Nasdaq in 2013 and relisted in Shenzhen in December last year, with private equity funds involved in the deal reaping lucrative returns.

Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank and advisory firm, said the trend of delisting and relisting was “one of the biggest wealth transfers ever from China to the US”.

“The money spent by Chinese investors to privatise Chinese companies in New York ended up lining the pockets of rich institutional investors and arbitrageurs in the US,” he said.

However, a tightening or freeze on approval of such deals would threaten not only US-listed Chinese companies in the process of buyouts and shell companies, but also the buyout capital sunk into delistings and relistings.

“The more than US$80 billion of capital spent in the ‘delist-relist’ deals is perhaps the biggest unhedged bet made in recent private equity history … if, as seems true, the route to exit via back-door listing may be bolted shut, this investment strategy could turn into one of the bigger losers of recent times,” he said.

On Friday, CSRC spokesman Zhang Xiaojun sidestepped a question about a rumoured ban on reverse takeover deals by US-listed Chinese companies in the A-share market, saying it had noticed the great price difference in the domestic and the US markets, and the speculation on shell companies, and was studying their influences.

http://www.scmp.com/business/markets/article/1943386/china-fine-tune-back-door-listing-policies-us-listed-companies

For article on a related topic published in “The Deal”, please click here

 

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

Chinese IPOs Try to Make a Comeback in US — New York Times

NYT

 

I.P.O./Offerings

Chinese I.P.O.’s Try to Make a Comeback in U.S.

BY NEIL GOUGH

HONG KONG — Chinese companies are trying to leap back into the United States stock markets.

The return, still in its early days and involving just a handful of companies, comes after several years of accounting scandals that pummeled their share prices and prompted scores of companies to delist from markets in the United States.

But the spate of recent activity suggests investors may be warming once more to Chinese companies that seek initial public offerings in the United States.

Qunar Cayman Islands, a popular travel website owned by Baidu, China’s leading search engine company, began trading on Nasdaq on Friday and nearly doubled in price. On Thursday, shares in 58.com, a Chinese classified ad website operator that is often compared to Craigslist, surged 42 percent on the first trading day in New York after its $187 million public offering.

The question now — for both American investors and the companies from China waiting in the wings to raise money from them — is whether these recent debuts are an anomaly or have truly managed to unfreeze a market that was once a top destination for Chinese companies seeking to list overseas.

Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank and advisory firm based in Shenzhen, China, said that for both sides, the recent signs of a détente between American investors and Chinese companies is “a matter of selectively hoping history repeats itself.”

“Not the recent history of Chinese companies dogged by allegations, and some evidence, of accounting fraud and other suspect practices,” he added. “Instead, the current group is looking back farther in history, to a time when some Chinese Internet companies with business models derived, borrowed or pilfered from successful U.S. companies were able to go public in the U.S. to great acclaim.”

That initial wave of Chinese technology listings began in 2000 with the I.P.O. of Sina.com and later featured companies like Baidu, which has been described as China’s answer to Google. In total, more than 200 companies from China achieved listings on American markets, raising billions of dollars through traditional public offerings or reverse takeovers.

But beginning about 2010, short-sellers and regulators started exposing what grew into a flurry of accounting scandals at Chinese companies with overseas listings. In some cases, such accusations have led to the filing of fraud charges by regulators or to the dissolution of the companies. Prominent examples include the Toronto-listed Sino-Forest Corporation, which filed for bankruptcy last year after Muddy Waters Research placed a bet against the company’s shares in 2011 and accused it of being a “multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.”

Concerns about companies based in China were reinforced in December when the United States Securities and Exchange Commission accused the Chinese affiliates of five big accounting firms of violating securities laws, contending that they had failed to produce documents from their audits of several China-based companies under investigation for fraud.

In response, American demand for new share offerings by Chinese companies evaporated, and investors dumped shares in Chinese companies across the board. It became so bad that the tide of listings reversed direction: Delistings by Chinese companies from American markets have outnumbered public offerings for the last two years.

Despite the renewed activity, it is too early to say whether Chinese stocks are back in favor. The listing by 58.com was only the fourth Chinese public offering in the United States this year, according to Thomson Reuters data. LightInTheBox, an online retailer, raised $90.7 million in a June listing but is trading slightly below its offering price. China Commercial Credit, a microlender, has risen 50 percent since it raised $8.9 million in August. And shares in the Montage Technology Group, based in Shanghai, have risen 41 percent since it raised $80.2 million in late September.

Still, this year’s activity is already an improvement from 2012, when only two such deals took place, according to figures from Thomson Reuters. Last month, two more Chinese companies — 500.com, an online lottery agent, and Sungy Mobile, an app developer — submitted initial filings for American share sales.

But the broader concerns related to Chinese companies have not gone away. In May, financial regulators in the United States and China signed a memorandum of understanding that could pave the way to increased American oversight of accounting practices at Chinese companies. But the S.E.C.’s case against the Chinese affiliates of the five big accounting firms remains in court.

The corporate structure of many Chinese companies is another unresolved area of concern. Because foreign companies and shareholders cannot own Internet companies in China, both 58.com and Qunar rely on a complex series of management and profit control agreements called variable interest entities. Whether such arrangements will stand up in court has been a cause for concern among foreign investors in Chinese companies.

And short-sellers continue to single out companies from China, often with great success.

In a report last month, Muddy Waters took aim at NQ Mobile, an online security company based in Beijing and listed in New York, accusing it of being “a massive fraud” and contending that 72 percent of its revenue from the security business in China last year was “fictitious.”

NQ Mobile has rejected the accusations, saying that the report contained “numerous errors of facts, misleading speculations and malicious interpretations of events.” The company’s shares have fallen 37 percent since the report was published.

(http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2013/11/01/chinese-i-p-o-s-attempt-a-comeback-in-u-s/?_r=1)
 
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Blackstone Leads Latest Chinese Privatization Bid — New York Times

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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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The Fatal Flaws of China “Take Private” Deals on the US Stock Market

Every one of the twenty  “take private” deals being done now by private equity firms with Chinese companies listed in the US, as well as the dozens more being hotly pursued by PE firms with access to a Bloomberg terminal, all suffer from the same fatal flaws. They require the PE firm to commit money, often huge loads of money, upfront to companies about which they scarcely know anything substantive. This turns the entire model of PE investing on its head. The concept behind PE investment is that a group of investment professionals acquires access to company information not readily available to others, and only puts LPs’ money at risk after doing extensive proprietary due diligence. This is, after all,  what it means to be a fiduciary — you don’t blow a lot of other people’s money on a risky deal with no safeguards.

And yet, in these “take private” deals, the only material information the PE firms often have at their disposal before they start shoveling money out the door are the disclosure documents posted on the SEC website. This is the same information available to everyone else, the contents of which will often reveal why it is that these Chinese-quoted companies’ share prices have collapsed, and now trade at such pathetically low multiples. In other words, professional investors in the US read the SEC filings of these Chinese companies and decide to dump the shares, leading to large falls in the share price. PE firms, with teams based in Asia, download the same documents and decide it’s a buy opportunity, and then swoop in to purchase large blocks of the company’s distressed equity, then launch a bid for the rest of the free float. There’s something wrong here, right?

Let’s start with the fact that these Chinese companies being “taken private” are not Dell Inc. The reliability, credibility, transparency of the SEC disclosure documents are utterly different. In addition, their CEOs are not Michael Dell. There is as much similarity between Dell and Focus Media, or Ambow Education as there is between buying a factory-approved and warrantied used car, with complete service history, and buying one sight-unseen that’s been in a wreck.

The Chinese companies being targeted by PEs have, to different degrees, impenetrable financial statements, odd forms of worrying related party transactions,  a messy corporate structure that in some cases may violate Chinese law, and audits prepared by accounting firms that either are already charged with securities violations for their China work by the SEC (the Big Four accountants) or a bunch of small outfits that nobody has ever heard of.  It is on the basis of these documents that take private deals worth over $5 billion are now underway involving PE firms and US-quoted China companies.

Often,  the people at the PE firm analyzing the SEC documents, and the PE partners pulling the trigger, are non-native English speakers, with little to no experience in the world of SEC disclosure statements, the obfuscations, the specialist nomenclature, the crucial arcana buried in the footnotes. (I spent over nine years combing through SEC disclosure documents while at Forbes, and still frequently read them, but consider myself a novice.) The PE firms persuade themselves, based on these documents, that the company is worth far more than US investors believe, and that their LPs’ cash should be deployed to buy out all these US shareholders at a premium while keeping the current boss in his job. Are the PE firms savvy investors? Or what Wall Street calls the greater fool?

The PE firms, to be sure, would probably like to have access to more information from the company before they start throwing money around buying shares.  They’d like to be able to pour over the books, commission their own independent audit and legal DD, talk to suppliers and customers — just as they usually insist on doing before committing money to a typical China PE deal involving a private company in China. But, the PE firms generally have no legal way to get this additional — and necessary — information from the “take private” Chinese companies before they’re already in up to their necks. By law, (the SEC’s Reg FD rules) a public company cannot selectively provide additional disclosure materials to a PE firm or any other current or potential investor. The only channel a company can use is the SEC filing system. This is the salient fact, and irresolvable dilemma at the heart of these PtP deals. The PE firms know only what the SEC documents tell them, and anybody else with internet access.

The PE firms can, and often do, pay lawyers to hunt around, send junior staff to count the number of eggs on supermarket shelves, use an expert network, or bring in McKinsey, or other consultants, to produce some market research of highly dubious value. There are no reliable public statistics, and no way to obtain them, about any industry, market or product in China. Market research in China is generally a well-paid form of educated guesswork.

So, PE firms enter PtP deals based on no special access to company information and no reliable comprehensive data about the company’s market, market share, competitors, cash collection methods in China. Throw in the fact these same companies have been seriously hammered by the US public markets, that some stand accused of fraud and deception, and the compelling logic behind PtP deals begins to look rather less so.

Keep in mind too the hundreds of millions being wagered by PE firms all goes to buy out existing shareholders. None of it goes to the actual company, to help fix whatever’s so manifestly broken. The same boss is in charge, the same business model in place that caused US investors to value the company like broken-down junk. In cases where borrowed money is used, the PE firm has the chance to make a higher rate of return. But, of course, the Chinese company’s balance sheet and net income will be made weaker by the loans and debt service. Chances are there are lawsuits flying around as well. Fighting those will drain money away from the company, and further defocus the people running things. Put simply the strategy seems to be try to fix a problem by first making it worse.

There’s not a single example I know of any PE firm making money doing these Chinese “take privates” in the US and yet so many are running around trying to do them. If nothing else, this proves again the old saying it’s easy to be bold with someone else’s money.

OK, we’re all grown-ups here. I do understand the meaning of a “nudge and a wink”, which is what I often get when I ask PE firms how they get around this information deficiency. The suggestion seems to be they possess, directly from the company owner, some valuable insider information — maybe about the name of a potential buyer down the road, or a new big contract, or the fact there’s lot of undisclosed cash coming into the company. Remember, the PE firms have extensive discussions with the owner before going public with the “take private” bids. The owners always need to commit upfront to backing the PE take private deal, to keep, rather than tender,  their shares and so become, with the PE firm, the 100% owner of the business after the PtP deal closes.

These discussions between the PE firm a Chinese company boss should legally be very narrowly focused, and not include any material information about the business not disclosed to all public shareholders. These discussions happen in China, in Chinese. Is it possible that the discussions are, shall we say, more wide-ranging? Could be. The PE firm thus may have an informational advantage they believe will help them make money. The problem is they’ve gotten it from a guy whose probably committed a felony under US law in supplying it. The PE firm, meantime, is potentially now engaged in insider trading by acting on it. Another felony.

All this risk, all this headache and contingent liability, so a private equity firm can put tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of third party money at risk in a company that the US stock market has concluded is a dog. Taking private or taking leave of one’s senses?

 

 

 

Out of Focus: China’s First Big LBO Deal is a Headscratcher

The first rule of capitalism is the more buyers you attract, the higher the price you get. So, having just one potential buyer is generally a lousy idea when your goal is to make as much money as possible.

What then to make of the recently-announced plan by an all-star team of some of China’s largest PE firms, including CDH, Fountainvest, CITIC Capital, as well global giant Carlyle,  to participate in a $3.5 billion proposed leveraged buyout deal to take private the NASDAQ-listed Chinese advertising company Focus Media. Any profit from this “take private” deal, as far as I can tell,  hinges on later flipping Focus Media to a larger company. That’s because the chances seem slight a privatized Focus Media will be later approved for domestic Chinese IPO. But, what if Focus turns out to be flip-proof?

With so much money — as so many big name PE firms’ reputations —  on the line, you’d think there would a clear, persuasive investment case for this Focus Media deal. As far as I can tell, there isn’t. I have the highest respect for the PE firms involved in this deal, for their financial and investing acumen. They are the smartest and most experienced group of PE professionals ever assembled to do a single Chinese deal. And yet, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what they are thinking with this deal and why they all want a piece of this action.

If the goal is to try to arbitrage valuation differences between the US and Chinese stock markets, this deal isn’t likely to pan out. It’s not only that Focus Media will have a tough time convincing China’s securities regulator, the CSRC, to allow it to relist in China. Focus Media is now trading on the NASDAQ at a trailing p/e multiple of 18. That is on the high side for companies quoted in China.

Next problem, of course, is the impact on the P&L from all the borrowing needed to complete the deal. There’s been no clear statement yet about how much equity the PE firms will commit, and how much they intend to borrow. To complete the buyout, the investor group, including the PE firms along will need to buy about 65% of the Focus equity. The other 35% is owned by Focus Media’s chairman and China’s large private conglomerate Fosun Group. They both back the LBO deal.

So, the total check size to buy out all other public shareholders will be around $2.4 billion, assuming they investor group doesn’t need to up its offer. If half is borrowed money, the interest expense would swallow up around 50% Focus Media’s likely 2012 net income. In other words, the LBO itself is going to take a huge chunk out of Focus Media’s net income.  In other words, the PE group is actually paying about twice the current p/e to take Focus Media private, since its purchase mechanism will likely halve profits.

A typical LBO in the US relies on borrowed money to finance more than half the total acquisition cost. The more Focus Media borrows, the bigger the hit to its net income. Now, sure, the investors can argue Focus Media should later be valued not on net income, but on EBITDA. That’s the way LBO deals tend to get valued in the US. EBITDA, though,  is still something of an unknown classifier in China. There isn’t even a proper, simple Chinese translation for it. Separately, Focus Media is already carrying quite a bit of debt, equal to about 60% of revenues. Adding another big chunk to finance the buyout, at the very least,  will create a very wobbly balance sheet. At worst, it will put real pressure on Focus Media’s operating business to generate lots of additional cash to stay current on all that borrowing.

I have no particular insight into Focus Media’s business model, other than to note that the company is doing pretty well while already facing intensified competition. Focus Media doesn’t meet the usual criteria for a successful LBO deal, since it isn’t a business that seems to need any major restructuring, refocusing or realignment of interests between owners and management.

Focus Media gets much of its revenue and profit from installing and selling ads that appear on LCD flatscreens it hangs in places like elevators and retail stores. It’s a business tailor-made for Chinese conditions. You won’t find an advertising company quite like it in the US or Europe. In a crowded country, in crowded urban shops, housing blocks and office buildings, you can get an ad in front of a goodly number of people in China while they are riding up in a jammed elevator or waiting at a checkout counter.

The overall fundamentals with Focus Media’s business are sound. The advertising industry in China is growing. But, it’s hard to see anything on the horizon that will lift its current decent operating performance to another level. Without that, it gets much harder to justify this deal.

This is, it should be noted, the first big LBO ever attempted by a Chinese company. It could be that the PE firms involved want to get some knowledge and experience in this realm, assuming that there could be more Chinese LBOs coming down the pike. Maybe. But, it looks like it could be pretty expensive tuition.

Assuming they can pull off the “delist” part of the deal, the PE firms will need to find a way to exit from this investment sometime in the next three to five years. Focus Media’s chairman has been vocal in complaining about the low valuation US investors are giving his company. In other words, he believes the company’s shares can be sold to someone else, at some future date, at a far higher price. (He personally owns 17% of the equity.)

Who exactly, though, is this “someone else”? Relisting Focus Media in China is a real long shot, and anyway, the current multiples, on a trailing basis, are comparable with NASDAQ’s . This is before calculating the hit Focus Media’s earnings will take from leveraging up the company with lots of new debt. How about the Hong Kong Stock Exchange? Focus Media would likely be given a warm welcome to relist there. One problem: with Hong Kong p/e multiples limping along at some of the lowest levels in the world, the relisted Focus Media’s market value would almost certainly be lower than the current price in the US. Throw in, of course, millions of dollars in legal fees on both sides of the delist-relist, and this Hong Kong IPO plan looks like a very elaborate way to park then lose money.

That leaves M&A as the only viable option for the PE investor group to make some money. I’m guessing this is what they have on their minds, to flip Focus Media to a larger Chinese acquirer.  They may have already spoken to potential acquirers, maybe even talked price. The two most obvious acquirers, Tencent Holdings and Baidu, both may be interested. Baidu has done some M&A lately, including the purchase, at what looks to many to be a ridiculously high price, of a majority of Chinese online travel site Qunar.  So far so good.

The risk is that neither of these two giants will agree to pay a big price down the line for a company that could buy now for much less. The same logic applies to any other Chinese acquirer, though they are few and far between. I’d be surprised if Tencent or Baidu haven’t already run the numbers, maybe at Focus Media’s invitation. But, they didn’t make a move. Not up to now.

Could it be they don’t want to do the buyout directly, out of fear it could go wrong or hurt their PR? Maybe. But, I very much doubt they will be very eager to play the final owner in a very public “greater fool” deal.

I’m fully expecting to be proven wrong eventually by this powerhouse group of PEs, and that they will end up dividing a huge profit pile from this Focus Media LBO. If so, the last laugh is on me. But,  as of now, the Focus deal’s investment logic seems cockeyed.

 

 

In Full Agreement

pyramid

I commend unreservedly the following article from today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page. It discusses US reverse mergers and OTCBB IPOs for Chinese companies, identifying reasons these deals happen and the harm that’s often done.


What’s Behind China’s Reverse IPOs?


A dysfunctional financial system pushes companies toward awkward deals in America.
By JOSEPH STERNBERG

As if China Inc. didn’t already have enough problems in America—think safety scares, currency wars, investment protectionism and Sen. Chuck Schumer—now comes the Securities and Exchange Commission. Regulators are investigating allegations of accounting irregularities at several Chinese companies whose shares are traded in America thanks to so-called reverse mergers. Regulators, and not a few reporters, worry that American investors may have been victims of frauds perpetrated by shady foreign firms.

Allow us to posit a different view: Despite the inevitable bad apples, many of the firms involved in this type of deal are as much sinned against as sinning.

In a reverse merger, the company doing the deal injects itself into a dormant shell company, of which the injected company’s management then takes control. In the China context, the deal often works like this: China Widget transfers all its assets into California Tallow Candle Inc., a dormant company with a vestigial penny-stock listing left over from when it was a real firm. China Widget’s management simultaneously takes over CTC, which is now in the business of making widgets in China. And thanks to that listing, China Widget also is now listed in America.

It’s an odd deal. The goal of a traditional IPO is to extract cash from the global capital market. A reverse merger, in contrast, requires the Chinese company to expend capital to execute what is effectively a purchase of the shell company. The company then hopes it can turn to the market for cash at some point in the future via secondary offerings.

Despite its evident economic inefficiencies, the technique has grown popular in recent years. Hundreds of Chinese companies are now listed in the U.S. via this arrangement, with a combined market capitalization of tens of billions of dollars. Some of those may be flim-flammers looking to make a deceitful buck. But by all accounts, many more are legitimate companies. Why do they do it?

One relatively easy explanation is that the Chinese companies have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous foreign banks and lawyers. In China’s still-new economy with immature domestic financial markets, it’s entirely plausible that a large class of first-generation entrepreneurs are relatively naïve about the art of capital-raising but see a listing—any listing—as a point of pride and a useful marketing tool. There may be an element of truth here, judging by the reports from some law firms that they now receive calls from Chinese companies desperate to extract themselves from reverse mergers. (The news for them is rarely good.)

More interesting, however, is the systemic backdrop against which reverse mergers play out. Chinese entrepreneurs face enormous hurdles securing capital. A string of record-breaking IPOs for the likes of Agricultural Bank of China, plus hundred-million-dollar deals for companies like Internet search giant Baidu, show that Beijing has figured out how to use stock markets at home and abroad to get capital to large state-owned or well-connected private-sector firms. The black market can deliver capital to the smallest businesses, albeit at exorbitant interest rates of as much as 200% on an annual basis.

The weakness is with mid-sized private-sector companies. Bank lending is out of reach since loan officers favor large, state-owned enterprises. IPOs involve a three-year application process with an uncertain outcome since regulators carefully control the supply of new shares to ensure a buoyant market. Private equity is gaining in popularity but is still relatively new, and the uncertain IPO process deters some investors who would prefer greater clarity about their exit strategy. In this climate, it’s not necessarily a surprise that some impatient Chinese entrepreneurs view the reverse merger, for all its pitfalls, as a viable shortcut.

So although the SEC investigation is likely to attract ample attention to the U.S. investor- protection aspect of this story, that is the least consequential angle. Rules (even bad ones) are rules. But these shares are generally held by sophisticated hedge-fund managers and penny-stock day traders who ought to know that what they do is a form of glorified gambling.

Rather, consider the striking reality that some 30-odd years after starting its transformation to a form of capitalism, China still has not figured out one of capitalism’s most important features: the allocation of capital from those who have it to those who need it. As corporate savings pile up at inefficient state-owned enterprises, potentially successful private companies find themselves with few outlets to finance expansion. If Beijing can’t solve that problem quickly, a controversy over some penny stocks will be the least of anyone’s problems.

Mr. Sternberg is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia.

Shenzhen The World’s Most Active IPO Market So Far in 2010

Jade object from China First Capital blog post

 

Shenzhen’s Stock Exchange was the world’s busiest and largest IPO market during the first half of 2010. Through the end of June, 161 firms raised $22.6 billion in IPOs on Shenzhen Stock Exchange. The Shanghai Stock Exchange ranked No.4, with 11 firms raising $8.2 billion.

Take a minute to let that sink in. The Shenzhen Stock Exchange, which two years ago wasn’t even among the five largest in Asia, is now host to more new capital-raising transactions than any other stock market, including Nasdaq and NYSE. Even amid the weekly torrent of positive economic statistics from China, this one does stand out. For one thing, Shenzhen’s Stock Exchange is effectively closed to all investors from outside China. So, all those IPO deals, and the capital raised so far in 2010, were done for domestic Chinese companies using money from domestic Chinese investors.

The same goes for IPOs done on Shenzhen’s larger domestic competitor, the Shanghai Stock Exchange. In the first half of 2010, the Shanghai bourse had eleven IPOs, and raised $8.2 billion. That brings the total during the first half of 2010 in China to 172 IPOs, raising $31 billion in capital.

The total for the second half of 2010 is certain to be larger, and Shenzhen will likely lose pole position to Shanghai. The Agricultural Bank of China just completed its IPO and raised $19.2 billion in a dual listing on Shanghai and Hong Kong exchanges. Over $8.5 billion was raised from the Shanghai portion.

One reason for the sudden surge of IPOs in Shenzhen was the opening in October 2009 of a new subsidiary board, the 创业板, or Chinext market. Its purpose is to allow smaller, mainly private companies to access capital markets. Before Chinext, about the only Chinese companies that could IPO in China were ones with some degree of state ownership. Chinext changed that. There is a significant backlog of several hundred companies waiting for approval to go public on Chinext.

So far this year, 57 companies have had IPOs on Chinext. The total market value of all 93 companies listed on Chinext is about Rmb 300 billion, or 5.5% of total market capitalization of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. On Shenzhen’s two other boards for larger-cap companies, 197 companies had IPOs during the first half of 2010.

The surge in IPO activity in China during the first half of 2010 coincided with the dismal performance overall of shares traded on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges. Both markets are down during the first half of the year: Shanghai by over 25%  and Shenzhen by 15%. 

The IPO process in China, both on Shanghai and Shenzhen markets, is very tightly controlled by China’s securities regulator, the CSRC (证监会). It’s the CSRC that decides the number and timing of IPOs in China, not market demand. One factor the CSRC gives significant weight to is the overall performance of China’s stock market. They want to control the supply of new shares, by limiting IPO transactions, to avoid additional downward pressure on share prices overall.

So, presumably, if the Chinese stock markets performed better in the first half of 2010, the number of IPOs would have been even higher. Make no mistake: the locus of the world’s IPO activity is shifting to China.

Reverse Mergers — Knowledgable Comment

qing calligraphy2

Comments don’t get any better than this one, a detailed assessment of the hazards of reverse mergers. It was added as a comment to an earlier blog post of mine. I’m grateful for the contribution, and humbled by the writer’s knowledge and clear writing style.  Highly recommended.

 

A Reverse Merger (“RM”) is routinely pitched as a cheaper and quicker method of going public than a traditional IPO in China. This may be technically true but the comparison is VERY MISLEADING. 

As you mentioned a few times in your blog, an RM is not a capital raising transaction. No shares are sold for cash in the transaction. It will receive little attention from analysts ! The RM is often coupled with a PIPE financing. However, the amount of PIPE financing that can be raised is very limited. Additionally, PIPE financing is typically expensive relative to other financing options and may contain onerous terms. 

Generally, completing a $50 million IPO will roughly run a company 18% of the offering proceeds, including underwriter discounts, under pricing, and legal, accounting, filing, listing, printing, and registrar fees, or $9 million. 

Conversely, an RM was advocated as “costs only between $100,000 and $400,000 to complete”. This is the most tricky and misleading part, because this cost range does not include the value of the equity stake retained by the shell promoter and its affiliates. And most Chinese company does not understand this. 

Generally when the RM closes, the Chinese Operating Company is issued Shell Company shares only equal to 80% to 90% of Shell Co’s post-merger outstanding shares. The the remaining 10% to 20% of shares are retained by the owner of the Shell Company, the promoter and its affiliates.

Hence, in addition to the $100,000 to $400,000 in cash paid by Chinese Operating Co to complete the RM, the Chinese Operating Co has also “paid” a 10% to 20% stake in its company. If the market capitalization is $50 million post-RM, this stake is worth $5 to $10 million. 

So RM is not cheaper at all ! It is Usually an option for second and third tier companies to obtain financing via a PIPE, and Some PIPE investors may not be long-term investors. An active trading market for stock may not be developed through a RM. Company will probably not qualify to trade on the Nasdaq and will likely end up trading in the pink sheets or the bulletin board. 

Kleiner Perkins in China — Update

Budai

Congratulations to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers on the successful NASDAQ IPO of its portfolio company AutoNavi, a Chinese mapping company that supplies maps for GPS navigation systems. KP owned 4.3% of the company prior to its recent IPO. At time of IPO, Kleiner owned 6,527,520 ordinary shares of AutoNavi, now worth around $25mn. That equates to a 2.5X rate of return over the four years KP held the investment.

The AutoNavi investment was made by KP’s main office in California, not Kleiner Perkins China, which was set up in 2007 to lead the US firm’s investing activities in China, and is still waiting for its first exit. According to KP China’s website , the AutoNavi investment is managed by KP China.

Two other venture capital firms also held AutoNavi shares at the time of IP, Walden International and Sequoia.

The Reverse Merger Minefield

Song porcelain from China First Capital blog post

Since 2005, 380 Chinese companies have executed reverse mergers in the US. They did so, in almost all cases, as a first step towards getting listed on a major US exchange, most often the NASDAQ. Yet, as of today, according to a recent article in Dow Jones Investment Banker, only 15% of those Chinese companies successfully “uplisted” to NASDAQ. That’s a failure rate of 85%. 

That’s a rather stunning indictment of the advisers and bankers who promote, organize and profit from these transactions. The Chinese companies are left, overwhelmingly, far worse off than when they started. Their shares are stuck trading on the OTCBB or Pink Sheets, with no liquidity,  steep annual listing and compliance fees, often pathetically low valuations,  and no hope of ever raising additional capital. 

The advisors, on the other hand, are coining it. At a guess, Chinese companies have paid out to advisors, accountants, lawyers and Investor Relations firms roughly $700 million in fees for these US reverse mergers. As a way to lower America’s balance of payments deficit with China, this one is about the most despicable. 

You would think that anyone selling a high-priced service with an 85% failure rate would have a hard time finding customers. Sadly, that isn’t the case. This is an industry that quite literally thrives on failure. The US firms specializing in reverse mergers are a constant, conspicuous presence as sponsors at corporate finance conferences around China, touting their services to Chinese companies.

I was at one this past week in Shenzhen, with over 1,000 participants, and a session on reverse mergers sponsored by one of the more prominent US brokerage houses that does these deals. The pitch is always the same: “we can get your company listed on NASDAQ”. 

I have no doubt these firms know that 85% of the reverse mergers could be classified as expensive failures, because the companies never migrate to NASDAQ.  Equally, I have no doubt they never disclose this fact to the Chinese companies they are soliciting. I know a few “laoban” (Chinese for “company boss”)  who’ve been pitched by the US reverse merger firms. They are told a reverse merger is all but a  “sure thing”. I’ve seen one US reverse merger firm’s Powerpoint presentation for Chinese clients that contained doctored numbers on performance of firms it brought public on OTCBB.  

Accurate disclosure is the single most important component of financial market regulation. Yet, as far as I’ve been able to determine, the financial firms pushing reverse mergers offer clients little to no disclosure of their own. No other IPO process has such a high rate of failure, with such a high price tag attached. 

Of course, the Chinese companies are often also culpable. They fail to do adequate due diligence on their own. Chinese bosses are often too fixated on getting a quick IPO, rather than waiting two to three years, at a minimum, to IPO in China. There’s little Chinese-language material available on the dangers of reverse mergers. These kinds of reverse mergers cannot be done on China’s own stock exchanges. Overall knowledge about the US capital markets is limited. 

These are the points cited by the reverse merger firms to justify what they’re doing. But, these justifications ring false. Just because someone wants a vacation house in Florida doesn’t make it OK to sell them swampland in the Everglades. 

The reverse mergers cost China dear. Good Chinese SME are often bled to death. That hurts China’s overall economy. China’s government probably can’t outlaw the process, since it’s subject to US, not Chinese, securities laws. But, I’d like to see the Chinese Securities Regulatory Commission (中国证监会), China’s version of the SEC, publish empirical data about US reverse mergers, SPACs, OTCBB listings. 

There is not much that can be done for the 325 Chinese companies that have already completed a US reverse merger and failed to get uplisted to NASDAQ. They will continue to waste millions of dollars a year in fees just to remain listed on the OTCBB or Pink Sheets, with no realistic prospect of ever moving to the NASDAQ market.

For these companies, the US reverse merger is the capital markets’ version of , or death by a thousand slices.

Coming Soon — A Stock Market for High-Tech Companies in Shenzhen

Zhou Dynasty Horse Fittings

Despite delays and continuing uncertainty, 2009 should see the opening of China’s first stock market for smaller, high-growth technology companies. Modeled on the NASDAQ in the US and AIM in London, this new market will be headquartered in Shenzhen, as part of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, the smaller of the two stock markets in China.

Overall, this is a positive development for China’s financial industry, and the private equity and venture capital communities. Since China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao announced in March 2008 the planned establishment of this new stock market, after almost a decade of internal discussion, the date for the launch has steadily slid back, a casualty of the 60% fall in China’s main stock markets this year.  

The final details have not been announced, but what seems clear at this point is that this new market will have significantly lower qualifying thresholds for companies seeking a stock market listing, compared to the main boards in Shenzhen and Shanghai. The numbers talked about are net assets above RMB 20 million (US$2.8mn) and revenues above RMB 10mn (US$1.5mn). There seems to be no requirement, as of now, for companies to be profitable at the time of listing. It’s possible, therefore, that companies listed on the new exchange will have market caps that barely exceed $10mn. 

 

Here’s my thinking. The largest quoted companies on the Shanghai market are trading at a price-earnings multiple of under 12. This is down, like the broader market, by almost 60% from recent highs. Put those kind of multiples on a small company with revenues under US$2mn and profits below $1mn, and you have the possibility of market caps in that very low range. True, high-tech companies tend to enjoy higher p/e multiples than more traditional large-caps. But, even so, this new stock market will be operating in some unchartered territory for China’s financial markets — companies with comparatively thin floats, low total market value, and so, most likely, higher price volatility. 

 

This could help explain why the Chinese government has repeatedly delayed plans to launch this stock market for high-growth companies. The regulators have probably seen this year all the volatility they care to see for a long time. 

 

Of course, the key factor won’t be earnings multiples or volatility, but the quality of the underlying high-tech businesses to be quoted on this exchange. Here’s where I see bigger problems. China, like its richer neighbors in Asia, as well as Western Europe, would very much like to rival the USA in nurturing successful high-tech companies in industries like software and chip technology. Across China, there are high-tech business parks where early-stage technology companies are concentrated. By one count, there are over 5,000 across the country. But, so far, there haven’t been many big break-out successes. 

 

The simple truth is that, as other countries have learned over the last decade, it’s hard to duplicate the particular success the US has in developing successful high-tech businesses. Having a stock market for high-tech companies is certainly not much of a factor. If so, Germany, which started its own high-tech company stock market, the NeuerMarkt ten years ago, would today be awash with leading technology firms. Instead, there are few, if any good tech companies in Germany and the Neuer Markt eventually was shut down. Britain’s AIM market has also failed to produce many successes in that country. 

 

In my mind, China does have a better shot than Germany, or Britain, or Japan. The main reason: Chinese are more entrepreneurial, and there’s more a culture of prudent risk-taking than elsewhere. If any country has a shot to achieve some of the same success the US has enjoyed building great technology companies, it’s got to be China. 

 

So, I hope this new stock market gets started early in 2009. It will provide more motivation – not that much is needed – to China’s budding technology leaders, and also provide another viable exit route for venture capital investors in China