public to private

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?