Renminbi investing

Can China Succeed Where the Japanese Failed Investing in US Real Estate?

China map

Chinese money is cascading like a waterfall into the US real estate market. Chinese institutional money, individual money, state-owned companies and private sector ones, Chinese billionaires to ordinary middle-class wage-earners, everyone wants in on the action. This year, the amount of Chinese money invested in US real estate assets is almost certain to break new records, surpassing last year’s total of over $40 billion, and continue to provide upward momentum to prices in the markets where Chinese most like to buy, the golden trio of major cities New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, plus residential housing on both coasts.

To many, it summons up memories of an earlier period 25 years ago when it was Japanese money that flooded in, lifting prices spectacularly. For the Japanese, as we know, it all ended rather catastrophically, with huge losses from midtown Manhattan to the Monterrey Peninsula.

There is no other more important new force in US real estate than Chinese investors. Will they make the same mistakes, suffer the same losses and then retreat as the Japanese did? Certainly a lot of US real estate pros think so. There is some evidence to suggest things are moving in a similar direction.

But, there are also this year more signs Chinese are starting to adapt far more quickly to the dynamics of the US market and adjusting their strategies. They also are trying now to dissect why things went so wrong for the Japanese, to learn the lessons rather than repeat them.

This week, one of China’s leading business magazines, Caijing Magazine, published a detailed article on Chinese real estate investing in the US. I wrote it together with China First Capital’s COO, Dr. Yansong Wang. It looks at how Chinese are now assessing US real estate investing.  What kinds of investment approaches are they considering or discarding?

Here is an English version I adapted from the Chinese. It is also published this week in a widely-read US commercial real estate news website, Bisnow. The original Chinese version, as published in Caijing, can be read by clicking here.

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headSome of the biggest investors in America’s biggest industry are certain history is repeating itself. The Americans believe that Chinese real estate investors will invest as recklessly and lose as much money as quickly in the US as Japanese real estate investors did 25 years ago. The Japanese lost – and Americans made — over ten billion dollars first selling US buildings to the Japanese at inflated prices, then buying them back at large discounts after the Japanese investors failed to earn the profits they expected.

Chinese investors are now pouring into the US to buy real estate just as the Japanese did between 1988-1993. To American eyes, it all looks very familiar. Like the Japanese, the Chinese almost overnight became one of the largest foreign buyers of US real estate. Also like the Japanese, the Chinese are mainly still targeting the same small group of assets — big, well-known office buildings and plots of land in just three cities: New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Pushed up by all the Chinese money, the price of Manhattan office buildings is now at a record high, above $1,400 square foot, or the equivalent of Rmb 100,000 per square meter.

The term “China price” has taken on a new meaning in the US. It used to mean that goods could be manufactured in China at least 33% cheaper. Now it means that US real estate can be sold to Chinese buyers for at least 33% more. Convincing US sellers to agree a fair price, rather than a Chinese price, takes up more time than anything else we do when representing Chinese institutional buyers in US real estate transactions.

While there are similarities between Chinese real estate investors today and Japanese investors 25 years ago, we also see some large differences. American investors should not start counting their money before its made. Based on our experience, we see Chinese investors are becoming more disciplined, more aware of the risks, more professional in evaluating US real estate.  There is still room to improve. The key to avoiding potential disaster: Chinese investors must learn the lessons of why the Japanese failed, and how to do things differently.

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Twenty-five years ago, many economists in the US believed the booming Japanese investment in US real estate was proof that Japan’s economy would soon overtake America’s as the world’s largest. Instead, we now know that Japanese buying of US property was one of the final triggers of Japanese economic collapse. The stock market, property prices both fell by over 70%. GDP shrunk, wages fell. Japanese banks, then the world’s largest, basically were brought close to bankruptcy by $700 billion in losses. To try to keep the economy from sinking even further, the Japanese government borrowed and spent at a level no other government ever has. Japan is now the most indebted country in the developed world, with total debt approaching 2.5X its gdp. There are some parallels with China’s macroeconomic condition today — banks filled with bad loans, GDP growth falling, domestic property prices at astronomical levels.

Just how much money are Chinese investors spending to buy US property? Precise data can be difficult to obtain. Many Chinese investors are buying US assets without using official channels in China to exchange Renminbi for dollars. But, the Asia Society in the US just completed the first comprehensive study of total Chinese real estate investment in the US. They estimate between 2010-2015 Chinese investors spent at least $135 billion on US property. Other experts calculate total Chinese purchases of US commercial real estate last year rose fourfold. Chinese last year became the largest buyers of office buildings in Manhattan, the world’s largest commercial real estate market.

This year is likely to see the largest amount ever in Chinese investment in the US. While most Chinese purchases aren’t disclosed, large Chinese state-owned investors, including China Life and China Investment Corporation have announced they made large purchases this year in Manhattan. While the Chinese government has recently tried to restrict flow of money leaving China, a lot of Chinese money is still reaching the US. One reason: many Chinese investors, both institutional and individual, expect the Renminbi to decline further against the dollar. Buying US property is way to profit from the Renminbi’s fall.  Other large foreign buyers of US real estate — European insurance companies, Middle East sovereign wealth funds — cannot keep up with the pace of Chinese spending.

With all this Chinese money targeting the US, many US real estate companies are in fever mode, trying to attract Chinese buyers. The large real estate brokers are hiring Chinese and preparing Chinese-language deal sheets. Some larger deals are now first being shown to Chinese investors. The reason: like the Japanese 25 years ago, Chinese investors have gained a reputation for being willing to pay prices at least 25% higher than other foreign investors and 40% above domestic US investors.

Twenty-five years ago, anyone with a building to sell at a full price flew to Japan in search of a buyer. Today, something similar is occurring. Major US real estate groups are now frequent visitors to China. Their first stop is usually the downtown Beijing headquarters of Anbang Insurance.

Eighteen months ago, just about no one in US knew Anbang’s name. Now they are among US commercial real estate owner’s ideal potential customer. The reason: last year, Anbang Insurance paid $2bn for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The seller was Blackstone, the world’s largest and most successful real estate investor. No one is better at timing when to buy and sell. A frequently-followed investment rule in the US Chinese investors would be wise to keep in mind:  don’t be the buyer when Blackstone is the seller.

Based on the price Anbang paid and Waldorf’s current profits, Anbang’s cap rate is probably under 2.5%. US investors generally require a cap rate of at least double that. Anbang hopes eventually to make money by converting some of the Waldorf Astoria to residential. It agreed to pay $149mn to the hotel’s union workers to get their approval to the conversion plan.

Earlier this year, Blackstone sold a group of sixteen other US hotels to Anbang for $6.5bn. Blackstone had bought the hotels three months earlier for $6bn. “Ka-Ching”.

Anbang’s chairman Wu Xiaogang now calls Blackstone chairman Steve Schwarzman his “good friend”.

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Another Chinese insurance company, Sunshine, paid an even higher price per room for its US hotel assets than Anbang. Sunshine paid Barry Sternlicht’s Starwood Capital Group $2 million per room for the Baccarat Hotel. It is still most ever paid for a hotel. In order to make a return above 4% a year, the hotel will need to charge the highest price per room, on average, of just about any hotel in the US.

Another famous New York hotel, the Plaza, is also now for sale. The Plaza’s Indian owners, who bought the hotel four years ago, are now facing bankruptcy. They are aggressively seeking a Chinese buyer. We’ve seen the confidential financials. Our view: only a madman should consider buying at the $700mn price the Indians are asking for.

The common view in the US now — the Chinese are, like the Japanese before, buying at the top of the cycle. Prices have reached a point where some deals no longer make fundamental economic sense. At current prices, many buildings being marketed to Chinese have negative leverage. It was similar in the late 1980s. Japanese paid so much to buy there was never any real possibility to make money except if prices continue to rise strongly. Few US investors expect them to. That’s why so many are convinced it’s a good time to sell to Chinese buyers.

No deal better symbolized the mistakes Japanese real estate investors made than the purchase in 1989 of New York’s Rockefeller Center, a group of 12 commercial buildings in the center of Manhattan. Since the time it was built by John Rockefeller in 1930, it’s been among the most famous high-end real estate projects in the world. In 1989, Mitsubishi Estate, the real estate arms of Mitsubishi Group, bought the majority of Rockefeller Center from the Rockefeller family for $1.4 billion. At the time, the Rockefeller family needed cash and they went looking for it in Japan. Mitsubishi made a preemptive bid. They bought quickly, then invested another $500mn to upgrade the building. The Japanese analysis at the time: prime Manhattan real estate on Fifth Avenue was a scarce asset that would only ever increase in value.

Mitsubishi had no real experience managing large commercial real estate projects in Manhattan. They forecasted large increases in rent income that never occurred. The idea to bring in a lot of Japanese tenants also failed. Rockefeller Center began losing money, a little at first. By 1995, with over $600 million in overdue payments to its lenders, Rockefeller Center filed for bankruptcy. Mitsubishi lost almost all its investment, and also ended up paying a big tax penalty to the US government.

A group of smart US investors took over. Today Rockefeller Center, if it were for sale, would be worth at least $8 billion.

It was a similar story with most Japanese real estate investments in the US. They paid too much, borrowed too much, made unrealistically optimistic financial projections, acted as passive landlords and focused on too narrow a group of targets in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

According to Asia Society figures, over 70% of Chinese commercial real estate purchases have been in those same three cities. If you add in Silicon Valley and Orange County, the areas next to Los Angeles and San Francisco, then over 85% of Chinese investment in US real estate is going into these areas of the US. Prices in all these locations are now at highest level of all time. They are also the places where it’s hardest to get permission to build something new or change the use of the building you own.

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It’s easy enough to understand why almost all Chinese money is invested in these three places. They have the largest number of Chinese immigrants, the most flights to China, the deepest business ties to PRC companies. They are also great places for Chinese to visit or live.

But, all this doesn’t prove these are best places to invest profitably, especially for less-experienced Chinese investors. In fact, the Japanese relied on a similar local logic to justify their failed investment strategy. These are also the places with the largest number of Japanese-Americans. A quick look through financial history confirms that no two places in the world have made more money from foolish foreign investors than New York and California.

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Many of the largest US real estate groups are selling properties in New York and California to reinvest in other parts of the country where the financial returns and overall economy are better. Most of the gdp and job growth in the US comes from states in the South, especially Texas, Arizona and Florida.

Chinese investors should consider following the US smart money and shift some of their focus to these faster-growing markets. Another good strategy — partner with an experienced US real estate investor. The Japanese never did this and paid a very high price trying to learn how to buy, rent and manage profitably real estate in the US. In their most recent deals in Manhattan, both Fosun and China Life have chosen well-known US partners.

Another important difference: Japanese real estate investment in the US was almost entirely done by that country’s banks, insurance companies and developers.  With Chinese, the biggest amount of money is from individuals buying residential property. According to the Asia Society report, last year, Chinese spent $28.6bn buying homes in the US. That’s more than double the amount Chinese institutional investors spent buying commercial property. Residential prices, in most parts of the US, have still not returned to their levels before the financial crash of 2008.

Another big pool of Chinese money, almost $10bn last year, went into buying US real estate through the US government-administered EB-5 program. In the last two years, 90% of the EB-5 green cards went to Chinese citizens.

The original intention of the EB-5 program was to increase investment and jobs in small companies in America’s poorest urban and rural districts. Instead, some major US real estate developers, working with their lawyers, created loopholes that let them use the EB-5 program as a cheap way to raise capital to finance big money-making projects in rich major cities, mainly New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  Congress is now deciding if it should reform or kill the EB-5 program.

Chinese are by far the largest source of EB5- cash. Even so, Chinese should probably be happy to see the EB-5 program either changed or eliminated. There’s also been a lot of criticism about the unethical way some EB5 agents operate within China. They are paid big fees by US developers to find Chinese investors and persuade them to become EB-5 investors. Many of these agents never properly inform Chinese investors that once they get a Green Card, they have to pay full US taxes, even if they continue to live in China. The concept of worldwide taxation is an alien one for most Chinese.

Taxes play a huge role in deciding who will and will not make money investing in US real estate. All foreign investors, including Chinese, start at a disadvantage. They aren’t treated equally. They need to pay complicated withholding tax called FIRPTA whenever they sell property, either commercial or residential. To make sure the tax is paid, the US rules require the buyer to pay only 85% of the agreed price to a foreign seller, and pay the rest directly to the IRS.  The foreign seller only gets this 15% if they can convince the IRS they’ve paid all taxes owed.

Many larger real estate investors in the US use a REIT structure to buy and manage property. It can reduce taxes substantially. Up to now, few Chinese investors have set up their own REITs in the US. They should.

Another key difference between Japanese and Chinese investors: it is very unlikely that Chinese will ever, as the Japanese did between 1995-2000, sell off most of what they own in the US. The Chinese investors we work with have a long-term view of real estate investing in the US. They say they are prepared stay calm and steadfast, even if prices either flatten out or start to fall.

This long-term view actually gives Chinese investors a competitive advantage in the US. If the US real estate industry has a weakness, it is that too few owners like to buy and hold an asset for 10 years or longer.  Many, like Blackstone and GGP, are listed companies and so need to keep up a quick pace of buying and selling to keep investors happy. As a result, there are some long-term opportunities available to smart Chinese investors that could provide steady returns even if there is no big increase in overall real estate prices.

Two examples: The US, like China, is becoming a country with a large percentage of people 65 years and older. As the country ages, American biotech and pharmaceutical companies, the world’s largest, are spending more each year to develop drugs to treat chronic diseases old people suffer from, like dementia and Parkinson’s. There’s a growing shortage of new, state-of-the-art biotech research facilities. The buildings need special construction and ventilation that require significantly higher upfront cost than building an ordinary office building. They also need to be located in nice areas, with large comfortable offices for 800 – 1,500 management and researchers. The total cost to build a biotech center is usually between $200mn-$400mn. But, rents are higher, leases are longer and there are usually tax subsidies available.

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The other good way to make long-term money investing in US real estate is to take advantage of the fact American companies, unlike Chinese ones, do not like owning much real estate. It tends to hurt their stock market valuation. So, bigger US companies often build long-term partnerships with reliable real estate developers to act as landlord.   Starbucks is still growing quickly and is always interested to find more real estate partners to build and own dozens of outlets for them. Starbucks provides the design and often chooses the locations. It is happy to sign a 15-20-year lease that gives landlords a rate of return or 7%-8.% a year,  higher if the developer borrows money to buy and build the new Starbucks shops. The only risk if at some point in the next 10-20 years the 2%-3% of the US population that buy a coffee at Starbucks every day stop coming.

The Japanese never developed a similar long-term strategy to make money investing in US real estate. Instead, they just spent and borrowed money to buy famous buildings they thought would only go up in value. They not only lost money, they lost face. After staying away for 20 years, Japanese investors, mainly insurance companies, have just begun investing again in New York City.

Japanese investors arrived 30 years ago confident they would be as successful buying real estate in the US as they were selling cars and tvs there. They learned a bitter lesson and left with their confidence shattered. Chinese can, should and must do better

(Charts courtesy Asia Society and National Association of Realtors)

As published by Bisnow

财经杂志 《美国房地产投资负面清单》

Renminbi Funds: Can They Rewrite the Rules of Profitable Investing?

Renminbi private equity funds are the world’s fastest-growing major pool of discretionary investment funds, with over $20 billion raised in 2011. These Renminbi funds also play an increasingly vital role in allocating capital to China’s best entrepreneurial companies. Despite their size and importance, these Renminbi funds often have a structural defect that may limit their future success.

Most Renminbi funds are managed by people whose pay is only loosely linked, if at all, to their performance. They are structured, typically, much like a Chinese state-owned enterprise (“SOE”),  with multiple managerial levels, slow and diffuse decision-making, rigid hierarchies and little individual responsibility or accountability. The resemblance to SOEs is not accidental. Renminbi funds raise a lot of their money from state-owned companies, and many fund managers come from SOE background.

Maximizing profits is generally not the prime goal of SOEs. They provide employment, steer resources to industries favored by government plans and policies. A similar mindset informs the way many Renminbi funds operate. Individual greed along with individual initiative are discouraged. There are no big pay-outs to partners. In fact, in most cases, there are no partners whatsoever.

This represents a significant departure from the ownership structure of private equity and venture capital firms elsewhere. Partnership matters because it efficiently harnesses the greed of the people doing the investing.  The General Partners (“GPs”) usually put a significant percentage of their own money into deals alongside that of the Limited Partners who capital they invest. GPs are also highly incentivized to earn profits for these LPs. The usual split is 1:4, meaning the GP keeps 20% of net profits earned investing LPs’ money.

Of course, partnership structure doesn’t guarantee GPs are going to do smart things with LPs’ money. There’s lot of examples to the contrary. But, the partnership structure does seem to work better for both sides than any other form of business combination. GPs and LPs both know that the more the GP makes for himself, the more he makes for investors.

Renminbi funds, in most all cases, are structured like ordinary companies, or as subsidiaries of larger state-owned financial holding companies. Instead of partners, they have large management teams with layer upon cumbersome layer. The top people at Renminbi funds are picked as much for their political connections, and ability to source investment capital from government bureaus and SOEs, as their investing acumen. They are wage slaves, albeit well-paid ones by Chinese standards. But, their compensation might not even be 5% of what a partner at a dollar-based private equity firm can earn in a good year. A Renminbi fund manager will rarely have his own capital locked up alongside investors, and even more rarely be awarded that handsome share of net profits.

Renminbi funds differ in other key ways from PE and VC partnerships. The Renminbi funds usually have relatively flat pay scales, modest bonuses and a consensus approach with often as many as 20 or more staff members deciding on which deals to do.  A typical dollar-based PE fund in China might have a total of 15 people, including secretaries. A Renminbi fund? Teams of over 100 are not all that uncommon. The investment committee of a dollar PE firm might have as few as five people. Partners decide which deals to do. A Renminbi firm often have ICs with dozens of members, and even then, their decisions are often not final. Often Renminbi funds need to get investors’ approval for each individual deal they seek to do. They don’t have discretionary power, as PE partnerships do, over their investors’ money.

Renminbi funds have abundant manpower to scout for deals across all of China, and can throw a lot of people into the deal-screening and due diligence process. This bulk approach has its advantages. It can sometimes take a few months of on-the-spot paper-pushing, coaching and reorganizing to get a Chinese private company into compliance with the legal and accounting rules required for outside investment. Dollar funds don’t have that capacity, in most cases.

Also, Renminbi fund managers often have similar backgrounds to the middle management teams at private companies. They are comfortable with all the dining, wining, smoking and karaoke-ing that play such a core part of Chinese business life. The dollar funds? From partners on down, they are staffed by Chinese with elite educations, often including stints in the US working or studying.  Usually they don’t drink or smoke, and prefer to get back to the hotel early at night to churn through the target company’s profit forecast.

Kill-joys though they may be, the PE dollar funds still have, in my experience, some large – and most likely decisive — advantages over the Renminbi funds. Decision-making is nimble, transparent and centralized in the hands of the firm’s few partners. If they like a deal, they can issue a term sheet the same day. At a Renminbi fund, it can take months of internal meetings, report-writing and committee assessments before any kind of term sheet is prepared. Internal back-stabbing, politicking and turf battles are also common.

We’ve also seen deals where the Renminbi fund’s staff demand kickbacks from companies in return for persuading their firms to invest. An executive at one of China’s largest, oldest Renminbi fund estimates 60% of all deals his firm does probably include such under-the-table payoffs.

It’s often futile to try to figure out who really calls the shots at a Renminbi fund. Private company bosses, including several of our clients, are often loath to work with organizations structured in this way. The boss at one of our clients recently chose to take money from two dollar PE firms because he couldn’t get a meeting with the boss of the well-known Renminbi fund that was courting him hard. That firm compounded things by explaining the fund’s boss was anyway not really involved in investment decision-making and would certainly not join our client’s board.

The message this sent: “nobody is really in charge, so if we invest, you are on your own”. For a lot of China’s self-made entrepreneurs, this isn’t the sort of message they want to hear from an investor. They like dealing with partners who have decision-making power, their own money at stake alongside the entrepreneurs. PE partners almost always take a personal role in an investment by joining the board. In short, the PE partner acts like a shareholder because he is one, directly and indirectly.

At a Renminbi fund, the managers do not have skin in the game, nor a clear financial reward from making a successful investment. A Renminbi fund manager can be fired or marginalized by his bosses at any time during the long period (generally at least 3-5 years) from investment to exit. Private equity investing has long time horizon, and the partnership structure is probably the best way to keep everyone (GP, LP, entrepreneur) engaged, aligned and committed to the long-term success of a company.

It is possible for Renminbi funds to organize themselves as partnerships. But, few have done so, and it’s unlikely many will. The GP/LP structure is supremely hard to implement in China. Those with the money generally don’t accept the principle of giving managers discretionary power to invest, and also don’t like the idea of those managers making a significant sum from deals they do.

All signs are that Renminbi funds will continue to grow strongly in number and capital raised. This is, overall, highly positive for entrepreneurship in China. Hundreds of billions of Renminbi equity capital is now available to private companies. As recently as three years ago, there was hardly any. Less clear, however, is how efficiently that money will be invested. I know from experience that Renminbi funds find and invest in great companies. But, they also are prone to a range of inefficiencies, from bureaucratic decision-making to a lack of real accountability among those investing the money,  that can adversely impact their overall performance.

One way or the other, Renminbi funds will rewrite the rules for private equity investing, and eventually provide a huge amount of data on how well these managers can do compared to PE partners. My supposition is that Renminbi firms will not achieve as high a return as dollar-based PE firms investing in China. The reason is simple: investing absent of greed is often investing absent of profit.

Taxed At Source: Renminbi Private Equity Firms Confront the Taxman

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The formula for success in private equity is simple the world over: make lots of money investing other people’s money, keep 20% of the profits and pay little or no taxes on your share of the take. This tax avoidance is perfectly legal. PE firms are usually incorporated as offshore holding companies in tax-free domains like the Cayman Islands.

Depending on their nationality, partners at PE firms may need to pay some tax on the profits distributed to them individually. But, some quick footwork can also keep the taxman at bay. For example, I know PE partners who are Chinese nationals, living in Hong Kong. They plan their lives to be sure not to be in either Hong Kong or China for more than 182 days a year, and so escape most individual taxes as well. Even when they pay, it’s usually at the capital gains rate, which is generally far lower than income tax.

The tax efficiency is fundamental to private equity, and most other forms of fiduciary investing. If the PE firm’s profits were assessed with income tax ahead of distributions to Limited Partners (“LPs”), it would significantly reduce the overall rate of return, to say nothing about potentially incurring double taxation when those LPs share of profits got dinged again by the tax man.

China, as everyone in the PE world knows, is very keen to foster growth of its own homegrown private equity firms. It has introduced a raft of new rules to allow PE firms to incorporate, invest Renminbi and exit via IPO in China. So far so good. The Chinese government is also pouring huge sums of its own cash into private equity, either directly through state-owned companies and agencies, or indirectly through the country’s pay-as-you-go social security fund. (See my recent blog post here.)

Exact figures are hard to come by. But, it’s a safe bet that at least Rmb100 billion (USD$15 billion) in capital was committed to domestic private equity firms last year. This year should see even larger number of new domestic PE firms established, and even larger quadrants of capital poured in.

It’s going to be a few years yet before the successful Chinese domestic PE firms start returning significant investment profits to their investors. When they do, their investors will likely be in for something of an unpleasant surprise: the PE firms’ profits, almost certainly, will be reduced by as much as 25% because of income tax.

In other words, along with building a large homegrown PE industry that can rival those of the US and Europe, China is also determined to assess those domestic PE firms with sizable income taxes. These two policy priorities may turn out to be wholly incompatible. PE firms, more than most, have a deep, structural aversion to paying income tax on their profits. For one thing, doing so will cut dramatically into the personal profits earned by PE partners, lowering significantly the after-tax returns for these professionals. If so, the good ones will be tempted to move to Hong Kong to keep more of their share of the profits they earn investing others’ money. If so, then China could get deprived of some experienced and talented PE partners its young industry can ill afford to lose.

It’s still early days for the PE industry in China. Renminbi PE firms really only got started two years ago. I’ve yet to hear any partners of domestic PE firms complain. But, my guess is that the complaining will begin just as soon as these PE firms begin to have successful exits and begin to write very large checks to the Chinese tax bureau. What then?

China’s tax code is nothing if not fluid. New tax rules are announced and implemented on a weekly basis. Sometimes taxes go down. Most often lately, they go up.  Compared to developed countries, changing the tax code in China is simpler, speedier. So, if the Chinese government discovers that taxing PE firms is causing problems, it can reverse the policy rather quickly.

The PE firms will likely argue that taxing their profits will end up hurting hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese whose pensions will be smaller because the PE firms’ gains are subject to tax. In industry, this is known as the “widows and orphans defense”. Chinese contribute a share of their paycheck to the state pension system, which then invests this amount on their behalf, including about 10% going to PE investment.

PE firms outside China are structured as offshore companies, with offices in places like London, New York and Hong Kong, but a tax presence in low- and no-tax domains. But, there’s currently no real way to do this in China, to raise, invest and earn Renminbi in an offshore entity. Changing that opens up an even larger can of worms, the current restrictions preventing most companies or individuals outside China from holding or investing Renminbi. This restriction plays a key part in China’s all-important Renminbi exchange rate policy, and management of the country’s nearly $2.8 trillion of foreign reserves.

The world’s major PE firms are excitedly now raising Renminbi funds. Several have already succeeded, including Carlyle and TPG. They want access to domestic investment opportunities as well as the high exit multiples on China’s stock market. When and if the income tax rules start to bite and the firm’s partners get a look at their diminished take, they may find the appeal of working and investing in China far less alluring.

 

 

 

Private Equity in China: Blackstone & Others May Grab the Money But Miss the Best Opportunities

China First Capital blog post -- Song Jun vase

Blackstone, the giant American PE firm, is now trying to raise its first renminbi fund. Its stated goal is to provide growth capital for China’s fast-growing companies. Blackstone isn’t the only international private equity firm seeking to raise renminbi to invest in China.  In fact, many of the world’s largest private equity firms, including those already investing in China using dollars, are looking to tap domestic Chinese sources for investment capital.

Dollar-based investors are increasingly at a serious disadvantage in China’s private equity industry: investing is more difficult, often impossible, and deals take longer to close than competing investors with access to renminbi.

Blackstone enjoys a big leg up in China over other international private equity firms looking to raise renminbi. Its largest institutional shareholder is China’s sovereign wealth fund, CIC. Knowing how to get Chinese investors to open their wallets is a skill both highly rare and highly advantageous in today’s global private equity industry.  

There are two reasons for this stampede to raise renminbi. First, more and more of the best investment opportunities in China are SME with purely domestic structure – meaning they cannot easily raise equity in any other currency except renminbi. The second reason is the most basic of all in the financial industry: if you want money, you go where there’s the most to spare. Right now, that means looking in China.   

In theory, the big international private equity companies have a lot to offer Chinese investors – principally, very long track records of successful deal-making that richly rewarded their earlier investors.

The international PE firms have more experience picking companies and exiting from them with fat gains. They also do a good job, in general, of keeping their investors informed about what they’re doing, and acting as prudent fiduciaries. 

So far so good. But, there’s one enormous problem here, one that Blackstone and others presumably don’t like talking about to prospective Chinese investors. Their main way of making money in the past is now both broken, and wholly unsuited to China. They’re trying to sell a beautiful left-hand drive Rolls-Royce to people who drive on the right. 

Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR, Cerberus and most of the other largest global private equity companies grew large, rich and powerful by buying controlling stakes in companies, using mainly money borrowed from banks. They then would improve the operating performance over several years, and make their real money by either selling the company in an M&A deal or listing it on the stock market.

The leverage (in the form of the bank borrowing) was key to their financial success. Like buying a house, the trick was to put a little money down, borrow the rest, and then pocket most of any increase in the value of the asset. 

It can be a great way to make money, as long as banks are happy to lend. They no longer are. As a result, these kinds of private equity deals – which really ought to be called by their original name of “leveraged buyouts”, have all but vanished from the financial landscape.  It was always a rickety structure, reliant as much on access to cheap bank debt as on a talent for spotting great, undervalued businesses. If proof were needed, just look at Cerberus’s disastrous takeover of Chrysler last year, which will result in likely losses for Cerberus of over $5 billion. 

In his annual letter to shareholders this year, Warren Buffett highlighted the inherent weaknesses in this form of private equity: “A purchase of a business by these [private equity] firms almost invariably results in dramatic reductions in the equity portion of the acquiree’s capital structure compared to that previously existing. A number of these acquirees, purchased only two to three years ago, are now in mortal danger because of the debt piled on them by their private-equity buyers. The private equity firms, it should be noted, are not rushing in to inject the equity their wards now desperately need. Instead, they’re keeping their remaining funds very private.” 

On their backs at home, it’s no wonder Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR are looking to expand in China, All have a presence in China, having invested in some larger deals involving mainly State-Owned Enterprises. But, to really flourish in China, these PE firms will need to hone a different set of skills: choosing solid companies, investing their own capital for a minority position, and then waiting patiently for an exit. 

There’s no legal way to use the formula that worked so well for so long in the US. In China, highly-leveraged transactions are prohibited. PE firms also, in most cases, can’t buy a controlling stake in a business. That runs afoul of strict takeover rules in China. 

I have little doubt Blackstone, KKR, Carlyle can all succeed doing these smaller, unleveraged deals in China. After all, they employ some of the smartest people on the planet. But, these firms all still have a serious preference for doing larger deals, investing at least $50mn. This is also true in China.

There are few good deals on this scale around. Very few private companies have the level of annual profits (at least $15mn) to absorb that amount of capital for a minority stake. Private companies that large have likely already had an IPO or are well along in the planning process. As for large SOEs, the good ones are mostly already public, and those that remain are often sick beyond the point of cure. In these cases, private equity investors find it tough to push through an effective restructuring plan because they don’t control a majority on the board seats. 

Result: some of the companies best-positioned to raise renminbi funds, including Blackstone, have an investment model that seems ill-suited to Chinese conditions. They may well succeed in raising money, but then what? They’ll either need to learn to do smaller deals (of $10mn-$20mn) or bear the heavy risk of making investments in the few larger deals around in China.  

Any prospective Chinese LP should be asking Blackstone and the other large global private equity firms some very searching questions about their investment models for China. True, these firms all have excellent track records, by and large. But, that past performance, based on the leveraged buyouts that went well, is of scant consequence in today’s China. What matters most is an eye for spotting great entrepreneurs, in fast-growing industries, and then offering them both capital and the knowledge that comes from building value as investors in earlier deals. 

Prediction: raising huge wads of cash in China will turn out to be easier for Blackstone and other large global PE firms than putting it to work where it will do the most good and earn the highest returns.

International Investors Miss The Boat in China – Because They’re Not Allowed Onboard

China First Capital blog post Ming jar

Despite my fourteen years living in London,  I needed to fly all the way back to that city this week, from China, to finally get a look at Westminster Central Hall, a stately stone pile across the street from the even statelier, stonier pile that is Westminster Abbey. Central Hall does double duty, both as a main meeting place for British Methodists, and also as an impressive venue for conferences, including the first meeting of the United Nations in 1946. 

This week, it was site of the annual Boao Forum for Asia International Capital Conference. I flew in to attend, and participate in a panel discussion on private equity in China. The Boao Forum is something like the more renowned Davos Forum, but with a particular focus on Asia and China. This annual meeting focused on finance and capital, and drew a large contingent of about 120 Chinese officials and businesspeople, along with an equal number of Western commercial bankers, lawyers, accountants, investors, politicians, academics and a few other investment bankers besides me. 

Central Hall is crowned by a large domed ceiling, said to be the second-largest in the world. I enjoyed sending back a brief live video feed to my China First Capital colleagues in Shenzhen, whirling my laptop camera up towards the dome, and then down to show the conference. It was also the first time any of my colleagues had seen me in a suit. 

The weather was a perfect encapsulation of British autumn climate, with blustery and frigid winds, occasional radiant sunshine and torrential rain. It was my first trip back to London in over two years, and nothing much had changed. What a contrast to China, where in two years, most major cities seem to undergo a radical facelift. 

“How can a non-Chinese invest in Chinese private company?” It was a straightforward question, by a London-based money manager, for the panel I was on. Straightforward, even obvious, but it was actually one I’d never really considered before, to my embarrassment. In my talk (see Powerpoint here: http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/trends-in-private-equity.pdf) , I made the case about why Chinese SME are among the world’s best investment opportunities for private equity firms.  It’s an argument I’m used to making to conference audiences in China. This is the first time I’ve done so anywhere else. The question, though, made me feel a bit like a guy telling his friends about the new Porsche Carrera for sale for $8,000, but then saying, “unfortunately, you’re not allowed to buy one.” 

The reality is that it’s effectively impossible for a non-Chinese investor, other than the PE firms we regularly work with,  to buy into a great private Chinese SME. For one thing, the investor would need renminbi to do so, and there’s no legal way to obtain it, for purposes like this. Even if you found a way around that problem, you’d face an even steeper one when you wanted to exit the investment and convert your profits back into dollars or sterling. 

The money manager came up to me later, and I could see the vexation in her eyes. I had persuaded her there were great ways for investors to make money investing in SME in China. Disappointingly, her clients aren’t allowed to do so. Cold comfort was all I could offer,  pointing out the same basic problem exists for any non-Chinese seeking to buy shares quoted on the Shenzhen and Shanghai stock markets. 

It’s a reasonable bet that China eventually will liberalize its exchange rate controls and ultimately allow freer convertibility of the renminbi. But, that doesn’t exist now. As a result, financial investment in renminbi in China is, for the most part, reserved exclusively for Chinese. Unfair? It must seem that way to the sophisticated, well-paid money managers in London, who these days have few, if any,  similarly “sure fire” investment options for their clients. 

China is, itself, awash in liquidity, and sitting on a hoard of over $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. So, there really is no shortage of capital domestically. Allowing foreign investors in, of course, would increase the capital available to finance the growth of great companies. But,  it will also add to the mountain of foreign reserves and put more upward pressure on the renminbi. That’s the last thing Chinese authorities need at the moment. So, most of the best investment opportunities in China are likely to remain, for quite a lot longer, open only to Chinese investors. 

Overall, this is a very good time to be Chinese. By my historical reckoning, it’s the best since at least the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago. China has changed out of all recognition over the last 30 years, creating enormous material and social gains. That beneficial change, if anything, is accelerating. The fact Chinese also have some of the world’s best investment opportunities to themselves is just another dividend from all this positive change. 

If I were a money manager, I’d also be asking myself “how can I get some of this?” But, I’m not a money manager, and I formulate things very differently. I’m so happy and privileged to have a chance to help some of China’s great private entrepreneurs. Me and my team invest all our waking hours and all our collective passion in this. We are rewarded daily, by the trust put in us by these entrepreneurs, and by our very small contribution to their continued success. That’s more than adequate return for me.

I guess I’m not cut out for purely financial investing.