Renminbi private equity funds

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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