reverse mergers

Crawling Blindfold & Naked Through A Minefield

 

Making a failed investment is usually permissible in the PE industry. Making a negligent investment is not. The PE firms now considering the “delist-relist” transactions I wrote about last time (click here to read)  are jeopardizing not only their investors’ money, but the firm’s own survival.  The risks in these deals are both so large and so uncontrollable that if a deal were to go wrong, the PE firm would be vulnerable to a lawsuit by its Limited Partners (“LPs”) for breach of fiduciary duty.

Such a lawsuit, or even the credible threat of one, would likely put the PE firm out of business by making it impossible for the firm to ever raise money from LPs again. In other words, PE firms that do “delist-relist” are taking existential risk. To this old guy, that is just plain dumb.

Before making any investment, a PE firm, to fulfill its fiduciary duty, will do extensive, often forensic, due diligence. The DD acts as a kind of inoculation, protecting the PE firm in the event something later goes wrong with the investment. As long as the DD was done properly, meaning no obvious risks were ignored, then a PE firm can’t easily be attacked in court for investing in a failed deal.

With the “delist-relist” deals however, there is no way for the DD process to fully determine the scale of the largest risks, nor can the PE firm do much to hedge, manage or alleviate them. This is because the largest risks are inherent in the deal structure.

The two main ones are the risk of shareholder lawsuits and the risk that the company, after being taken private, will fail to win approval for an IPO on a different stock market. If either occur, they will drain away any potential profit. Both risks are fully outside the control of the PE firm. This makes these deals a blindfolded and naked crawl through a minefield.

Why, then, are PE firms considering these deals? From my discussions, one reason is that they appear easy. The target company is usually already trading on the US stock market, and so has a lot of SEC disclosure materials available. All one needs to do is download the documents from the SEC’s Edgar website. Investing in private Chinese companies, by contrast, is almost always a long, arduous and costly slog – it involves getting materials, like an audit, and then making sure everything else provided by the company is genuine and accurate.

Another reason is ignorance of or indifference to the legal risks: many of the PE firms I’ve talked to that are considering these “delist-relist” deals have little direct experience operating in the US capital markets. Instead, the firm’s focus on what they perceive to be the “undervaluation” of the Chinese companies quoted in the US. One PE guy I know described the Chinese companies as “miss-killed”, meaning they are, to his way of thinking, basically solid businesses that are being unfairly scorned by US investors. There may well be some good ones foundering on US stock markets. But, finding them and putting the many pieces together of a highly-complex “delist-relist” deal is outside the circle of competence and experience of most PE firms active in China.

This investment approach, of looking for mispriced or distressed assets on the stock market,  is a strategy following by many portfolio managers, distress investors and hedge funds. PE firms operating in China, however, are a different breed, and raised money from their LPs, in most cases, by promising to do different sorts of deals, with longer time horizons and a focus on outstanding private companies short of growth capital. The PE firm acts as supportive rich uncle, not as a crisis counselor.

Abandoning that focus on strong private companies, to pursue these highly risky “delist-relist” deals seems not only misguided, but potentially reckless. Virtually every working day, private Chinese companies go public and earn their PE investors returns of 400% or more. There is no shortage of great private companies looking for PE in China. Just the opposite. Finding them takes more work than compiling a spreadsheet with the p/e multiples of Chinese companies traded in the US.  But, in most cases, the hard work of finding and investing in private companies is what LPs agreed to fund, and where the best risk-adjusted profits are to be made.  How will LPs respond if a PE firm does a “delist-relist” deal and then it goes sour? This, too, is a suicidal risk the PE firm is taking.

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.

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. 

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.