RMB PE

How Renminbi funds took over Chinese private equity (Part 2) — SuperReturn Commentary

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How Renminbi funds took over Chinese private equity

(Part 2)

 
Large and small ships traverse the Huangpu River 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year.

Part two of a series. Read part one.

Gresham’s Law, as many of us were taught a while back, stipulates that bad money drives out good. There’s something analogous at work in China’s private equity and venture capital industry. Only here it’s not a debased currency that’s dominating transactions. Instead, it’s Renminbi private equity (PE) firms. Flush with cash and often insensitive to valuation and without any clear imperative to make money for their investors, they are changing the PE industry in China beyond recognition and making life miserable for many dollar-based PE and venture capital (VC) firms.

Outbid, outspent and outhustled

From a tiny speck on the PE horizon five years ago, Reminbi (RMB) funds have quickly grown into a hulking presence in China. In many ways, they now run the show, eclipsing global dollar funds in every meaningful category – number of active funds, deals closed and capital raised. RMB funds have proliferated irrespective of the fact there have so far been few successful exits with cash distributions.

The RMB fund industry works by a logic all its own. Valuations are often double, triple or even higher than those offered by dollar funds. Term sheets come in faster, with fewer of the investor preferences dollar funds insist on. Due diligence can often seem perfunctory.  Post-deal monitoring? Often lax, by global standards. From the perspective of many Chinese company owners, dollar PE firms look stingy, slow and troublesome.

The RMB fund industry’s greatest success so far was not the IPO of a portfolio company, but of one of the larger RMB general partners, Jiuding Capital. It listed its shares in 2015 on a largely-unregulated over-the-counter market called The New Third Board. For a time earlier this year, Jiuding had a market cap on par with Blackstone, although its assets under management, profits, and successful deal record are a fraction of the American firm’s.

The main investment thesis of RMB funds has shifted in recent years. Originally, it was to invest in traditional manufacturing companies just ahead of their China IPO. The emphasis has now shifted towards investing in earlier-stage Chinese technology companies. This is in line with China’s central government policy to foster more domestic innovation as a way to sustain long-term GDP growth.

The Shanghai government, which through different agencies and localities has become a major sponsor of new funds, has recently announced a policy to rebate a percentage of failed investments made by RMB funds in Shanghai-based tech companies. Moral hazard isn’t, evidently, as high on their list of priorities as taking some of the risk out of risk-capital investing in start-ups.

Dollar funds, in the main, have mainly been observing all this with sullen expressions. Making matters worse, they are often sitting on portfolios of unexited deals dating back five years or more. The US and Hong Kong stock markets have mainly lost their taste for PE-backed Chinese companies. While RMB funds seem to draw from a bottomless well of available capital, for most dollar funds, raising new money for China investing has never been more difficult.

RMB funds seldom explain themselves, seldom appear at industry forums like SuperReturn. One reason: few of the senior people speak English. Another: they have no interest or need to raise money from global limited partners. They have no real pretensions to expand outside China. They are adapted only and perhaps ideally to their native environment. Dollar funds have come to look a bit like dinosaurs after the asteroid strike.

Can dollar-denominated firms strike back?

Can dollar funds find a way to regain their central role in Chinese alternative investing? It won’t be easy. Start with the fact the dollar funds are all generally the slow movers in a big pack chasing the same sort of deals as their RMB brethren. At the moment, that means companies engaged in online shopping, games, healthcare and mobile services.

A wiser and differentiated approach would probably be to look for opportunities elsewhere. There are plenty of possibilities, not only in traditional manufacturing industry, but in control deals and roll-ups. So far, with few exceptions, there’s little sign of differentiation taking place. Read the fund-raising pitch for dollar and RMB funds and, apart from the difference in language, the two are eerily similar. They sport the same statistics on internet, mobile, online shopping penetration: the same plan to pluck future winners from a crop of look-alike money-losing start-ups.

There is one investment thesis the dollar PE funds have pretty much all to themselves. It’s so-called “delist-relist” deals, where US-quoted Chinese companies are acquired by a PE fund together with the company’s own management, delisted from the US market with the plan to one day IPO on China’s domestic stock exchange. There have been a few successes, such as the relisting last year of Focus Media, a deal partly financed by Carlyle. But, there are at least another forty such deals with over $20bn in equity and debt sunk into them waiting for their chance to relist. These plans suffered a rather sizeable setback recently when the Chinese central government abruptly shelved plans to open a new “strategic stock market” that was meant to be specially suited to these returnee companies. The choice is now between prolonged limbo, or buying a Chinese-listed shell to reverse into, a highly expensive endeavor that sucks out a lot of the profit PE firms hoped to make.

Outspent, outbid and outhustled by the RMB funds, dollar PE funds are on the defensive, struggling just to stay relevant in a market they once dominated. Some are trying to go with the flow and raise RMB funds of their own. Most others are simply waiting and hoping for RMB funds to implode.

So much has lately gone so wrong for many dollar PE and VC in China. Complicating things still further, China’s economy has turned sour of late. But, there’s still a game worth playing. Globally, most institutional investors are under-allocated to China.  A new approach and some new strategies at dollar funds are overdue.

Peter Fuhrman moderates our SuperReturn China 2016 Big Debate: ‘How Do You Best Manage Your Exposure To China?’. Discussants include:

  • John Lin, Managing Partner, NDE Capital (GP)
  • Xisheng Zhang, Founding Partner & President, Hua Capital (GP)
  • Bo Liu, Chief Investment Officer, Wanda Investment (LP)
The Big Debate takes place on Tuesday 19 April 2016 at 11:55 – 12:25 at SuperReturn China in Beijing. Can’t make it? Follow the action on Twitter.

Jiuding Capital: China’s “PE Factory” Breaks Down

Less than 18 months ago, Harvard Business School published one of its famed “cases” on Kunwu Jiuding Capital (昆吾九鼎投资管理有限公), praising the Chinese domestic private equity firm for its ” outstanding performance ” and “dazzling investment results”. (Click here to read abridged copy.) Today,  the situation has changed utterly. Jiuding’s “dazzling results”, along with that HBS case, look more like relics from a bygone era.

Jiuding developed a style of PE investing that was, for awhile, as perfectly adapted to Chinese conditions as the panda is to predator-free bamboo jungles in Sichuan. Jiuding kept it simple. Don’t worry too much about the company’s industry, its strategic advantage, R&D or management skills. Instead,  look only for deals where you could make a quick killing. In China, that meant looking for companies that best met the requirements for an immediate domestic IPO. Deals were conceived and executed to arbitrage consistently large valuation differentials between public and private markets, between private equity entry multiples and expected IPO exit valuations.

Jiuding’s pre-investment work consisted mainly of simulating the IPO approval process of China’s securities regulator, the CSRC. If these simulations suggested a high likelihood of speedy CSRC IPO approval, a company got Jiuding’s money. The objective was to invest and then get out in as short a period as possible, preferably less than two years. A more typical PE deal in China might wait four years or more for an opportunity to IPO.

Jiuding did dozens of deals based on this investment method. When things worked according to plan, meaning one of Jiuding’s deals got quickly through its IPO, the firm made returns of 600% or more. After a few such successes, Jiuding’s fundraising went into overdrive. Once a small domestic Renminbi PE firm, Jiuding pretty soon became one of the most famous and largest, with the RMB equivalent of over $1 billion in capital.

Then, last year, a capital markets asteroid wiped out Jiuding’s habitat.  The CSRC abruptly, and without providing any clear explanation, first slowed dramatically the number of IPO approvals, then in October 2012, halted IPOs altogether. This has precipitated a crisis in China’s private equity industry. Few other PE firms are as badly impacted as Jiuding. The CSRC’s sudden block on IPOs revealed the fact that Jiuding’s system for simulating the IPO approval process had a fatal flaw. It could not predict, anticipate or hedge against the fact that IPOs in China remain not a function of market dynamics, but political and institutional policies that can change both completely and suddenly.

If Jiuding made one key mistake, it was assuming that the IPO approval system that prevailed from 2009 through mid-2012 was both replicable and likely to last well into the future. In other words, it was driving ahead at full speed while looking back over its shoulder.

Jiuding’s deals are now stranded, with no high probability way for many to achieve IPO exit before the expiry of fund life. That was another critical weakness in the Jiuding approach: it raised money in many cases by promising its RMB investors to return all capital within four to six years, about half the life cycle of a typical global PE firm like Carlyle or Blackstone.

Jiuding’s deals, like thousands of others in China PE,  are part of a backlog that could take a decade or more to clear. The numbers are stupefying: at its height the CSRC never approved more than 125 IPOs a year for PE-backed companies in China. There are already 100 companies approved and waiting to IPO, 400 more with applications submitted and in the middle of CSRC investigation, and at least another 2,000-3,000 waiting for a time when the CSRC again allows companies to freely submit applications.

Jiuding’s assets and liabilities are fundamentally mismatched. That’s as big a mistake in private equity as it is in the banking and insurance industries. Jiuding’s assets —  its shareholdings in well over a hundred domestic companies — are and will likely remain illiquid for years into the future. Meantime, the people whose capital it invests,  mainly rich Chinese businesspeople, will likely demand their money back as originally promised, sometime in the next few years. There’s a word for a situation where a company’s near-term liabilities are larger than the liquidatable value of its assets.

In the Harvard Business School case, Jiuding’s leadership is credited with perfecting a “PE factory”,  which according to the HBS document “subverted the traditional private equity business model.”  They might as well have claimed Jiuding also subverted the law of gravity. There are no real shortcuts, no assembly line procedure, for making and exiting successfully from PE investments in China.

In an earlier analysis, written as things turned out just as the CSRC’s unannounced block on IPOs was coming into effect, I suggested Jiuding would need to adjust its investment methods, and more closely follow the same process used by bigger, more famous global PE firms. In other words, they would need to get their hands dirty, and invest for a longer time horizon, based more on a company’s medium term business prospects, not its likelihood of achieving an instant IPO.

Jiuding, in short, will need to focus its investing more on adding value and less on extracting it. Can it? Will it? Or has its time, like the boom years of CSRC IPO approval and +80X p/e IPO valuations in China,  come and gone?