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The Secret to Alibaba’s Success: Dirt Cheap Third-Party Shipping — Nikkei Asian Review

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Procter & Gamble’s staple brands – Crest, Tide, Head & Shoulders, Pantene, Pampers — dominate the mass-market premium segment in China just as they do in the US. Buy them at the local Walmart supermarket in China, and just about everything costs more, in dollar terms, than it does at Walmart in the US. Shop online, though, and China wins hands down the P&G low-price battle.

Alibabas Taobao marketplace deserves part of the credit. Its 10 million merchants, most of whom are small traders with their own limited inventory, offer things at prices well-below those at brick-and-mortar shops. But, the biggest savings comes from ridiculously low overnight shipping costs in China. Alibaba doesn’t directly arrange shipping for Taobao merchants. It’s up to each seller to sort things out with one of the country’s big nationwide private courier companies.

There are four giants, market leader Shunfeng and three almost identically named firms, YTO, STO and ZTO. Those three were started and are owned by entrepreneurs from the same small county in Zhejiang, called Tonglu, about 50 miles from. Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou.

So, just how cheap is online shopping for P&G products in China? I ran out of detergent and for the first time decided to buy it on Taobao. I was thinking I might save some money. But, the bigger benefit is not having to shlep the three kilo sack of Tide powder from the supermarket, where it sells for around Rmb 50.

On Taobao, I paid Rmb 20.90, or $3.18, for three kilos of Tide and two-day express ground shipping from Shijiazhuang, a city 1,200 miles away from me in Shenzhen. The same weight of Tide bought online in the US from the cheapest eBay seller and ground-shipped the same distance and time by Fedex would cost $53, at a minimum. Of that, at least $35 goes to shipping.

Yes, Chinese labor costs are much less. But, gasoline costs twice as much in China as the US and highway tolls are exorbitant in China, as much as 60 cents for every mile a truck travels. I bought the bag of Tide on Taobao half-thinking I’d never receive anything. But, the parcel showed up intact and on time. Who, if anyone, made any money on this?

Even if the Tide detergent is completely phony — Taobao does have a reputation for selling lots of counterfeit merchandise — the shipping costs can’t be faked. My detergent was shipped and delivered by ZTO. By some counts, it is now moved ahead of Shunfeng in volume, if not revenue. At year-end last year ZTO was said to be delivering 10 million parcels a day. ZTO is mainly a network of independent local franchisees, with the ZTO parent owning and operating the main warehouses. ZTO is planning to IPO sometime soon in Hong Kong. Warburg Pincus and Sequoia Capital are both investors.

The other three big courier companies are also well along in their IPO planning. Each is saying they need billions in new capital. They can’t be earning much if anything and continue to plow money into infrastructure. Parcel shipping is still growing by about 30% a year. Every week, courier companies deliver about 500 million packages in China.

All four big courier companies are saying they want to buy or lease jets to move things around, to save on gasoline and tolls. They’re also all looking to use drones for the last mile. As of now, parcels in China are delivered by an army, perhaps as many as one million strong, of electric-scooter riding delivery guys. Contrary to what you may think, this isn’t low-paid work in China. You can earn at least double what you’d be paid for factory work. A lot of recent college graduates are taking their first job delivering packages. The career ladder for many is to move up from YTO, STO and ZTO, who get most of their business through Taobao, to work for either JD.com or Amazon in China. Both have their own in-house courier staff, with better pay, hours, equipment and genuine uniforms.

Alibaba doesn’t directly own or control a courier company. So far, that strategy has worked out splendidly. As long as the courier companies are competing furiously, things on Taobao will remain dramatically cheaper than in stores. If the couriers ever decided to seek profits rather than market share, it would certainly put a dent in Taobao’s growth. An Alibaba-backed logistics company called Cainiao just raised $1.5bn, at a $7bn valuation, to better coordinate the deliveries made by ZTO and the other Tonglu firms.

Ecommerce in China works like nowhere else in the world. Sales are still growing at breakneck speed and are on course by 2017 to reach $1 trillion annually, far higher than anywhere else. Cheap delivery makes it a bargain not only to buy P&G products, but even the lowest-priced goods on Taobao.

For years, Chinese law made it illegal for Fedex and UPS to enter the domestic delivery business in China. The Chinese government finally rescinded the law two years ago. The two American giants took one look at the cutthroat competition and ridiculously low prices charged by their Chinese counterparts and chose to stay out of the fray.  In the US, they get paid $15.50 a kilo to move goods by ground in two days between two far-off cities. In China, the going rate is about four Renminbi, or 60 cents.

We’ll likely know soon, once IPO prospectuses appear, if ZTO and the others are making any money at all. An IPO requires a GAAP audit and full compliance with China’s burdensome tax code. This often extinguishes all profit.

Ecommerce in China has so far created only two big beneficiaries. Taobao is one. It earns billions a year in ad fees paid by merchants trying to get noticed. The other is China’s 500 million online shoppers. We save big, and enjoy the luxury of cheap home delivery, on just about everything we care to buy.

As published in Nikkei Asian Review

Outbid, outspent and outhustled: How Renminbi funds took over Chinese private equity (Part 1) — SuperReturn Commentary

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Outbid, outspent and outhustled

Renminbi-denominated private equity funds basically didn’t exist until about five years ago. Up until that point, for ten golden years, China’s PE and VC industry was the exclusive province of a hundred or so dollar-based funds: a mix of global heavyweights like Blackstone, KKR, Carlyle and Sequoia, together with pan-Asian firms based in Hong Kong and Singapore and some “China only” dollar general partners like CDH, New Horizon and CITIC Capital. These firms all raised money from much the same group of larger global limited partners (LPs), with a similar sales pitch, to make minority pre-IPO investments in high-growth Chinese private sector companies then take them public in New York or Hong Kong.

All played by pretty much the same set of rules used by PE firms in the US and Europe: valuations would be set at a reasonable price-to-earnings multiple, often single digits, with the usual toolkit of downside protections. Due diligence was to be done according to accepted professional standards, usually by retaining the same Big Four accounting firms and consulting shops doing the same well-paid helper work they perform for PE firms working in the US and Europe. Deals got underwritten to a minimum IRR of about 25%, with an expected hold period of anything up to ten years.

There were some home-run deals done during this time, including investments in companies that grew into some of China’s largest and most profitable: now-familiar names like Baidu, Alibaba, Pingan, Tencent. It was a very good time to be in the China PE and VC game – perhaps a little too good. Chinese government and financial institutions began taking notice of all the money being made in China by these offshore dollar-investing entities. They decided to get in on the action. Rather than relying on raising dollars from LPs outside China, the domestic PE and VC firms chose to raise money in Renminbi (RMB) from investors, often with government connections, in China. Off the bat, this gave these new Renminbi funds one huge advantage. Unlike the dollar funds, the RMB upstarts didn’t need to go through the laborious process of getting official Chinese government approval to convert currency. This meant they could close deals far more quickly.

Stock market liberalization and the birth of a strategy

Helpfully, too, the domestic Chinese stock market was liberalized to allow more private sector companies to go public. Even after last year’s stock market tumble, IPO valuations of 70X previous year’s net income are not unheard of. Yes, RMB firms generally had to wait out a three-year mandated lock-up after IPO. But, the mark-to-market profits from their deals made the earlier gains of the dollar PE and VC firms look like chump change. RMB funds were off to the races.

Almost overnight, China developed a huge, deep pool of institutional money these new RMB funds could tap. The distinction between LP and GP is often blurry. Many of the RMB funds are affiliates of the organizations they raise capital from. Chinese government departments at all levels – local, provincial and national – now play a particularly active role, both committing money and establishing PE and VC funds under their general control.

For these government-backed PE firms, earning money from investing is, at best, only part of their purpose. They are also meant to support the growth of private sector companies by filling a serious financing gap. Bank lending in China is reserved, overwhelmingly, for state-owned companies.

A global LP has fiduciary commitments to honor, and needs to earn a risk-adjusted return. A Chinese government LP, on the other hand, often has no such demand placed on it. PE investing is generally an end-unto-itself, yet another government-funded way to nurture China’s economic development, like building airports and train lines.

Chinese publicly-traded companies also soon got in the act, establishing and funding VC and PE firms of their own using balance sheet cash. They can use these nominally-independent funds to finance M&A deals that would otherwise be either impossible or extremely time-consuming for the listed company to do itself. A Chinese publicly-traded company needs regulatory approval, in most cases, to acquire a company. An RMB fund does not.

The fund buys the company on behalf of the listed company, holding it while the regulatory approvals are sought, including permission to sell new shares to raise cash. When all that’s completed, the fund sells the acquired company at a nice mark-up to its listed company cousin. The listco is happy to pay, since valuations rise like clockwork when M&A deals are announced. It’s called “market cap management” in Chinese. If you’re wondering how the fund and the listco resolve the obvious conflicts of interest, you are raising a question that doesn’t seem to come up often, if at all.

Peter continues his discussion of the growth of Renminbi funds next week. Stay tuned! He also moderates our SuperReturn China 2016 Big Debate: ‘How Do You Best Manage Your Exposure To China?’.

http://www.superreturnlive.com/

New Year gambling hints at Chinese entrepreneurial vigour — The Financial Times

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FT beyondbrics

With about every major leading economic indicator in a tailspin, it’s easy, even obvious, to be bearish about China. But, one sign of economic activity could hardly seem more robust: the crowds and cash at gambling tables during this year’s Chinese New Year.

The two-week long lunar New Year celebration finally drew to a close on Monday with the Lantern Festival. Here in Shenzhen, China’s richest city per capita, no sooner do the shops all shut down for the long break than the gambling tables spill out onto the street, like the cork flying out of a bottle.

Gambling, especially in public places with large sums being wagered, is illegal everywhere in China. All the same, the New Year is ready-made for gamblers and street-corner croupiers to gather. For one thing, most police and urban street patrols are also away from their jobs with family.

Along with over-eating and giving cash-stuffed red envelopes, gambling is the other main popular indulgence during the New Year. Most of it happens behind closed doors with families gathered around the mahjong and card table. But parts of Shenzhen soon take on the appearance of an al fresco Macau (see photo).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This year, from what I could see, the number of punters and sums being wagered was far higher than years past. This matters not only as a statement of consumer optimism here but also as affirmation of the love of risk-taking that helps make China such a hotbed of entrepreneurial activity.

The two forces operating together – not only at street corner casinos — are perhaps the best reason to be optimistic that China’s economy may yet avoid a “hard landing” and continue to thrive.

In my neighborhood, the favorite game on the street is a form of craps where people bet on which of six auspicious animals and lucky symbols will turn up. Hundreds of renminbi change hands with each roll. No small bets allowed. The gambling goes on from morning until late at night.

It’s a game that requires no skill and one that also gives the house a huge advantage, since winning bets only make four times the sum wagered. This puts it in a somewhat similar league with punto banco baccarat, the casino game Chinese seem to like the most. It’s also game of pure chance, where the house has a built-in edge.

In China, gamblers’ capital flows to games with unfair odds, where dumb luck counts for more than smarts. In this there is cogent parallel with the investment culture in China. China is simply awash in risk-loving risk capital.

Street-side gambling is popular during the New Year break in part because the other more organised mainstream forms of taking a punt are shut down. Top of the list, of course, is the Chinese domestic stock market. It’s rightly called the world’s largest gambling den. Shares bob up and down in unison, prices decoupled from underlying economic factors, a company’s own prospects or comparable valuations elsewhere.

The simple reason is that almost all shares are owned by individual traders. Fed on rumors and goaded by state-owned brokerage houses, they seem to give no more thought to which shares to buy than my neighbors do before betting Rmb200 on which dice will land on the lucky crab.

The housing market, too, traces a similar erratic arc, driven far more by short-term speculation than the need to put a roof over one’s head. Billions pour in, bidding up local housing prices in many Chinese cities to a per-square-foot level higher than just about anywhere in the West except London, Paris, New York and San Francisco. Eventually prices do begin to moderate or even fall, as happened in most smaller cities this past twelve months.

The other big pool of risk capital in China goes into direct investment in entrepreneurial ventures of all sizes and calibers. Nowhere in the world is it easier to raise money to start or grow a business than China. In part, because Chinese have a marked preference for being their own boss, so the number of new companies started each year is high. The other big factor, call it the demand side, is that there is both a lot of money available and a great enthusiasm for investing in the new, the untried, the risky.

Before coming here, I used to work in the venture capital industry in California. VCs there are occasionally accused of turning a blind eye toward risk. Compared to venture investing in China, however, even the most starry-eyed venture investor in Silicon Valley looks like a Swiss money manager.

Just about any idea here seems to attract funding, a lot of it institutional. China now almost certainly has more venture firms than the rest of the world combined. No one can keep proper count. Along with all the big global names like Sequoia and Kleiner Perkins, there are thousands of other China-only venture firms operating, along with at least as many angel groups. In addition, just about every Chinese town, city and province, along with most listed companies, have their own venture funds.

I marvel at the ease with which early-stage businesses get funded, the valuations they command and the less than diligent due diligence that takes sometimes place before money moves. Of course, a few of these venture-backed companies hit the jackpot.

Alibaba or Tencent are two that come to mind. But, initial public offering (IPO) exits for Chinese startups remain rare, and so taken as a whole, venture investing returns in China have proved meager. But, activity never seems to wane. Fad follows fad. From group shopping, to what’s known in China as “O2O” (offline-to-online) thousands of companies get started, funded and then often within less than 18 months, go pffft.

With the New Year celebrations winding down, the outdoor gambling tables in my neighborhood are being put away for another year. Work schedules are returning to normal. For all the headwinds China’s economy now faces, Chinese household savings are still apparently growing faster than GDP. This means Chinese will likely go on year-after-year amassing more money to invest, to gamble or to speculate.

 

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http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2016/02/22/new-year-gambling-hints-at-chinese-entrepreneurial-vigour/

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