How One Million People Spent a Perfect Autumn Day in Shanghai


The most crowded place in the world today is a few miles from where I’m now sitting. More than 1 million people poured into the Shanghai Expo today, on a beautiful autumn afternoon, with bright blue skies and 70-degree temperatures.

It was almost certainly the busiest day of the Expo, beating yesterday’s record.  Once today’s final visitor count is in, the crowd will certainly set some kind of record for most people paying on a single day to visit a single attraction.

If today’s visitors all lined up in an orderly queue (which they almost certainly did not do), today’s crowd of Expo visitors would stretch for about 500 miles, or about halfway to Beijing.

Even with a typical daily crowd one-third that large, the lines inside the Expo often stretched beyond the patience of many. Waits of two to three hours to enter the most popular pavilions were not uncommon. With a crowd twice as big as usual, my guess is that the other record broken today was for most people waiting the longest, on some of the longest lines, displaying the greatest patience.

Besides the perfect weather, the other reason for today’s enormous crowd is that today is the next-to-last Sunday before the Expo closes to the public. It opened almost six months ago, on May 1.

I was in Shanghai today for a finance conference. As I rode the metro in mid-afternoon through the center of the city near the Expo, it seemed like the +1 million visitors were all trying to jam their way onto my subway car. In almost 30 years of visiting the city, I’ve never seen it so thoroughly and prodigiously congested.

At Rmb100 per head, the Expo’s ticket income today should approach $20 million. Drinks, food and souvenirs should lift the daily take above $50 million. That’s probably about 0.1% of the total cost of staging the event, including all the new urban infrastructure built to support it, including six new subway lines and a major new airport terminal. It seems money well spent.

On a day like today, Shanghai is an old city exquisitely renewed, a perfect playground for the millions who are converging on the Expo, or strolling its main shopping streets and colonial-era alleyways.

Field Report from Guizhou – Where Cement Turns Into Gold

Blue vase in China First Capital blog post


While writing this, I was more than a little the worse for drink. Over dinner, I drained the better part of a bottle-and-a-half of Maotai, China’s most celebrated rock-gut spirit, which sells for a price in China that French brandy would envy, upwards of $80 a bottle. It’s one of the more pleasant occupational hazards of life in China for a company boss. As far as I can tell, some Chinese seems to view it as a matter both of national pride and infernal curiosity to get a Western visitor plastered. By now, I know well the routine. I sit at a table surrounded by people generally drawn together with a common purpose – to treat me solicitously while proposing enough toasts to render me wobbly and insensate.  

As far as career liabilities go, this is one I can happily live with. I always try to eat my way to relative sobriety.  I’m in Guizhou Province. (I’ll wait five minutes while most readers consult an online atlas.) The food here is especially yummy – intense, concentrated flavors, whether it’s a chicken broth (I’m informed it’s so good because local chickens have harder bones than elsewhere in China), pig ear soup, a simple stir-fried cabbage, or a dizzily delicious dish of corn kernels from cobs gathered nearby. So, with each glass of Maotai (which started as thimble-sized and then were upgraded to proper shot-glasses) I tried as best as I could to wolf down enough solid material to hold at bay the nastier demons of drunkenness. 

Did I succeed? I believe so. At least in part. My Chinese didn’t sputter and seize up like a spent diesel engine, and my brain could just about keep up with the typhoon of sounds, smells and data points of the humongous cement factory I toured after dinner. 

If you can find a way to get to Eastern Guizhou, or Western Hunan, do. You’ll likely travel, as I did, along an otherwise empty but fantastically beautiful motorway, past the squat two-stored dwellings of the local Miao people, and the inspiringly eroded prongs that make up the local mountain-scape. If you are even luckier, and share my peculiar taste of what constitutes an ideal weekend, you might just end up, as I did, at the largest private cement company in Guizhou. It’s called Ketelin, and it’s to capitalism what a Titian portrait is to fine arts: drop-dead gorgeous. 

With Maotai bottles drained, and dinner inhaled, I went on a walking tour of the Ketelin factory, on a warm, breezy and clear summer night unlike any I’ve ever witnessed lately in smoldering Shenzhen and Shanghai. My host here is the company’s founder and owner, 宁总, aka Ning Zong. If I had to specify a single rule to determine how to discern a great entrepreneur, it might be “his favorite form of exercise is to walk 20 laps around his humming factory every night after dinner.” Such is the case with Ning Zong. Another great indicator, of course, is to have a business where customers are lined up outside your door, 24 hours a day, waiting to buy your product. That’s also true here. There is a queue of large trucks outside the front gate at all hours, waiting to be filled with Ketelin cement.  

Ning Zong is out here, in what is considered the Chinese “back-of-the-beyond”, and has built the largest private company in the province. And that’s just for starters. His only goal at this point is to build his company to a scale where it can serve all its potential customers, with the highest-quality cement in this part of China. This being China, that’s a very substantial, though achievable vision. He’s already built a state-of-the-art factory, on a scale that few can match anywhere else. And yet, there’s still so much unmet demand, not just in Guizhou, but in nearby provinces of Sichuan, Hunan and Hubei that Ning Zong’s burning desire, at this phase, is to expand his business by several-fold. 

That’s why I’m here, to work with him to find the best way to do so, by bringing in around $15 million in private equity. I have no doubt whatsoever that his plans and track record will prove a perfect match for one of the better PE firms investing in China. Whichever one of them gets to invest in Ketelin will be very fortunate. This facility, and this owner, are both pitchforks perfectly tuned to the key of making good money from the boom in China’s infrastructure development. Among other customers, Ketelin supplies cement to the big highway-construction projects underway in this area of China. 

 Is Ketelin an exception, here in Guizhou?  I don’t really have the capacity to answer that. Guizhou is generally considered by Chinese to be the also-ran in China’s economic derby, poorer, more hidebound and more geographically-disadvantaged than elsewhere in southern China. Water buffalo amble along the middle of local thoroughfares, and field work is still done largely without machines, backs stooping under the weight of newly-gathered kindling. While Guizhou is poor compared to neighboring Hunan and Sichuan, poor regions often produce some of the world’s best companies:  think of Wal-Mart and Tyson’s, both of which got started and are based in Arkansas, which is as close as the US has to a province like Guizhou.  

Guizhou, from what I’ve seen of it, is breath-takingly beautiful, with clean air and little of the ceaseless hubbub that marks the cadence in big cities like Shenzhen and Shanghai. This is China’s true hinterland, the part of this vast country that eminent outsiders have long said was impossibly backward and so beyond the reach of modern development.  

They are wrong, because what’s right here is the same thing that has already generated such stupendous growth in coastal China. It’s the nexus of vision and opportunity, of seeing how much money there is to be made and then doing something about it, to claim some of that opportunity and money as your own. Ning Zong has done so, on a scale that inspires awe in my otherwise Maotai-mangled mind. 

Come see for yourself.


China Zigs While the Rest of the PE and VC World Zags

Tang vase from China First Capital blog post

This is a time of darkness and despair for most private equity and venture capital guys. Their world came crumbling down last year, as credit and stock markets collapsed and IPO activity came to a halt everywhere —  everywhere that is, except China.  

If ever there were an example of a counter-cyclical trend, it is the private equity industry in China. It is poised now for the most active period, over the next 12 months, in its young history. There are many reasons to explain why China should be so insulated from the deep freeze that’s gripping the industry elsewhere. For one thing, it has always relied less on leverage, and more on plain vanilla equity investing. 

This mattered crucially, since as credit markets seized up last year, PE firms were still able to do deals in China, by putting their own equity to work. Of course, PE firms in the US could have done the same thing. After all, most have very large piles of equity capital raised from limited partners. But, they have habituated themselves to a different form of investing, involving tiny slivers of equity and very large slabs of bank debt. Like any leveraged transaction, it can produce phenomenal results, on a return-on-equity basis. But, without access to the debt component, many PE firms seem adrift. It’s as if they’ve forgotten, or lost the knack of how to properly evaluate a company, to look at cash flows not in relation to potential debt service, but as a telltale sign of overall operating performance. 

Many PE firms these days seem to resemble a hedge fund gone bad:  they once had a formula for making great piles of money. Then, markets changed, the formula stopped working, and the firms are at a loss as to how to proceed. 

China looks very different. Beyond the lack of leverage, there are other, larger factors at work that are the envy of the rest of the PE world. Most importantly, China’s economy remains robust. It’s done a remarkable pirouette, while the rest of the world was falling flat on its face. An economy dependent until recently on exports is now chugging along based on domestic demand. And no, it’s not simply — or even mainly —  because of China’s huge +$600 billion stimulus package. The growth is also fueled by Chinese consumers, who are continuing to spend. 

There’s one other key factor, in my opinion, that sets China apart and makes it the most dynamic and desirable market for PE investing in the world: the rise of world-class private companies, of a sufficient scale and market presence to grow into billion-dollar companies. In other words, PE investing in China is not an exercise in financial engineering. It’s straight-up equity investing into very solid businesses, with very bright futures. 

One common characteristic of PE investing in China, all but absent in the US, is that the first round of equity investment going into a company is smaller than trailing revenues. So, in a typical deal, $10mn will be invested into a company with $50 million of last year’s revenues, and profits of around $5 million. Risk mitigation doesn’t get much better than this: investing into established, profitable companies that are often already market leaders — and doing so at reasonable price-earnings multiples. 

China has other things going for it, from the perspective of PE investors: the IPO window is open; dollar-based investors have the likely prospect of upping their gains through Renminbi appreciation; management and financial systems both have significant room for improvement with a little coaching from a good PE firm. 

It all adds up to a unique set of circumstances for PE investors in China.  It’s a highly positive picture all but unrecognizable to PE and VC firms in the US and elsewhere. Opportunities abound. Risk-adjusted returns in China are higher, I’d argue, than anywhere else in the world. A +300% return over three to five years is a realistic target for most PE investment in China. The PE firms invest at eight times last year’s earnings, and should exit at IPO at 15 times, at a minimum. Pick the right company (and it’s not all that difficult to do so), and the capital will be used efficiently enough to double profits over  the term, between the PE investment and the IPO.  Couple these two forces together — valuation differentials and decent rates of return on invested capital — and the 300% return should becomes a modest target as well as reasonably commonplace occurrence. 

It’s  the kind of return some US PE firms were able to earn during the good years, but only by layering in a lot of bank debt on top of smaller amounts of equity. That model may still work, at some future time when banks again start lending at modest interest rates on deals like this. But, there’s an inherent instability in this highly-leveraged approach: cash flows are stretched to the limit to make debt payments. A bad quarter or two leads to missed repayments, and the whole elaborate structure crumbles: just think of Cerberus’s $7.5 billion purchase of 80% of Chrysler. 

China is in a world of its own, when it comes to PE investing. My best guess is that it remains the world’s best market for PE investment over the next ten years at least. Little wonder that many of the world’s under- or unemployed PE staff members are taking crash courses in Chinese. 

Here’s one of the slides from the PPT that accompanied a recent talk I gave  in Shanghai called “Trends in Global Private Equity: China as Number One”.

Private Equity in China  中国的私募股权投资: 

—Strong present, stronger future—  今天不差钱,明天更美好

—PE firms continue to raise money for investment in China, over $10 billion in committed   capital and growing —  私募股权基金仍在继续募集资金投资国内,规模已经为100亿美元并将继续增长

—Next 12 months : most active in history ; IPO window open; finding and financing China’s next national champions —  未来的一年:历史上最蓬勃发展的时期,IPO 重启,发现并投资中国下一批的企业明星


For whole presentation, please click: 私募股权投资:中国成为第一 



Shenzhen’s New Small-Cap Stock Market — A Faster Path to IPO. Not Always a Smarter Path

lichi painting from blog post by China First Capital

One of the main themes of the PE conference I attended last week in Shanghai was the launch of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange’s new Growth Enterprise Market “GEM”, for smaller-cap, mainly high-tech companies.

It’s been a long time in the planning – since at least 1999. In March 2008, China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao, tried to kickstart the process and announced plans to open soon this second market in Shenzhen. Events then intruded – the credit crisis struck, financial markets tanked, and so plans for China’s GEM went into limbo.

Things are now back on track. Trading is likely to begin in October. At the conference, most of the speakers focused on hows and whys the GEM would open new opportunities for smaller companies to raise money from China’s capital market.

Overall, it’s a development I applaud. Private companies in China are often starved of growth capital, and the GEM will mean more of the country’s capital gets allocated to these businesses.

There is one aspect, however, of the GEM that I personally find a little less positive. It’s a small quibble, but my concern is that the opening of the GEM will lead still more Chinese companies to divert time and resources away from building their profits and market share and instead devote energy and cash towards going public. The smaller the company, the more potentially harmful this diversion of attention can be.

China is, to use a military analogy, a “target-rich environment”. Companies often have more opportunities than they have time or resources. This is the product of an economy growing very strongly (8% this year) and modernizing at lightning speed. Large companies can also suffer when they shift focus from gaining customers to gaining a public listing. But, they will usually operate in an established market with established customers. This gives them more of a cushion.

Smaller, high-tech companies don’t have as much leeway. For these companies (last year’s revenues under $5o million) the risk is that the time-consuming and expensive process of planning an IPO on GEM will severely impact current operations, causing it to miss chances to expand, and so lose out to better-focused competitors.

In other words, there’s a trade-off here that tends to get overlooked in all the excitement about the opening of this new stock market in China. The trade-off is between focusing on capital-raising and focusing on building your business.

In my experience, private Chinese companies are already often a little too fixated on an IPO. It’s the main reason so many have made the poor, and often fatal, choice to go public on the American OTCBB. The GEM, I fear, will add fuel to this fire. Often, the best choice for a fast-growing private Chinese company will be to ignore the many pitches they’ll hear from advisors to IPO, and hunker down by focusing on their business for the next year or two.

Yes, being a boot-strapped company is tough. There’s never enough cash around. I know this at first-hand, since along with running China First Capital, I’m also CEO of a boot-strapped security software company in California, Awareness Technologies. Our growth opportunities far exceed our ability to finance them. So, I can understand why the thought of raising an “easy” $5 million – $15 million by going public on the GEM is very attractive to any Chinese boss running a similar cash-short and opportunity-rich company.

But, capital always has a cost. In this case, the main costs will be both the cash paid to advisors and regulators, along with the indirect cost of being a beat slower to seize available opportunities to grow. In China at the moment, any slowness is not just a problem. It can be life-threatening. Every business here operates in a hyper-competitive marketplace.

Of course, any company that can raise money by going public on the GEM will eventually enjoy a big advantage over competitors. It will have the cash and the stronger balance sheet to finance growth. But, the IPO process in China remains far slower than in the US or Hong Kong. A company planning and funding its GEM IPO now, may need to wait two years or more to get all necessary approvals and so finally raise that money with an IPO. Meantime, competitors are, as Americans like to say, eating this company’s lunch.

It’s a discussion we often have with SME bosses – how to time optimally an IPO. A rule of thumb with IPOs is: “small is not beautiful.” Going public on the strength of still limited earnings and revenues will likely result in a small market cap. This can adversely affect share price performance, and so limit the company’s ability to raise additional equity capital. To avoid this trap, it’s often going to be better to wait. Let competitors get bogged down in IPO planning. You can then grow at their expense.

In one way, though, the establishment of the GEM market is an unqualified triumph. It sends the signal far and wide that private SME companies will play an ever larger role in fueling the growth of China’s economy.




In Global Private Equity, It’s China as #1

Qing ceremonial ruyi in China First Capital blog post


I spent the day in Shanghai on Friday, attending a private equity conference, and giving one of the keynote speeches. I’d thought about giving my talk in Chinese, but in the end, the discretion/valor calculus was too strong in favor of using my native language. I was one of only two speakers who used English — or in my case, a kind of half-bred version of miscegenated Mandarin and English. The rest of the conference participants — including two other Westerners and dozens who participated in panels – all spoke in Chinese.  It was quite humbling, and I’m determined to use only Chinese next time around. 

Shanghai has, so rapidly, become a truly international city. It’s one thing to say, as Shanghai’s leadership has been doing over the last decade, that Shanghai will surpass Hong Kong as Asia’s largest, most vibrant international financial center. It’s quite another to achieve this, or even make significant headway, as Shanghai has done. So many of the factors aren’t under the control of government authorities. They can only create the legal and tax framework. In the end, the process is driven by individual decisions made by thousands of people, who commit to learning English and mastering the basics of global finance. All are staking their careers, at this point, on Shanghai’s future as a financial center. 

It’s a version of what economists like to call “network effects”: the more individuals who commit to building Shanghai as a financial center, the more each benefits as the goal comes closer to fruition. On Friday, in Shanghai, I could see this process vividly displayed in front of me, of how widespread knowledge of English has become: of the 200 or so people who heard my talk, at a glance 99% were Chinese, and only a handful needed to use the translation machines.

My talk was titled “Trends in Private Equity: China as #1”.  In Chinese, it’s “私募股权投资:中国成为第一”

The basic theme was how “decoupled” China has become from private equity and venture capital investment in the rest of the world.  China is in the ascendant, and will remain that way, in my opinion, for the next ten years at least. It will be years before the PE and VC industries in the US reach again the size and significance they enjoyed a year ago. China, meanwhile, is firing on all cylinders.

There are many reasons for China’s superior current performance and future prospects. In my talk, I focused on just a few, including principally the rise over the last decade of a large number of outstanding private SME. They are now reaching the scale to raise successfully private equity and venture capital funding.

It’s another example of positive network effects: the Chinese economy is undergoing a shift of breathtaking significance: from dependence on the public sector to reliance on the private sector, or in my shorthand, “from SOE to SME”. The more successful SME there are, the more embedded this change becomes, and the more favorable overall circumstances become for newer SME to flourish. 

Here’s one of the slides from my PPT that accompanied the talk: 

—  Global Private Equity: in trouble everywhere except China

—  Recession; Credit Crisis; Over-leveraged ; closing IPO window

—  经济衰退,信贷危机,杠杆率过高,几近停止的IPO

—  Most PE firms dormant, can’t raise new equity or new debt; industry contracting

—  PE公司无法进行股权和债权融资,几乎处于休眠状态,行业萎缩

—  China is the exception:  strong economic fundamentals; shift from export to domestic market;  shift from state-owned to private sector;  rise of world-class SME

—  中国的独特之处:强劲的经济增长,从出口导向到关注国内市场的转变,经济从国有企业到私营企业的迁移, 富有成为世界级企业潜力的中小企业

 For anyone interested, the whole speech is available, in Chinese, at,1117,1134998.html





Companies That Can IPO & Companies That Should: The Return to IPO Activity in China

Ming Dynasty lacquer in China First Capital blog post

After a hiatus of nearly a year, IPO activity is set to resume in China. The first IPO should close this week on the Shenzhen Stock Market. This is excellent news, not only because it signals China’s renewed confidence about its economic future. But, the resumption of IPO activity will also help improve capital allocation in China, by helping to direct more investment to private companies with strong growth prospects.

With little IPO activity elsewhere, China is likely to be the most active IPO market in the world this year. How many Chinese companies will IPO in 2009 is anyone’s guess. Exact numbers are impossible to come by. But, several hundred Chinese companies likely are in the process of receiving final approval from the China Securities Regulatory Commission. That number will certainly grow if the first IPOs out of the gate do well.

Don’t expect, however, a flood of IPOs in 2009. The pace of new IPOs is likely to be cautious. The overall goal of China’s securities regulators remains the same: to put market stability ahead of capital efficiency. In other words, China’s regulators will allow a limited supply of companies to IPO this year, and would most likely suspend again all IPO activity if the overall stock market has a serious correction.

China’s stock markets are up by 60% so far in 2009. While that mainly reflects well-founded confidence that China’s economy has weathered the worst of the global economic downturn, and will continue to prosper this year and beyond, a correction is by no means unthinkable. There are concerns that IPOs will drain liquidity from companies already listed in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Efficient capital allocation is not a particular strongpoint of China’s stock markets. In China, the companies that IPO are often those that can, rather than those that should. The majority of China’s quoted companies, including the large caps,  are not fully-private companies. They are State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), of one flavor or another. These companies have long enjoyed some significant advantages over purely private-sector companies, including most importantly preferential access to loans from state-owned banks, and an easier path to IPO.

SOEs are usually shielded from the full rigors of the market, by regulations that limit competition and an implicit guarantee by the state to provide additional capital or loans if the company runs into trouble. So, an IPO for a Chinese SOE is often more for pride and prestige, than for capital-raising. An IPO has a relatively high cost of capital for an SOE. The cheapest and easiest form of capital raising for an SOE is to get loans or subsidies direct from the government.

Now, compare the situation for private companies, particularly Chinese SMEs. These are the companies that should go public, because they have the most to gain, generally have a better record of using capital wisely, and have management whose interests are better aligned with those of outside shareholders. However, it’s still much harder for private companies to get approval for an IPO than SOEs. Partly it’s a problem of scale. Private companies in China are still genuine SMEs, which means their revenues rarely exceed $100 million. The IPO approval process is skewed in favor of larger enterprises.

Another problem: private companies in China often find it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain bank loans to finance expansion. Usually, banks will only lend against receivables, and only with very high collateral and personal guarantees.

The result is that most good Chinese SMEs are starved of growth capital, even as less deserving SOEs are awash in it. More than anything, it’s this inefficient capital allocation that sets China’s capital markets apart from those of Europe, the US and developed Asia.

Equity finance – either from private equity sources or IPO — is the obvious way to break the logjam, and direct capital to where it can earn the highest return. But, for many SMEs, equity is either unknown or unavailable. I’m more concerned, professionally, with the companies for whom equity finance is an unknown. Equity finance, both from public listings and from pre-IPO private equity rounds, is going to become the primary source of growth capital in the future. Explaining the merits of using equity, rather than debt and retained earnings, to finance growth is one of the parts of my work I most enjoy, like leading to the well someone weak with thirst. Raising capital for good SME bosses is a real honor and privilege.

Most strong SMEs share the goal of having an IPO. So, the resumption of IPOs in China is a positive development for these companies. Shenzhen’s new small-cap stock exchange, the Growth Enterprise Market, should further improve things, once it finally opens, most likely later this year. The purpose of this market is to allow smaller companies to list. The majority will likely be private SME.

I’ll be watching the pace, quality and performance of IPOs on Growth Enterprise Market even more carefully than the IPOs on the main Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets. My hope is that it establishes itself as an efficient market for raising capital, and that the companies on it perform well. This is one part of a two-part strategy for improving capital allocation in China. The other is continued increase in private equity investment in China’s SME.