Shenzhen Stock Exchange

China’s Capital Markets Go From Feast to Famine and Now Back Again, China First Capital New Research Report

China First Capital 2014 research report cover

The long dark eclipse is over. The sun is shining again on China’s capital markets and private equity industry. That’s good news in itself, but is also especially important to the overall Chinese economy. For the last two years, investment flows into private sector companies have dropped precipitously, as IPOs disappeared and private equity firms went into hibernation. Rebalancing China’s economy away from exports and government investment will take cash. Lots of it. Expect significant progress this year as China’s private sector raises record capital and China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) gradually transform into more competitive, profit-maximizing businesses.

These are some of the conclusions of the most recent Chinese-language research report published by China First Capital. It is titled, “2014民企国企的转型与机遇“, which I’d translate as “2014: A Year of Transformation and Opportunities for China’s Public and Private Sectors”. You can download a copy by clicking here or visiting the Research Reports section of the China First Capital website, (http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/en/research-reports).

We’re not planning an English translation. One reason:  the report is tailored mainly to the 8,000 domestic company bosses as well as Chinese government policy-makers and officials we work with or have met. They have already received a copy. The report has also gotten a fair bit of media coverage over the last week here in China.

Our key message is we expect this year overall business conditions, as well as capital-raising environment,  to be significantly improved compared to the last two years.  We expect the IPO market to stage a significant recovery. Our prediction, over 500 Chinese companies will IPO worldwide during this year, with the majority of these IPOs here in China.

We also investigate the direction of economic and reform policy in China following the Third Plenum, and how it will open new opportunities for SOEs to finance their growth and improve their overall profitability, including through carve-out IPOs and strategic investment. SOEs will become an important new area of investment for PE firms and global strategics.

The SOEs we work with are all convinced of the need to diversify their ownership, and bring in profit-driven experienced institutional investors. For investors, SOE deals offer several clear advantages: scale is larger and valuations are usually lower than in SME deals; SOEs are fully compliant with China’s tax rules, with a single set of books; the time to IPO or other exit should be quicker than in many SME deals.

As financial markets mature in China, we think one unintended consequence will be a drop in activity on China’s recently-established over-the-counter exchange, known as the “New Third Board” (新三板).  The report offers our reasons why we think this OTC market is a poor, inefficient choice for Chinese businesses looking to raise capital. While the aims of the Third Board are commendable, to open a new fund-raising channel for private sector companies, the reality is that it offers too little liquidity, low valuations and an uncertain path to a full listing on China’s main stock exchanges.

Over the last three years, China has had the highest growth rate and the worst performing stock market among all major economies. In part, the long stock market slide is both necessary and desirable, to bring China’s stock market valuations more in line with those of the US and Hong Kong. But, it also points to a more uncomfortable reality, that China’s listed companies too often become listless ones. Once public, many companies’ profit growth and rates of return go into long-term decline. IPO proceeds are hoarded or misspent. Rarely do managers make it a priority to increase shareholder value.

A small tweak in the IPO listing rules offers some promise of improvement. Beginning this year, a company’s control shareholder, usually the owner or a PE firm, will be locked-in and prevented from selling shares for five years if the share price stays below the original IPO level.

Spare a moment to consider the life of a successful Chinese entrepreneur, both SOE and private sector. In two years, access to capital went from feast to famine. And now maybe back again. An IPO exit went from a reachable goal to an impossibility. And now maybe back again. Meanwhile, markets at home surged while those abroad sputtered. Government reform went from minimal to now ambitious.

2014 is going to be quite a year.

IPO rules overhauled for PE and VC firms — China Daily

China Daily article

Shanghai stock exchange trading floor

Friday, January 3, 2014

Private equity and venture capital firms will have to conduct their business differently in China in 2014, after regulators overhauled initial public offering rules.

Chinese PE and VC companies used to evaluate the companies by the standards of the China Securities Regulatory Commission for quicker IPOs, but now the market will play a more important role, said Peter Fuhrman, chairman, founder and chief executive officer at China First Capital.

“Under the new IPO system, the share pricing of an IPO company is decided by its strength and competitiveness, so investors will choose companies with real potential to invest in and provide them with the resources of strategy, management and market development to make their own return the best,” said Fuhrman *.

Private equity and venture capital firms will not find it easy to earn money any more after the new share-listing reform plan is carried out, because even if the companies they invested in get listed, they will still face the risk of losses, said Jin Haitao, chairman of leading Chinese equity investment firm Shenzhen Capital Group Co Ltd.

Jin said PE and VC institutions should cultivate real investment capabilities including those in value-discovery and negotiating. Pre-IPO deals cannot be guaranteed to earn money any more.

A total of 83 Chinese companies completed the examination and received approval from the China Securities Regulatory Commission. About 50 are expected to have finished all IPO procedures and be listed before the end of January. More than 760 companies are in line for approval. It will take about a year to audit all the applications.

In the IPO reform plan announced at the end of November, information disclosure has become more important and the China Securities Regulatory Commission will only be responsible for examining applicants’ qualifications, leaving investors and the markets to make their own judgments about a company’s value and the risks of buying its shares.

More and more Chinese companies applying for IPOs asked for cooperation with multinational accounting institutions, according to Hoffman Cheong, an assurance leader at Ernst & Young China North Region.

Cheong said the information disclosed can be different after the IPO reform plan is carried out.

According to the IPO reform plan, so long as an issuer’s prospectus is received by the commission, it will be released on the commission’s website. The company should buy back shares if there is a false statement or major omission. Also it should compensate investors if they lose money in certain situations.

http://www.chinadailyasia.com/business/2014-01/03/content_15109395.html

(* Note: I never spoke to the reporter. As far as I can tell, the quote was translated into English, rather clumsily, from a Chinese-language commentary of mine published recently in a Chinese business publication. If asked, I would have said that companies need to choose PE investors carefully, and vice versa.)

China’s IPO Freeze to Melt in Midwinter

Kesi embroidery

IPOs are returning to China. The China Securities Regulatory Commission this weekend announced its long-awaited guidelines on a new, somewhat liberalized process for approving IPOs. The rush is now on to get new IPOs approved and the money raised before Chinese New Year, which falls on January 31st, less than two months from now. Ultimately, the CSRC hopes to clear within one year the backlog of over 800 Chinese companies now with IPO applications on file. Thousands of other Chinese companies are waiting for the opportunity to submit their IPO plans. The CSRC stopped accepting new applicants almost 18 months ago.

From what I can tell, the CSRC has concluded, rightly, its old IPO approval process was broken beyond repair. The regulator used to take primary responsibility for determining if a Chinese company was stable enough, strong enough, honest enough to be trusted with the public’s money. No other securities regulator took such a hands-on, the “buck stops with me” approach to IPO approvals. The CSRC now seems prepared to pass the buck, in other words, to put the onus where it belongs, on IPO applicants, as well as the underwriters, lawyers and accountants.

This should eliminate the moral hazard created by the old system. Companies, as well as their brokers and advisors, had a huge amount to gain, and much less to lose, by submitting an application and hoping for a CSRC approval. They could cut corners knowing the CSRC wouldn’t. For the successful IPO applicants who got the CSRC green light, valuations were sky-high, and so were underwriting and advisory fees.

Going forward, the CSRC seems determined to switch from security guard to prosecutor. Rather than trying to detect and prevent all wrongdoing, it is now saying it will punish severely companies, and their outside advisors, where there’s a breach in China’s tough securities laws. The CSRC’s powers to punish any wrongdoing are significant. Heaven help those who end up being convicted of criminal negligence or fraud. As I noted before,  there are no country club prisons in China for white collar offenders.

While baring its sharp teeth, the CSRC is also now using its more soothing voice to tell retail stock market investors they will need to do more of their own homework. It wants more and better disclosure from companies. It hopes investors will read before buying. And, the CSRC also hopes the stock market will itself begin to provide investors will clearer signals, through share price movements, on which companies may not be suitable for the more risk-averse.

Up to now, companies going public in China did so with a kind of “CSRC Warranty”. That’s because the CSRC itself said it had already done far more detailed, forensic scrutiny of the company than just reading through its public disclosure documents. The approval process could take two years or more, with company execs, lawyers and accountants being called frequently to meetings at the CSRC headquarters to be grilled. All this to give comfort to investors that nothing was awry.

The warranty has effectively been revoked. This may make some investors more nervous, but it represents a significant and positive breakthrough for the CSRC.

It needs to lighten its grip. Markets need regulation, need rules and effective mechanisms for punishing bad actors. But, the CSRC took on too much responsibility for assuring the orderly functioning of China’s stock market. This was always going to be difficult. China’s stock markets are far more prone to speculative frenzy than stock markets in the US, Europe. Shares on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets are bought and sold mainly by retail investors, or as the Chinese say, “old granddads and grannies” (老爷爷老奶奶). Institutional investors are a minority. As for investment fundamentals, on China’s stock market there are mainly just two:  “Buy on rumor. Sell on rumor”.

Over the last year, I’ve written about problems at the CSRC that helped cause and prolong this long freeze in IPOs. The CSRC’s first instinct back in 2012 was to try to toughen its regulation, toughen its own internal systems and procedures for rooting out fraud. It then switched tracks, and decided to let the market play more of a role.  This is a major concession, as well as important proof that China’s larger process of economic transformation, of freeing rather than freezing markets, is headed in the correct direction.

As if on cue, this past week’s Wall Street Journal last week digested a section from the Nobel Prize acceptance speech by economist Friedrich Hayek.

“To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm…Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims. ”

I’m delighted China’s IPO market is going to re-open. My own prediction here a couple of months ago was that it IPOs would resume around now, rather than next month. This just goes to show all forms of market timing — whether it’s trying to guess when a stock price has hit its peak or when a stock market itself will change course, and its once omnipotent regulator change its entire approach — is a fool’s errand.

The China IPO Embargo: How and When IPOs May Resume

China IPO

China first slowed its IPO machinery beginning July 2012 and then shut it down altogether almost a year ago. Since then, about the only thing stirring in China’s IPO markets have been the false hopes of various analysts, outside policy experts, stockbrokers, PE bosses, even the world’s most powerful investment bank.  All began predicting as early as January 2013 the imminent resumption of IPOs.

So here we are approaching the end of September 2013 with still no sign of when IPOs will resume in China. What exactly is going on here? Those claiming to know the full answer are mainly “talking through their hat“. Indeed, the most commonly voiced explanation for why IPOs were stopped — that IPOs would resume when China’s stock markets perked up again, after two years of steady decline — looks to be discredited. The ChiNext board, where most of China’s private companies are hoping to IPO, has not only recovered from a slump but hit new all-time highs this summer.

Let me share where I think the IPO process in China is headed, what this sudden, unexplained prolonged stoppage in IPOs has taught us, and when IPOs will resume.

First, the prime causal agent for the block in IPOs was the discovery in late June last year of a massive fraud inside a Chinese company called Guangdong Xindadi Biotechnology.  (Read about it here and here.)

This one bad apple did likely poison the whole IPO process in China, along with the hopes of the then-800 companies on the CSRC waiting list. They all had underwriters in place, audits and other regulatory filings completed and were waiting for the paperwork to be approved and then sell shares on the Shenzhen or Shanghai stock exchanges. That was a prize well worth queuing up for. China’s stock markets were then offering companies some of the world’s highest IPO valuations.

After Xindadi’s phony financials were revealed and its IPO pulled, the IPO approval process was rather swiftly shut down. Since then, the CSRC has gone into internal fix-it mode. This is China, so there are no leaks and no press statements about what exactly is taking place inside the CSRC and what substantive changes are being considered. We do know heads rolled. Xindadi’s accountants and lawyers have been sanctioned and are probably on their way to jail, if they aren’t there already A new CSRC boss was brought in, new procedures to detect and new penalties to discourage false accounting were introduced.  The waiting list was purged of about one-third of the 800 applicants. No new IPO applications have been accepted for over a year.

IPOs will only resume when there is more confidence, not only within the CSRC but among officials higher up, that the next Xindadi will be detected, and China’s capital markets can keep out the likes of Longtop Financial and China MediaExpress, two Chinese companies once quoted on NASDAQ exchange. They, along with others, pumped up their results through false accounting, then failed spectacularly.  Overall, according to McKinsey, investors in U.S.-listed Chinese companies lost 72% of their investment in the last two years.

China’s leadership urgently does not want anything similar to occur in China. That much is certain. How to achieve this goal is less obvious, and also the reason China’s capital market remains, for now, IPO-less.

If there were a foolproof bureaucratic or regulatory way for the CSRC to detect all fraudulent accounting inside Chinese companies waiting to IPO in China,  the CSRC would have found it by now. They haven’t because there isn’t. So, when IPOs resume, we can expect the companies chosen to have undergone the most forensic examination practiced anywhere. The method will probably most approximate the double-blind testing used by the FDA to confirm the efficacy of new medicines.

Different teams, both inside the CSRC and outside, will separately pour over the financials. Warnings will be issued very loudly. Anyone found to be book-cooking, or lets phony numbers get past him,  is going to be dealt with harshly. China, unlike the US, does not have “country club prisons” for white collar felons.

The CSRC process will turn several large industries in China into IPO dead zones, with few if any companies being allowed to go public. The suspect industries will include retail chains, restaurants and catering, logistics, agricultural products and food processing. Any company that uses franchisees to sell or distribute its products will also find it difficult, if not impossible, to IPO in China. In all these cases, transactions are done using cash or informal credit, without proper receipts. That fact alone will be enough to disqualify a company from going public in China.

Pity the many PE firms that earlier invested in companies like this and have yet to exit. They may as well write down to zero the value of these investments.

Which companies will be able to IPO when the markets re-open? First preference will be for SOEs, or businesses that are part-owned by or do most of their business with SOEs. This isn’t really because of some broader policy preference to favor the state sector over private enterprise. It’s simply because SOEs, unlike private companies, are audited annually, and are long accustomed to paper-trailing everything they do. In the CSRC’s new “belt and suspenders” world, it’s mainly only SOEs that look adequately buckled up.

Among private companies, likely favorites will include high-technology companies (software, computer services, biotech), since they tend to have fewer customers (and so are easier to audit) and higher margins than businesses in more traditional industries. High margins matter not only, or even mainly, because they demonstrate competitive advantage. Instead, high margins create more of a profit cushion in case something goes wrong at a business, or some accounting issue is later uncovered.

The CSRC previously played a big part in fixing the IPO share price for each company going public. My guess is, the CSRC is going to pull back and let market forces do most of the work. This isn’t because there’s a new-found faith in the invisible hand. Simply, the problem is the CSRC’s workload is already too burdensome. Another old CSRC policy likely to be scrapped: tight control on the timing of all IPOs, so that on average, one company was allowed to IPO each working day. The IPO backlog is just too long.

The spigot likely will be opened a bit. If so, IPO valuations will likely continue to fall. From a peak in 2009, valuations on a p/e basis had already more than halved to around 35 when the CSRC shut down all IPOs.  IPO valuations in China will stay higher than, for example, those in Hong Kong. But, the gap will likely go on narrowing.

What else can we expect to see once IPOs resume? Less securitized local government borrowing. Over the last 16 months, with lucrative IPO underwriting in hibernation,  China’s investment banks, brokerage houses and securities lawyers all kept busy by helping local government issue bonds. It’s a low margin business, and one not universally approved-of by China’s central government.

How about things that will not change from the way things were until 16 months ago? The CSRC will continue to forbid companies, and their brokers, from doing pre-IPO publicity or otherwise trying to hype the shares before they trade. If first day prices go up or down by what CSRC determines is “too much”, say by over 15%, expect the CSRC to signal its displeasure by punishing the brokerage houses managing the deals.  The CSRC is the lord and master of China’s IPO markets, but a nervous one, stricken by self-doubt.

China needs IPOs because its companies need low-cost sources of growth capital. When IPOs stopped, so too did most private equity investment in China. It’s clear to me this collapse in equity funding has had a negative impact on overall GDP, and Chinese policy-makers’ plans to rebalance its economy away from the state-owned sector. It’s a credit to China’s overall economic dynamism, and the resourcefulness of its entrepreneurs,  that economic growth has held up so well this past 18 months.

IPOs in China are a creature of China’s administrative state. Companies, investors, bankers, are all mainly just bystanders. Right now, the heaviest chop to lift in China’s bureaucracy may be the one to stamp the resumption of IPOs. So, when exactly will IPOs resume? Sometime around Thanksgiving (November 24, 2013) would be my guess.

 

 

Smithfield Foods – Shuanghui International: The Biggest Chinese Acquisition That Isn’t


It is, if voluminous press reports are to be believed, the biggest story, the biggest deal, ever in China-US business history. I’m talking about the announced takeover of America’s largest pork company, Smithfield Foods, by a company called Shuanghui International. The deal, it is said in dozens of media reports, opens the China market to US pork and will transform China’s largest pork producer into a global giant selling Smithfield’s products alongside its own in China, while utilizing the American company’s more advanced methods for pork rearing and slaughtering.

One problem. A Chinese company isn’t buying Smithfield. A shell company based in Cayman Islands is. Instead of a story about “China buying up the world”, this turns out to be a story of a precarious leveraged buyout deal (“LBO”) cooked up by some large global private equity firms looking to borrow their way to a fortune.

The media, along with misstating the facts, are also missing the larger story here. The proposed Smithfield takeover is the latest iteration in the “take private” mania now seizing so many of the PE firms active in China. (See blog posts hereherehere and here.) With China’s own capital markets in crisis and PE investment there at a standstill, the PE firms have turned their attention, however illogically, to finding “undervalued assets” with a China angle on the US stock market. They then attempt an LBO, with the consent of existing management, and with the questionable premise the company will relist or be sold later in China or Hong Kong. The Smithfield deal is the biggest — and perhaps also the riskiest —  one so far.

This shell that is buying Smithfield has no legal or operational connection to Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development (from here on, “Shuanghui China”) , the Chinese pork producer, China’s largest, quoted on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The shell is about as Chinese as I am.

If the deal is completed, Shuanghui China will see no obvious benefit, only an enormous risk. Its Chinese assets are reportedly being used as collateral for the shell company to finance a very highly-leveraged acquisition. The abundant risks are being transferred to Shuanghui China while all the profits will stay inside this separately-owned offshore shell. No profits or assets of Smithfield will flow through to Shuanghui China. Do Shuanghui China’s Chinese minority shareholders know what’s going on here? Does the world’s business media?

Let’s go through this deal. I warn you. It’s a little convoluted. But, do take the time to follow what’s going on here. It’s fascinating, ingenious and maybe also a little nefarious.

First, the buyer of Smithfield is Shuanghui International, a Cayman holding company. It owns the majority of Shuanghui China, the Chinese-quoted pork company. Shuanghui International is owned by a group led by China-focused global PE firm CDH, with smaller stakes owned by Shuanghui China’s senior management,  Goldman Sachs, Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, Kerry Group, and another powerful PE firm focused on China, New Horizon Fund.

CDH, the largest single owner of Shuanghui International,  is definitively not Chinese. It invests capital from groups like Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund , CALPERS, the Rockefeller Foundation, one big Swiss (Partners Group) and one big Liechtenstein (LGT) money manager, along with the private foundation of one of guys who made billions from working at eBay. So too Goldman Sachs, of course, Temasek and New Horizon. They are large PE firms that source most of their capital from institutions, pension fund and endowments in the US, Europe, Southeast Asia and Middle East. (For partial list of CDH and New Horizon Fund Limited Partners click here. )

For the Smithfield acquisition, Shuanghui International (CDH and the others) seem to be putting up about $100mn in new equity. They will also borrow a staggering $4 billion from Bank of China’s international arm to buy out all of Smithfield’s current shareholders.  All the money is in dollars, not Renminbi.

If the deal goes through, Smithfield Foods and Shuanghui China will have a majority shareholder in common. But, nothing else. They are as related as, for example, Burger King and Neiman Marcus were when both were part-owned by buyout firm TPG. The profits and assets of one have no connection to the profits or assets of the other.

Shuanghui International, assuming it’s borrowed the money from Bank of China for three years,  will need to come up with about $1.5 billion in interest and principal payments a year if the deal closes. But, since Shuanghui International has no significant cash flow of its own (it’s an investment holding company), it’s hard to see where that money will come from. Smithfield can’t be much help. It already has a substantial amount of debt on its balance sheet. As part of the takeover plan, the Smithfield debt is being assumed by Morgan Stanley, Shuanghui International’s investment bankers. Morgan Stanley says it plans then to securitize the debt. A large chunk of Smithfield’s future free cash flow ($280mn last year) and cash ($139 mn as of the first quarter of 2013) will likely go to repay the $3 billion in Smithfield debts owed to Morgan Stanley.

A separate issue is whether, under any circumstances, more US pork will be allowed into China. The pork market is very heavily controlled and regulated. There is no likely scenario where US pork comes flooding into China. Yes, the media is right to say Chinese are getting richer and so want to eat more meat, most of all pork. But, mainly, the domestic market in China is reserved for Chinese hog-breeders. It’s an iron staple of China’s rural economy. These peasants are not going to be thrown under the bus so Smithfield’s new Cayman Islands owner can sell Shuanghui China lots of Armour bacon.

Total borrowing for this deal is around $7 billion, double Smithfield’s current market cap. Shuanghui International’s piece, the $4 billion borrowed from Bank of China, will go to current Smithfield shareholders to buy them out at a 31% premium.  Shuanghui International owns shares in Shuanghui China, and two of its board members are Shuanghui China top executives, but not much else. So where will the money come from to pay off the Bank of China loans? Good question.

Can Shuanghui International commandeer Shuanghui China’s profits to repay the debt? In theory, perhaps. But,  it’s highly unlikely such an arrangement would be approved by China’s securities regulator, the CSRC. It would not likely accept a plan where Shuanghui China’s profits would be exported to pay off debts owed by a completely independent non-Chinese company. Shuanghui International could sell its shares in Shuanghui China to pay back the debt. But, doing so would likely mean Shuanghui International loses majority control, as well as flooding the Shenzhen stock market with a lot of Shuanghui China’s thinly-traded shares.

Why, you ask, doesn’t Shuanghui China buy Smithfield? Such a deal would make more obvious commercial and financial sense. Shuanghui China’s market cap is triple Smithfield’s. Problem is, as a domestic Chinese company listed on China’s stock exchange, Shuanghui China would need to run the gauntlet of CSRC, Ministry of Commerce and SAFE approvals. That would possibly take years and run a risk of being turned down.  Shuanghui International, as a private Caymans company controlled by global PE firms,  requires no Chinese approvals to take over a US pork company.

The US media is fixated on whether the proposed deal will get the US government’s go ahead. But, as the new potential owner is not Chinese after all — neither its headquarters nor its ownership — then on what grounds could the US government object? The only thing Chinese-controlled about Shuanghui International is that the members of the Board of Directors were all likely born in China. The current deal may perhaps violate business logic but it doesn’t violate US national security.

So, how will things look if Shuanghui International’s LBO offer is successful?  Shuanghui China will still be a purely-Chinese pork producer with zero ownership in Smithfield, but with its assets perhaps pledged to secure the takeover debts of its majority shareholder. All the stuff about Shuanghui China getting access to Smithfield pork or pig-rearing and slaughtering technology, as well as a Smithfield-led upgrade of China’s pork industry,  is based on nothing solid. The pork and the technology will be owned by Shuanghui China’s non-Chinese majority shareholder. It can, if it chooses, sell pork or technology to Shuanghui China. But, Shuanghui China can achieve the same thing now. In fact, it is already a reasonably big buyer of Smithfield pork. Overall, China gets less than 1% of its pork from the US.

If the deal goes through, the conflicts of interest between Shuanghui International and Shuanghui China will be among the most fiendish I’ve ever seen. Shuanghui China’s senior managers, including chairman Wan Long, are going to own personally a piece of Smithfield, and so will have divided loyalties. They will likely continue to manage Shuanghui China and collect salaries there, while also having an ownership and perhaps a management role in Smithfield. How will they set prices between the two fully separate Shuanghuis? Who will watch all this? Isn’t this a case Shuanghui China’s insiders lining their own pockets while their employer gets nothing?

On its face, this Smithfield deal looks to be among the riskiest of all the  “take private” deals now underway. That is saying something since several of them involve Chinese companies suspected of accounting frauds, while the PE firms in at least two cases (China Transinfo and Le Gaga) doing the PE version of a Ponzi Scheme by seeking to use new LP money to bail out old, severely troubled deals they’ve done.

Let’s then look at the endgame, if the Smithfield deal goes through. Shuanghui International, as currently structured,  will not, cannot, be the long-term owner of Smithfield. The PE firms will need to exit. CDH, New Horizon, Goldman Sachs and Temasek have been an indirect shareholders of Shuanghui China for many years — seven in the case of CDH and Goldman.

According to what I’m told, Shuanghui International is planning to relist Smithfield in Hong Kong in “two to three years”. The other option on the table, for Shuanghui International to sell Smithfield (presumably at a mark-up) to Shuanghui China, would face enormous, probably insurmountable,  legal, financial and regulatory hurdles.

The IPO plan, as of now, looks crackpot. Hong Kong’s IPO market has basically been moribund for over a year. IPO valuations in Hong Kong are anyway far lower than the 20X p/e Shuanghui International is paying for Smithfield in the US. A separate tactical question for Shuanghui International and its investment bankers: why would you believe Hong Kong stock market investors in two to three years will pay more than US investors are now paying for a US company, with most of its assets, profits and revenues in the US?

But, even getting to IPO will require Shuanghui International to do something constructive about paying off the enormous $4 billion in debt it is taking on. How will that happen? Shuanghui International is saying Smithfield’s current American management will stay on. Why would one assume they can run it far more profitably in the future than they are running it now? If it all hinges on “encouraging” Shuanghui China to buy more Smithfield products, or pay big licensing fees, so Shuanghui International can earn larger profits, I do wonder how that will be perceived by both Shuanghui China’s minority investors, to say nothing of the CSRC. The CSRC has a deep institutional dislike of related party transactions.

Smithfield has lately been under pressure from some of its shareholders to improve its performance. That may have precipitated the discussions that led to the merger announcement with Shuanghui International. Smithfield’s CEO, C. Larry Pope, stands to earn somewhere between $17mn-$32mn if the deal goes through. He will stay on as CEO. His fiscal 2012 salary, including share and option awards, was $12.9mn.

Typical of such LBO deals, the equity holders (in this case, CDH, Goldman, Temasek, Kerry Group, Shuanghui China senior management, New Horizon) would stand to make a killing, if they can pay down the debt and then find a way to either sell or relist Smithfield at a mark-up. If that happens, profits will go to the Shuanghui insiders along with the partners in the PE firms, CALPERS, the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations, Goldman Sachs shareholders and other LPs. Shuanghui China? Nothing, as far as I can tell. China’s pork business will look pretty much exactly as it does today.

In their zeal to proclaim a trend — that of Chinese buying US companies — the media seems to have been blinded to the actual mechanics of this deal. They also seem to have been hoodwinked by the artfully-written press release issued when the deal was announced. It mentions that Shuanghui International is the ” majority shareholder of Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development Co. (SZSE: 000895), which is China’s largest meat processing enterprise and China’s largest publicly traded meat products company as measured by market capitalization.” This then morphed into a story about “China’s biggest ever US takeover”, and much else besides about how China’s pork industry will now be upgraded through this deal, about dead pigs floating in the river in Shanghai, about Chinese companies’ targeting US and European brands.

China may indeed one day become a big buyer of US companies. But, that isn’t what’s happening here. Instead, the world’s leading English-language business media are suffering a collective hallucination.

Goldman Sachs Predicts 349 IPOs in China in 2013 — Brilliant Analysis? Or Wishful Thinking?

We’re one-quarter of the way through 2013 and so far no IPOs in China. Capital flows to private companies remain paralyzed. Never fear, says Goldman Sachs. In a 24-page research report published January 23rd of this year (click here to read an excerpt), Goldman projects there will be 349 IPOs in China this year, a record number. Its prediction is based on Goldman’s calculation that 2013 IPO proceeds will reach a fixed percentage (in this case 0.7%) of 2012 year-end total Chinese stock market capitalization.

This formula provides Goldman Sachs with a precise amount of cash to be raised this year in China from IPOs: Rmb 180bn ($29 billion), an 80% increase over total IPO proceeds raised in China last year. It then divvies up that Rmb 180 billion into its projected 349 IPOs,  with 93 to be listed in China’s main Shanghai stock exchange, 171 on the SME board in Shenzhen, and 85 on the Chinext (创业板)exchange. To get to Goldman’s numbers will require levels of daily IPO activity that China has never seen.

The report features 35 exhibits, graphs, charts and tables, including scatter plots, cross-country comparisons, time series data on what is dubbed “IPO ratios (IPO value as % of last year-end’s total market cap)”. It’s quite a statistical tour de force, with the main objective seeming to be to allay concerns that too many new IPOs in China will hurt overall China share price levels. In other words, Goldman is convinced a key issue that is now blocking IPOs in China is one of supply and demand. The Goldman calculation, therefore, shows that even the 349 new IPOs, taking Rmb180 billion in new money from investors, shouldn’t have a particularly adverse impact on overall share price levels in China.

I’ve heard versions of this analysis (generally not as comprehensive or data-driven as Goldman’s) multiple times over the last year, as China IPO activity first slowed dramatically, then was shut down completely six months ago. The CSRC itself has never said emphatically why all IPOs have stopped. So, everyone, including Goldman,  is to some extent guessing. Goldman’s guess, however, comes accessorized with this complex formula that uses December 31, 2012 share prices as a predictor for the scale of IPOs in 2013.

I’m grateful to a friend at China PE firm CDH for sending me the Goldman report a few days ago. I otherwise wouldn’t have seen it. I’m not sure if Goldman Sachs released any follow-up reports or notes since on China IPOs. Goldman was the first Wall Street firm to win an underwriting license in China. It’s impossible to say how much Goldman’s business has been hurt by the near-year-long drought in China IPOs.

Goldman shows courage, it seems to me, in making a precise projection on the number of IPOs in China this year, and relying on their own mathematical equation to derive that number. Here’s how all IPO activity in China since 1994 looks when the Goldman formula is plotted:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not a gambling man, and personally hope to see as many IPOs as possible this year of Chinese companies. Even a fool knows the easiest way to lose money in financial markets is to be on the other side of a bet with Goldman Sachs. That said, I’m prepared to take a shot.  I’d be delighted to make a bet with the Goldman team that wrote the report. A spread bet, with “over/under” on the 349 number. I take the “under”. We settle up on January 1, 2014. Any takers?

My own guess – and that’s all it is –  is that there will be around 120 IPOs in China this year. But, this prediction admittedly does not rely on any formula like Goldman Sachs and so lacks exactitude. In fact, I approach things from a very different direction. I don’t think the only, or even main,  reason there are no IPOs in China is because of concerns about how new IPOs might impact overall share prices.

I put as much, or more, importance on rebuilding the CSRC’s capacity to keep fraudulent companies from going public in China. The CSRC seems to have had quite stellar record in this regard until last summer, when a company called Guangdong Xindadi Biotechnology got through the CSRC approval process and was in the final stages of preparing for its IPO. Reports in the Chinese media began to cast doubt on the company and its finances. Within weeks, the Xindadi IPO was pulled by the CSRC. The company and its accountants are now under criminal investigation.

The truth is still murky. But, if press reports are to be believed, even in part, Xindadi’s financial accounts were as fraudulent as some of the more notorious offshore Chinese listed companies like Sino-Forest and Longtop Financial targeted by short sellers and specialist research houses in the US.  The CSRC process — with its multiple levels of “double-blind” control, audit, verification —   was designed to eliminate any potential for this sort of thing to happen in China’s capital markets.

But, it seems to have happened. So, in my mind, getting the CSRC IPO approval process back on track is a key variable determining when, and how many, new IPOs will occur this year in China. This cannot be rendered statistically. The head of the CSRC was just moved to another job, which complicates things perhaps even more and may lead to longer delays before IPOs are resumed and get back to the old levels.

How far is the CSRC going now to try to make its IPO approval process more able to detect fraud? It has instructed accountants and lawyers to redo, at their own expense, the audits and legal diligence on companies they represent now on the CSRC waiting list.  Over 100 companies just dropped off the CSRC IPO approval waiting list, leaving another 650 or so stranded in the approval process, along with the 100 companies that have already gotten the CSRC green light but have been unable to complete their IPO.

A friend at one Chinese underwriter also told us recently that meetings between CSRC officials, companies waiting for IPO approval and their advisers are now video-taped. A team of facial analysis experts on the CSRC payroll then reviews the tapes to decide if anyone is telling a lie. If true, it opens a new chapter in the history of securities regulation.

If, as I believe,  restoring the institutional credibility of the CSRC approval process is a prerequisite for the resumption of major IPO activity in China, a statistical exhibit-heavy analysis like Goldman’s is only going to capture some, not all, of the key variables. Human behavior, fear of punishment, organizational function and dysfunction, as well as darker psychological motives also play a large role. An expert in behavioral finance might be more well-equipped to predict accurately when and how many IPOs China will have this year than Goldman’s crack team of portfolio strategists.

Five Minutes with Peter Fuhrman — Private Equity International Magazine

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The chairman of research firm China First Capital discusses China’s growing exit problem, and its possible impact on private equity in 2013.

A growing concern for private equity in China is the lack of IPO exits. How do you see that playing out in 2013?

“I don’t expect any substantial improvement or change in the problems that are blocking IPO exits domestically and internationally. And because the China private equity industry is significantly over-allocated to IPO exits, along with diminishing fund life, [this] will be a time of increasing difficulty for GPs. At the same time, the inability to exit will also continue to prevent [GPs] from doing new deals, and that is where the greatest economic harm will be done. Of course I don’t trivialise the importance of the $100 billion that’s locked away in unexited PE investments, but the real victims of this are going to be the private entrepreneurs of China. At this point, over half of all [China’s] GDP activity is generated from the private sector. The private equity money and the IPO money is what [businesses] need to grow, because private companies in China basically can’t borrow. They need private equity money and IPO proceeds to continue to thrive. ”  More…

China Private Equity Secondaries — the new China First Capital research report

 

In the current difficult market environment for private equity in China, secondary transactions provide a valuable way forward.  Staging successful IPOs or M&A will remain severely challenging. This is the conclusion of a proprietary research report recently completed and published by China First Capital. An abridged version is available by clicking here.  You can also visit the Research Reports section of the China First Capital website.

Secondaries potentially offer some of the best risk-adjusted investment opportunities, as well as the most certain and efficient way for private equity and venture capital firms to exit investments. And yet these secondary deals still remain rare. As a result, General Partners, Limited Partners and investee companies, as well as China’s now-large private equity industry,  are all at risk from serious adverse outcomes.

This new CFC research report is a data-driven examination of the potential market for secondary transactions in China, the significant scope for profit on all sides of the transaction, as well as the no less significant obstacles to the development of an efficient, liquid, stable long-term market in these secondary positions in China.

The report’s conclusion is that secondaries have the potential to benefit all three core constituencies in the China PE industry — GPs, LPs and investee companies. The universe of deals potentially available for secondary exit is large, over 7,500 unexited investments made in China by PE firms since 2000.

However, the greatest potential for both PE sellers and buyers across the short to medium term is in a group of select companies CFC terms “Quality Secondaries“. These are PE investments that fulfill four criteria:

  1. unexited and not in IPO approval process, domestically or internationally
  2. investee companies have grown well (+25% a year) since the original round of PE investment, and have continuing scope to expand enterprise value and achieve eventual capital markets or trade sale exit in 3-6 year time frame
  3. businesses are sound from legal and regulatory perspective, have effective corporate governance, and a majority owner  that will support secondary sale to another PE institution
  4. current PE investor seeks secondary exit because of fund life or portfolio management reasons

CFC’s  analysis reveals that the potential universe of “Quality Secondaries” is at least 200 companies. This number will likely grow by approx. 15%-25% a year, as funds reach latter stage of their lives and if other exit options remain limited.

At the current juncture, in this market environment, and assuming “Quality Secondary” deals are done at market valuations, these investment represent some of the better values to be found in growth capital investing in China.  DD risk is significantly lower than in primary deals, and contingent risks (opportunity costs, and legal risks of pursuing other non-IPO exits) are lower.

Despite the current lack of significant deal-making activity in this area, secondaries will likely go from current low levels to gain a meaningful share of all PE exits in China.

The secondaries market in China will have unique factors compared to the US, Europe and elsewhere. There will likely be limited investor interest in any secondary deal involving a Chinese company or a portfolio that has underperformed since PE investment, or could otherwise be characterized as a  “distress” situation.

Quality Secondaries transactions in China will involve PE investors “cherry-picking” good companies at fair valuations.  The primary motivation for selling PEs is misalignment between its remaining fund life and the time required and risk inherent in achieving  domestic or offshore IPO or trade sale exit during that shortened time frame.

In contrast with secondary deals done outside China, we do not expect to see much activity involving the sale of all or most of a PE firm’s portfolio of investments. Specialist secondary firms operating elsewhere (e.g. Coller Capital, Harbourvest) do not currently have the experience or manpower in China to take on the complexities of managing and liquidating all or most of an existing portfolio of minority investments.

Rather, we expect those PEs with strong operating performance in growth capital investing in China to exploit favorable market conditions by becoming active buyers of Quality Secondaries.   GPs that prefer larger deals, (+USD25mn/Rmb200mn), should be particularly interested in Quality Secondaries, since company scale and investment amount will likely be larger, on average, than primary deals in China.

Selling PEs can pursue exit strategies based on option of selling either part or all of a successful unexited deal. A part liquidation in Quality Secondary transaction can mitigate risk and return capital to LPs while still retaining future upside. A full exit through secondary can increase fund’s realized IRR and so assist future fundraising. Importantly, a selling PE needs to act before pricing leverage is transferred mainly to buyers — generally this means secondary deals should be evaluated and priced in market when fund still has minimum of two years left of active period.

While clearly the most acute need for exit will be investments made before 2008, more recent investments need also to be assessed based on current market conditions. Many GPs are adopting what looks to be an unhedged strategy across a portfolio of invested deals waiting for capital markets conditions to improve.

In particular, much of this “wait and see” approach is based on the hope that Hong Kong’s once-vibrant, now-moribund IPO market for Chinese companies returns to its earlier state. The US stock market will certainly remain off limits to most Chinese companies for a long time to come. Exit through China’s domestic stock market is now seriously blocked by bureaucratic slowdowns and an approval backlog that even under optimistic scenarios could take three to five years to clear.

The need for diversification is no less paramount for exits than entries. Many of the same PEs that wisely spread their LPs money across a range of industries, stages and deal sizes, have become over-reliant now on  a single path to exit: the Hong Kong IPO.  By itself, such dependence on a single exit path is risky. In the current environment, it looks even more so.

The flood of Chinese IPOs in Hong Kong basically came to a halt a year ago.  When they do resume, it may prove challenging for all but the best and biggest Chinese companies to successfully issue shares there. What will become of the other deals? How will GPs and LPs profit from investments already made? That’s the focus on this new report, titled, “China Secondaries:  The Necessary & Attractive Exit For Private Equity Deals in China“.

 

China Private Equity Secondaries — New York Times, Bloomberg, CNNMoney

Dual

It is imperative for the private equity industry in China to develop an efficient, liquid market for secondaries. Our goal is both to facilitate an active dialogue, as well as help bring this about. Only by breaking the current logjam of no exits in China PE can money again start to flow in significant amounts to capital-hungry private companies. No less than the future fitness of China’s entrepreneurial private sector is at stake.

In the last several days, along with the Wall Street Journal article posted yesterday, five other financial media (New York Times, Bloomberg, AVCJ, PEI, CNN Money) published stories on this topic, referencing research results from China First Capital. I’m pleased to share them.

Private Equity in China: Which Way Out?

HONG KONG — Welcome to the private equity game in China: you can buy in anytime you like, but you can never leave. At least, that is how it is starting to seem for many of the firms that bought in big during the boom of last decade.

Starting from a base of almost nothing in 2000, global private equity funds and their start-up local counterparts rushed into the Chinese market – completing nearly 10,000 deals worth a combined $230 billion from 2001 to 2012, according to a report released this week by China First Capital, a boutique investment bank based in the southern city of Shenzhen.More…

 

Private-equity funds in China are still holding 82 percent of the companies they’ve invested in since 2007, as the frozen market for initial public offerings keeps them from exiting, a study showed.

Funds hold 6,584 companies after disposing of 1,445 and seeing 20 go bankrupt, according to a report from China First Capital, a Shenzhen-based firm that advises on private equity and mergers. Investors still hold companies valued at $94.3 billion, compared with a total of $194.7 billion, according to public data compiled by the firm and its own research. More...

 

 

At least 200 private equity portfolio companies in China are attractive targets for potential secondary buyers and the number is likely to grow 15-25% per year as funds come to the end of their lives and find that exit options are still limited.

These companies represent the cream of a much larger pool of investments that are as yet un-exited by Chinese PE investors, according to a proprietary study by specialist investment bank China First Capital. It estimates that more than 7,500 portfolio companies remain in private equity firms’ portfolios from investments made since 2000.  More…

 

As other exit avenues for private equity dry up in China, GP-to-GP secondaries could be the only option for the 7,500 unexited portfolio
companies, according to a recent study from China First Capital.

China has 7,550 unexited private equity investments totaling $100 billion that will soon have to be realised through routes other than the traditional IPO, according to a recent study from China First Capital.
As fund lives begin to expire, Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive of CFC, believes the standout option will be GP-to-GP secondary transactions. This is especially true for RMB funds, which have a three-to-five year life rather than the ten years typical with US dollar funds. More…

China’s stalled market for new share listings is severely limiting the ability of private equity funds to cash out their
investments in the country, according to a new research report from China First Capital.
The Shenzhen-based investment bank analyzed more than 9,000 private equity and venture capital deals completed in
China since 2001, and found that more than $100 billion — much from the U.S. — remains invested. More…

 

Two New CFC Research Reports

China First Capital (中国首创)published two new research reports, one in English and one Chinese. Both are now available for download here. The contents are different, as is the focus.

To download the English report, titled “Private Equity in China 2012: The Pace of Change Quickens“, Click here

For the Chinese report, “2012-2013 中国私募股权融资与市场趋势” Click here

In fact, “No Exit” would be the more appropriate title for a report about private equity in China this year. Jean-Paul Sartres famous play of that name is a conversation between three dead people stuck in hell. They are eternally damned. PE funds currently stuck inside Chinese investments with no way to exit are not in such a hopelessly miserable situation. But, some may be feeling that way.

Over the course of the last twelve months, first the US stock market, then Hong Kong’s, and finally China’s own domestic bourse all pretty much slammed the door shut on IPOs for Chinese companies. In previous years, over 300 Chinese companies would IPO. This year, that number will fall by at least 80%, maybe more. Stock markets in the US, Hong Kong and China all have slightly different explanations for the sharp drop-off in IPOs of Chinese companies. But, a common thread runs throughout: a deep distrust among investors and regulators of the accuracy of Chinese companies’ financial accounts.  The view is that a Chinese company’s IPO prospectus may be as much a work of fiction as the Sartre play. Under such circumstances, companies can’t IPO, and PE firms can’t find buyers for their illiquid shares.

China’s domestic stock markets were the last to bar the door against Chinese IPOs. Until mid-year, China’s all-powerful securities regulator the CSRC was continuing to process and approve IPO applications, and companies were going public at a rate of about five a week. Then, in July, the whole complex system of approving and placing IPO shares basically stopped functioning. A Chinese company called Xindadi (新大地) exposed a serious defect at the heart of the regulatory system in China. The CSRC’s primarily function is to stop any bad company with dodgy accounts from accessing China’s domestic capital markets. Layer upon bureaucratic layer is piled up inside the CSRC to prevent officials from conspiring together to let a bad company’s application pass through. The underwriter, the lawyers and accountants are also held legally accountable to detect and expose bad companies. Yet Xindadi managed to slip through.

Xindadi’s IPO application was approved by the CSRC and the company was waiting its turn to go public when media reports surfaced that described a rather clumsy, though, nearly-successful fraud. Xindadi’s financial accounts  turned out to be fake from top to bottom. Xindadi’s business model is aptly summarized by comments made nearly a century ago by the US Federal Trade Commission about another rogue outfit, ” fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, dishonesty, breach of trust and oppression.”

The Xindadi IPO was pulled before the underwriters could sell any shares. The CSRC went into a kind of post-traumatic shock from which it’s yet to recover. It basically stopped approving new IPOs in most cases. Meanwhile the number of Chinese companies who’ve filed for IPO continues to lengthen, and now is over 800. If and when the CSRC goes back to its previous rate of approving IPOs, which isn’t likely anytime soon,  it would take four years to clear this backlog.

Predictably, for PE firms in China,  “No Exit” has now turned into “No Entrance”. Not knowing when IPO windows will reopen, PE firms have mainly stopped doing new deals.  Chinese private sector companies, for whom PE is the main source of growth capital, are feeling the pinch. Equity capital, even for good companies,  is difficult, if not impossible, to come by. The abrupt cut-off of PE financing will certainly lead to slower growth and fewer new jobs in China.

IPOs of Chinese companies in the US, Hong Kong and China have been an important, if little recognized, part of China’s growth story over the last decade. They fueled the boom in private equity  — both the creation over the last five years of hundreds of new PE firms and the raising of tens of billions of dollars in new capital —  and with it, a huge increase in total net new investment into China’s private sector companies. Chinese investment, particularly spending by state-owned companies, and government-backed infrastructure projects, is still largely financed by bank lending. But, the equity capital provided by PE firms has played a key part in financing the growth of larger private companies in China.  PE money has underpinned increased competition, choice and economic dynamism in China.

Now that gusher of PE money has turned to a trickle.  What next for private equity and corporate finance in China? The two new CFC reports summarize some of the main developments and trends in private equity and capital markets this year, and makes some predictions about the year to come. The Chinese-language report was written, as are other CFC Chinese reports, for the specific use and reference of domestic Chinese business-owners and senior management. The key message is that it’s getting far more difficult for companies to raise money, either through private placement or IPO.

The English report focuses more heavily on what’s going on in the private equity industry in China. Unlike many, I remain overall extremely positive about the fundamentals in China, that PE investment in China’s growing private sector companies represents the best risk-adjusted investment opportunity in the world. While exits through IPO are far fewer, China’s strongest investment asset remains firmly in place:  the compounded genius of its millions of private entrepreneurs to create wealth and push forward positive social and economic change.

 

Jiuding Capital: Local Boy Makes Good Atop China’s PE Industry

In China’s PE jungle, a mouse is king. Started just five years ago, Kunwu Jiuding Capital (昆吾九鼎投资管理有限公) has probably achieved the best results and best returns for investors in China’s private equity industry over the last three years. Indeed, few if any PE investors anywhere have out-performed Jiuding in recent years. (For a more recent analysis on challenges facing Jiuding, please click here. )

With only around $1 billion in assets, Jiuding is around 1%-2% the size of the leading global PE firms like Blackstone, KKR, Bain Capital and Carlyle. Yet, none of these firms matches Jiuding’s recent record at investing, exiting, and pocketing big returns in China. The firm is about as different from the likes of TPG, KKR and Carlyle as firms in the same industry can get. Jiuding isn’t staffed with Ivy League MBAs, operates out of modest offices, makes no claim to particular expertise in business operations, nor does it reward its partners with hundreds of millions in profits from carried interest.

Jiuding has mastered a form of PE investing devoid of glamour, prestige or deal-making genius. Rather than “Barbarians at the Gate“, think more “Accountants at the Cash Till“. Jiuding may want to savor its current status as “king of the China PE jungle”. The money-making formula Jiuding has used so effectively is getting tougher all the time.

The Jiuding investment method is blunt: it invests only in Chinese companies it believes will very soon thereafter get approved for domestic IPO. It’s not trying to guess which industries will flourish, or how Chinese consumers will spend their money in the future. It makes no bets on unproved technologies, or companies that may be growing fast, but are still years away from an IPO. Its investment technique is based on reproducing internally, as much as possible, the lengthy, opaque approval IPO process of China’s all-powerful securities regulator the CSRC.

Jiuding focuses more on guessing what the CSRC will do, rather than how a particular company will fare. This way, it hopes to capture a big valuation differential between its entry price and exit price after IPO. At its high point two years ago, there was a ten-fold gap between Jiuding’s entry and exit multiples. Jiuding bought in at a p/e of less than 10X, and could exit at over 80X. Though share prices and p/e multiples have fallen, the gap remains ample, still under 10X going in, and a likely 25X-30X going out.

Here’s the way it works: the CSRC IPO approval process can take anywhere from two to five years. Jiuding times its investment as close as legally permissible to the time when the company will file for IPO. It then gets to work doing everything it can to improve the likelihood of CSRC approval, attending meetings at the CSRC, lobbying backstage. When things go smoothly, Jiuding can enter and exit an investment in three years, including the mandatory one-year lockup after IPO.

The average hold time for other PE firms investing in China can be as long as six to eight years. These other firms are willing to invest earlier and then help the company transition, often over a two to three year period, to full tax and regulatory compliance. This is a prerequisite before filing for IPO. Change in China is perpetual, sudden, frenetic. The longer a PE firm holds an investment, the greater the risk some change in the rules, or the domestic market, or the exchange rate, or the competitive landscape will ruin a once-strong company.

These uncertainties, as well as the significant risk a Chinese company will not pass CSRC’s IPO approval process, are the two largest China PE investment risks that Jiuding tries to eliminate. For Jiuding, this means a hyper-technical focus on whether a company is paying all its taxes and whether its main customer is actually the founder’s brother-in-law. In other words, are there serious related party transactions? This is often the main reason the CSRC turns down an IPO application.

Other PEs, particularly the global giants,  take a different approach. They expend huge energy on the process of analyzing and predicting the future course of a company’s products, markets, competitive position. This involves a lot of brain power and also some guesswork. The results are mixed. A lot of deals never close, because the PE firm, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and lots of man-hours, can’t complete due diligence. Others will never reach the stage of even applying for IPO, let alone getting approval.

Jiuding seems perfectly-adapted to the Chinese investment terrain. When its process works, its bets pay off handsomely, often delivering returns of at least three times capital invested. Jiuding calls this a “PE factory method”. It tries to systematize as much of the investment process as possible. Jiuding has a huge staff of at least 250 people, ten times the size of other PEs in China. They are kept busy doing this work of collecting company data and then simulating the CSRC’s approval process. It invites its LPs, mainly wealthy Chinese bosses, to participate in deal screening and approval. If the majority of LPs doesn’t approve of a deal, it doesn’t get done. In the PE industry, this is often known as “letting the lunatics run the asylum”.

To be sure, Jiuding doesn’t always get it right. It does more deals each year than just about every other PE firm in China. Quite a few will flame out before IPO. But, Jiuding will usually get its original investment back, by forcing companies to buy back the shares. Meantime, its IPO hit rate is high, as far as I can tell. The company discloses information only sporadically, and its website lists only fourteen IPOs. Its actual tally is certainly far higher. Jiuding regards everything about its business — its portfolio of investments, its total capital, its staff size — as commercial secrets.

Jiuding differs in another important way from larger, better-known PE firms: it helps itself to less of its LPs’ money . Jiuding takes a lower management fee, usually a one-time 3% charge, rather than annual 1%-3%, and awards itself with a smaller carry on successful deals. Jiuding’s almost as efficient at raising money as it is investing it. It’s already raised at least ten different funds, including, recently, a dollar one.

With everything going so well, Jiuding, and its stripped-down approach to PE investing, looks unstoppable. But, there are some signs of serious problems ahead for Jiuding. Its main problems now aren’t raising money or even finding good companies. Partly, it’s a challenge familiar to most successful Chinese companies, including many Jiuding has invested in: copycats start springing up everywhere. In the last two years, hundreds of new Renminbi PE firms were founded. Many are trying to duplicate Jiuding’s formula. They also focus on companies ready to apply for IPO, and also try to anticipate the way the CSRC will rule on the application. Jiuding needs to fight harder now to win deals, and often does this by agreeing to invest at higher price than others. That will inevitably lower potential returns.

The second, larger problem is the CSRC’s IPO approval process itself. It is becoming slower, and also even more impenetrable and unpredictable, even to the savants at Jiuding. It’s harder now for Jiuding to get in and out of deals quickly, a key to its success. The backlog of Chinese companies with CSRC approval and waiting to IPO is now at around 500. In most cases, that means a wait of at least two years after the laborious CSRC process is complete. A lot can go wrong during that time. So, an investor like Jiuding will need to understand, before going in, more about a company and its longer-term prospects.

In China’s PE market, where good companies are plentiful and IPO exits are limited, Jiuding has prospered by focusing more on understanding the regulator than on understanding a company’s business model and industry. It never needed to bother much with monitoring the day-to-day dramas of running a company, or offering sage advice as a board member, or helping a company expand its partnerships and improve marketing. Yet, all this is becoming more and more necessary. These aren’t skills Jiuding has mastered. Who has? The same big global PE firms (including Carlyle, TPG, Blackstone, KKR, Bain Capital) that Jiuding has lately run circles around. Jiuding’s “PE factory” must adapt or die.

 

 

The CSRC Disciplines the IPO Process in China

By turns mysterious, unpredictable, overextended yet under-experienced, byzantine in its complexity and frustrating for all who deal with it, the CSRC (“证监会”) comes in for a lot of criticism. The Chinese stock market regulator makes and enforces the rules for all 3,200 public companies traded on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges. Though modeled after the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the CSRC’s remit is far broader. It alone decides which companies will be allowed to IPO. It plays gatekeeper, not just referee.

To win CSRC approval, it is by no means enough, as it usually is in the US, to have an underwriter and a few years of audited financials. All of the seven hundred IPO aspirants waiting in the queue for CSRC approval have these. Only a small minority will manage to jump through all the CSRC hoops and win approval for an IPO. The CSRC makes its own judgment about a company’s business model, future prospects, management caliber, shareholder structure, customer concentration, competitive position, planned use of IPO proceeds, the cleanliness of any outside investor’s money, related-party transactions, the appropriate IPO valuation, even the marital status of a company’s founder.

In effect, the CSRC is doing its utmost to take the “caveat” out of “caveat emptor”, by detecting ahead of time any taint that could damage a company’s post-IPO process. The CSRC can of its own volition forbid companies in an industry to IPO, as it did recently with real estate developers and private steel companies.

The purpose is to starve them of capital. It can also, just as suddenly, reverse its prior course and allow once-blacklisted industries to access public markets. It seems to be doing this now with Chinese companies in the restaurant industry. It can also play favorites. Companies from China’s restive Xinjiang region are currently given special priority, and shown more leniency, in approving IPOs.

The CSRC’s approach to IPO screening is not dissimilar to the way Goldman Sachs chooses companies to underwrite. Each is trying to select “sure bets”, companies that won’t prove an embarrassment a few year’s down the road. Goldman does it to make money and keep its high reputation, the CSRC to avoid social upheaval. Keeping China’s stock markets scandal free is a matter of paramount national importance. So far, the CSRC has succeeded at this.

Accounting and disclosure scandals have become commonplace for Chinese companies quoted in Hong Kong and the US. Not in China. Credit the CSRC’s thorough IPO filtering. The CSRC also keeps a tight lid on the supply of IPOs each year to prevent new issues from weighing down overall market valuation.

There is another overlooked benefit to the CSRC’s stringent IPO approval process.  It weeds out the flim-flammery, hype and exaggerated salesmanship from the IPO process. Any company approved by the CSRC for an IPO is all but guaranteed a successful closing. The underwriters have it easy. They barely need to break a sweat.

The same is most definitely not the case in the US and Hong Kong, for example. There, regulatory approval is the first and simplest step in an expensive, tightly-choreographed, quite often unsuccessful effort by underwriters to drum up investor interest and get them to bite. It involves a fair bit of hucksterism.  In the US,  IPO underwriters are salespeople. In China, they are order-takers.

Chinese underwriters have limited discretion over IPO pricing. For one thing, the CSRC is watching, and can deal severely with underwriters who seek what the CSRC decides are “overpriced” valuations. It seems like everyone in China knows where IPO valuation multiples are at any given time. At the moment, they are around 35 times last year’s net income for smaller companies listing on the Chinext, and around 25 times for larger companies.  The CSRC has grown increasingly vocal in criticizing big first day gains for newly-IPO’d companies.

The CSRC does not approve IPO applications of companies that don’t have at least two years of profits or ones that have huge numbers of users, but comparatively light profits. That is to say, no Facebook, Groupon or Linkedin types are allowed. This, too, removes a lot of the investment banking sales wizardry seen in the US during the IPO process.

One positive result of this is that underwriters in China are limited in what they can promise companies to win an IPO mandate. Good, bad or indifferent, an underwriter is likely to get just about the same price for shares it sells in an IPO. So, basically, winning mandates in China comes down to a lot of wining and dining, Karaoke and cartons of expensive cigarettes.

Since the CSRC’s approval process can drag on for up to two to three years, underwriters also have little, to no, say over IPO timing. The risk in the IPO process in China is, overwhelmingly, the risk of rejection by the CSRC. The CSRC rules mean underwriters and company are in it together. The underwriter needs to be active throughout the long process, and present at many meetings with the CSRC. The underwriters put their neck on the line by providing guarantees to the CSRC on the soundness of a company’s financials and pre-IPO disclosure.

Having seen the process from both angles, ten years ago as CEO of a US company during part of its IPO process, and now in China, working with clients seeking CSRC approval, my view is that the CSRC’s method has a lot to recommend itself. It puts far more focus on the company and less on its investment banker. An IPO in China is not so much a test of an underwriter’s marketing prowess and placement network, but more state-directed capital deployment to companies deemed by the CSRC to be most suitable and fit to receive a slice of  the public’s savings. Who the underwriter is and how they operate are basically afterthoughts.

This may offend against the market principles of a lot of financial professionals, that the only real IPO test a company should need to pass is if an investor will send a check to buy its shares. But, “safety first” seems a good principle for China at this stage. Private companies have only had access to China’s capital markets, in a substantial way, for two years, with the opening of the Chinext (创业板)board.

The stock market is now –and will remain — the lowest-cost way to finance the growth of private enterprise in China. Everyone stands to lose if confidence is badly shaken, or a scandal takes down one of these once-private now-public companies. For this reason, though many investment professionals are mystified by its decisions and sudden about-faces, the CSRC earns my support and respect.

CFC’s New Research Report on Capital Allocation and Private Equity Trends in China

 

Capital allocation, not the amount of capital,  is the largest financial challenge confronting the private equity industry in China. Capital continues to flood into the PE sector in China. 2011 was a record year, with over $30billion in new capital raised by PE firms, including both funds investing in dollars and those investing in Renminbi. China’s private equity industry seems destined now to outstrip in size that of every other country, with exception of the US. Ten years ago, the industry hardly existed in China.

Yes, it is a time of plenty. Yet, plenty of problems remain. Many of the best private companies remain starved of capital, as China’s domestic banks continue to choke back on their lending. As a result, PE firms will play an increasingly vital role in providing growth capital to these companies. 

These are some of the key themes addressed in CFC’s latest research report, titled “2012-2013: 中国私募股权融资与市场趋”. It can be downloaded from the CFC website or by clicking here.

The report is available in Chinese only.

Like many of CFC’s research reports, this latest one is intended primarily for reference by China’s entrepreneurs and company bosses. Private equity, particularly funds able to invest Renminbi into domestic companies,  is still a comparatively new phenomenon in China. Entrepreneurs remain, for the most part, unfamiliar with all but the basics of growth capital investment. The report assesses both costs and benefits of raising PE.

This calculus has some unique components in China. Private equity is often not just the only source for growth capital, it is also, in many cases, a pre-condition to gaining approval from the CSRC for a domestic IPO. It’s a somewhat odd concept for someone with a background only in US or European private equity. But, from an entrepreneur’s perspective, raising private equity in China is a kind of toll booth on the road to IPO. The entrepreneurs sells the PE firm a chunk of his company (usually 15%-20%) for a price significantly below comparable quoted companies’ valuation. The PE firm then manages the IPO approval process.

Most Chinese companies that apply for domestic IPO are turned down by the CSRC. Bringing in a PE firm can often greatly improve the odds of success. If a company is approved for domestic IPO, its valuation will likely be at least three to four times higher (on price/earnings basis) than the level at which the PE firm invested. Thus, both PE firm and entrepreneur stand to benefit.

The CSRC relies on PE firms’ pre-investment due diligence when assessing the quality and reliability of a company’s accounting and growth strategy. If a PE firm (particularly one of the leading firms, with significant experience and successful IPO exits in China) is willing to commit its own money, it provides that extra level of confidence the CSRC is looking for before it allows a Chinese company to take money from Chinese retail investors.

From a Chinese entrepreneur’s perspective, the stark reality is “No PE, No IPO”.

CFC’s Jessie Wu did most of the heavy lifting in preparing this latest report, which also digests some material previously published in columns I write for “21 Century Business Herald” (“21世纪经济报道) and “Forbes China”  (“福布斯中文”). The cover photo is a Ming Dynasty Xuande vase.

Private Equity in China, CFC’s New Research Report

 

The private equity industry in China continues on its remarkable trajectory: faster, bigger, stronger, richer. CFC’s latest research report has just been published, titled “Private Equity in China 2011-2012: Positive Trends & Growing Challenges”. You can download a copy by clicking here.

The report looks at some of the larger forces shaping the industry, including the swift rise of Renminbi PE funds, the surging importance of M&A, and the emergence of a privileged group of PE firms with inordinate access to capital and IPO markets. The report includes some material already published here.

It’s the first English-language research report CFC has done in two years. For Chinese readers, some similar information has run in the two columns I write, for China’s leading business newspaper, the 21st Century Herald (click here “21世纪经济报道”) as well as Forbes China (click here“福布斯中文”) 

Despite all the success and the new money that is pouring in as a consequence, Chinese private equity retains its attractive fundamentals: great entrepreneurs, with large and well-established companies, short of expansion capital and a knowledgeable partner to help steer towards an IPO. Investing in Chinese private companies remains the best large-scale risk-adjusted investment opportunity in the world, bar none.

CFC’s New Research Report, Assessing Some Key Differences in IPO Markets for Chinese Companies

China First Capital research report cover

For Chinese entrepreneurs, there has never been a better time to become a publicly-traded company.  China’s Shenzhen Stock Exchange is now the world’s largest and most active IPO market in the world. Chinese companies are also active raising billions of dollars of IPO capital abroad, in Hong Kong and New York.

The main question successful Chinese entrepreneurs face is not whether to IPO, but where.

To help entrepreneurs make that decision, CFC has just completed a research study and published its latest Chinese language research report. The report, titled “民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市” (” Offshore or Domestic IPO – Assessing Choices for Chinese SME”) analyzes advantages and disadvantages for Chinese SME  of IPO in China, Hong Kong, USA as well as smaller markets like Singapore and Korea.

The report can be downloaded from the Research Reports section of the CFC website , or by clicking here:  CFC’s IPO Difference Report (民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市)

We want the report to help make the IPO decision-making process more fact-based, more successful for entrepreneurs. According to the report, there are three key differences between a domestic or offshore IPO. They are:

  1. Valuation, p/e multiples
  2. IPO approval process – cost and timing of planning an IPO
  3. Accounting and tax rules

At first glance, most Chinese SME bosses will think a domestic IPO on the Shanghai or Shenzhen Stock Exchanges is always the wiser choice, because p/e multiples at IPO in China are generally at least twice the level in Hong Kong or US. But, this valuation differential can often be more apparent than real. Hong Kong and US IPOs are valued on a forward p/e basis. Domestic Chinese IPOs are valued on trailing year’s earnings. For a fast-growing Chinese company, getting 22X this year’s earnings in Hong Kong can yield more money for the company than a domestic IPO t 40X p/e, using last year’s earnings.

Chasing valuations is never a good idea. Stock market p/e ratios change frequently. The gap between domestic Chinese IPOs and Hong Kong and US ones has been narrowing for most of this year. Regulations are also continuously changing. As of now, it’s still difficult, if not impossible, for a domestically-listed Chinese company to do a secondary offering. You only get one bite of the capital-raising apple. In Hong Kong and US markets, a company can raise additional capital, or issue convertible debt, after an IPO.  This factor needs to be kept very much in mind by any Chinese company that will continue to need capital even after a successful domestic IPO.

We see companies like this frequently. They are growing so quickly in China’s buoyant domestic market that even a domestic IPO and future retained earnings may not provide all the expansion capital they will need.

Another key difference: it can take three years or more for many Chinese companies to complete the approval process for a domestic IPO. Will the +70X p/e  multiples now available on Shenzhen’s ChiNext market still be around then? It’s impossible to predict. Our advice to Chinese entrepreneurs is make the decision on where to IPO by evaluating more fundamental strengths and weaknesses of China’s domestic capital markets and those abroad, including differences in investor behavior, disclosure rules, legal liability.

China’s stock market is driven by individual investors. Volatility tends to be higher than in Hong Kong and the US, where most shares are owned by institutions.

One factor that is equally important for either domestic or offshore IPO: an SME will have a better chance of a successful IPO if it has private equity investment before its IPO. The transition to a publicly-listed company is complex, with significant risks. A PE investor can help guide an SME through this process, lowering the risks and costs in an IPO.

As the report emphasizes, an IPO is a financing method, not a goal by itself. An IPO will usually be the lowest-cost way for a private business to raise capital for expansion.  Entrepreneurs need to be smart about how to use capital markets most efficiently, for the purposes of building a bigger and better company.


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