Shenzhen Stock Exchange

ChiNext: One Year Later, Celebrating a Success

Zhou dynasty from China First Capital blog post

This past Saturday, October 30,  marked the one year anniversary of the founding of the ChiNext (创业板) stock market. In my view, the ChiNext has been a complete and unqualified success, and should be a source of pride and satisfaction to everyone involved in China’s financial industry. And yet, there’s quite a lot of complaining and grumbling going on, about high share prices, high p/e multiples,  “underperformance” by ChiNext companies, and the potentially destabilizing effect of insiders’ share sales when their 12-month lockup period ends.

Let’s look at the record. Over the last year, the board has grown from the original 28 companies to 134, and raised a total of 94.8 billion yuan ($14bn). For those 134 companies, as well as hundreds more now queuing up for their ChiNext IPO, this new stock market is the most important thing to ever happen in China’s capital markets.

Make no mistake, without the ChiNext, those 134 companies would be struggling to overcome a chronic shortage of growth capital. That Rmb 94.8 billion in funding has supported the creation of thousands of new jobs,  more indigenous R&D in China, and provided a new and powerful incentive system for entrepreneurs to improve their internal controls and accounting as a prelude to a planned ChiNext IPO.

China’s retail investors have responded with enthusiasm to the launch of ChiNext, and support those high p/e multiples of +50X at IPO. It is investors, after all, who bid up the price of ChiNext shares, and by doing so, allow private companies to raise more capital with less dilution. Again, that is a wholly positive development for entrepreneurship in China.

Will some investors lose money on their investments in ChiNext companies? Of course. That’s the way all stock markets work. The purpose of a stock market is not to give investors a “one way bet”. It is to allocate capital.

I was asked by a Bloomberg reporter this past week for my views on ChiNext. Here, according to his transcript,  is some of what I told him.

“For the first time ever, the flow of capital in China is beginning to more accurately mirror where the best growth opportunities are. ChiNext is an acknowledgement by the government of the vital importance of entrepreneurial business to China’s continued economic prosperity. ChiNext allocates growth capital to businesses that most need and deserve it, and helps address a long-standing problem in China’s economy: capital being mainly allocated to state-owned companies. The ChiNext is helping spur a huge increase of private equity capital now flowing to China’s private companies. Within a year my guess is the number of private equity firms and the capital they have to invest in China will both double.”

A market economy functions best when capital can flow to the companies that can earn the highest risk-adjusted return. This is what the ChiNext now makes possible.

Yes, financial theory would argue that ChiNext prices are “too high”, on a p/e basis. Sometimes share prices are “too high”, sometimes they are “too low”, as with many Chinese companies quoted on the Singapore stock market. A company’s share price does not always have a hard-wired correlation to the actual value and performance of the company. That’s why most good laoban seldom look at their share price. It has little, if anything, to do with the day-to-day issues of building a successful company.

Some of the large shareholders in ChiNext companies will likely begin selling their shares as soon as their lock-up period ends. For PE firms, the lock-up ends 12 months after an IPO. If a PE firm sells its shares, however, it doesn’t mean the company itself is going sour. PE firms exist to invest, wait for IPO, then sell and use that money to repay their investors, as well as invest in more companies. It’s the natural cycle of risk capital, and again, promotes overall capital efficiency.

There are people in China arguing that IPO rules should be tightened, to make sure all companies going public on ChiNext will continue to thrive after their IPO. That view is misplaced. For one thing, no one can predict the future performance of any business. But, in general, China’s capital market don’t need more regulations to govern the IPO process. China already has more onerous IPO regulations than any other major stock market in the world.

The objective of a stock market is to let  investors, not regulators, decide how much capital a company should be given.  If a company uses the capital well, its value will increase. If not, then its shares will certainly sink. This is a powerful incentive for ChiNext company management to work hard for their shareholders. The other reason: current rules prohibit the controlling shareholders of ChiNext companies from selling shares within the first three years of an IPO.

The ChiNext is not a path to quick riches for entrepreneurs in China. It is, instead, the most efficient way to raise the most capital at the lowest price to finance future growth. In the end, everyone in China benefits from this. The ChiNext is, quite simply,  a Chinese financial triumph.


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Shenzhen The World’s Most Active IPO Market So Far in 2010

Jade object from China First Capital blog post

 

Shenzhen’s Stock Exchange was the world’s busiest and largest IPO market during the first half of 2010. Through the end of June, 161 firms raised $22.6 billion in IPOs on Shenzhen Stock Exchange. The Shanghai Stock Exchange ranked No.4, with 11 firms raising $8.2 billion.

Take a minute to let that sink in. The Shenzhen Stock Exchange, which two years ago wasn’t even among the five largest in Asia, is now host to more new capital-raising transactions than any other stock market, including Nasdaq and NYSE. Even amid the weekly torrent of positive economic statistics from China, this one does stand out. For one thing, Shenzhen’s Stock Exchange is effectively closed to all investors from outside China. So, all those IPO deals, and the capital raised so far in 2010, were done for domestic Chinese companies using money from domestic Chinese investors.

The same goes for IPOs done on Shenzhen’s larger domestic competitor, the Shanghai Stock Exchange. In the first half of 2010, the Shanghai bourse had eleven IPOs, and raised $8.2 billion. That brings the total during the first half of 2010 in China to 172 IPOs, raising $31 billion in capital.

The total for the second half of 2010 is certain to be larger, and Shenzhen will likely lose pole position to Shanghai. The Agricultural Bank of China just completed its IPO and raised $19.2 billion in a dual listing on Shanghai and Hong Kong exchanges. Over $8.5 billion was raised from the Shanghai portion.

One reason for the sudden surge of IPOs in Shenzhen was the opening in October 2009 of a new subsidiary board, the 创业板, or Chinext market. Its purpose is to allow smaller, mainly private companies to access capital markets. Before Chinext, about the only Chinese companies that could IPO in China were ones with some degree of state ownership. Chinext changed that. There is a significant backlog of several hundred companies waiting for approval to go public on Chinext.

So far this year, 57 companies have had IPOs on Chinext. The total market value of all 93 companies listed on Chinext is about Rmb 300 billion, or 5.5% of total market capitalization of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. On Shenzhen’s two other boards for larger-cap companies, 197 companies had IPOs during the first half of 2010.

The surge in IPO activity in China during the first half of 2010 coincided with the dismal performance overall of shares traded on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges. Both markets are down during the first half of the year: Shanghai by over 25%  and Shenzhen by 15%. 

The IPO process in China, both on Shanghai and Shenzhen markets, is very tightly controlled by China’s securities regulator, the CSRC (证监会). It’s the CSRC that decides the number and timing of IPOs in China, not market demand. One factor the CSRC gives significant weight to is the overall performance of China’s stock market. They want to control the supply of new shares, by limiting IPO transactions, to avoid additional downward pressure on share prices overall.

So, presumably, if the Chinese stock markets performed better in the first half of 2010, the number of IPOs would have been even higher. Make no mistake: the locus of the world’s IPO activity is shifting to China.

CFC’s latest research report: 2010 will be record-setting year in China Private Equity

China First Capital 2010 research report, from blog post

 

China’s private equity industry is on track to break all records in 2010 for number of deals, number of successful PE-backed IPOs, capital raised and capital invested. This record-setting performance comes at a time when the PE and VC industries are still locked in a long skid in the US and Europe.

According to my firms’s latest research report, (see front cover above)  the best days are still ahead for China’s PE industry. The Chinese-language report has just been published. It can be downloaded by clicking this link: China First Capital 2010 Report on Private Equity in China

We prepare these research reports primarily for our clients and partners in China. There is no English version.

A few of the takeaway points are:

  • China’s continued strong economic growth is only one factor providing fuel for the growth of  private equity in China. Another key factor that sets China apart and makes it the most dynamic and attractive market for PE investing in the world: the rise of world-class private SME. These Chinese SME are already profitable and market leaders in China’s domestic market. Even more important, they are owned and managed by some of the most talented entrepreneurs in the world. As these SME grow, they need additional capital to expand even faster in the future. Private Equity capital is often the best choice
  • As long as the IPO window stays open for Chinese SME, rates of return of 300%-500% will remain common for private equity investors. It’s the kind of return some US PE firms were able to earn during the good years, but only by using a lot of bank debt on top of smaller amounts of equity. That type of private equity deal, relying on bank leverage, is for the most part prohibited in China
  • PE in China got its start ten years ago. The founding era is now drawing to a close.  The result will be a fundamental realignment in the way private equity operates in China. It’s a change few of the original PE firms in China anticipated, or can cope with. What’s changed? These PE firms grew large and successful raising and investing US dollars,  and then taking Chinese companies public in Hong Kong or New York. This worked beautifully for a long time, in large part because China’s own capital markets were relatively underdeveloped. Now, the best profit opportunities are for PE investors using renminbi and exiting on China’s domestic stock markets. Many of the first generation PE firms are stuck holding an inferior currency, and an inferior path to IPO

Our goal is to be a thought leader in our industry, as well as providing the highest-quality information and analysis in Chinese for private entrepreneurs and the investors who finance them.


Navigating China’s Treacherous IPO Markets

Song plate from China First Capital blog post

How do you say “Scylla and Charybdis”  in Chinese? Thankfully, you don’t need to know the translation, or even reference from Homer’s The Odyssey, to understand the severe dilemma faced by China’s stock exchange regulator, the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC)

Scylla and Charybdis were a pair of sea monsters guarding opposite sides of a narrow straight. Together, they posed an inescapable threat to sailors’ lives. By avoiding one, you sailed directly into the lair of the other. 

The CSRC has been trying to navigate between twin perils over the last months, since the October launch of ChiNext , the new Shenzhen stock exchange for smaller-cap private companies. They have tried to stamp out the trading volatility and big first day gains that characterized earlier IPOs in China. But, in doing so, they’ve created circumstances where the valuations of companies going public on the ChiNext have reached dangerous and unsustainably high levels. 

Monsters to the left, monsters to the right. The regulators at CSRC deserve combat pay. 

Based on most key measures, ChiNext has been a phenomenal success. So far, through the end of 2009, 36 companies have IPO’d on ChiNext, raising a total of over $2 billion from investors. That’s more than double the amount these 36 companies were originally seeking to raise from their IPOs. Therein lies the Scylla-Charybdis problem. 

Before ChiNext  opened, the CSRC was determined to avoid one common problem with Chinese IPOs on the main Shanghai and Shenzhen markets – that the price on the first day of trading typically rose very sharply, with lots of volatility. A sharp jump in the price on the first day is great for investors who were able to buy shares ahead of the IPO. In China, those lucky few investors are usually friends and business contacts of the underwriters, who were typically rewarded with first-day gains of over 20%. These investors could hold their shares for a matter of minutes or hours on the day of the IPO, then sell at a nice profit. 

But, while a first-day surge may be great for these favored investors, it’s bad news for the companies staging the IPOs. It means, quite simply, their shares were underpriced (often significantly so) at IPO. As a result, they raised less money than they could have. The money, instead, is wrongly diverted into the hands of the investors who bought the shares at artificially low prices. An IPO that has a 25% first-day gain is an IPO that failed to maximize the amount the company could raise from investors. 

Underwriters are at fault. When they set the price at IPO, they can start trading at a level that all but guarantees an immediate increase. This locks in profits for the people they choose to allocate shares to ahead of the start of trading. 

The CSRC, rightly,  decided to do something about this. They mandated that the opening price for companies listing on the CSRC should be set more by market demand, not the decision of an underwriter. The result is that the opening day prices on ChiNext have far more accurately reflected the price investors are willing to pay for the new offering.

Gains that used to go to first-day IPO investors are now harvested by the companies. They can raise far more money for the fixed number of shares offered at IPO. So far so good. The problem is: Chinese investors are bidding up the prices of many of these new offerings to levels that are approaching madness. 

The best example so far: when Guangzhou Improve Medical Instruments Co had its IPO last month, its shares traded at an opening price 108 times its 2008 earnings.  The most recent  group of companies to IPO on ChiNext had first-day valuations of over 80 times 2008 earnings. Because of the high valuations, these ChiNext-listed companies have raised more than twice the amount of money they planned from their IPO. 

On one hand, that’s great for the companies. But, the risk is that the companies will not use the extra money wisely (for example by speculating in China’s overheated property market), and so the high valuations they enjoy now will eventually plummet. Indeed, valuations at over 80x  are no more sustainable on the ChiNext now than they were on the Tokyo Stock Exchange a generation ago. 

Having steered ChiNext away from the danger of underpriced IPOs, the CSRC is now trying to cope with this new menace. They have limited tools at their disposal. They clearly don’t want to return pricing power to underwriters. But, neither do they want ChiNext to become a market with insane valuations and companies that are bloated with too much cash and too many temptations to misuse it.   

CSRC’s response: they just introduced new rules to limit the ways ChiNext companies can use the extra cash raised at IPO.  CSRC is also reportedly studying ways to lower IPO valuations on ChiNext. 

The new rules restrict the uses of the extra cash. Shareholder approval is required for any investment over Rmb 50 million, or more than 20% of the extra IPO proceeds on a single project. The CSRC also reiterated that ChiNext companies should use the additional proceeds from their IPOs to fund their main businesses and not for high-risk investments, such as securities, derivatives or venture capital.

The new rules are fine, as far as they go. But, they don’t go very far towards resolving the underlying cause of all these problems, of both underpriced and overpriced IPOs in China.

The problem is that CSRC itself limits the number of new IPOs, to try to maintain overall market stability. Broadly speaking, this restricted supply creates excessive demand for all Chinese IPOs. Regulatory interventions and tinkering with the rules won’t do much. There remains the fundamental imbalance between the number of domestic IPOs and investor interest in new offerings.

Faced with two bad options, Odysseus chose to take his chances with the sea monster Scylla, and survived, while losing quite a few of his crew. The alternative was worse, he figured, since Charybdis could sink the whole ship.

The CSRC may well make a similar decision and return some pricing power to underwriters, to bring down ChiNext’s valuations.  But, without an increased supply of IPOs in China,  the two large hazards will persist. CSRC’s navigation of China’s IPO market will certainly remain treacherous.  


Shenzhen’s Place in China’s Long History Mixing Sex and Commerce

Shenzhen night time, from China First Capital blog post

Shenzhen is such a relentless modern city that it’s often hard to discern the influence of 3,000 years of Chinese history and culture. The skyline is so futuristic that it often resembles the home planet of a higher civilization.(See photo above, of the City Center and buildings near CFC’s office). 

But, of course, this is still a part of China, with all its embedded messages and references to a history longer and richer than any other. It just takes a little wisdom to perceive it. I can’t lay claim to any such wisdom. Luckily, though, I have a friend here who has both the historical knowledge and scholar’s temperament to properly put modern Shenzhen into a more classically Chinese context. 

This friend, Zhen Qinan, has had a exemplary career in the financial industry, first as part of the working team formed in 1990 to establish the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, and then as head of a joint venture between four Chinese financial firms and Merrill Lynch, where he worked with leading Chinese companies like Huawei and Taitai Pharmaceutical. 

These days, Qinan is semi-retired. I try to spend time with him whenever I can. He’s warm and thoughtful, and I know now from experience that he’ll offer astoundingly wise insights to even my most mundane questions. How mundane? Over a meal at one of Shenzhen’s better Sichuan places, I commented on how lucky we were to be in a city with so many good restaurants, even by Chinese standards. 

If I had to come up with reasons why, I would settle for the fact Shenzhen is richer than other cities, and has a population drawn from all parts of China. Qinan, however, offered a much richer explanation, rooted in his learning and respect for Chinese history. 

Shenzhen is part of an unbroken tradition, reaching back at least 1,200 years, of commercial centers in China having the best food and also the most beautiful women. So, in their day, the great trading cities along the Grand Canal — Hangzhou, Suzhou, Yangzhou — were particularly renowned as places with the finest and most varied cuisine, and the most desirable women. This reputation has remained largely intact in those cities, even as the commercial locus of China shifted elsewhere. 

The reason then, and the reason now, is the same: in wealthier commercial cities, there’s a heightened appreciation, as well as larger audience, for the pleasures that money can buy. Qinan is from Xian, and to drive home the point, he drew the comparison for me between Shenzhen and his home city.

Xian was always a center of learning and political power, rather than a city with vibrant trade and a large, successful merchant class. As a result, the food, though still quite delicious, has always been a little more basic, less expensive, less intricate, less subtle than that of the trading centers to the east, along the Grand Canal. There’s just not enough money around to support a thriving community of top-quality chefs and restaurants. They migrate to where the money is. 

The same logic, of course, applies to why beautiful women are more prevalent in rich commercial cities in China. Traditionally, beautiful women went to Suzhou, Hangzhou or Yangzhou to find a rich patron to take them as a subsidiary wife. They then produced better-looking children, on average, so creating a virtuous cycle. Let the process run, uninterrupted, for several centuries and the results would be that the cities gained a reputation, probably grounded in fact, for having particularly good-looking ladies. 

To this day, Chinese will always aver that Suzhou has the most beautiful women in the country. I haven’t been to Suzhou in over 25 years, so I can’t say if the reputation is deserved or not. But, I do know that most Chinese believe this to be true of Suzhou, even though, of course, few will have ever been there to see for themselves. 

While concubinage is officially no more in China, there is still a similar process at work in today’s Shenzhen. Concubines are no more. Polygamy is outlawed. Today, the term is 二奶 “er nai”, or “second lady”. It’s analogous to a mistress. Shenzhen, I’m told, has more “er nai” than any other city in China. These tend to be pretty girls in their early 20s who come to Shenzhen from all over China, and often end up clothed, housed, fed and otherwise supported financially by an older, usually married man. Nowhere else in the world (not Paris, Milan, or other centers of mistress culture) have I ever seen so many dreary older men in the company of stunningly beautiful women. 

Shenzhen has more “er nai” both because it’s the richest city in China, and also because there are a lot of men from neighboring Hong Kong who either live or work here, during the week. Part of the standard “expat package” would seem to be taking a Chinese girl as a mistress. I’m told the going rate, in terms of monthly cash stipend, is at least $1,000 a month, with apartment, car and clothing budget extra. That’s about five times more than a woman of similar age can make working in one of Shenzhen’s factories.

One other difference from the China of yore: these women will usually return to their home village with quite a nice nest-egg, marry locally and start a family. This then creates a “job opening”. The man will now find a new “er nai” and so start again the process of clothing, feeding and housing an attractive woman new to Shenzhen.   

Food and sex. They are life’s two most basic drives, as well as the fuel that has kept China’s commercial centers buzzing for well over a thousand years.

 

 

International Investors Miss The Boat in China – Because They’re Not Allowed Onboard

China First Capital blog post Ming jar

Despite my fourteen years living in London,  I needed to fly all the way back to that city this week, from China, to finally get a look at Westminster Central Hall, a stately stone pile across the street from the even statelier, stonier pile that is Westminster Abbey. Central Hall does double duty, both as a main meeting place for British Methodists, and also as an impressive venue for conferences, including the first meeting of the United Nations in 1946. 

This week, it was site of the annual Boao Forum for Asia International Capital Conference. I flew in to attend, and participate in a panel discussion on private equity in China. The Boao Forum is something like the more renowned Davos Forum, but with a particular focus on Asia and China. This annual meeting focused on finance and capital, and drew a large contingent of about 120 Chinese officials and businesspeople, along with an equal number of Western commercial bankers, lawyers, accountants, investors, politicians, academics and a few other investment bankers besides me. 

Central Hall is crowned by a large domed ceiling, said to be the second-largest in the world. I enjoyed sending back a brief live video feed to my China First Capital colleagues in Shenzhen, whirling my laptop camera up towards the dome, and then down to show the conference. It was also the first time any of my colleagues had seen me in a suit. 

The weather was a perfect encapsulation of British autumn climate, with blustery and frigid winds, occasional radiant sunshine and torrential rain. It was my first trip back to London in over two years, and nothing much had changed. What a contrast to China, where in two years, most major cities seem to undergo a radical facelift. 

“How can a non-Chinese invest in Chinese private company?” It was a straightforward question, by a London-based money manager, for the panel I was on. Straightforward, even obvious, but it was actually one I’d never really considered before, to my embarrassment. In my talk (see Powerpoint here: http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/trends-in-private-equity.pdf) , I made the case about why Chinese SME are among the world’s best investment opportunities for private equity firms.  It’s an argument I’m used to making to conference audiences in China. This is the first time I’ve done so anywhere else. The question, though, made me feel a bit like a guy telling his friends about the new Porsche Carrera for sale for $8,000, but then saying, “unfortunately, you’re not allowed to buy one.” 

The reality is that it’s effectively impossible for a non-Chinese investor, other than the PE firms we regularly work with,  to buy into a great private Chinese SME. For one thing, the investor would need renminbi to do so, and there’s no legal way to obtain it, for purposes like this. Even if you found a way around that problem, you’d face an even steeper one when you wanted to exit the investment and convert your profits back into dollars or sterling. 

The money manager came up to me later, and I could see the vexation in her eyes. I had persuaded her there were great ways for investors to make money investing in SME in China. Disappointingly, her clients aren’t allowed to do so. Cold comfort was all I could offer,  pointing out the same basic problem exists for any non-Chinese seeking to buy shares quoted on the Shenzhen and Shanghai stock markets. 

It’s a reasonable bet that China eventually will liberalize its exchange rate controls and ultimately allow freer convertibility of the renminbi. But, that doesn’t exist now. As a result, financial investment in renminbi in China is, for the most part, reserved exclusively for Chinese. Unfair? It must seem that way to the sophisticated, well-paid money managers in London, who these days have few, if any,  similarly “sure fire” investment options for their clients. 

China is, itself, awash in liquidity, and sitting on a hoard of over $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. So, there really is no shortage of capital domestically. Allowing foreign investors in, of course, would increase the capital available to finance the growth of great companies. But,  it will also add to the mountain of foreign reserves and put more upward pressure on the renminbi. That’s the last thing Chinese authorities need at the moment. So, most of the best investment opportunities in China are likely to remain, for quite a lot longer, open only to Chinese investors. 

Overall, this is a very good time to be Chinese. By my historical reckoning, it’s the best since at least the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago. China has changed out of all recognition over the last 30 years, creating enormous material and social gains. That beneficial change, if anything, is accelerating. The fact Chinese also have some of the world’s best investment opportunities to themselves is just another dividend from all this positive change. 

If I were a money manager, I’d also be asking myself “how can I get some of this?” But, I’m not a money manager, and I formulate things very differently. I’m so happy and privileged to have a chance to help some of China’s great private entrepreneurs. Me and my team invest all our waking hours and all our collective passion in this. We are rewarded daily, by the trust put in us by these entrepreneurs, and by our very small contribution to their continued success. That’s more than adequate return for me.

I guess I’m not cut out for purely financial investing. 

 

Foshan Saturday’s Textbook Case of How to Grow, Prosper and Stage a Successful IPO in China

Painting detail from China First Capital Blog Post

Though not in a ringside seat, I nonetheless had a privileged, up-close view of last week’s IPO for Foshan Saturday Shoes. That’s thanks to my friendship with Cao Yuhui, a partner at King & Wood law firm, and Foshan Saturday’s main corporate lawyer for the last several years.  It was a successful IPO by a very successful, well-run company. Foshan Saturday, a maker of high-end women’s shoes, raised over Rmb900mn in the IPO, selling about 20% of its equity. The share price closed up almost 20% on the first day of trading. The market cap is now closing in on Rmb5 billion. 

For Yuhui, it’s a great personal success. He first started advising the company when they were well along in their planning for what would have been a very ill-advised IPO in Singapore in 2006. Instead, Yuhui worked with the company to close a round of PE finance in 2007. Legend Capital, the venture capital arm of China’s largest computer manufacturer, invested Rmb 40 million in 2007. Over the following two years, sales and profits at Foshan Saturday more than doubled. It’s now the fourth-largest women’s shoe company in China, with a widely-known brand, and sales this year of over Rmb 1 billion. 

Legend is expected to liquidate its ownership in Foshan Saturday, and should earn a return of five times on its original investment – which is another way of saying that Foshan Saturday’s enterprise value increased five-fold during the time Legend was involved. So, while the VC firm did well, Foshan Saturday’s owner did even better. He is now sitting on a personal stake in the company worth over $350 million. He started the company just seven years ago. 

Foshan is a relatively small city by Chinese standards, with a population of about 5.5 million. It’s about two hours drive up the Guangdong coast from Shenzhen. It’s residents are known both for business acumen and personal modesty. 

Foshan Saturday is a textbook case of everything going right for a Chinese SME. The company was among the first to see the great potential for developing native Chinese fashion brands. They never bothered with OEM export manufacturing, but focused from the start on building a brand for young, Chinese urban females.

Even more crucial to its success, the company backed away from plans for that early IPO in 2006. The company then was a third of its current size. Many Chinese companies who chose to list in Singapore have since lived to regret it. The market has had few stellar performers among the Chinese SME listed there. Most have stumbled along with low earnings multiples, and as a result, quite a few have tried to delist in Singapore and try to float their shares on China’s domestic market. 

Foshan Saturday took the far better course of raising pre-IPO capital, from one of the better firms active in China. They raised only Rmb 40 million, but put it to use efficiently enough to accelerate growth by over 200%. In other words, as in all good investment opportunities among China’s SME, there was a very good place to put a reasonably small amount of capital to work, and earn significant returns. 

A lot of that growth came from an efficient strategy of opening retail counters inside shopping malls, where in lieu of rent, Foshan Saturday pays a share of revenue to the landlord. This limits the amount of capital needed to open new outlets. Foshan Saturday now has 1,200. About half the money raised in the IPO will go to opening still more retail outlets. 

A recent blog post by the Forbes bureau chief in China took a little swipe at me, saying Fuhrman “claims it is not too hard to pick winners that will quadruple your money in just a few years.” The Forbes writer (who I’ve never met) seems to think I’m daft. Yet, as the example of Foshan Saturday shows, it’s not all that hard to that well, or better.

From what I could gather, Legend Capital didn’t play a highly active role in the company. They knew a solid strategy when they saw one. So, they let the Foshan Saturday team execute, and then sat back and let the money start to roll in.  Result: profit to the VC firm of about $30 million on an investment of under $6 million. 

My friend Yuhui threw a big party at one of Shenzhen’s swankiest nightclubs to celebrate the IPO’s success. I wasn’t able to go, since I was traveling in Zhejiang. He told me later that there were about 60 guests, mainly mid and senior management from Foshan Saturday. They ran up a bar tab of around $1,500. 

I’m not big on drinking, but would have been happy to celebrate with them. Not just Foshan Saturday and Cao Yuhui did well from the IPO. It’s going to make it easier for other strong Chinese SME to achieve a similar success in years to come.

The roadmap is clear. It’s a three-step path to success for a successful IPO by a Chinese SME : (1) resist the lure of an early IPO; (2) bring in a good PE or VC investor to put more capital to work in ways that will earn a high return; and (3) stage an IPO several years later when the business has at least doubled its size. 


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.

 

 

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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.

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Requiem For A Tough Year – 2008 Was the Most Challenging Time in a Generation in China

tang-bowls

As the Chinese National Congress meets this week in Beijing to plot the course of the Chinese economy in 2009 and beyond, it’s worth reflecting what an exceptional, juddering year 2008 was. Sure, the Olympics stole most of the headlines, and provided the lasting images of Chinese progress and triumph. But, those images also dulled, in many respects, our perceptions of the brunt force of the economic blows China sustained during 2008. Make no mistake, 2008 was a year of challenge, disruption and dislocation not seen in China for a generation or more. 

The year started with the worst winder storms in decades. This was followed, just months later, by the cataclysmic Wenchuan Earthquake in Sichuan. Beyond the colossal loss of life and destruction, the earthquake had a much broader, unprecedented social impact across China. There was an enormous outpouring of national compassion and grief. While wholly positive as an expression of China’s rightful growing self-confidence, this vast prolonged period of national mourning also had a very direct and negative impact on economic activity. For weeks if not months, as I saw firsthand, there was a tangible unwillingness to spend as freely, to enjoy life as unabashedly as in the years previously. It was as if much of China received some intimation of their own mortality in the wake of the Sichuan Earthquake. 

Next came an accelerated fall in property values across much of China. Alongside this, the stock market fell sharply. These two, the property and stock markets, are the main stores of wealth for many middle class Chinese. People felt poorer because they were poorer. The fall of both property and share prices wiped away billions of dollars in national household wealth. People in their hundreds of millions were suddenly poorer, as household net worth plummeted, and Chinese pulled back even more strongly from their spending. Then, in late summer, came the financial tsunami in the USA, with the credit crisis, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, and the intensifying recession. 

Any basic college economics textbook – to say nothing of common sense — could foretell the next step: a fall in overall confidence levels among Chinese consumers. This further muffled already depressed levels of personal spending. 

We’re now well into the first quarter of 2009, and my own sense, after spending these last three weeks in China, is that the cumulative impact of all of 2008’s bad news is still being felt, acutely. However, my sense is that the worst may indeed be over, and that 2009 will be a year of rebuilding and reasserted economic confidence in China. 

Of course, when talking about general economic trends in the world’s third largest economy, a lot of the clarifying detail gets lost. But, we have a real sense, in our day-to-day work, of just what an extraordinarily difficult year 2008 was for even the best Chinese businesses. Our firm, China First Capital,  has focused on serving China’s middle market private Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs), assisting them with capital-raising strategic M&A and other financial transactions.

Unlike traditional investment banks reliant mainly on short-term transactions, China First Capital’s role as financial and strategic advisor to Chinese SMEs often begins at early stages of corporate development and continues through the capital raising process from private equity to a successful IPO and beyond to global leadership. 

Even our strongest clients had a tough time in 2008. In one example, a business that is one of China’s leading consumer fashion brand, maintained outstanding growth last year in overall revenue, with domestic sales rising by 30%.  That’s mainly testament to the company’s no less outstanding management and brand-positioning. But, the bottom line was less stellar. Profit margins were squeezed, and the company earned half as much in 2008 as it expected to as late as July 2008. That represents a shortfall against plan of almost $6mn. That equates, of course, to having less money to invest in building on that growth rate in 2009.  

They remain a great company, and there’s little doubt 2009 will be a better year. But, when we met with them recently, the company’s financial management are still reeling from the brutal effects of 2008. If nothing else, it drives home as little else can the importance of fortifying the company’s balance sheet, which has been overly-reliant on retained earnings and short-term bank loans to finance growth. This client, like the Chinese economy, has weathered the once-in-a-generation turmoil of 2008. Better days lie ahead — my bet is sooner, rather than later.  

Coming Soon — A Stock Market for High-Tech Companies in Shenzhen

Zhou Dynasty Horse Fittings

Despite delays and continuing uncertainty, 2009 should see the opening of China’s first stock market for smaller, high-growth technology companies. Modeled on the NASDAQ in the US and AIM in London, this new market will be headquartered in Shenzhen, as part of the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, the smaller of the two stock markets in China.

Overall, this is a positive development for China’s financial industry, and the private equity and venture capital communities. Since China’s Prime Minister, Wen Jiabao announced in March 2008 the planned establishment of this new stock market, after almost a decade of internal discussion, the date for the launch has steadily slid back, a casualty of the 60% fall in China’s main stock markets this year.  

The final details have not been announced, but what seems clear at this point is that this new market will have significantly lower qualifying thresholds for companies seeking a stock market listing, compared to the main boards in Shenzhen and Shanghai. The numbers talked about are net assets above RMB 20 million (US$2.8mn) and revenues above RMB 10mn (US$1.5mn). There seems to be no requirement, as of now, for companies to be profitable at the time of listing. It’s possible, therefore, that companies listed on the new exchange will have market caps that barely exceed $10mn. 

 

Here’s my thinking. The largest quoted companies on the Shanghai market are trading at a price-earnings multiple of under 12. This is down, like the broader market, by almost 60% from recent highs. Put those kind of multiples on a small company with revenues under US$2mn and profits below $1mn, and you have the possibility of market caps in that very low range. True, high-tech companies tend to enjoy higher p/e multiples than more traditional large-caps. But, even so, this new stock market will be operating in some unchartered territory for China’s financial markets — companies with comparatively thin floats, low total market value, and so, most likely, higher price volatility. 

 

This could help explain why the Chinese government has repeatedly delayed plans to launch this stock market for high-growth companies. The regulators have probably seen this year all the volatility they care to see for a long time. 

 

Of course, the key factor won’t be earnings multiples or volatility, but the quality of the underlying high-tech businesses to be quoted on this exchange. Here’s where I see bigger problems. China, like its richer neighbors in Asia, as well as Western Europe, would very much like to rival the USA in nurturing successful high-tech companies in industries like software and chip technology. Across China, there are high-tech business parks where early-stage technology companies are concentrated. By one count, there are over 5,000 across the country. But, so far, there haven’t been many big break-out successes. 

 

The simple truth is that, as other countries have learned over the last decade, it’s hard to duplicate the particular success the US has in developing successful high-tech businesses. Having a stock market for high-tech companies is certainly not much of a factor. If so, Germany, which started its own high-tech company stock market, the NeuerMarkt ten years ago, would today be awash with leading technology firms. Instead, there are few, if any good tech companies in Germany and the Neuer Markt eventually was shut down. Britain’s AIM market has also failed to produce many successes in that country. 

 

In my mind, China does have a better shot than Germany, or Britain, or Japan. The main reason: Chinese are more entrepreneurial, and there’s more a culture of prudent risk-taking than elsewhere. If any country has a shot to achieve some of the same success the US has enjoyed building great technology companies, it’s got to be China. 

 

So, I hope this new stock market gets started early in 2009. It will provide more motivation – not that much is needed – to China’s budding technology leaders, and also provide another viable exit route for venture capital investors in China

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ten Questions Every Laoban Should Answer Before Seeking PE Funding

One of the supreme satisfactions of my work – and I’m fortunate that my job offers quite a few – is the time spent advising laoban (“business owner” in Chinese) on the value of private equity investment. These owners are entrepreneurs, not financial engineers. So, the world of private equity deal-making and finance is often entirely unfamiliar. As I tell these laoban, in my less-than-fluent Chinese, “you have already done the hardest thing possible in business, by taking an idea, adding little or no capital, and created in China, the most competitive market in the world, a successful business of significant size and fantastic prospects.” Compared to this, anything will appear easy, including closing a round of equity capital from one of the leading private equity or venture capital firms. 

Now, of course, closing a PE investment round is anything but easy. It involves, at a minimum,  a sizable amount of time, stamina, senior-level attention, perseverance, transparency, thoroughness and commitment to building a fully-aligned partnership with an outside investor.  I’ve seen it from both sides, both as a CEO and as a venture capitalist. The process can seem like breaking rocks with a spoon. 

But, it’s always rewarding and inspiring for me to see how quickly our laoban start mastering the intricacies of raising capital. They climb the steep learning curve fast. But, it is still a learning curve, and I’ve often made the process harder by doing an inadequate job preparing them for their first meetings. In fact, there ought to be a typically wise four-character Chinese proverb, or chengyu, to describe it: “Good students. Poor instructor.” 

I’ll admit to being a poor instructor. But, an improvable one? I’d like to think so. 

Together with my colleagues at China First Capital, I’ve put together a list of ten questions laoban should expect to hear in a first meeting with a PE firm. The purpose: to give the laoban a quick sense of the scope and rigor of the PE investment process.   

Of course, in any first meeting with a professional PE firm, there will be many more than ten questions. It’s unlikely any PE would ask all – or even the majority – of the ten on the list. 

But, these owner-entrepreneurs are all outstanding problem-solvers. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t be running and owning the sort of businesses of interest to good PE investors. 

So, the questions are really just a catalyst, to get the laoban to think about how a sophisticated investor will evaluate his business. In other words, to see his business from the outside looking in. This is like refraction, where shifting the angle changes the quality of the light. 

Here are the ten questions.  There are no right answers, of course. Only a right mindset.      

 

  1.  How much of your equity are you selling?
  2. What will you use this equity investment for?
  3. When do you hope to complete this fund‐raising?
  4. When will you IPO?
  5. What are you looking for besides capital from an investor?
  6. How do you think you can double or triple your profits?
  7. How much is your valuation?
  8. Who are your competitors and what are your competitive edges?
  9. Can you please explain your strategy for growing faster than your competitors?
  10. Please give me brief summary of the jobs and the past experience of the most important members of your management team?