Shale Gas, China’s Very Buried Treasure — Nikkei Asian Review



Water, water not a drop to drink. While that may not precisely sum up China’s dilemma, it is clear that the country with the world’s largest shale gas reserves, and urgent need to extract it,  will have problems achieving its ambitious long-term goals. The newly-finalized Five Year Plan calls for an enormous increases in natural gas output in China. The carbon emission reduction agreement signed by President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping also requires China to diversify away from coal. Shale gas is the obvious replacement.

As of now, virtually all that gas remains trapped in the ground. The two companies given the plum rights to develop the gas, China’s oil giants Sinopec and PetroChina, may not have the technical competence to fully develop the resource. The companies that have the skills, mainly a group of small entrepreneurial US drillers, has so far shown zero inclination to either come to China or come to the aid of the two SOE giants by providing equipment and know-how.

To attract them to China will likely require a significant shift in the way China’s energy resources are owned and allocated. It will mean creating terms in China every bit as favorable, if not more so, than skilled shale gas drilling companies enjoy in the US and elsewhere.



This is why for China’s senior leaders and economic planners, this map is as much a curse as blessing. Knowing that vast quantities of much-needed clean energy is in the ground but not having the domestic infrastructure and technology to get it to market efficiently is about as tough and frustrating as any economic problem China now confronts.

The Chinese policy goal and the on-and-in-the-ground situation in China are on opposite sides of the spectrum. China has said it must quickly increase the share of natural gas as part of total energy consumption to around 8% by the end of 2015 and 10% by 2020 to alleviate high pollution resulting from the country’s heavy coal use.  The original target announced with great fanfare was for shale gas production to increase almost 200-fold between 2012 and the end of the decade. But, this goal was quietly slashed by 30% last year. More slashes may be on the way.

What’s most needed and in shortest supply in China: more commercial competition, more players, more market signals.

Based on the US experience, drilling for shale gas isn’t the kind of thing that big oil companies are good at. Unfortunately for China, all it has are giants. Rather inefficient ones at that. Sinopec, PetroChina are, based on metrics like output-per-employee, perhaps only one-tenth as efficient as the majors like Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon and BP. Note, these big Western companies all pretty much missed the boat with shale gas. In other words, the bigger the oil company the worse it’s been so far at exploiting shale gas. Yes, it’s these big global giants who now seem the most interested to work with Sinopec and PetroChina to develop shale gas China. In fact, Shell is already partnered up with Sinopec. How’s this likely to work out? Think of a pack of elephants ice fishing.

China’s dilemma comes down to this: it’s probably the most entrepreneurially-endowed country on the planet, but entrepreneurs are basically not allowed in the oil and gas extraction businesses. It’s a legacy of old-style Leninism, that the state must hold control over the pillars of the economy. It works okay when the problem is pumping petroleum or natural gas from giant onshore or offshore fields. But, shale gas is another world, with many and smaller wells. A typical one in the Barnett Shale gas region of Texas costs $2mn – $5mn, barely a rounding error for large oil and gas companies. These smaller wells, depending on prevailing price and drilling direction, can achieve a return within one year or less.

Profits are usually much higher for shale wells with horizontal drilling capability. But, it’s also much trickier to do. Production drops off dramatically in most shale gas wells, falling by about 90% during the first two years. So, you need to know how to make money efficiently, quickly, then move on to another opportunity.

The one place where Sinopec is now producing a decent amount of shale gas, at field in Sichuan province, the cost of getting the gas out of the ground is running at least twice the US level. Partly its geography and partly it’s the fact giant state-owned companies operating in a competition-free environment usually need three dollars to do what an entrepreneurial company can do for one.

Ancient Chinese oil well

China was the first country to drill successfully for oil, over 1500 years ago.   It could use more of that native ingenuity to unlock the country’s buried wealth. The shale gas industry is largely the product of one brilliant and stubborn Greek-American entrepreneur, George Mitchell, who began experimenting with horizontal drilling in Texas about 30 years ago. He had his big breakthrough in 1998. Everyone knew the gas was down there, as they do now in China. The trick Mitchell solved was getting it out of the ground at a low-cost. The company he started Mitchell Energy & Development, now part of Devon Energy, remains at the forefront of shale gas exploration and production.

China needs Mitchell Energy as well its own George Mitchells, who can use their pluck and tolerance for risk to make the gas pay. Not only shale gas, but China is also blessed with equally abundant deposits of coalbed methane. Pretty much all this methane is in the hands of big state-owned coal companies. Talk about a wasting asset. The coal miners have zero expertise, and for now it seems zero incentive to go after this fuel in a big way. Just about everything about the oil and gas business in China is state-owned and price-controlled.

The applause was nearly deafening, especially in the US and Europe, when the leaders of the US and China announced the big agreement to reduce carbon emissions. No one can argue with the sentiments, with the policy goal of creating a cleaner world. But, absent from the discussion are specifics on how China will meet its promises. It’s only going to happen if and when natural gas becomes a major part of the energy mix.

China has of course built pipelines to bring gas from Russia and more are on the way. But, even this huge flow of Russian gas, an expected 98 billion cubic meters per year by 2020,  will provide at most 17% of China’s projected gas needs by that year. Clearly then, the most meaningful thing that could happen is for the shale fields in China to be thrown open to all-comers, but especially the mainly-US companies that are experts at doing this. That isn’t happening.

I’ve been in the room with Chinese government officials when the topic was discussed about how to make it enticing for US specialist shale companies to drill in China. There’s a growing understanding this is the right way to go, but still the policy environment remains inhospitable. While China has the most shale gas, there is a lot of it in countries including stalwart US allies like Poland and Australia where the US companies are far more welcome and don’t have to deal with a market rigged in favor of state-owned goliaths. Everyone who wants to see a cleaner China and so a cleaner world should wish above all else that China’s shale and methane fields become a stomping ground rather than a no-go area for great entrepreneurs.

An edited version was published in the Nikkei Asia Review. 

Click here to download article. 





China SOE Buyouts — Case Study Part 2

Jin finial

When you can find them, State-Owned Enterprise (“SEO”)  buyouts are among the better investments in China. The reasons: the companies are cheap, professionally-managed and free of accounting fraud. The not-trivial challenge: finding good SOEs that can be bought.

For such an important part of the world’s second-largest economy, Chinese SOEs are widely misunderstood. They account for at least 20% of China’s GPD. Some estimates put SOEs’ contribution to GPD at 60% or higher. But, SOEs are often characterized, to quote from a World Bank analysis, as “dying dinosaurs that continuously absorb resources from the economy but produce little economic value.”

To be sure, there are many SOEs that fit this description. But, equally, there are plenty of good businesses among China’s more than 150,000 SOEs. The good ones, quite often, can be made substantially better by bringing in outside capital and chopping away at the heavy bureaucratic crust.

Buyouts make money when a new owner buys an business for less than it’s worth, then reinvigorates it. Generally that’s done by buying lazily-run subsidiaries inside larger conglomerates.

No conglomerate anywhere, at any time,  has been more laid-back about managing its assets than SASAC, the huge government organization that is the legal owner of most Chinese SOEs.

SOEs operate in, but are not entirely of, the market economy. They benefit from cheap and plentiful capital via loans from state-owned banks. But, SASAC is generally far more concerned with increasing revenues and investment than profits. SASAC generally doesn’t demand SOEs pay it dividends. Instead, it asks for an audit every year that shows an SOE’s revenues and assets are growing, and no money is actually being lost or assets pilfered. SASAC doesn’t act like an owner so much as a custodian.

SASAC’s casual attitude to profit-making filters down to all levels within an SOE.  Given the choice to maximize or minimize profits, most SOEs will choose the latter.  The goal is to make a little more than last year, but not so much that SASAC, or more senior levels in government, begin to ask questions. With few exceptions (mainly larger centrally-administered SOEs quoted in the US like China Mobile and PetroChina) the corporate equivalent of a “gentleman’s C“, a net margin of around 2.5%, is considered satisfactory.

You don’t need to be a Buffett, Bonderman, Kravis, or Rubenstein to make money buying the right Chinese SOE. You generally don’t need to get your hands too dirty, launch a hostile takeover, borrow a ton of money, or make yourself unpopular by firing surplus workers. It’s going to be enough in most cases just to retain and incentivize current managers, and inform them that their goal now is to deliver net margins as good as, if not better, than private sector competitors.

Not in all cases but many, the current management of an SOE is quite good, professional, dedicated. The managers operate within a system that downplays the importance of maximizing profit. So, they behave correspondingly. But, that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to do so, especially when they have their salary or share options tied to profitability.

In a previous post I mentioned our two new SOE clients. We are working now to privatize them by selling majority ownership to a private sector investor. Both are 100%-owned by one state-owned holding company which, in turn, is fully-owned by another, even larger SOE holding group. Above them, is the local SASAC in the city where the holding companies are both headquartered. No sooner did we start asking the managers how to improve profits, then they began to share information on how much additional profit was being left unclaimed — unnecessary commission payments, tax rebates not filed for, revenues booked through unrelated group companies.

In the case of these two companies, the current CEOs have been running the businesses since they were started more than five years ago. They are about as far from a stereotyped paper-pushing “SOE Manager” as one could imagine. They are in their mid-40s, and take evident pride in running their businesses as efficiently as any Western manager would. The difference is, a lot of the profit they earn is siphoned off through lots of internal layers within the holding group. At the moment, that’s of little concern to them. They are ordinary salaried workers giving SASAC precisely what it wants. Giving more would do nothing to advance their careers, or fatten their pay packets.

These two CEOs are excited and ambitious to run independent private sector companies that will be free to make and keep as much money as the market and tax laws allow. I have confidence that in both cases, net income would more than double within two years, and triple within five.

What’s needed isn’t restructuring. It’s gardening. You weed out all the unnecessary fees, commissions and chop back the overheads. This reveals the companies’ genuine – and impressive – bottom line.

We are still doing our internal work with the companies, but will soon start the search for new majority owners for each company. All the layers above, up to and including the local SASAC, seem to support these transactions. Why? The holding company already has one very successful publicly-traded company. Once spun off, these two subsidiaries should follow a similar path and one day go public. That is the surest way to assure the companies have sufficient access to low-cost capital and so finance continued growth. Both companies, with revenues of over $100mn, are growing quickly.

Everyone is currently in agreement that the best way for these two subsidiaries to become not just the largest but the most profitable companies in their industry in China is by bringing in majority private shareholders, both to invest in the business and provide more focused, profit-oriented ownership. They sought our investment banking and advisory help to do so.

This isn’t to say these deals, or any SOE takeover, is as effortless as body-surfing. The privatization process in China is still evolving. Any transaction like this will likely generate some opposition. From whom? And from what level? Both are impossible to say.

A separate concern of mine: there are far too few capable and experience takeover firms active in China. Among those that are around, the level of experience and comfort with buying control of an SOE is not uniformly high. Done right, the new owners would be able to profit from a large gap between the current asset value as calculated using SASAC rules and each company’s level of underlying and future profitability. In other words, you buy using NAV but sell later on a p/e multiple.

Making money on that swap, from NAV-to-p/e, is the simple idea at the heart of many of the world’s most successful takeovers. Opportunities to do this are now quite rare in the US and Europe, which is one reason the returns for big buyout firms like KKR, Blackstone and Carlyle has generally been trending down over the last 25 years, and why it’s harder for Warren Buffett to find the kind of underpriced gems he treasures most.

The best days of takeovers have passed, right? Or should Buffett, Rubenstein, Bonderman and Kravis be booking flights to China?



China Investment Banking Case Study: An SOE Privatization

China First Capital Signing ceremony

Anyone who’s dipped into this blog will know that I rarely, if ever, discuss directly what me and my company China First Capital do, our client work. Partly it’s because the work is usually by necessity confidential (clients, investors, deal terms) and partly because I don’t blog as a marketing tool.

But, I plan over coming months to share significant details about a “live deal” we are now working on, a buyout transaction involving a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE). The reasons: its size and structure make it an unusual transaction in China, and one that might also bust some myths about the way business in China, especially involving SOEs, actually works.

While I can’t reveal the name of the company, I can disclose why I think it’s such a compelling deal.  Our client is one of China’s largest, most well-known and most successful SOEs. The group’s overall annual profit of over Rmb12 bn (about USD$2bn) also make it one of the richest. Unlike a lot of SOEs, this one operates in highly-competitive markets, and has nothing like a monopoly in China.

The deal we’re working on is to restructure then “privatize” two profitable subsidiary companies of this SOE. Both of these subsidiaries are the largest businesses in China in their industry. Their combined revenues are about $220mn.

Privatization has two slightly different meanings in Chinese finance. First, is the type of deal, very common a decade ago, where big SOEs like China Mobile, Sinopec, PetroChina, ICBC, Air China, are converted into joint stock companies and then a minority share is listed through an IPO on stock markets in China, US or Hong Kong. The companies’ majority owner remains the Chinese state, with the shares usually held and managed by a powerful arm of the government known in Chinese as 国资委, in English known as the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, or more commonly SASAC. In theory, SASAC probably holds the world’s largest and most valuable share portfolio, far bigger than Fidelity,  Vanguard, or the world’s sovereign wealth funds.

The other, rarer,  type of privatization is where a company’s majority ownership changes hands, from state to private ownership. This is the type of control deal we are working on. The plan is to spin out the two subsidiaries by selling a majority stake to either a strategic or financial acquirer. In all likelihood, each company will one day go public either in China or Hong Kong, at which time, I’d expect their market caps to each be well over US$1bn.

In essence, the deals are structured as a recapitalization, where a new private-sector majority owner will contribute capital in excess of the company’s current assessed value. That valuation is determined by an independent accounting firm,  based on current asset value.

The privatization process is heavily regulated and tightly controlled by SASAC. It involves multiple levels of review, outside valuation, and then an open-market auction process. The system has changed out of all recognition from the first generation of government asset sales done in the 1990s. These deals involved little to no public disclosure or transparency and generated quite a lot of criticism and resentment that Chinese state assets were being sold to insiders, or the well-connected, for a fraction of their true value.

For an investment bank, working with an SOE, especially a large and famous one, has a process, logic and rhythm all its own. There are many more layers of management than at a typical Chinese private company, and many more voices involved in decision-making. In this case, we’re rather fortunate that the chairman of the holding company is also the founder of the two subsidiaries we’re now seeking to spin out. He started the companies from zero less than ten years ago, and has built them into proud, successful, fast-growing businesses.

This chairman has far more sway over the strategy and direction of the SOE than is usual in China. I first met him over a year ago. I was called to visit the company to explain the process through which an SOE like his could raise outside capital. Though curious, the chairman said at the time it seemed like more trouble than it would be worth. He had a comfortable life, and was nearing mandatory retirement age.

In fact, as I now understand, that first meeting was really just a way to kickstart a long, complicated and confidential discussion process involving the chairman, his senior management team, as well as even more senior officials at the SOE.  Over the course of a year, the chairman was able to persuade himself, as well as the many others with a potential veto, that a spin-out of the two companies was worth considering in greater detail.

The privatization offers the promise of long-term access to capital and also, most likely, a greater degree of management autonomy.  Though the two subsidiaries do not sell to, rely on or otherwise have related party transactions with the parent, they are ultimately subject to some rather heavy and often-stifling bureaucratic controls. Contrary to the reputation of many Chinese SOE, the two companies sell high-end products to large fastidious global customers. They operate in highly kinetic markets but with a corporate structure above them that is as slow, ponderous and impenetrable as a five-hour Peking Opera performance.

The chairman invited me to return for another visit in June. What followed was a rather intensive process of me and my team submitting several different financing plans and options, including the privatization of either the whole holding company or various subsidiaries, either as standalones, or grouped into mini-conglomerates. These different plans got discussed very actively inside the SOE. In under a month, the company had decided how it wanted to proceed: that its two strongest and most successful subsidiaries should be separately spun off and majority control in each offered to a new investor.

It may not sound like it, but one month is a remarkably fast time for an SOE to consider, decide and then get necessary approvals to do just about anything. We also work with another even larger Beijing-headquartered SOE and it took them almost four months to get the eleven different people needed to approve, and apply the chop to, our template Non-Disclosure Agreement.

I was summoned with one day’s advance notice to return to the company in late July to sign a cooperation agreement to advise them on the proposed privatization/recapitalization of the two subsidiaries. Again, that’s rather typical of SOEs:  meetings are called suddenly, and one needs to drop whatever one’s doing and attend. For me, that meant a hastily-booked two hour flight, then a three-and-a-half hour drive to the company’s headquarters. A photo from the signing ceremony is at the top of this page. (I have to cover over the name of the company.)

The contract signing was followed by another in a series of very elaborate and extremely tasty meals. The chairman has converted a 13-acre plot of the company’s land into an organic farm, where he grows fruits and vegetables and raises free-range pigs, ducks, chickens. Everything I’ve eaten while visiting the company has come from this farm. Everything is remarkably good. And, yes, along with the food, a rather large amount of Chinese alcohol is poured.

In future posts, I’ll talk about different aspects of the transaction, including how to parse the balance sheet and P&L of an SOE, as well as the industrial and investment logic of doing a takeover of an SOE. In the current market environment in China, where so many PE minority investments are stranded with no means to exit, there has probably never been a better time to do buyout transactions, particularly of mature and successful industrial companies with scale, good profit margins and clean accounting. Good businesses like this are few. We are now working for two of them.



SOEs That Are SOL – China’s Forgotten and Unprivileged State-Owned Enterprises

Perhaps the most commonly-heard criticism these days of the Chinese government’s economic policy is that secret policies favoring State-Owned Enterprises (so-called “SOEs”) are becoming more numerous, heavy-handed and harmful to the prospects of private business in China. This criticism, like others of China,  gains strength and credence because it is basically unfalsifiable. Since the policies are secret and the impact hidden from direct view, the only evidence offered is the continued growth and profits of SOE giants like China Mobile, ICBC, Sinopec and others.

While it’s undeniable that SOEs do enjoy a lot of advantages private companies can only dream of, often including easier access to bank loans and markets rigged to prevent free competition, I’m dubious that a real shift really is taking place, and that the Chinese government is wholesale turning its back on private business in order to make life easier for SOEs.

Not all SOEs are living a life of wine and roses. For them, government support is limited, haphazard, often counterproductive. There are hundreds of such SOEs in China. They aren’t the giant companies many foreigners have heard of. These SOEs are surviving, but not really prospering, with clapped-out equipment, low profits, bloated workforces and balance sheets larded with debt. It’s by no means clear that having a government owner is more of a benefit than a liability.

These SOEs have no real pressure to optimize profits and increase efficiency.  Their government owners, to the extent they even notice these smaller industrial SOEs,  are mainly concerned that they should continue to provide jobs, hand over a bit of money each year in taxes and dividends, and continue to increase output. In many ways, for all the epochal changes over the last 30 years in China, many SOEs are still run much as they were during the days of complete central planning:  growing bigger is still more important than growing more profitable, innovative, dynamic.

Thirty years ago, all of Chinese industry was state-owned and most urban Chinese were employed by the state. Then came the private sector reforms and liberalization under Deng Xiaoping, the rise of private business (which officially now contribute more than 70% of China’s gdp) and the bankruptcy of thousands of large SOEs, when many of the largest loss-making SOEs were forced to close. This process of culling the loss-making SOEs is often called “淘汰” (“taotai”) in Chinese, a term I quite like. It literally means to “wash clean” or “wipe out”.

But, many thousands of smaller, barely-profitable SOEs survived “taotai”. They are the ones now often living in a state more akin to Dickensian squalor than the plush recipients of government favor. Visit, as I did recently,  one of the “un-taotai’ed”  SOEs, and you will soon be disabused of the idea that all SOEs are prospering and that the Chinese government is running an economy to benefit SOEs at the expense of private business.

The SOE I visited is in Shaanxi province, about an hour’s drive from the capital, Xi’an. The factory was established in 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, by a team of thousands of workers forcibly relocated from Tianjin. It manufactures certain special types of fiberglass, including some used by China’s military and space program. The SOE still produces many of the same products, on 45 year-old equipment, in a sprawling and broken-down facility the likes of which I’d never seen before in China. Most of the buildings are dilapidated, the roads inside potholed. Polluted waste water belches from pipes into overflowing holding pens.

This company, in one sense, is lucky. It has no competitors inside China, and only two elsewhere, Soviet-era factories in Byelorussia and Latvia. Saddled with unnecesarily large payroll and other ancillary costs not related to producing fiberglass, profit margins are low. But, the company earns money most years, including about $1 million in profits in 2011.

The problem, though, is that the company can’t get the capital to modernize, expand or rationalize its workforce of almost 2,500. It’s still responsible for the running costs of a local hospital, school and kindergarten. When the company’s boss goes to the government for help, he’s mainly told to fend for himself. The company is too small to get any attention from its government owners. So, it floats along in a kind of sad limbo.

With money and profit-seeking owners, the company could probably grow into a quite successful industrial business. The market for its products is actually growing. If they could let go excess payroll and obligations, margins would likely rise above 15%, generating sufficient surplus to finance the large expansion plans and upgrade the company’s boss has been trying, unsuccessfully, to implement for six years. The government says it has no cash to inject. State-owned banks, for all their supposed leniency towards SOEs, won’t increase lending. Instead, the government is urging the factory boss to find a private investor, to put together some kind of privatization plan.

But, in this case and many like it, whenever the Chinese government won’t invest, few if any sane private investors will. Any new investor would have to fund the cost of layoffs of up to 1,800 people. Most are entitled to one month severance for every month of employment.  Average salary is around $500 a month.

The new investor would also, according to Chinese law, probably need to buy its shares from the provincial arm of SASAC at a price tied to the company’s net assets, not its rather dismal operating performance. The entire business may be worth only $10 million. But, using the net asset formula, which includes a big chunk of valuable land, the price almost triples. After all this money goes out the door, the new investor would need to pump another $12mn-$15 mn into the company to finance improvements and expansion.

For any investor seeking to buy control of the company, the likely rate of return after all these outlays, even under the most optimistic scenarios, would be under 10% a year.  That’s a deal that few investors would consider. Along with the need to shell out all the money, a new owner would also acquire lots of contingent liabilities of unpredictable size and severity, including the cost of an environmental clean-up, repairs to company-owned housing where most of the current 2,300 workers, as well as retirees, live.

After spending the day with him, I sympathize with the company boss’s plight. He wants to run an efficient operation, turn it into a leading producer of certain high-technology fiberglass materials, and maybe earn his way into owning a small piece of the company. But, the current mix of policies in China will make that hard, if not impossible, to achieve.

While big SOEs do enjoy a lot of political clout, with sparkling new headquarters, and a low cost of capital that other companies envy, these smaller SOEs inhabit an altogether different and inhospitable world. Government ownership is far more of a hindrance than a help. And yet, they have no real way to free themselves.  These SOEs are, as Americans would say, SOL.


Teaching the Elephant to Dance – China’s SOEs Transform

Over the last thirty years, China has gone from a country where just about all companies were state-owned enterprises (so-called “SOEs”) to one where now fewer than 30% are. Much of the dynamism in China’s domestic economy comes from these newer private companies. There are some very strong SOEs dominating key sectors of China’s economy, including China Mobile, Sinopec, ICBC and other large banks, as well as airlines and utilities. These companies have also been partially privatized by selling minority stakes on global stock markets. This has provided huge amounts of new capital and brought with it improved performance and corporate governance at these top SOEs.

But, many SOEs have failed, while others languish with inefficient production, overstaffing and outmoded products. For many of these, the prognosis is not good. But, at the same time, there is a entrepreneurial transformation getting underway at some of these SOEs. Managers are beginning to act more like owners and less like civil servants. We are seeing this now in our work. Some of the most interesting companies we’re talking to are SOEs eager to bring in outside capital as a first step towards privatization, and subsidiaries of larger SOEs looking for ways to split themselves off from their parent and go public independently.

I expect to see more and more private capital, particularly from private equity firms, going into SOEs. In some cases, the investors will find ways to take majority control. In others, they will link their minority investment to a corporate restructuring that gives the SOEs management equity, warrants, or other incentives to improve performance and profitability.

The likely result: some of China’s more tired SOEs are going to get a big dose of free market adrenalin. At the moment, there are lots of legal hurdles for private capital to enter into an SOE. The process is opaque. We’re spending a fair bit of time on behalf of several SOEs trying to figure out workable legal mechanisms. To succeed, any deal will take time and need champions in higher levels of government. But, practical economic policies tend to triumph in China. Private capital is, without question, the best option to improve the profitability and future prospects of many SOEs. This is good for employment, good for economic growth, good for worker incomes, good for accelerating development in inland China. These are all core policy goals in China.

I’m not able to discuss details or provide company names, but I can give an outline of several of the most interesting SOE transactions we are now working on. This should give a sense of the kind of changes that may be on the way for SOEs.

In one case, a subsidiary of one of China’s largest publicly-traded SOE construction holding companies is looking for ways, with the parent company’s encouragement, to spin itself off, raise private equity capital, and then try for an IPO. Though it contributes only about 5% of the parent company’s total revenues and operates in different markets than the parent, this subsidiary is one of the largest, most successful companies in its industry in China. Its profits this year should exceed Rmb 650mn (USD$100mn).

Because the parent company is already public, this subsidiary needs to fight for capital with other larger sister companies inside the conglomerate. It usually comes up short. With access to new capital, the subsidiary’s current managers are confident they could double the size of the business (both profits and revenues) within two to three years.  Outside of China, spinning off a subsidiary or selling a minority stake in an IPO is a fairly straight-forward process. Not so in China.

Under current rules, the CSRC, China’s stock market regulator, will not allow the parent simply to spin off the subsidiary through an IPO. There are related party transactions and deconsolidation issues.  So, we are looking at ways for a large strategic investor to buy a controlling stake in the subsidiary, then pour in as much as $250mn in new capital. The subsidiary will then build up its business to where it could either qualify for an IPO three to five years later, or the PE firm would exit by selling its stake back to the parent.

The management of this subsidiary are quite keen to put in their own money and become shareholders if their business can be separated and put on a path to IPO. They have done a very solid job building the business to its current scale, and would likely do markedly better if they had a real stake in the performance of the company.

In another deal we are working on, a chemical company now majority owned by Sinopec is bringing in new capital to buy the Sinopec shares and recapitalize the business. The company was started seven years ago by a private entrepreneur, who raised the original capital from Sinopec. The entrepreneur now controls about 40% of the company’s equity. Through the deal we’re working on, he will become the majority owner and the private equity investor will own the rest.

We’re also in discussions with the international division of one of China’s giant SOE electricity companies. This group already has sizable projects and revenues in Southeast Asia and Russia, where it built and operates large hydro and gas-fueled power plants. The international division, however, is being held back by high debt levels at the SOE parent. This means the international division has trouble borrowing enough to finance its continued growth. Since the international division is already structured legally as a Hong Kong company, it should be possible for it to raise private equity then IPO in Hong Kong. We think this division can raise as much as USD$500mn in the next three years, both in private equity and IPO.

These three (the construction subsidiary, the chemical company and international power plant business) are all very solid businesses that outside investors will likely flock to. We’re also trying to find a way to help a more troubled smaller SOE based in central China. They make certain types of special fiberglass. The core business is fundamentally sound, but is stuck also doing some other things that lose money.  It is too small now to qualify for an IPO, and is having a hard time in the current environment increasing its bank borrowing. The existing managers are eager to have an outside private equity investor come in and not only provide the capital, but also help improve manufacturing efficiency and marketing, and chop away the loss-making parts. They think an investment of Rmb 50mn could increase profits by a similar amount within two years.

As anyone with experience will tell you, working with SOEs can be a complicated and time-consuming process, particularly compared to dealing with a company founded and run by a private entrepreneur. While we’re fortunate to have strong entrepreneur-led companies as clients, I also quite enjoy working on these SOE transactions. It affords an up-close view of the way SOEs operate and problem-solve. I’m also getting to participate, in a small way, in perhaps the most significant transformation now taking place in China’s economy. With new capital and perhaps new ownership structures, SOEs are going to thrive as never before. Their greater efficiency and greater profits will be a challenge for the private sector, but overall will be a plus for China.



M&A in China – China First Capital’s New Research Report

CFC’s latest Chinese-language research report has just been published. The topic: M&A Strategy for Chinese Private Companies. Our conclusion: propelled by rapidly-growing domestic market and the continuing evolution of China’s capital markets, China will overtake the USA within the next decade as the world’s largest and most active market for mergers and acquisitions.

The report, titled “ 并购- 中国企业的成功助力”,can be downloaded by clicking here.

The report identifies five key drivers that fueling M&A activity among private sector companies in China.  They are: (1) a once-in-a-business-lifetime opportunity to seize meaningful market share in the domestic market; (2) the coming generational shift as China’s first generation of entrepreneurs moves toward retirement age; (3) a widening valuation gap between private and publicly-traded companies; (4) regulatory changes that will make it easier to pay for acquisitions using shares as well as cash; (5) increased access to IPO market in China for companies that have augmented organic growth through strategic M&A.

Several case studies from our work feature in the report, including a cross-border M&A deal we are doing, and one purely domestic trade sale. We take on a select number of M&A clients, and work as a sell-side advisor.

M&A in China has myriad challenges that do not often arise in other parts of the world. One we see repeatedly is that few Chinese acquirers have in-house M&A teams or investment banks on call to provide help with structure and valuation. Talking with anyone less than the company chairman is often a waste of time.

Another unique hurdle: “GIGO DD” or, more prosaically, “garbage in, garbage out due diligence.” Potential acquirers unfortunately will often start their industry research by doing a Chinese language web search using Baidu. There is a lot of dubious stuff out there that is given some credence, including phony websites and bizarre claims posted to people’s personal blogs or chatrooms.

In the cross-border deal we’re working on, several companies backed out of the process after finding Chinese companies claiming on their corporate website to make equipment identical to our client’s. This convinced these potential bidders that our client had technology and assets of little value. We actually took the time, unlike the potential acquirers, to call the phone numbers on these websites, posing as potential customers. None of the companies had any similar equipment for sale or in development. The material on their websites was bogus.

Market data from online sources is also usually specious. Few people, including lawyers, have working knowledge of how an M&A deal might impact a company’s plans for domestic IPO in China.

I’ve been inside some M&A deals in the US,  with their online data rooms, cloak-and-dagger codenames, and a precisely orchestrated bidding process. In China, the process is more unscripted.

Until recently, the only Chinese companies able and willing to do M&A were larger State-Owned Enterprises (SOE). The deals were done to buy oil and other natural resources on the stock market, or to acquire European brand names to put on Chinese-made products. Those deals include Sinopec’s purchase of shares in Canadian company AddaxCNOOC’s failed acquisition of UnoCal, TCL’s purchase of Thomson TVs and Alcatel phones, and Nanjing Automotive’s buying the MG brand.

These kind of deals will likely continue. But, in the future, M&A deals will become more numerous, more necessary for private entrepreneur-founded companies and have more complex strategic goals.

M&A is one of only two ways for founders and shareholders to achieve exit. The other is IPO. But, the number of private companies who can IPO in China will always be limited. At the moment, the number is about 250 per year. Compare that to the 70 million or so private companies in China.

The IPO process creates a special competitive dynamic in China. The first company in an industry to become publicly-traded usually has a huge advantage over competitors. They disrupt the previous equilibrium in an industry.

This means there are only two choices for many entrepreneurs. Both choices involve M&A. If you aren’t going to become a public company or a competitor has already gone public, you need to consider selling your company. If you want to become a public company,  you will need to become an expert at buying other companies.

The economic destiny of China, and many of its better private companies, is M&A.


China’s Tax Revenues: An Embarrassment of Riches

You’ve got to love the timing. With U.S. mired in a debt and spending crisis, with tax revenues stagnant and its government about to run out of borrowed money to spend, the Chinese government just announced that its fiscal revenues during the first half of 2011 rose by 29.6% compared to a year earlier. One country is a fiscal train-wreck, the other a fiscal gusher.

China’s tax revenues are surging for a host of reasons that set it apart from the US – the economy is booming, and in particular, businesses are thriving. According to the Chinese Ministry of Finance, profit taxes are growing especially quickly. Income and corporate tax rates are stable, at rates far lower than the US. China levies a nationwide VAT, while most of the US charges sales tax. Consumer spending is growing by over 20% in China, while it’s basically flat in the US.

To all these must be added another crucial difference: China is modernizing so quickly, that every year money pours in from new sources. China doesn’t need to raise tax rates to increase tax revenue. It just allows its citizens to get on with their lives.

Take auto sales. A decade ago, China produced and sold about two million cars. This year, it will sell about 20 million. China passed the US two years ago to become the world’s largest auto market. Since then, sales have grown by a further 40%.

Along with creating some of the world’s worst traffic congestion, all these new car sales do wonders for the country’s fiscal situation.  Start with the fact that every car sold in China has not just a 17% VAT built into its price, but a host of other taxes and levies. A consumption tax adds as much as 40% more to the sticker price depending on the size of the engine. Customs duties are also levied on imports.

These all add up fast. The government’s tax take from the sale of a single Mercedes-Benz can easily top Rmb325,000 (US$50,000). Last year alone, sales of Mercedes-Benz in China doubled. This year, Mercedes will sell about 180,000 cars in China. Total tax take: about USD$1 billion. Keep in mind that Mercedes-Benz has less than 1% of the Chinese market. BWM, Porsche and Lexus are also doing great in China. While they are all doing well, the Chinese government does even better. The government earns far more on the sale of every luxury car than the manufacturers do.

The sales and consumption taxes are just the start. Most news cars in China are sold to new drivers. That means, every year, there’s a significant net increase in the consumption of gasoline. Each liter of gasoline also carries a variety of different taxes – VAT, consumption tax, resource tax. Plus, almost every gas station and refiner in China is owned by companies majority-owned by the Chinese government. So, profits at the pump flow back to the government.

At the moment, the gasoline price in China is about Rmb7.5 per liter,  or Rmb30 ($4.60) per gallon. Figure the Chinese government is making about Rmb10 ($1.50) per gallon sold in tax. Each new car sold this year will likely contribute an additional $500-$600 in fuel taxes, or about Rmb100 billion in total. Again, a big chunk of that will be a net increase in fiscal revenues, since there are so many new drivers each year.

Think the same for sales of new apartments, air-conditioners, iPads and iPhones, plane and high-speed train tickets. Each one has all sorts of taxes built into its sales price, and then an annuity of future tax revenues from energy taxes, fees and assessments.

In the US, taxes and spending are so high, people grow more and more reluctant to spend. Huge budget deficits today, as Milton Friedman long ago established,  creates the expectation of tax increases tomorrow. Americans adjust their spending accordingly. Not so in China. Chinese keep spending and the government reaps the bounty.

As flush as the Chinese fisc now is, tax revenues represent only one part of the government’s huge cash hoard. To begin with, there is the over $3 trillion in official foreign exchange reserves. This money contributes little to no benefit to the economy as a whole, except bottling up pressure on the Renminbi to appreciate against the dollar. It’s basically money buried in the backyard.

The government also owns significant – often controlling — shares the country’s biggest and most profitable companies, including SinoPec, China Mobile, China Telecom.

Net profits at the 120 biggest centrally-controlled Chinese SOEs rose by 14.6% year-on-year during the first half of 2011, reaching Rmb457.17 billion yuan ($71 billion) . These 120 SOEs are meant to pay taxes and levies of almost twice that, Rmb850 billion, up 26.4% from 2010. No one quite knows how much of that money actually reaches the Chinese Treasury. But, of course,  the money is there, should it be needed – in a way the US Social Security “Trust Fund” most assuredly is not.