SME

Zhejiang Province: Why It’s China’s Richest and Will Be Richer Very Soon

QIng Dynasty vase, from China First Capital blog post

Geography is destiny. Nowhere is this more true, of course, than in China. The country is the world’s fourth-largest, in terms of territory. But, much of the country is inhospitable: with deserts, mountains,  loess and other areas less fit for human habitation. In a population of 1.4 billion, over 550 million are peasants and farmers. Yet, only 14.86% of the land in China is well-suited for cultivation. Too many hands with too little land to hoe. That basically sums up China’s vast agricultural economy.    

The most fertile agricultural areas are also the ones that have had the highest rate of industrial and overall economic development in the last 30 years. The three richest provinces in China also have the highest concentrations of fertile land: Guangdong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Together, these three coastal provinces have a population of about 230 million, or 17.5% of China’s total. But, their combined share of China’s gdp is almost twice that. 

When economic reform got underway, these provinces were already relatively well-off, because of the high quality and productivity of its farm output. They were not as heavily industrialized as more northern parts of China, which got the major share of government investment and attention during the first 30 years after the 1949 revolution. 

This lack of industrial infrastructure turned out to be a decisive advantage for the three provinces, especially Guangdong and Zhejiang.  As reform took hold, they weren’t weighed down by the bloat of forced industrialization. The rich farmland and relatively high living standards helped create a greater sense of economic security and this, in turn, bred more of an entrepreneurial mindset.

As the Chinese government relaxed controls on private business, Guangdong and Zhejiang were the first to seize the opportunities. Capital from private sources was more readily available because of the profitability of farming in the region. Entrepreneurship flourished. To this day, one can travel around Zhejiang and Guangdong and rarely, if ever, come across a state-owned business. Their economies are almost entirely in the hands of private business, with larger, private SME in the lead. 

Travel north or west and the situation is markedly different. Here, subsistence farming was often the norm. There were no large agricultural surpluses to finance the growth of private business. State-owned companies, often of the “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” variety,  have predominated. The private sector still fights for its share of resources in these other regions of China. Those with entrepreneurial flair often emigrate. Shenzhen is particularly full of such transplants, drawn from every corner of China. I’ve met many successful entrepreneurs here from inland provinces, especially Jiangxi, Hunan, Sichuan and Hubei.  

I’m in Zhejiang as I write this, and am stuck struck by the beauty of its scenery as well as the industriousness and wealth of its people. It reminds me most of Northern Italy, where I’ve spent a lot of time, earlier in my life. Northern Italy is one of the world’s most prosperous places, as well as among its most visually stunning.

In both places, mountains are close by nearly everywhere, and over recent decades, much of the rich farmland has been plowed under to build factories. Northern Italy includes most of that country’s (and the world’s) most successful private-sector companies and brands, including Benetton, Luxottica, Armani. The food is also particularly excellent, another trait it shares in common with Zhejiang. 

Northern Italy, statistically, is the richest area, per capita, in Europe – richer even than next-door Switzerland. Zhejiang, similarly, is the richest place in China, per capita. While Zhejiang can’t yet claim its home to any internationally-renowned brands, it does have China’s strongest nucleus of SME businesses. Many of these, in coming decades, will likely grow into large businesses that dominate their markets. One Chinese auto brand, Geely, which is about to complete its purchase of Volvo from Ford, is based in Zhejiang.                                               

Zhejiang is unique among provinces in China. It has three cities that vie for commercial and entrepreneurial supremacy. Wenzhou, Ningpo and Hangzhou act like separate pumps, channeling energy and wealth into the province’s circulatory system. I spent time recently in Fuyang, the area about 30 miles to the south of Hangzhou. We’re now lucky to have an outstanding client SME in that city. Fuyang is mainly mountainous. Thin strips of flat richly-fertile land hold much of the population, transport infrastructure and industry. 

It’s hard to imagine there could be a more productive slice of our planet than this flat land in Fuyang, including in Northern Italy. In a hectic 36 hours, I visited six different companies in Fuyang, each from a different industry, and each already of a scale that puts it in the top flight of all China’s SME. They are a very small sample of the great entrepreneurial output of this area of Zhejiang.  I was very impressed with each company, and with each “laoban” (老板), Chinese for “boss”. 

These companies, and Zhejiang itself, embody the two most powerful forces that are now reshaping the Chinese economy: the twin reliance on private sector SME, and on producing for China’s domestic market rather than manufacturing OEM products for export.   

Zhejiang started out with a lot of natural advantages that other regions in China could only envy: the fertile land, an abundance of fresh water, inland waterways (including the Grand Canal) and plentiful rainfall, proximity to the coast and the major ports in Ningpo and nearby Shanghai. But, it’s richest blessing is a population of talented, instinctive entrepreneurs. They’ve taken what nature provided and augmented it, building a thriving, vibrant industrial economy in an area that 20 years ago was still mainly farmland and rice paddies. 

Other people’s idea of a perfect holiday is a week on some beach, or a visit to a tourist city like Rome or Paris. Mine is to spend time in a place with great food and great entrepreneurs, visiting their factories, hearing their strategies to conquer new markets and seize new opportunities to make money. 

Zhejiang really is my kind of place.

  

The End of the Line for Old-Style PE Investing in China

Ming Dynasty flask, from China Private Equity blog post

As 2010 dawns, private equity in China is undergoing epic changes. 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 PE firms 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. 

The dominant PE firms of yesterday, those that led the industry during its first decade in China, are under pressure, and some will not survive. They once generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. Now, these same firms seem antiquated, their methods and approach ill-suited to conditions in China. 

In the end, success in PE investing comes down to one thing: maximizing the difference between your entry and exit price. This differential will often be twice as large for investors with renminbi as those with dollars. The basic reason is that stock market valuations in China, on a current p/e basis, are over twice as high as in Hong Kong and New York – or an average of about 30 times earnings in China, compared to fifteen times earnings in Hong Kong and US. 

The gap has remained large and persistent for years. My view is that it will continue to be wide for many years to come. That’s because profits in China (in step with GDP) are growing faster than anywhere else, and Chinese investors are more willing to bid up the price of those earnings. 

For PE firms, the stark reality is: if you can’t enter with renminbi and exit in China, you cut your profit potential in half. 

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If given the freedom, of course, any PE investor would choose to exit in China. The problem is, they don’t have that freedom. Only fully-Chinese companies can IPO in China. It’s not possible for Chinese companies with what’s called an “offshore structure”, meaning the ultimate holding company is based in Hong Kong, BVI, the Caymans or elsewhere outside China. Offshore companies could take in dollar investment from PE firms, swap it into renminbi to build their business in China, then IPO outside China. The PE firms put dollars in and took dollars out. That’s the way it worked, for example, for the lucky PE firms that invested in successful Chinese companies like Baidu, Suntech, Alibaba, Belle – all of which have offshore structure. 

In September 2006, the game changed. New securities laws in China made it all but impossible for Chinese companies to establish holding companies outside China. Year by year, the number has dwindled of good private companies in China with offshore structure. First generation PE firms with only dollars to invest in China have fewer good deals to chase. At the same time, the appeal of a domestic Chinese IPO has become stronger and stronger. Not only are IPO prices higher, but the stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen have become larger, more liquid, less prone to the kind of wild price-swings that were once a defining trait of Chinese investing. 

Of course, it’s not all sweetness and light. A Chinese company seeking a domestic IPO cannot choose its own timing. That’s up to the securities regulators. To IPO in China, a company must first apply to China’s securities market regulator, the CSRC, and once approved, join a queue of uncertain length. At present, the process can take two years or more. Planning and executing an IPO in Hong Kong or the US is far quicker and the regulatory process far more transparent. 

In any IPO, timing is important, but price is more so. That’s why, on balance, a Chinese IPO is still going to be a much better choice for any company that can manage one. 

Some of the first generation PE firms have tried to get around the legal limitations. For example, there is a way for PE firms to invest dollars into a purely Chinese company, by establishing a new joint venture company with the target Chinese firm. However, that only solves the smaller part of the problem. It remains difficult, if not impossible, for these joint venture entities to go public in China. 

For PE investors in China, if you can’t go public in Shanghai or Shenzhen, you’ve cut your potential profits in half. That’s a bad way to run a business, and a bad way to please your Limited Partners, the cash-rich pension funds, insurance firms, family offices and endowments that provide the capital for PE firms to invest.   

The valuation differential has other knock-on effects. A PE firm can afford to pay a higher price when investing in a Chinese company if it knows it can exit domestically.  That leaves more margin for error, and also allows PE firms to compete for the best deals. The only PE firms, however, with this option are those already holding renminbi. This group includes some of the best first generation PE firms, including CDH, SZVC, Legend. But, most first generation firms only have dollars, and that means they can only invest in companies that will exit outside China. 

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, many of the other first generation PE firms are now scrambling to raise renminbi funds. A few have already succeeded, including Prax and SAIF. But, raising an renminbi fund is difficult. Few will succeed. Those that do will usually only be able to raise a fraction of the amount they can raise is dollars. 

Add it up and it spells trouble – deep trouble – for many of the first generation PE firms in China. They made great money over the last ten years for themselves and their Limited Partners. But, the game is changed. And, as always in today’s China, change is swift and irreversible. The successful PE firms of the future will be those that can enter and exit in renminbi, not dollars.


Size Matters – Why It’s Important to Build Profits Before an IPO

Qing Dynasty plate -- in blog post of China First Capital

Market capitalization plays a very important part in the success and stability of a Chinese SME’s shares after IPO. In general, the higher the market capitalization, the less volatility, the more liquidity. All are important if the shares are to perform well for investors after IPO.

There is no simple rule for all companies. But, broadly speaking, especially for a successful IPO in the US or Hong Kong, market capitalization at IPO should be at least $250 million. That will require profits, in the previous year, of around $15mn or more, based on the sort of multiples that usually prevail at IPO.

Companies with smaller market capitalizations at IPO often have a number of problems. Many of the larger institutional investors (like banks, insurance companies, asset management companies) are prohibited to buy shares in companies with smaller market capitalizations. This means there are fewer buyers for the shares, and in any market, whether it’s stock market or the market for apples, the more potential buyers you have, the higher the price will likely climb.

Another problem: many stock markets have minimum market capitalizations in order to stay listed on the exchange. So, for example, if a company IPOs on AMEX market in the US with $5mn in last year’s profits, it will probably qualify for AMEX’s minimum market capitalization of $75 million. But, if the shares begin to fall after IPO, the market capitalization will go below the minimum and AMEX will “de-list” the company, and shares will stop trading, or end up on the OTCBB or Pink Sheets. Once this happens, it can be very hard for a company’s share price to ever recover.

In general, the stock markets that accept companies with lower profits and lower market capitalizations, are either stock markets that specialize in small-cap companies (like Hong Kong’s GEM market, or the new second market in Shenzhen), or stock markets with lower liquidity, like OTCBB or London AIM.

Occasionally, there are companies that IPO with relatively low market capitalization of around RMB300,000,000 and then after IPO grow fast enough to qualify to move to a larger stock market, like NASDAQ or NYSE. But, this doesn’t happen often. Most low market capitalization companies stay low market capitalization companies forever.

Another consideration in choosing where to IPO is “lock up” rules. These are the regulations that determine how long company “insiders”, including the SME ownerand his family, must wait before they can sell their shares after IPO. Often, the lock up can be one year or more.

This can lead to a particularly damaging situation. At the IPO, many investment advisors sell their shares on the first day, because they are often not controlled by a lock up and aren’t concerned with the long-term, post-IPO success of the SME client.  They head for the exit at the first opportunity.

These sales send a bad signal to other investors: “if the company’s own investment advisors don’t want to own the shares, why should we?” The closer it gets to this time when the lock up ends, the further the share price falls. This is because other investors anticipate the insiders will sell their shares as soon as it becomes possible to do so.

There are examples of SME bosses who on day of IPO owned shares in their company worth on paper over $50 million, at the IPO price. But, by the time the lock up ends, a year later, those same shares are worth less than $5mn. If it’s a company with a lot market capitalization, there is probably very little liquidity. So, even when the SME bosshas the chance to sell, there are no buyers except for small quantities.

The smaller the market capitalization at IPO, the more risky the lock-in is for the SME boss. It’s one more reason why it’s so important to IPO at the right time. The higher an SME’s profits, the higher the price it gets for its shares at IPO. The more money it raises from the IPO, the easier it is to increase profits after IPO and keep the share price above the IPO level.   This way, even when the lock up ends, the SME boss can personally benefit when he sells his shares.

Of all the reasons to IPO, this one is often overlooked: the SME boss should earn enough from the sale of his shares to diversify his wealth. Usually, an SME boss has all his wealth tied up in his company. That’s not healthy for either the boss or his shareholders. Done right, the SME boss can sell a moderate portion of his shares after lock in, without impacting the share price, and so often for the first time, put a  decent chunk of change in his own bank account.

We give this aspect lot of thought in planning the right time and place for an SME’s IPO. We want our clients’ owners and managers to do well, and have some liquid wealth. Too often up to now, the entrepreneurs who build successful Chinese SMEs do not benefit financially to anything like the extent of the cabal of advisors who push them towards IPO. 

 

 

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