SOE privatization

Shining lights brighten future of SOEs — China Daily Commentary

 

China Daily

Shining lights brighten future of SOEs

By PETER FUHRMAN (China Daily) Updated: 2015-10-23 07:29

Shining lights brighten future of SOEs
While the need for SOE reform is great and too many SOEs still fight to maintain the troubled status quo, there are also some Chinese SOEs leading by example.

As China’s leadership prepares its 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20), it confronts multiple economic challenges, reform of State-owned enterprises being one of them.

Shining lights brighten future of SOEs

SOEs account for at least 30 percent of China’s total GDP. Some estimates put the share as high as 45 percent. But there are two worrying signs of the worsening situation for China’s SOEs: Their profits are dropping and indebtedness is rising sharply. According to the Ministry of Finance on Wednesday, the profits of the SOEs from January to August decreased by 8.2 percent year-on-year, while the total debt of SOEs from January to September has surpassed 77 trillion yuan, a 20 percent year-on-year increase.

Last month, the government introduced its guidelines for the next stage of SOE reform, including more outside capital. The guidelines are in the right direction, but, there is also some enormous potential within the SOE sector in China that, if unleashed, would also help contribute to the overall turnaround.

There are centers of research excellence, especially in applied engineering, on par with the best in the US and Europe. One example is the China Iron and Steel Research Institute Group in Beijing. It employs 2,000 staff with doctorates along with other experienced research scientists. Every visit, I leave impressed not only by the commitment of the large staff, but also the level of the research institute’s globally-important innovation.

If there is an area that needs improving-one not uncommon for SOE research institutes-it is in how to commercialize their many technologies and how to initiate and structure profitable licensing deals, both with other SOEs in China and global steel and new materials companies. The Institute, based in Beijing’s Haidian district, is making great strides, but, a greater focus as well as a stronger push from the government to get technologies out of the lab and into factories would be helpful.

SOEs too often focus excessively on increasing gross output rather than on pleasing customers and accumulating profits. One positive mold-breaker here is Yangzhou’s AVIC Baosheng Group, which makes steel and copper cable. Though operating in a brutally-competitive market with lots of competitors, Baosheng holds its own. Also in Yangzhou are two examples of how SOEs can take a valuable traditional brand name and rejuvenate it. Restaurant chain Yechun Teahouse and cosmetic manufacturer Xiefuchun have both been around since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and became SOEs in the 1950s.

Yechun is now opening beautiful restaurants both inside and outside China that maintain consistently high quality. Xiefuchun is more of a jewel-in-the-making, with great all-natural products in tune with buying trends in China and abroad. However, Xiefuchun is not as good as it could be on branding, packaging and retail, areas where SOEs often tend to do poorly. Xiefuchun, against all commercial logic, is now stuck inside a large SOE chemicals holding company.

Meanwhile, China Huadian Corporation stands out for its success doing something few SOEs have mastered-investing to build from the ground up and then running profitable large-scale projects outside China. All SOEs know about the central government’s “Go Global” policy. Huadian is getting it right and so has much to teach other globally-ambitious SOEs.

Then there’s my choice for most exceptional high-tech SOE in China, Sichuan Aerospace Tuoxin Basalt Industrial. Though little known, it could be a model for how SOEs might develop in the future. Based in Chengdu, 90 percent of the company is owned by the giant centrally-managed SOE, China Aerospace Group. Tuoxin internally developed a revolutionary process for using ordinary quarried stone to produce a lightweight waterproof, heat-resistant material with broad applications in everything from auto parts to wind-energy. It is on track to become a billion-dollar company within the next five years. Tuoxin suggests what more SOEs could be capable of.

But to get to where it is, Tuoxin needed an owner with long-term vision and patient capital, as well as a senior management team that wants to break out of the cocoon of supplying mainly other SOEs by partnering extensively with China’s private sector companies.

While the need for SOE reform is great and too many SOEs still fight to maintain the troubled status quo, there are also some Chinese SOEs leading by example. They are blazing a path toward a more productive and profitable SOE sector all Chinese can take pride in.

The author is chairman and chief executive officer of China First Capital

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2015-10/23/content_22260934.htm

SOE Reform in China — Big Changes On the Way

Qianlong emperor calligraphy

China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are a lucky breed, or so conventional wisdom would have it. They have lower cost of capital and less competitive pressures of private sector competitors. China’s big banks (also state-owned) are always happy to lend, and if things do turn sour, China’s government will bail everyone out.

The reality, however, is substantially different and substantially more challenging. SOEs live in a different world than they did ten, or even three years ago. They are more and more often under intensifying pressure to achieve two incompatible goals: to continue to expand revenues by 15%-25% a year, but to do so without corresponding large increases in net bank borrowing. The result, over time, will be that SOEs will need to rely increasingly on private sector capital to finance their future growth.

This message came through especially loud and clear in the policy document published by the Chinese leadership after the recent Third Party Plenum in November.  SOEs are told they need to become more attuned to the market and less dependent on government favors and protection. This new policy pronouncement is reverberating like a cannon blast inside the state-owned economy, based on conversations lately with the top people at our large Chinese SOE clients.

No one at these SOEs is entirely sure how to fulfill the orders from above. But, they are all certain, from long years of experience, that the environment SOEs operate in is going to undergo some significant change, likely the most significant since the “Great Cull” of the mid-1990s when thousands of SOEs were pushed into bankruptcy.Too many of the surviving SOEs have done little more than survive over the last twenty years. They managed to stay in the black, sometimes by resorting to rather idiosyncratic accounting that ignored depreciation.

The Chinese leadership is embarking on a tricky, somewhat contradictory, mission:  to simultaneously shake up the SOE sector, make it more efficient and responsive to market forces,  while keeping SOEs embedded in the foundation of China’s economy.  Much has changed about the way Chinese leaders view and manage SOEs. But, a key principle remains intact. The architect of the policy, Deng Xiaoping, put it this way, ” As long as we keep ourselves sober-minded, there is nothing to be feared. We still hold superiority, because we have large and medium state-owned enterprises.

In other words, SOE privatization is not on the menu, at least not in any large-scale way. SOEs, particularly the 126 so-called “centrally-administered SOEs” (央企)  will remain majority-owned by the government. The government is suggesting, however, it wants these SOEs, as well as the other 100,000 or so smaller ones active in most parts of the Chinese economy, to be run better and more profitably. But how? That’s the a topic of discussions I’ve been having over the last month with the bosses at our SOE clients.

The rate of return (as measured by return on assets) at SOEs has, in almost all cases, drifted down over the last ten years, and is now probably under 3% a year.  If bank borrowing and depreciation were more properly amortized, the rate of return would likely turn negative at quite a lot of SOEs.

In some cases, this reflects the cruel reality that many SOEs operate in low-margin highly-commoditized industries. But, another key factor is that the government body that acts as the owner of most SOEs, SASAC (国资委), is not your typical profit-maximizing shareholder.

SASAC manages the portfolio of SOE assets like the most risk-averse executor. It demands three things above all from SOEs: don’t lose money;  don’t pilfer state assets and keep revenues growing.

When your owner sets the bar a few inches off the ground, you don’t try to break the Olympic high jump record. No SOE manager ever got a bonus, as far as I’ve heard, from doubling profits, or improving cash flow. Pay-for-performance is basically taboo at SOEs. The whole SOE system, as it’s now configured, is designed to produce middling giants with tapering profits.

Rather than shake-up SASAC, the country’s leaders have given SOEs a green light to seek capital from outside sources, including private equity and strategic investors. They should provide, for the first time, a voice in the SOE boardroom calling for higher profits, higher margins, bigger dividends.

It’s a wise move. SOEs need to carry more of the load for China’s future gdp growth. You can’t do that when you are achieving such low return on assets. Among the SOEs we work with, there’s a genuine excitement about bringing in outside investment, and operating under a new, more strenuous regime. Surprised? The SOEs I know are run by professional managers who’ve spent much of their careers building the business and take pride in its scale and professionalism. They, too, see room for improvement and see the downsides of SASAC’s approach.

Outside capital can help these SOEs finance their future expansion.  It could also open new doors, especially in international markets. The big question: can — will — private equity, buyout firms, global strategic investors seek out investments in Chinese SOEs? It’s unfamiliar terrain.

Earlier this year, I arranged a series of meetings for twelve of the world’s-largest PE firms and institutional investors to meet a large SOE client of ours. These firms collectively have over $700 billion in capital, and each one has at least ten years’ experience in China. They are all keen on this particular deal. Yet, none of these firms have invested in any SOE deals over the last five years. For many of the visiting PEs, it was their first time ever meeting with the boss of a profitable and successful SOE to discuss investing.

In this case, it looks like a deal will get done, and so provide a blueprint for future PE investing in Chinese SOE.  The Chinese leadership ordered a shakeup to the state owned sector. It’s getting one.

 

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.