SPAC

The Reverse Merger Minefield

Song porcelain from China First Capital blog post

Since 2005, 380 Chinese companies have executed reverse mergers in the US. They did so, in almost all cases, as a first step towards getting listed on a major US exchange, most often the NASDAQ. Yet, as of today, according to a recent article in Dow Jones Investment Banker, only 15% of those Chinese companies successfully “uplisted” to NASDAQ. That’s a failure rate of 85%. 

That’s a rather stunning indictment of the advisers and bankers who promote, organize and profit from these transactions. The Chinese companies are left, overwhelmingly, far worse off than when they started. Their shares are stuck trading on the OTCBB or Pink Sheets, with no liquidity,  steep annual listing and compliance fees, often pathetically low valuations,  and no hope of ever raising additional capital. 

The advisors, on the other hand, are coining it. At a guess, Chinese companies have paid out to advisors, accountants, lawyers and Investor Relations firms roughly $700 million in fees for these US reverse mergers. As a way to lower America’s balance of payments deficit with China, this one is about the most despicable. 

You would think that anyone selling a high-priced service with an 85% failure rate would have a hard time finding customers. Sadly, that isn’t the case. This is an industry that quite literally thrives on failure. The US firms specializing in reverse mergers are a constant, conspicuous presence as sponsors at corporate finance conferences around China, touting their services to Chinese companies.

I was at one this past week in Shenzhen, with over 1,000 participants, and a session on reverse mergers sponsored by one of the more prominent US brokerage houses that does these deals. The pitch is always the same: “we can get your company listed on NASDAQ”. 

I have no doubt these firms know that 85% of the reverse mergers could be classified as expensive failures, because the companies never migrate to NASDAQ.  Equally, I have no doubt they never disclose this fact to the Chinese companies they are soliciting. I know a few “laoban” (Chinese for “company boss”)  who’ve been pitched by the US reverse merger firms. They are told a reverse merger is all but a  “sure thing”. I’ve seen one US reverse merger firm’s Powerpoint presentation for Chinese clients that contained doctored numbers on performance of firms it brought public on OTCBB.  

Accurate disclosure is the single most important component of financial market regulation. Yet, as far as I’ve been able to determine, the financial firms pushing reverse mergers offer clients little to no disclosure of their own. No other IPO process has such a high rate of failure, with such a high price tag attached. 

Of course, the Chinese companies are often also culpable. They fail to do adequate due diligence on their own. Chinese bosses are often too fixated on getting a quick IPO, rather than waiting two to three years, at a minimum, to IPO in China. There’s little Chinese-language material available on the dangers of reverse mergers. These kinds of reverse mergers cannot be done on China’s own stock exchanges. Overall knowledge about the US capital markets is limited. 

These are the points cited by the reverse merger firms to justify what they’re doing. But, these justifications ring false. Just because someone wants a vacation house in Florida doesn’t make it OK to sell them swampland in the Everglades. 

The reverse mergers cost China dear. Good Chinese SME are often bled to death. That hurts China’s overall economy. China’s government probably can’t outlaw the process, since it’s subject to US, not Chinese, securities laws. But, I’d like to see the Chinese Securities Regulatory Commission (中国证监会), China’s version of the SEC, publish empirical data about US reverse mergers, SPACs, OTCBB listings. 

There is not much that can be done for the 325 Chinese companies that have already completed a US reverse merger and failed to get uplisted to NASDAQ. They will continue to waste millions of dollars a year in fees just to remain listed on the OTCBB or Pink Sheets, with no realistic prospect of ever moving to the NASDAQ market.

For these companies, the US reverse merger is the capital markets’ version of , or death by a thousand slices.

Ethics and Investment Banking – how disreputable advisors, bankers and lawyers damaged Chinese SMEs through OTCBB listings, reverse mergers

 

Qing Dynasty bowl from article by China First Capital

 

Back again in Shenzhen, with plenty of food for thought, as well as food for the belly. I go through the same “immersion program” whenever I arrive back here: it involves stopping for a plate of dumplings or bowl of noodles once every 30 paces. Or anyway, it certainly seems that way. 

The food for thought, as always, centers on ways to deliver enhanced value and service to clients and business partners. We have a set of core principles, that we build our business on, and that collectively represent our main differentiators. They are disarmingly simple – to work with integrity and honesty,  and always put the success of our clients’ first. We know that if we do this, our own success will follow. 

Simple, but not nearly as universal as they should be in our business. A lot of investment banking, IPO and advisory work in China has bordered on the criminal. Hundreds of SME companies were damaged, if not destroyed, by advisors, lawyers and others who neglected entirely to put their clients’ interests first. Instead, they pushed for companies to take various fast routes to IPO in the US, typically reverse mergers, OTCBB Listings, Form 10, SPAC deals. The reason: the advisors, lawyers, bankers all made a pile of money, quickly, through these kinds of deals. When things turned sour, as they often did, the advisers, bankers and lawyers were generally nowhere to be found, and the Chinese companies were left in dire straits.

Obviously, the bosses of the Chinese companies were complicit, since they agreed to these kinds of schemes to achieve a fast IPO. But, in my experience, the bosses main sin was that of ignorance. They simply didn’t understand all the workings of these kinds of deals, or even the fee-structure that would disproportionately reward the advisers, lawyers and bankers. In other words, the Chinese bosses didn’t do their DD, didn’t check the dismal track record of the many Chinese companies that already opted for OTCBB listings or reverse mergers.

I sometimes think the Chinese term for IPO, “上市” ( “shang shi”) has magical, intoxicating effect on some Chinese bosses. They hear it and suspend all their normal caution and suspicion. Soon, they end up agreeing to what are often truly disastrous transactions that don’t even deserve the name IPO.

There are, by some estimates, several hundred Chinese companies now listed on the OTCBB that are somewhere between “on life support” and “clinically dead”. Their share prices fell steeply immediately after listing (by which time the advisers, bankers and lawyers all pocketed their fees and lined up their next victims) and are below $1. There is little to no liquidity. They often trade at PE multiples of 1-2x. The costs of retaining the OTCBB listing are bleeding the companies of badly-needed money. They have no chance to raise additional capital, nor to do much of anything (except waste money on Investor Relations firms) to lift their share price.

I get angry just thinking about this. I’m offended that people in my field of work would be involved in such self-serving, greed-ridden transactions. Secondly, it’s also brought a lot of harm, and sometimes complete failure, to what were very good Chinese SME companies that once had bright futures, until they had the misfortune of putting their financial futures in the hands of these advisors.

Of course, the guiding principle behind all investment decisions must be “caveat emptor”. Chinese bosses clearly didn’t “caveat” enough. That’s regrettable. But, the gains made by the advisors, lawyers and bankers were so enormous, and so ill-gotten. That’s the heart of the matter: Chinese companies were ruined so that a bunch of ethically-challenged finance people could get rich.  For me, this is contemptible.  How these people sleep at night I don’t know.

I do know this: we try to do everything we can to make it less likely that a good Chinese SME goes the same route, and ends up in the same sad condition. One way is through information. We’re producing Chinese-language materials meant to explain the hazards of transactions like OTCBB listings and reverse mergers. Our plan is to distribute the materials as widely as possible, both online and off. It may not put the bad guys out of business, but at least it will make it easier for Chinese SME bosses to know which questions to ask, what kind of track record to look for or, more often,  run away from.

I’ll be sharing soon on this blog  the English version of some of this information.

 

 

.