take private

WH Group Hong Kong IPO Goes Belly Up – Leaving Wall Street’s Most Famed Investment Banks and Some of Asia’s Biggest PE Firms at an Embarrassing Loss

WSJ Shuanghui WH Group failed IPO

There will be an awful lot of embarrassed financial professionals sulking around Hong Kong and Wall Street today. The reason: a crazy IPO deal financially-engineered by a group of 29 big name investment banks, led by Morgan Stanley, together with several large China and Asian-based PE firms including China’s CDH and Singapore’s Temasek Holdings failed to find investors. Their pig’s ear didn’t, as they promised, turn into the silk purse after all. The planned IPO of WH Group has been aborted.

WH Group was created by the banks and PE firms to hold the assets of American pork producer Smithfield Foods bought last year in a leveraged buyout. The other asset inside of WH Group is a majority shareholding in China’s largest pork company Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development.

I was one of the few who actually called into question almost a year ago the logic as well as the economics of the deal. You can read my original article here.

There weren’t a lot of other doubters at the time. The mainstream financial press, by and large, went along with things, accepting at face value the story provided to them by Morgan Stanley, CDH and others. Over the last few months, as the now-failed IPO got into gear in anticipation of closing the deal around now, the press kept up its steady reporting, not raising too many tough questions about what were obviously some glaring weak points – the high debt, the high valuation, the crazy corporate structure that made the deal appear to be what it wasn’t, a Chinese takeover of a big US pork company.

I have no special interest in this deal, since me and my firm never acted for any of the parties involved, nor do I own any shares in any of the companies involved. I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents filed at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it, the chutzpah, that these big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausage bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to Hong Kong investors and institutions.

In other words, saying at the time it looked like the whole thing rested on a very shaky foundation was a reasonable conclusion for anyone who took the time to read the SEC filings. Instead, mainly what we heard about, over and over, was that this was (wrongly) China’s “biggest takeover of a US company,” a “merger between America’s largest pork producer and its counterpart in the world’s largest pork market.”

Morgan Stanley, CDH, Temasek and the others got a little too cocky. The original Smithfield “take private” deal last year went through smoothly. They moved quicker than originally planned to get the company re-listed in Hong Kong. Had they pulled it off, it would have meant huge fees for the investment bankers, and depending on the share price, a juicy return for the PE firms, most of whom had been stuck holding the shares in Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development for over seven years. First came word last week they wanted to cut back by 60% the size of the IPO due to the hostile reception from investors during the road show phase. Then the IPO was suddenly called off late on Tuesday, Hong Kong time.

One of the questions that never got properly answered is why these PE firms didn’t sell their Shuanghui shares on the Chinese stock market, but held them since IPO, without exiting. That’s unusual, especially since Shuanghui’s shares have traded well above the level CDH and others bought in at. I wasn’t in China at the time, but that original investment did not cover itself in praise and glory. Almost immediately after the PE firms went in, providing the capital to allow the state-owned Shuanghui to privatize itself in 2006, the rumors began to circulate that the deal was deeply corrupt, and for reasons never explained, was structured in a way where the PE firms did not have a way to exit through normal stock market channels.

The Smithfield acquisition never made much of any industrial sense. The PE firms that now own the majority (mainly CDH, Temasek, New Horizon, but also including Goldman Sachs’ Asia PE arm ) have no experience or knowledge how to run a pork business in the US. In fact, they don’t know how to run any business in the US. The Shuanghui China management, which is meant now to be serving two separate masters, simultaneously running the Chinese company and its troubled American cousin, similarly don’t know a hock from a snout when it comes to raising and selling pork in the US. This is, was and will remain the main business of Smithfield. Not exporting pork to China. How, when and why these US assets can be listed in Asia must certainly now count as a mystery to all of the big-name financial institutions involved, including Bank of China, which lent billions to finance the takeover last year, as did Morgan Stanley itself.

So, now we have this sorry spectacle of the PE firms, together with partners, having seemingly thrown more money away in a failed bid to rescue the original Shuanghui investment from its unexplained illiquidity. The WH Group IPO failure is also a stunning rebuke for the other PE-backed P2P take private deals now waiting to relist in Hong Kong. (Read here, here, here.) Smithfield, while no great shakes, is the jewel among the rather sorry group of mainly-Chinese companies taken private from the US stock exchange with the plan to sell them later to Hong Kong-based investors via an IPO.

This was among the most bloated IPOs ever, with 29 investment banks given underwriting mandates to sell shares. ( The IPO banks included not only Morgan Stanley, but also Citic Securities, Goldman Sachs, UBS, Barclays, Credit Suisse, JP Morgan, Nomura, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank.) All that expensive investment banking firepower. Result: among the most expensive IPO duds in history.

For the PE consortium that owns WH Group, they will have already likely lost over USD$15mn in LP money on legal, underwriting and accounting fees on this failed IPO. This is on top of a whopping $729mn fees paid by the PE firms for what are called “one-off fees and share-based payments” to acquire Smithfield. The subsequent restructuring ahead of IPO? Maybe another $100mn. If or when the WH Group IPO is tried again, the fees will likely be at least as high as the first time around. In short, the PE firms are already close to $1 billion in the red on this deal, not including interest payments on all the debt.  Smithfield itself remains lacklustre. Its net profit shrank 50% during the fiscal year leading up to the buyout.

With no IPO proceeds anywhere on the horizon, the issue looming largest now for the PE firms: is WH Group generating enough free cash to service the $7 billion in debt, including $4 billion borrowed to buy sputtering Smithfield? If not, next stop is Chapter 11.

By contrast, now feeling as delighted as pigs in muck are the mainly-US shareholders who last year sold their Smithfield shares at a 31% premium above the pre-bid price to the Chinese-led PE group. It doesn’t offset by much the US trade deficit with China, which reached a new record last year of $318 billion. But these US investors also get the satisfaction of knowing they have so far received the far better end of a deal against some of the bigger, richer financial institutions in Asia and Wall Street.

 

Investors Vs. Asset Managers: A Dysfunction at the Heart of China Private Equity

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Assuming the same level of risk, would you rather make $100 from investing $10 or from investing $50? Easy, right? Who wouldn’t choose to make ten times your money, rather than just double it? There is one group I know. Private equity firms active in China. At least some of them. They care more about the amount they can invest in a deal than the profits they stand to make.

The illogic at work here is the direct result of some particular, not very appealing characteristics,  of the PE industry in China. PE firms lately have more confidence in their ability to raise money than to invest it profitably by achieving a timely exit. To raise money, though, a PE firm needs first to spend most of what it already has. Result: a rush to get money out the door and parked in deals.

In industry parlance, “check size” is often more important than potential risk-adjusted returns.This is one reason for the recent rash of “take private” PtP deals of Chinese companies quoted in the US. (See previous articles, including here, here, here. ) The transactions seem to me ill-considered. PEs have invested billions of dollars in such deals but there is not a single successful example they can point to of such PtP deals done in the US making money for investors. This must be a PE industry first — so much LP money put at risk against an investment idea that is totally unproved.

Who’s most harmed from focus on “check size” over deal quality and prospective returns? Of course it’s the LPs whose money is put into these deals. They want and need high returns, not bigger deals done using their money to aid PE firms’ future fund-raising.

But, Chinese entrepreneurs also suffer in this environment, because many PE firms now simply won’t look at deals where they can’t invest at least $25mn for around 25% of the company. There are few deals out there in that size range, meaning deserving entrepreneurs can’t find investors.

The big picture here: PE in China has become more and more a business dominated by asset managers not investors. How to tell the two apart? An asset manager enjoys the comfort and certainty of making a steady 2% a year managing other people’s money. The more money they raise, the more money they keep. Good markets or bad, the money keeps rolling in.

An investor, on the other hand, is a whole different animal. They share some DNA with the entrepreneurs they back. They love the sport of finding and evaluating deals, spotting where big money can be made, putting money at risk. When it works, they make big sums for their investors, and keep a nice chunk themselves.

Needless to say, LPs give money to PE firms in hopes they have chosen investors not asset managers. PE firms know this, of course, and tailor their money-raising pitch accordingly. They stress their deal-making prowess, not the fact that over the life of a typical 10-year fund, an LP will start with a 20% cumulative loss, because of the typical annual management fee deductions.

In China, it used to be fairly easy to make money in PE. But, over the last three years, returns began to head south. More recently,  over the last 18 months, the performance has mainly been dismal, with few successful deals exiting with big profits. It’s getting harder and harder for LPs to make money in China PE, after those accumulated management fees have been deducted.

But, there’s a time lag — as well as an information asymmetry — at work here. While recent performance has been, on the whole, lousy, there’s still appetite among LPs to allocate more money to China. A big reason is that China’s economy, and capital markets, are both the second-biggest in the world. Most LPs are seriously underweight China and want to change that.

And so we arrive at the current paradoxical situation, where it’s still comparatively easier to collect money to invest in China than to make money deploying it. Now, of course, PE firms can only succeed in raising capital if they can point to some successful past deals. Here too there’s an information asymmetry at work. Many PE firms did well from 2005-2010, and so their fund-raising documents emphasize deals done during this era. But, the game has changed out of all recognition since then.

Few, if any, PE firms have shown they can continue to earn investors good money when markets become less accommodating. It’s no longer possible to play the game of valuation arbitrage, of investing in China deals at single digit p/e multiples, and exiting them soon after at 5-10 times higher multiples through an IPO.

Earning a profit on an investment takes preparation, luck and time. Making money by convincing people to pay you a fee to manage theirs, by contrast, is a much simpler proposition, as well as a no-lose one.

And so the gulf widens between the objectives of PE firms and the fiduciary responsibilities and performance goals of the institutions whose money they manage.

This can be a problem everywhere in the PE and VC industry, as well as more broadly wherever people get paid to manage assets owned by someone else. (See principal-agent dilemma.)   But, it’s probably especially pernicious in China PE.

The industry is staffed mainly be ex-investment bankers, who by background and temperament understand more about fee-based, than performance-based, compensation. Few have a background of actually managing a company, investing its capital to produce a return. Without this first-hand understanding, it’s far harder as an investor to plot how to make an operating business more valuable. The result: PE firms in China will often opt for an easier path: making money by raising money from, and managing for,  other financial professionals.

Smithfield Foods – Shuanghui International: The Biggest Chinese Acquisition That Isn’t


It is, if voluminous press reports are to be believed, the biggest story, the biggest deal, ever in China-US business history. I’m talking about the announced takeover of America’s largest pork company, Smithfield Foods, by a company called Shuanghui International. The deal, it is said in dozens of media reports, opens the China market to US pork and will transform China’s largest pork producer into a global giant selling Smithfield’s products alongside its own in China, while utilizing the American company’s more advanced methods for pork rearing and slaughtering.

One problem. A Chinese company isn’t buying Smithfield. A shell company based in Cayman Islands is. Instead of a story about “China buying up the world”, this turns out to be a story of a precarious leveraged buyout deal (“LBO”) cooked up by some large global private equity firms looking to borrow their way to a fortune.

The media, along with misstating the facts, are also missing the larger story here. The proposed Smithfield takeover is the latest iteration in the “take private” mania now seizing so many of the PE firms active in China. (See blog posts hereherehere and here.) With China’s own capital markets in crisis and PE investment there at a standstill, the PE firms have turned their attention, however illogically, to finding “undervalued assets” with a China angle on the US stock market. They then attempt an LBO, with the consent of existing management, and with the questionable premise the company will relist or be sold later in China or Hong Kong. The Smithfield deal is the biggest — and perhaps also the riskiest —  one so far.

This shell that is buying Smithfield has no legal or operational connection to Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development (from here on, “Shuanghui China”) , the Chinese pork producer, China’s largest, quoted on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The shell is about as Chinese as I am.

If the deal is completed, Shuanghui China will see no obvious benefit, only an enormous risk. Its Chinese assets are reportedly being used as collateral for the shell company to finance a very highly-leveraged acquisition. The abundant risks are being transferred to Shuanghui China while all the profits will stay inside this separately-owned offshore shell. No profits or assets of Smithfield will flow through to Shuanghui China. Do Shuanghui China’s Chinese minority shareholders know what’s going on here? Does the world’s business media?

Let’s go through this deal. I warn you. It’s a little convoluted. But, do take the time to follow what’s going on here. It’s fascinating, ingenious and maybe also a little nefarious.

First, the buyer of Smithfield is Shuanghui International, a Cayman holding company. It owns the majority of Shuanghui China, the Chinese-quoted pork company. Shuanghui International is owned by a group led by China-focused global PE firm CDH, with smaller stakes owned by Shuanghui China’s senior management,  Goldman Sachs, Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, Kerry Group, and another powerful PE firm focused on China, New Horizon Fund.

CDH, the largest single owner of Shuanghui International,  is definitively not Chinese. It invests capital from groups like Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund , CALPERS, the Rockefeller Foundation, one big Swiss (Partners Group) and one big Liechtenstein (LGT) money manager, along with the private foundation of one of guys who made billions from working at eBay. So too Goldman Sachs, of course, Temasek and New Horizon. They are large PE firms that source most of their capital from institutions, pension fund and endowments in the US, Europe, Southeast Asia and Middle East. (For partial list of CDH and New Horizon Fund Limited Partners click here. )

For the Smithfield acquisition, Shuanghui International (CDH and the others) seem to be putting up about $100mn in new equity. They will also borrow a staggering $4 billion from Bank of China’s international arm to buy out all of Smithfield’s current shareholders.  All the money is in dollars, not Renminbi.

If the deal goes through, Smithfield Foods and Shuanghui China will have a majority shareholder in common. But, nothing else. They are as related as, for example, Burger King and Neiman Marcus were when both were part-owned by buyout firm TPG. The profits and assets of one have no connection to the profits or assets of the other.

Shuanghui International, assuming it’s borrowed the money from Bank of China for three years,  will need to come up with about $1.5 billion in interest and principal payments a year if the deal closes. But, since Shuanghui International has no significant cash flow of its own (it’s an investment holding company), it’s hard to see where that money will come from. Smithfield can’t be much help. It already has a substantial amount of debt on its balance sheet. As part of the takeover plan, the Smithfield debt is being assumed by Morgan Stanley, Shuanghui International’s investment bankers. Morgan Stanley says it plans then to securitize the debt. A large chunk of Smithfield’s future free cash flow ($280mn last year) and cash ($139 mn as of the first quarter of 2013) will likely go to repay the $3 billion in Smithfield debts owed to Morgan Stanley.

A separate issue is whether, under any circumstances, more US pork will be allowed into China. The pork market is very heavily controlled and regulated. There is no likely scenario where US pork comes flooding into China. Yes, the media is right to say Chinese are getting richer and so want to eat more meat, most of all pork. But, mainly, the domestic market in China is reserved for Chinese hog-breeders. It’s an iron staple of China’s rural economy. These peasants are not going to be thrown under the bus so Smithfield’s new Cayman Islands owner can sell Shuanghui China lots of Armour bacon.

Total borrowing for this deal is around $7 billion, double Smithfield’s current market cap. Shuanghui International’s piece, the $4 billion borrowed from Bank of China, will go to current Smithfield shareholders to buy them out at a 31% premium.  Shuanghui International owns shares in Shuanghui China, and two of its board members are Shuanghui China top executives, but not much else. So where will the money come from to pay off the Bank of China loans? Good question.

Can Shuanghui International commandeer Shuanghui China’s profits to repay the debt? In theory, perhaps. But,  it’s highly unlikely such an arrangement would be approved by China’s securities regulator, the CSRC. It would not likely accept a plan where Shuanghui China’s profits would be exported to pay off debts owed by a completely independent non-Chinese company. Shuanghui International could sell its shares in Shuanghui China to pay back the debt. But, doing so would likely mean Shuanghui International loses majority control, as well as flooding the Shenzhen stock market with a lot of Shuanghui China’s thinly-traded shares.

Why, you ask, doesn’t Shuanghui China buy Smithfield? Such a deal would make more obvious commercial and financial sense. Shuanghui China’s market cap is triple Smithfield’s. Problem is, as a domestic Chinese company listed on China’s stock exchange, Shuanghui China would need to run the gauntlet of CSRC, Ministry of Commerce and SAFE approvals. That would possibly take years and run a risk of being turned down.  Shuanghui International, as a private Caymans company controlled by global PE firms,  requires no Chinese approvals to take over a US pork company.

The US media is fixated on whether the proposed deal will get the US government’s go ahead. But, as the new potential owner is not Chinese after all — neither its headquarters nor its ownership — then on what grounds could the US government object? The only thing Chinese-controlled about Shuanghui International is that the members of the Board of Directors were all likely born in China. The current deal may perhaps violate business logic but it doesn’t violate US national security.

So, how will things look if Shuanghui International’s LBO offer is successful?  Shuanghui China will still be a purely-Chinese pork producer with zero ownership in Smithfield, but with its assets perhaps pledged to secure the takeover debts of its majority shareholder. All the stuff about Shuanghui China getting access to Smithfield pork or pig-rearing and slaughtering technology, as well as a Smithfield-led upgrade of China’s pork industry,  is based on nothing solid. The pork and the technology will be owned by Shuanghui China’s non-Chinese majority shareholder. It can, if it chooses, sell pork or technology to Shuanghui China. But, Shuanghui China can achieve the same thing now. In fact, it is already a reasonably big buyer of Smithfield pork. Overall, China gets less than 1% of its pork from the US.

If the deal goes through, the conflicts of interest between Shuanghui International and Shuanghui China will be among the most fiendish I’ve ever seen. Shuanghui China’s senior managers, including chairman Wan Long, are going to own personally a piece of Smithfield, and so will have divided loyalties. They will likely continue to manage Shuanghui China and collect salaries there, while also having an ownership and perhaps a management role in Smithfield. How will they set prices between the two fully separate Shuanghuis? Who will watch all this? Isn’t this a case Shuanghui China’s insiders lining their own pockets while their employer gets nothing?

On its face, this Smithfield deal looks to be among the riskiest of all the  “take private” deals now underway. That is saying something since several of them involve Chinese companies suspected of accounting frauds, while the PE firms in at least two cases (China Transinfo and Le Gaga) doing the PE version of a Ponzi Scheme by seeking to use new LP money to bail out old, severely troubled deals they’ve done.

Let’s then look at the endgame, if the Smithfield deal goes through. Shuanghui International, as currently structured,  will not, cannot, be the long-term owner of Smithfield. The PE firms will need to exit. CDH, New Horizon, Goldman Sachs and Temasek have been an indirect shareholders of Shuanghui China for many years — seven in the case of CDH and Goldman.

According to what I’m told, Shuanghui International is planning to relist Smithfield in Hong Kong in “two to three years”. The other option on the table, for Shuanghui International to sell Smithfield (presumably at a mark-up) to Shuanghui China, would face enormous, probably insurmountable,  legal, financial and regulatory hurdles.

The IPO plan, as of now, looks crackpot. Hong Kong’s IPO market has basically been moribund for over a year. IPO valuations in Hong Kong are anyway far lower than the 20X p/e Shuanghui International is paying for Smithfield in the US. A separate tactical question for Shuanghui International and its investment bankers: why would you believe Hong Kong stock market investors in two to three years will pay more than US investors are now paying for a US company, with most of its assets, profits and revenues in the US?

But, even getting to IPO will require Shuanghui International to do something constructive about paying off the enormous $4 billion in debt it is taking on. How will that happen? Shuanghui International is saying Smithfield’s current American management will stay on. Why would one assume they can run it far more profitably in the future than they are running it now? If it all hinges on “encouraging” Shuanghui China to buy more Smithfield products, or pay big licensing fees, so Shuanghui International can earn larger profits, I do wonder how that will be perceived by both Shuanghui China’s minority investors, to say nothing of the CSRC. The CSRC has a deep institutional dislike of related party transactions.

Smithfield has lately been under pressure from some of its shareholders to improve its performance. That may have precipitated the discussions that led to the merger announcement with Shuanghui International. Smithfield’s CEO, C. Larry Pope, stands to earn somewhere between $17mn-$32mn if the deal goes through. He will stay on as CEO. His fiscal 2012 salary, including share and option awards, was $12.9mn.

Typical of such LBO deals, the equity holders (in this case, CDH, Goldman, Temasek, Kerry Group, Shuanghui China senior management, New Horizon) would stand to make a killing, if they can pay down the debt and then find a way to either sell or relist Smithfield at a mark-up. If that happens, profits will go to the Shuanghui insiders along with the partners in the PE firms, CALPERS, the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations, Goldman Sachs shareholders and other LPs. Shuanghui China? Nothing, as far as I can tell. China’s pork business will look pretty much exactly as it does today.

In their zeal to proclaim a trend — that of Chinese buying US companies — the media seems to have been blinded to the actual mechanics of this deal. They also seem to have been hoodwinked by the artfully-written press release issued when the deal was announced. It mentions that Shuanghui International is the ” majority shareholder of Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development Co. (SZSE: 000895), which is China’s largest meat processing enterprise and China’s largest publicly traded meat products company as measured by market capitalization.” This then morphed into a story about “China’s biggest ever US takeover”, and much else besides about how China’s pork industry will now be upgraded through this deal, about dead pigs floating in the river in Shanghai, about Chinese companies’ targeting US and European brands.

China may indeed one day become a big buyer of US companies. But, that isn’t what’s happening here. Instead, the world’s leading English-language business media are suffering a collective hallucination.

Smithfield & Shuanghui: One little piggy comes to market — Week In China

week in china

A record bid for America’s top pork producer isn’t quite as it first appears

“What I do is kill pigs and sell meat,” Wan Long, chairman at Henan Shuanghui Development, told Century Weekly last year.

It’s an admirably succinct job description for a man who has been lauded by China National Radio as the “Steve Jobs of Chinese butchery” (Jobs, a vegan, probably wouldn’t have approved).

Starting out with a single processing factory in Luohe in Henan province, Shuanghui is now the largest meat producer in China, having benefitted in recent years from a shift in the Chinese diet away from rice and vegetables towards more protein.

So the announcement that it is now making a bid for the world’s largest hog producer, Smithfield Foods from Virginia in the US, prompted a flurry of headlines about the significance of the deal; its chances of getting security clearance from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS); and the broader implications for the meat trade in both countries if the takeover goes through.

Yet although Wan makes his profession sound like a simple one, Shuanghui’s bid for Smithfield turns out to be rather more complicated than many first assumed. Far from a case of a Chinese firm swooping in on an American target, the takeover reflects more complex trends too, including some of the peculiarities of the Chinese capital markets.

What first made headlines on the deal?

Privately-owned Shuanghui International has bid $7.1 billion for Smithfield Foods (including taking on its debt) in what the media is widely presenting as the biggest acquisition yet by a Chinese company of a US firm.

Shuanghui has processing plants in 13 provinces in China and produces more than 2.7 million tonnes of meat each year. But the plan is now to add Smithfield’s resources to the mix. “The acquisition provides Smithfield the opportunity to expand its offering of products to China through Shuanghui’s distribution network,” Wan announced. “Shuanghui will gain access to high-quality, competitively-priced and safe US products, as well as Smithfield’s best practices and operational expertise.”

What’s behind the move?

Most analysts have chosen to focus on Shuanghui’s desire to secure a more consistent supply of meat. Currently, it raises 400,000 of its own hogs a year, only a small share of the 11 million that it needs. That makes it reliant on other breeders in a country where the latest scare about contaminated meat is never far from the headlines. In the most recent case in March, the carcasses of thousands of pigs suddenly started floating down the Huangpu river upstream of Shanghai, after an outbreak of disease in nearby farms and a clampdown on the illicit sale of infected meat (see WiC186).

Now Shuanghui is said to be looking further afield to secure meat, and from a source that would allow it to differentiate its product range from that of its competitors.

“They’re a major processor who wants to source consistent, large volumes of raw material. You want to look at the cheapest sources and in the US, we’re very competitive,” Joel Haggard from the US Meat Export Federation told Bloomberg. Average hog prices in China are currently about $2.08 per kilo or a third higher than in the United States, Haggard also suggested.

How about changes in the industry in China?

A second theory is that Shuanghui is developing a more integrated supply chain in China and wants Smithfield’s help to complete the process.

This was something that C Larry Pope, chief executive at Smithfield, cited as a key factor in its willingness to pay a 31% premium for Smithfield stock. If so, that’s something of an irony: Continental Grain, Smithfield’s largest investor, has been pushing for a break up of the business to unlock more value for investors.

Still, an argument can be made that industry conditions are different in China, where the supply chain is shifting away from its reliance on more traditional household farming (the Mandarin character for “home” depicts a pig under a roof, for instance) to one in which large-scale, industrialised production begins to dominate.

Food safety concerns and the need to improve quality standards are also driving change across the industry. Yet despite signs of consolidation in hog breeding and slaughtering, integration across the full supply chain is a challenge. Shuanghui has already been trying to develop more of its own cold chain rather than rely on third parties (it operates seven private railways to transport its goods to 15 logistics centres, for instance, and has also invested in hundreds of its own retail outlets). But the Smithfield acquisition could help further with the integration effort, especially in areas such as adopting technology that tracks meat from farm to fork.

Paul Mariani, a director at agribusiness firm Variant Capital Advisors, told the Wall Street Journal last week that these systems have huge food safety benefits, allowing producers to track meat back to “where it was grown”. By contrast, Chinese suppliers struggle to achieve the same level of control, especially for meat sourced from the large number of smaller, family-owned firms.

How about in the US? Are Americans pleased with the deal?

The bid has already been referred to CFIUS, the committee that reviews the national security implications of foreign investments in US firms. But Smithfield’s Pope sounds confident, saying that he doesn’t expect “any concern” from the regulatory committee.

“We’re not exporting tanks and guns and cyber security,” he told reporters. “These are pork chops.”

All the same, the regulators will look at Smithfield’s supply contracts with the military, as well as whether any of its farms and factories are close to sensitive locations, an issue that has led to transactions being blocked or amended in the past.

For instance, the Obama administration intervened in the purchase of four Oregon wind farms by a Chinese acquirer this year because they were too close to a naval base.

“There’s a difference between a foreign company buying Boeing and one buying a hot dog stand,” Jonathan Gafni, president of Compass Point Analytics, which specialises in security reviews of this type, told the New York Times. “But it depends on which corner the stand is on.”

The committee will also look at whether Shuanghui could be in a position to disrupt the distribution of pork to American consumers. Indeed, Charles Grassley, the Republican Senator of Iowa, has already urged regulators to look closely at whether the Chinese government has any influence on Shuanghui’s management.

More ominously on Wednesday the chairwoman of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee expressed her concerns. Debbie Stabenow said those federal agencies considering the merger must take into account “China’s and Shuanghui’s troubling track record in food safety”. She further added that those agencies must “do everything in their power to ensure our national security and the health of our families is not jeopardised”.

Despite such concerns, the food security argument looks limited in scope, although some of the Chinese newspapers don’t expect the review to pass without issue. “Even the conspicuous absence of national security factors can hardly guarantee that US protectionists will not poke their noses into it,” the China Daily suggested pointedly.

Back in Washington, Elizabeth Holmes, a lawyer working for the Center for Food Safety, has also called for regulators to consider the bid from the wider perspective of food safety. “They’re supposed to identify and address any national security concerns that would arise,” she warned. “I can’t imagine how something like public health or environmental pollution couldn’t be potentially construed as a national security concern.”

The implication is that the takeover might damage Smithfield’s operations in the United States in some way, even leading to contamination among its locally sold products. Hence the fact that Shuanghui was forced to recall meat tainted by the additive clenbuterol two years ago has been seized upon by the deal’s critics.

Again, the Chinese media response has tended to be indignant, with widespread reference to Smithfield’s own use of ractopamine, an additive similar to clenbuterol that’s banned in hog rearing in China but not by authorities in the US.

According to Reuters, Smithfield has been trying to phase out its usage of the drug, presumably to clear the way for an increase in sales to China. And in response to American anxiety about food safety post-takeover at Smithfield, both parties have gone out of their way to reiterate that the goal is to export more American pork to the Chinese, and not vice versa. Smithfield’s chief executive Pope has argued the case directly, citing the superiority of American meat. “People have this belief…that everything in America is made in China,” he told reporters. “Open your refrigerator door, look inside. Nothing in there is made in China because American agriculture is the most competitive and efficient in the world.”

Similarly, Shuanghui executives are insisting that nothing will change in how Smithfield serves up its sausages to American customers. The company will continue to be run on a standalone basis under its current management team, no facilities will be closed, no staff will be made redundant and no contracts will be renegotiated. Food safety standards will remain as today. “We want the business to stay the same, but better,” Wan said.

So it sounds like the Smithfield deal could turn out to be a major coup for the Chinese buyer?

Not really, says Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, a boutique investment bank and advisory firm based in Shenzhen. He thinks that much of the analysis of the bid for Smithfield has completely missed the point. That’s because Shuanghui International – the entity making the offer – is a shell company based in the Cayman Islands. It isn’t a Chinese firm at all, he says.

Shuanghui International also has majority control of Shuanghui Development, the Shenzhen-listed firm that runs the domestic meat business in China. But it is controlled itself by a group of investors led by the private equity firm CDH (based in China but heavily backed by Western money) and also featuring Goldman Sachs, Temasek Holdings from Singapore and Kerry Group.

The management at Shuanghui, led by Wan, holds a small stake in the new, offshore entity. But as far as Fuhrman is concerned, Shuanghui International has no legal or operational connection to Shuanghui’s domestic operations.

“If the deal goes through, Smithfield Foods and Shuanghui China will have a majority shareholder in common. But nothing else. They are as related as, for example, Burger King and Neiman Marcus were when both were part owned by buyout firm TPG. The profits and assets of one have no connection to the profits or assets of the other.”

Of course, this raises questions about how the bid for Smithfield is being debated, especially its portrayal as the biggest takeover of a US firm by a Chinese one to date. It prompts queries too about the national security review underway in Washington, particularly any focus on the supposedly Chinese identity of the bidder. As it turns out, the Shuanghui bidding vehicle simply isn’t constituted in the way that people like Senators Grassley and Stabenow seem to believe.

So what is going on? Fuhrman says the bid for Smithfield is actually a leveraged buyout, made during a period in which private equity firms have been prevented from exiting their investments in China by blockages in the IPO pipeline (see WiC176 for a fuller discussion on this).

Instead, the investors that own Shuanghui are borrowing billions of dollars from the Bank of China and others to fund their purchase, with Fuhrman noting speculation that the plan is to relist Smithfield at a premium in Hong Kong in two or three years time.

How Shuanghui International is going to meet the interest payments on its borrowings in the meantime is less clear. But one possibility is that it will lean on Shuanghui Development, the operator in the Chinese market, to share some of the financial load. That could be problematic, raising hackles at the China Securities Regulatory Commission. It also prompts questions about the potential conflicts of interest (“among the most fiendish I’ve ever seen,” says Fuhrman) in the relationship between the investors that own Smithfield and the fuller group of shareholders at Shuanghai in China.

Ma Guangyuan, an economics blogger with more than half a million readers, takes a similar view. “If Shuanghui International acquires Smithfield Foods and sells the meat at high prices to Shuanghui Development, this will increase profits for the privatised Smithfield, but may not do much to help Shuanghui Development,” he predicts.

A further possibility is that having to service the LBO debt could curtail much of the investment envisaged by those who see the Smithfield purchase as a game-changing move for the industry. Of course, if it all goes to plan, the bid for Smithfield might turn out to be a game-changer for a small group of highly leveraged investors.But the jury must still be out on whether it will be quite so transformational for China’s domestic meat industry at large.

 

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China M&A: Three Recent Deals

In the last month, three large takeovers were announced involving Chinese companies. In two of these, PE buyout firms (CITIC Capital and Blackstone)  are offering to take private Chinese companies (AsiaInfo-Linkage and Pactera) quoted on the US stock exchange. In the third, a Chinese acquirer (Shuanghui International) has offered to purchase all shares of US pork producer Smithfield Foods.

I’ve done a quick comparison of these deals across a range of financial variables — premium offered to current shareholders, p/e ratio, profit growth, last two years’ share price performance. I’ve also offered my own judgment on the risks and the industrial logic of the deal, on a scale of 1-10.

The results: the troubled deals, the ones with the highest risks and deepest uncertainties about future performance, with the most anemic share prices up to the date of the offer, with claims or investigations of accounting fraud, with the least industrial logic, are commanding the higher price.

Ah, the Mysterious Orient.

 

Correction: I wrote this article based on the first day’s English-language media coverage of the Smithfield-Shuanghui International takeover. Big mistake. I took at face value the media’s account that this was a merger between China’s largest pork producer and America’s. Turns out the coverage was wrong, and so my conclusion was also. In the software business, it’s called GIGO, “Garbage in, garbage out.” The Smithfield-Shuanghui deal is every bit as precarious an LBO as the other two. The only improvement is that the target company, Smithfield, is a better and more transparent business than AsianInfo-Linkage or Pactera. For the real situation on this Smithfield deal, see this blog post.

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Blackstone Leads Latest Chinese Privatization Bid — New York Times

NYT

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MAY 21, 2013, 7:07 AM

Blackstone Leads Latest Chinese Privatization Bid

By NEIL GOUGH

A fund run by the Blackstone Group is leading a $662.3 million bid for a technology outsourcing firm based in China, the latest example of a modest boom among buyout shops backing the privatization of Chinese companies listed in the United States.

A consortium backed by a private equity fund of Blackstone that includes the Chinese company’s management said on Monday that it would offer $7.50 a share to acquire Pactera Technology International, which is based in Beijing and listed on Nasdaq.

The offer, described as preliminary, represents a hefty 43 percent premium to Pactera’s most recent share price before the deal was announced. The news sent the company’s stock up 30.6 percent on Monday, to $6.87 — still more than 8 percent below the offer price, in a sign that some investors remain wary that a deal will be completed.

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Pactera ‘Challenged By Investors Every Day’ — Wall Street Journal

WSJ

By Paul Mozur

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal  on May 10th,  the chief executive of China’s largest software outsourcing company Pactera Inc. PACT -1.04% said investors had been pestering the company “every day” to carry out share buybacks to bolster the company’s share price.

“Our shares are trading very badly, it’s at a multiple that I can’t even imagine,” CEO Tiak Koon Loh said during the interview.

Since that interview, Mr. Loh, along with Blackstone Inc. BX -0.58% and several other Pactera executives, decided to try to cash in on that low price with a bid to take the company private for $7.50 a share or a 42.5% premium to where shares closed Friday on the Nasdaq Stock Market NDAQ -0.19%.

Following on the heels of a bid by a CITIC Capital Partners-led consortium to take private another Chinese IT services company AsiaInfo-Linkage Inc. ASIA -0.17%, the Pactera deal has led bankers and commentators to wonder whether the recent trend of private equity firms jumping to take Chinese companies listed in the U.S. private  is looking a little frothy.

“The [Pactera] deal may go down in the annals of most expensive [leveraged buyouts] ever launched. Blackstone is offering current shareholders a price equal to over 200 times 2012 net income,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital.

Nonetheless, in the interview before the deal, Mr. Loh laid out his reasoning for why Pactera has good growth potential ahead of it. In particular, he said the company stands to benefit over the next decade, not just in the industry of software outsourcing, but also in tech consulting services as China’s technology industry booms.

For example, Pactera partnered with Microsoft Corp. MSFT -1.33% and 21Vianet Group Inc. to help develop Windows and Office cloud services in China, which launched on Wednesday.  Mr. Loh said that the company has a number of other cloud projects it is working on, in particular helping provincial governments build cloud infrastructure.

“China has always grown faster than the global [outsourcing] market,” Mr. Loh said.

But there are reasons to be more bearish on Pactera, especially in the short term. With more than 10% of its revenues coming from Japan, the company is likely to be hit hard this year by the falling Yen, according to Mr. Loh.

“Everything you do is in Japanese Yen, and every contract is signed in Japanese Yen, and it has just dropped 25%,” he said, adding that business has grown despite recent political difficulties between China and Japan.

Another issue is integration. Pactera was formed by the 2012 merger of HiSoft Technology International Ltd. and VanceInfo Technologies Inc. Mr. Loh acknowledged that there had been some “leakage” of productivity as the two companies work to integrate cultures and some employees or teams had left, but he nonetheless said that he expected growth to return.

“But beyond this year and getting back to the norm we should see ourselves growing…. no less than the industry and no less than the industry is at least 16% [revenue growth] year on year,” he said.

More than just saying it, Mr. Loh is betting on it. Now it’s a matter of whether shareholders believe that kind of growth in the coming years could get them more than the $7.5 per share on offer from the deal.

Blackstone did not immediately return calls.

CITIC Capital’s Take Private Deal for AsiaInfo-Linkage: Is This The Chinese Way to Do an LBO?

Are we seeing the birth of “Leveraged Buyouts With Chinese Characteristics”? Or just some of the craziest, riskiest and unlikeliest buyout deals in worldwide history? That’s the question posed by the announcement this week that China buyout PE firm CITIC Capital Partners is leading the “take private” deal of NASDAQ-listed AsiaInfo-Linkage Inc., a Chinese software and telecommunications services that company whose shares have halved in value from over $20 during the last two years.

CITIC Capital first disclosed in January 2012 its intention to buy out the AsiaInfo-Linkage public shareholders. At the time, the share price was around $7. The board set up a committee to search for alternative buyers. It seems to have found none, and accepted this week CITIC’s offer to pay $12 a share, or 50% above the price on the day in January 2012 when it first notified the company of its interest. That seemed a rich premium 17 months ago. It seems no less so now.

Rule Number One in LBOs: do not pay any more than you absolutely need to acquire a majority of the shares. Few are the M&A deals where a premium of +50% is offered. Fewer still when the target company is one where the stock has been seriously battered for many years now. The share price went into something like a free fall in early 2010, from a high of $30 to reach that level of $7 when CITIC Capital first announced its move.

CITIC Capital is buying AsiaInfo-Linkage at a price that equates to well over 20 times its 2012 earnings. That sort of p/e multiple is rarely seen in buyout deals. Dell’s buyout is priced at half that level, or a p/e of 10X, and a premium of 25% above the share price the day before rumors about the “take private” deal started to spread.

It’s one of the exquisite oddities of this current craze to take Chinese companies private that PE firms are willing to pay p/e multiples to buy distressed quoted companies from US investors that are at least twice what the same PE firms generally say they will pay for a perfectly-healthy private Chinese company located in China. If anything, the reverse should be true.

Rule Number Two in LBOs: have a clear, credible plan to turn around the company to improve its performance and then look to sell out in a few years time. In this case, again, it seems far from obvious what can be done to improve things at AsiaInfo-Linkage and even more so, how and when CITIC Capital will exit. To complete the $900mn buyout, CITIC Capital will borrow $300mn. The interest payments on that debt are likely to chew up most of the company’s free cash, leaving nothing much to pay back principal. Sell off the fixed assets? Hard to see that working. Meantime, if you fail to pay back the principal within a reasonable period of time (say three to four years), the chances of exiting at a significant profit either through an IPO or a trade sale are substantially lower.

Leverage is a wonderful thing. In theory, it lets a buyout shop take control of a company while putting only a sliver of its own money at risk. You then want to use the company’s current free cash flow to pay off the debt and when you do, voila, you end up owning the whole thing for a fraction of its total purchase price.

In CITIC Capital’s case, I know they are especially enamored of leverage. They were formed specifically for the purpose of doing buyout deals in China. Problem is, you can’t use bank money for any part of a takeover of a domestic Chinese company. (AsiaInfo-Linkage is a rarity, a Chinese company that got started in the US over twenty years ago, and eventually shifted its headquarters to China. It is legally a Delaware corporation. This means CITIC Capital can borrow money to take it over.)

I met earlier this year with a now ex-partner at CITIC Capital who explained that the company’s attempts to do buyout deals in China have frequently run into a significant roadblock. Because CITIC Capital can’t borrow money for domestic takeovers, the only way it can make money, after taking control, is to make sure the company keeps growing at a high rate, and then hope to sell out at a high enough p/e multiple to earn a reasonable profit. In other words, a buyout without the leverage.

CITIC Capital is run mainly, as far as I can tell, by a bunch of MBAs and financial types, not operations guys who actually know how to run a business and improve it from the ground up. Sure, they can hire an outside team of managers to run a company once they take it over. But, in China, that’s never easy. Also, without the benefits of being able to leverage up the balance sheet, the risks and potential returns begin to look less than intoxicating.

We understand from insiders CITIC Capital’s plan is to relist AsiaInfo in Hong Kong or Shanghai within three years. Let’s see how that plays out. But, I’d rate the probability at around 0.5%. The backlog for IPOs in both markets is huge, and populated by Chinese companies with far cleaner history and none of the manifest problems of AsiaInfo.

AsiaInfo’s balance sheet claims there’s a lot of cash inside the company. But, we also understand it took many long months and a lot of “No’s” to find any banks willing to lend against the company’s assets and cash flow. In the end, the main lenders turned out to be a group of rather unknown Asian banks, along with a chunk from China’s ICBC. The equity piece is around 60% of total financing, high by typical LBO standards.

AsiaInfo-Linkage is in most ways quite similar to  “take private Chinese company” Ptp deals of the kind I’ve written about recently, here and here. It has the same manifold risks as the other 20 deals now underway — most notably, you walk a legal minefield, can only perform limited due diligence, spend huge sums to buy out existing shareholders rather than fixing what’s wrong in the company, and so end up paying a big price to buy a company that US investors have decided is a dog.

One good thing is that AsiaInfo-Linkage hasn’t been specifically targeted either by the SEC or short-sellers for alleged accounting irregularities. This isn’t the case with the other take private deal CITIC Capital is now involved with. It’s part of the consortium taking private the Chinese advertising company Focus Media, where a lot of questions have been raised about the quality and accuracy of the company’s SEC financial statements.

AsiaInfo-Linkage seems to be a decent enough company. It is growing. Its main problem is that it relies on three mammoth Chinese SOEs — China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom — for over 95% of its revenues. The company’s founder and chairman, Edward Tian, is backing the CITIC Capital deal. Along with CITIC Capital, two other PE firms, Singapore government’s Temasek Holdings and China Broadband Capital Partners (where Tian serves as chairman) are contributing the approximately $400mn in cash to buyout the public shareholders and take control.

Interestingly, Edward Tian has for seven years been a “senior advisor” to Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, aka KKR, perhaps the world’s leading buyout firm. In theory, that should have put KKR in a prime position to do a deal like this — they have far more capital and experience doing buyouts than CITIC Capital, and they are already very familiar with the boss. But, they kept their wallet closed.

Disclosure: I’m a big believer in the value of doing control deals for Chinese companies. We’re just completing a research and strategy report on this area and we expect to share it soon. But, the deals we like are for the best private Chinese companies where the current PE firm investor needs to find a way to sell out before the expiry of its fund life. Such deals have their complexity, and using leverage will not be an option in most.

But, these good assets could most likely be bought at half the price (on a p/e basis) that CITIC Capital is paying to a company that shows little prospect of being able quickly to pay off in full the money CITIC is borrowing to buy it. If that happens, CITIC Capital may be lucky to get its LPs’ money back. Is CITIC Capital perhaps trying a little too hard to prove LBOs in China have their own inscrutable Chinese logic that it alone fully understands?

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The Fatal Flaws of China “Take Private” Deals on the US Stock Market

Every one of the twenty  “take private” deals being done now by private equity firms with Chinese companies listed in the US, as well as the dozens more being hotly pursued by PE firms with access to a Bloomberg terminal, all suffer from the same fatal flaws. They require the PE firm to commit money, often huge loads of money, upfront to companies about which they scarcely know anything substantive. This turns the entire model of PE investing on its head. The concept behind PE investment is that a group of investment professionals acquires access to company information not readily available to others, and only puts LPs’ money at risk after doing extensive proprietary due diligence. This is, after all,  what it means to be a fiduciary — you don’t blow a lot of other people’s money on a risky deal with no safeguards.

And yet, in these “take private” deals, the only material information the PE firms often have at their disposal before they start shoveling money out the door are the disclosure documents posted on the SEC website. This is the same information available to everyone else, the contents of which will often reveal why it is that these Chinese-quoted companies’ share prices have collapsed, and now trade at such pathetically low multiples. In other words, professional investors in the US read the SEC filings of these Chinese companies and decide to dump the shares, leading to large falls in the share price. PE firms, with teams based in Asia, download the same documents and decide it’s a buy opportunity, and then swoop in to purchase large blocks of the company’s distressed equity, then launch a bid for the rest of the free float. There’s something wrong here, right?

Let’s start with the fact that these Chinese companies being “taken private” are not Dell Inc. The reliability, credibility, transparency of the SEC disclosure documents are utterly different. In addition, their CEOs are not Michael Dell. There is as much similarity between Dell and Focus Media, or Ambow Education as there is between buying a factory-approved and warrantied used car, with complete service history, and buying one sight-unseen that’s been in a wreck.

The Chinese companies being targeted by PEs have, to different degrees, impenetrable financial statements, odd forms of worrying related party transactions,  a messy corporate structure that in some cases may violate Chinese law, and audits prepared by accounting firms that either are already charged with securities violations for their China work by the SEC (the Big Four accountants) or a bunch of small outfits that nobody has ever heard of.  It is on the basis of these documents that take private deals worth over $5 billion are now underway involving PE firms and US-quoted China companies.

Often,  the people at the PE firm analyzing the SEC documents, and the PE partners pulling the trigger, are non-native English speakers, with little to no experience in the world of SEC disclosure statements, the obfuscations, the specialist nomenclature, the crucial arcana buried in the footnotes. (I spent over nine years combing through SEC disclosure documents while at Forbes, and still frequently read them, but consider myself a novice.) The PE firms persuade themselves, based on these documents, that the company is worth far more than US investors believe, and that their LPs’ cash should be deployed to buy out all these US shareholders at a premium while keeping the current boss in his job. Are the PE firms savvy investors? Or what Wall Street calls the greater fool?

The PE firms, to be sure, would probably like to have access to more information from the company before they start throwing money around buying shares.  They’d like to be able to pour over the books, commission their own independent audit and legal DD, talk to suppliers and customers — just as they usually insist on doing before committing money to a typical China PE deal involving a private company in China. But, the PE firms generally have no legal way to get this additional — and necessary — information from the “take private” Chinese companies before they’re already in up to their necks. By law, (the SEC’s Reg FD rules) a public company cannot selectively provide additional disclosure materials to a PE firm or any other current or potential investor. The only channel a company can use is the SEC filing system. This is the salient fact, and irresolvable dilemma at the heart of these PtP deals. The PE firms know only what the SEC documents tell them, and anybody else with internet access.

The PE firms can, and often do, pay lawyers to hunt around, send junior staff to count the number of eggs on supermarket shelves, use an expert network, or bring in McKinsey, or other consultants, to produce some market research of highly dubious value. There are no reliable public statistics, and no way to obtain them, about any industry, market or product in China. Market research in China is generally a well-paid form of educated guesswork.

So, PE firms enter PtP deals based on no special access to company information and no reliable comprehensive data about the company’s market, market share, competitors, cash collection methods in China. Throw in the fact these same companies have been seriously hammered by the US public markets, that some stand accused of fraud and deception, and the compelling logic behind PtP deals begins to look rather less so.

Keep in mind too the hundreds of millions being wagered by PE firms all goes to buy out existing shareholders. None of it goes to the actual company, to help fix whatever’s so manifestly broken. The same boss is in charge, the same business model in place that caused US investors to value the company like broken-down junk. In cases where borrowed money is used, the PE firm has the chance to make a higher rate of return. But, of course, the Chinese company’s balance sheet and net income will be made weaker by the loans and debt service. Chances are there are lawsuits flying around as well. Fighting those will drain money away from the company, and further defocus the people running things. Put simply the strategy seems to be try to fix a problem by first making it worse.

There’s not a single example I know of any PE firm making money doing these Chinese “take privates” in the US and yet so many are running around trying to do them. If nothing else, this proves again the old saying it’s easy to be bold with someone else’s money.

OK, we’re all grown-ups here. I do understand the meaning of a “nudge and a wink”, which is what I often get when I ask PE firms how they get around this information deficiency. The suggestion seems to be they possess, directly from the company owner, some valuable insider information — maybe about the name of a potential buyer down the road, or a new big contract, or the fact there’s lot of undisclosed cash coming into the company. Remember, the PE firms have extensive discussions with the owner before going public with the “take private” bids. The owners always need to commit upfront to backing the PE take private deal, to keep, rather than tender,  their shares and so become, with the PE firm, the 100% owner of the business after the PtP deal closes.

These discussions between the PE firm a Chinese company boss should legally be very narrowly focused, and not include any material information about the business not disclosed to all public shareholders. These discussions happen in China, in Chinese. Is it possible that the discussions are, shall we say, more wide-ranging? Could be. The PE firm thus may have an informational advantage they believe will help them make money. The problem is they’ve gotten it from a guy whose probably committed a felony under US law in supplying it. The PE firm, meantime, is potentially now engaged in insider trading by acting on it. Another felony.

All this risk, all this headache and contingent liability, so a private equity firm can put tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of third party money at risk in a company that the US stock market has concluded is a dog. Taking private or taking leave of one’s senses?

 

 

 

Out of Focus: China’s First Big LBO Deal is a Headscratcher

The first rule of capitalism is the more buyers you attract, the higher the price you get. So, having just one potential buyer is generally a lousy idea when your goal is to make as much money as possible.

What then to make of the recently-announced plan by an all-star team of some of China’s largest PE firms, including CDH, Fountainvest, CITIC Capital, as well global giant Carlyle,  to participate in a $3.5 billion proposed leveraged buyout deal to take private the NASDAQ-listed Chinese advertising company Focus Media. Any profit from this “take private” deal, as far as I can tell,  hinges on later flipping Focus Media to a larger company. That’s because the chances seem slight a privatized Focus Media will be later approved for domestic Chinese IPO. But, what if Focus turns out to be flip-proof?

With so much money — as so many big name PE firms’ reputations —  on the line, you’d think there would a clear, persuasive investment case for this Focus Media deal. As far as I can tell, there isn’t. I have the highest respect for the PE firms involved in this deal, for their financial and investing acumen. They are the smartest and most experienced group of PE professionals ever assembled to do a single Chinese deal. And yet, for the life of me, I can’t figure out what they are thinking with this deal and why they all want a piece of this action.

If the goal is to try to arbitrage valuation differences between the US and Chinese stock markets, this deal isn’t likely to pan out. It’s not only that Focus Media will have a tough time convincing China’s securities regulator, the CSRC, to allow it to relist in China. Focus Media is now trading on the NASDAQ at a trailing p/e multiple of 18. That is on the high side for companies quoted in China.

Next problem, of course, is the impact on the P&L from all the borrowing needed to complete the deal. There’s been no clear statement yet about how much equity the PE firms will commit, and how much they intend to borrow. To complete the buyout, the investor group, including the PE firms along will need to buy about 65% of the Focus equity. The other 35% is owned by Focus Media’s chairman and China’s large private conglomerate Fosun Group. They both back the LBO deal.

So, the total check size to buy out all other public shareholders will be around $2.4 billion, assuming they investor group doesn’t need to up its offer. If half is borrowed money, the interest expense would swallow up around 50% Focus Media’s likely 2012 net income. In other words, the LBO itself is going to take a huge chunk out of Focus Media’s net income.  In other words, the PE group is actually paying about twice the current p/e to take Focus Media private, since its purchase mechanism will likely halve profits.

A typical LBO in the US relies on borrowed money to finance more than half the total acquisition cost. The more Focus Media borrows, the bigger the hit to its net income. Now, sure, the investors can argue Focus Media should later be valued not on net income, but on EBITDA. That’s the way LBO deals tend to get valued in the US. EBITDA, though,  is still something of an unknown classifier in China. There isn’t even a proper, simple Chinese translation for it. Separately, Focus Media is already carrying quite a bit of debt, equal to about 60% of revenues. Adding another big chunk to finance the buyout, at the very least,  will create a very wobbly balance sheet. At worst, it will put real pressure on Focus Media’s operating business to generate lots of additional cash to stay current on all that borrowing.

I have no particular insight into Focus Media’s business model, other than to note that the company is doing pretty well while already facing intensified competition. Focus Media doesn’t meet the usual criteria for a successful LBO deal, since it isn’t a business that seems to need any major restructuring, refocusing or realignment of interests between owners and management.

Focus Media gets much of its revenue and profit from installing and selling ads that appear on LCD flatscreens it hangs in places like elevators and retail stores. It’s a business tailor-made for Chinese conditions. You won’t find an advertising company quite like it in the US or Europe. In a crowded country, in crowded urban shops, housing blocks and office buildings, you can get an ad in front of a goodly number of people in China while they are riding up in a jammed elevator or waiting at a checkout counter.

The overall fundamentals with Focus Media’s business are sound. The advertising industry in China is growing. But, it’s hard to see anything on the horizon that will lift its current decent operating performance to another level. Without that, it gets much harder to justify this deal.

This is, it should be noted, the first big LBO ever attempted by a Chinese company. It could be that the PE firms involved want to get some knowledge and experience in this realm, assuming that there could be more Chinese LBOs coming down the pike. Maybe. But, it looks like it could be pretty expensive tuition.

Assuming they can pull off the “delist” part of the deal, the PE firms will need to find a way to exit from this investment sometime in the next three to five years. Focus Media’s chairman has been vocal in complaining about the low valuation US investors are giving his company. In other words, he believes the company’s shares can be sold to someone else, at some future date, at a far higher price. (He personally owns 17% of the equity.)

Who exactly, though, is this “someone else”? Relisting Focus Media in China is a real long shot, and anyway, the current multiples, on a trailing basis, are comparable with NASDAQ’s . This is before calculating the hit Focus Media’s earnings will take from leveraging up the company with lots of new debt. How about the Hong Kong Stock Exchange? Focus Media would likely be given a warm welcome to relist there. One problem: with Hong Kong p/e multiples limping along at some of the lowest levels in the world, the relisted Focus Media’s market value would almost certainly be lower than the current price in the US. Throw in, of course, millions of dollars in legal fees on both sides of the delist-relist, and this Hong Kong IPO plan looks like a very elaborate way to park then lose money.

That leaves M&A as the only viable option for the PE investor group to make some money. I’m guessing this is what they have on their minds, to flip Focus Media to a larger Chinese acquirer.  They may have already spoken to potential acquirers, maybe even talked price. The two most obvious acquirers, Tencent Holdings and Baidu, both may be interested. Baidu has done some M&A lately, including the purchase, at what looks to many to be a ridiculously high price, of a majority of Chinese online travel site Qunar.  So far so good.

The risk is that neither of these two giants will agree to pay a big price down the line for a company that could buy now for much less. The same logic applies to any other Chinese acquirer, though they are few and far between. I’d be surprised if Tencent or Baidu haven’t already run the numbers, maybe at Focus Media’s invitation. But, they didn’t make a move. Not up to now.

Could it be they don’t want to do the buyout directly, out of fear it could go wrong or hurt their PR? Maybe. But, I very much doubt they will be very eager to play the final owner in a very public “greater fool” deal.

I’m fully expecting to be proven wrong eventually by this powerhouse group of PEs, and that they will end up dividing a huge profit pile from this Focus Media LBO. If so, the last laugh is on me. But,  as of now, the Focus deal’s investment logic seems cockeyed.