A Three-Way Formula For Success in Private Equity in China

Most investors, over time, will underperform the stock market as a whole. This is as true for people investing their own money in shares, as it is for mutual fund managers, hedge funds, PE and VC firms. So, any investor with a big sustainable “unfair” advantage should seize it.

Right now, in private equity industry in China, certain private equity firms have this unfair advantage. They get the most cash, the most good deals and the most certain exit through a domestic IPO in China. These PE firms are one part of a tripartite alliance, the likes of which the investment world has never seen.  The other two are China’s National Social Security Fund, soon to be the largest source of investible capital in the world, and the CSRC, China’s securities regulator, which has all the say in approving all domestic IPOs.

The PE firms get funding through one, and profits through the other. The deck is heavily stacked in their favor. For the hundreds of other PE firms active in China, including the global giants  TPG, KKR, Carlyle, Blackstone and Goldman Sachs,  making money investing in China is riskier, harder and slower.

Among the PE firms that are members of this new elite in China are CDH, SAIF, New Horizon,  Hony Capital. To many investment professionals outside China, these names will be unfamiliar. Yet, they operate in an environment, and achieve outcomes,  that ought to be the envy of  other investors.

The firms mainly got their start about ten years ago. They were present at the creation of the Chinese PE industry. They raised their initial capital, in most cases, from prestigious American investors, like Stanford and Princeton endowments. The firms’ investment focus has shifted somewhat over time – from technology deals to more traditional industries, from investing only dollars to now using also Renminbi. They did well almost from the beginning. This early success set in motion policies and preferences that have led more recently to their position today.

The two key developments took place within the last 18 months. First, in October 2009, China’s Shenzhen Stock Exchange launched the ChiNext (创业板)board for private companies to go public. It’s been a resounding success, with over 230 companies now listed, having raised over $5 billion from the public. Chinext’s total aggregate market cap is now over $100 billion.

The Chinext p/e multiples, from the start, have been well above levels in the US and Hong Kong. Currently, the average is 42X trailing year’s earnings. The high valuations make it a very profitable place for PE firms to exit from their investments. But, the CSRC acts as a strict gatekeeper, controlling both the number and quality of Chinese companies allowed to IPO on Chinext. Most Chinese firms who apply for Chinext listing are turned down.

The CSRC has a clear preference for companies that have received PE finance from one of the top PE firms in China, since this means, in effect, the company has already passed through a more rigorous due diligence process than the CSRC can attempt. The CSRC’s logic is impeccable: if a good PE firm was willing to put its own capital at risk when the company was private, that business should be a safer investment for public shareholders than a Chinese company without a top PE investor.

Who comes top of the CSRC’s list of favored PE firms? The firms listed above. This means that the companies invested in by these PE firms have a better chance of being chosen by the CSRC to go public on Chinext. In turn,  because of Chinext’s high valuations,  this all but guarantees these PE firms achieve better annual investment returns than others.

When the NSSF announced it was going to begin investing up to 10% of the national pension system’s capital in alternative investments, particularly PE, only a few firms were able to pass through its rigorous selection criteria. It chose firms with strong performance and high standards. Leading the list when the NSSF started handing out money last year: CDH, SAIF, New Horizon, Hony Capital.

The favored PE firms now have access to enormous capital from the state pension fund, along with what seems to be preferential access for its deals to China’s IPO market. In the future, any gains these favored PE firms have from investments using NSSF funds will flow back into higher pensions for millions of Chinese retirees. Will the CSRC consider this, when it deliberates which Chinese companies should be approved for IPO? It seems a fair assumption.

China’s pay-as-you-go pension system only got started recently. So, most of the profits from the PE deals won’t get distributed to pensioners for many years. In the meantime, the gains will be recycled back into more PE investing in domestic companies that then get preferential access to China’s capital markets. It’s a process as elegant as it is practical: Chinese investors bid up the shares at IPO, locking in high profits for a PE firms investing NSSF money. The major part of the PE’s profits is then returned to the NSSF to finance higher pension payments in the future to those same Chinese investors.

All the other PE firms outside this loop, including the global giants, will claim the system is rigged against them, that it’s harder and harder for them to compete with the favored PE firms, and to get approval for their portfolio companies to IPO in China. They probably have a point. But, in the end, this system in China will result in more private Chinese companies getting growth capital, leading to more jobs, more successful IPOs, and more comfortable retirements for China’s many millions. Those are outcomes most Chinese, as well as many others, including me, can endorse unreservedly.