United States

Trusting the Free Market — China Betters the US

chart for China First Capital blog post

“Chimerica”, “the world’s most important bilateral relationship”, “the G2”. These are phrases now in vogue to describe the relationship between China and America. The two countries tower over much of the rest of the world, accounting for over 25% of its population and 60% of global economic growth over the last five years. While China and the US continue to have their squabbles, economic and political relations are better than at any time in my lifetime.

My own life has been one long and fulfilling love affair with both countries, They represent twin poles of attraction. I grew up as a typical American kid, except in one respect. As far back as I can remember, I was completely fascinated by China. I believed that if I dug a deep enough hole in my backyard, I’d eventually come out in China. I kept starting the hole, especially when I was frustrated with my parents, but don’t recall ever getting very far. To me , the best thing about going off to university was that I could finally begin studying Mandarin. The most exciting day of my life (and I’ve had my fair share) was the day I walked across the Lowu Bridge in Hong Kong and into China for the first time in 1981.

My life’s goal became first to learn more about China, to study there and finally, after a lot of interesting career twists, to contribute whatever experience and talents I have to help China’s continuing economic transformation. That is why, two years ago, I started building China First Capital, a boutique investment bank that works with China’s private SME to arrange pre-IPO private equity finance.

I’m now lucky enough to call both countries home, dividing my time between Los Angeles and Shenzhen. Of course, there are more differences than similarities. For one thing, the food is better in China, and the summer weather is better in Los Angeles. But, all the same, I’m often struck by the deep affinities between China and the US – both are self-confident, continental-sized nations, with a shared sense of patriotism and optimism.

But, there is one important way in which the countries are moving in opposite directions. In this case, there is going to be a clear winner and a clear loser.

Americans are drifting further from their once unshakable belief in free markets. Chinese, meantime, are becoming ever more certain that the free enterprise system is the best way to organize society and fulfill the goals of its citizens. This is a very worrying development for the US, and a wholly positive one for China.

This remarkable shift is born out in the chart at the top of this post. It shows how Americans’ faith in free market system has been eroding, while Chinese are ever more certain of its superiority.

As someone working with some of China’s better entrepreneurial companies, I’m tremendously heartened by this change in China. The belief in free markets is affirmed by many daily interactions I have there, whether it’s with the boss of a successful private Chinese company, or the family that serves me steamed dumplings for breakfast. Chinese see opportunities everywhere for self-advancement, and want only the freedom to pursue it. Americans, by contrast, have grown more disillusioned, fearful. They are looking to the government, more than at any time I can recall, to solve their problems, to soothe what ails them.

How did China get it so right, while America is getting it so wrong? Recent history plays a big part. China has experienced unprecedented economic growth over the last 30 years, largely through a rolling program of reform that liberalized ever larger parts of China’s once hidebound economy. China’s economy has grown ten-fold over that time. Each additional increment of market freedom has brought with it improvements in the wellbeing of most Chinese citizens.

In the US, people are still reeling from the economic shocks of the last year – the credit crisis, recession, unemployment at a 27-year high, bailouts and bankruptcy of some of the country’s largest and most well-known businesses. Americans are looking for something to blame. Unfortunately, too many are blaming the free market system. Mistakenly, they look to government to restore growth and prosperity.

In China, on the other hand, the economy is vibrant, and Chinese have more opportunities than ever before, If they are looking to government for anything it’s to continue to maintain a steady course by continuing to liberalize.

I’m no pollster. But, I do notice, as I move between two countries, that not only is the belief in free markets stronger in China these days, but the overall business climate is more favorable as well. Competition is increasing, delivering more choice, better service, lower prices.

The US, meanwhile, is experiencing the largest increase in the size and scope of the government in peacetime history. Most people are smart enough to know that this will eventually mean more intrusive regulation and higher taxes — the twin forces that most choke a laissez faire system.

My sense is that the pendulum will eventually swing back in the US. People will be reminded soon enough that government cures are often worse than the underlying disease.

In China, economic liberty is increasing steadily, and life continues to get better for the vast majority of China’s vast population. If anything, this process is accelerating. China is, of course, still far less economically developed than the US. There are economic challenges, and issues on the horizon like an aging population to deal with.

But, at this particular moment in China, the population is growing more confident that solutions will come with freer markets, not greater centralized control. That is great news for everyone, including the companies we work for in China. The sooner Americans start thinking the same, the better.

.

Companies That Can IPO & Companies That Should: The Return to IPO Activity in China

Ming Dynasty lacquer in China First Capital blog post

After a hiatus of nearly a year, IPO activity is set to resume in China. The first IPO should close this week on the Shenzhen Stock Market. This is excellent news, not only because it signals China’s renewed confidence about its economic future. But, the resumption of IPO activity will also help improve capital allocation in China, by helping to direct more investment to private companies with strong growth prospects.

With little IPO activity elsewhere, China is likely to be the most active IPO market in the world this year. How many Chinese companies will IPO in 2009 is anyone’s guess. Exact numbers are impossible to come by. But, several hundred Chinese companies likely are in the process of receiving final approval from the China Securities Regulatory Commission. That number will certainly grow if the first IPOs out of the gate do well.

Don’t expect, however, a flood of IPOs in 2009. The pace of new IPOs is likely to be cautious. The overall goal of China’s securities regulators remains the same: to put market stability ahead of capital efficiency. In other words, China’s regulators will allow a limited supply of companies to IPO this year, and would most likely suspend again all IPO activity if the overall stock market has a serious correction.

China’s stock markets are up by 60% so far in 2009. While that mainly reflects well-founded confidence that China’s economy has weathered the worst of the global economic downturn, and will continue to prosper this year and beyond, a correction is by no means unthinkable. There are concerns that IPOs will drain liquidity from companies already listed in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Efficient capital allocation is not a particular strongpoint of China’s stock markets. In China, the companies that IPO are often those that can, rather than those that should. The majority of China’s quoted companies, including the large caps,  are not fully-private companies. They are State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), of one flavor or another. These companies have long enjoyed some significant advantages over purely private-sector companies, including most importantly preferential access to loans from state-owned banks, and an easier path to IPO.

SOEs are usually shielded from the full rigors of the market, by regulations that limit competition and an implicit guarantee by the state to provide additional capital or loans if the company runs into trouble. So, an IPO for a Chinese SOE is often more for pride and prestige, than for capital-raising. An IPO has a relatively high cost of capital for an SOE. The cheapest and easiest form of capital raising for an SOE is to get loans or subsidies direct from the government.

Now, compare the situation for private companies, particularly Chinese SMEs. These are the companies that should go public, because they have the most to gain, generally have a better record of using capital wisely, and have management whose interests are better aligned with those of outside shareholders. However, it’s still much harder for private companies to get approval for an IPO than SOEs. Partly it’s a problem of scale. Private companies in China are still genuine SMEs, which means their revenues rarely exceed $100 million. The IPO approval process is skewed in favor of larger enterprises.

Another problem: private companies in China often find it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain bank loans to finance expansion. Usually, banks will only lend against receivables, and only with very high collateral and personal guarantees.

The result is that most good Chinese SMEs are starved of growth capital, even as less deserving SOEs are awash in it. More than anything, it’s this inefficient capital allocation that sets China’s capital markets apart from those of Europe, the US and developed Asia.

Equity finance – either from private equity sources or IPO — is the obvious way to break the logjam, and direct capital to where it can earn the highest return. But, for many SMEs, equity is either unknown or unavailable. I’m more concerned, professionally, with the companies for whom equity finance is an unknown. Equity finance, both from public listings and from pre-IPO private equity rounds, is going to become the primary source of growth capital in the future. Explaining the merits of using equity, rather than debt and retained earnings, to finance growth is one of the parts of my work I most enjoy, like leading to the well someone weak with thirst. Raising capital for good SME bosses is a real honor and privilege.

Most strong SMEs share the goal of having an IPO. So, the resumption of IPOs in China is a positive development for these companies. Shenzhen’s new small-cap stock exchange, the Growth Enterprise Market, should further improve things, once it finally opens, most likely later this year. The purpose of this market is to allow smaller companies to list. The majority will likely be private SME.

I’ll be watching the pace, quality and performance of IPOs on Growth Enterprise Market even more carefully than the IPOs on the main Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets. My hope is that it establishes itself as an efficient market for raising capital, and that the companies on it perform well. This is one part of a two-part strategy for improving capital allocation in China. The other is continued increase in private equity investment in China’s SME.

.

China First Capital’s Report: 如何选择上市的时机和地点, “When and Where to IPO”

China First Capital Chinese-language Report on "Where and When to IPO" for Chinese SME

 

I’m flying back from China as I write this, and bringing with me something of great value to me personally — even if I can’t claim to recognize every character. It’s the Chinese-language report prepared by my China First Capital colleagues on how a Chinese SME can avoid the quicksand and plan a successful IPO. Built on a first draft in English of mine, it’s written specifically for Chinese SME bosses. The report is called “如何选择上市的时机和地点

Download Here: 如何选择上市的时机和地点 “When & Where to IPO for Chinese SME”

We prepared the report with the explicit goal to help SME bosses make more informed decisions in capital-raising and IPO. There’s been an acute lack of reliable, well-researched information in Chinese on this topic. We hope the report will improve this “information deficit”. 

For me personally, this is the most important report we’ve prepared thus far for SME bosses. As this blog has discussed at length recently,  Chinese SMEs have been victimized disproportionately by every form of IPO indignity, from US OTCBB listings, to reverse mergers, Malaysian IPOs, SPACs and other schemes promoted by the predatory bankers, lawyers and advisors that swarm around China. 

Indeed, there are few bigger risks to a successful Chinese SME than making the wrong decision and heeding the wrong advice on where and when to IPO. 

I’d welcome feedback on the report. You can email me at ceo@chinafirstcapital.com

For those who can’t read the report in Chinese, it provides a comprehensive summary of pluses and minuses for Chinese SME of listing on the US, Hong Kong and Chinese stock markets. It also discusses at length, with several case studies,  the damage done to good Chinese SME by OTCBB listings and reverse mergers in the US. The bad examples abound. 

Even if you can’t read the Chinese, I hope you’ll consider sending it on to those active in China’s capital markets, as well as to any Chinese businessmen contemplating a public offering.  Better Chinese-language information is the strongest antiseptic to kill off the bad deals and bad dealmakers in China. So, I hope all those with a genuine interest in promoting entrepreneurship in China will help spread the word.



.

 

How the Bad IPO Deals Happen: Exploiting the Lack of Information and Knowledge to Bamboozle Chinese SMEs

Qing Dynasty official statue, from China First Capital blog

In recent years, a large percentage of all OTCBB IPOs have been for Chinese SME companies. This is largely because too many Chinese SME fall too easily into the pit of investment vipers – the lawyers, accountants and self-described “investment bankers” and “private equity investors” that promote these OTCBB listings, reverse mergers and other schemes concocted by advisors generally for their own self-enrichment.

Once caught in the trap, the prospects for the SME are generally pretty bleak. They’ll be bled of badly-needed cash to pay the advisors, bankers and lawyers their fees, and later, by the costs of remaining a listed company. The bosses come to learn that a “US IPO” isn’t at all what it’s cracked up to be when it takes place on OTCBB: there are no celebratory news reports, no huge sums flowing into their personal or corporate bank accounts, no boost in company prestige or brand awareness. At best, it turns out to be a very expensive lesson. At worst, it’s the transaction that leads to the company’s premature demise.

Of course, by the time the SME realizes the scale of the mistake it made by agreeing to IPO on OTCBB, the advisors, lawyers and bankers are all long gone. I’ve heard from a Chinese lawyer friend that these advisors will change their mobile phone numbers after the IPO so the SME boss can no longer contact them.

Indeed, the distinguishing characteristic of these advisors and bankers is their disregard for the future condition of the Chinese SMEs once they’ve done the OTCBB transaction. They have no stake in the long-term success of the company, because they cash out at IPO, and move onto their next victim, er client.

It is not unusual that advisors earn millions of dollars from these OTCBB deals. It may be the most successful and durable investment banking racket of all time. Hundreds of Chinese companies have been ensnared over the last seven years.

How has it gone on for so long? For one thing, the OTCBB is not regulated in any real sense of the word. So, the SEC has little or no power to crack-down. The larger factor, though, is the complete lack of adequate scrutiny by the Chinese SME bosses. They put their business’s future in the hands of a bunch of guys with a proven talent (and mile-long rap sheets) for destroying companies, not building them.

I’m constantly amazed that great Chinese SME bosses I’ve met will do no independent due diligence on financial advisors. They don’t ask for a full track record of past deals, or partner bios, or a list of satisfied past customers to consult. Everything is taken at face value, and appropriately enough, the common result is a very large loss of face for the Chinese boss, after these bad deals have closed, and the damage is calculated.

Even if a Chinese boss wanted to do some proper due diligence, it’s by no means simple. There’s a notable lack of good, current information about the OTCBB in Chinese. Chinese journalists don’t ever seem to write about it, perhaps because these IPOs take place outside China. I did a search of OTCBB on China’s main search engine, Baidu.com, and the top results included information that’s three to four years old, and a site called OTCBB.com.cn that offers very little information, and seems to be owned and run by the kind of advisory firm that specializes in (you guessed it) doing OTCBB listings of Chinese companies. You won’t find anything too useful here.

It doesn’t take a lot of digging, assuming one can speak some English and knows where to look, to discover information that should start alarm bells ringing loud enough to wake the dead. For example, the Chinese government doesn’t recognize the OTCBB as a legitimate stock market for many transactions. Here’s a kernel of disclosure language from the SEC filing of a Chinese company that listed on OTCBB. (Underlined for emphasis:)

“The stock portion of the purchase price of Weihe to Weihe’s stockholders because the delivery of shares of the Company’s common stock in connection with the acquisition of Weihe is not permitted pursuant to applicable PRC law, so long as the Company is listed and traded on the OTCBB, rather than an exchange recognized by the applicable PRC governmental authorities, such as Nasdaq, AMEX and the NYSE.”

Imagine for a second you’re a lawyer, working with a Chinese SME on a proposed OTCBB listing. You must know this fact, that the Chinese government doesn’t recognize that stock market as legitimate. What do you do? Do you exercise your duty-of-care, and tell the client of the danger of an OTCBB listing? Or, do you just gloss over it, so that the deal will go through and you’ll earn big legal fees?

No prizes for guessing which course many of the lawyers take who advise Chinese SME on OTCBB listing. This is why it’s not, in my mind, exaggerating to say that these advisors are often a disgrace to their professions.

What can be done about all of this? It’s already too late for hundreds of Chinese companies that went down this road. For the other thousands of good SME bosses, however, access to better information in Chinese is obviously going to be important, to give them a solid basis to decide which kind of capital markets transaction to pursue.

I’ve done my share lately of cursing the darkness in this blog, remonstrating against the advisors, lawyers and bankers who’ve grown rich off promoting OTCBB and Pink Sheet listings, reverse mergers and SPAC deals. It’s time I also lit a candle.

Together with my colleagues at China First Capital, we’ve been working on a Chinese-language publication called “如何选择上市的时机和地点” or “When and Where to IPO”. It discusses at some length the problems with listing on OTCBB, or doing other kinds of rushed IPOs.

We’ll be completing it this week, and once done, we’ll do our utmost to make it as widely available as possible, in print and online.

 

 

.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

.

 

“The Great Unwind” — Jim Zukin’s Masterly Analysis of Global Financial Crisis & Opportunities for Chinese Companies to Benefit Through M&A

Ming Dynasty

Readers of this blog will know I’m a big fan of Jim Zukin, a founding partner of the investment bank Houlihan, Lokey, Howard and Zukin. We met again for lunch last week, in Los Angeles. 

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, and befriending, quite a few smart, and highly successful businessmen and entrepreneurs. It’s probably been the most rewarding part of my career. But, even among such pretty stellar company, Jim Zukin stands out. I’m truly awestruck – which is not a quality I often exhibit — by his intellect, his charisma, his business savvy, his warmth and humor, his love for his family, his clear and incisive thinking on the largest issues of our time. 

Jim is also much, much better at investment banking than I will ever be. I tend to be somewhat stubborn and used to being in charge. But, Jim’s judgment as an investment banker is so much more thoroughgoing than my own, that he is one of the very few people I’ve known who, metaphorically,  I would follow unquestionably into battle. Like a good junior officer, I would,  “Salute, shut up, and do what I was told.” 

Jim shares with me a deep affection for China, and a great delight in doing business there. He spotted big potential opportunities for his firm in China several years ago, and personally traveled there frequently to get Houlihan Lokey’s office started and on a solid footing, which is where it is today. Jim is one of those people who seems to know more about more things than should be possible, let alone for a guy who’s also occupied with “minor” tasks like staying very close to his five kids and grandchild, while helping to run the thriving global investment bank he founded. 

Among the things Jim understands well (better than anyone I’ve run across) the remarkable moment in financial history we’re now living through – the US is struggling to rebuild its banking sector and recover from a serious credit crisis and recession, while China is awash in liquidity. Most experts look at this and see just one dimension – that China’s government will continue to use its massive foreign exchange reserves to buy US government debt, thereby providing some additional stability to US interest rates and the dollar. 

Jim Zukin sees beyond this – indeed well beyond the current horizon —  to another important aspect of the financial symbiosis between the US and China. Chinese companies, as Jim sees it,  now have the scale, the ambition, the growth potential and the financial resources, to acquire assets in the US. This could have transformational effects for the Chinese companies able to acquire businesses in the US, and no less of an impact on parts of the ailing US industrial base. China could, and should, become a buyer of quality Middle Market companies in the US. There are good reasons why: because these US assets will help the Chinese firm accelerate its growth,  improve distribution and customer base in the US, upgrade technology. One other reason: US Middle Market companies are comparatively cheap, at the current valuation multiples (often around 5x)  and dollar-renminbi exchange rate. 

Jim sees this opportunity earlier and more clearly than most of us. He does so, in part,  because he holds more substantive knowledge and insight about the US, China and the financial tsunami that has changed the world over the last year. He condensed some of this knowledge and insight into a Powerpoint called “The Great Unwind and Its Impact”. 

I recommend it as essential reading, for anyone who wants to understand better the current financial crisis and some longer-term impacts on China and the US.  There’s a large amount to chew on in Jim’s report, not just the section on China. It shows a breadth of understanding that help explain why Jim was able to build a perennially successful investment banking firm, as well as perhaps the only one that’s come through the current financial crisis stronger than ever. 

You can view it here:

http://www.scribd.com/doc/15194564/The-Great-Unwind-and-Its-Impact-By-Jim-Zukin

 

 

.