Wall Street

ZTO Spurns Huge China Valuations For Benefits of U.S. Listing — Reuters

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By Elzio Barreto and Julie Zhu | HONG KONG

Chinese logistics company ZTO Express is turning up the chance of a much more lucrative share listing at home in favor of an overseas IPO that lets its founder retain control and its investors cash out more easily.

To steal a march on its rivals in the world’s largest express delivery market, it is taking the quicker U.S. route to raise $1.3 billion for new warehouses and long-haul trucks to ride breakneck growth fueled by China’s e-commerce boom.

Its competitors SF Express, YTO Express, STO Express and Yunda Express all unveiled plans several months ago for backdoor listings in Shenzhen and Shanghai, but ZTO’s head start could prove crucial, analysts and investors said.

“ZTO will have a clear, certain route to raise additional capital via U.S. markets, which their competitors, assuming they all end up quoted in China, will not,” said Peter Fuhrman, CEO of China-focused investment bank China First Capital.

With a backlog of about 800 companies waiting for approval to go public in China and frequent changes to the listing rules by regulators, a New York listing is generally a quicker and more predictable way of raising funds and taps a broader mix of investors, bankers and investors said.

“ZTO will have a built-in long-term competitive advantage – more reliable access to equity capital,” Fuhrman added.

U.S. rules that allow founder Meisong Lai to retain control over the company and make it easier for ZTO’s private equity investors to sell their shares were some of the main reasons to go for an overseas listing, according to four people close to the company. U.S. markets allow a dual-class share structure that will give Lai 80 percent voting power in the company, even though he will only hold 28 percent of the stock after the IPO.

Most of Lai’s shares are Class B ordinary shares carrying 10 votes, while Class A shares, including the new U.S. shares, have one vote. China’s markets do not allow shares with different voting power.

ZTO’s existing shareholders, including private equity firms Warburg Pincus, Hillhouse Capital and venture capital firm Sequoia Capital will also get much more leeway and flexibility to exit their investment under U.S. market rules. In China, they would be locked in for one to three years after the IPO.

As concerns grow about a weakening Chinese currency, the New York IPO also gives it more stable dollar-denominated shares it can use for international acquisitions, the people close to the company said.

IN DEMAND

Demand for the IPO, the biggest by a Chinese company in the United States since e-commerce giant Alibaba Group’s $25 billion record in 2014, already exceeds the shares on offer multiple times, two of the people said.

That underscores the appeal of the fast-growing company to global investors, despite a valuation that places it above household names United Parcel Service Inc and FedEx Corp.

The shares will be priced on Oct. 26 and start trading the following day.

ZTO is selling 72.1 million new American Depositary Shares (ADS), equivalent to about 10 percent of its outstanding stock, in the range $16.50 to $18.50 each. The range is equal to 23.4-26.3 times its expected 2017 earnings per share, according to people familiar with the matter.

By comparison, Chinese rivals SF Express, YTO Express, STO Express and Yunda shares trade between 43 and 106 times earnings, according to Haitong Securities estimates.

UPS and FedEx, which are growing at a much slower pace, trade at multiples of 17.8 and 13.4 times.

“The A-share market (in China) does give you a higher valuation, but the U.S. market can help improve your transparency and corporate governance,” said one of the people close to ZTO. “Becoming a New York-listed company will also benefit the company in the long-term if it plans to conduct M&A overseas and seek more capital from the international market.”

China’s express delivery firms handled 20.7 billion parcels in 2015, shifting 1.5 times the volume in the United States, according to consulting firm iResearch data cited in the ZTO prospectus.

The market will grow an average 23.7 percent a year through 2020 and reach 60 billion parcels, iResearch forecasts.

Domestic rivals STO Express and YTO Express have unveiled plans to go public with reverse takeovers worth $2.5 billion and $2.6 billion, while the country’s biggest player, SF Express, is working on a $6.4 billion deal and Yunda Express on a $2.7 billion listing.

ZTO plans to use $720 million of the IPO proceeds to purchase land and invest in new facilities to expand its packaged sorting capacity, according to the listing prospectus.

The rest will be used to expand its truck fleet, invest in new technology and for potential acquisitions.

“It’s a competitive industry and you do need fresh capital for your expansion, in particular when all your rivals are doing so or plan to do so,” said one of the people close to the company.

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-zto-express-ipo-idUSKCN12L0QH

China First Capital Interview: Cashing in and cashing out — China Law & Practice

 

China Law & Practice

Peter Fuhrman, CEO of China First Capital, explains how the country’s private equity market has struggled with profit returns and the importance of diversified exit strategies. He also predicts the rise of new funds to execute high-yield deals

Date: 05 May 2015

What is China First Capital?

China First Capital is an investment bank and advisory firm with a focus on Greater China. Our business is helping larger Chinese companies, along with a select group of Fortune 500 companies, sustain and enlarge market leadership in the country, by raising capital and advising on strategic M&A. Like our clients, we operate in an opportunity-rich environment. Though realistic about the many challenges China faces as its economy and society evolve, we are as a firm fully convinced there is no better market than China to build businesses of enduring value. China still has so much going for it, with so much more growth and positive change ahead. As someone who first came to China in 1981 as a graduate student, my optimism is perhaps understandable. The positive changes this country has undergone during those years have surpassed by orders of magnitude anything I might have imagined possible.

After a rather long career in the US and Europe, including a stint as CEO of a California venture capital company as well as a venture-backed enterprise software company, I came back to China in 2008 and established China First Capital with a headquarters in Shenzhen, a place I like to think of as the California of China. It has the same mainly immigrant population and, like the Silicon Valley, is home to many leading private sector high-tech companies.

What is happening in China’s private equity (PE) market?

Back in 2008, China’s financial markets, the domestic PE industry, were far less developed. It was, we now can see, a honeymoon period. Hundreds of new PE firms were formed, while the big global players like Blackstone, Carlyle, TPG and KKR all built big new operations in China and raised tons of new money to invest there. From a standing start a decade ago, China PE grew into a colossus, the second-largest PE market in the world. But, it also, almost as quickly, became one of the more troubled. The plans to make quick money investing in Chinese companies right ahead of their planned IPO worked brilliantly for a brief time, then fell apart, as first the US, then Hong Kong and finally China’s own domestic stock exchanges shut the doors to Chinese companies. Things have since improved. IPOs for Chinese companies are back in all three markets. But PE firms are still sitting on thousands of unexited investments. The inevitable result, PE in China has had a disappointing record in the category that ultimately matters most: returning profits to limited partners (LPs).

Read complete interview

Neue Zurcher Zeitung Interview

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Monday’s “Neue Zurcher Zeitung” of Switzerland published an article based on the interview I gave last week while in London with the newspaper’s financial editor Christof Leisinger. For those whose German is up to the task, click here to read the article in full.

To get a flavor of what we discussed, here are some of the quotes, in English:

China has the world’s second largest economy and capital market. GPD growth and corporate earnings are both growing far faster than in OECD countries. And yet, global institutional capital is in almost all cases seriously underweight China. How to explain this? Simple, there are just too few attractive and legal ways for international capital to invest in China.

“The Chinese companies quoted in the US and Hong Kong mainly come from two unrepresentative pools: large, slower-growing Chinese state-owned companies, and internet and mobile services “concept” stocks often with limited revenues and profits. The powerful engine of long-term economic growth in China, its millions of successful private sector entrepreneur-founded businesses serving domestic market, are almost all off-limits to non-Chinese investors. To invest, you need state approval to buy Renminbi and later permission to convert back into dollars, Euros or other freely-tradable currencies.

“China no longer especially needs or wants Western capital to finance its economic growth. The best way now to invest in China, to increase allocation there,  is probably through M&A, by putting money into US or European companies that are aggressively acquiring good Chinese private sector ones.”

“Overall, the country is doing an excellent job managing the transition from export-reliance to domestic consumption, a economic challenge Germany is still struggling with. The Chinese economy has undergone enormous structural change over the last five years, most of it positive, with more and more of economic activity coming from the private sector, rather than state-owned one, from producing and selling products to satisfy the needs of  China’s 1 billion consumers rather than those of Wal-Mart shoppers in the US.

“On the macro level I do not expect any big change anytime soon, no free convertibility for the Renminbi. But, more quietly and pragmatically, the Chinese government has solved a rather large problem related to this, by making it legal and simple now for every Chinese citizen to use Renminbi to buy up to $50,000 a year in dollars, to pay for travel, educating their children, or buy shares or other assets outside China. In other words, the capital account remains closed, but Chinese individually now have a lot of the benefits of free exchange between dollars and Renminbi. It’s one of the reasons the Champs d’Elysees and Bond Street are jammed with Chinese tourists.”

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Chinese IPOs Try to Make a Comeback in US — New York Times

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I.P.O./Offerings

Chinese I.P.O.’s Try to Make a Comeback in U.S.

BY NEIL GOUGH

HONG KONG — Chinese companies are trying to leap back into the United States stock markets.

The return, still in its early days and involving just a handful of companies, comes after several years of accounting scandals that pummeled their share prices and prompted scores of companies to delist from markets in the United States.

But the spate of recent activity suggests investors may be warming once more to Chinese companies that seek initial public offerings in the United States.

Qunar Cayman Islands, a popular travel website owned by Baidu, China’s leading search engine company, began trading on Nasdaq on Friday and nearly doubled in price. On Thursday, shares in 58.com, a Chinese classified ad website operator that is often compared to Craigslist, surged 42 percent on the first trading day in New York after its $187 million public offering.

The question now — for both American investors and the companies from China waiting in the wings to raise money from them — is whether these recent debuts are an anomaly or have truly managed to unfreeze a market that was once a top destination for Chinese companies seeking to list overseas.

Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank and advisory firm based in Shenzhen, China, said that for both sides, the recent signs of a détente between American investors and Chinese companies is “a matter of selectively hoping history repeats itself.”

“Not the recent history of Chinese companies dogged by allegations, and some evidence, of accounting fraud and other suspect practices,” he added. “Instead, the current group is looking back farther in history, to a time when some Chinese Internet companies with business models derived, borrowed or pilfered from successful U.S. companies were able to go public in the U.S. to great acclaim.”

That initial wave of Chinese technology listings began in 2000 with the I.P.O. of Sina.com and later featured companies like Baidu, which has been described as China’s answer to Google. In total, more than 200 companies from China achieved listings on American markets, raising billions of dollars through traditional public offerings or reverse takeovers.

But beginning about 2010, short-sellers and regulators started exposing what grew into a flurry of accounting scandals at Chinese companies with overseas listings. In some cases, such accusations have led to the filing of fraud charges by regulators or to the dissolution of the companies. Prominent examples include the Toronto-listed Sino-Forest Corporation, which filed for bankruptcy last year after Muddy Waters Research placed a bet against the company’s shares in 2011 and accused it of being a “multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.”

Concerns about companies based in China were reinforced in December when the United States Securities and Exchange Commission accused the Chinese affiliates of five big accounting firms of violating securities laws, contending that they had failed to produce documents from their audits of several China-based companies under investigation for fraud.

In response, American demand for new share offerings by Chinese companies evaporated, and investors dumped shares in Chinese companies across the board. It became so bad that the tide of listings reversed direction: Delistings by Chinese companies from American markets have outnumbered public offerings for the last two years.

Despite the renewed activity, it is too early to say whether Chinese stocks are back in favor. The listing by 58.com was only the fourth Chinese public offering in the United States this year, according to Thomson Reuters data. LightInTheBox, an online retailer, raised $90.7 million in a June listing but is trading slightly below its offering price. China Commercial Credit, a microlender, has risen 50 percent since it raised $8.9 million in August. And shares in the Montage Technology Group, based in Shanghai, have risen 41 percent since it raised $80.2 million in late September.

Still, this year’s activity is already an improvement from 2012, when only two such deals took place, according to figures from Thomson Reuters. Last month, two more Chinese companies — 500.com, an online lottery agent, and Sungy Mobile, an app developer — submitted initial filings for American share sales.

But the broader concerns related to Chinese companies have not gone away. In May, financial regulators in the United States and China signed a memorandum of understanding that could pave the way to increased American oversight of accounting practices at Chinese companies. But the S.E.C.’s case against the Chinese affiliates of the five big accounting firms remains in court.

The corporate structure of many Chinese companies is another unresolved area of concern. Because foreign companies and shareholders cannot own Internet companies in China, both 58.com and Qunar rely on a complex series of management and profit control agreements called variable interest entities. Whether such arrangements will stand up in court has been a cause for concern among foreign investors in Chinese companies.

And short-sellers continue to single out companies from China, often with great success.

In a report last month, Muddy Waters took aim at NQ Mobile, an online security company based in Beijing and listed in New York, accusing it of being “a massive fraud” and contending that 72 percent of its revenue from the security business in China last year was “fictitious.”

NQ Mobile has rejected the accusations, saying that the report contained “numerous errors of facts, misleading speculations and malicious interpretations of events.” The company’s shares have fallen 37 percent since the report was published.

(http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2013/11/01/chinese-i-p-o-s-attempt-a-comeback-in-u-s/?_r=1)
 
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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.

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?

 

 

 

The Ambow Massacre — Baring Private Equity Fails in Its Take Private Plan

 

In the last two years, more than 40 US-listed Chinese companies have announced plans to delist in “take private” deals.  About half the deals have a PE firm at the center of things, providing some of the capital and most of the intellectual and strategic firepower. The PE firms argue that the US stock market has badly misunderstood, and so deeply undervalued these Chinese companies. The PE firms confidently boast they are buying into great businesses at fire sale prices.

The PE firm teams up with the company’s owner to buy out public shareholders, with the plan being at some future point to either sell the business or relist it outside the US. At the moment, PE firms are involved in take private deals worth about $5 billion. Some of the bigger names include Focus Media, 7 Days Inn, Simcere Pharmaceutical.

The ranks of “take private” deals fell by one yesterday. PE firm Baring Private Equity announced it is dropping its plan to take private a Chinese company called Ambow Education Holding listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Baring, which is among the larger Asia-headquartered private equity firms, with over $5 billion under management,  first announced its intention to take Ambow private on March 15. Within eleven days, Baring was forced to scrap the whole plan. Here’s how Baring put it in the official letter it sent to Ambow and disclosed on the SEC website, “In the ten days since we submitted the Proposal, three of the four independent Directors and the Company’s auditors have resigned, and the Company’s ADSs have been suspended from trading on the NYSE. As a result of these unexpected events, we have concluded that it is not possible for us to proceed with the Transaction as set forth in our Proposal.”

Baring’s original proposal offered Ambow shareholders $1.46 a share, a 45% premium over the price at the time. Baring is already a shareholder of Ambow, holding about 10% of the equity. It bought the shares earlier this year.  Assuming the shares do start trading again, Baring is likely sitting on a paper loss of around $8mn on the Ambow shares it owns, as well as a fair bit of egg on its face. Uncounted is the amount in legal fees, to say nothing of Baring’s own time, that was squandered on this deal. My guess is, this is hardly what Baring’s LPs would want their money being spent on.

Perhaps the only consolation for Baring is that this mess exploded before it completed the planned takeover of the company. But, still, my question, “what did Baring know about any big problems inside Ambow when it tabled its offer ten days ago?” If the answer is “nothing”, well what does that say about the quality of the PE firm’s due diligence and deal-making prowess? How can you go public with an offer that values Ambow at $105 million and only eleven days later have to abandon the bid because of chaos, and perhaps fraud, inside the target company?

It is so easy, so attractive,  to think you can do deals based largely on work you can do on a Bloomberg terminal. Just four steps are all that’s needed. Download the stock chart? Check. Read the latest SEC filings, including financial statements? Check. Discover a share trading at a fraction of book value? Check. Contact the company owner and say you want to become his partner and buy out all his foolish and know-nothing US shareholders? Check. All set. You can now launch your bid.

Here the stock chart for Ambow since it went public on the NYSE:

 

 

So, in a little more than two years, Ambow’s market cap has fallen by 92%, from a high of over $1 billion, to the current level of less than $90mn. That’s not a lot higher than the company’s announced 2011 EBITDA of $54mn, and about equal to the total cash Ambow claimed, in its most recent annual report filed with the SEC, it had in the bank. Now really, who wouldn’t want to buy a company trading at 1.5X trailing EBITDA and 1X cash?

Well, start with the fact that it now looks like those numbers might not be everything they purport to be. That would be the logical inference from the fact that the company’s auditors and three of its board members all resigned en masse.

That gets to the heart of the real problem with these “PtP” (public to private) deals involving US-listed Chinese companies. The PE firms seem to operate on the assumption that the numbers reported to the SEC are genuine, and therefore that these companies’ shares are all trading at huge discounts to their intrinsic worth. Well, maybe not. Also, maybe US shareholders are not quite as dumb as some of the deal-makers here would like to believe. From the little we know about the situation in Ambow, it looks like, if anything, the US capital market was actually being too generous towards the company, even as it marked down the share price by over 90%.

A share price represents the considered assessment of millions of people, in real time. Some of those people (suppliers, competitors, friends of the auditor) will always know more than you about what the real situation is inside a company. Yes, sometimes share prices can overshoot and render too harsh a judgment on a company’s value. But, that’s assuming the numbers reported to the SEC are all kosher.  If we’ve learned anything in these last two years it’s that assuming a Chinese company’s SEC financial statement is free of fraud and gross inaccuracy is, at best, a gamble. There simply is no way a PE firm can get complete comfort, before committing to taking over one of these Chinese businesses listed in the US, that there are no serious dangers lurking within. Reputation risk, litigation risk, exit risk — these too are very prominent in all PtP deals.

Some of the other announced PtP deals are using borrowed money, along with some cash from PE firms, to pay off existing shareholders. In such cases, the risk for the PE fund is obviously lower. If the Chinese company genuinely has the free cash to service the debt, well, then once the debt is paid off, the PE firm will end up owning a big chunk of a company without having tied up a lot of cash.  Do the banks in these cases really know the situation inside these often-opaque Chinese companies? Is the cash flow on the P&L the same cash flow that passes through its hands each month?

There’s much else that strikes me as questionable about the logic of doing these PtP, or delist-relist deals. For one thing, it seems increasingly unlikely that these businesses will be able to relist, anytime in the next three to five years, in Hong Kong or China. I’ve yet to hear a credible plan from the PE firms I’ve talked to about how they intend to achieve ultimate exit. But, mainly, my concerns have been about the rigor and care that goes into the crafting of these deals. Those concerns seem warranted in my opinion, based on this 11-day debacle with Baring and Ambow.

Some of the Chinese-listed companies fell out of favor for the good reason that they are dubious businesses, run with shoddy and opaque practices, by bosses who’ve shown scant regard for the letter and spirit of the securities laws of the US. Are these really the kind of people PE funds should consider going into business with?

 

Correction: I see now Barings actually has owned some Ambow shares for longer, and so is likely sitting on far larger losses on this position. This raises still more starkly the issue of how it could have put so much of its LPs money at risk on a deal like this, upfront, and without having sufficient transparency into the true situation at the company. This looks more like stock speculation gone terribly wrong, not private equity.

Addition: Three other large, famous institutional investors also all piled into Ambow in the months before Baring made its bid. Fidelity, GIC and Capital Group reported owning 8.76%, 5.2% and 7.4% respectively, or a total of 21.3% of the equity. They might have made a quick buck had the Baring buyout gone forward. Now, they may end up stranded, sitting on large positions in a distressed stock with no real liquidity and perhaps nowhere to go but down.

 

 

Crawling Blindfold & Naked Through A Minefield

 

Making a failed investment is usually permissible in the PE industry. Making a negligent investment is not. The PE firms now considering the “delist-relist” transactions I wrote about last time (click here to read)  are jeopardizing not only their investors’ money, but the firm’s own survival.  The risks in these deals are both so large and so uncontrollable that if a deal were to go wrong, the PE firm would be vulnerable to a lawsuit by its Limited Partners (“LPs”) for breach of fiduciary duty.

Such a lawsuit, or even the credible threat of one, would likely put the PE firm out of business by making it impossible for the firm to ever raise money from LPs again. In other words, PE firms that do “delist-relist” are taking existential risk. To this old guy, that is just plain dumb.

Before making any investment, a PE firm, to fulfill its fiduciary duty, will do extensive, often forensic, due diligence. The DD acts as a kind of inoculation, protecting the PE firm in the event something later goes wrong with the investment. As long as the DD was done properly, meaning no obvious risks were ignored, then a PE firm can’t easily be attacked in court for investing in a failed deal.

With the “delist-relist” deals however, there is no way for the DD process to fully determine the scale of the largest risks, nor can the PE firm do much to hedge, manage or alleviate them. This is because the largest risks are inherent in the deal structure.

The two main ones are the risk of shareholder lawsuits and the risk that the company, after being taken private, will fail to win approval for an IPO on a different stock market. If either occur, they will drain away any potential profit. Both risks are fully outside the control of the PE firm. This makes these deals a blindfolded and naked crawl through a minefield.

Why, then, are PE firms considering these deals? From my discussions, one reason is that they appear easy. The target company is usually already trading on the US stock market, and so has a lot of SEC disclosure materials available. All one needs to do is download the documents from the SEC’s Edgar website. Investing in private Chinese companies, by contrast, is almost always a long, arduous and costly slog – it involves getting materials, like an audit, and then making sure everything else provided by the company is genuine and accurate.

Another reason is ignorance of or indifference to the legal risks: many of the PE firms I’ve talked to that are considering these “delist-relist” deals have little direct experience operating in the US capital markets. Instead, the firm’s focus on what they perceive to be the “undervaluation” of the Chinese companies quoted in the US. One PE guy I know described the Chinese companies as “miss-killed”, meaning they are, to his way of thinking, basically solid businesses that are being unfairly scorned by US investors. There may well be some good ones foundering on US stock markets. But, finding them and putting the many pieces together of a highly-complex “delist-relist” deal is outside the circle of competence and experience of most PE firms active in China.

This investment approach, of looking for mispriced or distressed assets on the stock market,  is a strategy following by many portfolio managers, distress investors and hedge funds. PE firms operating in China, however, are a different breed, and raised money from their LPs, in most cases, by promising to do different sorts of deals, with longer time horizons and a focus on outstanding private companies short of growth capital. The PE firm acts as supportive rich uncle, not as a crisis counselor.

Abandoning that focus on strong private companies, to pursue these highly risky “delist-relist” deals seems not only misguided, but potentially reckless. Virtually every working day, private Chinese companies go public and earn their PE investors returns of 400% or more. There is no shortage of great private companies looking for PE in China. Just the opposite. Finding them takes more work than compiling a spreadsheet with the p/e multiples of Chinese companies traded in the US.  But, in most cases, the hard work of finding and investing in private companies is what LPs agreed to fund, and where the best risk-adjusted profits are to be made.  How will LPs respond if a PE firm does a “delist-relist” deal and then it goes sour? This, too, is a suicidal risk the PE firm is taking.

In Full Agreement

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I commend unreservedly the following article from today’s Wall Street Journal editorial page. It discusses US reverse mergers and OTCBB IPOs for Chinese companies, identifying reasons these deals happen and the harm that’s often done.


What’s Behind China’s Reverse IPOs?


A dysfunctional financial system pushes companies toward awkward deals in America.
By JOSEPH STERNBERG

As if China Inc. didn’t already have enough problems in America—think safety scares, currency wars, investment protectionism and Sen. Chuck Schumer—now comes the Securities and Exchange Commission. Regulators are investigating allegations of accounting irregularities at several Chinese companies whose shares are traded in America thanks to so-called reverse mergers. Regulators, and not a few reporters, worry that American investors may have been victims of frauds perpetrated by shady foreign firms.

Allow us to posit a different view: Despite the inevitable bad apples, many of the firms involved in this type of deal are as much sinned against as sinning.

In a reverse merger, the company doing the deal injects itself into a dormant shell company, of which the injected company’s management then takes control. In the China context, the deal often works like this: China Widget transfers all its assets into California Tallow Candle Inc., a dormant company with a vestigial penny-stock listing left over from when it was a real firm. China Widget’s management simultaneously takes over CTC, which is now in the business of making widgets in China. And thanks to that listing, China Widget also is now listed in America.

It’s an odd deal. The goal of a traditional IPO is to extract cash from the global capital market. A reverse merger, in contrast, requires the Chinese company to expend capital to execute what is effectively a purchase of the shell company. The company then hopes it can turn to the market for cash at some point in the future via secondary offerings.

Despite its evident economic inefficiencies, the technique has grown popular in recent years. Hundreds of Chinese companies are now listed in the U.S. via this arrangement, with a combined market capitalization of tens of billions of dollars. Some of those may be flim-flammers looking to make a deceitful buck. But by all accounts, many more are legitimate companies. Why do they do it?

One relatively easy explanation is that the Chinese companies have been taken advantage of by unscrupulous foreign banks and lawyers. In China’s still-new economy with immature domestic financial markets, it’s entirely plausible that a large class of first-generation entrepreneurs are relatively naïve about the art of capital-raising but see a listing—any listing—as a point of pride and a useful marketing tool. There may be an element of truth here, judging by the reports from some law firms that they now receive calls from Chinese companies desperate to extract themselves from reverse mergers. (The news for them is rarely good.)

More interesting, however, is the systemic backdrop against which reverse mergers play out. Chinese entrepreneurs face enormous hurdles securing capital. A string of record-breaking IPOs for the likes of Agricultural Bank of China, plus hundred-million-dollar deals for companies like Internet search giant Baidu, show that Beijing has figured out how to use stock markets at home and abroad to get capital to large state-owned or well-connected private-sector firms. The black market can deliver capital to the smallest businesses, albeit at exorbitant interest rates of as much as 200% on an annual basis.

The weakness is with mid-sized private-sector companies. Bank lending is out of reach since loan officers favor large, state-owned enterprises. IPOs involve a three-year application process with an uncertain outcome since regulators carefully control the supply of new shares to ensure a buoyant market. Private equity is gaining in popularity but is still relatively new, and the uncertain IPO process deters some investors who would prefer greater clarity about their exit strategy. In this climate, it’s not necessarily a surprise that some impatient Chinese entrepreneurs view the reverse merger, for all its pitfalls, as a viable shortcut.

So although the SEC investigation is likely to attract ample attention to the U.S. investor- protection aspect of this story, that is the least consequential angle. Rules (even bad ones) are rules. But these shares are generally held by sophisticated hedge-fund managers and penny-stock day traders who ought to know that what they do is a form of glorified gambling.

Rather, consider the striking reality that some 30-odd years after starting its transformation to a form of capitalism, China still has not figured out one of capitalism’s most important features: the allocation of capital from those who have it to those who need it. As corporate savings pile up at inefficient state-owned enterprises, potentially successful private companies find themselves with few outlets to finance expansion. If Beijing can’t solve that problem quickly, a controversy over some penny stocks will be the least of anyone’s problems.

Mr. Sternberg is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia.

US Government Acts to Police OTCBB IPOs and Reverse Mergers for Chinese Companies

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In my experience, there is one catastrophic risk for a successful private company in China. Not inflation, or competition, or government meddling. It’s the risk of doing a bad capital markets deal in the US, particularly a reverse merger or OTCBB listing.  At last count, over 600 Chinese companies have leapt off these cliffs, and few have survived, let alone prospered. Not so, of course, the army of advisors, lawyers and auditors who often profit obscenely from arranging these transactions.

Not before time, the US Congress and SEC are both now finally investigating these transactions and the harm they have done to Chinese companies as well as stock market investors in the US. Here is a Chinese language column I wrote on this subject for Forbes China: click here to read.

As an American, I’m often angry and always embarrassed that the capital market in my homeland has been such an inhospitable place for so many good Chinese companies. In fact, my original reason for starting China First Capital over two years ago was to help a Jiangxi entrepreneur raise PE finance to expand his business, rather than doing a planned “Form 10” OTCBB.

We raised the money, and his company has since quadrupled in size. The founder is now planning an IPO in Hong Kong later this year, underwritten by the world’s preeminent global investment bank. The likely IPO valuation: at least 10 times higher than what was promised to him from that OTCBB IPO, which was to be sponsored by a “microcap” broker with a dubious record from earlier Chinese OTCBB deals.

In general, the only American companies that do OTCBB IPOs are the weakest businesses, often with no revenues or profits. When a good Chinese company has an OTCBB IPO, its choice of using that process will always cast large and ineradicable doubts in the mind of US investors. The suspicion is, any Chinese entrepreneur who chooses a reverse merger or OTCBB IPO either has flawed business judgment or plans to defraud his investors. This is why so many of the Chinese companies quoted on the OTCBB companies have microscopic p/e multiples, sometimes less than 1X current year’s earnings.

The US government is finally beginning to evaluate the damage caused by this “mincing machine” that takes Chinese SME and arranges their OTCBB or reverse mergers. According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “The US Securities and Exchange Commission has begun a crackdown on “reverse takeover” market for Chinese companies. Specifically, the SEC’s enforcement and corporation-finance divisions have begun a wide-scale investigation into how networks of accountants, lawyers, and bankers have helped bring scores of Chinese companies onto the U.S. stock markets.”

In addition, the US Congress is considering holding hearings. Their main goal is to protect US investors, since several Chinese companies that listed on OTCBB were later found to have fraudulent accounting.

But, if the SEC and Congress does act, the biggest beneficiaries may be Chinese companies. The US government may make it harder for Chinese companies to do OTCBB IPO and reverse mergers. If so, then these Chinese firms will need to follow a more reliable, tried-and-true path to IPO, including a domestic IPO with CSRC approval.

The advisors who promote OTCBB IPO and reverse mergers always say it is the fastest, easiest way to become a publicly-traded company. They are right. These methods are certainly fast and because of the current lack of US regulation, very easy. Indeed, there is no faster way to turn a good Chinese company into a failed publicly-traded than through an OTCBB IPO or reverse merger.


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CFC’s New Research Report, Assessing Some Key Differences in IPO Markets for Chinese Companies

China First Capital research report cover

For Chinese entrepreneurs, there has never been a better time to become a publicly-traded company.  China’s Shenzhen Stock Exchange is now the world’s largest and most active IPO market in the world. Chinese companies are also active raising billions of dollars of IPO capital abroad, in Hong Kong and New York.

The main question successful Chinese entrepreneurs face is not whether to IPO, but where.

To help entrepreneurs make that decision, CFC has just completed a research study and published its latest Chinese language research report. The report, titled “民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市” (” Offshore or Domestic IPO – Assessing Choices for Chinese SME”) analyzes advantages and disadvantages for Chinese SME  of IPO in China, Hong Kong, USA as well as smaller markets like Singapore and Korea.

The report can be downloaded from the Research Reports section of the CFC website , or by clicking here:  CFC’s IPO Difference Report (民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市)

We want the report to help make the IPO decision-making process more fact-based, more successful for entrepreneurs. According to the report, there are three key differences between a domestic or offshore IPO. They are:

  1. Valuation, p/e multiples
  2. IPO approval process – cost and timing of planning an IPO
  3. Accounting and tax rules

At first glance, most Chinese SME bosses will think a domestic IPO on the Shanghai or Shenzhen Stock Exchanges is always the wiser choice, because p/e multiples at IPO in China are generally at least twice the level in Hong Kong or US. But, this valuation differential can often be more apparent than real. Hong Kong and US IPOs are valued on a forward p/e basis. Domestic Chinese IPOs are valued on trailing year’s earnings. For a fast-growing Chinese company, getting 22X this year’s earnings in Hong Kong can yield more money for the company than a domestic IPO t 40X p/e, using last year’s earnings.

Chasing valuations is never a good idea. Stock market p/e ratios change frequently. The gap between domestic Chinese IPOs and Hong Kong and US ones has been narrowing for most of this year. Regulations are also continuously changing. As of now, it’s still difficult, if not impossible, for a domestically-listed Chinese company to do a secondary offering. You only get one bite of the capital-raising apple. In Hong Kong and US markets, a company can raise additional capital, or issue convertible debt, after an IPO.  This factor needs to be kept very much in mind by any Chinese company that will continue to need capital even after a successful domestic IPO.

We see companies like this frequently. They are growing so quickly in China’s buoyant domestic market that even a domestic IPO and future retained earnings may not provide all the expansion capital they will need.

Another key difference: it can take three years or more for many Chinese companies to complete the approval process for a domestic IPO. Will the +70X p/e  multiples now available on Shenzhen’s ChiNext market still be around then? It’s impossible to predict. Our advice to Chinese entrepreneurs is make the decision on where to IPO by evaluating more fundamental strengths and weaknesses of China’s domestic capital markets and those abroad, including differences in investor behavior, disclosure rules, legal liability.

China’s stock market is driven by individual investors. Volatility tends to be higher than in Hong Kong and the US, where most shares are owned by institutions.

One factor that is equally important for either domestic or offshore IPO: an SME will have a better chance of a successful IPO if it has private equity investment before its IPO. The transition to a publicly-listed company is complex, with significant risks. A PE investor can help guide an SME through this process, lowering the risks and costs in an IPO.

As the report emphasizes, an IPO is a financing method, not a goal by itself. An IPO will usually be the lowest-cost way for a private business to raise capital for expansion.  Entrepreneurs need to be smart about how to use capital markets most efficiently, for the purposes of building a bigger and better company.


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Reverse Mergers — Knowledgable Comment

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Comments don’t get any better than this one, a detailed assessment of the hazards of reverse mergers. It was added as a comment to an earlier blog post of mine. I’m grateful for the contribution, and humbled by the writer’s knowledge and clear writing style.  Highly recommended.

 

A Reverse Merger (“RM”) is routinely pitched as a cheaper and quicker method of going public than a traditional IPO in China. This may be technically true but the comparison is VERY MISLEADING. 

As you mentioned a few times in your blog, an RM is not a capital raising transaction. No shares are sold for cash in the transaction. It will receive little attention from analysts ! The RM is often coupled with a PIPE financing. However, the amount of PIPE financing that can be raised is very limited. Additionally, PIPE financing is typically expensive relative to other financing options and may contain onerous terms. 

Generally, completing a $50 million IPO will roughly run a company 18% of the offering proceeds, including underwriter discounts, under pricing, and legal, accounting, filing, listing, printing, and registrar fees, or $9 million. 

Conversely, an RM was advocated as “costs only between $100,000 and $400,000 to complete”. This is the most tricky and misleading part, because this cost range does not include the value of the equity stake retained by the shell promoter and its affiliates. And most Chinese company does not understand this. 

Generally when the RM closes, the Chinese Operating Company is issued Shell Company shares only equal to 80% to 90% of Shell Co’s post-merger outstanding shares. The the remaining 10% to 20% of shares are retained by the owner of the Shell Company, the promoter and its affiliates.

Hence, in addition to the $100,000 to $400,000 in cash paid by Chinese Operating Co to complete the RM, the Chinese Operating Co has also “paid” a 10% to 20% stake in its company. If the market capitalization is $50 million post-RM, this stake is worth $5 to $10 million. 

So RM is not cheaper at all ! It is Usually an option for second and third tier companies to obtain financing via a PIPE, and Some PIPE investors may not be long-term investors. An active trading market for stock may not be developed through a RM. Company will probably not qualify to trade on the Nasdaq and will likely end up trading in the pink sheets or the bulletin board. 

Stairway to Hell? IPO Activity in China Falls Off a Cliff

 

Not quite “a staircase to hell”, but the graphic below shows the steep fall in IPO activity in China in 2008. It looks pretty scary, doesn’t it? Chinese IPO activity in 2008 was at its lowest level since 2004. IPO activity basically came to a halt towards the end of last year. 

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No one looking at the table will see much room for optimism. But, it’s worth remembering that though down by almost 80% from the year earlier, IPOs of Chinese companies in 2008 still did manage to raise $20 billion of new capital. The key thing now is that this money is used well and wisely, to build profits and market share at these now-publicly-traded Chinese companies. By doing so, these companies will provide an impetus for companies and investors to get back into the IPO market. 

In other words, the IPO market in China is most attractive vibrant not when a company sees a big price jump in its first days of trading. This does little for company, and benefits mainly those who claimed an allocation of shares ahead of the IPO. The key driver for the IPO market should be that the capital raised in an IPO is used wisely, to put companies on a higher growth path. 

Higher profits will boost company valuation, and also allow newly-listed companies to more easily raise additional equity capital in the future. As I sometimes remind the Chinese laoban we work with, “an IPO should not be just a goal in itself, but also the cheapest way to raise additional capital to build your business even faster.” 

Take the money from a public listing to make more money: that’s the quickest way in which Chinese companies can do their part for reviving the IPO market and start building again the “staircase to heaven”, with annual gains every year in the amount of money raised through IPOs. 

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Houlihan Lokey Founding Partner James Zukin Sets His Sights on China

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I had the good fortune, while in LA, to have lunch recently with James Zukin. Jim is one of the name partners of the premier middle-market investment bank in the US, Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin. Jim and his partners were so far ahead of the curve, in spotting market opportunities, that they had to wait years for the curve even to appear behind them.

Over lunch, Jim explained how the firm stayed clear of Wall Street, both literally and figuratively, locating its headquarters in Los Angeles, and making the astute strategic decision to build a highly-focused and well-differentiated fee-based investment banking franchise, rather than an “all-purpose financial supermarket” that mixes advisory work with proprietary trading, market-making and IPO underwriting. We all know now how that supermarket model holds up over a full cycle: it doesn’t. The biggest of that breed, Merrill Lynch, sold out to Bank of America, and two other titans, Bear Sterns and Lehman Brothers, are both kaput.

Meantime, Houlihan Lokey (“HL”) has built and sustained a very successful business based first on providing fairness opinions and other valuation work, and then built up its lucrative practice advising on restructuring and M&A, and doing private placements. Even in dire financial times like now, HL continues to perform, doing solid, high-quality work a range of middle-market and SMB clients. HL again ranked as the number one firm in M&A advisory work in 2008 in deals of $2 billion or less, beating out Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs, and others.

The race is won by the smart and focused, not the “supermarketized”.

Jim Zukin, no surprise, is the embodiment of the strategic qualities that have made his firm a consistent, anomalous success. A self-described “outsider”, he is by turns smart, charming, witty and modest. (Like me, he also likes a good burger.)

We met to talk about China, where Jim has personally spearheaded HL’s activities over the last few years, traveling back and forth frequently from LA, and opening offices in Beijing and Hong Kong. He speaks with palpable joy when discussing his visits to China. His workload at home in the US means fewer trips to China now, but he still refers to China, with heartfelt passion, as his “mistress.” It’s a description I’ve now shamelessly lifted from him, to describe my own long-term, requited love affair with China.

Jim Zukin is the one remaining “name partner” of Houlihan Lokey Howard & Zukin. He remains the chairman of Houlihan Lokey Asia. That’s a concrete sign of the company’s commitment to build a dynamic and durable business there.

HL has built a solid platform for growth in China. Its areas of expertise – and entrepreneurial outlook – position it well there. I know from my own experience that there is a sizable opportunity, to cite one example, to provide financial opinion, M&A and restructuring advisory work to the leading international PE firms active in China.

I have every reason to expect HL to succeed in China, with the same sort of approach that has worked so well for the firm in the US. How do they do it? Simple: Don’t run with the herd. Run with a better map.

The Term Sheet Goes Global

Time zones, languages, continents and business models may change as you cross the Pacific, but the Private Equity Term Sheet remains the same.

This is my conclusion after seeing the first Term Sheets arrive for our China First Capital clients recently. This is a happy moment – not so much for ourselves, of course, but for the entrepreneurs and PE firms we are fortunate to work with. For me, seeing these first Term Sheets is cause for reflection and, I hope,  some insight, on the constant truths of the equity investment process. 

I’ve been involved in quite a few Term Sheets for US venture deals over the years. I was surprised to find the Term Sheets this week very familiar, even though the investor and the target company are both based in China. In every other respect except the Term Sheet, the circumstances couldn’t be more different than a typical US venture deal — the governing law,  the industry, the company’s ownership, the likely timing and nature of the exit. 

So, why, despite all these vast differences, are there such deep similarities in Term Sheets? Start with the fact that there’s commonality in the approach of all good institutional investors: they all must exercise fiduciary responsibility on behalf of those whose money they are investing. This, in turn,  means the due diligence process needs to be thorough and professional, and the terms under which investments are made be sufficiently protective of the source of the invested capital. 

This fiduciary duty is made concrete in many of the standard provisions of a Term Sheet, whether that Term Sheet originates in Palo Alto or Shanghai. Indeed, the majority of the text in a Term Sheet is there to protect the fund’s Limited Partners from bad outcomes: share structure (preferred), board seats, liquidation preferences, anti-dilution provisions, preemptive rights, matters requiring special approval, performance guarantees. 

So far so familiar. 

The other big element of any Term Sheet, of course, is where the PE or VC firm is asserting primarily its own interests. The two most obvious areas: expiration dates and “no shop clauses”.  I was mildly surprised to see these in the Term Sheets recently submitted to clients of China First Capital. I’d mistakenly thought the “no shop clause”, in particular,  expressed a very local, American legalistic reality. In business negotiations, Americans need to specify as much as possible in writing, to protect against the ultimate evil of American business life: business litigation. 

Chinese, though, seem to have a far less obsessive need to document everything in writing, and certainly don’t have the same persistent, gnawing fear of litigation. It’s a “guanxi” society, where trust between individuals forms a more insoluble bond than any contractual term. 

A part of me, therefore, wishes the “no shop” clause hadn’t crossed the Pacific. I view them as the Pre Nuptial Agreement of the PE and VC investing world. They can create an air of mutual distrust, at a time when both sides are trying very hard to build a lasting partnership. 

A Term Sheet should serve the same fundamental goal: to allow great PE investors to put capital to work in truly outstanding investment opportunities, while limiting risk for the owners of that capital. I’m excited that the Term Sheets I’ve reviewed this week, once finalized,  will achieve this goal, and achieve phenomenal outcomes for everyone involved.