China’s National Social Security Fund: the World’s Largest Investor in PE Firms

17th c jade  perfumer from China First Capital blog post

Soon to be the world’s largest pool of investment capital for the private equity industry, China’s National Social Security Fund will be responsible for paying the pensions of hundreds of millions of workers in China. It will eventually need trillions of dollars to do so. The good news for workers in China, the NSSF is professionally, carefully and competently run. China’s huge pool of pension cash is in safe hands.

I recently talked to the partner at a Chinese PE fund that is soon to receive some of the NSSF money. The report: the NSSF, though new to the world of private equity investment, has a process for choosing PE firms that is as rigorous as many of the world’s most sophisticated and investment managers. There are multiple levels of due diligence, including outside lawyers, accountants, and consultants who assess the investment performance and strategy of a PE firm, interview PE partners at length, and then provide the NSSF with recommendations.

The NSSF has used Singapore’s much-smaller but very well-managed Central Provident Fund as a model. Workers contribute part of their pay, and the money is then managed and invested by the government fund to achieve a solid rate of return that will provide for a reasonable monthly pay-out at retirement.

In contrast, the public pension systems in the US and much of Europe are thinly-disguised forms of taxation. The government collects money with each paycheck, promising to pay workers a monthly allowance when they retire. Cash from current workers is used to pay the pensions of those who have already retired. The system works fine when pensions are kept to a modest level and there are always many more people working then retired. Neither of these are true in Europe and the US. These pension plans have enormous unfunded liabilities that can be met only through cutting pension payments in the future, raising taxes on current workers or both. It’s grim.

China, wisely, chose a much sounder method of funding public pensions, when it began introducing state pensions over the last decade. Cash is invested for the future, not spent as soon as it arrives. A 35 year-old Chinese worker has a far better chance of collecting a decent state pension in 30 years than an American one. The US system is technically insolvent. The Chinese one is rolling in cash.

The NSSF had Rmb 777 billion ($120 billion) in assets at the end of 2009.  The assets are growing swiftly. More Chinese each year join the urban workforce, and so have a percentage of their salary handed over to the NSSF. Salaries are also rising fast, which sends more money into the pension system each year. Either by the end of this year, or certainly by next, the NSSF’s assets should surpass those of CALPERS , and become the world’s largest pension fund and largest Private Equity Limited Partner (“LP”), as investors in PE firms are called.

Though a government agency, the NSSF is managed like a private pension fund. It invests its capital in a mix of assets, to earn a reasonable, safe, risk-adjusted return to meet pension obligations in the future. Depending on NSSF’s investment performance, its assets should be approaching $500 billion within five years.

Most of the NSSF capital is invested in low-risk and low-yielding bonds. The NSSF’s target is an investment return of at least 3.5% a year. As part of the asset mix, the NSSF is also planning to invest about 10% of its capital in “alternative assets”,  mainly with private equity firms investing in China. It has already begun placing capital with PE firms, including CDH, SAIF Partners, New Horizon Fund.

The NSSF will likely commit over Rmb20 billion ($3 billion) a year in new capital to private equity in China. That dwarfs the activity of all other LPs in the world, including pension funds, insurance companies, university endowments.

As long as the NSSF maintains its professional approach to choosing PE firms to invest with, I’m confident it will earn a good rate of return on its PE investments. The better PE firms are earning returns of over 33% a year from their investments in China. Looking out twenty to thirty years in the future, state pensions in China will be more secure and more generous because of the investment in PE funds.

There is no better risk-adjusted asset class in the world today than investing in private Chinese companies. This is precisely what Chinese PE firms do. They provide growth capital to companies that are usually already large, profitable and successful.  The only constraint is capital. PE firms provide it, generally at modest valuations of around ten times current year’s profits.

In two to three years, these same companies will IPO in China at valuations of at least forty times past year’s profits. It’s an investment formula that can reliably produce returns of 500%-800% over two to three years.  Nowhere else in the world can match China, both on the number of attractive private companies to invest in, and the returns from doing so.

China’s private companies, and their millions of customers and employees,  will benefit from the capital provided to PE firms by the NSSF. China’s entire working population will eventually benefit as well, as these companies grow larger, more successful, and become valuable public companies. Profits from the successful PE investments will flow back to the NSSF, to support the retirement of millions.

Of course, a PE firm needs to know what it’s doing, how to select good companies, and also how to assist them in making a successful transition to publicly-traded businesses. The good ones do. The NSSF’s screening process is designed to determine which firms are the best, and then place money with them.

The main coin of the realm in China, as everyone knows, is “guanxi”, or the personal relations that tie people together and form the basis for most business deals. Fortunately for China’s working population, the NSSF, from what I’m told,  is guided by fiduciary principles and best practices, not personal ties, in assessing where to put the nation’s savings.  Along with the interviews and legal scrutiny, the NSSF also hires FOF firms (“Fund of Funds”) to evaluate PEs on its behalf. It’s another smart move. FOF firms have the most detailed knowledge and experience choosing good PE firms, and monitoring their performance.

The NSSF is responsible for the long-term financial security of hundreds of millions of people. It’s an awesome responsibility. By all evidence, they are doing important work, and doing it well.