Xindadi

China’s IPO Freeze to Melt in Midwinter

Kesi embroidery

IPOs are returning to China. The China Securities Regulatory Commission this weekend announced its long-awaited guidelines on a new, somewhat liberalized process for approving IPOs. The rush is now on to get new IPOs approved and the money raised before Chinese New Year, which falls on January 31st, less than two months from now. Ultimately, the CSRC hopes to clear within one year the backlog of over 800 Chinese companies now with IPO applications on file. Thousands of other Chinese companies are waiting for the opportunity to submit their IPO plans. The CSRC stopped accepting new applicants almost 18 months ago.

From what I can tell, the CSRC has concluded, rightly, its old IPO approval process was broken beyond repair. The regulator used to take primary responsibility for determining if a Chinese company was stable enough, strong enough, honest enough to be trusted with the public’s money. No other securities regulator took such a hands-on, the “buck stops with me” approach to IPO approvals. The CSRC now seems prepared to pass the buck, in other words, to put the onus where it belongs, on IPO applicants, as well as the underwriters, lawyers and accountants.

This should eliminate the moral hazard created by the old system. Companies, as well as their brokers and advisors, had a huge amount to gain, and much less to lose, by submitting an application and hoping for a CSRC approval. They could cut corners knowing the CSRC wouldn’t. For the successful IPO applicants who got the CSRC green light, valuations were sky-high, and so were underwriting and advisory fees.

Going forward, the CSRC seems determined to switch from security guard to prosecutor. Rather than trying to detect and prevent all wrongdoing, it is now saying it will punish severely companies, and their outside advisors, where there’s a breach in China’s tough securities laws. The CSRC’s powers to punish any wrongdoing are significant. Heaven help those who end up being convicted of criminal negligence or fraud. As I noted before,  there are no country club prisons in China for white collar offenders.

While baring its sharp teeth, the CSRC is also now using its more soothing voice to tell retail stock market investors they will need to do more of their own homework. It wants more and better disclosure from companies. It hopes investors will read before buying. And, the CSRC also hopes the stock market will itself begin to provide investors will clearer signals, through share price movements, on which companies may not be suitable for the more risk-averse.

Up to now, companies going public in China did so with a kind of “CSRC Warranty”. That’s because the CSRC itself said it had already done far more detailed, forensic scrutiny of the company than just reading through its public disclosure documents. The approval process could take two years or more, with company execs, lawyers and accountants being called frequently to meetings at the CSRC headquarters to be grilled. All this to give comfort to investors that nothing was awry.

The warranty has effectively been revoked. This may make some investors more nervous, but it represents a significant and positive breakthrough for the CSRC.

It needs to lighten its grip. Markets need regulation, need rules and effective mechanisms for punishing bad actors. But, the CSRC took on too much responsibility for assuring the orderly functioning of China’s stock market. This was always going to be difficult. China’s stock markets are far more prone to speculative frenzy than stock markets in the US, Europe. Shares on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets are bought and sold mainly by retail investors, or as the Chinese say, “old granddads and grannies” (老爷爷老奶奶). Institutional investors are a minority. As for investment fundamentals, on China’s stock market there are mainly just two:  “Buy on rumor. Sell on rumor”.

Over the last year, I’ve written about problems at the CSRC that helped cause and prolong this long freeze in IPOs. The CSRC’s first instinct back in 2012 was to try to toughen its regulation, toughen its own internal systems and procedures for rooting out fraud. It then switched tracks, and decided to let the market play more of a role.  This is a major concession, as well as important proof that China’s larger process of economic transformation, of freeing rather than freezing markets, is headed in the correct direction.

As if on cue, this past week’s Wall Street Journal last week digested a section from the Nobel Prize acceptance speech by economist Friedrich Hayek.

“To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm…Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims. ”

I’m delighted China’s IPO market is going to re-open. My own prediction here a couple of months ago was that it IPOs would resume around now, rather than next month. This just goes to show all forms of market timing — whether it’s trying to guess when a stock price has hit its peak or when a stock market itself will change course, and its once omnipotent regulator change its entire approach — is a fool’s errand.

The China IPO Embargo: How and When IPOs May Resume

China IPO

China first slowed its IPO machinery beginning July 2012 and then shut it down altogether almost a year ago. Since then, about the only thing stirring in China’s IPO markets have been the false hopes of various analysts, outside policy experts, stockbrokers, PE bosses, even the world’s most powerful investment bank.  All began predicting as early as January 2013 the imminent resumption of IPOs.

So here we are approaching the end of September 2013 with still no sign of when IPOs will resume in China. What exactly is going on here? Those claiming to know the full answer are mainly “talking through their hat“. Indeed, the most commonly voiced explanation for why IPOs were stopped — that IPOs would resume when China’s stock markets perked up again, after two years of steady decline — looks to be discredited. The ChiNext board, where most of China’s private companies are hoping to IPO, has not only recovered from a slump but hit new all-time highs this summer.

Let me share where I think the IPO process in China is headed, what this sudden, unexplained prolonged stoppage in IPOs has taught us, and when IPOs will resume.

First, the prime causal agent for the block in IPOs was the discovery in late June last year of a massive fraud inside a Chinese company called Guangdong Xindadi Biotechnology.  (Read about it here and here.)

This one bad apple did likely poison the whole IPO process in China, along with the hopes of the then-800 companies on the CSRC waiting list. They all had underwriters in place, audits and other regulatory filings completed and were waiting for the paperwork to be approved and then sell shares on the Shenzhen or Shanghai stock exchanges. That was a prize well worth queuing up for. China’s stock markets were then offering companies some of the world’s highest IPO valuations.

After Xindadi’s phony financials were revealed and its IPO pulled, the IPO approval process was rather swiftly shut down. Since then, the CSRC has gone into internal fix-it mode. This is China, so there are no leaks and no press statements about what exactly is taking place inside the CSRC and what substantive changes are being considered. We do know heads rolled. Xindadi’s accountants and lawyers have been sanctioned and are probably on their way to jail, if they aren’t there already A new CSRC boss was brought in, new procedures to detect and new penalties to discourage false accounting were introduced.  The waiting list was purged of about one-third of the 800 applicants. No new IPO applications have been accepted for over a year.

IPOs will only resume when there is more confidence, not only within the CSRC but among officials higher up, that the next Xindadi will be detected, and China’s capital markets can keep out the likes of Longtop Financial and China MediaExpress, two Chinese companies once quoted on NASDAQ exchange. They, along with others, pumped up their results through false accounting, then failed spectacularly.  Overall, according to McKinsey, investors in U.S.-listed Chinese companies lost 72% of their investment in the last two years.

China’s leadership urgently does not want anything similar to occur in China. That much is certain. How to achieve this goal is less obvious, and also the reason China’s capital market remains, for now, IPO-less.

If there were a foolproof bureaucratic or regulatory way for the CSRC to detect all fraudulent accounting inside Chinese companies waiting to IPO in China,  the CSRC would have found it by now. They haven’t because there isn’t. So, when IPOs resume, we can expect the companies chosen to have undergone the most forensic examination practiced anywhere. The method will probably most approximate the double-blind testing used by the FDA to confirm the efficacy of new medicines.

Different teams, both inside the CSRC and outside, will separately pour over the financials. Warnings will be issued very loudly. Anyone found to be book-cooking, or lets phony numbers get past him,  is going to be dealt with harshly. China, unlike the US, does not have “country club prisons” for white collar felons.

The CSRC process will turn several large industries in China into IPO dead zones, with few if any companies being allowed to go public. The suspect industries will include retail chains, restaurants and catering, logistics, agricultural products and food processing. Any company that uses franchisees to sell or distribute its products will also find it difficult, if not impossible, to IPO in China. In all these cases, transactions are done using cash or informal credit, without proper receipts. That fact alone will be enough to disqualify a company from going public in China.

Pity the many PE firms that earlier invested in companies like this and have yet to exit. They may as well write down to zero the value of these investments.

Which companies will be able to IPO when the markets re-open? First preference will be for SOEs, or businesses that are part-owned by or do most of their business with SOEs. This isn’t really because of some broader policy preference to favor the state sector over private enterprise. It’s simply because SOEs, unlike private companies, are audited annually, and are long accustomed to paper-trailing everything they do. In the CSRC’s new “belt and suspenders” world, it’s mainly only SOEs that look adequately buckled up.

Among private companies, likely favorites will include high-technology companies (software, computer services, biotech), since they tend to have fewer customers (and so are easier to audit) and higher margins than businesses in more traditional industries. High margins matter not only, or even mainly, because they demonstrate competitive advantage. Instead, high margins create more of a profit cushion in case something goes wrong at a business, or some accounting issue is later uncovered.

The CSRC previously played a big part in fixing the IPO share price for each company going public. My guess is, the CSRC is going to pull back and let market forces do most of the work. This isn’t because there’s a new-found faith in the invisible hand. Simply, the problem is the CSRC’s workload is already too burdensome. Another old CSRC policy likely to be scrapped: tight control on the timing of all IPOs, so that on average, one company was allowed to IPO each working day. The IPO backlog is just too long.

The spigot likely will be opened a bit. If so, IPO valuations will likely continue to fall. From a peak in 2009, valuations on a p/e basis had already more than halved to around 35 when the CSRC shut down all IPOs.  IPO valuations in China will stay higher than, for example, those in Hong Kong. But, the gap will likely go on narrowing.

What else can we expect to see once IPOs resume? Less securitized local government borrowing. Over the last 16 months, with lucrative IPO underwriting in hibernation,  China’s investment banks, brokerage houses and securities lawyers all kept busy by helping local government issue bonds. It’s a low margin business, and one not universally approved-of by China’s central government.

How about things that will not change from the way things were until 16 months ago? The CSRC will continue to forbid companies, and their brokers, from doing pre-IPO publicity or otherwise trying to hype the shares before they trade. If first day prices go up or down by what CSRC determines is “too much”, say by over 15%, expect the CSRC to signal its displeasure by punishing the brokerage houses managing the deals.  The CSRC is the lord and master of China’s IPO markets, but a nervous one, stricken by self-doubt.

China needs IPOs because its companies need low-cost sources of growth capital. When IPOs stopped, so too did most private equity investment in China. It’s clear to me this collapse in equity funding has had a negative impact on overall GDP, and Chinese policy-makers’ plans to rebalance its economy away from the state-owned sector. It’s a credit to China’s overall economic dynamism, and the resourcefulness of its entrepreneurs,  that economic growth has held up so well this past 18 months.

IPOs in China are a creature of China’s administrative state. Companies, investors, bankers, are all mainly just bystanders. Right now, the heaviest chop to lift in China’s bureaucracy may be the one to stamp the resumption of IPOs. So, when exactly will IPOs resume? Sometime around Thanksgiving (November 24, 2013) would be my guess.

 

 

Goldman Sachs Predicts 349 IPOs in China in 2013 — Brilliant Analysis? Or Wishful Thinking?

We’re one-quarter of the way through 2013 and so far no IPOs in China. Capital flows to private companies remain paralyzed. Never fear, says Goldman Sachs. In a 24-page research report published January 23rd of this year (click here to read an excerpt), Goldman projects there will be 349 IPOs in China this year, a record number. Its prediction is based on Goldman’s calculation that 2013 IPO proceeds will reach a fixed percentage (in this case 0.7%) of 2012 year-end total Chinese stock market capitalization.

This formula provides Goldman Sachs with a precise amount of cash to be raised this year in China from IPOs: Rmb 180bn ($29 billion), an 80% increase over total IPO proceeds raised in China last year. It then divvies up that Rmb 180 billion into its projected 349 IPOs,  with 93 to be listed in China’s main Shanghai stock exchange, 171 on the SME board in Shenzhen, and 85 on the Chinext (创业板)exchange. To get to Goldman’s numbers will require levels of daily IPO activity that China has never seen.

The report features 35 exhibits, graphs, charts and tables, including scatter plots, cross-country comparisons, time series data on what is dubbed “IPO ratios (IPO value as % of last year-end’s total market cap)”. It’s quite a statistical tour de force, with the main objective seeming to be to allay concerns that too many new IPOs in China will hurt overall China share price levels. In other words, Goldman is convinced a key issue that is now blocking IPOs in China is one of supply and demand. The Goldman calculation, therefore, shows that even the 349 new IPOs, taking Rmb180 billion in new money from investors, shouldn’t have a particularly adverse impact on overall share price levels in China.

I’ve heard versions of this analysis (generally not as comprehensive or data-driven as Goldman’s) multiple times over the last year, as China IPO activity first slowed dramatically, then was shut down completely six months ago. The CSRC itself has never said emphatically why all IPOs have stopped. So, everyone, including Goldman,  is to some extent guessing. Goldman’s guess, however, comes accessorized with this complex formula that uses December 31, 2012 share prices as a predictor for the scale of IPOs in 2013.

I’m grateful to a friend at China PE firm CDH for sending me the Goldman report a few days ago. I otherwise wouldn’t have seen it. I’m not sure if Goldman Sachs released any follow-up reports or notes since on China IPOs. Goldman was the first Wall Street firm to win an underwriting license in China. It’s impossible to say how much Goldman’s business has been hurt by the near-year-long drought in China IPOs.

Goldman shows courage, it seems to me, in making a precise projection on the number of IPOs in China this year, and relying on their own mathematical equation to derive that number. Here’s how all IPO activity in China since 1994 looks when the Goldman formula is plotted:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m not a gambling man, and personally hope to see as many IPOs as possible this year of Chinese companies. Even a fool knows the easiest way to lose money in financial markets is to be on the other side of a bet with Goldman Sachs. That said, I’m prepared to take a shot.  I’d be delighted to make a bet with the Goldman team that wrote the report. A spread bet, with “over/under” on the 349 number. I take the “under”. We settle up on January 1, 2014. Any takers?

My own guess – and that’s all it is –  is that there will be around 120 IPOs in China this year. But, this prediction admittedly does not rely on any formula like Goldman Sachs and so lacks exactitude. In fact, I approach things from a very different direction. I don’t think the only, or even main,  reason there are no IPOs in China is because of concerns about how new IPOs might impact overall share prices.

I put as much, or more, importance on rebuilding the CSRC’s capacity to keep fraudulent companies from going public in China. The CSRC seems to have had quite stellar record in this regard until last summer, when a company called Guangdong Xindadi Biotechnology got through the CSRC approval process and was in the final stages of preparing for its IPO. Reports in the Chinese media began to cast doubt on the company and its finances. Within weeks, the Xindadi IPO was pulled by the CSRC. The company and its accountants are now under criminal investigation.

The truth is still murky. But, if press reports are to be believed, even in part, Xindadi’s financial accounts were as fraudulent as some of the more notorious offshore Chinese listed companies like Sino-Forest and Longtop Financial targeted by short sellers and specialist research houses in the US.  The CSRC process — with its multiple levels of “double-blind” control, audit, verification —   was designed to eliminate any potential for this sort of thing to happen in China’s capital markets.

But, it seems to have happened. So, in my mind, getting the CSRC IPO approval process back on track is a key variable determining when, and how many, new IPOs will occur this year in China. This cannot be rendered statistically. The head of the CSRC was just moved to another job, which complicates things perhaps even more and may lead to longer delays before IPOs are resumed and get back to the old levels.

How far is the CSRC going now to try to make its IPO approval process more able to detect fraud? It has instructed accountants and lawyers to redo, at their own expense, the audits and legal diligence on companies they represent now on the CSRC waiting list.  Over 100 companies just dropped off the CSRC IPO approval waiting list, leaving another 650 or so stranded in the approval process, along with the 100 companies that have already gotten the CSRC green light but have been unable to complete their IPO.

A friend at one Chinese underwriter also told us recently that meetings between CSRC officials, companies waiting for IPO approval and their advisers are now video-taped. A team of facial analysis experts on the CSRC payroll then reviews the tapes to decide if anyone is telling a lie. If true, it opens a new chapter in the history of securities regulation.

If, as I believe,  restoring the institutional credibility of the CSRC approval process is a prerequisite for the resumption of major IPO activity in China, a statistical exhibit-heavy analysis like Goldman’s is only going to capture some, not all, of the key variables. Human behavior, fear of punishment, organizational function and dysfunction, as well as darker psychological motives also play a large role. An expert in behavioral finance might be more well-equipped to predict accurately when and how many IPOs China will have this year than Goldman’s crack team of portfolio strategists.

Two New CFC Research Reports

China First Capital (中国首创)published two new research reports, one in English and one Chinese. Both are now available for download here. The contents are different, as is the focus.

To download the English report, titled “Private Equity in China 2012: The Pace of Change Quickens“, Click here

For the Chinese report, “2012-2013 中国私募股权融资与市场趋势” Click here

In fact, “No Exit” would be the more appropriate title for a report about private equity in China this year. Jean-Paul Sartres famous play of that name is a conversation between three dead people stuck in hell. They are eternally damned. PE funds currently stuck inside Chinese investments with no way to exit are not in such a hopelessly miserable situation. But, some may be feeling that way.

Over the course of the last twelve months, first the US stock market, then Hong Kong’s, and finally China’s own domestic bourse all pretty much slammed the door shut on IPOs for Chinese companies. In previous years, over 300 Chinese companies would IPO. This year, that number will fall by at least 80%, maybe more. Stock markets in the US, Hong Kong and China all have slightly different explanations for the sharp drop-off in IPOs of Chinese companies. But, a common thread runs throughout: a deep distrust among investors and regulators of the accuracy of Chinese companies’ financial accounts.  The view is that a Chinese company’s IPO prospectus may be as much a work of fiction as the Sartre play. Under such circumstances, companies can’t IPO, and PE firms can’t find buyers for their illiquid shares.

China’s domestic stock markets were the last to bar the door against Chinese IPOs. Until mid-year, China’s all-powerful securities regulator the CSRC was continuing to process and approve IPO applications, and companies were going public at a rate of about five a week. Then, in July, the whole complex system of approving and placing IPO shares basically stopped functioning. A Chinese company called Xindadi (新大地) exposed a serious defect at the heart of the regulatory system in China. The CSRC’s primarily function is to stop any bad company with dodgy accounts from accessing China’s domestic capital markets. Layer upon bureaucratic layer is piled up inside the CSRC to prevent officials from conspiring together to let a bad company’s application pass through. The underwriter, the lawyers and accountants are also held legally accountable to detect and expose bad companies. Yet Xindadi managed to slip through.

Xindadi’s IPO application was approved by the CSRC and the company was waiting its turn to go public when media reports surfaced that described a rather clumsy, though, nearly-successful fraud. Xindadi’s financial accounts  turned out to be fake from top to bottom. Xindadi’s business model is aptly summarized by comments made nearly a century ago by the US Federal Trade Commission about another rogue outfit, ” fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, dishonesty, breach of trust and oppression.”

The Xindadi IPO was pulled before the underwriters could sell any shares. The CSRC went into a kind of post-traumatic shock from which it’s yet to recover. It basically stopped approving new IPOs in most cases. Meanwhile the number of Chinese companies who’ve filed for IPO continues to lengthen, and now is over 800. If and when the CSRC goes back to its previous rate of approving IPOs, which isn’t likely anytime soon,  it would take four years to clear this backlog.

Predictably, for PE firms in China,  “No Exit” has now turned into “No Entrance”. Not knowing when IPO windows will reopen, PE firms have mainly stopped doing new deals.  Chinese private sector companies, for whom PE is the main source of growth capital, are feeling the pinch. Equity capital, even for good companies,  is difficult, if not impossible, to come by. The abrupt cut-off of PE financing will certainly lead to slower growth and fewer new jobs in China.

IPOs of Chinese companies in the US, Hong Kong and China have been an important, if little recognized, part of China’s growth story over the last decade. They fueled the boom in private equity  — both the creation over the last five years of hundreds of new PE firms and the raising of tens of billions of dollars in new capital —  and with it, a huge increase in total net new investment into China’s private sector companies. Chinese investment, particularly spending by state-owned companies, and government-backed infrastructure projects, is still largely financed by bank lending. But, the equity capital provided by PE firms has played a key part in financing the growth of larger private companies in China.  PE money has underpinned increased competition, choice and economic dynamism in China.

Now that gusher of PE money has turned to a trickle.  What next for private equity and corporate finance in China? The two new CFC reports summarize some of the main developments and trends in private equity and capital markets this year, and makes some predictions about the year to come. The Chinese-language report was written, as are other CFC Chinese reports, for the specific use and reference of domestic Chinese business-owners and senior management. The key message is that it’s getting far more difficult for companies to raise money, either through private placement or IPO.

The English report focuses more heavily on what’s going on in the private equity industry in China. Unlike many, I remain overall extremely positive about the fundamentals in China, that PE investment in China’s growing private sector companies represents the best risk-adjusted investment opportunity in the world. While exits through IPO are far fewer, China’s strongest investment asset remains firmly in place:  the compounded genius of its millions of private entrepreneurs to create wealth and push forward positive social and economic change.