Can Xiaomi Reverse Its Slide in China? — CNBC Interview

September 28th, 2016 No comments

 

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From King-of-Mobile to possible also-ran in two short years, China’s Xiaomi is struggling to reclaim its spot at the top of China’s domestic phone market. Here’s my interview on CNBC on the tough challenges Xiaomi faces. Nerves are starting to fray among investors who put money into the company less than two years ago at a $45 billion valuation.

To watch the interview, please click here.

 

Fresh Ideas For Making Money in China Private Equity and Venture Capital

September 21st, 2016 No comments

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2016 is looking like it may be another year to forget for PE and VC in China.  The problem, as always, is with exits. For years, IPOs in China for PE-backed deals have been too few and far between.  There was initially a lot of  hope for improvement this year. But, prospects unexpectedly turned bleak when the Chinese securities regulator, the CSRC, suddenly reversed course. Not only did they put on hold previously-announced plans to liberalize IPOs by opening a new “strategic board” in Shanghai and to shift to a registration-based IPO system, they also began clamping down hard on the two main exit alternatives, backdoor shell listings and trade sales to Chinese listed companies.

IPO multiples remain sky-high in China. The IPO queue sits at 830 companies, with at least another 700 now lined up to get provincial approval to join the main waiting list. The CSRC did finally announce one liberalization of the IPO regime in China, but it will likely be of little help to the hundreds of PE and VC firms with thousands of unexited deals. Companies based in China’s poorest, most backward areas, the CSRC announced earlier this month, will now get to jump to the head of the queue.

Not for the first time, it looks like PE and VC portfolios may be mismatched with IPO regulatory policy in China. PE and VC firms have of late invested overwhelmingly in two areas. First is healthcare. The industry in China is growing and reforming. But, entry valuations have been bid up to astronomical levels.

In terms of number of deals closed, Chinese tech startups are getting the lion’s share of the attention. China’s online and smartphone population as well as e-commerce industry, after all, are the world’s largest. What’s missing at most of the funded startups are profits or a high-probability path to making money one day soon. Many are using PE money as part of a “last man standing” strategy to win customers by subsidizing purchases. Loss-making companies are still barred from having an IPO in China.

The main building blocks of China’s corporate sector, manufacturing companies and bricks-and-mortar businesses, are both highly out of favor with PE firms.

Amid so much misfortune, where should the PE and VC industry look next to invest profitably in China? What seems most clear is that any strategy linked to short-term IPO exit-chasing, or seeking to intuit the next flux in CSRC policy, has proved fundamentally risky. Some fresh approaches may be in order.

One priority should be on backing companies that can deliver sustainably high margins and positive cash flow over time to support regular dividend payments. Invest more for yield and less for capital gains.

There are such investment opportunities in China. I want to share six here. There are certainly many others. Looking outside the current China PE investment mainstream has other pluses. A troubling term has entered the Chinese financial vocabulary in the last two years, called “2VC”. It means a Chinese company started and run primarily for the purpose of attracting PE and VC money and less about making money from customers. 2VC deserves a detailed analysis of its own, how much it may be warping the investment landscape in China.

GPs and LPs looking for durable margins, scaleability, and a dearth of competition in China could start their search here:

  1. Robotics gearbox. China’s robot industry is hot. By now, about everyone has read the stories suggesting China’s robotics market, already the largest in the world, will boom for decades to come. For now, the investment money in China has gone overwhelmingly into companies that are making simple robots, rather than the robot industry supply chain. This overlooks perhaps the best opportunity of all. Robots rely on sophisticated gearboxes to make parts move. Making and selling gearboxes, rather than the final robot, is where the big margins and demand are. The technology has been around for a while, but the industry is dominated by two big foreign manufacturers, ABB of Switzerland and Rexnord of the US. They make a ton doing it. A Chinese robotics gearbox maker, assuming they get the product right, could immediately roll up sales in the hundreds of millions of dollars, both to Chinese robot makers as well as US, European and Japanese ones. From conversations I’ve had with C Level execs at both ABB and Rexnord, this is the Chinese competition they fear most, but which to their surprise has yet to materialize.  —————————————————————————–
  2. Hospice and specialized late stage care. PE investment in healthcare, especially into biosimilar pharma companies, hospitals and clinics for plastic surgery and dental care has been abundant, averaging well over a billion dollars a year in China. Competition is rampant in all these areas. Late stage critical care, however, has largely gone unfunded. The unmet need in China is almost unfathomably large. There are basically no hospices in China, though some 10 million Chinese die every year, including a surging number from cancers and long-term chronic diseases. There are also 30 million Chinese with Alzheimers and virtually no places offering specialized care. The number of Alzheimers sufferers is rising fast as Chinese longevity surges. Make no mistake, it’s harder to provide this kind of medical care than to do Botox injections. But, anywhere money is easily made in China, it’s getting harder to make any money at all. The biggest provider of specialized high-end late stage care in China is the French company, Orpea. They are doing a great job. I’ve had a close look at their business in China. They too are awed by the scale of the untapped market in China. A big plus: pricing freedom. The business doesn’t rely, as most conventional hospitals and drug companies in China do, on state reimbursement. —————————————————————————————————————————
  3. Dog food and other pet items. When I first came to China in 1981, it was basically illegal to keep a dog or cat as a pet. There was barely enough food to feed the human population and food was rationed. To say the growth in pet ownership since then has been explosive would risk understating things. China is now the third largest dog-owning market globally, with 27.4 million dogs (behind the US with 55.3 million dogs and Brazil with 35.7 million), and the second largest cat-owning country with 58.1 million cats, behind only the US with 80.6 million. China’s pet market will soon blow past that of the US. Everywhere this is presenting great opportunities in pet care, pet food, pet hotels. The US pet food giant Mars has a large chunk of the dog food market here. But, there are still many opportunities to carve out a niche in pet food, both via sales at veterinary clinics and online. The other vast uncharted market: pet insurance.   ——————————————————————————————–
  4. Server storage. Chinese law mandates that the country now has and will continue to have the largest ongoing demand for high-end servers, as well as the software that powers them. The reason: all the major sources of online traffic — Alibaba, Tencent, JD.com, Baidu — must permanently store virtually everything that runs across their network. In the case of Tencent’s Wechat business, that means keeping billions of text, audio, video and photo messages generated every day by its 600 million users. Tencent’s ongoing investment in servers is almost certainly larger than any other company in the world, with the other big Chinese internet companies following closely behind. The growth rate is dizzying. This has created a wonderful profit-center for otherwise troubled chip giant Intel. Its Xeon chips power virtually all high-end servers. No single domestic company has yet emerged to build a sizeable business in storage software, maintenance and integration tailored to the regulatory needs in China. In parallel, there’s also a large market for similar made-at-home software solutions to sell to the Chinese government. They are the reason all this server storage demand exists.   ————————————————————————————————————————————————
  5. Mall-based attractions. Shopping malls in China are in a fight for survival. Clothing retailers, which just two to three years ago took at least half the floor space in Chinese malls, are disappearing. They can’t compete with online merchants offering the same products for one-third to one-half less. The going has proved especially hard for Chinese domestic retail brands, quite a few got PE money back when this sector was hot. Chinese malls need to change, and fast. Their main strategy so far is increasing the floor space allocated to restaurants and movie theaters. Another area with huge potential, but so far little concrete activity, is “edu-tainment” attractions. A prime example is a mall-based aquarium. I was recently shown around one-such mall aquarium in a major Chinese city by its owners, a large Chinese real estate developer. Though they initially knew nothing about aquariums, their design and selection of fish are mediocre, the owner is coining money with over 45% margins. Tickets sell days in advance, not just on weekends, for average of $15 for adults and less for kids. It’s been open and thriving for three years. Every mall they are building now will have a similar attraction. A better operator should be able to push margins higher and roll out nationwide. On average, 55 million Chinese go to the mall each week. —————————————————————————–
  6. Indoor LED vegetable growing.  China has a big appetite for vegetables, about 100 kilos per person per year, or seventy billion tons. Many Chinese, especially the 55% living in cities, have concerns about where and how the vegetables are grown and how they get to market. The worry rises in lock step with per capita income.  Catering to worried Chinese consumers could keep a company in profit for decades. One good idea that’s not yet in China but should be: growing vegetables indoors, using LED lights.The cost of LED lighting has fallen by over 90% since 2010 and will continue to decline, thanks in large part to over-investment in this sector in China. LED efficiency has also nearly doubled over that time. It now costs about the same to grow vegetables indoors with LEDs as it does in well-irrigated farmland. Supplying vegetables to urban China this way has a lot of other advantages, including the ability to provide a secure chain of custody, from the place where the food is picked all the way to the customer’s hands. Lots of models would work in China — large growing areas inside abandoned urban factories to supply better Chinese supermarket chains like Walmart, Carrefour and China Resources, or smaller-scale packages home-delivered or sold through vending machines placed inside high-end residential complexes in China. Organic or non-organic, catering to Chinese picky consumers could keep a company in profit for decades.

 

Since PE first took off in China in 2005,  China’s economy has grown by almost four-fold. Few GPs in China have done as well in DPI terms. It’s likely not going to get any easier to make or raise money, nor to rack up IPO exits. More than ever, PE firms need to back or incubate ideas to catch and hold some of the new wealth that’s getting created every day in China.

As published by SuperReturn

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Quietly But Successfully, US Companies Are Buying Chinese Businesses

September 14th, 2016 No comments

--FILE--RMB (renminbi) yuan and US dollar bills are pictured at a bank in Huaibei city, east Chinas Anhui province, 16 September 2011. Chinas yuan edged down versus the dollar on Tuesday (11 October 2011), consolidating its biggest single-day gain a day earlier, brushing aside a record central bank mid-point as US lawmakers prepare to vote on a bill aimed at punishing Beijing for alleged currency manipulation. The Peoples Bank of China, the countrys central bank, set the yuan central parity rate at 6.3483 against the dollar, compared with 6.3586 on Monday.

Is China really buying up America? Or is it the opposite?

Chinese investments in the US draw lots of headlines and occasional handwringing about China’s growing influence and ownership. It is true that Chinese investors, especially SOE, have been throwing billions of dollars around, mostly for US real estate.

Far more quietly, and perhaps with better overall results, US investors have been buying businesses in China. The US acquirers do their utmost to stay out of the headlines. They prefer to shop quietly, without competitors finding out. This does a lot to keep prices down and give these US buyers maximum negotiating leverage. A lot of these US acquisitions in China stay secret long after they close.

Contrast this style with that of Chinese investors in the US. Most end up bidding against one another for the same assets. Overpaying has become a hallmark of Chinese purchases in the US.

Compared to the huge number of Chinese companies shopping for assets in the US, not nearly as many US companies are sizing up deals and kicking tires in China. Partly this stems from some misunderstandings among less-experienced US acquirers about what kinds of Chinese businesses can be targeted. Topping the list of sweeping generalizations: Chinese companies, especially privately-owned ones, are said to have owners who rarely wish to sell. Those that do, want to sell their deeply troubled companies at Neiman Marcus prices.

There is some truth to this arm-chair analysis. But, equally, there are good deals being done. I’ve written before about the most successful US acquisition in China, by food giant General Mills. (Click here to read.) It’s a textbook case of how to do M&A in China and also how to build a billion dollar business there without anyone really noticing.

Why buy rather than build in China? For one thing, China has huge and fast-growing markets in almost all industries except the smoke-stack ones. For buyers that choose and execute well, the China market is proving lucrative ground to do M&A. It’s a truth that remains a known to a select group of smart buyers.

Lifting the veil a bit, here are some of the largely-unpublicized acquisitions done by smart American buyers in China.

 

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In April 2015, 3D Systems, a New York Stock Exchange-quoted manufacturer of 3D printers, purchased 65% of a Chinese 3D printing sales and service company Wuxi Easyway. The Chinese company’s customers in China include VW, Nissan, Philips, Omron, Black & Decker, Panasonic and Honeywell. 3D Systems has an option to purchase the remainder of the business within five years.

Along with acquiring a developed sales network and increased distribution in China, another key aspect of the deal was to make the founder of Easyway, a Western-educated Chinese, the CEO of a newly-formed subsidiary,  3D Systems China.  The plan is to make the Chinese founder the king of a larger kingdom, a carrot frequently dangled by American companies to persuade Chinese founders to sell to them.

Since the deal closed, 3D Systems also accelerated the build-out of its operational infrastructure in China. What lies behind the deal? 3D Systems acquired a local management team as well sales channels, customer relationships.  It did not acquire manufacturing capability.

3D Systems manufactures high-quality 3D printers that sells at significantly higher prices than Chinese domestic competitors. Owning a Chinese business with established customer relationships in China will make it easier for 3D Systems to penetrate more deeply what should become the world’s largest market for 3D printers. The shift is particularly strong among Chinese private sector manufacturing companies making products for China’s consumer market.

Prior to the acquisition, Easyway was not a major client or partner of 3D Systems. As the integration moves forward, Easyway will likely expand its product offerings in China beyond relatively commoditized business of producing 3D prototypes. 3D Systems’ printers have broader capabilities, including the production of end-use parts, molds for advanced tool production, medical and surgical supplies.

The dual-track strategy is for Easyway to maintain its existing comparatively low-end service business in China while adding two new sources of revenue: the sale of 3D Systems’ 3D printers in China and an enhanced/upgraded service business of using 3D Systems printers to produce higher-quality and more complex parts to order for Chinese customers.  Both should positively impact 3D Systems’ P&L.

3D Systems used a deal structure that often works well in China. They bought a majority of Easyway, while leaving the target company founder/owner with a 35% minority stake in an illiquid subsidiary of 3D Systems. 3D Systems has the option to buy out the remaining shares and assume 100% control. But, the option may never be exercised. 3D Systems now enjoys the benefits of holding corporate control, including consolidation, while also keeping the previous owner aligned and incentivized.

The deal isn’t without its risks, of course. 3D Systems previously had no corporate presence in China. It therefore did not have its own management team in place and on-the-ground in China to manage the integration of Easyway and monitor the business going forward.

 

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In July 2013, Illinois Tool Works (“ITW”), a huge and hugely-successful US industrial conglomerate, purchased 100% of a Chinese kitchen supply manufacturer Gold Pattern Holdings, based in Guangzhou, from global private equity firm Actis.

The acquisition fits well with the expansion strategy of ITW of looking to make tuck-in acquisitions in their core business segments. ITW has a large food equipment business with over $2 billion in annual revenue, 15% of ITW’s total.  Gold Pattern’s business is selling Western-style kitchen equipment to restaurants and hotels in China.

From discussions we’ve had with ITW since the acquisition, the deal is considered a solid success within ITW. The company says it has a strengthened appetite to make more such acquisitions in China, a key market for the company going forward.

ITW owns some of the most well-known brands in the food equipment industry, including Hobart mixers and Vulcan ranges. Buying Gold Pattern was part of a strategy to increase sales and distribution of these ITW brands in the fast-growing China market. Gold Pattern’s own commercial kitchen equipment is lower-priced and generally considered lower-quality.  But, the domestic sales channels used to sell Gold Pattern’s equipment is also suitable to distribute ITW’s US brands.

ITW expects that as China continues to grow more affluent, the demand among the Chinese middle class for European and American food will expand significantly. This will create a long-term market opportunity for ITW to sell Western style commercial kitchen equipment. More and more four-and-five star hotels in China are being equipped with Western kitchens as well as Chinese ones.

ITW mitigated its deal risk by buying Gold Pattern from a well-regarded international PE fund. As a result, Gold Pattern already had fully-compliant GAAP accounting, established corporate governance structures, and a professional management team. No less important, ITW knew from the outset that Gold Pattern had already successfully undergone the forensic due diligence process that preceded Actis buying control of the company. This significantly lower due diligence risk, a prime reason many deals in China – both minority and control – fail to close.

ITW has significant experience buying and integrating businesses globally. They had operations in China for twenty years prior to this acquisition.  ITW and another diversified Midwestern industrial company, Dover Corporation, are both actively, but ever-so-quietly seeking more acquisitions in China, aimed primarily at expanding their sales and distribution in China’s growing domestic market.

 

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This deal happened a long time ago, but continues to pay dividends for Amazon. In August 2004, they bought 100% of Chinese e-commerce company Joyo, paying a total of $75mn including an earn-out.  At the time, e-commerce in China was in its infancy, while Amazon was less than one-tenth its current size. The purchase of Joyo was a calculated gamble that China’s online shopping industry, despite huge impediments at the time including no established online payment systems would eventually achieve meaningful scale.

The gamble has paid off handsomely for Amazon. The e-commerce industry in China is now at least 50X larger than in 2004, with revenues last year of over $700bn. E-commerce revenues are projected to double in China by 2020. Amazon is the only non-Chinese company with meaningful market share and revenues in this hot sector. That said, Amazon is dwarfed by Alibaba’s Taobao, which has a market share in China estimated at 75%.

But, Amazon in 2012 spotted an opportunity to use its China-based business to establish a highly-lucrative cross-border business facilitating direct export sales by Chinese manufacturers and individual traders on Amazon’s main US and UK websites.  This is a business Alibaba has tried and so far failed to enter.  As a result, Amazon’s senior management, if they know no one is listening, will tell you the Joyo acquisition is a big success. It generates meaningful revenue in China (approx. $3bn), while supporting the infrastructure to build out the cross-border exports.  Amazon continues to invest aggressively in China, with enormous warehouse facilities (800,000 total sqm) and wholly-owned logistics business.

When Amazon bought Joyo, it knew full well that Chinese law, as written, forbids foreign companies from owning a domestic internet company. The Chinese government views the internet and e-commerce as “strategic national industries”. At the time, Amazon got around this by using an ownership structure for its China business called a “Variable Interest Entity” (“VIE”) also used by some domestic Chinese e-commerce companies that listed on the US stock market. The Chinese government, if they chose to, could probably shut Amazon down in China, because it’s using this loophole to operate in China. That could leave Amazon scrambling to find a way to stay in business in a country in which it now has hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

The boards of many other large US companies would blanch at approving a deal where the assets are owned indirectly and control could be so easily forfeited by Chinese regulatory action. But, Amazon, with founder Jeff Bezos firmly in control, has shown itself time and again to be comfortable with making rather bold bets. Success in China often requires that mindset.

 

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Of course, US buyers have also slipped on their share of Chinese banana peels. Three well-known Silicon Valley technology companies tried and mainly failed to do M&A successfully in China. All three followed a similar strategy to acquire domestic Chinese technology companies started and owned by Chinese who had previously studied and worked in the tech field in the US. The acquisitions followed the general strategic logic of most tech M&A within the US: to identify and acquire companies with complimentary proprietary IP. But, the results in China fell well short of expectations.

The three deals were:

  1. Cirrus Logic acquired Caretta Integrated Circuits in 2007. By 2008, the acquired company was shut down and Cirrus recorded a $12mn loss.
  2. Netgear acquired CP Secure in 2008. There is now no trace of the original CP Secure business, nor any indication it is ongoing concern.
  3. Aruba Networks acquired Azalea Networks in 2010, a Chinese wireless LAN provider.

Over the last five years, no similar M&A deals in China were announced by larger Silicon Valley companies. The strategy has shifted from acquiring companies for their IP to targeting companies for their domestic Chinese distribution and sales channels.  This reflects the fact that indigenous innovation in China has not made much of a global impact. IP protection in China is still inadequate by US standards. China is also a late adopter market, which further impedes the development of globally-competitive domestic technology companies.

The successful US acquisitions in China were all rooted in a different, more viable strategy: to buy one’s way directly or indirectly into China’s burgeoning consumer market.

 

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Abridged version as published in Nikkei Asian Review

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What Alibaba Can Teach G20 Leaders — China Daily OpEd Commentary

September 6th, 2016 No comments

 

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Rural Taobao

It’s been 740 years since Hangzhou could rightly claim to be the most important city on earth. Back then, it was the capital of the world’s wealthiest and most developed nation, China during the Southern Song Dynasty. This week Hangzhou will briefly again be the center of the world’s attention and admiration, as the leaders of twenty of the world’s most developed countries arrive in the city to participate in the two-day G20 Summit.

The world’s spotlight will fall both on Hangzhou’s most famous historical landmark, West Lake, as well as its most famous local company, Alibaba, which also happens to be the world’s largest e-commerce company. Alibaba’s founder and chairman Jack Ma, is a Hangzhou native. He has spoken often of his pride that the G20 will be held in his hometown, boasting “Hangzhou has become the driving force of China’s new economy.” He suggests G20 visitors might want to rise one morning at 5am to walk about West Lake, to see Hangzhou scenery ancient and modern.

Alibaba has changed Hangzhou and changed China. But, to really grasp the full and positive extent of that change, world leaders would need to venture out from Hangzhou and visit some of China’s smallest, poorest and most remote rural villages. Here Alibaba’s impact is perhaps the most transformational. That’s because Alibaba has made a special effort to bring the benefits and convenience of online shopping to China’s rural families, the 45% of China’s population that still live on the land.

Since Alibaba listed its shares on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014, the company announced plans to spend RMB 10 billion on rural e-commerce infrastructure, to make it possible for people in over 100,000 Chinese rural villages for the first time to buy and sell on Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this effort. E-commerce now offers the fastest and most durable way to improve living standards among China’s traditional peasants. By getting online they can shop more widely and buy more cheaply a vast range of products never before available in village China. In addition, also for the first time, they can sell directly their farm products, both fresh and packaged, to tens of millions of customers living in cities across China.

I’m one of those urban dwellers in China who now does some of his food shopping from tiny rural family businesses on Taobao. In the last week I bought dried chili peppers from Sichuan, apple vinegar from Shanxi, goji berries from Qinghai and dried sweet potato chips from Shandong. Everything I buy from rural folks is great. But, for me and probably many others, the real enjoyment comes from knowing that, thanks to Alibaba, my money can go directly to the people working hard to build a better life for themselves and their families in rural China. This, in turn, helps narrow the income gap between rural and urban.

Unlike the two big US e-commerce companies, Amazon and eBay, Alibaba takes no commission on purchases made on Taobao. This is what economists call “frictionless trade”, where buyers and sellers can transact without any middlemen taking a cut. It’s a dream of farmers worldwide, to sell products directly to customers and so earn more for their hard work.

Online shopping in rural China is now growing far faster than in cities. And yet what’s most exciting, we’re still in the early days. In the future, farmers should be able to save significant money and improve harvests by buying seeds, fertilizer and tools on Taobao and other specialized online sales platforms.

To get there, Alibaba is paying for tens of thousands of “Village Taobao” centers across China. Here, farmers can get free help to buy and sell online. Nowhere else on the planet is e-commerce being as successfully introduced into the lives of small village farmers. The world should take note, and China should take pride.

This year marks the first time China has hosted a G20 summit. Looking at the agenda, the twenty world leaders will hold detailed discussion on trade, fostering innovation and eradicating poverty. Meantime, Alibaba is busy putting such talk into action. Its efforts to spread e-commerce in China’s countryside provide concrete proof of how tech innovation can be both inclusive and helpful to all of society.

By Peter Fuhrman

The author is chairman and CEO of China First Capital.

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2016-09/06/content_26709314.htm

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How China can reclaim its lost cultural heritage — South China Morning Post commentary

August 7th, 2016 No comments

 

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I had the kind of childhood I wish more Chinese children could have. I grew up surrounded by exquisite artworks from China’s long and dazzling history. I can still remember as a child holding a Qing dynasty jade vase in my small hands. Cool to the touch even on a hot summer day, the vase was deeply incised with lotus blossoms.

My early encounters with Chinese antiques took place not in China but in my grandfather’s house in New York City. He was a successful businessman and developed a passion for Qing and Ming dynasty jade. I inherited his fondness for Chinese culture and art. In my office today in Shenzhen, eight jade pieces from my grandfather’s collection are displayed.

Chinese antiques – jade carvings, imperial porcelains, paintings, Buddhist sculptures – are all deeply familiar to me. I have lived around them my whole life. This, sadly, is an experience too few Chinese in the People’s Republic will share. It’s not only that private collections are rare. While China has been on a museum-building spree this past decade, only a few of the country’s 3,500 museums have strong and extensive collections. Beijing’s Forbidden City Palace Museum does have some outstanding works of art. Most, though, are newly-built Xanadus with a limited display of works that would never make it into the collection of a minor provincial museum in Europe.

Chinese children grow up with too few opportunities to see up close the beautiful objects made by their ancestors. This should change

This is not only a problem but an unnecessary blemish, especially now that China has the money and global clout to do something about this. Chinese children grow up with too few opportunities to see up close, especially in smaller and less-crowded settings than the Forbidden City, the beautiful objects made by their ancestors. This should change.

In the recent past, the Chinese government has made promises to bring more artistic masterworks back to the country where they were made. But this has mainly involved an occasional effort to halt auction houses from selling objects looted in 1860 from the Summer Palace in Beijing. The result is any object that can be traced back to the Summer Palace is now bought and sold privately, not at auction.

China should continue to try to right this historic wrong. But, in the meantime, something else can be done. China’s government should be out in the international auction market buying Chinese art treasures on behalf of the nation and then distribute these works among museums across the country. The goal: in coming years, every child in China will have frequent opportunities, as I had, to admire, study and be inspired by Chinese art.

The range of Chinese artistic genius is probably more vast than any other civilisation, from Zhou dynasty bronzes cast 3,000 years ago, to Qin, Han and Tang terracotta objects, to fine Song ceramics along with Ming and Qing imperial porcelains, austere huanghuali furniture, florid cloisonné, Buddhist sculptures from the Sui dynasty, Song and Ming paintings, jade objects from Neolithic times all the way through to the 20th century.

Tragically, many of the valuable works of art that remained in China after 1949 were burned or smashed to pieces during the Cultural Revolution, an even more thoroughgoing artistic annihilation than we’ve witnessed recently from Islamic State and the Taliban. As a result, most of the world’s most valuable Chinese art is now outside the People’s Republic, in museums and private collections. It’s said that there are over 17 million Chinese antiques in the US and Europe alone. It’s time more of them made their way back to China and into public collections. Restitution, either voluntary or through international law, is not really an option. Few works other than those from the Summer Palace have a clear provenance showing they were illegally looted.

My humble proposal: the Chinese government could start and manage a national heritage fund to purchase for the nation items of cultural and artistic importance. It would accept cash donations from philanthropic Chinese at home and abroad. At the same time, I’d suggest that every state-owned enterprise voluntarily pay an annual dividend of 0.5 per cent of its profits every year into this national heritage fund. Last year, that tiny dividend would have brought in close to US$2 billion. Chinese private sector companies should be encouraged to match or exceed this pledge. I’m confident many would.

Every year, about US$7 billion worth of Chinese antiques are sold at auction houses in mainland China, Hong Kong, London and New York. Virtually every object sold at the six major Christie’s and Sotheby’s China antiques auctions each year is better than what’s on view now in most Chinese museums.

A Chinese national heritage fund would be a big departure for the government. At the moment, about the closest thing it has is a national lottery. The money is meant to go to support sports and the underprivileged, but where it goes is often hard to trace. A report last year by the National Audit Office suggested that billions of renminbi were misappropriated and bribery rampant.

An art fund, especially if it raised money from public donations, would need to be transparently and professionally managed. Corruption is only one problem. The fund would also need to buy without igniting a big run-up in prices. The Getty Collection in Los Angeles faced a similar problem. It set out to acquire valuable art, and has had more than enough money to do so. It goes to great lengths to buy in ways that don’t cause a huge spike that would price everyone else out of the market.

Wealthy Chinese are now active buyers of Chinese antiques at global auctions. Their impact is already felt worldwide. But Chinese plutocrats in general don’t donate to Chinese museums. They keep everything under their own lock and key. Trust of civic institutions doesn’t run deep. Indeed, when I mention to Chinese friends I intend to leave my grandfather’s collection to a museum in China, they often shake their heads disapprovingly. Art objects have been stolen from the Forbidden City. A Guangzhou museum curator was caught selling genuine objects for millions of dollars and replacing them with fakes.

Building museums has proved easier in China than populating them with museum-quality treasures. The sad result is it’s easier for school kids in Kansas City to see Song dynasty celadons than at the art museum in Hangzhou (杭州), the major city closest to where these luminous ceramics were made 800 years ago.

In the last five-year plan, it was stated that Chinese culture is the “spirit and soul of the nation” and a powerful force for the country’s development. It is a noble sentiment. Art is certainly among the most profound expressions of China’s soul and genius. It needs to become more of a living and familiar part in every Chinese child’s life.

Peter Fuhrman is chairman and CEO of China First Capital

http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1999199/how-china-can-reclaim-its-lost-cultural-heritage

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Chinese Firms Are Reinventing Private Equity — Nikkei Asian Review

July 27th, 2016 No comments

 

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July 26, 2016  Commentary

Chinese firms are reinventing private equity

Henry Kravis, his cousin George Roberts and his mentor Jerry Kohlberg are generally credited with having invented private equity buyouts after forming KKR 40 years ago. Even after other firms like Blackstone and Carlyle piled in and deals reached mammoth scale, the rules of the buyout game changed little: Select an underperforming company, buy it with lots of borrowed money, cut costs and kick it into shape, then sell out at a big markup, either in an initial public offering or to a strategic buyer.

This has proved a lucrative business that lots of small private equity firms worldwide have sought to copy. China’s domestic buyout funds, however, are trying to reinvent the PE buyout in ways that Kravis would barely recognize. Instead of using fancy financial engineering, leverage and tight operational efficiencies to earn a return, the Chinese firms are counting on Chinese consumers to turn their buyout deals into moneymakers.

Compared to KKR and other global giants, Chinese buyout firms are tiny, new to the game and little known inside China or out. Firms such as AGIC, Golden Brick, PAG, JAC and Hua Capital have billions of dollars at their disposal to buy international companies. Within the last year, these five have successfully led deals to acquire large technology and computer hardware companies in the U.S. and Europe, including the makers of Lexmark printers, OmniVision semiconductors and the Opera web browser.

So what’s up here? The Chinese government is urgently seeking to upgrade the country’s manufacturing and technology base. The goal is to sustain manufacturing profits as domestic costs rise and sales slow worldwide for made-in-China industrial products. The government is pouring money into supporting more research and development. It is also spreading its bets by providing encouragement and sometimes cash to Chinese investment companies to buy U.S. and European companies with global brands and valuable intellectual property.

While the hope is that acquired companies will help China move out of the basement of the global supply chain, the buyout funds have a more immediate goal in sight, namely a huge expansion of the acquired companies’ sales within China.

This is where the Chinese buyout firms differ so fundamentally from their global counterparts. They aren’t focusing much on streamlining acquired operations, shaving costs and improving margins. Instead, they plan to leave things more or less unchanged at each target company’s headquarters while seeking to bolt on a major new source of revenues that was either ignored or poorly managed.

So for example, now that the Lexmark printer business is Chinese-owned, the plan will be to push growth in China and capture market share from domestic manufacturers that lack a well-known global brand and proprietary technologies. With OmniVision Technologies, the plan will be to aggressively build sales to China’s domestic mobile phone producers such as Huawei Technologies, Oppo Electronics and Xiaomi.

The China Android phone market is the biggest in the world.  Omnivision used to be the main supplier of mobile phone camera sensor chips to the Apple iPhone, but lost much of the business to Sony.

In launching last year the $1.8bn takeover of then then Nasdaq-quoted Omnivision, Hua Capital took on significant and unhedgeable risk. The deal needed the approval of the US Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States, also known as CFIUS. This somewhat-shadowy interagency body vets foreign takeovers of US companies to decide if US national security might be compromised. CFIUS has occasionally blocked deals by Chinese acquirers where the target had patents and other know-how that might potentially have non-civilian applications.

CFIUS also arrogates to itself approval rights over takeovers by Chinese companies of non-US businesses, if the target has some presence in the US. It used this justification to block the $2.8 billion takeover by Chinese buyout fund GO Scale Capital of 80% of the LED business of Netherlands-based Philips. CFIUS acted almost a year after GO Scale and Philips first agreed to the deal. All the time and money spent by GO Scale with US and Dutch lawyers, consultants and accountants to conclude the deal went down the drain. CFIUS rulings cannot be readily appealed.

Worrying about CFIUS approval isn’t something KKR or Blackstone need do, but it’s a core part of the workload at Chinese buyout funds. Hua Capital ultimately got the okay to buy Omnivision five months after announcing the deal to the US stock exchange.

The Chinese buyout firms see their role as encouraging and assisting acquired companies to build their business in China. This often boils down to business development and market access consulting. Global buyout firms say they also do some similar work on behalf of acquired companies, but it is never their primary strategy for making a buyout financially successful.

Chinese buyout funds count on two things happening to make a decent return on their overseas deals. First is a boost in revenues and profits from China. Second, the funds have to sell down their stake for a higher price than they paid. The favored route on paper has been to seek an IPO in China where valuations can be the highest in the world. This path always had its complications since it generally required a minimum three-year waiting period before submitting an application to join what is now a 900-company-long IPO waiting list.

The IPO route has gotten far more difficult this year. The Chinese government delivered a one-two punch, first scrapping its previous plan to open a new stock exchange board in Shanghai for Chinese-owned international companies, then moving to shut down backdoor market listings through reverse mergers.

The main hope for buyout funds seeking deal exits now is to sell to Chinese listed companies. In some cases, the buyout funds have enlisted such companies from the start as minority partners in their company takeovers. This isn’t a deal structure one commonly runs across outside China, but may prove a brilliant strategy to prepare for eventual exits.

There is one other important way in which the new Chinese buyout funds differ from their global peers. They don’t know the meaning of the term “hostile takeover.” Chinese buyout funds seek to position themselves as loyal friends and generous partners of a business’s current owners. A lot of sellers, especially among family-controlled companies in Europe, say they prefer to sell to a gentle pair of hands — someone who promises to build on rather than gut what they have put together. Chinese buyout funds sing precisely this soothing tune, opening up some deal-making opportunities that may be closed to KKR, Blackstone, Carlyle and other global buyout giants.

The global firms are also finding it harder to compete with Chinese buyout funds for deals within China, even though they have raised more than $10 billion in new funds over the last six years to put into investments in the country. They have basically been shut out of the game lately because they can’t and won’t bid up valuations to the levels to which domestic funds are willing to go.

The global buyout giants won’t be too concerned that they face an existential threat from their new Chinese competitors. It is also unlikely that they will adopt similar deal strategies. Instead, they are getting busy now prettying up companies they have previously bought in the U.S. and Europe. They will hope to sell some to Chinese buyers. Along with offering genial negotiations and a big potential market in China, the Chinese buyout funds are also gaining renown for paying large premiums on every deal. No one ever said that about Henry Kravis.

Peter Fuhrman is the founder, chairman and CEO of China First Capital, an investment bank based in Shenzhen.

Abridged version as published in Nikkei Asian Review

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Chinese Private Equity Funds Are Taking on the World’s Giants — Bloomberg

July 21st, 2016 No comments

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Bloomberg headline

Cathy Chan 

July 21, 2016 — 12:00 AM HKT

  • PE firms from China pursue overseas deals at record pace
  • One Italian target says China links are what matter most

 

Giuseppe Bellandi never imagined that his company, a 30-year-old maker of industrial automation components in the foothills of the Italian Alps, would end up in the hands of a private-equity fund from China.

But when the chief executive officer of Gimatic Srl realized that Asia’s largest economy was key to his firm’s future, and that Chinese PE executives had the expertise to help him grow there, Bellandi jumped at the chance to partner up. Last month, Gimatic turned down bids from Europe and the U.S. in favor of selling a majority stake to AGIC Capital, the PE firm founded by Chinese banker Henry Cai with backing from the nation’s sovereign wealth fund.

“I was really surprised when I realized how strong Chinese private equity firms are,” Bellandi said by e-mail.

China’s PE industry is expanding globally at an unprecedented pace, putting firms like AGIC, Legend Capital and Golden Brick Capital in competition with European and U.S. counterparts like never before. Fueled by China’s growing wealth, investor sophistication and desire to gain exposure to overseas assets, homegrown funds have taken part in at least $16.4 billion of cross-border deals so far this year, exceeding the previous annual record of $11 billion in 2012, according to Asian Venture Capital Journal.

The overseas push marks a coming of age for an industry that just a few years ago was better known for “buy-and-flip” investments in local companies already primed to go public. The approach was so pervasive that Chinese regulators asked KKR & Co.’s Henry Kravis, a private equity pioneer, to lecture domestic players on how to add more value.

This year, Chinese PE firms have participated in the $3.6 billion takeover of U.S. printer company Lexmark International Inc., the $2.75 billion purchase of Dutch chipmaker NXP Semiconductors NV’s standard products unit and the $600 million acquisition of Oslo-based Opera Software ASA’s web browser business. The sum of overseas transactions so far in 2016 is higher than Asian deals by foreign PE firms for the first time, according to AVCJ.

“These Chinese funds are already beginning to alter the calculus for buyout deals worldwide,” said Peter Fuhrman, the chairman and CEO of China First Capital, a Shenzhen-based investment banking and advisory firm. “It’s about buying companies that, once they have Chinese owners, can start making really big money selling products in China.”

For a QuickTake explainer China’s outbound M&A, click here.

The firepower to pull off such deals comes in part from China’s growing army of high-net worth individuals, whose ranks expanded at the fastest pace worldwide last year despite the country’s weakest economic growth in a quarter century, according to Capgemini SA. Rich Chinese investors are increasingly keen to diversify overseas after last year’s devaluation of the yuan spurred concern of more weakness to come.

“There’s a lot of domestic capital available, obviously looking for a home, and that’s fueling the emergence of these funds,” said Michael Thorneman, a partner at Bain & Co., a Boston-based consulting firm.

It’s no coincidence that the increased focus on international deals comes amid a record overseas shopping spree by Chinese companies, who have announced about $149 billion of outbound acquisitions so far this year. In some cases, PE funds are working with Chinese corporates and financial firms to help structure the deals and amplify their buying power.

For the Lexmark purchase, Legend Capital partnered with PAG Asia Capital and Apex Technology Co., a Chinese maker of ink cartridge chips. On the $9.3 billion takeover of U.S.-listed Qihoo 360 Technology Co., Golden Brick Capital teamed up with Chinese investors including Ping An Insurance (Group) Co.

Domestic Players

“PE funds like us have very experienced teams, who can do the whole thing from deal sourcing to negotiation to due diligence to deal structure,” said Parker Wang, the CEO of Beijing-based Golden Brick, which has invested about $2 billion since it opened in 2014 and also led the purchase of Opera Software’s browser unit.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. The Opera Software deal, for example, was originally supposed to be a takeover of the entire company, but suitors including Golden Brick failed to secure government approval.

Chinese funds are also becoming more active in their home market. They’ve been helped by a regulatory bottleneck for initial public offerings — which encouraged companies to turn to PE firms for financing — and the rise of China’s Internet industry, a business that the government shields from foreign ownership.

Local funds participated in domestic investments worth $48 billion last year, exceeding Chinese deals by foreign PE firms by a record margin, according to AVCJ. The number of active Chinese funds, at 672 during 2013-2015, was the highest in at least five years, according to data compiled by Bain & Co.

For more on one of the latest China PE investments, click here.

Among the most high-profile firms doing domestic deals is Yunfeng Capital, founded by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Chairman Jack Ma. The firm has purchased stakes in Citic Securities Co. and smartphone maker Xiaomi, while also participating in offers for U.S.-listed Chinese companies such as iKang Healthcare Group Inc. and WuXi PharmaTech.

Domestic funds typically have a home-field advantage over foreign firms in identifying promising investment targets, according to William Sun, general manager of Beijing Jianguang Asset Management Co., a PE firm that focuses on the technology industry.

“We’re all optimistic about China opportunities, but we probably have a better grasp of them than foreign funds,” Sun said.

To be sure, overseas players aren’t walking away from China. Some have partnered with domestic PE firms on consortium deals, as California-based Sequoia Capital did with Yunfeng on the WuXi PharmaTech takeover.

Growing Competition

Others have identified niches. KKR has spent about $1 billion on five food-related investments in China since 2008, betting that its global track record in the industry will help it thrive in a country that’s faced several food-safety scandals in recent years.

More broadly, foreign firms may be concerned about rising valuations in China, according to Bain & Co.’s Thorneman. The average PE-backed Chinese acquisition target in 2015 had an enterprise value of about 18 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, up from about 11 in 2013, according to data compiled by Bain.

“There’s just more competition out there,” Thorneman said. “That translates typically into higher valuations, more competitive deals, and more players pushing prices up.”

Most signs point toward a bigger role for Chinese PE firms both at home and abroad. They controlled the largest portion of an estimated $128 billion cash pile in Asia-focused PE funds at the end of 2015, data compiled by Bain show.

Given that China is still growing faster than most major countries, any PE firm with the ability to help companies thrive there will have a leg up on international competitors, said Cai, the former Deutsche Bank AG investment banker who started AGIC last year and calls it an “Asian-European” PE firm. The fund, which counted Chinese insurance companies among its early investors, has offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Munich.

“Few companies nowadays would care about the money or how much you pay them,” Cai said. “They care if the investor can help them break into the Greater China market.”

 

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-20/chinese-funds-that-kravis-urged-to-grow-up-are-now-kkr-rivals

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China Cross-Border M&A, CNBC Interview

July 20th, 2016 No comments

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CNBC

The seventh annual Future China conference just concluded in Singapore. I was invited to speak on a panel about financial markets reform in China. As the conference got underway, CNBC interviewed me live about Chinese cross-border M&A. You can watch the interview by clicking here.

My thanks and congratulations to the conference organizer, Singapore’s Business China, and the two ravishing ladies who run it, CEO Sun Xueling and Executive Director, Josephine Gan. They and their staff put on the best China conference I’ve ever been to. Reform, innovation, corruption, military strategy were all on the agenda. But, so too were discussions about how to improve the lives of the 600 million Chinese still living in peasant villages. One comparison hit home: the average farm size in China is 6,000 square meters. Even in India, with less than one-quarter China’s per capita GDP, farms are almost twice the size, at 13,000 square meters. What about the US? Farms are on average 300 times larger than China’s, or about 1.8mn square meters.

Business China was started nine years ago by Lee Kuan Yew to foster greater business and cultural ties between Singapore and the People’s Republic. I’m among the many who view Mr. Lee as one of the outstanding political leaders of the last century and among those who sincerely mourn his passing last year at age 91.

 

Group   Peter Fuhrman at Future China, Singapore July 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Can China Succeed Where the Japanese Failed Investing in US Real Estate?

July 13th, 2016 1 comment

China map

Chinese money is cascading like a waterfall into the US real estate market. Chinese institutional money, individual money, state-owned companies and private sector ones, Chinese billionaires to ordinary middle-class wage-earners, everyone wants in on the action. This year, the amount of Chinese money invested in US real estate assets is almost certain to break new records, surpassing last year’s total of over $40 billion, and continue to provide upward momentum to prices in the markets where Chinese most like to buy, the golden trio of major cities New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, plus residential housing on both coasts.

To many, it summons up memories of an earlier period 25 years ago when it was Japanese money that flooded in, lifting prices spectacularly. For the Japanese, as we know, it all ended rather catastrophically, with huge losses from midtown Manhattan to the Monterrey Peninsula.

There is no other more important new force in US real estate than Chinese investors. Will they make the same mistakes, suffer the same losses and then retreat as the Japanese did? Certainly a lot of US real estate pros think so. There is some evidence to suggest things are moving in a similar direction.

But, there are also this year more signs Chinese are starting to adapt far more quickly to the dynamics of the US market and adjusting their strategies. They also are trying now to dissect why things went so wrong for the Japanese, to learn the lessons rather than repeat them.

This week, one of China’s leading business magazines, Caijing Magazine, published a detailed article on Chinese real estate investing in the US. I wrote it together with China First Capital’s COO, Dr. Yansong Wang. It looks at how Chinese are now assessing US real estate investing.  What kinds of investment approaches are they considering or discarding?

Here is an English version I adapted from the Chinese. It is also published this week in a widely-read US commercial real estate news website, Bisnow. The original Chinese version, as published in Caijing, can be read by clicking here.

 

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headSome of the biggest investors in America’s biggest industry are certain history is repeating itself. The Americans believe that Chinese real estate investors will invest as recklessly and lose as much money as quickly in the US as Japanese real estate investors did 25 years ago. The Japanese lost – and Americans made — over ten billion dollars first selling US buildings to the Japanese at inflated prices, then buying them back at large discounts after the Japanese investors failed to earn the profits they expected.

Chinese investors are now pouring into the US to buy real estate just as the Japanese did between 1988-1993. To American eyes, it all looks very familiar. Like the Japanese, the Chinese almost overnight became one of the largest foreign buyers of US real estate. Also like the Japanese, the Chinese are mainly still targeting the same small group of assets — big, well-known office buildings and plots of land in just three cities: New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Pushed up by all the Chinese money, the price of Manhattan office buildings is now at a record high, above $1,400 square foot, or the equivalent of Rmb 100,000 per square meter.

The term “China price” has taken on a new meaning in the US. It used to mean that goods could be manufactured in China at least 33% cheaper. Now it means that US real estate can be sold to Chinese buyers for at least 33% more. Convincing US sellers to agree a fair price, rather than a Chinese price, takes up more time than anything else we do when representing Chinese institutional buyers in US real estate transactions.

While there are similarities between Chinese real estate investors today and Japanese investors 25 years ago, we also see some large differences. American investors should not start counting their money before its made. Based on our experience, we see Chinese investors are becoming more disciplined, more aware of the risks, more professional in evaluating US real estate.  There is still room to improve. The key to avoiding potential disaster: Chinese investors must learn the lessons of why the Japanese failed, and how to do things differently.

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Twenty-five years ago, many economists in the US believed the booming Japanese investment in US real estate was proof that Japan’s economy would soon overtake America’s as the world’s largest. Instead, we now know that Japanese buying of US property was one of the final triggers of Japanese economic collapse. The stock market, property prices both fell by over 70%. GDP shrunk, wages fell. Japanese banks, then the world’s largest, basically were brought close to bankruptcy by $700 billion in losses. To try to keep the economy from sinking even further, the Japanese government borrowed and spent at a level no other government ever has. Japan is now the most indebted country in the developed world, with total debt approaching 2.5X its gdp. There are some parallels with China’s macroeconomic condition today — banks filled with bad loans, GDP growth falling, domestic property prices at astronomical levels.

Just how much money are Chinese investors spending to buy US property? Precise data can be difficult to obtain. Many Chinese investors are buying US assets without using official channels in China to exchange Renminbi for dollars. But, the Asia Society in the US just completed the first comprehensive study of total Chinese real estate investment in the US. They estimate between 2010-2015 Chinese investors spent at least $135 billion on US property. Other experts calculate total Chinese purchases of US commercial real estate last year rose fourfold. Chinese last year became the largest buyers of office buildings in Manhattan, the world’s largest commercial real estate market.

This year is likely to see the largest amount ever in Chinese investment in the US. While most Chinese purchases aren’t disclosed, large Chinese state-owned investors, including China Life and China Investment Corporation have announced they made large purchases this year in Manhattan. While the Chinese government has recently tried to restrict flow of money leaving China, a lot of Chinese money is still reaching the US. One reason: many Chinese investors, both institutional and individual, expect the Renminbi to decline further against the dollar. Buying US property is way to profit from the Renminbi’s fall.  Other large foreign buyers of US real estate — European insurance companies, Middle East sovereign wealth funds — cannot keep up with the pace of Chinese spending.

With all this Chinese money targeting the US, many US real estate companies are in fever mode, trying to attract Chinese buyers. The large real estate brokers are hiring Chinese and preparing Chinese-language deal sheets. Some larger deals are now first being shown to Chinese investors. The reason: like the Japanese 25 years ago, Chinese investors have gained a reputation for being willing to pay prices at least 25% higher than other foreign investors and 40% above domestic US investors.

Twenty-five years ago, anyone with a building to sell at a full price flew to Japan in search of a buyer. Today, something similar is occurring. Major US real estate groups are now frequent visitors to China. Their first stop is usually the downtown Beijing headquarters of Anbang Insurance.

Eighteen months ago, just about no one in US knew Anbang’s name. Now they are among US commercial real estate owner’s ideal potential customer. The reason: last year, Anbang Insurance paid $2bn for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The seller was Blackstone, the world’s largest and most successful real estate investor. No one is better at timing when to buy and sell. A frequently-followed investment rule in the US Chinese investors would be wise to keep in mind:  don’t be the buyer when Blackstone is the seller.

Based on the price Anbang paid and Waldorf’s current profits, Anbang’s cap rate is probably under 2.5%. US investors generally require a cap rate of at least double that. Anbang hopes eventually to make money by converting some of the Waldorf Astoria to residential. It agreed to pay $149mn to the hotel’s union workers to get their approval to the conversion plan.

Earlier this year, Blackstone sold a group of sixteen other US hotels to Anbang for $6.5bn. Blackstone had bought the hotels three months earlier for $6bn. “Ka-Ching”.

Anbang’s chairman Wu Xiaogang now calls Blackstone chairman Steve Schwarzman his “good friend”.

 

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Another Chinese insurance company, Sunshine, paid an even higher price per room for its US hotel assets than Anbang. Sunshine paid Barry Sternlicht’s Starwood Capital Group $2 million per room for the Baccarat Hotel. It is still most ever paid for a hotel. In order to make a return above 4% a year, the hotel will need to charge the highest price per room, on average, of just about any hotel in the US.

Another famous New York hotel, the Plaza, is also now for sale. The Plaza’s Indian owners, who bought the hotel four years ago, are now facing bankruptcy. They are aggressively seeking a Chinese buyer. We’ve seen the confidential financials. Our view: only a madman should consider buying at the $700mn price the Indians are asking for.

The common view in the US now — the Chinese are, like the Japanese before, buying at the top of the cycle. Prices have reached a point where some deals no longer make fundamental economic sense. At current prices, many buildings being marketed to Chinese have negative leverage. It was similar in the late 1980s. Japanese paid so much to buy there was never any real possibility to make money except if prices continue to rise strongly. Few US investors expect them to. That’s why so many are convinced it’s a good time to sell to Chinese buyers.

No deal better symbolized the mistakes Japanese real estate investors made than the purchase in 1989 of New York’s Rockefeller Center, a group of 12 commercial buildings in the center of Manhattan. Since the time it was built by John Rockefeller in 1930, it’s been among the most famous high-end real estate projects in the world. In 1989, Mitsubishi Estate, the real estate arms of Mitsubishi Group, bought the majority of Rockefeller Center from the Rockefeller family for $1.4 billion. At the time, the Rockefeller family needed cash and they went looking for it in Japan. Mitsubishi made a preemptive bid. They bought quickly, then invested another $500mn to upgrade the building. The Japanese analysis at the time: prime Manhattan real estate on Fifth Avenue was a scarce asset that would only ever increase in value.

Mitsubishi had no real experience managing large commercial real estate projects in Manhattan. They forecasted large increases in rent income that never occurred. The idea to bring in a lot of Japanese tenants also failed. Rockefeller Center began losing money, a little at first. By 1995, with over $600 million in overdue payments to its lenders, Rockefeller Center filed for bankruptcy. Mitsubishi lost almost all its investment, and also ended up paying a big tax penalty to the US government.

A group of smart US investors took over. Today Rockefeller Center, if it were for sale, would be worth at least $8 billion.

It was a similar story with most Japanese real estate investments in the US. They paid too much, borrowed too much, made unrealistically optimistic financial projections, acted as passive landlords and focused on too narrow a group of targets in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

According to Asia Society figures, over 70% of Chinese commercial real estate purchases have been in those same three cities. If you add in Silicon Valley and Orange County, the areas next to Los Angeles and San Francisco, then over 85% of Chinese investment in US real estate is going into these areas of the US. Prices in all these locations are now at highest level of all time. They are also the places where it’s hardest to get permission to build something new or change the use of the building you own.

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It’s easy enough to understand why almost all Chinese money is invested in these three places. They have the largest number of Chinese immigrants, the most flights to China, the deepest business ties to PRC companies. They are also great places for Chinese to visit or live.

But, all this doesn’t prove these are best places to invest profitably, especially for less-experienced Chinese investors. In fact, the Japanese relied on a similar local logic to justify their failed investment strategy. These are also the places with the largest number of Japanese-Americans. A quick look through financial history confirms that no two places in the world have made more money from foolish foreign investors than New York and California.

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Many of the largest US real estate groups are selling properties in New York and California to reinvest in other parts of the country where the financial returns and overall economy are better. Most of the gdp and job growth in the US comes from states in the South, especially Texas, Arizona and Florida.

Chinese investors should consider following the US smart money and shift some of their focus to these faster-growing markets. Another good strategy — partner with an experienced US real estate investor. The Japanese never did this and paid a very high price trying to learn how to buy, rent and manage profitably real estate in the US. In their most recent deals in Manhattan, both Fosun and China Life have chosen well-known US partners.

Another important difference: Japanese real estate investment in the US was almost entirely done by that country’s banks, insurance companies and developers.  With Chinese, the biggest amount of money is from individuals buying residential property. According to the Asia Society report, last year, Chinese spent $28.6bn buying homes in the US. That’s more than double the amount Chinese institutional investors spent buying commercial property. Residential prices, in most parts of the US, have still not returned to their levels before the financial crash of 2008.

Another big pool of Chinese money, almost $10bn last year, went into buying US real estate through the US government-administered EB-5 program. In the last two years, 90% of the EB-5 green cards went to Chinese citizens.

The original intention of the EB-5 program was to increase investment and jobs in small companies in America’s poorest urban and rural districts. Instead, some major US real estate developers, working with their lawyers, created loopholes that let them use the EB-5 program as a cheap way to raise capital to finance big money-making projects in rich major cities, mainly New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  Congress is now deciding if it should reform or kill the EB-5 program.

Chinese are by far the largest source of EB5- cash. Even so, Chinese should probably be happy to see the EB-5 program either changed or eliminated. There’s also been a lot of criticism about the unethical way some EB5 agents operate within China. They are paid big fees by US developers to find Chinese investors and persuade them to become EB-5 investors. Many of these agents never properly inform Chinese investors that once they get a Green Card, they have to pay full US taxes, even if they continue to live in China. The concept of worldwide taxation is an alien one for most Chinese.

Taxes play a huge role in deciding who will and will not make money investing in US real estate. All foreign investors, including Chinese, start at a disadvantage. They aren’t treated equally. They need to pay complicated withholding tax called FIRPTA whenever they sell property, either commercial or residential. To make sure the tax is paid, the US rules require the buyer to pay only 85% of the agreed price to a foreign seller, and pay the rest directly to the IRS.  The foreign seller only gets this 15% if they can convince the IRS they’ve paid all taxes owed.

Many larger real estate investors in the US use a REIT structure to buy and manage property. It can reduce taxes substantially. Up to now, few Chinese investors have set up their own REITs in the US. They should.

Another key difference between Japanese and Chinese investors: it is very unlikely that Chinese will ever, as the Japanese did between 1995-2000, sell off most of what they own in the US. The Chinese investors we work with have a long-term view of real estate investing in the US. They say they are prepared stay calm and steadfast, even if prices either flatten out or start to fall.

This long-term view actually gives Chinese investors a competitive advantage in the US. If the US real estate industry has a weakness, it is that too few owners like to buy and hold an asset for 10 years or longer.  Many, like Blackstone and GGP, are listed companies and so need to keep up a quick pace of buying and selling to keep investors happy. As a result, there are some long-term opportunities available to smart Chinese investors that could provide steady returns even if there is no big increase in overall real estate prices.

Two examples: The US, like China, is becoming a country with a large percentage of people 65 years and older. As the country ages, American biotech and pharmaceutical companies, the world’s largest, are spending more each year to develop drugs to treat chronic diseases old people suffer from, like dementia and Parkinson’s. There’s a growing shortage of new, state-of-the-art biotech research facilities. The buildings need special construction and ventilation that require significantly higher upfront cost than building an ordinary office building. They also need to be located in nice areas, with large comfortable offices for 800 – 1,500 management and researchers. The total cost to build a biotech center is usually between $200mn-$400mn. But, rents are higher, leases are longer and there are usually tax subsidies available.

 

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The other good way to make long-term money investing in US real estate is to take advantage of the fact American companies, unlike Chinese ones, do not like owning much real estate. It tends to hurt their stock market valuation. So, bigger US companies often build long-term partnerships with reliable real estate developers to act as landlord.   Starbucks is still growing quickly and is always interested to find more real estate partners to build and own dozens of outlets for them. Starbucks provides the design and often chooses the locations. It is happy to sign a 15-20-year lease that gives landlords a rate of return or 7%-8.% a year,  higher if the developer borrows money to buy and build the new Starbucks shops. The only risk if at some point in the next 10-20 years the 2%-3% of the US population that buy a coffee at Starbucks every day stop coming.

The Japanese never developed a similar long-term strategy to make money investing in US real estate. Instead, they just spent and borrowed money to buy famous buildings they thought would only go up in value. They not only lost money, they lost face. After staying away for 20 years, Japanese investors, mainly insurance companies, have just begun investing again in New York City.

Japanese investors arrived 30 years ago confident they would be as successful buying real estate in the US as they were selling cars and tvs there. They learned a bitter lesson and left with their confidence shattered. Chinese can, should and must do better

 

(Charts courtesy Asia Society and National Association of Realtors)

 

As published by Bisnow

财经杂志 《美国房地产投资负面清单》

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The Secret to Alibaba’s Success: Dirt Cheap Third-Party Shipping — Nikkei Asian Review

July 6th, 2016 No comments

 

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ZTO

Procter & Gamble’s staple brands – Crest, Tide, Head & Shoulders, Pantene, Pampers — dominate the mass-market premium segment in China just as they do in the US. Buy them at the local Walmart supermarket in China, and just about everything costs more, in dollar terms, than it does at Walmart in the US. Shop online, though, and China wins hands down the P&G low-price battle.

Alibabas Taobao marketplace deserves part of the credit. Its 10 million merchants, most of whom are small traders with their own limited inventory, offer things at prices well-below those at brick-and-mortar shops. But, the biggest savings comes from ridiculously low overnight shipping costs in China. Alibaba doesn’t directly arrange shipping for Taobao merchants. It’s up to each seller to sort things out with one of the country’s big nationwide private courier companies.

There are four giants, market leader Shunfeng and three almost identically named firms, YTO, STO and ZTO. Those three were started and are owned by entrepreneurs from the same small county in Zhejiang, called Tonglu, about 50 miles from. Alibaba’s headquarters in Hangzhou.

So, just how cheap is online shopping for P&G products in China? I ran out of detergent and for the first time decided to buy it on Taobao. I was thinking I might save some money. But, the bigger benefit is not having to shlep the three kilo sack of Tide powder from the supermarket, where it sells for around Rmb 50.

On Taobao, I paid Rmb 20.90, or $3.18, for three kilos of Tide and two-day express ground shipping from Shijiazhuang, a city 1,200 miles away from me in Shenzhen. The same weight of Tide bought online in the US from the cheapest eBay seller and ground-shipped the same distance and time by Fedex would cost $53, at a minimum. Of that, at least $35 goes to shipping.

Yes, Chinese labor costs are much less. But, gasoline costs twice as much in China as the US and highway tolls are exorbitant in China, as much as 60 cents for every mile a truck travels. I bought the bag of Tide on Taobao half-thinking I’d never receive anything. But, the parcel showed up intact and on time. Who, if anyone, made any money on this?

Even if the Tide detergent is completely phony — Taobao does have a reputation for selling lots of counterfeit merchandise — the shipping costs can’t be faked. My detergent was shipped and delivered by ZTO. By some counts, it is now moved ahead of Shunfeng in volume, if not revenue. At year-end last year ZTO was said to be delivering 10 million parcels a day. ZTO is mainly a network of independent local franchisees, with the ZTO parent owning and operating the main warehouses. ZTO is planning to IPO sometime soon in Hong Kong. Warburg Pincus and Sequoia Capital are both investors.

The other three big courier companies are also well along in their IPO planning. Each is saying they need billions in new capital. They can’t be earning much if anything and continue to plow money into infrastructure. Parcel shipping is still growing by about 30% a year. Every week, courier companies deliver about 500 million packages in China.

All four big courier companies are saying they want to buy or lease jets to move things around, to save on gasoline and tolls. They’re also all looking to use drones for the last mile. As of now, parcels in China are delivered by an army, perhaps as many as one million strong, of electric-scooter riding delivery guys. Contrary to what you may think, this isn’t low-paid work in China. You can earn at least double what you’d be paid for factory work. A lot of recent college graduates are taking their first job delivering packages. The career ladder for many is to move up from YTO, STO and ZTO, who get most of their business through Taobao, to work for either JD.com or Amazon in China. Both have their own in-house courier staff, with better pay, hours, equipment and genuine uniforms.

Alibaba doesn’t directly own or control a courier company. So far, that strategy has worked out splendidly. As long as the courier companies are competing furiously, things on Taobao will remain dramatically cheaper than in stores. If the couriers ever decided to seek profits rather than market share, it would certainly put a dent in Taobao’s growth. An Alibaba-backed logistics company called Cainiao just raised $1.5bn, at a $7bn valuation, to better coordinate the deliveries made by ZTO and the other Tonglu firms.

Ecommerce in China works like nowhere else in the world. Sales are still growing at breakneck speed and are on course by 2017 to reach $1 trillion annually, far higher than anywhere else. Cheap delivery makes it a bargain not only to buy P&G products, but even the lowest-priced goods on Taobao.

For years, Chinese law made it illegal for Fedex and UPS to enter the domestic delivery business in China. The Chinese government finally rescinded the law two years ago. The two American giants took one look at the cutthroat competition and ridiculously low prices charged by their Chinese counterparts and chose to stay out of the fray.  In the US, they get paid $15.50 a kilo to move goods by ground in two days between two far-off cities. In China, the going rate is about four Renminbi, or 60 cents.

We’ll likely know soon, once IPO prospectuses appear, if ZTO and the others are making any money at all. An IPO requires a GAAP audit and full compliance with China’s burdensome tax code. This often extinguishes all profit.

Ecommerce in China has so far created only two big beneficiaries. Taobao is one. It earns billions a year in ad fees paid by merchants trying to get noticed. The other is China’s 500 million online shoppers. We save big, and enjoy the luxury of cheap home delivery, on just about everything we care to buy.

 

As published in Nikkei Asian Review

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Investors rush to fund China tech start-ups — Singapore Straits Times

June 28th, 2016 No comments

 Straits Times

 Investors rush to fund China tech start-ups

Staff at Beijing-based tech start-up ABD Entertainment. Many such firms have been drawing substantial investments from the government and venture capitalists, even amid China's slowing economy.
Staff at Beijing-based tech start-up ABD Entertainment. Many such firms have been drawing substantial investments from the government and venture capitalists, even amid China’s slowing economy.

Amid flow of money, hopeful entrepreneurs warned that innovation is crucial to success

Former media man Lei Ming has programmers, budding actresses and even an Internet celebrity on staff at his data-driven start-up in Beijing.

His two-year-old firm focuses on using big data and analytics – a relatively new tech sector worldwide – to help consumer brands figure out how to get the best bang for their marketing buck.

“There’s an immense amount of data we can glean from weibo accounts,” said Mr Lei, referring to the Chinese version of Twitter, which now has 261 million monthly active users.

Through data analysis, he aims to help clients find the most cost-effective ways to sell their products – through celebrity endorsement, product placement or other innovative means, especially on online platforms.

Valued at about 100 million yuan (S$20 million), the start-up received nearly 10 million yuan in funding last year.

While Mr Lei, 34, is not anxious about revenue for now, he is very clear that he must focus on making his start-up profitable. “It is important that we must be able to make money on our own instead of relying on investors’ money,” he said.

The next step is to become a major player in entertainment advertising – a market he estimates is worth 100 billion yuan. In three years, he aims to get the firm listed on a stock exchange. Mr Lei’s start-up is one of millions that have sprung up in China in recent years amid a tech startup boom. According to a report on the China.org.cn government website, some 4.9 million new companies were set up between March 2014 and May last year, with more than half being Internet firms.

Despite a slowing economy, tech start-ups of all sizes are attracting billions of dollars in investment funds from the government and venture capitalists.

According to research firm Preqin, private investors had poured around US$26.2 billion (S$35 billion) into 796 Chinese tech firms as of the middle of this month.

And last year, government-backed venture funds targeted at tech start-ups raised about 1.5 trillion yuan, increasing the amount under management to 2.2 trillion yuan, according to a Bloomberg report. However, regulations and market practices have yet to be finalised, and it is unclear how quickly the funds will be deployed, said the report.

Even though many of these 780 government guidance funds have been around for more than 10 years, the tech investment boom started after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang rolled out his “Internet Plus” initiative in 2014, encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship. This comes as China seeks to move away from a reliance on low-end manufacturing and heavy industries.

With labour and living costs on the rise, China can no longer rely on labour-intensive industries to keep its economy humming, said Ms Jenny Lee, a Shanghai-based venture capitalist who has been investing in Chinese tech firms for the past 15 years. “The old way of throwing labour at tasks is over,” she said. “China must change.”

It must adopt firms that leverage on technology, for these will help increase efficiency and sometimes replace labour, she added.

But while there is no shortage of money out there, with billions of dollars being poured into thousands of tech start-ups each year, just as many are going belly-up for shortage of funds or failure to commercialise their products.

This is because investors and consumers are becoming more discerning, and it is no longer enough for entrepreneurial hopefuls to just go and copy someone else’s idea and hope to thrive, investors and entrepreneurs told The Straits Times.

“These firms need to innovate to compete,” said Ms Lee. And innovation can be in terms of the business model, product or technology.

Some venture capitalists, such as Beijing-based James Tan, find Chinese tech firms to be very good at localising new ideas from Silicon Valley and achieving superior results on the mainland.

Still, Mr Peter Fuhrman, the chairman of China First Capital, a Shenzhen-based investment bank and advisory firm, pointed out that while this strategy has helped some of the home-grown tech giants to grow, it is not sustainable.

Successful tech players like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent benefited greatly from an intellectual property and legal regime that allowed them to copy American business models and intellectual property without punishment, he said.

China’s market is also closed to foreign competitors, so that domestic firms can grow and thrive within a walled garden free from outside competition, he added.

However, he noted, it is harder now for China to shield its domestic firms from competition than in the late 1990s, when the tech giants got started, as China has since become a World Trade Organisation member.

“Walled gardens are basically illegal under WTO,” he said.

Another problem that could make it hard for China to grow the tech sector is the unique and “occasionally dysfunctional” capital market and initial public offering (IPO) regime, he said.

“This has now made it between difficult and impossible for Chinese tech companies to IPO within China,” he said.

Despite the problems, the push towards innovation and entrepreneurship looks set to continue, with more than 1,600 high-tech incubators nurturing start-ups across the nation.

Ms Mao Donghui, the executive director of Tsinghua x-lab, a university-based education platform for start-ups, said China is just beginning to wake up to the need for innovation. For start-ups to succeed, however, being innovative is not good enough – young people also need to know how to do business. For them to have the right combination of innovation and entrepreneurship would “require years of effort, right methods and experience”, said Ms Mao.

“It’s not that easy to just shout about innovation and entrepreneurship for a year or two, and expect to see results blossom, and affect economic growth. There is still a long way to go,” she said.

http://www.straitstimes.com/asia/east-asia/investors-rush-to-fund-china-tech-start-ups

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The silver lining in high-priced urban land — China Daily commentary

June 22nd, 2016 No comments

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Chinadaily

For those of us living in prosperous first- and second-tier cities in China, the land beneath our feet is exploding in value. Every week seems to set a new price record, as real estate developers buy up land to build on in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing and elsewhere.

This has two ill effects. First, it adds more upward pressure on already high housing prices. Second, since the land buyers have mainly been large State-owned enterprises, they will need to sell the apartments they plan to build at one of highest prices per square meter in the world to make profits. It’s another matter that the SOEs are meant to help solve, rather than exacerbate, the serious lack of affordable housing for China’s ordinary urban population.

But there is one hidden and perhaps surprising benefit. The high and rising land prices are confirmation that land sales are becoming more transparent, less prone to potential favoritism and insider dealing. That is ultimately good for just about everyone in China. In the recent record-high land sales, the seller is the local government. In some cases, the price paid was more than double of what the government itself estimated the land would fetch. So it is up to the government now to spend the windfall wisely, in ways that will improve living standards for everyone in the city.

Too often in the past, urban land for residential development was sold for less than its true market price. The unfortunate result was that a comparatively few lucky real estate developers were able to buy land at artificially low prices and then make unconscionably high profits. Not for nothing was it said over the past 20 years that the easiest way in the world to make big money was to become a realty developer in one of China’s major cities.

When a local government sells land at artificially low prices to developers, it can amount to a transfer of wealth from China’s ordinary folks, the laobaixing, to those favored real estate companies. That’s because the developers take the cheap land and then build and sell expensive apartments on it. And the government itself gets less revenue than it should have. This means less money to spend on services that benefit everyone: urban transport, affordable housing, schools, parks, hospitals and the like.

Few Chinese developers have mastered the art and business of building and marketing high-quality apartments on time and within a set budget. Apartment prices have almost always risen during the three years it takes to go from an undeveloped plot to a finished building. If a developer got a good deal on land, he/she was able to sell the new apartments during construction, use the cash to pay off the bank loans and lock in a very high profit.

Going forward all this will become far more challenging. When a developer goes bankrupt, the real victims are usually the ordinary folks who have bought apartments during the construction phase. Time and again, it has proven difficult, nerve-wracking and time-consuming for these buyers to get their money back or make sure the apartments they bought are completed.

As the risk of bankruptcies rise with land prices, I’d like to see rules requiring residential developers to buy insurance to automatically reimburse buyers in case they go bust. The insurance will also put additional and useful pressure on developers to complete work on time and maintain an acceptable quality. If the developer isn’t making progress, or there are other signs of trouble, the insurance company would either withdraw coverage and reimburse buyers or require a new and more reliable developer to take over. Either way, the goal must be to protect, in a transparent and predictable way, the investment of ordinary homebuyers.

Up to now, too much pressure and risk has landed on the shoulders of buyers rather than builders, with cities also short-changing themselves. A fairer and better balance may now be emerging.

The author is chairman and CEO, China First Capital.

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2016-06/22/content_25798648.htm

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Five China financial news articles in the South China Morning Post

June 13th, 2016 No comments

SCMP logo good

 

Please click on headline to read article. Each includes quoted comments based on interviews with CFC.

 

Xinan

 

 

CSRC

 

 

Mergers

 

PE

 

Shunfenf

 

Too Prone To Copy — Week In China magazine

June 10th, 2016 No comments

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Week in China article

China’s lack of robust intellectual property protection makes winners and losers of all of us living here. We can choose to save big money by buying cheap pirated products or downloading without charge just about any song or copyrighted material. But, China also pays a price by making it so hard to protect patents, trademarks and copyright. Chinese companies are mainly stuck in a low-margin and low-growth trap, without unique, IP-defended products or technologies.  Come up with a novel idea and it’s almost certain to be stolen or copied without real compensation.

The victims of IP theft in China are many, from Hollywood studios to Microsoft to manufacturers of most high-tech machinery, as well as thousands of Chinese tech startups. I joined their ranks last month. I can’t say I suffered any real material loss, but the bitter taste lingers.

On a late May weekday morning, my email and Wechat began to blink with activity. Friends and acquaintances wrote telling me they’d just finished a Chinese-language article with my byline published that day on the website of China’s most authoritative daily source about the private equity industry, called “PE Daily” in English and “投资界” in Chinese.

It’s a nice way to start the day, with friendly messages, some offering a pat on the back. But, in this case, I knew something was off. I hadn’t written anything for this company, in fact have never had any contact with them. A couple of clicks got me to the article with my name on it. It came with a rather long and sensational Chinese headline, “中国PE“悲情”十年:LP只拿回30%本金,美国同期高达200%!”, the first part of which you could translate as “China PE’s Dismal Decade”.

The headline and accompanying illustration were new but the rest was familiar. The text had been lifted verbatim from an article I wrote 16 months ago and published in print in January 2015 by one of China’s most respected and well-read business magazines, Caijing.

The PE Daily version doesn’t credit Caijing, the copyright holder, nor include the date of original publication. The data I cite on a performance gap between Chinese and US private equity firms in cash payouts to investors, current at the time I wrote it, is now stale. A predictable result, within a few hours of the PE Daily article appearing, I began getting attacked in online forums for disingenuously ignoring more recent numbers that would perhaps show China’s PE industry in a better light.

Had PE Daily bothered to ask, I probably would have provided updated numbers. I know it has an influential readership. The article got over 15,000 views within the first 24 hours. From there, the stolen article began to spread like a pandemic. It’s now been republished on a dozen other Chinese financial industry websites, including some of the mainstream ones. These other sites ran the article exactly as published by PE Daily,  with one small difference. They mainly all deleted my name. At a guess, I’d say the article been seen by 100,000 people by now.

On every site I’ve looked at, the article is surrounded by online ads. This proves what everyone would intuitively guess: IP theft, when it goes unpunished,  is as good a way to make money as there is. Your input costs can be zero.

I got hold of the editor at Caijing and confirmed they hadn’t given their permission to PE Daily to republish, nor would they or I be receiving any kind of syndication fee. “Sure, we could go to court,” he concluded, “but we’d spend money on lawyers and probably get nothing in return.” In other words, no recourse.

I twice emailed the owner of PE Daily enquiring if they were authorized to republish the Caijing article. There’s been no reply so far. But, the article was taken down from the PE Daily website. The other Chinese websites still have the article up, and still include the fact they syndicated it from PE Daily.

China has made a few notable efforts to discourage IP infringement. But overall it’s still common and, as in my small case, often quite brazen. This must inevitably put a damper on China’s efforts, as President Xi Jinping recently put it, to “make innovation the pivot of development”. The government money and urgency are there. What’s still missing, a system that protects innovators, patent and copyright holders. The rewards still flow too easily to thieves and copycats.

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http://www.weekinchina.com/2016/06/too-prone-to-copy/?dm

Why Taiwan Is Far Ahead of Mainland China in High-Tech — Financial Times commentary

June 8th, 2016 No comments

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Largan

Every country is touchy about some topics, especially when raised by foreigner. Living in China for almost seven years now, and having been a student of the place for the last forty, I thought I knew the hot buttons not to press. Apparently not.

The topic at hand: high-tech innovation in the PRC and why it seems to lag so far behind that of neighboring Taiwan. A recent issue of one of China’s leading business publications, Caijing Magazine, published a Chinese-language article I wrote together with China First Capital’s COO, Dr. Yansong Wang, about Taiwan’s high-flying optical lens company Largan Precision.

Soon after the magazine was published, it began circulating rather widely. Howls of national outrage began to reach me almost immediately. Mainly we were accused of not understanding the topic and having ignored China’s many tech companies that are at least the equal, if not superior, to Largan.

I didn’t think the article would be all that contentious, at least not the facts. Largan last year had revenues in excess of $1 billion and net profit margins above 40%, more than double those of its main customer, Apple, no slouch at making money. China has many companies which supply components to Apple, either directly or as a subcontractor. None of these PRC companies can approach the scale and profitability of Largan. In fact, there are few whose net margins are higher than 10%, or one-quarter Largan’s. Case in point: Huawei, widely praised within China as the country’s most successful technology company, has net margins of 9.5%.

Taiwan inaugurated its new president last month, Tsai Ing-wen, who represents the pro-Taiwan independence party. Few in the PRC seem to be in a mood to hear anything good about Taiwan. In one Wechat forum for senior executives, the language turned sharp. “China has many such companies, you as a foreigner just don’t know about them.” Or, “Largan is only successful because like Taiwan itself, it is protected by the American government” and “Apple buys from Largan because it wants to hold back China’s development”.

Not a single comment I’ve seen focused on perhaps more obvious reasons China’s tech ambitions are proving so hard to realize: a weak system of patent protection, widespread online censoring and restrictions on free flow of information, a venture capital industry which, though now large, has an aversion to backing new directions in R&D.  In Taiwan, none of this is true.

Largan is doing so well because the optical-quality plastic lenses it makes for mobile phone cameras are unrivalled in their price and performance. Any higher-end mobile phone, be it an iPhone or an Android phone selling for above $400, relies on Largan lenses.

Many companies in the PRC have tried to get into this business. So far none have succeeded. Largan, of course, wants to keep it that way. It has factories in China, but key parts of Largan’s valuable, confidential manufacturing processes take place in Taiwan. High precision, high megapixel plastic camera lenses are basically impossible to reverse-engineer. You can’t simply buy a machine, feed in some plastic pellets and out comes a perfect, spherical, lightweight 16-megapixel lens. Largan has been in the plastic lens business for almost twenty years. Today’s success is the product of many long years of fruitless experimentation and struggle. Largan had to wait a long time for the market demand to arrive. Great companies, ones with high margins and unique products, generally emerge in this way.

We wrote the article in part because Largan is not widely-known in China. It should be. The PRC is, as most people know, engaged in a massive, well-publicized multi-pronged effort to stimulate high-tech innovation and upgrade the country’s manufacturing base. A huge rhetorical push from China’s central government leadership is backed up with tens of billions of dollars in annual state subsidies. Largan is a good example close to home of what China stands to gain if it is able to succeed in this effort. It’s not only about fat profits and high-paying jobs. Largan is also helping to create a lager network of suppliers, customers and business opportunities outside mobile phones. High precision low-cost and lightweight lenses are also finding their way into more and more IOT devices. There are also, of course, potential military applications.

So why is it, the article asks but doesn’t answer, the PRC does not have companies like Largan? Is it perhaps too early? From the comments I’ve seen, that is one main explanation. Give China another few years, some argued, and it will certainly have dozens of companies every bit as dominant globally and profitable as Largan. After all, both are populated by Chinese, but the PRC has 1.35 billion of them compared to 23 million on Taiwan.

A related strand, linked even more directly to notions of national destiny and pride: China has 5,000 years of glorious history during which it created such technology breakthroughs as paper, gunpowder, porcelain and the pump. New products now being developed in China that will achieve breakthroughs of similar world-altering amplitude.

Absent from all the comments is any mention of fundamental factors that almost certainly inhibit innovation in China. Start with the most basic of all: intellectual property protection, and the serious lack thereof in China. While things have improved a bit of late, it is still far too easy to copycat ideas and products and get away with it. There are specialist patent courts now to enforce China’s domestic patent regime. But, the whole system is still weakly administered. Chinese courts are not fully independent of political influence. And anyway, even if one does win a patent case and get a judgment against a Chinese infringer, it’s usually all but impossible to collect on any monetary compensation or prevent the loser from starting up again under another name in a different province.

Another troubling component of China’s patent system: it awards so-called “use patents” along with “invention patents”. This allows for a high degree of mischief. A company can seek patent protection for putting someone else’s technology to a different use, or making it in a different way.

It’s axiomatic that countries without a reliable way to protect valuable inventions and proprietary technology will always end up with less of both. Compounding the problem in China, non-compete and non-disclosure agreements are usually unenforceable. Employees and subcontractors pilfer confidential information and start up in business with impunity.

Why else is China, at least for now, starved of domestic companies with globally-important technology? Information of all kinds does not flow freely, thanks to state control over the internet. A lot of the coolest new ideas in business these days are first showcased on Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. All of these, of course, are blocked by the Great Firewall of China, along with all kinds of traditional business media. Closed societies have never been good at developing cutting edge technologies.

There’s certainly a lot of brilliant software and data-packaging engineering involved in maintaining the Great Firewall. Problem is, there’s no real paying market for online state surveillance tools outside China. All this indigenous R&D and manpower, if viewed purely on commercial terms, is wasted.

The venture capital industry in China, though statistically the second-largest in the world, has shunned investments in early-stage and experimental R&D. Instead, VCs pour money into so-called “C2C” businesses. These “Copied To China” companies look for an established or emerging business model elsewhere, usually in the US, then create a local Chinese version, safe in the knowledge the foreign innovator will probably never be able to shut-down this “China only” version. It’s how China’s three most successful tech companies – Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu – got their start. They’ve moved on since then, but “C2C” remains the most common strategy for getting into business and getting funded as a tech company in China.

Another factor unbroached in any of the comments and criticisms I read about the Largan article: universities in China, especially the best ones, are extremely difficult to get into. But, their professors do little important breakthrough research. Professorial rank is determined by seniority and connections, less so by academic caliber. Also, Chinese universities don’t offer, as American ones do, an attractive fee-sharing system for professors who do come up with something new that could be licensed.

Tech companies outside China finance innovation and growth by going public. Largan did so in Taiwan, very early on in 2002, when the company was a fraction of its current size. Tech IPOs of this kind are all but impossible in China. IPOs are tightly managed by government regulators. Companies without three years of past profits will never even be admitted to the now years-long queue of companies waiting to go public.

Taiwan is, at its closest point, only a little more than a mile from the Chinese mainland. But, the two are planets apart in nurturing and rewarding high-margin innovation. Taiwan is strong in the fundamental areas where the PRC is weak. While Largan may now be the best performing Taiwanese high-tech company, there are many others that similarly can run circles around PRC competitors. For all the recent non-stop talk in the PRC about building an innovation-led economy, one hears infrequently about Taiwan’s technological successes, and even less about ways the PRC might learn from Taiwan.

That said, I did get a lot of queries about how PRC nationals could buy Largan shares. Since the article appeared, Largan’s shares shot up 10%, while the overall Taiwan market barely budged.

Our Largan article clearly touched a raw nerve, at least for some. If it is to succeed in transforming itself into a technology powerhouse, one innovation required in China may be a willingness to look more closely and assess more honestly why high-tech does so much better in Taiwan.

 

(An English-language version of the Largan article can be read by clicking here. )

(财经杂志 Caijing Magazine’s Chinese-language article can be read by clicking here.)

 

http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2016/06/07/why-taiwan-is-far-ahead-of-mainland-china-in-high-tech/

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