Under the Radar — Week In China

May 18th, 2018 No comments

 

When Google launched its email service in 2004, only people who had been invited to join the network could open Gmail accounts. The invite-only system made Gmail appear exclusive, so naturally more people wanted in. But it wasn’t a marketing ploy. Gmail had to limit membership because it didn’t have sufficient infrastructure to provide the service for everyone.

When OnePlus, a fast-growing Chinese smartphone brand, debuted in 2014, it adopted a similar tactic. Co-founder Carl Pei explained: “The invite system allowed us to scale our operations and manage our risks to help us grow more sustainably.” Essentially, it meant the four year-old company avoided overstocking. But, as with Gmail, by keeping the phone ‘exclusive’, it helped generate buzz.

This week OnePlus launched its seventh iteration, the OnePlus Six. Although it ditched the invite-only sales system in 2016, the company still keeps tight control over its distribution, forcing most purchases to be made online. But in India, where OnePlus made 35% of its total $1.4 billion in sales in 2017, the company has opened 10 physical stores to help sales and aftercare.

Vikas Agarwal, general manager at OnePlus India, claims OnePlus is now the “biggest Android premium smartphone brand” in the country. According to Counterpoint Research, the third and fourth most popular brands in India last year were Vivo and Oppo. Despite being competitors, the three brands are all linked to one man: Duan Yongping, the founder of BBK Electronics.

BBK (or Bu Bu Gao) was set up by Duan in 1995. It was the second household name Chinese brand Duan has created.

Born in 1961, Duan joined Zhongshan Yihua Group in Guangdong province in 1989 as the manager of a small factory. He used his position to establish a unit called Subor, which produced video game consoles in competition with Japan’s Nintendo.

The most memorable product made by Subor was an educational console, which featured a computer keyboard with ports for data cartridges and a couple of adjoining game controllers. The cartridges stored video recorded lessons to enable students to learn the English language by responding to prompts using the controllers.

The cheap console gave many young Chinese an introduction to computing and its popularity was reflected in Subor’s finances. When Duan joined Yihua it was Rmb2 million in debt, but by 1995 annual profit had exceeded Rmb1 billion ($157 million).

Despite the success Duan was only earning a meagre salary. He had lobbied Zhongshan Yihua to spin off Subor and give him a stake in the new enterprise, but he was rejected. It became a very public business dispute. The outcome: Duan left and founded BBK, taking a few promising team members with him.

Given his frustrations at Subor, Duan made sure he carved out a sizeable 70% stake in BBK for himself. The company began producing audio-visual products such as VCD and DVD players.

In 1999 and 2000, Duan became the highest bidder on state broadcaster CCTV’s annual auction of its prime-time advertising slots, splashing out Rmb300 million. The huge gamble paid off. BBK became a household name and subsequently the leading maker of VCD players.

Duan was quick to see the potential of mobile phones and later the mobile internet. BBK’s Oppo and Vivo were initially derided as cheap imitations of Apple’s iPhone. But through smart marketing the pair became amongst the country’s best-selling smartphones (see WiC358 for our analysis of Oppo’s rise). In 2016, sales of the two brands actually bumped the iPhone out of China’s top three positions.

More than a decade earlier Duan had spoken to Harvard China Review about his business philosophy: “I am never afraid to follow others. Actually my business has never been an initiator of an industry. Instead, we analyse vulnerabilities of the leading companies in a certain industry and then try to establish our own stronghold.”

This ethos likely contributed to the establishment of OnePlus, which was co-founded in 2013 by Oppo’s former vice president Pete Lau. The company drew comparisons to Xiaomi at its launch, because both produced low-price premium smartphones with sales made exclusively online.

Lau was an early BBK employee, joining in 1998. According to Medium, Lau paid a visit to his mentor and former boss Duan to seek advice before initiating OnePlus. Duan’s pedagogical stature is one of the many reasons he’s sometimes dubbed “the Chinese Warren Buffet” and why Lau looked for his backing.

Peter Fuhrman, founder and chairman of Shenzhen-based advisory firm China First Capital, has followed Duan’s business career and admires what he has achieved. As he points out, “No one has succeeded for so long, or so well, in such a brutally tough global industry as Mr Duan. He’s earned a spot among the business immortals of the past century. Only he and Samsung managed the transition that left Blackberry, Nokia, Sony Mobile, Motorola as roadkill. He rose to the top originally by making simple, cheap feature phones, then more or less chucked that whole business away to create and back three new companies for the smartphone industry, Oppo, Vivo and OnePlus. All are doing outstandingly well. Their success is built on another aspect at which Duan excels as few, if any ever have – creating a hugely-efficient, high-quality manufacturing base in Dongguan turning out phones for all three, backed by what may well be the world’s most efficient global electronics supply chain.”

Duan is evidently happy to be compared with Buffett. In 2006, he paid $620,100 to have lunch with the Sage of Omaha. Duan told media after the charity luncheon, “I had already learned a lot from Buffett, so I was hoping for a chance to thank him.”

Having emigrated to the US in 2001, Duan has been taking a more active interest in managing his own money, rapidly growing his equity portfolio.

An initial investment was a $2 million cash injection into NetEase. The firm had almost gone bust following the dotcom crash and its share price had plummeted to just $0.80. According to China Investor, Duan determined that the company still had potential, so he took the plunge. Within two years he’d made a return of 100-times on his investment.

Duan also made a large investment in GE after its shares slumped following the 2008 financial crisis, buying shares at $6 each and quickly doubling his money.

His steely nerves ensured he held onto his stake in Kweichow Moutai when the baijiu maker’s stock price halved in 2014. Duan entered at Rmb180 in 2012; today Moutai trades at over Rmb700.

“The money I’ve earned on the back of investments is so much more than what I earned from 10 years of doing business,” he surmised. According to the latest Hurun report, Duan is now worth $1.3 billion – but there are some in China who think his wealth could be many multiples of that Hurun estimate, and he might even be one of China’s richest men.

It’s hard to know: many of his investments aren’t public. But in Chinese business circles few would disagree that he is shrewd at finding and backing talent.

For instance, also present at the 2006 Buffett lunch was Colin Huang Zheng, who would later found Pinduoduo, one of China’s 164 unlisted unicorns. The e-commerce platform has been described as the fastest growing app in the history of the Chinese internet (see WiC404), and Huang has long been viewed as a key Duan protégé.

“He is above all a great manager and motivator of people, of putting strong people in leadership positions and then letting them get on with their business, with minimal intervention from him at the top,” comments China First Capital’s Fuhrman. “From hands-on executive to hands-off semi-retired chairman, Duan has excelled across his career in very different roles.”

Despite his successes in the business and investment fields, it seems Duan would rather be remembered for his altruism, claiming “Charity is my business, investment is my hobby.” In 2005, Duan and his wife established the Enlight Foundation, through which they’ve provided scholarships to their respective alma maters. In 2006, Duan and NetEase founder Ding Lei made a $40 million donation to Zhejiang University.

But surprisingly the two people who likely won’t be receiving handouts from the magnate are his children. According to Phoenix News, Duan has said: “So much of my happiness in life has come from the process of earning my wealth. I don’t want to deny my children that same happiness.”

As published by Week in China

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China: Qualcomm’s $44 Billion Purchase of NXP Has ‘Hard to Resolve’ Issues — Wall Street Journal

April 19th, 2018 No comments

BEIJING—China’s antitrust regulator gave an initial pessimistic review of Qualcomm Inc.’s $44 billion purchase of NXP Semiconductors NXPI -0.15% NV, raising questions about a critical deal for the American company and whether trade friction with the U.S. is playing a role.

A spokesman for China’s Commerce Ministry said Thursday that a preliminary review turned up “related issues that are hard to resolve, making it difficult to eliminate the negative impact.”

Speaking at a regular media briefing, the spokesman, Gao Feng, didn’t elaborate on the specific findings other than to say the agency looked at the deal’s impact on competitors and the market and examined Qualcomm’s QCOM -0.22% proposed remedies. He didn’t close the door on an eventual approval, promising a fair review of Qualcomm’s application.

“Made in China 2025” is Beijing’s industrial plan to dominate high-tech industries including robotics, aerospace and computer chips. The Trump administration argues China is using the plan to give its tech companies unfair advantage over foreign rivals. But what is it exactly?

Qualcomm didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Gao’s remarks are the latest move in Qualcomm’s long discussions with Beijing. Still, the bleak initial assessment comes amid a tumultuous back-and-forth between Washington and Beijing that is making the technology sector a flashpoint in the countries’ brewing conflict on trade.

Earlier this week, the U.S. banned a large Chinese telecommunications equipment maker, ZTE Corp. , from purchasing American technology for seven years, saying the company breached an agreement reached last year to settle allegations it violated sanctions by selling gear to North Korea and Iran. The punishment is seen as potentially crippling for ZTE. It is also likely to hurt its American component suppliers, including Qualcomm, which provides chips for smartphones.

“China wants very much to flex its muscles. It can certainly inflict pain on one large U.S. company, Qualcomm,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive officer of investment and advisory firm China First Capital. He said current tensions make this “the fraughtest moment in the 30-year history of U.S.-China technology trade and mutual reliance.”

Ultimately, Mr. Fuhrman said, China’s huge mobile-phone and auto industries in particular depend on Qualcomm and NXP, so an agreement with the regulators is likely to be struck.

Qualcomm has been waiting for China to approve the purchase of the Dutch company NXP, having secured permission from the eight other major antitrust regulators around the globe. The deal is seen as crucial to San Diego-based Qualcomm, which needs to look for growth beyond its dominance in the smartphone sector; NXP specializes in making chips for automobiles, an area that is growing rapidly.

On Wednesday Qualcomm said it began laying off an unspecified number of employees in a move to fulfill a promise to boost profit by shedding $1 billion in expenses. The layoffs are part of a cost-reduction program unveiled in January intended to convince investors of the company’s prospects as it fended off an acquisition from Broadcom Ltd. , which was then based in Singapore, that was later quashed by President Donald Trump.

In recent weeks as Washington and Beijing have traded tit-for-tat threats over trade, the Commerce Ministry has slowed its review of the deal, according to people familiar with the matter.

China wants very much to flex its muscles. It can certainly inflict pain on one large U.S. company, Qualcomm.

—Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive officer of China First Capital

At a 45-minute briefing to a crowded room of reporters, Mr. Gao touched upon ZTE and the trade battle as well as Qualcomm’s application. By going after ZTE, he said, “The action targets China. However, it will ultimately undermine the U.S. itself.” He said the U.S. is risking “tens of thousands of jobs and shaking international confidence in the U.S. business environment.”

Mr. Gao also urged the U.S. government not to misjudge China’s resolve in defending its interests on trade.

The Trump administration has criticized Beijing over what the U.S. says are unfair practices leading to a trade imbalance that last year reached $375 billion in China’s favor. The Trump administration wants the gap reduced by $100 billion and this year placed tariffs on a range of Chinese goods and threatened to impose them on $150 billion more.

Beijing has vowed to respond in kind. This week, it placed temporary penalties on imports of U.S. sorghum, as part of a strategy to target the Farm Belt and other parts of President Trump’s political base. Soybeans, cotton and liquefied propane are also on a target list for tariffs.

Washington and Beijing have tussled over technology in recent years, with both governments alleging that each other’s products might enable espionage and damage national security. Efforts to harden those perceived vulnerabilities have also fed accusations of protectionism, and as overall tensions on trade have risen, technology has taken center stage.

Huawei Technologies Co., a Chinese national champion and the world’s largest provider of telecom equipment, acknowledged this week that after years of difficulties in the U.S., it is refocusing energies on most of the rest of the world.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission approved a measure this week that would bar wireless carriers in the U.S. from using government subsidies to buy telecom gear from Chinese manufacturers. The U.S. trade representative’s office also said earlier this week that it is considering retaliation for China’s restrictions on U.S. providers of cloud computing and other services.

Qualcomm has been caught in the middle. The company relies on China for a major part of its business. As the Commerce Ministry’s review of its proposed purchase of NXP, Qualcomm resubmitted its application on Monday ahead of a Tuesday deadline. The move effectively resets a timetable for a decision and gives Chinese regulators an additional 180 days to review the deal, people familiar with the procedure said.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/qualcomms-44-billion-purchase-of-nxp-has-hard-to-resolve-issues-china-1524108990

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University of Michigan Ross School of Business — Guest Lecture on China Investment, the Perils & Attractions

January 15th, 2018 No comments

 

 

I was in Ann Arbor this past week to guest lecture at the University of Michigan Ross Business School. The full video can be accessed by clicking here.

I was invited to speak at the business school by Professor David Brophy, who introduces me at the start. Professor Brophy teaches a winter semester class in Global Private Equity. He began researching and teaching PE at Michigan in the mid-1970s, not long after the field was invented by firms like KKR.

Along with speaking in person to students at the school, my talk was also streamed live to the Michigan Venture Capital Association.

 

China’s Technology Future and What It Means for Silicon Valley — Bay Area Council Research Report

November 29th, 2017 No comments

 

The Bay Area Council Economic Institute, the leading think tank and public policy organization in the Silicon Valley, has just published a comprehensive and timely research report on Chinese innovation, titled “China’s Technology Future and What It Means for Silicon Valley“. The author is Sean Randolph, Senior Director at the Institute.

You can download a copy of the complete report by clicking here.

Sean was kind enough to seek out my views on this topic and we shared a lively dialogue, both in person here in China, and by email once he returned to San Francisco.

The report does an excellent job contrasting China’s overarching future goals in technology and innovation with the current state of affairs. It takes a balanced view: “While recognizing China’s advances, it would be a mistake to think of China as a remorseless juggernaut sweeping everything in its path. Having a plan doesn’t guarantee success, and not everything works.”

The report looks deeply both at some of China’s leading technology companies — including the “BAT” along with Huawei and car-maker Geely — and more broadly at how Chinese companies, both state-owned and private, regions and universities all align themselves with broader national goals to upgrade the level of China’s indigenous innovation.

What does all this mean for Silicon Valley, the world’s most important and successful breeding ground for high-value innovation? It’s here, in offering answers and perspective, that the report achieves its greatest value.

Here are some particularly insightful passages:

“China’s relationship with the Silicon Valley/San Francisco Bay Area is unique, in part due to the deep historical and demographic ties between the Bay Area and China, but also because the region’s technology sector—the world’s largest—most highly concentrates the assets of technology, investment and expertise that relate to China’s goals to accelerate its own technological development.

Bay Area technology companies, such as Intel, Apple, and Cisco, and venture firms, such as Sequoia Capital, DFJ (Draper Fisher Jurvetson), and Kleiner Perkins, have been active investors in China for decades. Now, reversing the historic trend in which virtually all investment flowed from the Bay Area to China, Chinese companies have started sending investment capital and other resources to the Bay Area through mergers and acquisitions, equity investments, and the establishment of research and innovation centers and accelerator programs.”

The attraction of China’s market can be compelling, but [Silicon Valley] companies also must consider whether their core technology can be protected, and whether their position in the Chinese market can be sustained if that technology is compromised by competitors.While few US companies are leaving China, government policies and weak IP protection have caused many to keep their best technology at home and others to stay away.”

The report appears at an especially critical time in the development of US-China technology policy and investment. Congress is moving to tighten the CFIUS controls on Chinese technology investment in the US. China, meanwhile, is pushing ahead with new and more restrictive policies at home, leading to companies like Amazon selling off assets in China.

Let’s hope the tide reverses. A more open and reciprocal trade and investment relationship between China and the US would benefit both, benefit the world.

 

 

 

In Today’s China, Paradoxes Still Abound. But So Do Opportunities — Site Selection Magazine

November 21st, 2017 No comments

 

In September, China First Capital Chairman and CEO Peter Fuhrman, familiar to attendees at the World Forum for FDI in Shanghai last year, delivered a talk from China to Harvard Business School alumni. Here, with Mr. Fuhrman’s permission, we present excerpts from his remarks.

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GDP growth has never and will never absolutely correlate with investment returns.

Any questions? No? Great. Thanks for your time.

Of course I’m joking. But that key reality of successful investing is all too often overlooked, and China has provided all of us over these last 30-some-odd years with a vivid reminder that IRR and GDP are by no means the same animal.

China is, was and will likely long remain a phenomenal economy. The growth that’s taken place here since I first set foot in China in 1981 has been something almost beyond human reckoning. Since I first came to China as a postgrad in 1981, per-capita GDP (PPP) has risen 43X, from $352 to $15,417. China achieved so much more than anyone dare hope, a billion people lifted out of poverty, freed to pursue their dreams, to make and spend a bundle.

China this year will add about $1 trillion of new GDP. Just to put that in context, $1 trillion is not a lot less than the entire GDP of Russia. So who is making all this newly minted money? And how can any of us hope to get a piece of it? Another question: Why, if China is such a great economy, has it proved such a disaster area for so many of the world’s largest, most sophisticated global institutional investors, private equity firms and Fortune 500s?

Turning Inward

Let’s start with the fact that China is a part of the World Trade Organization, but not entirely of it — not fully subscribed in any way to the notion that reciprocity, openness, free trade, level playing fields and equal treatment are positive ends unto themselves. As China has gotten richer it has seen even less and less need to attract foreign capital and foreign investment. That’s a tendency we see in other countries, including obviously some of the rhetoric we now hear in the U.S. — that more of the gains of the national economy should belong to its citizens. But China’s way is different.

The renminbi is a closed non-tradable currency, so getting US dollars into and out of China has always been difficult. China now has the world’s second-largest stock and bond markets, but those markets are largely closed to any investors other than Chinese domestic ones. But China also continues to provide companies going public with by far the highest multiples anywhere in the world.

When I first came to China 36 years ago China was a 100-percent state-owned economy. Twenty years ago the first rules were put in place to allow a private sector to function. Today, according to anyone’s best estimate, it’s about 70 percent private and 30 percent state, and most of the value creation is being provided by that private-sector economy. So in theory there should be very interesting M&A opportunities. But it’s been exceedingly difficult to get successful transactions done. One of the core reasons is that by and large all private-sector companies in China, large and small, are family-owned.

The other thing important to consider is a Mandarin term: guifan. It’s the Chinese way of explaining the extent to which a company in China is abiding by all the rules of the road — the taxes you should pay, the environmental and labor laws you should follow. It’s not at all uncommon that successful private-sector companies in China are successful by virtue of having negotiated to pay little or no corporate tax on profits.

For foreign-owned companies in China it’s an entirely different story. They are by and large 100-percent compliant with the written rules. This has an enormous impact on the operating performance of any company, so you can imagine how potentially skewed the competitive environment becomes. And keep in mind that corporate taxation in China in the aggregate is, if not the highest in the developed world, then among the highest, and the environmental and labor laws are every bit as difficult, rigorous, tough and expensive to implement as they are in the U.S.

China is a country where local government officials are scored on the measurable success of their time in office, and success is overwhelmingly attributed to GDP growth. So it should be no surprise if what they’re trying to do is optimize GDP growth, the percentage of a company’s income that goes back to the government in taxation can have an adverse effect on that. Instead the government will continue to urge its local companies to take the money and, rather than pay tax, continue to invest, expand and therefore build local GDP.

The Hum of Consumerism

The reasons to stay engaged and find a viable investment angle include GDP growth. China’s GDP is likely to continue to grow by at least 6 percent a year. Second, across my 25 years of involvement in China, every one of the predictions of imminent collapse — financial catastrophe, local government debt, bad bank loans, real estate bubbles — have proved to be false. It appears China has some resiliency, and it’s certainly the case that the government has the tools and financial resources to ride out most challenges.

Third has been how effortlessly it’s made the transition that still bedevils lots of Europe, from a smokestack economy to a consumer-spending paradise. At this moment every major consumer market in China is booming both online and offline. Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are now operating as three of the most profitable companies in the world.

How does China have a robust, booming consumer economy and an enormous appetite for luxury brands, yet on average salary levels that are still one-fifth or one-sixth the levels in the US? The simple answer is that almost all the Chinese now living in urban China — about half the population, compared to about 15 percent when I first got here — owns at least a single apartment if not multiple, which is more and more common. The single best-performing asset in history has probably been Chinese urban real estate over the last 30 years. It’s fair to say the average appreciation over the last 10 years is at least 300 percent.

Though China has a population whose incomes on paper look like those of people flipping burgers at McDonald’s, they seem to have the spending power and love of luxury goods like the people summering in East Hampton. Even Apple itself has no idea how big its market is here in China. It’s likely that at least 100 million iPhone 8s will be sold to Chinese over the next year. The retail price here in China is at least 30 to 40 percent higher than in the US, with most phones bought for cash, without a carrier subsidy.

‘You’ll Be Older Too’

So where is it possible to make money in China? One message above all: Active investing beats passive investing every time. What you need to do is either be the owner-operator or be a close strategic partner with one, and stay actively engaged.

There are four major areas of opportunity: Tech, health-care services, leisure and education (see graphic below). The potential for building out a chronic care business in China is enormous. Looking ahead 25 to 30 years, sadly China will likely suffer a demographic disaster. This country will become a very old society very quickly. That’s the inevitable product of 30 years of a one-child-per-family policy. By 2040 or 2050, 25 percent of China will be over the age of 65.

The overall rate of GDP growth is unlikely to ever rival that of a few years ago at 10 to 12 percent a year, but overall what we have is higher-quality growth. People in China are living well. Things should continue to motor along very smoothly at least for one more generation — a generation whose members are better educated, more skilled, ambitious and globalized than their parents.

There’s no denying the reality of what a better, happier, freer, richer country China has become since I first set foot here. I marvel every day at the China that I now live in, even while I occasionally curse some of the unwanted byproducts like heavy pollution in most parts of the country, overcrowding at tourist attractions, bad traffic, and a pushy culture that’s lost touch with some of China’s ancient glories.

China will continue to amaze, inspire and stupefy the world. The Chinese have done very well and will do better. At the same time, those of us investing in China may do a little better in years to come than we have up to now. More of the newly minted trillions in China just may end up sticking to our palms.

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China’s Soccer Push Puts a Storied Team Under Murky Ownership — The New York Times

November 17th, 2017 No comments

 

 

 

 

 

 

By SUI-LEE WEE, RYAN McMORROW and TARIQ PANJA

NOV. 16,    2017

Li Yonghong in April with David Han Li, left, of Rossoneri Sport Investment, part of A.C. Milan’s new ownership group, and Marco Fassone, the club’s chief executive.

BEIJING — When the Chinese businessman Li Yonghong bought A.C. Milan, the world-famous Italian soccer club, virtually nobody in Italy had heard of him.

Virtually nobody in China had, either.

Mr. Li had never been named to one of China’s lists of the country’s richest people. The mining empire he described to Italian soccer officials was hardly known even in mining circles.

Nevertheless, Mr. Li seemed to have what mattered most: money. He bought the club in April for $860 million from Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, to clinch China’s biggest-ever soccer deal.

Today, Mr. Li’s acquisition of A.C. Milan appears to be emblematic of a string of troubled Chinese deals.

The soccer club, bleeding money after a spending spree on star players, is seeking new investors or a refinancing of the high-interest loan that Mr. Li took to buy the club. That loan comes due in a year.

Chinese corporate records show that — on paper, at least — someone else owns his mining empire. That company’s offices were empty on a recent visit, and a sign on the door from the landlord cited unpaid rent. A spokesman for A.C. Milan said Mr. Li’s control of the mining business had been verified by lawyers and banks involved in the transaction.

Chinese records also show a series of business disputes and run-ins between Mr. Li and Chinese regulators.

China’s emergence as a world economic power came with a ready checkbook for major brand names. Chinese owners now control the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, AMC theaters, the Hollywood production company Legendary Entertainment and A.C. Milan.

Then Chinese officials began to worry that the spending was simply part of an exodus of money from China so vast that it once threatened to destabilize the country’s economy, the world’s second largest. This summer, the government ordered its banks to scrutinize lending to some of the country’s biggest deal makers.

Outside China, some of the deals led regulators to ask questions about the tycoons behind them. Some wealthy people in China list their holdings under the names of relatives or associates to avoid scrutiny, a practice that has attracted criticism inside and outside the country.

In the case of Mr. Li, the mines that he told A.C. Milan he controlled have been owned by four different people since last year, according to Chinese corporate records. The business changed hands twice for no money, the documents show.

Mr. Li declined an interview request through A.C. Milan. The club spokesman defended Mr. Li on his business disputes, saying that sometimes he was a victim and that sometimes he was not aware of complicated rules. The spokesman also said the club was evaluating several refinancing proposals and was confident it could cover the loan.

Chinese spending on soccer totaled $1.8 billion over the past five years, according to Dealogic, a data provider, but Chinese officials are putting a stop to the spree amid concerns about the flight of money abroad.

“There’s a lot of ways to invest in football and the sports industry for much less money,” said Mark Dreyer, who tracks Chinese soccer investments on his website, China Sports Insider. “People were basically using the government’s previous push for sports as a way to diversify into different industries and get their money out of China.”

Mr. Li had plenty of reasons to buy A.C. Milan. President Xi Jinping had professed his love for soccer and wanted China to be a superpower in the sport by 2050. The Chinese government had laid out a plan for increasing sports investment.

An acquisition of A.C. Milan would be a marquee deal. A decade ago, the club was home to some of soccer’s biggest talents, including Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, who is known as Kaká, and Andrea Pirlo. It was a seven-time European champion.

But it has not won an Italian championship for six years or a European title for 10. Fans welcomed Mr. Li’s arrival as a potential catalyst. This summer, A.C. Milan began to spend on new players in a way that seemed to signal a desire to compete again.

Still, Mr. Li and Mr. Berlusconi struck the deal at a difficult time. Beijing, spooked by the unprecedented capital outflows and a weakening currency, had imposed restrictions on overseas investment at the end of last year.

Mr. Li set up companies in the British Virgin Islands and Luxembourg that would put the club’s legal ownership outside China, according to Marco Fassone, A.C. Milan’s chief executive officer. Mr. Li also borrowed about $354 million from the hedge fund firm Elliott Management, a loan he must pay back by October 2018. A spokeswoman for Elliott declined to comment.

A.C. Milan remains debt laden and unprofitable, and could have trouble repaying what it owes on its own. It spent about $274 million to sign 11 players this summer, according to the club spokesman, making it among the biggest spenders in European soccer.

In August, A.C. Milan had to wait for the transfer of two players it had signed from other teams because it had not deposited the required bank bonds. The club blamed a timing issue for the delay, and the transfers were eventually completed. The team is in seventh place but, with more than two-thirds of the season left to play, must finish among the top four to earn a spot in European soccer’s elite Champions League next season. The team could lose valuable television revenue if it fails to reach that level.

It is unclear how much Mr. Li’s wealth might help the club address its troubles.

He was initially unknown to the deal makers trying to sell the club, the people involved in the transaction said. He was originally part of a group that included Sonny Wu, a well-known investor who is chairman of the private equity firm GSR Capital, these people said. But Mr. Wu pulled out of the deal.

In an email, Mr. Wu said he had not talked to bankers about Mr. Li or his consortium. Rothschild & Company, the investment bank that advised Mr. Li, declined to comment.

Mr. Li told A.C. Milan that his holdings included phosphate mining operations in the city of Fuquan in Guizhou Province.

But Chinese corporate filings show that the mines are owned by another party: Guangdong Lion Asset Management, an investment company. And Guangdong Lion has had a complicated ownership record over the past two years, involving a number of people with similar family names. (One court proceeding suggests Mr. Li has a relationship with Guangdong Lion, although it is not clear what kind.)

Originally, Guangdong Lion was ultimately owned by two investors, Li Shangbing and Li Shangsong, according to filings. Like Li Yonghong, the two men come from the same area of Maoming, a city on China’s southern coast, according to the documents. But in a phone interview, Li Shangbing said he did not know Li Yonghong.

Li Shangsong, who declined to comment, sold his interest in Guangdong Lion in 2015 to a person named Li Qianru, according to the documents. The documents did not include personal information about Li Qianru, who could not be reached for comment.

In May 2016, according to the filings, Li Shangbing and Li Qianru, sold Guangdong Lion to yet another Li: Li Yalu. The sale price: $0. The filings do not provide personal information about Li Yalu.

Three weeks later, Li Yalu sold a half stake in Guangdong Lion to a similarly obscure investor, Zhang Zhiling. The price: $0. Neither could be reached for comment.

Li is a common surname in China, and the relationships among the various Lis are unclear. The A.C. Milan spokesman declined to comment.

Li Yonghong, the A.C. Milan owner, and Li Shangbing have two things in common.

The first is a relationship with Guangdong Lion. A Chinese court cited Li Yonghong and Guangdong Lion in April for failing to resolve a loan dispute with another Chinese company, saying both parties had disappeared. The court did not specify the relationship. The A.C. Milan spokesman said that Li Yonghong had merely guaranteed the loan and that “he is a victim in this case.”

The second is an interest in investing in European sports.

In May 2016, a day before Li Shangbing sold Guangdong Lion for no money, he started a company called Sino-Europe Sports Asset Management Changxing Company, according to China’s corporate database.

Two days after he registered the Sino-Europe firm, another person registered a new company with a strikingly similar name: Sino-Europe Sports Investment Management Changxing Company. The two companies’ headquarters were in the same building in the city of Huzhou.

Sino-Europe Sports Investment owns a stake in A.C. Milan as a result of its role as a shareholder in Rossoneri Sport Investment, a Chinese company that is part of the group led by Li Yonghong that owns the soccer club.

In the phone interview, Li Shangbing denied setting up either Sino-Europe company and said he did not own any part of A.C. Milan. He declined to answer further questions. A.C. Milan declined to comment on Li Shangbing. The listed owner of the Sino-Europe Sports Investment Management Changxing Company, Chen Huashan, could not be reached for comment.

Guangdong Lion’s listed headquarters are in a fancy skyscraper in Guangzhou. In August, the offices were closed, with an eviction notice on the door. Inside, desks and chairs were in disarray, computers were missing hard drives, and maggots festered in a trash can.

The phone number listed for Guangdong Lion connects to a woman who said she helped companies register with Chinese regulators.

Li Yonghong has an extensive business history, but Chinese records show it includes disputes with regulators and others.

In 2013, China’s securities watchdog fined Mr. Li $90,250 for failing to report the sale of $51.1 million in shares of a real estate company. A.C. Milan said Mr. Li had simply been unfamiliar with listing rules.

In 2011, that same real estate company said in a stock filing that Mr. Li was the chairman of Grand Dragon International Holding Company, a Chinese aviation company. Grand Dragon said in June that he had no present or past association with the company. The A.C. Milan spokesman said he had no knowledge of this.

In 2004, Mr. Li’s family business, the Guangdong Green River Company, teamed up with two other companies to bilk more than 5,000 investors out of as much as $68.3 million, according to The Shanghai Securities News, the official newspaper of China’s financial watchdogs. They had sold contracts for lychee and longan orchards and promised investors hefty returns, according to the report.

Mr. Li’s father and brother were sentenced to jail. Mr. Li was investigated but not accused of wrongdoing, the report said.

A.C. Milan said the episode had nothing to do with Mr. Li, adding that “he was not aware of the situation until the investigation.”

Amid Chinese concerns about deals abroad, China’s purchases of soccer teams with prestige names is likely to slow considerably for some time to come.

“If outbound investment should have the purpose of ‘strengthening the nation,’ even within the broadest of definitions,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman of the investment bank China First Capital, said in an email, “buying a soccer team in the U.K. or Italy would hardly seem to qualify.”

 

As published in The New York Times

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Amazon Sells Hardware to Cloud Partner in China — The Wall Street Journal

November 15th, 2017 No comments

Amazon Web Services is selling computing equipment used for its cloud services in China for as much as $300.8 million.
Amazon Web Services is selling computing equipment used for its cloud services in China for as much as $300.8 million.

Amazon.com Inc. AMZN 0.68% on Tuesday said it has sold computing equipment used for its cloud services in China to its local partner, Beijing Sinnet Technology Co., in a move analysts said underscores the increasingly chilly atmosphere for foreign companies in the country.

Amazon Web Services said it took the step to meet new Chinese regulations.

”Chinese law forbids non-Chinese companies from owning or operating certain technology for the provision of cloud services,” AWS said. “As a result, in order to comply with Chinese law, AWS sold certain physical infrastructure assets to Sinnet, its longtime Chinese partner.”

The company said it remains committed to China and that customers would continue to receive AWS cloud services. It also said the deal didn’t involve any transfer of intellectual property.

Peter Fuhrman, chairman of technology investment bank China First Capital, said Amazon’s decision illustrates China’s tightened grip on companies providing internet services.

”The key policy brickwork is now done,” Mr. Fuhrman said. “The Chinese internet, in its broad entirety, will become even more comprehensively managed by the Chinese state.”

Mr. Fuhrman added that such protectionist moves will ultimately limit China’s access to the latest technology and could hurt its competitiveness over the long term.

Jim McGregor, chairman of the Greater China region for public-affairs consultancy APCO Worldwide, said the move should be viewed in light of China’s Made in China 2025 plan to promote domestic enterprises and technologies. ”China has a different plan and it has the power,” he said.

U.S. tech companies in China are dealing with a different world “and it would be corporate suicide not to acknowledge it,” he added.

Beijing Sinnet, in a regulatory filing late Monday, said it was paying up to 2 billion yuan ($300.8 million) for the assets to “comply with our country’s laws and rules and further improve the security and the service quality of the AWS cloud-computing service operated by the company.”

Early this year, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology informed foreign companies with cloud ventures that new operating licenses would be applied by year-end. Amazon’s deal with Sinnet could clear the final obstacles for AWS to get such licenses, analysts from Citic Securities said in a note Tuesday.

Late last year, China’s MIIT also issued draft measures calling for tighter technical cooperation between foreign cloud operators and their local partners. The proposed rule change triggered complaints from more than 50 U.S. lawmakers, who in March protested in a letter to China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, that the change would force U.S. companies to essentially transfer ownership and operations of their cloud systems to Chinese partners.

Officials with the MIIT had no immediate comment.

Amazon and other U.S. companies, including Apple Inc., have faced increased pressure in the country in recent months in the face of the Chinese government’s desire to control cyberspace.

In July, Apple said it would begin storing cloud data for its Chinese customers on a server run by a government-owned company, to comply with Chinese law. The data include photos, documents, messages and videos uploaded by mainland China users of Apple’s iCloud service.

Since a new cybersecurity law came into effect in June, U.S. tech companies have been constrained in their efforts to operate as they normally would globally, and this has led to inefficiency and a higher risk of cyberthreats, said the U.S.-China Business Council in a statement Tuesday.

In August, AWS was caught up in a Chinese government clampdown on tools that allow internet users to circumvent the country’s vast system of internet filters. In that instance, AWS customers were sent emails by Beijing Sinnet asking them to delete tools enabling them to bypass the filters. Some of the tools that clients use include virtual private networks, or VPNs.

Cloud platforms provide their users with data storage, computing and networking resources over the internet, reducing the need for on-site servers. China’s $2 billion public cloud market is set to grow to a $16 billion by 2020, according to estimates by Morgan Stanley analysts. A government policy push for enterprises to migrate to the cloud, better vendor offerings and falling costs will boost demand for such services, Morgan Stanley said.

In China, AWS faces strong local competition in the form of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. and China Telecom Corp. Alibaba’s cloud unit held 40% of the country’s cloud infrastructure-as-a-service market, according to International Data Corp. research. Microsoft Corp. , the largest foreign provider in China, had 5%, while AWS has 3.8%.

Still, China’s market is in its nascent stage, and it is too early to crown industry champions, said Kevin Ji, a research director at Gartner, an industry research firm. With their strong product offerings, AWS and Microsoft are likely to prove formidable competitors to Alibaba in the longer run, he said.

 

As published in The Wall Street Journal.

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China Investing, The Pain and the Perks — Harvard Business School Global Alumni Lecture

October 10th, 2017 No comments

 

It was a delight and a privilege to give a talk on China investing to Harvard Business School’s global alumni organization. If you’d like to see the slide deck, please click here. The audio version of the lecture, done by worldwide webcast,  is also up on YouTube.

The topic was a big one — why have China investment returns so often failed to keep pace with the phenomenal growth in the country’s economy, and can investors do anything to improve the odds of success? Given an hour to discuss, I could only really scratch the surface.

A key takeaway: the past needn’t be prologue. Investing in China may prove less vexatious in the future. In part, that’s because of the growth of a mass affluent consumer market in China, a shift that plays to the strengths of many US, European and East Asian companies and institutional investors. Second, of course, everyone now can learn from past mistakes and misperceptions.

As I said in closing, “China will continue to amaze, inspire and stupefy the world. Chinese have done very well and will do better. At same time, those of us investing in China may do a little better here in years to come than we have up to now. More of the newly minted trillions in China just may end up sticking to our palms.”

 

 

 

Alzheimer’s: China’s Looming Health Challenges — The Diplomat

October 2nd, 2017 No comments

 

 

 

 

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Peter Fuhrman Chairman, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of China First Capital, Ltd.is the 109th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  

With 9.5 million diagnosed Alzheimer’s sufferers in China, why is Alzheimer’s the country’s biggest future health problem?

I would broaden it to say that the treatment of chronic diseases, with Alzheimer’s at the forefront, is the largest future challenge to China’s national healthcare system. From a country that in living memory only offered a very rudimentary system of barefoot doctors, who were often nothing more than well-meaning but untrained quacks, China in 20 short years has expanded genuine healthcare coverage to all corners of the country, providing acute care and medications to the vast majority of its citizens. That’s an enormous achievement; one that’s done more good for more people than probably any other government initiative anywhere at any time. Chronic diseases, on the other hand, were never a focus, indeed never much of a problem. But, Chinese life expectancy has lengthened dramatically, thanks in part of the improvement in the delivery of acute health services. Chinese are now living as long as people in Europe and the United States. The result: China is already feeling the strain of millions of older ill folks with no real treatment options in place. The demographic die is already cast. Within 25 years, China will become a more geriatric society, where at least 25 percent of the population is over 65. Chronic disease will become commonplace, more prevalent than in any other country.

What cultural challenges hinder or help Chinese society in managing Alzheimer’s?    

The generation of people now growing old in China had limited expectations, as they mainly grew up in dire poverty. As they aged, they accepted more stoically that society couldn’t provide much assistance except for immediate medical emergencies. Their children and grandchildren, however, are constituted differently. They often have education and expectations similar to people in the West, including that there should be quality treatment options in China for every medical issue, as there are in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. They increasingly want better treatment for their sick parents, and will certainly expect even more for themselves when they grow older and are diagnosed with chronic diseases like dementia and Parkinson’s, or need extended care and rehabilitation after a stroke or heart attack, both quite common in China. There is still so little care available in China to fulfill this growing need.

What can China learn from the United States and Europe?

Probably the key lesson is to not to expect, as too many in the U.S. and Europe did, a big breakthrough in Alzheimer’s care, the development of drugs to arrest the progress or undo the damage of the disease. The sad reality is despite huge sums spent on research, we’re as far away from such a medical miracle as we were 20 years and at least $20 billion ago. Instead, China needs to foster the development of thousands of quality treatment centers for Alzheimer’s patients, to care for them according to the best global standards, to lengthen and enrich their lives. This requires along with lots of new buildings a huge number of trained doctors, geriatricians, specialist nurses, and aides.

Describe differences between Chinese rural and urban treatment of Alzheimer’s.

Quality healthcare in China is still available mainly in large national hospitals located in major cities. Though the number of rural Chinese with Alzheimer’s is large and growing fast, there is virtually no professional care available for them locally. The government is seeking to change this, not only for chronic diseases, to raise the standards of healthcare in small cities and rural townships, to relieve the huge disproportionate burden on the big urban hospitals.

Identify opportunities for the international healthcare industry in addressing China’s looming Alzheimer’s challenge?  

Over the next 40 years in China, there is no single area offering better investment fundamentals than chronic care, including the care of Alzheimer’s. Sober forecasts are, by 2045, there will be over 40 million Chinese with Alzheimer’s, four times the number presently. By then, it’s likely half the total number of Alzheimer’s cases worldwide will be here in China. As of today, there are fewer than 500 beds in China for patients needing specialist Alzheimer’s treatment. A French company, Orpea, has a first mover advantage, having already opened a world-class facility in Nanjing. In financial terms, quality Alzheimer’s and chronic care provides very solid returns. As or more important, though, is that the benefits will be captured also by Chinese society as a whole. This will certainly be one of those areas where investors will do quite well by doing good, by contributing to a China where the diseases of old age will be competently managed and families kept happy and intact for longer.

 

As published by The Diplomat

 

 

 

China’s Bold “One Belt One Road” Move To Dramatically Extend Its Power and Commerce in the Indian Ocean — The Financial Times

September 27th, 2017 No comments

 

 

Much has been said — but far less is understood — about the One Belt One Road initiative, the centerpiece of Xi Jinping’s expansive foreign policy. That Mr. Xi has ambitions to extend across Eurasia China’s commercial, political and military power is not in doubt. But, the precise details on OBOR remain just about as unclear now as they did four years ago when the policy was unveiled — which countries are included, how much cash China will invest or lend, where are the first-order priority projects, will any of the trillions of dollars of proposed spending achieve commercial rates of return? Questions multiply. Answers are few.

There is one remote corner of the planet, however, where the full weight of OBOR’s grand strategy and profit-making potential are coming into view. It’s in a small village called Hambantota along the southern fringe of Indian Ocean beachfront in Sri Lanka.

One of China’s largest and most powerful state-owned companies, China Merchants Group, with total assets of $855 billion, is in the final stages of completing the purchase for $1.1 billion of a 99-year lease for a majority stake in a seven-year-old loss-making deep-water container port. It was built for over $1 billion on a turnkey basis by Chinese state-owned contractors. It is owned and operated by the Sri Lankan government’s Port Authority.

I’m just back in China from a rare guided visit inside Hambantota port. Like other bankers and investors, we’ve felt the pinch as much of Chinese outbound investment has been cancelled or throttled back this year. Hambantota, though, is full steam ahead.

Hambantota’s future appears now about as bright as its present is dreary. On the day I visited, there was virtually no activity in the port, save the rhythmic wobbling of a Chinese cargo ship stuck in Hambantota for three weeks. Due to choppy seas and also perhaps inexperienced Sri Lankan port staff, the Chinese ship has been sitting at anchor, unable to unload the huge Chinese-made heavy-duty cranes meant to operate on the quayside.

Though the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka has pledged that Hambantota will one day resemble Shanghai, as of today, elephants in the nearby jungle are about as numerous as dockworkers or pedestrians. Tragically, the region was ravaged, and partly depopulated, by the Tsunami of 2004. China Merchants will take over management of the port within the next month or so. There is much to do — as well as undo. The Hambantota port, under Sri Lankan government management, has been a bust, a half-finished commercial Xanadu where few ships now call. The port has lost over $300 million since it opened.

China Merchants’ plan to turn things around will rest on two prongs. Its port operations subsidiary, Hong Kong-listed China Merchants Port Holdings, will take over management of Hambantota. It is the largest port owner and operator in China. Almost 30% of all containers shipped into and out of China are handled in China Merchants’ ports. The ports business earned a profit of $850 million last year. China Merchants has what the Sri Lankan government’s Hambantota port operator could never muster: the operational skill, clout, capital and commercial relationships with shippers inside China and out to attract significant traffic to Hambantota. China’s state-owned shipping lines deliver more containers than those from any other country.

In addition, China Merchants will enlist other large China SOEs to invest and set up shop in an 11 square-kilometer special economic zone abutting the Hambantota port. The SEZ was created at the request of the Chinese government, with the promise of $5 billion of Chinese investment and 100,000 new jobs to follow. China Merchants is now drawing up the master plan.

A who’s who of Chinese SOE national champions are planning to move in, beginning with a huge oil bunkering and refining facility to be operated by Sinopec as well as a large cement factory, and later, Chinese manufacturing and logistics companies. This “Team China” approach – having a group of Chinese SOEs invest and operate alongside one another — is a component of other OBOR projects. But, the scale of what’s planned in Hambantota is shaping up to be far larger. The flag of Chinese state capitalism is being firmly planted on this Sri Lankan beachfront.

Hambantota is only ten to twelve nautical miles from the main Indian Ocean sea lane linking the Suez Canal and the Malacca Straits. Most of China’s exports and imports sail right past. An average of ten large container ships and oil tankers pass by every hour of every day. From the Hambantota port office building, one can see the parade of huge ships dotted across the horizon. Along with transshipping to India and the subcontinent, Hambantota will provide maintenance, oil storage and refueling for shipping companies.

Sri Lanka is the smallest of the four Subcontinental countries, with a population of 20 million compared to a total of 1.7 billion in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It has one geographic attribute its neighbors lack — a deep-water coastline close to Indian Ocean shipping lanes and conducive to building large deep-water ports able to handle the world’s largest container ships and supertankers. This should make Sri Lanka the ideal transshipment point for goods and natural resources going into and out of the Subcontinent.

The Port of Singapore is now the region’s main transshipment center. It is three to four times as distant from India’s major ports as Hambantota. Singapore is now the world’s second-busiest port in terms of total shipping tonnage. It transships about a fifth of the world’s shipping containers, as well as half of the world’s annual supply of crude oil.

Even before President Xi first articulated the OBOR policy, Sri Lanka was already seen as a key strategic and commercial beachhead for China’s future trade growth in the 40 countries bordering the Indian Ocean. China and Sri Lanka have had close and friendly diplomatic ties since the early 1950s. Both style themselves democratic socialist republics.

Sri Lanka is the one country in the region that enjoys cordial relations not only with China but also the US, and the three other Subcontinental nations. Sri Lanka’s GPD is $80 billion, less than one-tenth the total assets of China Merchants Group. Sri Lankan per capita GDP and literacy rate are both about double its Subcontinental neighbors. While a hardly a business nirvana, it is often easier to get things done there than elsewhere in region.

The first port was established in Hambantota around 250 AD. It was for centuries, until Chinese emperors sought to prohibit Chinese junks from sailing the open seas, a stopping point for Chinese ships trading with Arabia.

China Merchants has been trying for four years to close the deal there. China Merchants Port Holdings is a powerful presence in Sri Lanka. It already built and operates under a 35-year BOT contract a smaller, highly successful container port in the capital Colombo. It opened in 2013. It’s one of the few large-scale foreign direct investment success stories in Sri Lanka. The future plan is for the China Merchants’ Colombo port to mainly handle cargo for Sri Lanka’s domestic market, while Hambantota will become the main Chinese-operated transshipment hub in the Indian Ocean.

Chinese SOEs are also in the throes of building a port along the Pakistani coast at Gwadar and upgrading the main ports in Kenya. The direction of Beijing’s long-term planning grows clearer with each move. If not exactly a Chinese inner lake, the Indian Ocean will become an area where Chinese shipping and commercial interests will more predominate.

During the Hambantota negotiations, the Sri Lankan government blew hot and cold. The country needs foreign investment and Chinese are lining up to provide it, as well as additional infrastructure grants and loans. Chinese building crews swarm across a dozen high-rise building sites in Colombo. Chinese tourist arrivals are set to overtake India’s. The main section of the unfinished highway linking Colombo and Hambantota was just completed by the Chinese.

The new coalition government that came to power in Sri Lanka in early 2015 has sometimes showed qualms about the scale and pace of Chinese investment. India has already signaled unease with the Chinese plans to take over and enlarge the port in Hambantota. Prior to signing the contract with China Merchants, the Sri Lanka government provided India with assurances the Chinese will be forbidden to use the port for military purposes.

China Merchants will effectively pay off the construction loans granted by the state-owned Export-Import Bank of China to the Sri Lankan government in return for the 99-year operating lease. China Merchants plans to invest at least another $1 billion, but perhaps as much as $3 billion, to complete Hambantota port and turn it into the key Indian Ocean deep-water port for ships plying the route between Suez and East Asia. Rarely if ever in my experience do OBOR projects have the crisp commercial logic of Hambantota. Assuming ships do start to call there, Hambantota should prove quite profitable, as well as a major source of employment and tax revenue for Sri Lanka.

As of now, there is almost no housing and no infrastructure in Hambantota, only the port facility, a largely-empty international airport and a newly-opened Shangri-La hotel and golf course. The airport and port were pet projects of a local Hambantota boy made good, Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was Sri Lanka’s president from 2005 to 2015, when he was voted out of office. In December last year, the port was taken over by a mob of workers loyal to the Rajapaksa. They took several ships hostage before the Sri Lankan navy sailed in to end the chaos.

The port will be able to handle dry cargo, Ro-ro ships transporting trucks and autos, oil tankers as well as the world’s largest 400-meter container ships. Hambantota should lower prices and improve supply chains across the entire region, and so drive enormous growth in trade volumes — assuming power politics don’t intrude.

China and India have prickly relations, most recently feuding over Chinese road-building in the disputed region of Doklam. India has balked at direct participation in OBOR, and complains loudly about its mammoth trade deficit with China, now running about $5 billion a month. Chinese exports to India have quadrupled over the past decade, in spite of India’s extensive tariffs and protectionist measures. Hambantota should allow India’s manufacturing sector to be more closely intertwined with Chinese component manufacturers and supply chains. That is consistent with India’s goal to increase the share of gdp coming from manufacturing, and manufactured exports, both still far smaller than China’s. But, India will almost certainly push back, hard, if Hambantota leads to a big jump in its trade deficit with China.

China’s exports may be able to come in via the Sri Lankan backdoor. India and Sri Lanka have a free trade agreement that in theory lets Sri Lankan goods enter the vast market duty-free. Chinese manufacturers could turn the Hambantota free trade zone into a giant Maquiladora and export finished products to India. This would flood India with lower-priced consumer goods, autos, chemicals, clothing. Bangladesh, Pakistan and Burma — smaller economies but friendlier with China — would likewise absorb large increases in exported Chinese goods, either transshipped from Hambantota or assembled there.

No area within OBOR is of greater long-term significance to Chinese commerce. Fifty years from now, if UN estimates prove correct, the population of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh will be about 2.3 billion, or about double where China’s population will be by then.

Some China Merchants executives are dreaming aloud the Thai and Chinese governments will close a deal to build a canal across Southern Thailand. This would shave 1,200 miles off the sea route from Suez to China. The preferred canal route across the isthmus of Southern Thailand is actually shorter than the length of the Panama Canal. The canal would re-route business away from Singapore and the Malacca Straits. The likely cost, at around $25 billion, could be borne by China without difficulty. Hambantota would grow still larger in importance, commercially and strategically.

For now, though, the Thai canal is not under active bilateral discussion. Not only does the ruling Thai junta worry about its landmass being cleaved in two, the governments of the US, Japan, Singapore would likely have serious reservations about altering Asian geography to enhance China’s sea power and naval maneuverability.

By itself, a Chinese-owned and operated Hambantota will almost certainly reconfigure large trade flows across much of Asia, Africa and Europe, benefitting China primarily, but others in the region as well. It is a disruptive occurrence. While much of China’s OBOR policy remains nebulous and progress uncertain, Chinese control of Hambantota seems more than likely to become a world-altering fact.

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As published in The Financial Times

 

 

 

 

Venture Fundraising in Yuan Soars as Investors Target Chinese Tech Firms — The New York Times

September 23rd, 2017 No comments

 

HONG KONG (Reuters) – China-focused venture capital funds are increasing their bets on local technology companies and a further opening of Chinese domestic capital markets, raising money in the yuan at the fastest pace in five years.

Fund managers have raised 95.8 billion yuan ($14.54 billion) this year through late September in funds denominated in the Chinese currency, which is also known as the renminbi, compared with 56.7 billion yuan in all of 2016. That puts 2017 on pace to be the biggest year since 2012, when 145.8 billion yuan was raised, according to data provider Preqin.

There are currently 78 funds looking to raise as much as another 1.15 trillion yuan over the next couple of years, Preqin said, most of it coming from mammoth-sized state-owned entities and so-called government guidance funds, which seek to foster domestic innovation in different industries from advanced engineering and robotics to biotechnology and clean energy.

 Those include the 350 billion yuan sought by the China Structural Reform Fund, 200 billion yuan targeted by the China State-Owned Capital Venture Investment Fund and a proposed 150 billion yuan for the state-owned Enterprise National Innovation Fund.

The enormous size of the fundraising ambitions of the Chinese state-backed funds means it may take some time before they reach their final goals. The China Structural Reform Fund, which was launched in 2016, has raised 20 percent of its registered capital and its president said in an interview with Caixin Global that funding will be completed by the end of 2018.

“We’re at the all-time highest of capital-raising high water marks, with a tsunami of government-backed entities seeding incubators, VC funds, locally, provincially, nationally,” said Peter Fuhrman, CEO of China-focused investment bank China First Capital. “China has a lot of money in its government apparatus. It wants to seed innovation and entrepreneurship and this is how it’s doing it.”

The surge contrasts with the slowdown in seed financing for start ups in the United States, which is down for the past two years. It also compares with flat growth expected for U.S. venture capital fundraising in 2017, according to estimates from the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA).

CATCHING ENTREPRENEURS

Firms such as Lightspeed China Partners, Morningside Venture Capital, GGV Capital and investment and merchant bank Ion Pacific that previously only had U.S. dollar funds are launching their first funds in yuan. Others like Hillhouse Capital, Sequoia Capital China and China Renaissance that have raised funds in both currencies are adding to their yuan cash pile with new funds.

Key to those firms is to not lose potential investment opportunities in sectors closed to foreign investors or miss out on investing with the Chinese entrepreneurs who now want to list their companies locally instead of in the United States.

“Catching the right entrepreneurs in the ecosystem is our number one priority, so currencies to us are just tools, those are the tools that I need to catch these entrepreneurs,” said Harry Man, partner at Matrix Partners China, which has funds in both currencies. “That’s why if you don’t have RMB in your hand, ultimately you’ll be missing 50 percent of the deals. Then you’ll be forced to raise an RMB fund and that’s why everybody is doing it.”

Sequoia Capital China, which backed top Chinese technology firms such as Alibaba Group (BABA.N), is looking to raise at least 10 billion yuan for a new fund, while Hillhouse Capital, an early investor in companies including Tencent Holdings Ltd (0700.HK), Baidu Inc (BIDU.O) and JD.com Inc (JD.O), is targeting about 8 billion yuan for its fund, sources told Reuters.

The investment management arm of securities firm China Renaissance is also adding to its yuan reserves with a new fund worth about 6 billion yuan, according to a person familiar with the plans who couldn’t be named because details of the fundraising aren’t yet public. Ion Pacific is raising 1 billion yuan for its debut fund in the Chinese currency, while GGV Capital is about to close fundraising for its first yuan-denominated fund.

“Some sectors don’t allow foreign investors, so for example, in the culture and media industry you need to apply for certain licenses like video licenses and you need to be a local investor,” said Helen Wong, a partner at Qiming Venture Partners.

“Now the IPO window is open for the local stock market, so that encourages a lot of companies to go for a local listing,” she added, in reference to the increase in IPO approvals by regulators in 2017 that is prompting more companies to start preparations to go public. Previously, a slow approval process and long line of companies waiting for clearance dissuaded many from those plans.

The shift would give an added boost to the Shenzhen and Shanghai bourses. China has had 322 new listings this year, raising a combined $22.9 billion, Thomson Reuters data showed. This already surpasses the 252 for all of 2016, even after the country’s securities regulator slowed the number of weekly IPO approvals in May.

It could also reduce the influence of the Nasdaq and New York stock exchanges, where many Chinese technology companies previously flocked when they went public.

“For the RMB side, you see more companies in restricted sectors like healthcare and media and certain parts of cleantech that needs government support to get started,” said Hans Tung, managing partner at GGV Capital. “You also see companies in the fintech space and a lot of them need a license to operate a business in the financial services industry, so they tend to want to list in China.”

 

As published in The New York Times.

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Why Has China’s GDP So Outpaced IRR?

September 22nd, 2017 No comments

It’s the paradox at the core of China investing: why has such a phenomenal economy proved such a disappointing investment destination for so many global institutional investors, PE firms and Fortune 500s.

Financial theory provides a conceptual explanation. Investment returns are not absolutely correlated to GDP growth. China will likely go down in history as the best proof of this theorem. China as certainly delivered exceptional GDP growth. In per capita PPP terms, China is 43 times larger than in 1981, when I first set foot in China as a grad student. No other country has ever grown so fast, for so long and lifted so many people out of poverty and into the consumer middle class.

Commensurate investment returns, however, have been far harder to lock in. Harvard Business School’s global alumni organization invited me to give an hour-long talk on this topic this week. It required a quick gallop through some recent and not always happy history to arrive at the key question — does the future hold m0re promise for global institutional investors looking to deploy capital in China.

 For more detailed look at some reasons for the big disconnect between China’s national GPD growth and investment IRR, and some suggestions how to improve matters, please have a look by clicking here at the HBS talk slide deck.

Publicly-quoted shares in Chinese companies have failed by far and away to keep pace with the growth in overall national income. In the alternative investment arena, global PE and VC firms enjoyed some huge early success in late 1990s and first part of the 2000s. Since then, the situation has worsened, as measured in cash returns paid out to Limited Partners. One major reason — the explosion within China of Renminbi investment funds, now numbering at least 1,000. They’ve bid up valuations, gotten first access to better opportunities, and left the major global PE and VC firms often sitting on the sidelines. With tens of billions in dry powder, these global firms look more and more like deposed financial royalty — rich, nostalgic, melancholy and idle.

China this year will add approximately $1 trillion of new gdp this year – that’s not a lot less than the entire gdp of Russia. Indeed, China gdp growth in 2017 is larger than the entire gdp of all but 15 countries. Who is making all this money? Are all the spoils reserved for local investors and entrepreneurs? Can global investors find a way at last to get a bigger piece of all this new wealth?

Overall, I’m moderately sanguine that lessons have been learned, especially about the large risks of following the Renminbi fund herd into what are meant to be sure-thing “Pre-Ipo” minority deals. Active investment strategies have generally done better. With China’s economy well along in its high-speed transition away from smokestack industries and OEM exports to one powered by consumer spending, there are new, larger and ripe opportunities for global investors. In virtually all major, growing categories of consumer spending, Western brands are doing well, and will likely do better, as Chinese consumers preferences move upmarket to embrace high-quality, well-established global household brand names.

Harvard, its alumni and benefactors have a two hundred year history of investing and operating in China. So, there’s some deep institutional memory and fascination, not least with the risks and moral quandaries that come with the territory. The Cabot family, at one time among America’s richest, provided huge grants to Harvard funded in part by profits made opium running into China.

Harvard Management Company, the university’s $35 billion endowment, was an early and enthusiastic LP investor in China as well as large investor in Chinese quoted companies including Sinopec. Their enthusiasm seems to be waning. Harvard Management is apparently considering selling off many of its LP positions, including those in PE and VC funds investing in China.

This looks to be an acknowledgment that the GP/LP model of China investing has not regularly delivered the kind of risk-adjusted cash-on-cash returns sophisticated, diversified institutional investors demand. While China’s economy is doing great, it’s never been harder to achieve a successful private equity or venture capital investment exit. True, the number of Chinese IPOs has ratcheted up this year, but there are still thousands of unexited deals, especially inside upstart Renminbi funds.

While decent returns on committed capital have been scarce, the Chinese government continues to pour billions of Renminbi into establishing new funds in China. There’s hardly a government department, at local, provincial or national level that isn’t now in the fund creation business. Diversification isn’t a priority. Instead, two investment themes all but monopolize the Chinese government’s time and money — one is to stimulate startups and high-tech industry (with a special focus on voguish sectors like Big Data, robotics, artificial intelligence, biotech) the other is to support the country’s major geostrategic initiative, the One Belt One Road policy.

One would need to be visionary, reckless or brave to add one’s own money to this cash tsunami. Never before has so much government money poured into private equity and venture capital, mainly not in search of returns, but to further policy and employment aims. It’s a first in financial history. The distortions are profound. Valuations and deal activity are high, while returns in the aggregate from China investing will likely plummet, from already rather low levels.

Where should a disciplined investor seek opportunity in China? First, as always, one should follow the money — not all the government capital, but the even larger pools of cash being spent by Chinese consumers.

In China, every major consumer market is in play, and growing fast. This plays to the strengths of foreign capital and foreign operating companies. There are almost unlimited opportunities to bring new and better consumer products and services to China. Let the Chinese government focus on investing in China’s future. High-tech companies in China, ones with globally competitive technology, market share and margins are still extraordinarily rare, as are cash gains from investing here.

Meantime, as I reminded the HBS alumni, plenty of foreign companies and investors are doing well today in China’s consumer market. Not just the well-known ones like Apple and Starbucks. Smaller ventures helping Chinese spend money while traveling globally, or obtain better-quality health care and education options, are building defendable, high-margin niches in China. One company started by an HBS alumnus, a native New Yorker like me, is among the leading non-bank small lending companies in China. It provides small loans to small-scale entrepreneurs, mainly in the consumer market. Few in China know much about Zhongan Credit, and fewer still that it’s started and run by a Caucasian American HBS grad. But, it’s among the most impressive success stories of foreign investment in China.

Of course, such success investing in China is far from guaranteed. Consumer markets in China are tricky, fast-changing, and sometimes skewed to disadvantage foreign investors. For over two hundred years, most foreign investors have seen their fond dreams of a big China payday crash on the rocks of Chinese reality.

The rewards from China’s 35 years of remarkable economic growth has mainly — and rightly — gone to the hard-working people of China. But, there’s reason to believe that in the future, more of the new wealth created each year in China will be captured by smart, pragmatic investors from HBS and elsewhere.

 

As published by China Money Network

As published by SuperReturn

YouTube video of the full lecture to Harvard Business School alumni organization

 

 

 

China’s Wanda Group, Where to From Here — CNBC Interview

August 24th, 2017 No comments

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interviewed this morning on CNBC’s Squawk Box about Wanda and its new “asset light strategy”.

My conclusion: “Wanda just underwent the corporate version of emergency bariatric surgery. It’s suddenly become a much slimmed-down company. What Wanda is today, what it will become, we don’t yet know. But, it looking clear Wanda is no longer one of the heavyweights of China’s private sector. “

 

China Steps Up Warnings Over Debt-Fueled Overseas Acquisitions — The New York Times

August 21st, 2017 No comments

BEIJING — China moved on Friday to curb investment overseas by its companies and conglomerates, issuing its strongest signal yet that it wants to rein in runaway debt that could pose a threat to the country’s slowing economy.

Beijing has stepped up its efforts in recent months to restrict some of its most acquisitive companies from buying overseas assets, worried that a series of purchases by China’s conglomerates around the world has been driven by excessive borrowing.

In the latest move, a statement published by China’s cabinet, the State Council, said the authorities would punish companies for violating foreign investment rules, and establish a blacklist of businesses that did so. The statement was attributed to the National Development and Reform Commission, the commerce ministry, the foreign ministry and the central bank.

The statement pointed to acquisitions in sectors ranging from entertainment and sports clubs to hotels, but it was unclear whether or how the government would block deals.

It reiterated a warning issued in December that restrictions on overseas investments were being imposed because of “irrational” investment trends.

That statement said that the kinds of investments overseas it described were “not in accordance with macro-control policies.” The government wants to “effectively guard against all sorts of risks,” it said. The State Council document said the government nevertheless supported overseas investments in sectors such as oil and gas and in China’s “One Belt, One Road” program, which aims to promote infrastructure projects along the historic Silk Road trading route.

“It’s the loudest yet of wake-up calls that the government holds the keys to the lockbox of the country’s wealth, public and private,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank, said in an emailed response to questions. “Bad M&A is all but criminalized.”

A surge in overseas acquisitions by Chinese investors in recent years has ignited fears that soaring corporate debt levels could destabilize the country’s economy, the world’s second largest, and further weaken its currency.

Companies like Anbang Insurance Group, Fosun International, the HNA Group and Dalian Wanda Group have capitalized on cheap loans provided by state banks to snap up trophy assets such as the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York and AMC Theaters.

Beijing’s clampdown on overseas investments shows how the interests of private business can collide with those of the Communist Party government. Beijing has made financial stability a priority this year, with the party’s congress scheduled in the fall. Among the party’s top concerns: controlling debt, stemming the flow of capital leaving the country, and China’s opaque “shadow banking” system.

But while the latest statement from the State Council is likely to have an impact on mergers and deals, a lot of Chinese money is already offshore and thus not easily restricted by the government in Beijing, said Alexander Jarvis, chairman of Blackbridge Cross Borders, which has advised Chinese companies on several soccer acquisitions.

“Deals are still going to happen,” Mr. Jarvis said. “There is plenty of Chinese capital overseas in offshore tax havens, in the U.S., across Europe, Hong Kong. I’m not sure they can fully control that capital.”

In a sign of that deal making, a Chinese businessman, Gao Jisheng, struck a deal to buy an 80 percent stake in Southampton Football Club, a soccer team in the English Premier League, for about $271 million. Mr. Gao obtained the loan from a bank in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China that is administered under separate laws, Bloomberg reported on Thursday.

Geoffrey Sant, a partner at New York-based law firm Dorsey and Whitney, said it is likely that the latest announcement from Beijing will result in a “temporary pause” in overseas acquisitions.

“I think they are thinking there’s a bit of irrational exuberance in the market right now and they just want to cool that off,” said Mr. Sant, who represents Chinese companies. “It doesn’t make sense to permanently ban some of these areas.”

The State Council statement comes amid increased scrutiny of China’s “gray rhinos” — threats that are large and obvious but often neglected even so.

In recent months, the government has said it would increase scrutiny of companies’ balance sheets, warning that some of the largest companies could pose a systemic risk to the economy.

Encouraged by the slew of acquisitions made by some of the country’s most powerful tycoons, many smaller Chinese companies started looking overseas, spurred by China’s slowing economic growth to look for new markets.

Many, however, had no experience running the businesses they were targeting. In one such example, Anhui Xinke New Materials, a copper processing company in central China, made a deal to buy Voltage Pictures, an American film financing and production firm, for $350 million. A month later, Anhui Xinke pulled out of the transaction.

In other cases, it was not clear whether many of the big trophy acquisitions were actually good deals.

In 2015, Legendary chalked up a net loss of $540 million, according to a regulatory filing that Wanda Film filed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Fosun International, meanwhile, paid a premium to buy French resort operator Club Med, which was until then an unprofitable company, eventually agreeing to a $1.1 billion price tag in 2015 after a long takeover battle. The firm made a small profit last year, according to Fosun’s filings. And last year, AC Milan, the Italian soccer club that was acquired by a Chinese consortium for about $870 million, made a net loss of about $88 million.

“I agree with the Chinese government. A lot of these deals are bad,” said Mr. Jarvis.

Companies have already started feeling the pinch of Beijing’s clampdown on overseas investments, which started in earnest in December.

The number of newly announced outbound mergers and acquisitions by Chinese firms fell by 20 percent in the first six months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016, though it picked up in May and June, according to Rhodium Group, a New York-based research firm.

In March, Dalian Wanda, the Chinese conglomerate that owns AMC Theaters and Legendary Entertainment, was forced to abandon its $1 billion deal to buy Dick Clark Productions, the firm behind the Golden Globes and Miss Universe telecast after Beijing tightened its controls on capital outflows. Months later, Wanda sold a majority stake in 13 theme parks to property firm Sunac China Holdings and handed 77 hotels to R&F Properties, another real estate company based in the southern city of Guangzhou, for $9.5 billion.

 

As published in The New York Times.

The New York Times Interview Transcript

Download PDF version.

 

 

China’s New Plan for Silicon Valley Partnerships — Global Times

August 16th, 2017 No comments

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The once-sizzling romance between China and Silicon Valley has cooled rather dramatically. This has some potentially serious consequences for both sides, but especially for China, which desires to invest in and gain access to some of the hottest new ideas from this cradle of innovation. A new strategy is needed.

Until recently, Chinese investment funds and companies were investing hundreds of millions of dollars every year into promising Silicon Valley start-ups, as part of a strategy to forge closer ties between the US high-technology sector and the large Chinese market. But the flow of funds has largely dried up.

There are two main reasons. First, Chinese regulators imposed new restrictions on large overseas investments. Second, the US government began to take a less friendly attitude toward Chinese technology investment in the US, killing several proposed deals and holding up approval on many others.

There is every sign that things in the US are going to get more restrictive rather than less. As someone convinced of mutual benefits from Chinese investment in US technology, it all seems highly counterproductive. The world needs more deep and extensive ties between the Chinese and the US high-technology world, not just in start-up investing but also in university research and scientific conferences, shared research and development (R&D) labs, and partnerships among large companies working in hot fields like semiconductors, robotics, artificial intelligence and clean energy.

What can China do? Rather than sending money out, it can encourage more US high-technology start-ups to relocate to China. There is a huge amount to be gained, both for China’s continuing industrial upgrading and for innovative US technology companies looking to grow into giants.

China has in abundance the most vital ingredients for technology start-up success:  capital, a market and talented managers and engineers. In many industries, for example advanced manufacturing, robotics and new battery technologies, China often has more to offer technology companies than the US.

China already has lured a lot of Chinese-born scientists and technologists back from Silicon Valley to open start-ups. The next step is to lure some of the best early-stage US technology companies to China. This addresses a big weakness in the US high-technology scene: companies there tend to view the China market as an after-thought. In reality, it is often the market most worth prioritizing.

I’m seeing how well all this can work on the ground. We’re helping a promising US robotics company build its future in China. It is establishing a Chinese company as its main asset and moving some of its core team to China. It expects to add many more staff in China. The breakthrough product it’s now perfecting has a huge potential market in China’s manufacturing industry.

Originally, this company was aiming to find investors in China to help it grow in Ohio. We helped explain why bringing the company to China would make a lot more sense. The company is applying for R&D grants as well as venture capital in China. Within a 100-kilometer radius of its future base in Shenzhen, South China’s Guangdong Province is the largest concentration of potential customers and partners in the world.

We foresee big mutual gains if China can attract many more exciting early-stage technology companies. They  will create jobs, pay taxes and invest in local R&D. The benefits to China should be far larger than just buying some shares in a technology company based in Silicon Valley.

The objective isn’t to evade US rules but to bring start-ups early in their growth stage to the market where the demand is greatest. Technology companies do best when they sit close to the biggest concentration of customers.

The Chinese government has already said it wants to make the country more of a magnet for global technology talent. Shenzhen is a great city for US start-ups to grow big.

The steep drop in Chinese investment in Silicon Valley may actually prove a blessing in disguise. It’s smart to keep more of that capital at home to invest in great technology companies in China. Many US technology start-ups will achieve far more, and far more quickly, if they make China their future home.

The author is Chairman and CEO of China First Capital.

 

PDF Version.

http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1061519.shtml