In 2014, the gap between the performance of the private equity industry in China and the US opened wide. The US had a record-breaking year, with ten-year net annualized return hitting 14.6%. Final data is still coming in, but it appears certain US PE raised more capital more quickly and returned more profits to LPs than any year previously. China, on the other hand, had another so-so year. Exits picked up over 2013, but still remain significantly below highs reached in 2011. As a result profit distributions to LPs and closing of new China-focused funds are also well down on previous highs.
China’s economy, of course, also had an off year, with growth trending down. But, it’s hard to place the blame there. At 7.5%, China’s economy is still growing at around triple the rate of the US. China’s publicly-traded equities market, meanwhile, turned in a stellar performance, with the overall Chinese stock exchange average up 52% in 2014, compared to a 11.4% rise in the US S&P. When stock markets do well, PE firms should also, especially with exits.
While IPO exits for Chinese companies in US, HK and China reached 221, compared to only 66 in 2013, the ultimate measure of success in PE investing is not the number of IPOs. It’s the amount of capital and profits paid back to LP investors. This is China PE’s greatest weakness.
Over the last decade, China PE firms have returned only about 30% of the money invested with them to their LPs. This compares to the US, where PE firms over the same period returned twice the money invested by LPs. In other words, in China, as 2015 commences, PE firm investors are sitting on large cash losses.
China PE firms say they hope to return more money to their LPs in the future. But, this poor pay-out performance is already having an adverse impact on the China PE industry. It is getting harder for most China PE firms to raise new capital. If this trend continues, there will be two negative consequences – first, the China PE industry, now the second largest in the world, will shrink in size. Second, and more damaging for China’s overall economic competitiveness, the investment capital available for Chinese companies will decline. PE capital has provided over the past decade much-needed fuel for the growth of China’s private sector.
What accounts for this poor performance of China private equity compared to the US? One overlooked reason: China PE has lost the knack of investing and exiting profitably from Chinese industrial and manufacturing companies. Broadly speaking, this sector was the focus of about half the PE deals done up to 2011 when new deals peaked. That mirrors the fact manufacturing accounts for half of China’s GDP and traditionally has achieved high levels (over 30%) of value-added.
Manufacturing has now fallen very far from favor in China. Partly it’s the familiar China macro story of slowing export growth and margin pressures from rising labor costs and other inputs. But, another factor is at work: China’s own stock market, as well as those of the US and Hong Kong, have developed a finicky appetite when it comes to Chinese companies. In the US, only e-commerce and other internet-related companies need apply for an IPO. In Hong Kong, the door is open more widely and the bias against manufacturing companies isn’t quite so pronounced, especially if the company is state-owned. But, among private sector companies, the biggest China-company IPO have been concentrated in financial services, real estate, food production, retail.
For China-investing PE firms, this means in most cases their portfolios are mismatched with what capital markets want. They hold stakes in thousands of Chinese industrial and manufacturing companies representing a total investment of over $20 billion in LP money. For now, the money is trapped and time is growing short. PE fund life, of course, is finite. Many of these investments were made five to eight years ago. China PE need rather urgently to find a way to turn these investments into cash and return money to LPs. Here too the comparison with US private equity is especially instructive.
The colossus that is today’s US private equity industry, with 3,300 firms invested in 11,000 US companies, was built in part by doing successful buyouts in the 1980s and 1990s of manufacturing and industrial companies, often troubled ones. Deals like Blackstone‘s most successful investment of all time, chemicals company Celanese, together with American Axle and TRW Automotive, KKR‘s Amphenol Corporation, Bain‘s takeover of Sealy Corporation and many, many others led the way. Meanwhile, smart corporate investors like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Emerson Electric and were also pouring billions into acquiring and shaping up industrial businesses. So successful has this strategy been over the last 30 years, it can seem like there are no decent industrial or manufacturing companies left for US PEs to target.
Along the way, US PEs became experts at selecting, acquiring, fixing up and then exiting from industrial companies. US PEs have shown again and again they are good at rationalizing, consolidating, modernizing and systematizing industrial companies and entire industrial sectors. These are all things China’s manufacturing industry is crying out for. Market shares are fragmented, management systems often non-existent, inventory control and other tools of “lean manufacturing” often nowhere to be found.
So here’s a pathway forward for China PE, to use in China the identical investing skills honed in the US. It should be rather easy, since among the US’s 100 biggest private equity firms, the majority have sizeable operations now in China, including giants like Carlyle, Blackstone, KKR, TPG, Bain Capital, Warburg Pincus. For these firms, it should be no more complicated than the left hand following what the right hand is doing.
It isn’t working out that way. This is a big reason why China PE is performing poorly compared to the US. PE partners in China in the main came into the industry after getting an MBA in the US or UK, then getting a job on Wall Street or a consulting shop. Few have experience working in, managing or restructuring industrial companies. They often, in my experience, look a little out of place walking a factory floor. This is the other big mismatch in China PE — between the skill-sets of those running the PE firms what’s needed to turn their portfolio companies into winners.
Roll-up, about the most basic and time-tested of all US PE money-making strategies, has yet to take root in China. Inhospitable terrain? No, to the contrary. But, it requires a fair bit of sweat and grit from PE firms.
This may account for the fact that China PE firms are now mainly herding together to try to close deals in e-commerce, healthcare services, mobile games and other places where no metal gets bashed. PE firms formed such a crush to try to invest in Xiaomi, the mobile phone brand, that they drove the valuation up in the latest round of funding to $46 billion, so high none of them decided to invest. China PE is that paradoxical – fewer deals are getting done, fewer have profitable exits and yet valuations are often much higher than anywhere else.
Another worrying sign: of the big successful China company IPOs in 2014 – Alibaba, Dalian Wanda‘s commercial real estate arm, CGN, CITIC Securities, Shaanxi Coal, JD.com, WH Group – only one had large global PE firms inside as large shareholders. That was WH Group, a troubled deal that had a hard time IPOing and has since sunk rather sharply. For the big global PE firms, 2014 had no big China IPO successes, which is probably a first.
The giant US PEs (Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR, Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, Bain Capital, TPG and the others) all voyaged to China a decade or more ago with high hopes. Some even dared predict China would become as important and profitable a market for them as the US. They were able to raise billions at the start, build big teams, but it’s been getting noticeably harder both to raise money and notch big successful deals. And so their focus is shifting back to the US.
China has so much going for it as an investment destination, such an abundance of what the US lacks. High overall growth, a government rolling in cash, a burgeoning and rapidly prospering middle class, rampant entrepreneurship, huge new markets ripe for taking. Why then are so many of the world’s most professional and successful investors finding it so tough to make a buck here?
China still lacking in innovation
January 23, 2015 1:00 pm JST
By Peter Fuhrman
China’s economy suffers from an acute case of “not invented here” syndrome. Everything can be, and increasingly is, manufactured in China, but almost nothing of value is invented here.
The result is an economy still centered on low-pay, low-margin drudge work manufacturing products designed, patented and marketed by others. This is as true for advanced medical diagnostic equipment from General Electric as it is for Apple’s iPhones and tablets.
While manufacturing accounts for almost 50% of China’s gross domestic product and keeps 100 million people employed, China has few if any domestic companies selling sophisticated, premium-priced manufactured products to the world. As long as this remains the case and China remains a huge economy with only the tiniest sliver of consequential and profitable innovation, it will grow harder each year for the country to sustain high economic growth rates and big increases in living standards.
The government is increasingly anxious. “China is now standing at a critical stage in that its economic growth must be driven by innovation,” warned the State Council, China’s cabinet, in May.
With the talk comes money. Lots of it. Billions of dollars are being allocated to government-backed research projects and venture capital. But for all the rhetoric, government policies and cash, China remains a high-tech disappointment, more dud than ascending rocket. As an investment banker living and running a business in China, I very much wish it were otherwise. But I still see no concrete evidence of a major change underway.
On others’ shoulders
Indeed, the flagship products of China’s advanced manufacturing sector are still built largely on foreign components, technologies and systems, with Chinese factories serving as the assembly point.
Consider Xiaomi, which achieved great success in China’s mobile phone market last year and began getting some traction overseas. The company now has a market valuation of $45 billion, far higher than Sony, Toshiba, Philips, Ericsson and many more of the world’s most famous innovators.
Xiaomi’s handsets rely on components and software from a group of mainly U.S. companies, including Broadcom, Qualcomm and Google. They, along with U.K. chipmaker ARM Holdings and foreign screen manufacturers, are the ones making the real money on Android phones like Xiaomi’s.
Many of Xiaomi’s phones, like those of Apple and other leading brands, are assembled in China by Hon Hai Precision Industry, a Taiwanese company better known as Foxconn. As of now, Foxconn has no Chinese competitor that can match its production quality at a comparable low cost. Its superior management systems for high-volume production underscore another critical area where China’s domestic technology industry is weak.
The picture is similar with products such as computers, cars and aircraft. China’s military and commercial jet development programs have relied on foreign engines because of the country’s continuing failure to design and produce its own. Compare this with the Soviet Union, which, though an economic also-ran all the way up to its extinction in 1991, was producing jet engines as early as the 1950s; Russia still supplies advanced military engines for Chinese military jets. The picture is little better with jet brakes and advanced radar systems.
Stumbling blocks in China’s jet engine development continue at the manufacturing level with difficulties in serial production of minute-tolerance machinery, at the materials level with a lack of special alloys, and at the industrial level where a state-owned monopoly producer faces no local competitor to drive innovation as has been seen in the dynamic in the U.S. between GE and Pratt & Whitney.
China’s inability to make its own advanced jet engines casts light on problems China has, and likely will continue to have, developing a globally competitive indigenous technology base. This challenge, to bring all the parts together in a high-tech manufacturing project, is also evident in China’s failure, up to now, to develop and sell domestically developed advanced integrated circuits, pharmaceuticals and new materials globally.
China has, by some estimates, spent more than $10 billion on pharmaceutical research, but it has had only one domestically developed drug accepted in the global market, the modestly successful anti-malarial treatment artemisinin, or qinghaosu. Interestingly, it is derived from an herbal medicine used for 2,000 years in China to treat malaria; the drug was first synthesized by Chinese researchers in 1972.
It’s simply not enough to count Chinese engineers and patents, or to rely on the content of the government’s technology-promoting policies. China still lacks so many of the basic building blocks of high-tech development, such as a mature, experienced venture capital industry staffed by professional entrepreneurs and technologists. A transparent judicial system is also essential, not only for protecting patents and other intellectual property, but for managing the contractual process that allows companies to put money at risk over long periods to achieve a return. Nondisclosure and noncompete agreements, a backbone of the technology industry in the U.S. and elsewhere, are basically unenforceable in China.
Tencent Holdings’ WeChat mobile messaging service is an example frequently cited by those who claim to see a dawning of innovation in China. An impressive 400 million phone users have signed up for the service. The basic application, though, is similar to that of Facebook’s WhatsApp, Japan’s Line and others.
WeChat’s real technological strength is in its back end, in building and managing the servers to store all the content that is sent across the network, including a huge amount of video and audio files. Tencent does this because it’s required to do so by Chinese internet rules and government policies on monitoring Internet content. Tencent might be able to commercialize and sell its backend storage architecture globally, but it’s not clear anyone would be interested in buying it. It’s a technology that evolved from specific Chinese requirements, not market demand.
China’s record of invention is the stuff of history: gunpowder, the compass, paper, oil wells, porcelain, even alcoholic beverages, kites and the fishing reel. All that occurred over 1,000 years ago. China’s greatest modern invention has been its singular pathway out of poverty as the economy expanded 200-fold over the last 35 years. But growth is now slowing, costs are rising sharply and profit margins are shrinking. To go on prospering, China needs to invent a new path and discover a new wellspring of breakthrough innovation, and it needs to do so in a hurry.
Peter Fuhrman is the founder, chairman and chief executive of China First Capital, an investment bank based in Shenzhen, China.
The secret is out. Chinese now know, in far greater numbers than before, that the favorite brand of the favorite staple food of hundreds of millions of them is made by a huge American company, General Mills, best known for sugar-coated cereals served to American children. (See my earlier article here.) In the current issue of China’s weekly business magazine Caijing is my Chinese-language article blowing the cover off the well-hidden fact that China’s tastiest and most popular brand of frozen dumplings, known in Chinese as 湾仔码头, “Wanzai Matou”, is made by the same guys who make Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms in the US.
You can read a copy of my Caijing article by clicking here.
Getting these facts in print was not simple. I’ve been an online columnist for Caijing for years. When I sent the manuscript the magazine’s editor, he did the journalistic version of a double take, refusing to believe at first that this dumpling brand he knows well is actually owned and run by a non-Chinese company, and a huge American conglomerate to boot. He asked many questions and apparently did his own digging around to confirm the truth of what I was claiming.
He asked me to reveal to him and Caijing’s readers the secret techniques General Mills has used to conquer the Chinese market. That further complicated things. It wasn’t, I explained, by selling stuff cheap, since Wanzai Matou sells in supermarkets for about double the price of pure domestic brands. Nor was it because they used the same kind of saturation television advertising P&G has pioneered in China to promote sales of its market-leading products Head & Shoulders and Tide. General Mills spends little on media advertising in China, relying instead on word of mouth and an efficient supply chain.
My explanation, such as it is, was that the Americans were either brave or crazy enough, beginning fifteen years ago, to believe Chinese would (a) start buying frozen food in supermarkets, and (b) when they did, they’d be willing to pay more for it than fresh-made stuff. Wanzai Matou costs more per dumpling than buying the hand-made ones available at the small dumpling restaurants that are so numerous in China just about everyone living in a city or reasonably-sized town is within a ten-minute walk of several.
In my case, I’ve got at least twenty places within that radius. I flat-out love Chinese dumplings. With only a small degree of exaggeration I tell people here that the chance to eat dumplings every day, three times a day, was a prime reason behind my move to China. For my money, and more important for that of many tens of millions of Chinese, the Wanzai Matou ones just taste better.
The article, though, does explain the complexities of building and managing a frozen “cold chain” in China. General Mills had more reason to master this than any company, domestic or foreign. That’s because along with Wanzai Matou they have a second frozen blockbuster in China: Häagen-Dazs ice cream, sold both in supermarkets and stand-alone Häagen-Dazs ice cream shops. Either way, it’s out of my price range, at something like $5 for a few thimblefuls, but lots of Chinese seem to love it. Both Wanzai Matou and Häagen-Dazs China are big enough and fast-growing enough to begin to have an impact on General Mills’ overall performance, $18 billion in revenues and $1.8bn in profits in 2014.
For whatever reason, General Mills doesn’t like to draw attention to its two stellar businesses in China. The annual report barely mentions China. This is in contrast to their Minnesota neighbor 3M which will tell anyone who’s listening including on Wall Street that it’s future is all about further expanding in China. But, the fundamentals of General Mills’ business in China look as strong, or stronger, than any other large American company operating here.
The title of my Caijing article is “外来的厨子会做饺子” which translates as “Foreign cooks can make dumplings”. It expresses the surprise I’ve encountered at every turn here whenever I mention to people here that China’s most popular dumpling company is from my homeland not theirs.
Watching the NFL playoffs this weekend on Chinese internet TV channel PP Live, I saw something I never imagined. No, not a live broadcast in China of American football. The NFL has a great thing going here in China. While not a big-time success yet like the NBA in China, the NFL is quietly making fans out of a meaningful slice of the country’s most gold-plated demographic: males with advanced degrees and senior management positions.
No, what surprised me while watching the game was the frequent commercials paid for in part by money from the US Department of Treasury. Yes, Uncle Sam is now involved in buying advertising time during NFL games on Chinese tv. Never quite thought I’d live to see the day.
The ads are to promote tourism to the US. There are snapshots of American scenery, a catchy little song playing in the background, and then this splash screen comes up at the end:
Follow that www.gousa.cn link and one eventually learns the group behind the ads is something called “Brand USA”, a body describing itself as a “public private partnership”. That’s generally code for some kind of organization where the US Treasury picks up some or all of the tab, but whose purpose is to help private companies make money. Sure enough. Last month, President Obama signed legislation that keeps the government money flowing to Brand USA at least through 2020, long after he’s out of office. The budget for fiscal year 2014 was $125 million.
The board of Brand USA includes top executives from hotel group Marriott International, Disney’s travel arm, the air reservation system Sabre Corporation as well as the top bureacrats in the tourist promotion office in the states of California and Minnesota. Brand USA’s chairman is president of a company I never heard of called Jackmont Hospitality, whose website says it is “a minority-owned, comprehensive foodservice management company and one of the fastest growing TGI FRIDAYS® franchisees.”
The intent of the commercial is, of course, to get more Chinese to travel to the US as tourists. A laudable goal, and one that became much easier at the end of last year when Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed a new bilateral visa regime which gives citizens of each country ten-year multi-entry visas. Chinese tourism in the US is growing, with 1.8 million visiting last year, fifth most among all countries sending tourists to the US, but still about half the number of British tourists each year.
What they lack in numbers Chinese tourists make up for in extravagance. They spend $7,200 per visit compared to $4,500 by the average foreign tourist, according to the US Travel Association.
Like a lot my government does, the commercials running during football timeouts don’t display a particularly keen knowledge of consumer marketing. The jingle is sung in English, so not likely to be understood by a lot of Chinese viewers. The places featured don’t seem likely destinations for Chinese tourists. No Times Square or Fifth Avenue Apple Store in Manhattan. No Disneyland, no Harvard Yard and no Las Vegas.
So where is the US government pushing Chinese to visit? Price Lake. I never heard of it either, but according to Wikipedia it’s in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, about 200 miles from the nearest major airport, Raleigh-Durham. It’s said to host the largest annual gathering of lumberjacks each year. If China has a large contingent of passport-holding lumberjacks it’s news to me.
While Brand USA hasn’t been around long, it’s already attracted a fair bit of criticism, led by Republican members of Congress, who launched a formal investigation into what is called a “history of questionable expenditures and lavish spending” at the organization. The report they issued says all Board members, though officially appointed by the US Secretary of Commerce, were in fact chosen by an Obama aide from among those who “have donated to Democrats and Democratic organizations almost exclusively.”
The private sector is supposed to donate funds which the US government matches by dipping into a pool of money raised through a $10 fee charged to all tourists arriving in the US under what’s called the Visa Waiver Program. Brand USA board members have claimed the amount they spend on travel should be considered by Uncle Sam as a “donation”, including first class air fares and hotel rooms paid for by their companies. Among the claims was one for $94.87 for a two mile taxi ride in Washington DC that the report points out should cost no more than about $15 including tip. The report’s conclusion is that the Brand USA documents and expense accounts “paint a picture of mismanagement, waste, and cronyism.”
No word on what Brand USA are paying for the ads during the NFL games on PP Live. Let’s hope they drive a tough bargain. Other than the Brand USA spot, repeated over and over, I saw no other ads during the second half of the game. During many of the commercial breaks, the Chinese broadcast stays with a live feed from the stadium of the players waiting around for the timeouts to end, something one rarely gets to see while watching football in the US.
The NFL games are broadcast in China with Chinese commentary only, once an annoyance but now a source of almost infinite delight for me. In case you’re wondering, the name for football in Chinese translates as “olive ball”.
Chinese who like the sport and are persuaded by the ads to visit the US would do well to read up first on Brand USA and its public/private affairs. It’s an excellent primer on how politics and spending sometimes operate in my nation’s capitol — and so why the US has this chronic reliance on China to finance our deficits by buying US Treasuries.
Tencent Stalks Alibaba — China’s Number Two Internet Company Quietly Takes Lethal Aim at its Number One
China’s second-largest private sector company Tencent is aiming a cannon at China’s largest private sector company and new darling of the US stock markets Alibaba. Will Tencent fire? There’s a vast amount of money at stake: these two companies, cumulatively, have market cap of $400 billion, Tencent’s $140bn and Alibaba’s $260bn.
Alibaba, as most now know, currently has China’s e-commerce market in a stranglehold, processing orders worth over $300 billion a year, or about 80% of all Chinese online sales by China’s 300 million online shoppers. Meanwhile, Tencent is no less dominant in online chat and messaging, with over 400mn users for its mobile chat application WeChat, aka “Weixin” (微信).
The two businesses appear worlds apart. And yet, they are now on a collision course. The reason is social selling, that is, using a mobile phone chat app to sell stuff to one’s friends and contacts. It’s based on the simple, indisputable notion it’s more reliable and trustworthy to buy from people you know. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin are all quite keen on social selling in the US. But, nowhere is as fertile a market as China, because nowhere else is the trust level from buying through unknown online merchants as low.
Alibaba has accumulated most of its riches from this low-trust model at Taobao’s huge online bazaar. It is a collection of thirty million small-time individual peddlers that Alibaba can’t directly control. The result, especially in a country with no real enforceable consumer protection laws or litigation, Taobao can be a haven for people selling stuff of dubious quality and authenticity.
Chinese know this, and don’t much care for it. It’s one reason both US-listed JD.com and Amazon China both seem to be gaining some ground on Alibaba. Their strategies are similar: to be the “anti-Taobao”, selling brand-name stuff directly, using their own buying power and inventory, their own delivery people, and a no-questions-asked return policy. Their range of merchandise, however, is far more limited than Taobao’s. Tencent in 2014 bought a significant minority stake in JD.com.
Thanks to Weixin, Tencent now has the capability directly to become Alibaba’s most potent competitor and steal away billions of dollars in transactions. Will it?
As of now, Tencent seems oddly reluctant. Even as millions of Weixin users have started using the app to buy and sell goods directly with their friends, Tencent has countered by making it more difficult. Tencent introduced limits on the number of contacts each Weixin user can add, has made sending money tricky, and has more or less banned users to include price quotes in their mobile messages. For now, Weixin users appear undaunted, and are using various ruses to get around Tencent’s unexplained efforts to limit their profit-making activities. One common one: using the character for “rice” (米） instead of the symbol for the Chinese Renminbi （元）.
This social selling through Weixin is called “Weishang” (微商) in Chinese, literally “commerce on Weixin”. It is without doubt the hottest thing in online selling now in China.
It’s hard to understand why Tencent wouldn’t passionately embrace social selling on Weixin. For now, Weixin looks to be an enormous money sink for Tencent. The Weixin app is free to download and use. What money it earns from it comes mainly from promoting pay-to-play online games. That’s small change compared to the tens of millions of dollars Tencent spends on maintaining the server infrastructure to facilitate and store the hundreds of millions of text, voice, photo and video messages sent daily on the network.
Chinese of all ages are glued to Weixin at all hours of the day. It can be hard for anyone outside China to quite fathom how deeply-woven into daily life Weixin has become in the four years since its launch. Peak Weixin usage can exceed 10mn messages per minute. With only slight exaggeration, Tencent’s founder and chairman Pony Ma explains Weixin has become like a “vital organ” to Chinese.
It’s not just young kids. I took part in a meeting recently with a partner from KKR and the chairman of a large Chinese publicly-traded company At the end of the discussion, they eagerly swapped Weixin accounts to continue their confidential M&A dialogue.
My office is in the building next to Tencent’s headquarters in Shenzhen. I know quite a few of the senior executives. But, no one can or will articulate why Tencent, at least for now, is unwilling to use Weishang take on Alibaba. Some who claim to know say it’s because the Chinese government is holding them back, not wanting to have Tencent steal Alibaba’s spotlight so soon after its most-successful-in-history Chinese IPO in the US.
The two have sparred before. Tencent years ago launched its own copycat version of Taobao, now called Paipai. But it failed to put a dent in Alibaba’s franchise. Alibaba, in turn, launched its own online message system to compete with Weixin. But, it’s sunk from sight as quickly as a heavy stone dropped in a deep pond.
Seen from a seller’s perspective, Weishang is fundamentally more attractive than selling on Taobao. Margins are higher, not only because Tencent charges no fees, but it’s getting much harder and more expensive to get noticed on Taobao. That’s good for Alibaba’s all-important ad revenues, but bad for merchants.
How does Weishang work? A woman, for example, buys twenty sweaters at a wholesale price, then takes a selfie wearing one. She sends this out to her 300 contacts on Weixin. Though the message includes neither the price nor much of a sales pitch, since both may be monitored by Tencent, she will often get back replies asking how to buy and how much. The sales are closed either by phone call, or through voice messaging over Weixin, with payment sent direct to the seller’s bank account.
Tencent knows Weixin is being used more and more like this, but because it’s driven the commerce somewhat underground, Tencent has no idea on the exact scale of Weishang. My guess is aggregate Weishang sales are already in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.
Alibaba has clearly noticed. But, social selling isn’t something its Taobao e-commerce marketplace can do. Its mobile e-commerce strategy amounts to making it easy to scroll through Taobao items on a small screen. Social selling in China is and will remain Tencent’s natural monopoly.
For anyone wondering, Alibaba’s IPO prospectus from a few months ago did not mention Weishang and Weixin, and Tencent gets a single nod as one of many possible competitors. Weishang really began to gain traction only during the second half of 2014, after the main draft of the Alibaba prospectus was completed.
To those outside China especially on Wall Street, Alibaba seems to be on the top of the world, as well as the top of its game. In the last four months, it’s collected $25 billion from the IPO and another $8 billion in a bond offering. Its share price price is up 50% since the IPO. For a lot of us living here in China, the boundless enthusiasm in the US for “Ali” (as the company is universally known here) can sometimes seem a bit unhinged.
When will Tencent make its move? Why is it now so reticent to promote Weishang, or discuss its plans with the investment community? Is it busy next door to me readying a dedicated secure payment system and warranty program for Weishang purchases?
I don’t have the answer, but this being China, I do know where to look for guidance. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, written 2,500 years ago, remains the country’s main strategic handbook, used as often in business as in combat. The pertinent passage, in Chinese, goes “微乎微乎，至于无形；神乎神乎，至于无声；故能为敌之司命.” In English, you can translate it as “be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. “
In other words, don’t let your competitor see or hear you coming until its already too late.
America’s most successful M&A deal in China is also possibly its most clandestine. The reason: an old-line Midwestern Fortune 500 company around since 1856 owns a company that is the dominant brand-name supplier in China of a vital Chinese national asset. No, it’s not missile fuel or encrypted handsets for battlefield command-and-control. It’s dumplings.
America’s General Mills, the iconic maker of US breakfast cereals Lucky Charms and Cheerios as well as Häagen-Dazs ice cream, owns a similarly iconic brand in China – Wanzai Matou (湾仔码头), or Wanchai Ferry, as it’s known in English. It is China’s major premium-priced and premium-quality supplier of frozen dumplings. Since acquiring the business thirteen years ago, it’s become a large and especially fast-growing business for General Mills, with China revenues of at least $300mn. Better still, the margins are probably a lot higher than Cheerios and just about any other product General Mills sells worldwide. The Wanzai Matou dumplings sell in China for equivalent of about $3.50 a pound. You can buy fresh hand-made ones just about everywhere in China for quite a bit less. But, people flock to the General Mills product, because it’s considered both tastier and healthier.
Dumplings are a central aspect of Chinese life and culture, a more potent part of national identity and the national diet than the Thanksgiving turkey, Big Mac, beef hotdog or apple pie are to us Americans. Dumplings (whether boiled, steamed or pan-fried) have been a daily staple of the Chinese diet, as far as anyone can judge, for about 1,800 years. They’re eaten here at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dumplings are also the mainstay for many Chinese at the most important meal of the year, the one that rings in the Chinese New Year. Dumplings symbolize a prosperous year to come.
For all the many global corporates still edgy about investing in or acquiring businesses in China, General Mills is prime evidence that inbound cross-border M&A can work in China. This one deal combines four aspects often thought to be unattainable in China deal-making: a large US company buys a smaller local Chinese brand, builds it into a national leader while piling up big profits. It is, hands down, my favorite case study of how to do M&A right in China.
Not that General Mills is eager for the world to know. It doesn’t talk about its booming China business in its annual report. Packages of Wanzai Matou sold in China don’t include the General Mills name or famous blue logo.
While everyone knows about KFC, McDonald’s and Starbucks big success in China, they are actually doing something much easier: introducing and selling exotica, American products to Chinese with a whim to try something from afar. General Mills is making money in China the hard way. Not only do they make the most popular brand of frozen dumplings in China (estimated market share of about 50%) , they also had to convert a large number of Chinese to buy in a supermarket a frozen version of a product only available previously fresh, hand-made.
As General Mills foresaw, making dumplings at home, once a daily chore, has become something fewer and fewer Chinese have the time routinely to do. Done properly, it can take even experienced hands two hours or longer.
General Mills got control of Wanzai Matou in 2001 when it acquired US rival Pillsbury from British company Diageo. Pillsbury had bought majority stake in Wanzai Matou in 1997, when it was a rather tiny Hong Kong company with very limited presence in the PRC. Today, the freezer section of most larger big city supermarkets in China is stocked to bursting with different flavors and fillings of Wanzai Matou dumplings, along with Wanzai Matou frozen wontons and stuffed buns.
General Mills buys some tv advertising, but mainly the success here in China was earned by word-of-mouth. I’ve been a customer for as long as I’ve been living in China. Take it from me. There is no tastier frozen food sold anywhere than the boiled Wanzai Matou pork-and-corn dumplings (see package above).
Pillsbury made a vital strategic move in the early years after buying control of the Hong Kong Wanzai Matou. It was also an atypical one for big corporate buyers. They decided to keep Wanzai Matou founder, Kin Wo Chong, involved. Her photo is still prominently-featured on every package, in much the same way as Betty Crocker used to be pictured on every box of brownie mix made by that General Mills brand.
Betty Crocker is pure fiction, a made-up name for a made-up housewife. Ms. Chong is very much a genuine entrepreneur, a Hong Kong immigrant from dumpling-loving Shandong province. She started her professional life in 1977 selling dumplings from a push cart in a not-too-tony part of Hong Kong.
Keeping Ms. Chong involved, as both a senior executive and minority shareholder, has evidently worked well for both sides. General Mills gets all the benefits of her extensive knowledge of how to make tasty dumplings. She gets a deep-pocketed partner with the skills and resources required to make her small company into a Chinese household name.
This sort of arrangement is rare in the M&A world outside China. Generally, the buyer gives the current owner a two-to-three year earn-out period and then is sent packing. That’s the way MBA textbooks recommend M&A deals get done. The thinking is founders, once they’ve put a large chunk of cash in their pockets, are distracted, demotivated and anyway not amenable to taking orders on how to run their business from a large, often bureaucratic global corporation.
But, in China, the most successful M&A deals we know of all tend to have this same structure, that the founding entrepreneur stays on, stays active, long after the earn-out period expires. By contrast, the list of failures is long where an acquirer gets control of an entrepreneur-founded Chinese company, shows the owner the door and then tries to run it on its own.
General Mills also did add something Ms. Chong never would have managed to do on her own. It started up a frozen stir-fry-it-yourself business for the US market, under the Wanchai Ferry brand. In its first year, it had revenues in the US of over $50 million. Impressive.
As anyone living here can attest, when it comes to food, Chinese are every bit as jingoistic as the French or Italians. It would shock many of them to think Americans can produce dumplings better and more profitably than any domestic competitor. But, even if General Mills is outed, and more Chinese come to know who’s behind Wanzai Matou, I’m confident they will go on buying dumplings made for them by the company from Golden Valley, Minnesota. “Eating”, as the Chinese saying aptly has it, “is more important than the Emperor”. “吃饭皇帝大“.
The ‘children’ of Deng Xiaoping
The other Chinese revolution: Meet the people who took Deng’s economic great leap forward
Deng Xiaoping was no Winston Churchill. He possessed a thick southern accent most people found nearly impenetrable, and was anything but garrulous. In fact, little of what he said was memorable or even original. His most-cited aphorism – “To get rich is glorious” – did not actually spill from his mouth; historians suspect its provenance can be traced to the West.
But in deed more than word, Mr. Deng was the linchpin in redirecting China’s economy away from the backward, centrally planned beast it had become under Mao Zedong. He set it on a path that would see decades of unrelenting growth and the creation of credulity-defying prosperity.
What he wanted to do, he said in 1978, was to “light a spark” for change:
“If we can’t grow faster than the capitalist countries, then we can’t show the superiority of our system.”
– Deng, 1978
He succeeded in spurring growth, and wildly so, marshalling the power of the world’s most populous nation. Now, 110 years after his birth – an occasion that its leadership has sought to celebrate with lengthy TV biopics and other remembrances – China is filled with millionaires.
But has the sudden influx of wealth made it happy?
Where chasing profit was once grounds for harsh re-education, the country’s heroes and superstars – Jack Ma and an entire generation of tuhao, or nouveau riche – are now, in ways both spiritual and economic, the children of Deng.
President Xi Jinping has consciously sought to present himself as the current generation’s version of Deng. But for many of Deng’s figurative progeny, wealth and happiness haven’t always come together. In a recent survey published in the People’s Tribune magazine, worries about a moral vacuum, personal selfishness and anxiety over individual and professional status were high on the list of top concerns about the country today. The poll reflected a pervasive cultural disquiet that has reached even into the ranks of those most richly rewarded by the Deng-led opening up.
“On the social level, money became the only currency in terms of personal relationships, and that’s a really sad reality,” says Yang Lan, one of the country’s top television hosts.
She points to “the lack of a value system” that she sees when she hears young girls “discussing how they would love to be a mistress so they can live a wealthy life before they are too old. And you see girls discussing these things very openly.” China, she says, needs “a new social contract.”
There is little doubt that those who no longer need to worry about making money are more free to criticize others, raising the spectre of hypocrisy. But pained reflection has been among the less-anticipated products of the wealth China has amassed. The comforts of financial security have provided a new space to rethink the path the country has taken and ways it has fallen short.
And as China’s economy slows to a pace not seen in decades, it also faces a moment to consider the sweep of its modern history – decades marked by the vicious turbulence of the Mao years, followed by the full-throttle race away from it inspired by Mr. Deng.
From 1978, the first year of the Deng-led reforms, China has been so thoroughly reshaped that even numbers struggle to do it justice. Gross domestic product has expanded 156-fold, the value of imports and exports is 727 times higher, and savings are up by a factor of 2,131.
The growth has been driven by an extraordinary – and massive – cohort of people who have turned personal quests for profit into a national obsession. “China has, in absolute numbers as well as percentage of populace, the most successful entrepreneurs anywhere in the world,” says Peter Fuhrman, chairman and founder of China First Capital, a specialist investment bank based in Shenzhen.
But even those who most warmly embraced the Deng mandate are now pausing for a second look at a country whose vast financial progress has become marred by other problems.
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China’s Big Banks: learn how they overprice & misallocate loans while treating borrowers like conmen
Do you have the financial acumen to run the lending department of one of China’s giant state-owned banks? Let’s see if you qualify. Price the following loan to a private sector Chinese company. Your bank is paying depositors 0.5% interest so that’s your cost of capital. The company has been a bank customer for six years and now needs a loan of Rmb 50mn (USD$8 mn). The audit shows it’s earning Rmb 60mn a year in net profits, and has cash flow of Rmb 85mn.
You ask the company to provide you with a first lien on collateral appraised at Rmb 75mn and require them to keep 20% or more of the loan in an account at your bank as a compensating deposit. Next up, you ask the owner to pledge all his personal assets worth Rmb 25mn, and on top, you insist on a guarantee from a loan-assurance company your bank regularly does business. The guarantee covers any failure to repay principal or interest. What annual interest rate would you charge for this loan?
If you answered 5% or lower, you are thinking like a foreigner. American, Japanese or German maybe. If you said 13% a year, then you are ready to start your new career pricing and allocating credit in China. At 10% and up, inflation-adjusted loan spreads to private sector borrowers in China are among the highest in the world, particularly when you factor in the over-collaterallization, that third-party guarantee and fact the loan is one-year term and can’t be rolled over. As a result, the company will actually only have use of the money for about nine months but will pay interest for twelve. Little wonder Chinese banks have some of the fattest operating margins in the industry.
Chinese private businessmen are paying too much to borrow. It’s a deadweight further slowing China’s economy. We are quite keen, by the way, on private debt investing in China.
The high cost of borrowing negatively impacts corporate growth and so overall gdp growth. It is also among the more obvious manifestations of an even more significant, though often well-hidden, problem in China’s economy: the fact that nobody trusts anybody. This lack of trust acts like an enormous tax on business and consumers in China, making everything, not just bank credit, far more expensive than it should be.
Online payment systems, business contracts, visits to the doctor, buying luxury products or electronics like mobile phones or computers: all are made more costly, inefficient and frustrating for all in China because one side of a transaction doesn’t trust the other. One example: Alibaba’s online shopping site, Taobao, will facilitate well over USD$200bn in transactions this year. Most are paid for through Alipay, an escrow system part-owned and administered by Alibaba. Chinese shoppers are loathe to buy anything directly from an online merchant. They generally take it as a given that the seller will cheat them.
Most of the world’s computers and mobile phones are made in China. But, Chinese walk a minefield when buying these products in their own country. It’s routine for sellers to swap out the original high-quality parts, including processors, and replace them with low-grade counterfeits, then sell products as new. Chinese, when possible, will travel outside China, particularly to Hong Kong, to buy these electronics, as well as luxury goods like Gucci shoes and Chanel perfume. This is the most certain way to guarantee you are getting the genuine article.
In the banking sector, loans need to have multiple, seemingly excessive layers of collateral, as well as guarantees. Banks simply do not believe the borrower, the auditors, their own in-house credit analysts, or the capacity of the guarantee firms to pay up in the event of a problem.
Disbelief gets priced in. This is the reason for the huge loan spreads in China. Banks regard their own loan documentation as a work of fiction. It stands to reason that if a company’s collateral were solid and the third-party guarantee enforceable, then the cost to borrow money should be at most a few points above the bank’s real cost of capital. Instead, Chinese companies get the worst of all worlds: they have to tie up all their collateral to secure overpriced loans, while also paying an additional 2%-3% a year of loan value to the third-party credit guarantee company for a guarantee the bank requires but treats as basically worthless.
In the event a loan does go sour, the bank will often choose to sell it to a third party at discount to face value, rather than go to court to seize the collateral or get the guarantee company to pay up. The buyer is usually one of the state-owned asset recovery companies formed to take bad debts off bank balance sheets. Why, you ask, does the bank require the guarantee then fail to enforce it? One reason is that Chinese private loan-assurance companies, which usually work hand-in-glove with the banks, are usually too undercapitalized to actually pay up if the borrower defaults. Going after them will force them into bankruptcy. That would cause more systemic problems in China’s banking system.
Instead, the bank unloads the loan and the asset recovery companies seize and sell the only collateral they believe has any value, the borrower’s real estate. The business may be left to rot. The asset management companies usually come out ahead, as do the loan guarantee companies, which collect an annual fee equal to 2% to 3% of the loan value, but rarely, if ever, need to indemnify a lender.
Don’t feel too sorry for the bank that made the loan. Assuming the borrower stayed current for a while on the high interest payments, the bank should get its money back, or even turn a profit on the deal. Everyone wins, except private sector borrowers, of course. Good and bad like, they are stuck paying some of the highest risk-adjusted interest costs in the world.
When foreign analysts look at Chinese banks, they spend most of their time trying to divine the real, as opposed to reported, level of bad debts, devising ratios and totting up unrealized losses. They don’t seem to know how the credit game is really played in China.
Most of the so-called bad debts, it should be said, come from loans made to SOEs and other organs of the state. Trust is not much of an issue. SOEs and local governments generally don’t need to pledge as much collateral or get third-party guarantees to borrow. A call from a local Party bigwig is often enough. The government has shown it will find ways to keep banks from losing money on loans to SOEs. The system protects its own.
Chinese banks should be understood as engaged in two unrelated lines of business: one is as part of a revolving credit system that channels money to and through different, often cash-rich, arms of the state. The other is to take in deposits and make loans to private customers. In one, trust is absolute. In the other, it is wholly absent.
Many Chinese private companies do still thrive despite a banking system that treats them like con artists, rather than legitimate businesses with a legitimate need for credit. The end result: the Chinese economy, though often the envy of the world, grows slower and is more frail than it otherwise would be. Everyone here in China is paying a steep price for the lack of trust, and the mispricing of credit.
China’s central government gets serious about changing IPO rules and helping SMEs raise capital, Global Times article
Govt calls for progress in IPO reform to help small firms
By Wang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2014-11-24
Amid a slowing economy, the Chinese government is considering strategies to help the country’s cash-starved micro and small companies. Upcoming IPO reform is expected to offer easier access to stock market funding, but investors are concerned it could divert funds from existing stocks.
While China’s economy has been affected by a weakening property sector, erratic foreign demand and sagging domestic investment growth, the authorities are hoping that the country’s millions of micro and small enterprises (MSEs) can offer a source of economic energy.
The State Council, the country’s cabinet, pledged on Wednesday to lower the cost of raising funds by giving banks more flexibility to lend and removing rigid profit requirements for a firm to get listed in stock markets, among other measures aimed at making it easier for small firms to grow.
At the meeting on Wednesday, Premier Li Keqiang urged the securities regulator to speed up plans to unveil simplified rules for new IPOs.
Two days after the cabinet’s meeting, the central bank cut interest rates for the first time in two years.
While the rate cut will be of particular benefit for large State-owned enterprises, simplified IPO access is expected to make it easier for cash-starved smaller firms to raise money directly in the markets.
Under the existing IPO scheme, applicants must meet certain conditions in order to get listed in Shanghai or Shenzhen, including having made a profit for at least two consecutive years and having net profit of at least 10 million yuan ($1.63 million).
Even if they meet these requirements, IPO applicants are also subject to the review and approval procedures of the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC), the securities watchdog.
The CSRC suspended its IPO reviews in late 2012 in a bid to enhance information disclosure and crack down on rampant financial fraud and insider trading.
The CSRC also wanted to lay solid foundations for a new round of IPO reform intended to diminish government intervention and establish a more efficient, market-based IPO filing system.
The regulator restarted IPO approvals in December 2013 after a 13-month hiatus.
However, the suspension had resulted in a long queue of IPO applicants. As of mid-November this year, 570 firms were waiting for their applications to be reviewed, according to media reports.
A plan for an IPO filing system with a focus on information disclosure is likely to be released by the end of 2014, the 21st Century Business Herald reported on Thursday, citing a source close to the CSRC.
Under the new IPO registration system, the CSRC will no longer intervene in the listing process and will focus on supervision rather than review and approval, analysts said.
The system will provide access to market financing for all firms, not just those at the front of the queue for IPO approval, and the investment value shall be judged by investors, not the government, Dong Dengxin, director of the Finance and Securities Institute at Wuhan University of Science and Technology, wrote on his Weibo on Saturday.
The CSRC was not available for comment on the schedule of IPO registration reform when reached by the Global Times on Thursday.
As China tries to move up the value chain and restructure its economy, small firms have become increasingly important. They also account for more than 70 percent of the country’s jobs.
“While the IPO reforms are absolutely correct in their direction and implementation, the capital markets in China are still unable to provide the financing needed for most MSEs to continue to grow,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman and CEO of Shenzhen-based investment bank China First Capital, told the Global Times in an e-mail on Saturday.
Relatively slow approval of IPOs and the exceptionally long waiting list are seen as the major reasons for the difficult funding.
There are “thousands of Chinese MSEs with good size and profits” that are waiting to go public, said Fuhrman.Tweet
In 1981, when I first arrived in Nanjing as a student, the ancient and rather sleepy city had a population of four million and a GDP of Rmb 4 billion. Today, the population has doubled to eight million and GDP is two hundred times larger. Yes, you read that right. This year’s GDP will exceed Rmb 850bn. Even by recent Chinese standards, that kind of growth rate for a major city is just about unheard of. Since 1981, Nanjing’s GDP has grown almost twice as fast as China as a whole. It is now richer in per capita terms than Beijing, and its economy continues to expand more quickly than the capital, Shanghai and just about every other major city in the country.
I was back in Nanjing in the last week to visit friends and clients, as well as receive from the Nanjing city government an official appointment as an “investment promotion consultant”. That’s me in the photo above celebrating with Mr. Kong Qiuyun, the cultured an charismatic director-general of Nanjing Municipal Investment Promotion Commission. It’s an especially welcome honor since I consider Nanjing, all these years later, my hometown in China, my “laojia”. Every return is a homecoming.
With or without the official status, saying good things about Nanjing comes easily. It’s a special kind of boomtown. Despite the steep economic ascent over the last 33 years, today’s Nanjing is visibly woven from strands of its 2,500 year-old history as a city at the core of Chinese civilization. Old parks, streets and buildings stand. Though stained by tragedy – including the Nanjing Massacre in 1937 and bloody civil war at the end of the Taiping Rebellion civil war 73 years earlier — Nanjing is a city with a lightness of spirit and an intimate association with Chinese traditional culture of painting, calligraphy, poetry.
There is an ease, prosperity and comfort to life in Nanjing that is largely absent in Beijing. One is built upon the parched steppes below the Gobi Desert. Camel country. The other is set amid China’s most fertile, well-irrigated patch of bottomland –a kind of Chinese Eden, saturated by rivers, lakes, ponds and paddies, where just about everything can be grown or reared in abundance. The city is a symbiosis of man and duck. In a typical year, the people of Nanjing will consume over one hundred million of them. Every trip, including this most recent one, I return to Shenzhen with a suitcase padded out with three or four salt-preserved Osmanthus-scented ducks. Each trip back to the US I carry several with me and deliver them to my father in Florida. Somehow, age 82, he has developed a fine appreciation for them.
Nanjing took awhile to get its economic act together. During much of the 1980s, it was a backwater, trailing far behind the nearby cities of Shanghai and Suzhou as well as the coastal cities of Guangdong and Fujian. Earlier it had a reputation for being not very well-managed. Today the opposite is true.
Nanjing is the most ideally-situated large city in China. It is at the back door of China’s richest, most developed region, the Yangtze River Delta, stretching from Shanghai through Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi and Changzhou. It is also now the front door for China’s huge market of the future, the inland regions where growth is now strongest, particularly the provinces of Hubei, Sichuan, Chongqing, Anhui farther up the Yangtze.
Nanjing’s is a large economy but without especially large and dominant companies. Few even in China can name its largest businesses or employers. This sets it apart from Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Tianjin. Credit Nanjing government’s hands-on far-sighted economic management. It’s made up for the lack of large businesses by encouraging the growth of smaller mainly private-sector entrepreneurial businesses, as well as bringing in investment from abroad. Sharp, BASF, A.O. Smith, ThyssenKrupp are among the larger foreign companies with significant investment in Nanjing.
Major American investors are still comparatively few. This needs correcting. I hope to help in my new role as a consultant. Americans in the first half of the 20th century played a conspicuously positive role in Nanjing’s development. US academics and missionaries helped establish the city’s two oldest universities, Nanjing University (where I studied) and Nanjing Normal University. They remain the rock-solid backbones of Nanjing’s outstanding university system with over 25 institutions of higher learning.
An American team of architects and urban designers were responsible for creating the layout of much of the modern city of Nanjing, including the city’s main shopping district of Xinjiekou. The city was designed to combine elements of Paris and Washington D.C., with wide boulevards, stately traffic roundabouts like the Place de l’Etoile, and an elegant diplomatic quarter with large mansions spread along arching plane tree-shaded streets.
During the pre-1949 era, American companies were the most prominent and successful businesses in Nanjing. Two in particular – Socony (then the world’s leading petroleum company, a part of the Rockefeller Standard Oil group, and now ExxonMobil.) and British American Tobacco – managed large operations in China from their headquarters in Nanjing. They were then among the largest companies in China of any kind. They left in 1949 never to return to Nanjing and their previous prominence.
An individual American, a long-term resident of Nanjing, wrote while there the most popular and influential book about China in English. It was then made into a successful film which etched in the minds of many Westerners the enduring image of China’s Confucian values and pre-revolution rural poverty. Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” was for years a best-seller and played an influential role in winning her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. *
To my thinking, America has an unfulfilled destiny in Nanjing. It’s a smart place for smart capital to locate. In modernizing, it has kept its soul intact.
* For sharing his rich and consummate knowledge of America’s multi-facetted engagement with Nanjing in the first half of the 20th century, I’m indebted to John Pomfret. John’s book “Chinese Lessons”, about his years as a student at Nanjing University and the lives thereafter of his Chinese classmates, is as good as anything published about China’s remarkable transformation these last thirty years. You can read more about the book, and about John, by visiting http://www.johnpomfret.org/
While China’s recent performance may be a disappointment, averaged across the millennia no other nation has provided the world with such an abundant wellspring of innovation. Have a look at this long list of Chinese inventions. Not a day passes for most of us when we don’t rely on at least one product of Chinese ingenuity, be it paper money, the bristle toothbrush, toilet paper, oil wells. A slightly smaller group of us wouldn’t want to long tolerate life without noodles, steamed or stir-fried food, tofu, tea, alcoholic drinks.
Left off the Wikipedia list is one other Chinese gadget that played a central role in people’s lives, especially in East Asia, for centuries and then abruptly disappeared over the last two decades. It’s also my personal favorite among all Chinese inventions, the abacus. I grieve over its extinction.
When I first got to China in 1981, the abacus was ubiquitous — in every shop, bank, schoolroom and government office. If it had to be counted or calculated, an abacus was required. I still remember the loud and ceaseless clicking sound inside the main room of Nanjing’s cavernous People’s Bank as dozens of clerks tabulated and re-tabulated sums, louder and more rhythmic than the clatter of cicadas outside. Cheap electric calculators and PCs not only killed off the abacus they also have turned China’s banks and offices into quieter more monotonous spaces.
Among all Chinese inventions, nothing quite rivals an abacus, or “算盘 suanpan” in Chinese, for pure “out of the box” ingenuity. There’s no clear predecessor machine, and no real evolution or improvement from the device that is first described almost eight hundred years ago in Chinese books and begins appearing in Chinese paintings five hundred years ago.
Though the name of the inventor (or inventors) is lost to history, none but a towering genius could invent a portable lightweight tool and the accompanying fingering technique to allow a few rows of beads separated on two stacked decks, five beads on the lower and two on the upper, to perform high-speed, accurate multiplication, division, addition, subtraction, square root and cube root operations. In geek-speak, hardware and software are proprietary and seamlessly integrated. The abacus, unlike the modern electronic calculator, is as easily used for calculations in base ten (decimal), base 16 (hexidecimal) or any other base you might choose.
Europe and America, so dominant in most spheres of invention these last 400 years, contributed in the 17th century the slide rule and adding machine to the technology of calculation. But, neither achieved the widespread use in teaching and daily life the abacus enjoyed for centuries. Most Chinese aged over 30 (as well as tens of millions in other parts of Asia) were taught in school to use an abacus. While most have since sadly forgotten how to use one, they once could manipulate the wooden beads as quickly and accurately as skilled touch typists.
I recently went off to see if I could buy an old wooden abacus. It’s harder than you’d think. My guess is there were at least 400 million abacuses in China thirty years ago. Today, they’ve completely disappeared from sight. I can’t recall a single time I’ve seen one in use during the last five years living full-time in China. Something of great functional beauty and utility has gone out of Chinese lives.
I did eventually succeed in finding one at an antique market in Shenzhen. It looked to me, based on the filigree bronze hinges, to be about 120 years old. The seller, in his early 60s, had forgotten how to use it, as did everyone else who gathered around to watch me bargain for it, with the exception of one handsome older woman trained in the early 1970s as an accountant. I asked the seller to give us some random four-digit numbers to add and subtract, with me using the calculator on my phone and her using the old abacus. In each case, she was quicker than me. I had to repeat each number in my head before tapping on the keyboard. Her fingers, on the other hand, were in motion from the first sound. It was a virtuoso performance.
An abacus is not a calculator, in the sense that you punch in numbers and it spits out an answer. “The person operating the abacus performs calculations in their head and uses the abacus as a physical aid to keep track of the sums, the carrys,” explain the experts at Canada’s Ryerson University.
After polishing away the dust, I put the abacus on the table in the CFC’s meeting room. I’m determined to learn better how to use it, but conscious of ebbing mental and physical dexterity.
It looks like nothing else on the planet, and yet it shares similarities with an iconic device invented 800 years later (in 2007) in Silicon Valley. A swipe-operated high-tech tool, with a simple rectangular design, its engineering elegant yet practical, and an intuitive interface that allows anyone with a little practice, from kids to old folks, to solve routinely and quickly a host of problems once thought too challenging for ordinary folk. The iPhone is the abacus of our age.
“China, the innovation nation. With nine times more engineering graduates and more patents filed each year than in the US, China is transitioning quickly away from its roots as a copycat, knockoff economy to become a potent new high-tech power.” By now, we’ve all read the headlines, heard the hype. China’s high-tech ambitions were part of the sales pitch used in Alibaba’s successful US IPO last month.
No story about China, no prediction about China’s future gets more attention or more traction from consultants, authors, policy analysts. It encapsulates the unanimous hopes of China’s leadership, and the fears of America’s. “China is now standing at a critical stage in that its economic growth must be driven by innovation,” declared China’s ruling State Council in May this year.
While China is certainly making strides the reality is sobering. For all the hype, the government policies and cash, China remains a high-tech disappointment, more dud than ascending rocket. As a banker living and running a business in China, I very much wish it were otherwise. But, I see no concrete evidence of a major change underway. The best the many boosters can offer is, “give it more time and it’s bound to happen”. In other words, they make their case unfalsifiable, by saying today’s China’s tech famine will turn into a feast, if only we are prepared to stand by the empty banquet table long enough.
Unlike a lot of those forecasting China’s inevitable rise to technology superpowerdom, I’ve actually met and talked with hundreds of Chinese tech companies, and before that run a California venture capital firm with investments in the US, Israel and Europe. I’ve also run a high-tech enterprise software company in the US that used proprietary technology to gain leading market position and ultimately a high price from an acquirer when we sold the business. So, I’ve been around the tech world a fair bit, both in China and elsewhere. Rule number one: deal with the facts in front of you, not wishful thinking. Rule number two: a high-tech economy is not a quotient of national IQ, national will, national urgency or national subsidies. If it were, China might well by now be at the epicenter of global innovation.
High-tech is meant to be a savior of China’s economy, delivering higher levels of affluence in the future and an escape from the so-called “middle income trap” that has slowed growth elsewhere in Asia. But saviors have a nasty habit of never arriving.
Let’s start with perhaps the most glaring weakness: China’s failed efforts, despite momentous efforts across more than a decade, to reach even the first rung of high-tech engineering competence by designing and serially producing jet engines.
Military power both requires and underpins high-tech success. Any doubt about this was eliminated by the collapse of USSR. I was fortunate to have a front-row seat for that event. During the 1980s and 1990s, as a Forbes journalist, I spent a lot of time in the USSR surveying both its military and civilian industries, its indigenous technology base. I was one of the few who got to spend time, for example, inside the secret Soviet rocket program, including visiting main factories where its rockets and space station were built. The rocket program was for decades the pinnacle of Soviet tech achievement.
But, it proved to have little overall spinoff benefit for USSR economy. It was a dead-end. Note: the Soviet Union then, like China now, had far more engineers and engineering graduates than the US.
As I wrote back in the 1990s, US’s military supremacy rests as much on Intel and Broadcom as it does on Lockheed Martin fighter jets and GD nuclear submarines. The US has a huge fast-adopter civilian technology market with strong competitive dynamics, something China is without. This means US military then and now can procure the best chips, best integrated software and systems cheaply and quickly from companies that are mainly serving the civilian market. The Soviet Union had no civilian high-tech industry, no market forces. The Soviet military was exposed as a technology pauper by the 1989 Iraq War.
China is different and better off in so many ways. It now manufactures a lot of the world’s most advanced civilian high-tech electronics products. This gives China huge advantages USSR never had. All the same, the USSR by the mid-1950s was producing jet engines for military and civilian use. To this day, China relies on Russia, using Soviet-successor technologies, for its advanced military jet engines. Russian jet engines are generally considered a generation at least behind the best ones manufactured now in the US, France, UK.
China’s inability to make its own advanced jet engines casts light on problems China has, and likely will continue to have, developing a globally-competitive indigenous technology base. In the case of jet engines, the problems are at manufacturing level (difficulty to serially produce minute-tolerance machinery), at the materials level (lack of special alloys) at the industrial level (only one designated monopoly aircraft engine producer in China, so no competitive dynamic as in the US between GE and P&W).
A recent report on China’s jet engine industry puts the technology gap in stark terms. “In some areas,” it concludes, “Chinese engine makers are roughly three decades behind their U.S. peers.”
This challenge, to bring all the parts together in a high-technology manufacturing project, is also evident in China’s failure, up to now, to develop and sell globally domestically-developed advanced integrated circuits, pharmaceuticals, new materials. In drug development, China by some estimates has spent over $10 billion on pharmaceutical research and up to now has had only one domestically-developed drug accepted in the global market, the modestly-successful anti-malarial treatment Qinghaosu (artemisinin). Interestingly, it is derived from an herbal medicine used for two thousand years in China to treat malaria. The drug was first synthesized by Chinese researchers in 1972.
It’s simply not enough to count engineers and patents, or the content of government technology-promotion policies. China lacks so many of the basic building blocks of high-tech development. Included here is a mature, experienced venture capital industry staffed by professional entrepreneurs and technologists, not MBAs. A transparent judicial system is also essential, not only for protecting IP, but managing the contractual process that allows companies to put money at risk over long-periods to achieve a return. Non-Disclosure and Non-Compete agreements, a backbone of the technology industry in the US, are basically unenforceable in China. Not just here in China, but anywhere this is the case you can about kiss goodbye big-time technology innovation.
While ignoring the troubling lessons of China’s failure to produce a jet engine (as well as jet brakes and advanced radar systems) the boosters of China’s bright tech future these days most often cite two mobile phone-related businesses as signs of China’s innovation. The two are Xiaomi mobile phones, and Tencent‘s WeChat service. Both have had great success in the last year, including getting some traction in markets outside China. Look a little deeper and there’s less to be positive about.
Xiaomi is a handset manufacturer that now has a market valuation of over $10 billion, higher than just about any other mobile phone manufacturer. It relies, though, on the same group of mainly-US companies (Broadcom, Qualcomm, Google) for its phones. They, along with UK chip-maker ARM and non-Chinese screen manufacturers, are the ones making the real money on all Android phones. In addition, Xiaomi’s phones as are many cases manufactured by Taiwanese company Foxconn. As of now, China has no domestic company that can achieve Foxconn’s levels of quality at low manufacturing cost. Foxconn does this from factories in China. Its superior management systems for high-volume high-quality production also underscore another critical area where China’s domestic technology industry is weak.
With WeChat, it’s done some impressive things, in signing up over 300 million users. The basic application is similar to that of Facebook‘s WhatsApp and others. Its real technology strength is in its back end, in building and managing the servers to store all the content that is sent across WeChat, including a huge amount of video and audio files.
Whatsapp doesn’t have similar capacity. In fact, it points with pride to the fact it doesn’t backup for storage any Whatsapp customers’ conversations. Tencent does this because it’s required to do so by Chinese internet rules and government’s policies to monitor internet content. Tencent might be able to commercialize and sell globally its backend storage architecture, but it’s not clear anyone would be interested to own it. It’s a technology that evolved from specific Chinese requirements, not market demand.
Earlier this year I spoke on a panel at a conference in Shanghai of the global bio-manufacturing industry. This is precisely the sort of area where China most needs to up its game. Bio-manufacturing relies on a combination of first-rate science, cutting-edge manufacturing techniques and far-sighted management. After all the talk and the establishment of dozens of government-funded high-tech pharmaceutical science parks across China, the simple verdict was China has yet to achieve any real success in this industry.
China is not alone, of course, in having its difficulties nurturing a globally-competitive indigenous technology industry. In their time, most of the world’s advanced major economies have all tried — Germany, France, Japan, UK. All lavished government subsidies to foster domestic innovation. All made technology a policy priority. Yet, all have basically failed. If anything, the US is now more dominant in high-technology than it was at any earlier time in history. The US is home to most of the companies earning high margins, market shares and license fees for their proprietary technology.
China has already achieved what no other country has: in the course of a single generation, it has achieved the highest-ever sustained rate of growth, and so lifted hundreds of millions of its citizens out of poverty. This achievement shows the capabilities of the Chinese people, the far-sighted and pragmatic skills of its policy-makers. Both will continue to deliver benefits for China for decades to come.
For China, becoming a tech power is neither certain nor impossible. Progress can be hurt more than helped by those who engage more in hype, in predicting certain outcomes, rather than critically assess the impediments, and learn lessons from the failed efforts so many other countries have had in developing a technology industry. New thinking about innovation, and how to encourage it in China, is still lacking.
Alibaba Group should next week collect the big money from its NYSE IPO. But, Seattle’s Amazon owns the future of China’s $400 billion online shopping industry. Amazon’s China business is better in just about every crucial respect: customer service, delivery, product quality even price when compared to Alibaba’s towering Taobao business. Hand it to Jeff Bezos. While few have been watching, he is building in China what looks to me to be a better, more long-term sustainable business than Alibaba’s Jack Ma.
Amazon’s China business fits a familiar pattern. The company is often mocked for keeping too much secret, investing too much and earning too little. In China, far away from the Wall Street spotlight, Amazon has invested hugely, with a long-term aim perhaps to overtake Alibaba and become a dominant online retailer in the country. But, it has zero interest in letting its shareholders, competitors, or the world at large know what it’s doing in China. Open the company’s most recent SEC 10-K filing and there are three passing mentions of China, and nothing about the size of its business there, the strategy.
Amazon shareholders may well wake up one day and suddenly find Bezos has built for them one of the most valuable online businesses in the world’s largest e-commerce market, the only one not owned and managed by a Chinese corporation. No rickety and risky VIE structure, unlike Alibaba and virtually all the other Chinese online companies quoted in the US. (Read damning report by US Congress investigators on these Chinese VIE companies here. )
Jeff Bezos has been in the online shopping business from its genesis, in 1994. He first got serious in China ten years later, by buying a small online shopping business called Joyo in 2004. Taobao was founded by Jack Ma a year earlier. Within three years Taobao had demolished eBay’s then-lucrative China online auction business, by making it free for sellers to list their products on Taobao. Buyers and sellers both pay Taobao zero commission. It earns most of its money from advertising. EBay China closed its doors in 2006. Since then, Alibaba has grown from about $170mn in revenues to over $6 billion in 2013. Approximately three out of every four dollars spent online shopping in China goes through Alibaba’s hands. Overall, online shopping transaction value is on track to exceed $1 trillion by the end of this decade.
The champagne and baijiu will flow at Alibaba next week. Meantime, Bezos will continue executing on his plan, begun in earnest around 2012, to first gain on Taobao, and one day outduel it in China. How? To buy from Amazon China is to see Bezos’s mind at work. He has clearly assessed Taobao’s pivotal weaknesses, and is targeting them with precision.
Taobao has done phenomenally well. But, it is much the same business today as a decade ago. It is mainly a raucous collection of individual sellers where counterfeit, used-sold-as-new or substandard goods are rife. Everything is ad hoc. Sellers can appear and disappear overnight. They charge whatever they like to ship you your merchandise. Try to return things and it can be anything from complicated to impossible. Most payments are processed by Alipay, a business with similar ownership to Alibaba, but not fully consolidated as part of the IPO. Alipay tries to act like an impartial escrow service between Chinese buyers and sellers who too often seem to be out to try to cheat one another.
Taobao is a product of its time, a China where getting stuff cheap, of whatever origin, authenticity and quality, was paramount. It’s also been a great way to create an army of small entrepreneurs in China, eight million in total, with their own shops selling merchandise to over 200 million different individual customers on Taobao. But, Chinese are much richer and more discriminating today than ten years ago. They are getting richer by the day. The larger trends all point in Amazon’s favor.
Here’s why. When you buy things on Amazon China, you mainly purchase direct from Amazon, not from individual sellers. As in the US, Amazon China sells a full range of merchandise not just books. While it has far fewer items for sale than Taobao, it does many things that Taobao cannot. First, it has its own nationwide delivery service. Where I am in Shenzhen, I get delivery the next morning from a guy in an Amazon shirt with his electric motorcycle parked on the sidewalk in front of my building. You can either pay online by credit card, or pay the delivery guy in cash, COD. Delivery is free and reliable. Parcels are professionally packaged in Amazon boxes and generally arrive in mint condition. It’s a limousine service compared to Taobao.
Stuff ordered on Taobao can take days to arrive, and is sent using any of a group of different independently-owned parcel delivery companies. They don’t accept returns, or cash, and often in my experience as a Taobao customer for the last five years the parcels arrive pretty badly roughed up. The Taobao sellers do their own packaging, sometimes good and sometimes no, usually with boxes rescued from the trash, then call whichever parcel company offers them the cheapest rate. The seller usually takes a mark-up since delivery on Taobao is generally not included.
Amazon China is putting its brand and reputation behind everything it sells. This provides a quality guarantee that no individual seller on Taobao can match. I’ve also found over the course of the last year that prices for similar items are often now cheaper on Amazon than on Taobao. How so? For one thing, unlike the Taobao army, Amazon can use its buying power to extract lower prices and better payment terms from its suppliers. Taobao has a subsidiary business called TMall, where major brands directly sell their products. Here at least there should be no worries about the quality and authenticity of what’s being sold. But since each brand manages its own store on TMall, the prices are often higher than on Amazon China. Delivery is also less efficient, in my experience.
What does Taobao still do better than Amazon China? Its website seems a bit easier for Chinese to navigate than Amazon China’s, which looks and acts a lot like the main Amazon website designed and managed in Seattle.
As Bezos’s shareholders know well and occasionally grumble about, he loves spending money on warehouses, shipping technology and other expensive infrastructure. The China business is a marvel of its kind, a kind of “Bezosian” tour de force. The scale and complexity of what Amazon China are doing is formidable. Bezos started and prospered originally with a no inventory business model, letting outside wholesalers hold and so finance the inventory of books he was selling online.
In China, Amazon must stock huge inventories to get products delivered to customers overnight. Where these facilities are and how much Amazon has spent is beyond knowing. Anything I buy on Amazon China — most recently three books, an electronic garlic-mincer and some ceramic carving knives — is delivered to me next day, within about 15 hours of when I ordered it. In a country China’s size, where moving things around long-distance by truck as UPS and Fedex do in the US is difficult and expensive, Amazon has apparently invested in a large nationwide distributed network of warehouses to hold all this inventory. Whether these are owned by Amazon or third parties is also not disclosed. But, it all works smoothly. I get what I order quickly and efficiently, direct from Amazon’s own liveried delivery team, at prices Taobao can’t match.
Every delivered package drives home the message how much faster, cheaper and more reliable Amazon China is compared to Taobao. Try us once, Bezos seems to be saying here in China, and you’ll try us again.
Can Amazon China be making any money here? My guess is No, that the current operation in China is a big money sink. How big? China’s other big online shopping business, JD.com, which went public earlier this year and has a business model more like Amazon China than Alibaba’s, is losing money every quarter. (Nonetheless, it has a current market cap of $40bn.)
Alibaba, by contrast, is making money hand-over-fist, Rmb8 billion ($1.3bn) in net income the last quarter of 2013. To get noticed, those eight million individual Taobao sellers, as well as TMall brands, need to pay more and more to Taobao for ads and preferential placement.
Longer term, though, the Taobao ad-supported model looks ill-adapted to where China is headed. Traditional store retailers in China are getting slaughtered by online competitors. Among those online players, it seems likely business will shift to those that can guarantee quality, authenticity, easy product returns and efficient next-day-delivery. That describes Amazon.
One reason it’s crazy to bet against Bezos is he has shown no compunction about using shareholder money to build a business that can only start to make real money in ten maybe fifteen years. Jack Ma has no such luxury, especially now that Alibaba will be quoted on the NYSE. Alibaba is not likely to attract the kind of patient shareholders drawn to Amazon.
This is perhaps one reason why Ma has been out spending a huge pile of Alibaba money buying into all kinds of businesses to tack onto Alibaba. These include US car service Lyft, messaging business Tango, and all sorts of domestic Chinese businesses, including a big slice of China’s Twitter, Weibo, the digital mapping company AutoNavi, 16.5% of China’s YouTube knockoff, NYSE-quoted Youku and a Hong Kong-quoted film studio that seems to have been cooking its books. He also bought control of a professional soccer team in China, hoping to upgrade the much-maligned image of the domestic game. Add it up and it looks like even Ma isn’t fully convinced Taobao will be able to keep spinning money for years to come.
His most successful recent venture begun last year is an online money management business called Yuebao that pays Chinese savers about 4% on deposits, compared to the less than 0.5% offered by local Chinese banks. As of early September, it had Rmb574 billion, nearly $100 billion, under management. This business is not included in the Alibaba entity going public in New York. That points up another worrying aspect of Jack Ma’s business style. He has shown a proclivity to put some of the more valuable assets into vehicles that only he, rather than the shareholder-owned company, controls. Yahoo! and Japan’s SoftBank have some bitter direct experience with this.
How far can Bezos go in China? After all, he doesn’t speak Chinese and doesn’t seem to visit China all that often. Can a kid from a Miami high school really build a better China business than scrappy Hangzhou-native Jack Ma? One pointer is that the most successful traditional retailers are now mainly foreign-owned and managed. Domestic retailers couldn’t adapt to this new era of rampant low-price online competition. But, Zara, H&M and Sephora are all thriving here. They, too, focused on details often overlooked here, like good customer service, no-questions-asked return policy, competitive prices and great merchandising.
Alibaba’s market cap next week, after its biggest-of-all-time IPO, may temporarily overtake Amazon’s, at $160 billion. But, make no mistake, Amazon will likely prove the more valuable business over time, both in China and globally.
Investment in China PIPEs grows on Alibaba’s coattails
By Bill Meagher Updated 07:45 PM, Sep-09-2014 ET
Fueled by the anticipated initial public offering of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., a renewed wave of investor interest has swept into U.S.-registered Chinese companies.
Such companies have raised $4.43 billion in 35 private-investment-in-public-equity transactions this year, compared to $276.8 million in 13 PIPEs last year, according to PrivateRaise, The Deal’s data service that tracks the PIPE market. Those figures exclude transactions that raised less than $1 million.
Alibaba’s imminent IPO has increased investor awareness that all things related to Internet shopping in China could be a “money-spinner,” Fuhrman said in an e-mail.
“Pretty much all the China IPOs in US this past 12 months have been internet-related. Now comes the Daddy of them all,” he wrote. “This perception of a boom of titanic proportions in online shopping in China is well-founded. The challenge for US investors is whether the companies that have gone public, with exception of Alibaba and to a lesser extent Jingdong will be able to scale up and make real money over time in China.”