Alibaba grabs the IPO money but the future belongs to Jeff Bezos and Amazon China

September 10th, 2014 1 comment

Amazon China & Alibaba

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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.

online shopping China

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.

Amazon China delivery guyCan 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 — The Deal

September 9th, 2014 No comments

 

Deal logo

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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.

“Everything ultimately comes back to Alibaba,” said Peter Fuhrman, CEO of China First Capital, an investment bank in Shenzhen, China.

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.”

To read complete article, click here.

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Why and how Beijing became one of the world’s more unmanageable major cities

August 21st, 2014 No comments

Beijing Bactrian camel-

What if most of what we think about government spending was wrong? What if government money causes, rather than cures,  pollution, unaffordable and substandard housing, impossible traffic, more expensive and less available healthcare? Sounds impossible, right? Not if you live in or have traveled to Beijing lately. The city’s now infamous urban problems are at least in part the result of a deluge of government spending since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. Direct central government funding doubled to over Rmb 14 trillion ($2.2 trillion) over this period while local governments borrowed an additional Rmb 13 trillion ($2.1 trillion) to finance their spending.

The government money, of course, wasn’t meant to turn Beijing into an urban sprawl with a population larger than every state in the US except California. In fact, most of the government stimulus was targeted for big projects outside the capital. But, in China, the nature of things is that much of government spending travels on a round-trip ticket. It is dispensed in Beijing and then a big part of it eventually returns home. And no, this isn’t all in kickbacks. A large part is from the build out of a huge new infrastructure in Beijing to support, steer and encourage the distribution of more government cash.

In the last five years, it seems like everyone rushed to open or expand offices in Beijing:  companies of all sizes from all part of China and the world; governments from the smallest local hamlet 3,000 kilometers away to provinces with populations larger than every country in Western Europe also staffed up. Result: commercial and residential real estate prices skyrocketed to the point now where they are among the highest anywhere in the world.

More people begets more cars, more cars begets more traffic, more traffic begets restrictions on the days-per-week any car can be on the road, which in turn begets Beijingers buying an extra car to get around the prohibition. End result: pollution that is now substantially caused by auto emissions, not as in the old days by nearby-factories burning coal. Many polluting factories have been shut down, which added to the available land for development into commercial and residential property in and around Beijing, particularly in areas you need a car to get to.

Here are the two charts, showing residential real estate prices and cars registered in Beijing from 2008 through last year. The numbers are likely underestimates. But, they show the trend.

data

 

The torrent of government cash had all kinds of spillover effects that have altered Beijing permanently. More restaurants, higher prices, more wining and dining, leading to prohibitions last year, as part of the big anti-corruption crusade, on government officials accepting invitations to party outside the office. This then drives the behavior underground, so high-end restaurants empty out, while more expensive and exclusive “members only” clubs flourish.

Beijing has morphed into the financial capital of China. That’s attracted a large group of players to move from Shanghai and Hong Kong to get a piece. PE funds, private bankers, lawyers, consultants, so-called “guanxi merchants” who arrange access to government officials. Among my circle of friends in PE industry, I can count 15 who have moved to Beijing in recent years, to get closer to the action, and only one who left, who finally couldn’t take the crowds, pollution, high cost.

Beijing’s precise population is unknown. The official number is 21.1 million. Some in government say 25 million. Others claim the real number is closer to 30 million, when you count more recent migrants living rough, plus the huge throngs in Beijing for shorter periods, either for work or pleasure.

Since 2008, far more of China’s total economic activity is decided by government bureaucrats in Beijing. Overall government spending has more than doubled. Result, more people need to travel to Beijing more often.

Look at passenger numbers at Beijing’s Capital Airport. Between 2008 and 2013, this already crowded-facility saw passenger numbers increase by a remarkable 50%. It is, as of March this year, now the busiest airport in the world, eclipsing Atlanta’s Hartsfield. Capital Airport is now breaking under the load, and so Beijing is about to embark on building an even larger new airport in the southern part of the city. This mammoth $11 billion project by itself could support a lot of Beijing’s gdp growth in the coming few years. But, it will be just the cherry on top.

Beijing has the best hospitals in China, so people come from all over the country to try to get admitted for medical treatment. This has led to price increases and longer waiting times. Equally, those with a serious grievance about their local government, or who feel maltreated, will often gather up their documents go to Beijing to try to get redress. This trek to Beijing has been around since the days of the Emperors. As China’s government grows in power and economic clout and ordinary Chinese have the money to fight back, those seeking to petition central government’s help increase.

To serve all the new arrivals and visitors, Beijing continues to expand its Metro system. The average daily ridership is now 10 million, about triple London’s, and also triple the amount five years ago in Beijing.  Waits at rush hour to get into some stations can be horrific, so the government recently proposed to raise fares. Beijing currently has the cheapest public transportation of any big city in China.  While some may leave Beijing, the likely result of higher Metro fares will be more people trying to buy a car.

How bad is traffic in Beijing. Horror stories abound. A more reasonable evaluation: the manager of a big telecommunications company I know told me recently if he doesn’t leave his house by 7am, it will take 90 minutes to drive 10 km from his house to his office. That’s about speed of sedan chairs used to carry emperor and his cohorts within the Forbidden City.

To be sure, Beijing is not Dhaka. Since 2008, many aspects of the city’s infrastructure have been upgraded. It is a thoroughly modern city, with scarcely a trace of either poverty or blight. When I first visited the city in 1981, Bactrian camels were still occasionally seen on the streets hauling cargo.

For first time since 1949, the leader of the country, Xi Jinping,  is Beijing born and bred. Since he was a boy, Beijing’s population has about quadrupled, while China overall has almost exactly doubled.  Will he try to shift gears, slow or even reverse the growth in the city’s population? It won’t be easy. Government stimulus spending, once turned on is notoriously hard to scale back in any serious way. Do so and overall GDP growth will likely suffer.

In its 3,000 years as China’s major urban outpost on the country’s northern perimeter,  Beijing has experienced countless invasions, barbarian pillages, conquests, uprisings. But, nothing in history has altered Beijing as quickly, deeply, and perhaps permanently as five years of bounce-back and kickback from trillions in government pump-priming.

 

 

 

China juices liquidity, and risk, at OTC exchange — Reuters

August 20th, 2014 No comments

Reuters

China juices liquidity, and risk, at OTC exchange

SHANGHAI August 22 Thu Aug 21, 2014 5:10pm EDT

(Reuters) – Chinese brokerages will start making markets next week on China’s New Third Board, its leading over-the-counter (OTC) exchange but one long derided as a dead-end market populated by small little-known, opaquely managed firms.

The move has revitalized interest and trading volumes have exploded, but analysts warn of significant risk.

Most of the 66 Chinese brokerages so far approved to make markets – a business that requires deep cash reserves and sophisticated risk management skills – have little experience.

Market makers quote both a buy and sell price and guarantee share availability by holding shares themselves in inventory, which requires careful real-time management.

For brokerages it means extra profits, while China’s policymakers hope the liberalization will boost liquidity in an exchange that can provide capital for small innovative firms, needed for the next phase of economic expansion.

But, analysts fear that brokerages inexperience coupled with inadequate disclosure by listed companies could led to trouble for an exchange already saddled with image problems.

“Like all OTC markets – including… America’s Bulletin Board and Pink Sheets – China’s Third Board suffers from inherent fundamental flaws,” said Peter Fuhrman, chief executive at China First Capital.

“Liquidity and valuations are persistently low and disclosure is spotty. If it was designed to be a solution to the problem of erratic mainstream IPO policy and approvals on China’s main Shenzhen and Shanghai stock exchanges, the Third Board must be judged a major disappointment.”

Regardless of critics, trading volumes on the exchange soared almost 700 percent in May when Chinese media first reported the advent of market-makers, ChinaScope Financial data shows. Foreign investors are unable to trade on the exchange.

A Reuters analysis of daily data from the National Equities Exchange and Quotations (NEEQ), which runs the New Third Board, shows that August volumes are set to surpass May’s record. Transactions worth 1.16 billion yuan ($188.63 million), as of Aug. 19, were nearly double July’s total, while the volume of shares traded has more than tripled month-on-month.

SMALL CAP CELEBRATION

Smaller private companies in China are the country’s biggest aggregate employers and generators of GDP, but they have difficulty getting bank loans and even more difficulty getting regulatory approval to list on major markets or issue bonds.

However, while dozens of local governments have created OTC markets to help match companies with investors, the lack of market makers and lack of a clear upgrade path to major exchanges has caused most firms and investors to steer clear.

But that may be about to change.

“The expectation is that the Third Board can be an entree onto the growth enterprise board for select small companies,” said Brian Ingram, chief investment manager at Russell Ping An Investment Management.

“If the board does serve that purpose, it’s likely to see pretty rapid growth, and the catalyst for that growth is the fact that regulators are allowing brokerage houses to serve as market makers.”

Brokerages hope it will boost in profits, something they need badly having struggled since 2010 as investors steadily switched out of Chinese stocks, among the world’s worst performers, in favor of housing and high-yielding wealth management products.

SMALL-CAP FEEDING FRENZY

Chinese investors enthusiastically trade small, volatile tickers listed on Shenzhen’s ChiNext growth board, so some predict a revitalized OTC board will attract similar speculative interest, further supporting liquidity.

However, sustained interest from both investors and companies depends on whether regulators formally commit to allowing companies on the New Third Board upgrade to ChiNext.

“We’re now considering listing on the New Third Board, but we are waiting for policy confirmation that we can upgrade to ChiNext,” said Cui Lijun, deputy general manager at robotics firm LEN in Shenzhen.

Similar experiments have disappointed in the past, such as the hard-currency-denominated “B-share” board. Speculators bought B-shares hoping they would ultimately be upgraded to yuan-denominated A-shares, but in the end only a few companies were allowed to transfer, leaving the rest stranded.

CALLS FOR CAUTION

The chequered history of OTC markets in China and abroad, especially with regards to disclosure standards, also has many calling for caution.

In the late 2000s, small Chinese companies began listing on American OTC boards, and some managed to upgrade to major exchanges such as NASDAQ. But many were subsequently found to be riddled with accounting irregularities, causing a swathe of delistings.

Given this history, it is unclear whether regulators want to expand the aggregate OTC market or consolidate it.

Out of all of China’s 26 OTC markets, the New Third Board is the only one that companies from anywhere in China can list on, and it will now be the only one where making markets will be allowed.

Some analysts said that this means the government may be elevating the Third Board, so it can then kill off the rest.

But Zhang Yunfeng, the head of Shanghai’s rival OTC market, said in an interview published in China’s Securities Times on Wednesday that he doesn’t feel threatened.

“I’m not optimistic about the market making institution … if there’s not enough base liquidity, market making will have a hard time enabling market performance.”

www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/21/us-china-markets-otc-idUSKBN0GL26920140821

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China’s rise enters a more challenging phase, where bold ambitions confront stubborn, often centuries-old obstacles

August 5th, 2014 No comments

China First Capital 2014 Survey cover

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China’s economy and society have both reached levels of wealth and development that were unimaginable 30 years ago. What comes next? How can China continue to push forward, against some deep-seated problems, including how to generate globally-competitive innovation, how to sort out land ownership, how to attract and reward global investment flows? These issues are examined in detail in the new research study published by China First Capital.

The new report is titled ” China Survey 2014: The Rise Continues, New Directions & Challenges“. Copies may be downloaded by clicking here or from the research reports page of the company’s website.

China’s economy remains vibrant and fast-evolving. Many of the Fortune 500 successes stories of recent years – KFC, P&G, Coca-Cola – are finding it harder and harder to keep winning in the China market. As they lose share, other companies are gaining, both domestic and international. The report looks at this transformation through the vantage point of China First Capital’s rather long experience working in China,  alongside some talented CEOs in both domestic and global corporations, the incumbents and the disrupters both.

Investing successfully in China, either through the stock market or through M&A, also remains challenging. But, it’s worth the strain, the report asserts, since no other country can rival China today in terms of both the number and scale of money-making opportunities.

The new China First Capital report discusses these broad trends, and also examines the following in depth:

  •  is China’s investment community (PE and VC firms, stock market investors)  over-allocating now to mobile services and online shopping;
  •  an assessment of the serious challenge facing traditional shopping mall operators and retailers mainly because of competition from soon-to-IPO Alibaba’s online shopping giant;
  • a sober analysis of actual disappointing state of China’s high-tech industry;
  • how China triumphed over India, and won the battle as the world’s best and biggest Emerging Market,
  • why 3M may be the most successful American company in China, but flies so far beneath everyone’s radar

Some of the contents have already been published here on this blog and on Seeking Alpha.

The report’s core conclusion is that China has come a long way and in raw terms is certainly the most successful emerging economy of all time. But, it needs to become more innovative, generate more globally important technology breakthroughs, not just copycatting. There’s no absence of hype around about how China is poised to become a global technology powerhouse. The report, though,  cites China’s failure to serially produce an aircraft engine as a concrete, if not often talked-about, reminder of its technology frustrations and limitations.

 

 

Chinese PE Firms Too Tech-Focused: Report. AsianInvestor

July 28th, 2014 No comments

Asianinvestor

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Chinese PE firms too tech-focused: report

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Company valuations are being pushed up as PE firms chase the same targets, and market domination by big players like Alibaba is squeezing profit, says China First Capital.

Spurred by the success of the likes of Tencent and Alibaba, Chinese private equity and venture capital firms have become too focused on technology and e-commerce investments, argues a new report.

Nearly all publicly announced deals this year have been in the technology sector, says the China Private Equity 2014 report from China First Capital, a private capital markets advisory firm. They include online shopping sites and mobile travel, game and taxi-booking services.

Though China has restarted its initial public offering process after a hiatus of more than a year, US listing also provides an effective way for PE firms to exit their investments. Chinese internet and mobile companies Zhaopin, Cheetah Mobile, Sina Weibo and Qihoo 360 have already floated in the US market this year.

Though Tencent and Alibaba are shining examples of success, the investment outlook for newly established technology companies may not be as rosy, the report says. These firms do not enjoy a technological barrier to entry and rely “on the same prayer-for-low-profitability outcome: a purchase down the road by China’s two internet leviathans, Tencent or Alibaba”.

But China First Capital forecasts that the duo will soon lose their appetite for buying smaller Chinese internet firms.

Moreover, domination by the major players has squeezed the growth potential of newcomers. Alibaba commands close to 50% market share of the country’s online shopping in terms of transaction volume, while Tencent is similarly dominant in online gaming. Almost all the money goes to these two firms, the report notes.

Further, the investment landscape in China is less dynamic than some elsewhere. The US has a greater number of venture capital trade buyers for successful VC-backed companies, and less monopolistic internet and mobile industries and a richer early adaptor market to tap, the report notes.

In China over the past two years, PE firms have invested heavily in Chinese shopping sites that follow a model similar to Groupon. However, some projects have lost money because monetising the sites has proved difficult.

Another obstacle in China for private equity in building up investment is the high cost of acquiring clients. In most VC-backed companies in the US, the head of business development is responsible for generating growth at the cheapest cost.

This approach is uncommon in China. A typical method of acquiring customers in the mainland is to pay for a high-ranked listing on search engine Baidu, which handles over 60% of search requests in the country.

“The ‘pay to play’ rules of China’s internet [industry] lead to companies taking lots of expensive shortcuts, often burning a lot of PE and VC firms’ cash,” the report said.

Further, PE firms are chasing the same investment themes and companies, resulting in rising valuations. “It is an ongoing example of inadequate diversification by industry or stage,” it added.

China’s PE capital raised has grown five-fold to over $100 billion since 2005, while the number of firms has grown to 1,000.

- Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.

http://www.asianinvestor.net/News/388932,chinese-pe-firms-too-tech-focused-report.aspx

PDF Version

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Neue Zurcher Zeitung Interview

July 10th, 2014 No comments

-NZZ

paper

Monday’s “Neue Zurcher Zeitung” of Switzerland published an article based on the interview I gave last week while in London with the newspaper’s financial editor Christof Leisinger. For those whose German is up to the task, click here to read the article in full.

To get a flavor of what we discussed, here are some of the quotes, in English:

China has the world’s second largest economy and capital market. GPD growth and corporate earnings are both growing far faster than in OECD countries. And yet, global institutional capital is in almost all cases seriously underweight China. How to explain this? Simple, there are just too few attractive and legal ways for international capital to invest in China.

“The Chinese companies quoted in the US and Hong Kong mainly come from two unrepresentative pools: large, slower-growing Chinese state-owned companies, and internet and mobile services “concept” stocks often with limited revenues and profits. The powerful engine of long-term economic growth in China, its millions of successful private sector entrepreneur-founded businesses serving domestic market, are almost all off-limits to non-Chinese investors. To invest, you need state approval to buy Renminbi and later permission to convert back into dollars, Euros or other freely-tradable currencies.

“China no longer especially needs or wants Western capital to finance its economic growth. The best way now to invest in China, to increase allocation there,  is probably through M&A, by putting money into US or European companies that are aggressively acquiring good Chinese private sector ones.”

“Overall, the country is doing an excellent job managing the transition from export-reliance to domestic consumption, a economic challenge Germany is still struggling with. The Chinese economy has undergone enormous structural change over the last five years, most of it positive, with more and more of economic activity coming from the private sector, rather than state-owned one, from producing and selling products to satisfy the needs of  China’s 1 billion consumers rather than those of Wal-Mart shoppers in the US.

“On the macro level I do not expect any big change anytime soon, no free convertibility for the Renminbi. But, more quietly and pragmatically, the Chinese government has solved a rather large problem related to this, by making it legal and simple now for every Chinese citizen to use Renminbi to buy up to $50,000 a year in dollars, to pay for travel, educating their children, or buy shares or other assets outside China. In other words, the capital account remains closed, but Chinese individually now have a lot of the benefits of free exchange between dollars and Renminbi. It’s one of the reasons the Champs d’Elysees and Bond Street are jammed with Chinese tourists.”

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Going for broke: the PE world’s big risky bet on China’s internet and mobile industries

June 18th, 2014 No comments

China fortune-teller-

The World Cup has begun. Along with being the globe’s most watched event it is also certainly the most gambled upon. Thirty-two teams, sixty-four matches to determine the winner on July 13th in Rio de Janiero. To choose the winner, you want to look at the individuals, the team management, the history of past success, the competition. In other words, it’s a lot like the process a private equity or venture capital firm uses to choose which companies to invest in.

It would be ill-advised, if not borderline crazy, to bet one’s life savings on the USA team to win the World Cup this year. Coral, the big British bookmaker itself owned by three PE firms, is offering odds of four hundred to one.

While no one is offering odds or a betting pool, the current mania among PE firms in China for investing in loss-making internet and mobile services businesses looks like an even wilder bet. Herd behavior is a familiar enough phenomenon across the PE and VC world. But, the situation in China has reached almost comical proportions. At the moment, there is little, if any, PE money going to large, profitable, mature, comparatively “de-risked” manufacturing companies. Instead, almost all the publicly-announced deals are investments in a variety of mainly online shopping sites or mobile-phone travel, game and taxi-booking services, none of which has a true technological barrier to entry, and all of which seem to hinge mainly on the same prayed-for low-probability outcome: a purchase down the road by China’s two internet leviathans, Tencent or Alibaba.

A US IPO is also at least theoretically possible. This year has already seen successful IPOs for Chinese internet and mobile companies, including Zhaopin, Cheetah Mobile, Qihoo 360, Leju, Chukong Technologies, Sina Weibo, Tuniu. But, deals being done now are for smaller, newer less well-established China companies that mainly face a steep failure-filled mountain climb of at least two to three years to even reach a point at which an IPO in New York might even be possible.

It is true that China’s online shopping and services industry is booming. Problem is, almost all the money is being earned by these same two large firms. In online shopping, 80% goes to Alibaba. In online gaming, a far smaller money-maker, Tencent is about as dominant. Both have done a few deals in the last year, buying out or investing alongside PE firms in smaller Chinese companies which have gained some traction. At the same time a few Chinese internet companies have gone public in the US and Hong Kong. But, the overall environment is much less positive. There are far too many “me too” businesses with business models copy-catted from the US pouring out PE and VC cash to buy customers or a thin allotment of a 20 year-old Chinese male’s online gaming budget.

China is the world’s best mass manufacturer with the world’s largest, or second-largest, domestic market in just about every imaginable category. Simply put: there are so many better, less risky, more defended Chinese companies out there than the ones now getting most of the PE and VC time and money.

My bet is that Tencent and Alibaba will also soon lose their appetite for buying smaller Chinese internet players. They are at a similar phase as companies like Amazon, Google, eBay, Cisco, Microsoft, Electronic Arts, IAC/InterActiveCorp, once were. These giants at one time bought small US internet companies by the bucket-load. But, most have either quit or cut back doing so. The businesses usually fail to prosper, are non-core, and prove hard to integrate. Minority deals usually turn out worse. Corporate investors make bad VCs.

In other key respects, there is every difference in the world between the US VC scene and this current activity in China. The US has far more trade buyers for successful VC-backed companies, far more genuine innovation, far more success stories, far less monopolistic internet and mobile industries, and a far richer “early adaptor” market to tap. You don’t need to look back very far to see where this kind of investing activity can lead. It’s only a little more than two years since PE firms poured hundreds of millions of Renminbi into Chinese group shopping sites modeled to some extent on US Groupon. Almost all these companies are now out of business or losing serious money. Chinese like group-buying. They just don’t let any company make any money from offering such a service.

Scan through the last three weekly summaries of new PE and VC deals in China, as digested by Asia Private Equity in Hong Kong. Virtually all involve deals to invest in online and mobile services. (Click here to look at the list of these deals.)

I talk or meet with PE partners on a regular basis. I can recall only a single discussion, over the last six months, where the PE firm’s primary focus was not on these kind of deals. This lonesome PE is the captive fund of one of China’s largest state-owned automobile groups. At this stage, about as differentiated as Chinese PE investment gets is whether the money should go into one of the many online sites for takeaway meals or one of the even larger number selling cosmetics.

China PE is slowly emerging from a prolonged period of inactivity and crisis, the result of both a slowdown in IPO activity and PE portfolios bloated with unexited deals. It’s good to see some sign of animal spirits again, that some PE firms at least are looking to do deals. But at least up to now, it looks like some bad old habits are being repeated: too many PE firms enslaved to the same investment thesis, chasing the same few companies, bidding up their valuations, inadequate diversification by industry or stage.

In the US, in most VC-backed companies, one of the busiest members of senior management is the head of business development. This job is often to find strategic partnerships, barter and co-bundling deals to generate more growth at less expense. This kind of thing is much rarer in China. Instead, for most, the primary method of customer acquisition is to spend a lot of money on Baidu advertising.

Baidu is far more accommodating than Google. It’s the dirty, not-so-well-kept secret of China’s internet industry. Baidu, which handles over 60% of all Chinese search requests, lets advertisers buy placement on the first page of what are called  “organic search results”. There is basically no such thing in China as “most relevant” search results. The only search algorithm is: “who has paid us the most”. It’s one reason Google’s pullback from the China market is so damaging overall for the Chinese internet.

The “pay to play” rules in China’s internet leads to companies taking lots of expensive short cuts, often using PE and VC firm cash. There’s more than a little here to remind me of the Internet Bubble years in the US. I ended up running a VC firm in California right after the bubble burst. I still shake my head at some of the deals this VC firm invested in before I got there, when, as is now in China, pouring lots of LP money in any kind of dot.com or shopping site was seen as prudent fiduciary investing. Things turned out otherwise. They turned out messy. They will too with this PE infatuation with online and mobile anything in China. A bet on the USA to win the World Cup offers more attractive odds and upside.

 

Tiananmen 25 years later. I was there. I was wrong

June 4th, 2014 No comments

Tiananmen Square

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Twenty-five years ago on the evening on June 3, 1989, I was standing in the northeast corner of Tiananmen Square as Chinese soldiers emerged in large numbers from inside the National History Museum a short distance away. From loudspeakers came instructions that all those gathered in the square should leave in an orderly way. The Tiananmen Square Protest, begun seven weeks earlier, was entering its final and most brutal phase.

It would be another seven hours or so on the morning of June 4th before the last of the demonstrators would be led unharmed out of the Square. The violence that night occurred elsewhere. Chinese troops entering the city by road encountered stiff resistance, particularly to the west and south of the square. I witnessed some of this at close quarters – the mayhem and loss of life. I was a reporter at the time. I don’t reflect often on these events, and this is also the first time I’ve written about what I saw there.

Most of what I and so many others thought was true and inevitable at that time turned out to be wrong. There was no civil war, no fracturing of the country, no return to Maoism, no retreat into bitter isolation, no dying of the universal hope here for a better life.

China today is an infinitely better, fairer, richer, more open and freer place than it was in 1989. This is the reality that too many in the West are unable or unwilling to see. Their views about China were cast in concrete that awful night in June 1989. All they often choose to see are ghosts of repression and despotism.

So what I have learned these twenty-five years?  China’s long history, for all its stunning achievements and millennia of global weight and prestige, is also etched with pain — from war, famine, civil discord. No single cataclysm could possibly define its destiny or determine the country’s future. Not Tiananmen. Not the Cultural Revolution. Not the civil war that brought the Communists to power in 1949. Not the Japanese conquest of the 1930s, nor the Taiping Rebellion eighty years earlier in which perhaps 30 million Chinese perished.

“Amnesia” is what some Western commentators and authors now choose to call it. I prefer to think of it as a deep, practical and praiseworthy resiliency. China is where it is today, at a moment of prosperity and bright prospects unprecedented in its history, because most, if not all, of the country of 1.3 billion willed it there. Through toil. Through self-reliance and self-improvement. Through an unshifting focus on bettering their own lives, and those of their families. And, also through knowing when and how to bury the past.

Was this made easier because no news about the Tiananmen protests circulates in official media, and nothing is taught in schools? Quite likely. But, by itself, the impact of this was negligible on China’s transformation since 1989. The country is now thirteen times larger, in per capita gdp terms, than it was then. The improvement in people’s lives goes beyond the scale of numerical measurement. It is the largest, most complete and most rapid uplift in human history.

Yes, some problems from 1989 still remain. China has polluted air and water, as it did in 1989. It has corrupt officials. As it did in 1989. Its politics are now and were then opaque and closed in most parts to public scrutiny. Then, as now, China confounds and sometimes infuriates those who visit it, study it, admire it, or seek to trade with it.

I left Beijing on June 15th 1989, together with my oldest and closest friend, who was expelled as an Associated Press journalist “due to alleged links with student ringleaders”. We met as two of a handful of American students in Nanjing in 1981, when food was still rationed and China was as poor, per capita, as India and poorer than just about everywhere in Africa.

I stayed away for many years, moving back almost five years ago. That friend is also back now in China, raising his three children in Beijing. He and I don’t see eye to eye on China. Our interpretations are quite different on what happened in Tiananmen that night, and the impact it exerts over today’s China. We speak about it rarely. He’s writing a history book now on the many ties that bind the US and China together. He is more fixated on politics, with intrigues and policy shifts in Beijing. I care little about that, and far more about what happens here financially and economically.

We both feel grateful to live in China now, and in our own ways, grateful also to hold onto a few memories of China as it was 33 years ago, and also on that night in 1989. No amnesia. Some late middle-aged forgetfulness for sure.

China is not at all like the sad place we expected it to become when we left Beijing together in 1989. It is our home. It provides us both with opportunity, friendship, purpose, careers, happiness, love, occasional frustrations and, when we remember to take note,  a sense of astonishment at all we’ve witnessed, and how much farther China has come than we ever dared imagine.

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Who should own China’s land and who should farm it remain the central questions of China’s five-thousand year-old civilization

May 20th, 2014 1 comment

 

 

 

Qing porcelain

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When I first came to China 33 years ago, 80% of China’s population was rural, mainly small-scale peasant farmers. Today, half the 1.3 billion population is off the farm, living in cities. Two obvious results: China is over twenty times richer per capita in dollar terms. And, from a country with a handful of major cities three decades ago, China now has 160 cities with a population of at least one million.

The Chinese government’s plan is for another 150 million Chinese to go from farm to city in the next decade. But even then, there would still be as many as 300mn too many people living in rural villages. China, according to reliable estimates I’ve seen,  could be efficiently farmed by as few as 100mn full-time farmers, or 7% of the total population. In the US, less than 2% of the population works on farms. They live well. A farming family in the US now earns on average $108,000, 53% above the national household average.

In China, peasants earn on average one-third as much as urban Chinese.  As peasant numbers decline, the incomes rise of those remaining. A depopulating countryside, however, won’t directly solve rural China’s age-old problem: farm plots are too small and often on uneven terrain. This limits the use of farm machinery and modern farming methods. Farm yields remain stubbornly below US and European levels. This, in turn, means food imports must rise inexorably. Year by year, China moves farther away from an often-expressed goal to increase its food self-sufficiency.

The solutions aren’t hard to formulate. China needs fewer and bigger farms with more leveled ground to permit efficient mechanization. But, achieving this remains, for now, all but impossible. Part of the problem is that all rural land in China is owned by the state, so there’s no way for peasants to buy land from one another. A larger problem is the adverse impact this would likely have on Chinese society.

China’s describes itself, even today, as a 农业大国, “nongye daguo“, or  “agricultural great power”. This is in some sense an artifact of history. But, it also reflects a deeper reality, that most Chinese, even the most thoroughly urban, still have some concrete connection to village China. Often this is through extended family members still engaged in peasant farming.

More directly, many people living in cities — if not the majority than close to it — still hold rural “hukou” and so generally have an entitlement to farm a plot of land in their ancestral village. This hukou system, though much criticized for depriving many city-dwelling Chinese of full rights to low-cost healthcare and schooling, acts as an almost-universal national insurance plan. Those now long-removed from farming life still have the comfort of knowing, if things ever got really tough, if they lost their jobs or the small business they started goes bust, they could go back to where they or their parents came from. They always have a place to live and enough land to feed themselves and scratch out a bare living.

China is the most entrepreneurial place in the world, which creates huge benefits for everyone living here, including better products, services and fast-growing incomes. Small farm plots widely held is one reason for this. They act as the safety net.

So, creating a more efficient farming system by giving peasants the right to sell or mortgage the land they farm or hold title to might ultimately do more economic harm than good. Chinese government has so far stalled on major reforms of peasant land ownership. Instead, city-dwellers are renting the rights to farm their rural plots to local peasants who have the energy and ability to manage larger holdings. The incremental effect is that average farm size will grow gradually. But, of course, renting land isn’t the same as owning it.

No one will invest in improving the quality of the land if they are renting it year-by-year It’s not only efficiency that suffers. The levels of heavy metal soil contamination is reaching alarming levels in many areas, especially Hunan Province, source of 13% of the rice grown in China. Who will pay to clean up the soil and so improve food safety in China is a national problem without an obvious answer.

The price of fruits, vegetables and grains are all rising in China, lifting peasant incomes. But, so are cash salaries for low-skilled jobs in cities. Run the numbers and it still looks to be wiser in many cases to leave the land. The standard land measurement in China is the “mu”, equal to one-sixth of an acre or about one-twentieth of a hectare. The income from farming one mu in China is about equal now to one week of low-pay wages, for example, the salary for sweeping up factory floors. Not many peasants own and farm 50 mu.

As I write this, I’m intermittently staring out the window of a high-speed train traveling 300kph through rural parts of Shandong Province. It takes less than a second for the train to pass a typical small plot of farmed land. The spring wheat is already about 18 inches high. There is no one out in the fields. Thanks to pesticides and chemical fertilizers, far fewer people are needed to grow food than when I first came here in 1981. Every day people leave the land and will continue to for decades to come. But, who should own China’s land and who should farm it remain the central questions of China’s five-thousand year-old civilization.

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Alibaba files for IPO in US — China Daily article

May 8th, 2014 No comments

China Daily

 

 

Updated: 2014-05-07 06:56

By MICHAEL BARRIS in New York (chinadaily.com.cn)

Alibaba files for IPO in US

Alibaba Chairman and Non-executive Director Jack Ma participates in a teleconference in Hong Kong in this October 22, 2007 file photo, one day before its initial public offering in the territory. [Photo/Agencies]

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding officially filed on Tuesday to go public in the US in what could be the largest initial public offering ever.

A regulatory filing gave a $1 billion placeholder value for the offering, but the actual amount is expected to be far higher, possibly exceeding $20 billion and topping not only Facebook’s $16 billion 2012 listing, but Agricultural Bank of China Ltd’s record $22.1 billion offering in Shanghai and Hong Kong in 2010.

Alibaba, founded by former English teacher Jack Ma in a Hangzhou apartment, and its bankers have been moving to throw their own shares behind the IPO, analysts have said.

In its filing Alibaba gave no date for the proposed IPO or whether it would be on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq. It cited its advantageous placement in a nation in which e-commerce is fast becoming a way of life, as Chinese consumers turn to the Internet to buy innumerable items. But Alibaba’s prospectus cited statistics showing that the market hasn’t been fully tapped. Just 45.8 percent of China’s population used the Internet, while 49 percent of customers shopped online.

Often described as a combination of eBay and Amazon, Alibaba handled $240 billion of merchandise in 2013. With more than 7 million merchants, it has more than $2 billion in revenue and profit of more than $1 billion.

Alibaba’s sheer size could weigh on the stock price of US rival Amazon.com if the Chinese company’s shares are added to indexes and portfolios targeting e-commerce and related sectors, analysts said.

“Amazon simply doesn’t measure up to the size of Alibaba’s earnings and earnings growth rate,” analyst Robert Wagner wrote.

Shares aren’t expected to begin trading for several months, as the US Securities and Exchange Commission reviews Alibaba’s offering materials and the company promotes its prospects to institutional investors.

The offering managers are Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup.

Ma, who has described the challenge of providing what he calls personal business as “my religion”, is Alibaba’s biggest individual shareholder, with an 8.9 percent stake.

Alibaba’s announcement continues a flurry of IPO filings by Chinese technology companies. Internet security application developer Cheetah Mobile is expected to go public on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday and is expected to raise $153.75 million to $178.35 million. Three weeks ago, Weibo Corp, the Chinese micro blogging service owned by Sina Corp and Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd, raised $285.6 million in a Nasdaq IPO, while real-estate listings website Leju Holdings Ltd raised $100 million in an initial offering on the NYSE.

“The key question for China is how much new money, if any, Alibaba will raise in this US IPO,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman and CEO of China First Capital, told China Daily.

“If all the cash goes to Japan’s Softbank and US’s Yahoo, then it’s hard to see how Alibaba, its customers and the hundreds of millions of Taobao-addicted Chinese consumers will benefit from the IPO.” US web-portal company Yahoo is a 24-percent Alibaba shareholder, while Japan’s Softbank has a 37-percent stake.

http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2014-05/07/content_17490099.htm

WH Group Hong Kong IPO Goes Belly Up – Leaving Wall Street’s Most Famed Investment Banks and Some of Asia’s Biggest PE Firms at an Embarrassing Loss

April 30th, 2014 No comments

WSJ Shuanghui WH Group failed IPO

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There will be an awful lot of embarrassed financial professionals sulking around Hong Kong and Wall Street today. The reason: a crazy IPO deal financially-engineered by a group of 29 big name investment banks, led by Morgan Stanley, together with several large China and Asian-based PE firms including China’s CDH and Singapore’s Temasek Holdings failed to find investors. Their pig’s ear didn’t, as they promised, turn into the silk purse after all. The planned IPO of WH Group has been aborted.

WH Group was created by the banks and PE firms to hold the assets of American pork producer Smithfield Foods bought last year in a leveraged buyout. The other asset inside of WH Group is a majority shareholding in China’s largest pork company Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development.

I was one of the few who actually called into question almost a year ago the logic as well as the economics of the deal. You can read my original article here.

There weren’t a lot of other doubters at the time. The mainstream financial press, by and large, went along with things, accepting at face value the story provided to them by Morgan Stanley, CDH and others. Over the last few months, as the now-failed IPO got into gear in anticipation of closing the deal around now, the press kept up its steady reporting, not raising too many tough questions about what were obviously some glaring weak points – the high debt, the high valuation, the crazy corporate structure that made the deal appear to be what it wasn’t, a Chinese takeover of a big US pork company.

I have no special interest in this deal, since me and my firm never acted for any of the parties involved, nor do I own any shares in any of the companies involved. I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents filed at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it, the chutzpah, that these big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausage bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to Hong Kong investors and institutions.

In other words, saying at the time it looked like the whole thing rested on a very shaky foundation was a reasonable conclusion for anyone who took the time to read the SEC filings. Instead, mainly what we heard about, over and over, was that this was (wrongly) China’s “biggest takeover of a US company,” a “merger between America’s largest pork producer and its counterpart in the world’s largest pork market.”

Morgan Stanley, CDH, Temasek and the others got a little too cocky. The original Smithfield “take private” deal last year went through smoothly. They moved quicker than originally planned to get the company re-listed in Hong Kong. Had they pulled it off, it would have meant huge fees for the investment bankers, and depending on the share price, a juicy return for the PE firms, most of whom had been stuck holding the shares in Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development for over seven years. First came word last week they wanted to cut back by 60% the size of the IPO due to the hostile reception from investors during the road show phase. Then the IPO was suddenly called off late on Tuesday, Hong Kong time.

One of the questions that never got properly answered is why these PE firms didn’t sell their Shuanghui shares on the Chinese stock market, but held them since IPO, without exiting. That’s unusual, especially since Shuanghui’s shares have traded well above the level CDH and others bought in at. I wasn’t in China at the time, but that original investment did not cover itself in praise and glory. Almost immediately after the PE firms went in, providing the capital to allow the state-owned Shuanghui to privatize itself in 2006, the rumors began to circulate that the deal was deeply corrupt, and for reasons never explained, was structured in a way where the PE firms did not have a way to exit through normal stock market channels.

The Smithfield acquisition never made much of any industrial sense. The PE firms that now own the majority (mainly CDH, Temasek, New Horizon, but also including Goldman Sachs’ Asia PE arm ) have no experience or knowledge how to run a pork business in the US. In fact, they don’t know how to run any business in the US. The Shuanghui China management, which is meant now to be serving two separate masters, simultaneously running the Chinese company and its troubled American cousin, similarly don’t know a hock from a snout when it comes to raising and selling pork in the US. This is, was and will remain the main business of Smithfield. Not exporting pork to China. How, when and why these US assets can be listed in Asia must certainly now count as a mystery to all of the big-name financial institutions involved, including Bank of China, which lent billions to finance the takeover last year, as did Morgan Stanley itself.

So, now we have this sorry spectacle of the PE firms, together with partners, having seemingly thrown more money away in a failed bid to rescue the original Shuanghui investment from its unexplained illiquidity. The WH Group IPO failure is also a stunning rebuke for the other PE-backed P2P take private deals now waiting to relist in Hong Kong. (Read here, here, here.) Smithfield, while no great shakes, is the jewel among the rather sorry group of mainly-Chinese companies taken private from the US stock exchange with the plan to sell them later to Hong Kong-based investors via an IPO.

This was among the most bloated IPOs ever, with 29 investment banks given underwriting mandates to sell shares. ( The IPO banks included not only Morgan Stanley, but also Citic Securities, Goldman Sachs, UBS, Barclays, Credit Suisse, JP Morgan, Nomura, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank.) All that expensive investment banking firepower. Result: among the most expensive IPO duds in history.

For the PE consortium that owns WH Group, they will have already likely lost over USD$15mn in LP money on legal, underwriting and accounting fees on this failed IPO. This is on top of a whopping $729mn fees paid by the PE firms for what are called “one-off fees and share-based payments” to acquire Smithfield. The subsequent restructuring ahead of IPO? Maybe another $100mn. If or when the WH Group IPO is tried again, the fees will likely be at least as high as the first time around. In short, the PE firms are already close to $1 billion in the red on this deal, not including interest payments on all the debt.  Smithfield itself remains lacklustre. Its net profit shrank 50% during the fiscal year leading up to the buyout.

With no IPO proceeds anywhere on the horizon, the issue looming largest now for the PE firms: is WH Group generating enough free cash to service the $7 billion in debt, including $4 billion borrowed to buy sputtering Smithfield? If not, next stop is Chapter 11.

By contrast, now feeling as delighted as pigs in muck are the mainly-US shareholders who last year sold their Smithfield shares at a 31% premium above the pre-bid price to the Chinese-led PE group. It doesn’t offset by much the US trade deficit with China, which reached a new record last year of $318 billion. But these US investors also get the satisfaction of knowing they have so far received the far better end of a deal against some of the bigger, richer financial institutions in Asia and Wall Street.

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WH Group under scrutiny in wake of cancelled Hong Kong IPO — Financial Times

April 29th, 2014 No comments

FT-

FT logo

WH Group under scrutiny in wake of cancelled Hong Kong IPO

By Josh Noble in Hong Kong

April 30, 2014 3:55 pm

Shuanghui

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WH Group’s ditched Hong Kong listing has drawn fresh scrutiny over the structure and rationale behind its $7bn takeover of Smithfield Foods – the largest ever US acquisition by a Chinese company.

The Sino-US pork producer, now the leader in both markets, abandoned its planned initial public offering this week, having failed to win over investors – despite alreadycutting the deal size in half.

WH Group – formerly known as Shuanghui International – blamed deteriorating market conditions, while analysts pointed to poor sentiment towards China and the outbreak of a deadly pig virus in the US.

Though investors did show interest, many were “simply not on the same page as the company” when it came to valuation, said one person with knowledge of the sale process.

However, some have raised doubts over WH Group’s longer-term prospects, and questioned the thinking behind the Smithfield buy. WH Group had pitched itself as a global leader tapping rising Chinese consumption, but investors instead responded to two separate businesses – one in the US and one in China – bolted together and creaking with debt, say bankers.

“It’s like buying a house, ripping out the bathrooms and kitchen, and trying to flip it for a premium six months later,” said one senior equity banker.

Investors also expressed concerns that a trimmed deal would simply store up trouble down the road, by raising only a slice of the money needed to pay off debts. Further capital raising and shareholder sales would then be inevitable – creating a major overhang for a company seeking a valuation in line with established US peers.

The original case for purchasing Smithfield was to create one international company that could capitalise on cheap pork in the US by selling it into China, the world’s biggest consumer of the meat. Smithfield’s higher-margin pork products – such as ham and sausages – were also seen as a neat way to gain exposure to rising wealth and changing eating habits in China.

When announcing the deal in September last year, Wan Long, now chairman of WH Group, pointed to numerous advantages of combining the companies.

“Together we look forward to utilising our individual strengths – including Shuanghui’s extensive distribution network in China, and Smithfield’s leading production and safety protocols – to provide safe, high-quality products to consumers worldwide,” he said at the time.

But the company has yet to prove to investors that its plans will work, having completed the takeover only six months before attempting to list. Management has not yet been integrated, while Smithfield products are still some months away from arriving on Chinese supermarket shelves.

WH Group borrowed about $4bn to finance its purchase of Smithfield, much of which is not due to be repaid for years. Most of it was lent by Bank of China, although a chunk of about $1.5bn – originally a bridge loan from Morgan Stanley – has now been placed with US investors as five-year and seven-year debt. The company had sought a listing to help pay off some of its loans, largely because of the chairman’s own distrust of debt, according to two people with knowledge of the process.

Though the debt was borrowed at relatively cheap rates, the failure to attract new equity investment leaves the company with tens of millions of dollars a year of debt-servicing costs, and leaves private equity investors trapped for the foreseeable future.

Peter Fuhrman, chief executive of advisory firm China First Capital, describes the episode as one of the “most expensive IPO duds in history”, and believes the Smithfield deal was actually an attempt by private equity investors to bulk up the company to help provide an exit to their holdings in the original China-only business.

Those investors include Goldman Sachs, Temasek and New Horizon. However, CDH Investments, a Chinese private equity house, is by far the largest outside shareholder, and thought to have been a key driving force behind the deal.

“WH Group was created by the banks and PE firms to hold the assets of American pork producer Smithfield Foods bought last year in a leveraged buyout,” Mr Fuhrman wrote on his blog. “Now we have this sorry spectacle of the PE firms, together with partners, having seemingly thrown more money away in a failed bid to rescue the original Shuanghui investment from its unexplained illiquidity.”

Those familiar with the cancelled float say that WH Group is almost certain to return at a later date, with a new deal likely to involve a far smaller syndicate than the 29 bookrunners it hired first time round.

Attention will now shift to the company’s first-half earnings. Last year WH Group made a net loss of $67m, largely caused by share-based awards given to two executives worth almost $600m, according to its listing prospectus. Shares in the Chinese business – listed in Shenzhen under the name Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development – are down by a quarter so far this year.

PDF version

 

http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/7e8723fe-d03b-11e3-af2b-00144feabdc0.html

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Pork chopped. Why did hog giant WH Group’s IPO fail to entice investors? — Week in China

April 29th, 2014 No comments
week in china

Week in China cover

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Pork chopped

Why did hog giant’s IPO fail to entice investors?

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During the world’s biggest probate dispute a few years ago, a fascinated audience learned that Nina Wang, the late chairwoman of Hong Kong real estate developer Chinachem, paid $270 million to her feng shui adviser (and lover) to dig lucky holes. As many as 80 of them were dug around Wang’s properties to improve her fortune.

One of these holes – about three metres wide and nine metres deep, according to the China Entrepreneur magazine – was burrowed outside a meat processing plant in China.

Why so? Chinachem was the first foreign investor brought in by Shuanghui bosses in 1994 to help the abattoir expand. Wang’s capital would jumpstart the firm’s extraordinary transformation from a state-owned factory in Henan’s Luohe city into China’s biggest (and privately-held) pork producer.

Seeing Shuanghui’s potential, Wang offered to acquire its trademark and then to buy a majority stake for HK$300 million ($38 million). Both proposals were rejected outright by Shuanghui’s chairman Wan Long (see WiC201 for a profile of the man known locally as the ‘Steve Jobs of Chinese butchery’). His rationale was that he wanted to “make full use of foreign capital, but not be controlled by it”. Despite never owning a majority stake in the hog firm, he insisted on running the company his own way.

Two decades have passed since Wan first courted Nina Wang’s cash and in that time a range of new investors have bought into the company. Last year they helped Shuanghui to acquire American hog producer Smithfield for $7.1 billion (including debt) and in January the firm was renamed WH Group, ahead of a multi-billion dollar Hong Kong listing. But embarrassingly the IPO was pulled this week, as plans for the flotation went belly-up.

Not bringing home the bacon…

When WH applied to list on Hong Kong’s stock exchange in January, the firm talked up the prospect of launching the city’s biggest IPO since 2010. It kicked off the investor roadshow early last month intending to raise up to $5.3 billion. Four fifths of the total was to be used to help WH repay loans taken to finance the Smithfield takeover, with bankers setting the price between HK$8 and HK$11.25 a share. This was “an unusually wide indicative range” according to Reuters, but also a recognition of the uncertain outlook in the Hong Kong stockmarket.

A few weeks later, the 29 banks hired to promote the IPO (a record) returned with lukewarm orders. WH was forced to cleave the offer by more than half. Excluding the greenshoe allotment, the new plan was dramatically less ambitious, and looked to raise between $1.34 billion and $1.88 billion. To boost investor confidence, existing owners also dropped plans to sell some of their own shares in the listing. WH’s trading debut was pushed back by a week to May 8.

But investors remained unenthused. Blaming “deteriorating market conditions and recent excessive market volatility” (the prefferred explanation for most failed IPOs), WH shelved its IPO on Tuesday.

“The world’s largest pork company has gone from Easter ham to meagre spare rib,” the Wall Street Journal quipped.

Were rough market conditions to blame?

The failed deal was another blow for bankers in Hong Kong’s equity capital markets, who have watched the planned IPO of Hutchison’s giant retail arm AS Watson slip away and have seen Alibaba Group opt to go to market in New York instead.

Volatile markets may have contributed to WH’s decision to postpone the listing. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index dropped 4.5% between the deal’s formal launch on April 10 and its eventual withdrawal on April 29, according to the South China Morning Post. Other IPOs haven’t been faring well recently. Japanese hotel operator Seibu Holdings and Chinese internet firm Sina Weibo both pared back share sales last month, while the Financial Times notes that concerns about China’s slowing economy have depressed interest in Chinese assets more generally.

Nevertheless, investors were anxious about WH’s investment story too and specifically whether the company’s valuation was too high.

One of the selling points of the original Shuanghui takeover of Smithfield was that it married a reputable American brand with a company that wanted to adapt best practices in product quality and food safety in China. But if one longer term goal was to improve the reputation of Chinese pork – and boost confidence among the country’s jaded consumers – the more immediate business logic was to sell Smithfield’s lower-cost meat into China, where prices at the premium end of the market are typically higher.

“We plan to leverage our US brands, raw materials and technology, our distribution and marketing capabilities in China and our combined strength in research and development to expand our range of American-style premium packaged meats products offerings in China,” the company said in its prospectus. “We expect [this] to positively affect our turnover and profitability.”

In recent months this strategy has faced headwinds, with prices going – from the pork giant’s perspective – in the wrong direction. American pig farmers are struggling with a porcine virus that has wiped out more than 10% of hog stocks. This has sent US pork to new highs, meaning it’s no longer so low-cost. In contrast, Xinhua notes that pork prices in many Chinese cities have fallen to their lowest levels in five years. As such, the commercial case for exporting US pork to China isn’t as strong. So fund managers have needed more convincing of the value of the newly combined Shuanghui and Smithfield businesses.

So WH’s valuation was too high?

Bloomberg said WH was prepared to sell its shares towards the bottom of the marketed price range, which equates to a valuation of 15 times estimated 2014 earnings.

At first glance that doesn’t look too demanding. Henan Shuanghui Investment, the Chinese unit of WH Group that is listed in Shenzhen, carries a market capitalisation of Rmb78 billion ($12.6 billion), or 20 times its 2013 net profit. Hormel, a Minnesota-based food firm that produces Spam luncheon meat (and is a key competitor for WH’s American pork business) trades at a price-to-earnings ratio of 23.

Hence China Business Journal concludes that WH priced itself as “not too high and not too low” among peers, especially if the company can generate genuine synergies between its China operation and its newly acquired American unit.

But an alternate view is that these synergies aren’t immediately obvious and that the new business model has hardly been tested (the Smithfield deal closed last September and exports to China didn’t start until the beginning of this year). The criticism is that WH hasn’t done much more than put Shuanghui Investment and Smithfield together into a holding vehicle, but is now asking for a valuation greater than the sum of the two parts. “Even at the bottom of the range, the IPO implies a valuation for Smithfield 21% above the price WH Group paid for the US pork producer barely eight months ago,” notes Reuters Breakingviews. (And let’s not forget, Smithfield was purchased at a 30% premium to its market price at the time.)

Or as one banker put it to the FT: “It’s like buying a house, ripping out the bathrooms and kitchen and trying to flip it for a premium six months later.”

CBN agreed that investors have the right to be wary: “The market simply has not had time to judge if there is meaningful synergy coming out of WH’s units. Nor is there a single signal that WH has the ability to properly manage an American firm.”

Why did WH want to IPO so fast?

This question brings us back to Shuanghui’s transformation from a state-owned enterprise to a privately-held firm. In April 2006 a consortium including Goldman Sachs and Chinese private equity funds CDH and New Horizon paid about $250 million to buy out the city government’s stake in Shuanghui.

The leveraged buyout was an unusual example of a Chinese national brand (and market leader) being snapped up by foreign buyers. Shuanghui was stripped of its SOE status, with majority ownership passing to private and foreign investors.

Century Weekly suggested last month that most of these Shuanghui shareholders “have waited patiently for at least eight years to exit”. Perhaps running low on their reserves of restraint, they then introduced the Smithfield bid last year to great fanfare as the largest takeover yet of a US company by a Chinese firm.

But as Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, a boutique investment bank, told WiC at the time, this wasn’t really the case. In fact the bid for Smithfield was a leveraged buyout by a company based in the Cayman Islands, not a Chinese one. And its main purpose was to facilitate a future sale by Shuanghui’s longstanding investors.

How so? WH’s set-up is complex: the IPO prospectus features an ownership chart containing WH Group, Shuanghui Group and Shuanghui Investment (not to mention several dozen joint ventures and Smithfield itself). One of these entities is listed in Shenzhen, but the investor group has been looking for other ways to cash out. A key motivation in last year’s dealmaking was that they thought they had found an alternative route via a Hong Kong IPO.

And less than a year after the Smithfield bid, WH made its move, not least because it needs to reduce some of the debt incurred in buying its new American business.

But many market watchers think it looked too hasty. “They rushed into an IPO and didn’t spend time to actually create the synergy between the US and Chinese business,” one fund manager in Hong Kong complained to FinanceAsia this week. “They wanted to float the stock to fund the acquisition and also let the private equity firms exit. But if WH Group is good, then ride with me. Why should I buy when you are selling?”

Fuhrman’s view is much more withering: “I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it, the chutzpah, that these big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausages bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to investors in Hong Kong.”

And what of the boss? Wan Long and another director Yang Zhijun pocketed almost $600 million in share options between them last year after the Smithfield bid went through. (The move pushed WH into a loss in 2013.) The size of the compensation package is said to have also deterred some fund managers.

What next for WH?

Any attempt to resurrect the offering will have to wait until after its first-half results, meaning a possible return to the market in September at the earliest. There have been reports that the deal is more likely be postponed until next year. CDH, the company’s single largest shareholder, told the Wall Street Journal that it refuses to sell its WH shares cheaply. “We have a strong belief in the business’ fundamentals and its long term value,” a spokesperson insisted.

But China Business Journal says that WH now needs to focus on convincing investors that it has a good story to tell, including providing a clearer integration plan for Smithfield and Shuanghui’s operations. The pressure will also increase to find alternative ways to retire some of the debt taken on to finance the Smithfield acquisition. Reports suggest that early refinancing was expected to reduce debt repayments by around $155 million on an annualised basis – or about 5% of last year’s profit.

WH may also use the delay to rethink how it goes to market next time, with the South China Morning Post reporting that senior executives have been blaming the banks for the breakdown. “Some of them were too confident, and even a bit arrogant, when they tried to price the deal and coordinate with each other,” the source told the newspaper.

Then again, the banks will be irked by the expenses inccurred on a deal that didn’t happen. And in retrospect it looks to have been a flawed decision to mandate 29 of them. As WH has learned, it diffused responsibility and may have disincentivised some of the participants.

Indeed, another comment on the situation is that the only winners from this IPO were the airlines and hotels that were used as part of the roadshow process.

http://www.weekinchina.com/2014/05/pork-chopped/?dm

 

WH’s canceled IPO shows dangers of misjudging demand — China Daily Article

April 28th, 2014 No comments

China Daily

WH’s canceled IPO shows dangers of misjudging demand

By Michael Barris (China Daily USA)

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It could have been the largest IPO in a year. Instead the canceled initial offering of Chinese pork producer WH Group became an epic flop and an example of the pitfalls of failing to accurately gauge investor demand for IPOs.

Eight months ago, in the biggest-ever Chinese acquisition of a US company, WH, then known as Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd, acquired Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc, the world’s largest hog producer, for $4.7 billion. Awash in kudos for tapping into China’s increasing demand for high-quality pork, a Shuanghui team began working on a planned Hong Kong IPO.

By late April, however, the proposed offering was in deep trouble. Bankers slashed the deal’s marketed value to $1.9 billion from $5.3 billion. Finally, the company, now renamed WH Group, announced it would not proceed with the IPO because of “deteriorating market conditions and recent excessive market volatility”.

The decision handed the company a setback in its effort to cut the more than $2.3 billion of debt it took on in the Smithfield purchase and dealt a blow to Asia’s already struggling IPO market and the stock prices of some formerly high-flying Asian companies. The WH IPO debacle is even seen as possibly hampering the much-anticipated New York IPO of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, expected to occur later this year and valued at an estimated $20 billion.

WH's canceled IPO shows dangers of misjudging demand

What went wrong? To put it simply, investors scoffed at the idea of paying top price for WH shares without any clear indication of how the Smithfield acquisition would save money.

The price range of HK$ 8 to HK$ 11.25 per share ($1.03 to $1.45) was at a valuation of 15 to 20.8 times forward earnings. “The synergies between Shuanghui and Smithfield are untested. Why do investors have to buy in a hurry?” Ben Kwong, associate director of Taiwanese brokerage KGI Asia Ltd, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal. “They would rather wait until the valuation is attractive.”

A disease that infected pigs, inflating US prices, also turned off investors. US pork typically trades at about half the meat’s price in China, because US feed tends to be cheaper. But Chicago hog futures have soared 47 percent this year to $1.25 a pound. Investors also saw corporate governance practices which awarded shares to two executives before the listing occurred as worrisome.

“I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents filed at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it,” China First Capital CEO and Chairman Peter Fuhrman wrote on the Seeking Alpha investment website. “These big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausage bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to Hong Kong investors and institutions.

The Smithfield acquisition “never made much of any industrial sense”, Fuhrman wrote. The private equity firms behind WH – CDH Investments, Singapore state investor Temasek Holdings and New Horizon – “have no experience or knowledge how to run a pork business in the US. In fact, they don’t know how to run any business in the US”, he wrote.

One man’s meat, however, is another man’s poison. As Fuhrman wrote, the debacle has ended up putting smiles on the faces of the mainly-US shareholders who last year reluctantly sold their Smithfield shares at a 31 percent premium above the pre-bid price. Some of these same shareholders had protested that the Chinese company’s offer for the pork producer was too low. Ultimately, the sellers received the satisfaction of knowing they got the “far better end of a deal against some of the bigger, richer financial institutions in Asia and Wall Street,” Fuhrman wrote. And that, he said, has likely made them as delighted as pigs in muck.

 

http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/2014-05/14/content_17508033.htm

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