General’s Mills’ Stunning Success in China

December 16th, 2014 No comments

Wanzai Matou 湾仔码头

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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“.

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The ‘children’ of Deng Xiaoping — Toronto Globe and Mail

December 13th, 2014 No comments

Globe and Mail

The ‘children’ of Deng Xiaoping

From left: Yang Hongchang, Hung Huang, Zhuo Wei, Grace Huang, Wu Hai, He Yongzhi.

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:

Deng Xiaoping

If we can’t grow faster than the capitalist countries, then we can’t show the superiority of our system.

– Deng, 1978

And on many indicators, grow they did – more than the U.S

 

Globemail

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.

 

Read complete article by clicking here.

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China’s Big Banks: learn how they overprice & misallocate loans while treating borrowers like conmen

December 2nd, 2014 1 comment

Chinese banking loan approval process

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

November 25th, 2014 No comments

globatimes

 

Govt calls for progress in IPO reform to help small firms

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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.

Equal access

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.

Read full article.

Nanjing: A Special Kind of Chinese Boomtown

November 18th, 2014 No comments

Nanjing City Investment Promotion Consultant

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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.

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* 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/

 

The Abacus. A Crowning Achievement of Chinese Innovation

October 14th, 2014 1 comment

 

abacus China First Capital

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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 High-Tech: giant ambitions can’t disguise a disappointing record of achievement

October 3rd, 2014 No comments

-China innovation

China high-tech achievements

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“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.

 

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

September 10th, 2014 5 comments

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

 

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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

AI

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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

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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.