Like many other facets of the financial services industry, the private equity (PE) asset class has endured a turbulent and difficult period since the onset of the financial crisis. Critics of the industry were quick to colour the PE space as a den of iniquity, a place for vultures and destroyers of jobs. In recent years, the sector has been required to comply with an increasingly tight set of regulatory requirements.
Chinese PE activity, by contrast, was rather more subdued. “In 2014, the gap between the performance of the private equity industry in China and the US opened wide,” says Peter Fuhrman, chairman and founder of China First Capital, a China-focused global investment bank. “The US had a record-breaking year, with 10-year net annualised return hitting 14.6 percent. Final data is still coming in, but it appears certain US PE raised more capital more quickly and returned more profits to LPs than any year previously. China, on the other hand, had another so-so year. Exits picked up over 2013, but still remain significantly below highs reached in 2011. As a result, profit distributions to LPs and closing of new China-focused funds are also well down on previous highs. While IPO exits for Chinese companies in the US, Hong Kong and China reached 221, compared to only 66 in 2013, the ultimate measure of success in PE investing is not the number of IPOs; it’s the amount of capital and profits paid back to LP investors. This is China PE’s greatest weakness.”
This report examines some of the unique attributes of China debt investing, especially its fast-growing high-yield “non bank” shadow banking sector. Do the high yields adequately price in risk? Is this an investment class international investors should consider? Can the regulatory Great Wall be scaled to get dollars legally in and out for lending in China?
Little has been written in English about China’s huge high-yield debt market except constant predictions of its imminent catastrophic demise. Search “China shadow banking crash” and Google turns up 390,000 books and articles in English, some dating back five years now. One sample among many, a 2013 book by James Gorrie titled, “The China Crisis: How China’s Economic Collapse Will Lead to a Global Depression”. It perfectly captures the near-unanimous tenor of Western experts and analysts that shadow banking is the iceberg China has already struck. Losses will run into the billions of dollars, we are told, and China’s entire banking industry will teeter and perhaps collapse in a devastating replay of the 2008 financial crisis in the US and Europe.
Those of us in China inhabiting the world of fact rather than prediction, however, will have noticed that there is no crisis, no iceberg, no titanic upsurge of defaults in China’s shadow banking systems. In fact, it is by far the world’s largest, and using actual default statistics rather than somebody’s forecast, the least risky high-yield debt market in the world. There’s good money to be made.
Our report offers only one prediction — that as rules are loosened, global institutional capital will begin to put money into high-yield lending in China, likely by making direct loans to the best of China’s corporate and municipal borrowers. They will do so because debt investing in China offers institutional investors diversification as well as potentially higher risk-adjusted returns than private equity or venture capital.
The report examines high-yield lending in China as an investment strategy for fixed-income investors. In that, it may well be a first to do so. Are there risks in the high-yield market in China? Of course, as there is in all fixed-income investing, including, in theory, the safest and most liquid of all instruments, US Treasury bills, bonds and notes.
Are actual default rates in China high-yield lending likely to surge above the current reported level of 1%? Yes, it seems entirely possible. But, this hardly invalidates the attractions of lending there. Instead, it means lenders, be they large credit funds or institutional investors acting directly as a source of debt capital to borrowers in China, should perfect their collateral at the outset, do first-rate credit analysis before money moves and then, no less important, be extremely hands-on with on-site cash flow monitoring after a loan has been made.
There are 1,000 good reasons for institutional investors to consider China’s high-yield debt market. That’s because of the 1,000-basis point yield premium available in China compared to making similar types of loans against similar collateral to similarly rated companies outside China. In other words, an investor can earn far more with an intelligent direct lending strategy than is possible in all other major economies, as well as more than one can earn even in poorer domains like Indonesia and India.
The report looks at lending and credit markets in China from several different vantage points, including a few case studies. It’s a fascinating topic for anyone who wishes to learn more. Why are interest rates so much higher in China? Who are the winners and losers? Why is it there this near-unanimous view among English-speaking financial analysts and media folk that the high-yield market in China is on the verge of a ruinous crash? Do they share a common gift for doom-laden exaggeration like Nostradamus or will before very long be proven right at last?
I know which way I vote on that, that the shadow banking industry will certainly suffer some stumbles, with individual deals going sour and money being lost. But, as more money enters China for the purpose of providing debt capital, the shadow banking industry will mature, will improve its credit-analysis and credit-pricing skills, and smart investors will do well both relative to other fixed-income investment strategies worldwide as well as compared to private equity investing in China.-
The cost of borrowing money is a huge and growing burden for most companies and municipal governments in China. But, it is also the most attractive untapped large investment opportunity in China for foreign institutional investors. This is the broad outline of the Chinese-language essay published in this week’s Caijing Magazine, among China’s most well-read business publications. The authors are me and Dr. Yansong Wang, China First Capital’s Chief Operating Officer.
Foreign investors and asset managers have mainly been kept out of China’s lucrative lending market, one reason why interest rates are so high here. But, the foreign capital is now trying to find ways to lend directly to Chinese companies and municipalities, offering Chinese borrowers lower interest rates, longer-terms and less onerous collateral than in the Rmb15 trillion (USD $2.5 trillion) shadow banking market. Foreign debt investment should be welcomed rather than shunned, our commentary argues.
If Chinese rules are one day liberalized, a waterfall of foreign capital will likely pour into China, attracted by the fact that interest rates on securitized loans here are often 2-3 times higher than on loans to similar-size and credit-worthy companies and municipalities in US, Europe, Japan, Korea and other major economies. The likely long-term result: lower interest rates for company and municipal borrowers in China and more profitable fixed-income returns for investors worldwide.
I’ve written in English on the problem of stubbornly high borrowing costs in China, including here and here. But, this is the first time I tried to evaluate the problem for a Chinese audience — in this case, for one of the more influential readerships (political and business leaders) in the country.
The Chinese article can be downloaded by clicking here.
For those who prefer English, here’s a summary: high lending rates exist in China in large part because the country is closed to the free flow of international capital. The two pillars are a non-exchangeable currency and a case-by-case government approval system, managed by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) to let financial investment enter, convert to Renminbi and then leave again. This makes it all but impossible to arbitrage the 1,000 basis point interest rate differential between China domestic corporate borrowers and similar Chinese companies borrowing in Hong Kong.
Foreign financial investment in China is 180-degrees different than in other major economies. In China, almost all foreign investment is in equities, either through buying quoted shares or through giving money to any of the hundreds of private equity and venture capital firms active in China. Outside China, most of the world’s institutional investment – the capital invested by pension funds, sovereign wealth funds, insurance companies, charities, university endowments — is invested in fixed-income debt.
The total size of institutional investment assets outside China is estimated to be about $50 trillion. There is a simple reason why institutional investors prefer to invest more in debt rather than equity. Debt offers a fixed annual return and equities do not. Institutional investors, especially the two largest types, insurance companies and pension funds, need to match their future liabilities by owning assets with a known future income stream. Debt is also higher up the capital structure, providing more risk protection.
Direct loans — where an asset manager lends money directly to a company rather than buying bonds on the secondary market — is a large business outside China, but still a small business here. Direct lending is among the fastest-growing areas for institutional and PE investors now worldwide. Get it right, and there’s no better place in the world to do direct corporate lending than in China.
For now, direct lending to Chinese companies is being done mainly by a few large US hedge funds. They operate in a gray area legally in China, and have so far mainly kept the deals secret. The hedge fund lending deals I’ve seen have mainly been short-term lending to Chinese property developers, at monthly interest rates of 2%-3%.
I see no benefit to China from such deals, nor would I risk a dollar of my own money. A good rule in all debt investing is whenever interest rates go above 20% a year, the lender is effectively taking on “equity risk”. In other words, there are no borrowers anywhere that can easily afford to pay such high interest rates. Anyone who will take money at that price is probably unfit to hold it. At 20% and above, the investor is basically gambling that the desperate borrower will not run out of cash while the loan is still outstanding.
Interest rates are only one component of the total cost of borrowing for companies and municipalities in China’s shadow banking system. Fees paid to lawyers, accountants, credit-rating agencies, brokerage firms can easily add another 2% to the cost of borrowing. But, the biggest hidden cost, as well as inefficiency of China’s shadow banking loan market is that most loans from this channel are one-year term, without an automatic rollover.
Though they pay interest for 12 months, borrowers only have use of the money for eight or nine months. The rest of the time, they need to accumulate capital to pay back principal at the end of one year. China is the only major economy in the world where such a small percentage of company borrowing is of over one-year maturity. China’s economy is guided by a Five Year Plan, but it’s domestic lenders operate on the shortest of all time-frames.
If more global institutional capital were allowed into China for lending, I would expect these investors to want to do their own deals here in China, negotiate directly with the borrower, rather than buying existing securitized shadow banking debt. These investors would want to do more of their own due diligence, and also tailor each deal, in a way that China’s domestic shadow banking system cannot, so that the maturity, terms, covenants, collateral are all set in ways that correspond to each borrowers’ cash flow and assets.
China does not need one more dollar of “hot money” in its economy. It does need more stable long-term investment capital as direct lending to companies, priced more closely to levels outside China. Foreign institutional capital and large global investment funds could perform a useful role. They are knocking on the door.
For all the media ink spilled, including by Reuters’ excellent Asia fixed income correspondent Umesh Desai, you’d think the ongoing fight in Hong Kong between severely-troubled Chinese real estate developer Kaisa Group and its creditors was the biggest, nastiest, most portentous blood feud the capital markets have ever seen. It’s none of that. It’s a reasonably small deal ($2.5 billion in total Hong Kong bond debt that may prove worthless) involving a Chinese company of no great significance and a group of unnamed bond-holders who are screaming bloody murder about being asked to take a 50% haircut on the face value of the bonds. The creditors have brought in high-priced legal talent to argue their case, both in court and in the media. Me thinks they doth protest too much.
Nothing wrong with creditors fighting to get back all the money they loaned and interest they were promised. But, what goes unspoken in this whole dispute is the core question of what in heaven’s name were bond investors thinking when they bought these bonds to begin with. Kaisa was, if not a train wreck waiting to happen, then clearly the kind of borrower that should be made to pay interest rates sufficiently high to compensate investors for the manifold risks. Instead, just the opposite went down. The six different Kaisa bond issues were sold without problem by Hong Kong-based global securities houses including Citigroup, Credit Suisse and UBS to some of the world’s most sophisticated investors including Fidelity and Blackrock by offering average interest rates of around 8%. If Kaisa were trying to raise loans on its home territory in China, rather than Hong Kong, there is likely no way anyone would have loaned such sums to them, with the conditions attached, for anything less than 16%-20% a year, probably even higher. Kaisa’s Hong Kong bonds were entirely mispriced at their offering.
It may strain mercy, therefore, to feel much sympathy for investors who lose money on this deal. Start with the fact Kaisa, based where I am in Shenzhen, is a PRC company that sought a stock market listing and issued debt in Hong Kong, rather than at home. Not always, but often, this is itself a big red flag. Hong Kong’s stock exchange had laxer listing rules than those on the mainland. As a result, a significant number of PRC companies that would never get approval to IPO in China because of dodgy finances and laughable corporate governance managed to go public in Hong Kong. Kaisa looks like one of these. It has a corporate structure, which since 2009 has been basically illegal, that used to allow PRC companies to slip an offshore holding company at the top of its capital structure.
The bigger issue, though, was that bond buyers clearly didn’t understand, or price in, the now-obvious-to-all fact that offshore creditors (meaning anyone holding the Hong Kong issued debt of a PRC domestic company) would get treated less generously in a default situation than creditors in the PRC itself. The collateral is basically all in China. Hong Kong debt holders are effectively junior to Chinese secured creditors. True to form, in the Kaisa case, the domestic creditors, including Chinese banks, are likely to get a better deal in Kaisa’s restructuring than the folks in Hong Kong.
This fact alone should have mandated Kaisa would need to promise much sweeter returns and more protections to Hong Kong investors in order to get the $2.5 billion. Investors piled in all the same, and are now enraged to discover that the IOUs and collateral aren’t worth nearly as much as they expected. Kaisa bonds were, in effect, junk sold successfully as something close to investment grade. As long as the company didn’t pull a fast one with its disclosure – an issue still in dispute – it’s fair to conclude that bond-buyers really have no one to blame but themselves.
At this point, it’s probable many of the original owners of the Kaisa bonds, including Fidelity and Blackrock, have sold their Kaisa bonds at a loss. Kaisa’s bonds are trading now at about half their face value, suggesting that for all the creditors’ grousing, they will end up swallowing the restructuring terms put forward by Kaisa. If the creditors don’t agree, well then the whole thing will head to court in Hong Kong. If that happens, Kaisa has threatened to default, which would probably leave these Hong Kong bondholders with little or nothing. Indeed, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu has calculated that offshore creditors in a liquidation would receive just 2.4% of what they are owed. The collateral Kaisa pledged in Hong Kong may be worth more than the paper it was printed on, but not much.
The real story here is the systematic mispricing of PRC company debt issued in Hong Kong. It’s still possible, believe it or not, for other Chinese property developers with similar structure and offering similar protections as Kaisa to sell bonds bearing interest rates of under 9%. Meantime, as discussed here, Chinese property companies in some trouble but not lucky enough to have a holding company outside China are now forced to borrow from Chinese investors, both individuals and institutions, at 2%-3% a month.
It’s a situation rarely seen – investors in a foreign domain provide money much more cheaply against shakier collateral than the locals will. Kaisa’s current woes are part-and-parcel of at least some of the real estate development industry in China. It seems to have engaged in corrupt practices to acquire land at concessionary prices. Kaisa got punished by the Shenzhen government. It was forbidden to sell newly-built apartment units in Shenzhen. No sales means no cash flow which means no money to pay debt-holders. Kaisa is far from the first Chinese real estate developer to run into problems like this. And yet, again, none of this, the “politico-existential” risk many real estate development companies face in China, seems to have made much of an imprint on the minds of international investors who lined up to buy the 8% bonds originally. After all, the interest rate on offer from Kaisa was a few points higher than for bonds issued by Hong Kong’s own property developers.
Global institutional investors like Blackrock and Fidelity might control more capital and have far more experience pricing debt than Chinese ones. But, in this case at least, they showed they are far more willing to be taken for a ride than those on the mainland.
What’s ailing China? Explanations aren’t hard to come by: slowing growth, bloated and inefficient state-owned enterprises, and a ferocious anti-corruption campaign that seems to take precedence over needed economic reforms.
Yet for all that, there is probably no bigger, more detrimental, disruptive or overlooked problem in China’s economy than the high cost of borrowing money. Real interest rates on collateralized loans for most companies, especially in the private sector where most of the best Chinese companies can be found, are rarely below 10%. They are usually at least 15% and are not uncommonly over 20%. Nowhere else are so many good companies diced up for chum and fed to the loan sharks.
Logic would suggest that the high rates price in some of the world’s highest loan default rates. This is not the case. The official percentage of bad loans in the Chinese banking sector is 1%, less than half the rate in the U.S., Japan or Germany, all countries incidentally where companies can borrow money for 2-4% a year.
You could be forgiven for thinking that China is a place where lenders are drowning in a sea of bad credit. After all, major English-language business publications are replete with articles suggesting that the banking system in China is in the early days of a bad-loan crisis of earth-shattering proportions. A few Chinese companies borrowing money overseas, including Hong Kong-listed property developer Kaisa Group, have come near default or restructured their debts. But overall, Chinese borrowers pay back loans in full and on time.
Combine sky-high real interest rates with near-zero defaults and what you get in China is now probably the single most profitable place on a risk-adjusted basis to lend money in the world. Also one of the most exclusive: the lending and the sometimes obscene profits earned from it all pretty much stay on the mainland. Foreign investors are effectively shut out.
The big-time pools of investment capital — American university endowments, insurance companies, and pension and sovereign wealth funds — must salivate at the interest rates being paid in China by credit-worthy borrowers. They would consider it a triumph to put some of their billions to work lending to earn a 7% return. They are kept out of China’s lucrative lending market through a web of regulations, including controls on exchanging dollars for yuan, as well as licensing procedures.
This is starting to change. But it takes clever structuring to get around a thicket of regulations originally put in place to protect the interests of China’s state-owned banking system. As an investment banker in China with a niche in this area, I spend more of my time on debt deals than just about anything else. The aim is to give Chinese borrowers lower rates and better terms while giving lenders outside China access to the high yields best found there.
China’s high-yield debt market is enormous. The country’s big banks, trust companies and securities houses have packaged over $2.5 trillion in corporate and municipal debt, securitized it, and sold it to institutional and retail investors in China. These so-called shadow-banking loans have become the favorite low-risk and high fixed-return investment in China.
Overpriced loans waste capital in epic proportions. Total loans outstanding in China, both from banks and the so-called shadow-banking sector, are now in excess of 100 trillion yuan ($15.9 trillion) or about double total outstanding commercial loans in the U.S. The high price of much of that lending amounts to a colossal tax on Chinese business, reducing profitability and distorting investment and rational long-term planning.
A Chinese company with its assets in China but a parent company based in Hong Kong or the Cayman Islands can borrow for 5% or less, as Alibaba Group Holding recently has done. The same company with the same assets, but without that offshore shell at the top, may pay triple that rate. So why don’t all Chinese companies set up an offshore parent? Because this was made illegal by Chinese regulators in 2008.
Chinese loans are not only expensive, they are just about all short-term in duration — one year or less in the overwhelming majority of cases. Banks and the shadow-lending system won’t lend for longer.
The loans get called every year, meaning borrowers really only have the use of the money for eight to nine months. The remainder is spent hoarding money to pay back principal. The remarkable thing is that China still has such a dynamic, fast-growing economy, shackled as it is to one of the world’s most overpriced and rigid credit systems.
It is now taking longer and longer to renew the one-year loans. It used to take a few days to process the paperwork. Now, two months or more is not uncommon. As a result, many Chinese companies have nowhere else to turn except illegal money-lenders to tide them over after repaying last year’s loan while waiting for this year’s to be dispersed. The cost for this so-called “bridge lending” in China? Anywhere from 3% a month and up.
Again, we’re talking here not only about small, poorly capitalized and struggling borrowers, but also some of the titans of Chinese business, private-sector companies with revenues well in excess of 1 billion yuan, with solid cash flows and net income. Chinese policymakers are now beginning to wake up to the problem that you can’t build long-term prosperity where long-term lending is unavailable.
Same goes for a banking system that wants to lend only against fixed assets, not cash flow or receivables. China says it wants to build a sleek new economy based on services, but nobody seems to have told the banks. They won’t go near services companies, unless of course, they own and can pledge as collateral a large tract of land and a few thousand square feet of factory space.
Chinese companies used to find it easier to absorb the cost of their high-yield debt. No longer. Companies, along with the overall Chinese economy, are no longer growing at such a furious pace. Margins are squeezed. Interest costs are now swallowing up a dangerously high percentage of profits at many companies.
Not surprisingly, in China there is probably no better business to be in than banking. Chinese banks, almost all of which are state-owned, earned one-third of all profits of the entire global banking industry, amounting to $292 billion in 2013. The government is trying to force a little more competition into the market, and has licensed several new private banks. Tencent Holdings and Alibaba, China’s two Internet giants, both own pieces of new private banks.
Lending in China is a market rigged to transfer an ever-larger chunk of corporate profits to a domestic rentier class. High interest rates sap China’s economy of dynamism and make entrepreneurial risk-taking far less attractive. Those looking for signs China’s economy is moving more in the direction of the market should look to a single touchstone: is foreign capital being more warmly welcomed in China as a way to help lower the usurious cost of borrowing?
Peter Fuhrman is the founder, chairman and chief executive of China First Capital, an investment bank based in Shenzhen, China.
In 2014, the gap between the performance of the private equity industry in China and the US opened wide. The US had a record-breaking year, with ten-year net annualized return hitting 14.6%. Final data is still coming in, but it appears certain US PE raised more capital more quickly and returned more profits to LPs than any year previously. China, on the other hand, had another so-so year. Exits picked up over 2013, but still remain significantly below highs reached in 2011. As a result profit distributions to LPs and closing of new China-focused funds are also well down on previous highs.
China’s economy, of course, also had an off year, with growth trending down. But, it’s hard to place the blame there. At 7.5%, China’s economy is still growing at around triple the rate of the US. China’s publicly-traded equities market, meanwhile, turned in a stellar performance, with the overall Chinese stock exchange average up 52% in 2014, compared to a 11.4% rise in the US S&P. When stock markets do well, PE firms should also, especially with exits.
While IPO exits for Chinese companies in US, HK and China reached 221, compared to only 66 in 2013, the ultimate measure of success in PE investing is not the number of IPOs. It’s the amount of capital and profits paid back to LP investors. This is China PE’s greatest weakness.
Over the last decade, China PE firms have returned only about 30% of the money invested with them to their LPs. This compares to the US, where PE firms over the same period returned twice the money invested by LPs. In other words, in China, as 2015 commences, PE firm investors are sitting on large cash losses.
China PE firms say they hope to return more money to their LPs in the future. But, this poor pay-out performance is already having an adverse impact on the China PE industry. It is getting harder for most China PE firms to raise new capital. If this trend continues, there will be two negative consequences – first, the China PE industry, now the second largest in the world, will shrink in size. Second, and more damaging for China’s overall economic competitiveness, the investment capital available for Chinese companies will decline. PE capital has provided over the past decade much-needed fuel for the growth of China’s private sector.
What accounts for this poor performance of China private equity compared to the US? One overlooked reason: China PE has lost the knack of investing and exiting profitably from Chinese industrial and manufacturing companies. Broadly speaking, this sector was the focus of about half the PE deals done up to 2011 when new deals peaked. That mirrors the fact manufacturing accounts for half of China’s GDP and traditionally has achieved high levels (over 30%) of value-added.
Manufacturing has now fallen very far from favor in China. Partly it’s the familiar China macro story of slowing export growth and margin pressures from rising labor costs and other inputs. But, another factor is at work: China’s own stock market, as well as those of the US and Hong Kong, have developed a finicky appetite when it comes to Chinese companies. In the US, only e-commerce and other internet-related companies need apply for an IPO. In Hong Kong, the door is open more widely and the bias against manufacturing companies isn’t quite so pronounced, especially if the company is state-owned. But, among private sector companies, the biggest China-company IPO have been concentrated in financial services, real estate, food production, retail.
For China-investing PE firms, this means in most cases their portfolios are mismatched with what capital markets want. They hold stakes in thousands of Chinese industrial and manufacturing companies representing a total investment of over $20 billion in LP money. For now, the money is trapped and time is growing short. PE fund life, of course, is finite. Many of these investments were made five to eight years ago. China PE need rather urgently to find a way to turn these investments into cash and return money to LPs. Here too the comparison with US private equity is especially instructive.
The colossus that is today’s US private equity industry, with 3,300 firms invested in 11,000 US companies, was built in part by doing successful buyouts in the 1980s and 1990s of manufacturing and industrial companies, often troubled ones. Deals like Blackstone‘s most successful investment of all time, chemicals company Celanese, together with American Axle and TRW Automotive, KKR‘s Amphenol Corporation, Bain‘s takeover of Sealy Corporation and many, many others led the way. Meanwhile, smart corporate investors like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Emerson Electric and were also pouring billions into acquiring and shaping up industrial businesses. So successful has this strategy been over the last 30 years, it can seem like there are no decent industrial or manufacturing companies left for US PEs to target.
Along the way, US PEs became experts at selecting, acquiring, fixing up and then exiting from industrial companies. US PEs have shown again and again they are good at rationalizing, consolidating, modernizing and systematizing industrial companies and entire industrial sectors. These are all things China’s manufacturing industry is crying out for. Market shares are fragmented, management systems often non-existent, inventory control and other tools of “lean manufacturing” often nowhere to be found.
So here’s a pathway forward for China PE, to use in China the identical investing skills honed in the US. It should be rather easy, since among the US’s 100 biggest private equity firms, the majority have sizeable operations now in China, including giants like Carlyle, Blackstone, KKR, TPG, Bain Capital, Warburg Pincus. For these firms, it should be no more complicated than the left hand following what the right hand is doing.
It isn’t working out that way. This is a big reason why China PE is performing poorly compared to the US. PE partners in China in the main came into the industry after getting an MBA in the US or UK, then getting a job on Wall Street or a consulting shop. Few have experience working in, managing or restructuring industrial companies. They often, in my experience, look a little out of place walking a factory floor. This is the other big mismatch in China PE — between the skill-sets of those running the PE firms what’s needed to turn their portfolio companies into winners.
Roll-up, about the most basic and time-tested of all US PE money-making strategies, has yet to take root in China. Inhospitable terrain? No, to the contrary. But, it requires a fair bit of sweat and grit from PE firms.
This may account for the fact that China PE firms are now mainly herding together to try to close deals in e-commerce, healthcare services, mobile games and other places where no metal gets bashed. PE firms formed such a crush to try to invest in Xiaomi, the mobile phone brand, that they drove the valuation up in the latest round of funding to $46 billion, so high none of them decided to invest. China PE is that paradoxical – fewer deals are getting done, fewer have profitable exits and yet valuations are often much higher than anywhere else.
Another worrying sign: of the big successful China company IPOs in 2014 – Alibaba, Dalian Wanda‘s commercial real estate arm, CGN, CITIC Securities, Shaanxi Coal, JD.com, WH Group – only one had large global PE firms inside as large shareholders. That was WH Group, a troubled deal that had a hard time IPOing and has since sunk rather sharply. For the big global PE firms, 2014 had no big China IPO successes, which is probably a first.
The giant US PEs (Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR, Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, Bain Capital, TPG and the others) all voyaged to China a decade or more ago with high hopes. Some even dared predict China would become as important and profitable a market for them as the US. They were able to raise billions at the start, build big teams, but it’s been getting noticeably harder both to raise money and notch big successful deals. And so their focus is shifting back to the US.
China has so much going for it as an investment destination, such an abundance of what the US lacks. High overall growth, a government rolling in cash, a burgeoning and rapidly prospering middle class, rampant entrepreneurship, huge new markets ripe for taking. Why then are so many of the world’s most professional and successful investors finding it so tough to make a buck here?
China still lacking in innovation
January 23, 2015 1:00 pm JST
By Peter Fuhrman
China’s economy suffers from an acute case of “not invented here” syndrome. Everything can be, and increasingly is, manufactured in China, but almost nothing of value is invented here.
The result is an economy still centered on low-pay, low-margin drudge work manufacturing products designed, patented and marketed by others. This is as true for advanced medical diagnostic equipment from General Electric as it is for Apple’s iPhones and tablets.
While manufacturing accounts for almost 50% of China’s gross domestic product and keeps 100 million people employed, China has few if any domestic companies selling sophisticated, premium-priced manufactured products to the world. As long as this remains the case and China remains a huge economy with only the tiniest sliver of consequential and profitable innovation, it will grow harder each year for the country to sustain high economic growth rates and big increases in living standards.
The government is increasingly anxious. “China is now standing at a critical stage in that its economic growth must be driven by innovation,” warned the State Council, China’s cabinet, in May.
With the talk comes money. Lots of it. Billions of dollars are being allocated to government-backed research projects and venture capital. But for all the rhetoric, government policies and cash, China remains a high-tech disappointment, more dud than ascending rocket. As an investment banker living and running a business in China, I very much wish it were otherwise. But I still see no concrete evidence of a major change underway.
On others’ shoulders
Indeed, the flagship products of China’s advanced manufacturing sector are still built largely on foreign components, technologies and systems, with Chinese factories serving as the assembly point.
Consider Xiaomi, which achieved great success in China’s mobile phone market last year and began getting some traction overseas. The company now has a market valuation of $45 billion, far higher than Sony, Toshiba, Philips, Ericsson and many more of the world’s most famous innovators.
Xiaomi’s handsets rely on components and software from a group of mainly U.S. companies, including Broadcom, Qualcomm and Google. They, along with U.K. chipmaker ARM Holdings and foreign screen manufacturers, are the ones making the real money on Android phones like Xiaomi’s.
Many of Xiaomi’s phones, like those of Apple and other leading brands, are assembled in China by Hon Hai Precision Industry, a Taiwanese company better known as Foxconn. As of now, Foxconn has no Chinese competitor that can match its production quality at a comparable low cost. Its superior management systems for high-volume production underscore another critical area where China’s domestic technology industry is weak.
The picture is similar with products such as computers, cars and aircraft. China’s military and commercial jet development programs have relied on foreign engines because of the country’s continuing failure to design and produce its own. Compare this with the Soviet Union, which, though an economic also-ran all the way up to its extinction in 1991, was producing jet engines as early as the 1950s; Russia still supplies advanced military engines for Chinese military jets. The picture is little better with jet brakes and advanced radar systems.
Stumbling blocks in China’s jet engine development continue at the manufacturing level with difficulties in serial production of minute-tolerance machinery, at the materials level with a lack of special alloys, and at the industrial level where a state-owned monopoly producer faces no local competitor to drive innovation as has been seen in the dynamic in the U.S. between GE and Pratt & Whitney.
China’s inability to make its own advanced jet engines casts light on problems China has, and likely will continue to have, developing a globally competitive indigenous technology base. This challenge, to bring all the parts together in a high-tech manufacturing project, is also evident in China’s failure, up to now, to develop and sell domestically developed advanced integrated circuits, pharmaceuticals and new materials globally.
China has, by some estimates, spent more than $10 billion on pharmaceutical research, but it has had only one domestically developed drug accepted in the global market, the modestly successful anti-malarial treatment artemisinin, or qinghaosu. Interestingly, it is derived from an herbal medicine used for 2,000 years in China to treat malaria; the drug was first synthesized by Chinese researchers in 1972.
It’s simply not enough to count Chinese engineers and patents, or to rely on the content of the government’s technology-promoting policies. China still lacks so many of the basic building blocks of high-tech development, such as a mature, experienced venture capital industry staffed by professional entrepreneurs and technologists. A transparent judicial system is also essential, not only for protecting patents and other intellectual property, but for managing the contractual process that allows companies to put money at risk over long periods to achieve a return. Nondisclosure and noncompete agreements, a backbone of the technology industry in the U.S. and elsewhere, are basically unenforceable in China.
Tencent Holdings’ WeChat mobile messaging service is an example frequently cited by those who claim to see a dawning of innovation in China. An impressive 400 million phone users have signed up for the service. The basic application, though, is similar to that of Facebook’s WhatsApp, Japan’s Line and others.
WeChat’s real technological strength is in its back end, in building and managing the servers to store all the content that is sent across the network, including a huge amount of video and audio files. Tencent does this because it’s required to do so by Chinese internet rules and government policies on monitoring Internet content. Tencent might be able to commercialize and sell its backend storage architecture globally, but it’s not clear anyone would be interested in buying it. It’s a technology that evolved from specific Chinese requirements, not market demand.
China’s record of invention is the stuff of history: gunpowder, the compass, paper, oil wells, porcelain, even alcoholic beverages, kites and the fishing reel. All that occurred over 1,000 years ago. China’s greatest modern invention has been its singular pathway out of poverty as the economy expanded 200-fold over the last 35 years. But growth is now slowing, costs are rising sharply and profit margins are shrinking. To go on prospering, China needs to invent a new path and discover a new wellspring of breakthrough innovation, and it needs to do so in a hurry.
Peter Fuhrman is the founder, chairman and chief executive of China First Capital, an investment bank based in Shenzhen, China.
The secret is out. Chinese now know, in far greater numbers than before, that the favorite brand of the favorite staple food of hundreds of millions of them is made by a huge American company, General Mills, best known for sugar-coated cereals served to American children. (See my earlier article here.) In the current issue of China’s weekly business magazine Caijing is my Chinese-language article blowing the cover off the well-hidden fact that China’s tastiest and most popular brand of frozen dumplings, known in Chinese as 湾仔码头, “Wanzai Matou”, is made by the same guys who make Cheerios, Cocoa Puffs and Lucky Charms in the US.
You can read a copy of my Caijing article by clicking here.
Getting these facts in print was not simple. I’ve been an online columnist for Caijing for years. When I sent the manuscript the magazine’s editor, he did the journalistic version of a double take, refusing to believe at first that this dumpling brand he knows well is actually owned and run by a non-Chinese company, and a huge American conglomerate to boot. He asked many questions and apparently did his own digging around to confirm the truth of what I was claiming.
He asked me to reveal to him and Caijing’s readers the secret techniques General Mills has used to conquer the Chinese market. That further complicated things. It wasn’t, I explained, by selling stuff cheap, since Wanzai Matou sells in supermarkets for about double the price of pure domestic brands. Nor was it because they used the same kind of saturation television advertising P&G has pioneered in China to promote sales of its market-leading products Head & Shoulders and Tide. General Mills spends little on media advertising in China, relying instead on word of mouth and an efficient supply chain.
My explanation, such as it is, was that the Americans were either brave or crazy enough, beginning fifteen years ago, to believe Chinese would (a) start buying frozen food in supermarkets, and (b) when they did, they’d be willing to pay more for it than fresh-made stuff. Wanzai Matou costs more per dumpling than buying the hand-made ones available at the small dumpling restaurants that are so numerous in China just about everyone living in a city or reasonably-sized town is within a ten-minute walk of several.
In my case, I’ve got at least twenty places within that radius. I flat-out love Chinese dumplings. With only a small degree of exaggeration I tell people here that the chance to eat dumplings every day, three times a day, was a prime reason behind my move to China. For my money, and more important for that of many tens of millions of Chinese, the Wanzai Matou ones just taste better.
The article, though, does explain the complexities of building and managing a frozen “cold chain” in China. General Mills had more reason to master this than any company, domestic or foreign. That’s because along with Wanzai Matou they have a second frozen blockbuster in China: Häagen-Dazs ice cream, sold both in supermarkets and stand-alone Häagen-Dazs ice cream shops. Either way, it’s out of my price range, at something like $5 for a few thimblefuls, but lots of Chinese seem to love it. Both Wanzai Matou and Häagen-Dazs China are big enough and fast-growing enough to begin to have an impact on General Mills’ overall performance, $18 billion in revenues and $1.8bn in profits in 2014.
For whatever reason, General Mills doesn’t like to draw attention to its two stellar businesses in China. The annual report barely mentions China. This is in contrast to their Minnesota neighbor 3M which will tell anyone who’s listening including on Wall Street that it’s future is all about further expanding in China. But, the fundamentals of General Mills’ business in China look as strong, or stronger, than any other large American company operating here.
The title of my Caijing article is “外来的厨子会做饺子” which translates as “Foreign cooks can make dumplings”. It expresses the surprise I’ve encountered at every turn here whenever I mention to people here that China’s most popular dumpling company is from my homeland not theirs.
Watching the NFL playoffs this weekend on Chinese internet TV channel PP Live, I saw something I never imagined. No, not a live broadcast in China of American football. The NFL has a great thing going here in China. While not a big-time success yet like the NBA in China, the NFL is quietly making fans out of a meaningful slice of the country’s most gold-plated demographic: males with advanced degrees and senior management positions.
No, what surprised me while watching the game was the frequent commercials paid for in part by money from the US Department of Treasury. Yes, Uncle Sam is now involved in buying advertising time during NFL games on Chinese tv. Never quite thought I’d live to see the day.
The ads are to promote tourism to the US. There are snapshots of American scenery, a catchy little song playing in the background, and then this splash screen comes up at the end:
Follow that www.gousa.cn link and one eventually learns the group behind the ads is something called “Brand USA”, a body describing itself as a “public private partnership”. That’s generally code for some kind of organization where the US Treasury picks up some or all of the tab, but whose purpose is to help private companies make money. Sure enough. Last month, President Obama signed legislation that keeps the government money flowing to Brand USA at least through 2020, long after he’s out of office. The budget for fiscal year 2014 was $125 million.
The board of Brand USA includes top executives from hotel group Marriott International, Disney’s travel arm, the air reservation system Sabre Corporation as well as the top bureacrats in the tourist promotion office in the states of California and Minnesota. Brand USA’s chairman is president of a company I never heard of called Jackmont Hospitality, whose website says it is “a minority-owned, comprehensive foodservice management company and one of the fastest growing TGI FRIDAYS® franchisees.”
The intent of the commercial is, of course, to get more Chinese to travel to the US as tourists. A laudable goal, and one that became much easier at the end of last year when Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed a new bilateral visa regime which gives citizens of each country ten-year multi-entry visas. Chinese tourism in the US is growing, with 1.8 million visiting last year, fifth most among all countries sending tourists to the US, but still about half the number of British tourists each year.
What they lack in numbers Chinese tourists make up for in extravagance. They spend $7,200 per visit compared to $4,500 by the average foreign tourist, according to the US Travel Association.
Like a lot my government does, the commercials running during football timeouts don’t display a particularly keen knowledge of consumer marketing. The jingle is sung in English, so not likely to be understood by a lot of Chinese viewers. The places featured don’t seem likely destinations for Chinese tourists. No Times Square or Fifth Avenue Apple Store in Manhattan. No Disneyland, no Harvard Yard and no Las Vegas.
So where is the US government pushing Chinese to visit? Price Lake. I never heard of it either, but according to Wikipedia it’s in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, about 200 miles from the nearest major airport, Raleigh-Durham. It’s said to host the largest annual gathering of lumberjacks each year. If China has a large contingent of passport-holding lumberjacks it’s news to me.
While Brand USA hasn’t been around long, it’s already attracted a fair bit of criticism, led by Republican members of Congress, who launched a formal investigation into what is called a “history of questionable expenditures and lavish spending” at the organization. The report they issued says all Board members, though officially appointed by the US Secretary of Commerce, were in fact chosen by an Obama aide from among those who “have donated to Democrats and Democratic organizations almost exclusively.”
The private sector is supposed to donate funds which the US government matches by dipping into a pool of money raised through a $10 fee charged to all tourists arriving in the US under what’s called the Visa Waiver Program. Brand USA board members have claimed the amount they spend on travel should be considered by Uncle Sam as a “donation”, including first class air fares and hotel rooms paid for by their companies. Among the claims was one for $94.87 for a two mile taxi ride in Washington DC that the report points out should cost no more than about $15 including tip. The report’s conclusion is that the Brand USA documents and expense accounts “paint a picture of mismanagement, waste, and cronyism.”
No word on what Brand USA are paying for the ads during the NFL games on PP Live. Let’s hope they drive a tough bargain. Other than the Brand USA spot, repeated over and over, I saw no other ads during the second half of the game. During many of the commercial breaks, the Chinese broadcast stays with a live feed from the stadium of the players waiting around for the timeouts to end, something one rarely gets to see while watching football in the US.
The NFL games are broadcast in China with Chinese commentary only, once an annoyance but now a source of almost infinite delight for me. In case you’re wondering, the name for football in Chinese translates as “olive ball”.
Chinese who like the sport and are persuaded by the ads to visit the US would do well to read up first on Brand USA and its public/private affairs. It’s an excellent primer on how politics and spending sometimes operate in my nation’s capitol — and so why the US has this chronic reliance on China to finance our deficits by buying US Treasuries.
Tencent Stalks Alibaba — China’s Number Two Internet Company Quietly Takes Lethal Aim at its Number One
China’s second-largest private sector company Tencent is aiming a cannon at China’s largest private sector company and new darling of the US stock markets Alibaba. Will Tencent fire? There’s a vast amount of money at stake: these two companies, cumulatively, have market cap of $400 billion, Tencent’s $140bn and Alibaba’s $260bn.
Alibaba, as most now know, currently has China’s e-commerce market in a stranglehold, processing orders worth over $300 billion a year, or about 80% of all Chinese online sales by China’s 300 million online shoppers. Meanwhile, Tencent is no less dominant in online chat and messaging, with over 400mn users for its mobile chat application WeChat, aka “Weixin” (微信).
The two businesses appear worlds apart. And yet, they are now on a collision course. The reason is social selling, that is, using a mobile phone chat app to sell stuff to one’s friends and contacts. It’s based on the simple, indisputable notion it’s more reliable and trustworthy to buy from people you know. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin are all quite keen on social selling in the US. But, nowhere is as fertile a market as China, because nowhere else is the trust level from buying through unknown online merchants as low.
Alibaba has accumulated most of its riches from this low-trust model at Taobao’s huge online bazaar. It is a collection of thirty million small-time individual peddlers that Alibaba can’t directly control. The result, especially in a country with no real enforceable consumer protection laws or litigation, Taobao can be a haven for people selling stuff of dubious quality and authenticity.
Chinese know this, and don’t much care for it. It’s one reason both US-listed JD.com and Amazon China both seem to be gaining some ground on Alibaba. Their strategies are similar: to be the “anti-Taobao”, selling brand-name stuff directly, using their own buying power and inventory, their own delivery people, and a no-questions-asked return policy. Their range of merchandise, however, is far more limited than Taobao’s. Tencent in 2014 bought a significant minority stake in JD.com.
Thanks to Weixin, Tencent now has the capability directly to become Alibaba’s most potent competitor and steal away billions of dollars in transactions. Will it?
As of now, Tencent seems oddly reluctant. Even as millions of Weixin users have started using the app to buy and sell goods directly with their friends, Tencent has countered by making it more difficult. Tencent introduced limits on the number of contacts each Weixin user can add, has made sending money tricky, and has more or less banned users to include price quotes in their mobile messages. For now, Weixin users appear undaunted, and are using various ruses to get around Tencent’s unexplained efforts to limit their profit-making activities. One common one: using the character for “rice” (米） instead of the symbol for the Chinese Renminbi （元）.
This social selling through Weixin is called “Weishang” (微商) in Chinese, literally “commerce on Weixin”. It is without doubt the hottest thing in online selling now in China.
It’s hard to understand why Tencent wouldn’t passionately embrace social selling on Weixin. For now, Weixin looks to be an enormous money sink for Tencent. The Weixin app is free to download and use. What money it earns from it comes mainly from promoting pay-to-play online games. That’s small change compared to the tens of millions of dollars Tencent spends on maintaining the server infrastructure to facilitate and store the hundreds of millions of text, voice, photo and video messages sent daily on the network.
Chinese of all ages are glued to Weixin at all hours of the day. It can be hard for anyone outside China to quite fathom how deeply-woven into daily life Weixin has become in the four years since its launch. Peak Weixin usage can exceed 10mn messages per minute. With only slight exaggeration, Tencent’s founder and chairman Pony Ma explains Weixin has become like a “vital organ” to Chinese.
It’s not just young kids. I took part in a meeting recently with a partner from KKR and the chairman of a large Chinese publicly-traded company At the end of the discussion, they eagerly swapped Weixin accounts to continue their confidential M&A dialogue.
My office is in the building next to Tencent’s headquarters in Shenzhen. I know quite a few of the senior executives. But, no one can or will articulate why Tencent, at least for now, is unwilling to use Weishang take on Alibaba. Some who claim to know say it’s because the Chinese government is holding them back, not wanting to have Tencent steal Alibaba’s spotlight so soon after its most-successful-in-history Chinese IPO in the US.
The two have sparred before. Tencent years ago launched its own copycat version of Taobao, now called Paipai. But it failed to put a dent in Alibaba’s franchise. Alibaba, in turn, launched its own online message system to compete with Weixin. But, it’s sunk from sight as quickly as a heavy stone dropped in a deep pond.
Seen from a seller’s perspective, Weishang is fundamentally more attractive than selling on Taobao. Margins are higher, not only because Tencent charges no fees, but it’s getting much harder and more expensive to get noticed on Taobao. That’s good for Alibaba’s all-important ad revenues, but bad for merchants.
How does Weishang work? A woman, for example, buys twenty sweaters at a wholesale price, then takes a selfie wearing one. She sends this out to her 300 contacts on Weixin. Though the message includes neither the price nor much of a sales pitch, since both may be monitored by Tencent, she will often get back replies asking how to buy and how much. The sales are closed either by phone call, or through voice messaging over Weixin, with payment sent direct to the seller’s bank account.
Tencent knows Weixin is being used more and more like this, but because it’s driven the commerce somewhat underground, Tencent has no idea on the exact scale of Weishang. My guess is aggregate Weishang sales are already in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.
Alibaba has clearly noticed. But, social selling isn’t something its Taobao e-commerce marketplace can do. Its mobile e-commerce strategy amounts to making it easy to scroll through Taobao items on a small screen. Social selling in China is and will remain Tencent’s natural monopoly.
For anyone wondering, Alibaba’s IPO prospectus from a few months ago did not mention Weishang and Weixin, and Tencent gets a single nod as one of many possible competitors. Weishang really began to gain traction only during the second half of 2014, after the main draft of the Alibaba prospectus was completed.
To those outside China especially on Wall Street, Alibaba seems to be on the top of the world, as well as the top of its game. In the last four months, it’s collected $25 billion from the IPO and another $8 billion in a bond offering. Its share price price is up 50% since the IPO. For a lot of us living here in China, the boundless enthusiasm in the US for “Ali” (as the company is universally known here) can sometimes seem a bit unhinged.
When will Tencent make its move? Why is it now so reticent to promote Weishang, or discuss its plans with the investment community? Is it busy next door to me readying a dedicated secure payment system and warranty program for Weishang purchases?
I don’t have the answer, but this being China, I do know where to look for guidance. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, written 2,500 years ago, remains the country’s main strategic handbook, used as often in business as in combat. The pertinent passage, in Chinese, goes “微乎微乎，至于无形；神乎神乎，至于无声；故能为敌之司命.” In English, you can translate it as “be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. “
In other words, don’t let your competitor see or hear you coming until its already too late.
America’s most successful M&A deal in China is also possibly its most clandestine. The reason: an old-line Midwestern Fortune 500 company around since 1856 owns a company that is the dominant brand-name supplier in China of a vital Chinese national asset. No, it’s not missile fuel or encrypted handsets for battlefield command-and-control. It’s dumplings.
America’s General Mills, the iconic maker of US breakfast cereals Lucky Charms and Cheerios as well as Häagen-Dazs ice cream, owns a similarly iconic brand in China – Wanzai Matou (湾仔码头), or Wanchai Ferry, as it’s known in English. It is China’s major premium-priced and premium-quality supplier of frozen dumplings. Since acquiring the business thirteen years ago, it’s become a large and especially fast-growing business for General Mills, with China revenues of at least $300mn. Better still, the margins are probably a lot higher than Cheerios and just about any other product General Mills sells worldwide. The Wanzai Matou dumplings sell in China for equivalent of about $3.50 a pound. You can buy fresh hand-made ones just about everywhere in China for quite a bit less. But, people flock to the General Mills product, because it’s considered both tastier and healthier.
Dumplings are a central aspect of Chinese life and culture, a more potent part of national identity and the national diet than the Thanksgiving turkey, Big Mac, beef hotdog or apple pie are to us Americans. Dumplings (whether boiled, steamed or pan-fried) have been a daily staple of the Chinese diet, as far as anyone can judge, for about 1,800 years. They’re eaten here at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dumplings are also the mainstay for many Chinese at the most important meal of the year, the one that rings in the Chinese New Year. Dumplings symbolize a prosperous year to come.
For all the many global corporates still edgy about investing in or acquiring businesses in China, General Mills is prime evidence that inbound cross-border M&A can work in China. This one deal combines four aspects often thought to be unattainable in China deal-making: a large US company buys a smaller local Chinese brand, builds it into a national leader while piling up big profits. It is, hands down, my favorite case study of how to do M&A right in China.
Not that General Mills is eager for the world to know. It doesn’t talk about its booming China business in its annual report. Packages of Wanzai Matou sold in China don’t include the General Mills name or famous blue logo.
While everyone knows about KFC, McDonald’s and Starbucks big success in China, they are actually doing something much easier: introducing and selling exotica, American products to Chinese with a whim to try something from afar. General Mills is making money in China the hard way. Not only do they make the most popular brand of frozen dumplings in China (estimated market share of about 50%) , they also had to convert a large number of Chinese to buy in a supermarket a frozen version of a product only available previously fresh, hand-made.
As General Mills foresaw, making dumplings at home, once a daily chore, has become something fewer and fewer Chinese have the time routinely to do. Done properly, it can take even experienced hands two hours or longer.
General Mills got control of Wanzai Matou in 2001 when it acquired US rival Pillsbury from British company Diageo. Pillsbury had bought majority stake in Wanzai Matou in 1997, when it was a rather tiny Hong Kong company with very limited presence in the PRC. Today, the freezer section of most larger big city supermarkets in China is stocked to bursting with different flavors and fillings of Wanzai Matou dumplings, along with Wanzai Matou frozen wontons and stuffed buns.
General Mills buys some tv advertising, but mainly the success here in China was earned by word-of-mouth. I’ve been a customer for as long as I’ve been living in China. Take it from me. There is no tastier frozen food sold anywhere than the boiled Wanzai Matou pork-and-corn dumplings (see package above).
Pillsbury made a vital strategic move in the early years after buying control of the Hong Kong Wanzai Matou. It was also an atypical one for big corporate buyers. They decided to keep Wanzai Matou founder, Kin Wo Chong, involved. Her photo is still prominently-featured on every package, in much the same way as Betty Crocker used to be pictured on every box of brownie mix made by that General Mills brand.
Betty Crocker is pure fiction, a made-up name for a made-up housewife. Ms. Chong is very much a genuine entrepreneur, a Hong Kong immigrant from dumpling-loving Shandong province. She started her professional life in 1977 selling dumplings from a push cart in a not-too-tony part of Hong Kong.
Keeping Ms. Chong involved, as both a senior executive and minority shareholder, has evidently worked well for both sides. General Mills gets all the benefits of her extensive knowledge of how to make tasty dumplings. She gets a deep-pocketed partner with the skills and resources required to make her small company into a Chinese household name.
This sort of arrangement is rare in the M&A world outside China. Generally, the buyer gives the current owner a two-to-three year earn-out period and then is sent packing. That’s the way MBA textbooks recommend M&A deals get done. The thinking is founders, once they’ve put a large chunk of cash in their pockets, are distracted, demotivated and anyway not amenable to taking orders on how to run their business from a large, often bureaucratic global corporation.
But, in China, the most successful M&A deals we know of all tend to have this same structure, that the founding entrepreneur stays on, stays active, long after the earn-out period expires. By contrast, the list of failures is long where an acquirer gets control of an entrepreneur-founded Chinese company, shows the owner the door and then tries to run it on its own.
General Mills also did add something Ms. Chong never would have managed to do on her own. It started up a frozen stir-fry-it-yourself business for the US market, under the Wanchai Ferry brand. In its first year, it had revenues in the US of over $50 million. Impressive.
As anyone living here can attest, when it comes to food, Chinese are every bit as jingoistic as the French or Italians. It would shock many of them to think Americans can produce dumplings better and more profitably than any domestic competitor. But, even if General Mills is outed, and more Chinese come to know who’s behind Wanzai Matou, I’m confident they will go on buying dumplings made for them by the company from Golden Valley, Minnesota. “Eating”, as the Chinese saying aptly has it, “is more important than the Emperor”. “吃饭皇帝大“.
The ‘children’ of Deng Xiaoping
The other Chinese revolution: Meet the people who took Deng’s economic great leap forward
Deng Xiaoping was no Winston Churchill. He possessed a thick southern accent most people found nearly impenetrable, and was anything but garrulous. In fact, little of what he said was memorable or even original. His most-cited aphorism – “To get rich is glorious” – did not actually spill from his mouth; historians suspect its provenance can be traced to the West.
But in deed more than word, Mr. Deng was the linchpin in redirecting China’s economy away from the backward, centrally planned beast it had become under Mao Zedong. He set it on a path that would see decades of unrelenting growth and the creation of credulity-defying prosperity.
What he wanted to do, he said in 1978, was to “light a spark” for change:
“If we can’t grow faster than the capitalist countries, then we can’t show the superiority of our system.”
– Deng, 1978
He succeeded in spurring growth, and wildly so, marshalling the power of the world’s most populous nation. Now, 110 years after his birth – an occasion that its leadership has sought to celebrate with lengthy TV biopics and other remembrances – China is filled with millionaires.
But has the sudden influx of wealth made it happy?
Where chasing profit was once grounds for harsh re-education, the country’s heroes and superstars – Jack Ma and an entire generation of tuhao, or nouveau riche – are now, in ways both spiritual and economic, the children of Deng.
President Xi Jinping has consciously sought to present himself as the current generation’s version of Deng. But for many of Deng’s figurative progeny, wealth and happiness haven’t always come together. In a recent survey published in the People’s Tribune magazine, worries about a moral vacuum, personal selfishness and anxiety over individual and professional status were high on the list of top concerns about the country today. The poll reflected a pervasive cultural disquiet that has reached even into the ranks of those most richly rewarded by the Deng-led opening up.
“On the social level, money became the only currency in terms of personal relationships, and that’s a really sad reality,” says Yang Lan, one of the country’s top television hosts.
She points to “the lack of a value system” that she sees when she hears young girls “discussing how they would love to be a mistress so they can live a wealthy life before they are too old. And you see girls discussing these things very openly.” China, she says, needs “a new social contract.”
There is little doubt that those who no longer need to worry about making money are more free to criticize others, raising the spectre of hypocrisy. But pained reflection has been among the less-anticipated products of the wealth China has amassed. The comforts of financial security have provided a new space to rethink the path the country has taken and ways it has fallen short.
And as China’s economy slows to a pace not seen in decades, it also faces a moment to consider the sweep of its modern history – decades marked by the vicious turbulence of the Mao years, followed by the full-throttle race away from it inspired by Mr. Deng.
From 1978, the first year of the Deng-led reforms, China has been so thoroughly reshaped that even numbers struggle to do it justice. Gross domestic product has expanded 156-fold, the value of imports and exports is 727 times higher, and savings are up by a factor of 2,131.
The growth has been driven by an extraordinary – and massive – cohort of people who have turned personal quests for profit into a national obsession. “China has, in absolute numbers as well as percentage of populace, the most successful entrepreneurs anywhere in the world,” says Peter Fuhrman, chairman and founder of China First Capital, a specialist investment bank based in Shenzhen.
But even those who most warmly embraced the Deng mandate are now pausing for a second look at a country whose vast financial progress has become marred by other problems.
Read complete article by clicking here.
China’s Big Banks: learn how they overprice & misallocate loans while treating borrowers like conmen
Do you have the financial acumen to run the lending department of one of China’s giant state-owned banks? Let’s see if you qualify. Price the following loan to a private sector Chinese company. Your bank is paying depositors 0.5% interest so that’s your cost of capital. The company has been a bank customer for six years and now needs a loan of Rmb 50mn (USD$8 mn). The audit shows it’s earning Rmb 60mn a year in net profits, and has cash flow of Rmb 85mn.
You ask the company to provide you with a first lien on collateral appraised at Rmb 75mn and require them to keep 20% or more of the loan in an account at your bank as a compensating deposit. Next up, you ask the owner to pledge all his personal assets worth Rmb 25mn, and on top, you insist on a guarantee from a loan-assurance company your bank regularly does business. The guarantee covers any failure to repay principal or interest. What annual interest rate would you charge for this loan?
If you answered 5% or lower, you are thinking like a foreigner. American, Japanese or German maybe. If you said 13% a year, then you are ready to start your new career pricing and allocating credit in China. At 10% and up, inflation-adjusted loan spreads to private sector borrowers in China are among the highest in the world, particularly when you factor in the over-collaterallization, that third-party guarantee and fact the loan is one-year term and can’t be rolled over. As a result, the company will actually only have use of the money for about nine months but will pay interest for twelve. Little wonder Chinese banks have some of the fattest operating margins in the industry.
Chinese private businessmen are paying too much to borrow. It’s a deadweight further slowing China’s economy. We are quite keen, by the way, on private debt investing in China.
The high cost of borrowing negatively impacts corporate growth and so overall gdp growth. It is also among the more obvious manifestations of an even more significant, though often well-hidden, problem in China’s economy: the fact that nobody trusts anybody. This lack of trust acts like an enormous tax on business and consumers in China, making everything, not just bank credit, far more expensive than it should be.
Online payment systems, business contracts, visits to the doctor, buying luxury products or electronics like mobile phones or computers: all are made more costly, inefficient and frustrating for all in China because one side of a transaction doesn’t trust the other. One example: Alibaba’s online shopping site, Taobao, will facilitate well over USD$200bn in transactions this year. Most are paid for through Alipay, an escrow system part-owned and administered by Alibaba. Chinese shoppers are loathe to buy anything directly from an online merchant. They generally take it as a given that the seller will cheat them.
Most of the world’s computers and mobile phones are made in China. But, Chinese walk a minefield when buying these products in their own country. It’s routine for sellers to swap out the original high-quality parts, including processors, and replace them with low-grade counterfeits, then sell products as new. Chinese, when possible, will travel outside China, particularly to Hong Kong, to buy these electronics, as well as luxury goods like Gucci shoes and Chanel perfume. This is the most certain way to guarantee you are getting the genuine article.
In the banking sector, loans need to have multiple, seemingly excessive layers of collateral, as well as guarantees. Banks simply do not believe the borrower, the auditors, their own in-house credit analysts, or the capacity of the guarantee firms to pay up in the event of a problem.
Disbelief gets priced in. This is the reason for the huge loan spreads in China. Banks regard their own loan documentation as a work of fiction. It stands to reason that if a company’s collateral were solid and the third-party guarantee enforceable, then the cost to borrow money should be at most a few points above the bank’s real cost of capital. Instead, Chinese companies get the worst of all worlds: they have to tie up all their collateral to secure overpriced loans, while also paying an additional 2%-3% a year of loan value to the third-party credit guarantee company for a guarantee the bank requires but treats as basically worthless.
In the event a loan does go sour, the bank will often choose to sell it to a third party at discount to face value, rather than go to court to seize the collateral or get the guarantee company to pay up. The buyer is usually one of the state-owned asset recovery companies formed to take bad debts off bank balance sheets. Why, you ask, does the bank require the guarantee then fail to enforce it? One reason is that Chinese private loan-assurance companies, which usually work hand-in-glove with the banks, are usually too undercapitalized to actually pay up if the borrower defaults. Going after them will force them into bankruptcy. That would cause more systemic problems in China’s banking system.
Instead, the bank unloads the loan and the asset recovery companies seize and sell the only collateral they believe has any value, the borrower’s real estate. The business may be left to rot. The asset management companies usually come out ahead, as do the loan guarantee companies, which collect an annual fee equal to 2% to 3% of the loan value, but rarely, if ever, need to indemnify a lender.
Don’t feel too sorry for the bank that made the loan. Assuming the borrower stayed current for a while on the high interest payments, the bank should get its money back, or even turn a profit on the deal. Everyone wins, except private sector borrowers, of course. Good and bad like, they are stuck paying some of the highest risk-adjusted interest costs in the world.
When foreign analysts look at Chinese banks, they spend most of their time trying to divine the real, as opposed to reported, level of bad debts, devising ratios and totting up unrealized losses. They don’t seem to know how the credit game is really played in China.
Most of the so-called bad debts, it should be said, come from loans made to SOEs and other organs of the state. Trust is not much of an issue. SOEs and local governments generally don’t need to pledge as much collateral or get third-party guarantees to borrow. A call from a local Party bigwig is often enough. The government has shown it will find ways to keep banks from losing money on loans to SOEs. The system protects its own.
Chinese banks should be understood as engaged in two unrelated lines of business: one is as part of a revolving credit system that channels money to and through different, often cash-rich, arms of the state. The other is to take in deposits and make loans to private customers. In one, trust is absolute. In the other, it is wholly absent.
Many Chinese private companies do still thrive despite a banking system that treats them like con artists, rather than legitimate businesses with a legitimate need for credit. The end result: the Chinese economy, though often the envy of the world, grows slower and is more frail than it otherwise would be. Everyone here in China is paying a steep price for the lack of trust, and the mispricing of credit.