Chinese PE Firms Too Tech-Focused: Report. AsianInvestor

July 28th, 2014 No comments

Asianinvestor

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Chinese PE firms too tech-focused: report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.

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

http://www.asianinvestor.net/Tools/Print.aspx?CIID=388932

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Neue Zurcher Zeitung Interview

July 10th, 2014 No comments

-NZZ-

paper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

June 18th, 2014 No comments

China fortune-teller-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

June 4th, 2014 No comments

Tiananmen Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 20th, 2014 1 comment

 

 

 

Qing porcelain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Alibaba files for IPO in US — China Daily article

May 8th, 2014 No comments

China Daily

 

 

Updated: 2014-05-07 06:56

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

Alibaba files for IPO in US

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 30th, 2014 No comments

WSJ Shuanghui WH Group failed IPO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 29th, 2014 No comments

FT-

FT logo

WH Group under scrutiny in wake of cancelled Hong Kong IPO

By Josh Noble in Hong Kong

April 30, 2014 3:55 pm

Shuanghui

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PDF version

 

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

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

April 29th, 2014 No comments
week in china

Week in China cover

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Pork chopped

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not bringing home the bacon…

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

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

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

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

Were rough market conditions to blame?

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

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

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

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

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

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

So WH’s valuation was too high?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did WH want to IPO so fast?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What next for WH?

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

April 28th, 2014 No comments

China Daily

WH’s canceled IPO shows dangers of misjudging demand

By Michael Barris (China Daily USA)

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

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

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

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

WH's canceled IPO shows dangers of misjudging demand

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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China IPO, the media headline and reality could hardly be more worlds apart — Reuters

April 21st, 2014 No comments

Reuters

Reuters headline

 

 

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Spot the difference between the headline and the factual content of the article? One is designed to capture your attention, if not ruin your day. The other conveys less alarmist, less hyperventilated facts.

Something similar is at work in this article published by Reuters yesterday on China’s IPO market, the recent delays and the prospect for resumption later this year. Click here to read the Reuters article.

Reading just the headline, “China IPO promised land turns to desert as regulator review stokes confusion“, and you would likely conclude China’s IPO market had turned to a barren wasteland, where no Chinese company would anytime soon be able to tap the public markets for capital. One certainly would not expect, 24 hours earlier, another respected business publication, in this case the Wall Street Journal,  to publish an article that suggests the IPO process in China is about to boom.

Yet, that’s what happened. Same weekend. Same China. Wildly divergent realities.  Here’s the Journal article.

So, what’s going on here? Well, first off, the Wall Street Journal article is, both headline and body, a lot closer to the truth, at least as far as I’m able to judge. IPOs in China, after a two month hiatus, are about to start up again. The country’s securities regulator, the CSRC, is introducing a new market-based process of IPO approval. It’s a 180-degree change over the IPO system in China prevailing until the start of this year. Big change, and some big bumps along the road. But, overall, China is heading clearly in the direction where IPOs — which companies, when and at what listing price — will be decided by the market, by investor demand, not regulatory fiat.

The Reuters story, on the other hand, tries to mount a case that things have broken down rather seriously. The text of the article, to be fair, doesn’t entirely reflect the content of that headline. This sometimes happens, based on my experience back some twenty years ago working as a journalist. But, the gap here between headline and story, as well as between headline and fact, is larger than one might like to see.

My guess is the Reuters reporters started out with a plan to write about the breakdown in China’s IPO market, gathered up some quotes, as well as a bit of evidence, in the form of 24 companies (out of a total of over 700) dropping off the IPO waiting list. They called me ten days ago asking for a comment, probably knowing I don’t see things to be quite so dark and hopeless. That quote appears at the very bottom of the article. Here’s the full text of what I told them.

The Reuters article was written, edited and was waiting to be published when, perhaps inconveniently for Reuters,  the CSRC unexpectedly announced late Friday that 28 Chinese companies are well-along in their IPO plans and should close their fund-raising soon. That’s the story the Journal published.

Reuters went ahead and published its story. It didn’t bother to change that gloomy headline, and didn’t mention this news about a large batch of IPOs about to move forward. The “desert” Reuters describes apparently can sustain IPO life after all.

 

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Alibaba’s Taobao and Other Online Shopping Sites are Pushing Traditional Retailers in China Toward Extinction

April 10th, 2014 2 comments

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Welcome to the desolate future of mall retailing in China.

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China shopping mall-

This seven-story skylit shopping mall occupies a premier spot in a high-rent commercial district in booming Shenzhen’s main shopping street, with a huge underground parking lot and entrances that link it directly with a busy Metro stop. And yet,  everywhere you walk, floor after floor, retail shop fronts are boarded up, with most stores closed down. Only the ground floor supermarket, top floor Multiplex movie theater, basement chain restaurants and a large Starbucks are thriving. Thousands of square meters of retail space, fully rented as recently as twelve months ago at some of the highest commercial rents in the world, are silent and vacant. No customers, no tenants, no rent income.

Malls are starting to empty out in China, but Chinese are richer, and spending like never before. Overall, retail sales rose 13% in 2013. The paradox can be explained by a single word: Taobao.  It is China’s largest online shopping business, and the anchor asset of Alibaba Group, now preparing for one of the world’s richest-ever IPOs on the US stock market. Taobao, along with its sister site TMall, and a host of smaller online retailers including Jingdong, Amazon China and Wal-Mart-controlled Yihaodian, have landed like an asteroid, and are wiping out the ecosystem supporting traditional retail in China, especially brand-name clothing shops.

The impact of online shopping in China is already far more wide-ranging than anything seen in the US or elsewhere. The reason is price. Taobao and others sell the same brand-name products available in shopping malls, but at prices often 30%-50% cheaper.  More even than rising incomes, online shopping is the most powerful force in China for raising ordinary Chinese living standards and purchasing power.

Online shopping is everywhere in the world, at its heart, a price discovery tool. And Chinese are now discovering, in their hundreds of millions, they have been getting seriously ripped off by traditional stores, especially those selling foreign and domestic brand-name clothing and consumer electronics. They usually occupy 70% or more of a mall’s retail floor space.

Alibaba and other online merchants are joyously surfing a tidal wave of dissatisfaction with the high price of store shopping in China. Not only are brick-and-mortar stores’ prices much higher than buying online, they are also often more expensive, in dollar-terms, than the same or similar Made-in-China products sold at Wal-Mart or Target in the US.

Those two giant chains have fought back against online retailers in the US by using their buying power to offer brand name products at low prices. No retailer in China is really attempting this. Retailing in China is both fragmented and uncreative. As dynamic and innovative as China is in many industries, I’ve yet to see even one great home-grown retailing business here in China.

There’s also a big problem in the way Chinese shopping malls, especially high-end ones, are operated. Chinese mall owners are mainly a motley assortment of one-off developers who used government contacts to nab a valuable piece of commercially-zoned downtown land at a fraction of its market value. They then mortgaged the property, built a fancy shopping palace, and now take a cut of sales, along with a baseline rent. This revenue-sharing discourages retailers from cutting prices. If they do, they will fail to meet the landlord’s minimum monthly turnover figure.

Compounding the pressure on traditional retailers, mall owners often give the best ground-floor locations to global brands like Louis Vuitton or Prada, who pay little or no rent, but are meant to give the mall a high-class ambiance. The big luxury brands’ China outlets seem to have rather anemic sales, but use their China stores as a form of brand promotion richly subsidized by mall owners. Domestic brands are shunted to higher floors. Fewer shoppers venture up there, and so the stores will often end up failing.

The result, as in the photo above taken on a recent Sunday, floor after floor of vacant space. China is creating an entire new retail landscape – a glamorously-appointed mall in a nice part of town whose upper floors resemble downtown Detroit after a riot, with boarded-up shop fronts and scarcely a soul.

Anywhere else in the world, a mall with so much vacant space would either need to cut rents drastically or hand the property over to the banks that lent the money. Neither is happening. For now, the banks can often afford to be patient. Malls that have been around for a few years have probably already paid off the loan principal. Newer loans look far shakier. There are hundreds of bank-financed high-end malls now under construction or opening this year across China.

The stampede away from malls is only just beginning. Though China has already overtaken the US in dollar terms as largest online shopping market, there is every sign that the shift to buying online is accelerating and irreversible. Online sales in China should reach 10% of total retail sales this year, well above the US level of 6%. We project this percentage will rise to over 15% within the next decade. That’s because more Chinese will shop online, especially using their mobile phones, and because the range of items that are cheaper to buy online is so much larger in China than anywhere else.

For that, online merchants must also thank the country’s parcel delivery businesses, led by Shunfeng Express. They charge so little (about one-tenth the price of Fedex or UPS) and are so efficient in getting your parcel into your hands quickly that it makes economic sense not only to buy higher-priced apparel and consumer electronics, but also packaged food, soap, personal care items, even knickknacks that sell for less than $1.

The retail stores that remain in shopping malls are increasingly being used as free showrooms to facilitate sales by online competitors. Chinese shoppers go to stores to find what they like, try it on, check the price, then go home and buy direct from Taobao. That’s one reason malls are still drawing crowds.

Online shopping is not only cheaper, customer service is usually much better. Most merchants selling on Taobao manage and run their own online shops. Taobao is nothing more than an aggregation of millions of motivated individual entrepreneurs. They are available just about any time, day or night, by phone or online chat to answer questions, or even, when asked, offer an additional discount. They are, in my experience, smart, self-confident, friendly, competent.

Sales help in stores are often poorly-paid younger women who cling together behind the cash register. They clearly don’t much enjoy what they are doing, nor are they there to enhance the shopping experience. Often just the opposite.

So what’s going to happen to all the malls in China? There are over 2,500 across the country, already more than double the number of enclosed malls in the US. More are opening around China every week. Who will fill up all the space? There’s serious money to be made by investors or operators who can take advantage of the large disruptions now underway in traditional retailing.

Restaurants in malls are still doing well, and they don’t have anything to fear from Taobao. But, food outlets generally pay lower rent, per square foot, than retail stores and occupy either the top or basement floors. Premium office space is also still in demand in the downtown areas where many malls are located. Should malls be turned into food and entertainment centers? Or converted to commercial offices? Neither path looks easy.

The US went through a large wave of shopping mall bankruptcies in the 1990s, as large operators like DeBartolo and Campeau failed, and better ones like Simon Property Group and Westfield Group thrived. The good operators lowered costs, improved the economics and did well as newer retailers like Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Juicy Couture, H&M, Apple, Papyruys, Teavana, Nordstrom honed retail formulas that could withstand online competition.

Retailers in China are in such peril because they charge too much, never innovate and do so little to win the loyalty of their customers. Alibaba and other online sellers are hastening them towards extinction.

 

 

 

3M in China: A Magnificent Minnesota Multinational

March 26th, 2014 1 comment

3M China picture, China First Capital

 

Through pain comes wisdom.  US manufacturing giant 3M has a superb business in China that by sales, growth, product diversification, brand equity, market share and margins must place it among the very best, if not the best, US companies operating here.

This overdue realization came courtesy of having a nasty little cavity filled in China. As I squinted through the pain, I saw my dentist reach for a small tube of 3M-branded epoxy to fill up the hole in my tooth. “3M is American, like you, right?” she asked in Chinese. “This is the best product on the market.”

Dentistry didn’t really much exist in China until around 20 years ago. Since then, the growth has been hypersonic. Today there are about 60% more dentists in China than in the US, 135,000 compared to 85,000. The number of dentists is growing by 15,000 a year in China. 3M helped build the dentistry market from the ground up, and now enjoys a level of market penetration and trust in China exceeding the US.

Dental products are just one among many dozens of areas where 3M has built a large and profitable business in China. Another one I know of: reflective tape used on traffic signs and glow-in-the-dark clothing worn by police and other first responders. 3M enjoys something like a monopoly here, during a time when no other country is adding as many miles of roads, and as many bright new road signs as China. I have a Chinese client that tried, without much success, to compete with 3M in the market. Despite having better government contacts and lower prices, this Chinese company has gotten steam-rollered by 3M in China.

In industrial adhesives, photovoltaic components and, of course, Post-It Notes, the situation is the same. 3M has flattened every Chinese competitor that came after it. 3M’s China strategy is as simple as it is successful: premium products, prices and market shares.

3M has been in the PRC since 1984, almost as long as the country has welcomed American investment. Over that time quietly but oh-so efficiently, it has built a powerful business in China, with revenues last year growing 16% to over $3 billion. China sales are growing three times faster than overall 3M revenue. The company’s local CEO is on the record predicting 3M’s revenues in China will overtake its sales in the US ($9.5 billion in 2013) within the next ten years.

That would be a helluva achievement. But, I wouldn’t bet against 3M.  It has as strong a platform for growth in China as any company I know of, domestic and international. It sells hundreds of different products in over eighty separate product categories in China. In a county where no company’s intellectual property (patents and know-how) is meant to be safe from pirates, 3M has defended its secrets, and stayed comfortably ahead of local brand knock-offs and copycats. Counterfeiting is a separate issue, and probably 3M’s biggest problem in China.

In a way few, if any, other US multinationals have, 3M has managed to achieve significant sales and a stellar reputation both in consumer and B2B markets. As China grows richer, 3M’s strategy looks smarter and smarter. Cheap, low-quality products are being driven out of the market here. Consumers, factories and government departments are trading up. This leaves many low-end Chinese brands in a very difficult and life-threatening position. They can only compete on price in a market that’s increasingly price-insensitive. 3M is precisely the kind of manufacturing company China most sorely lacks – a serial innovator with branded products that can command higher prices.

Both my dentist and my handyman still stock lower-quality Chinese-made products. They offer customers a choice – something I never ran across living in the US. You want the good imported stuff or a cheap knockoff? The price difference can be rather high. For cavity-filling compound, using 3M product will cost you about three times as much. To fix a chair leg using 3M glue it’s double the price. But, both my dentist and my handyman say almost none of their clients are opting for the local brands.

3M is admired just about everywhere for the quality of its products. But, in China, it has an almost saintly reputation. During the height of the SARS epidemic in 2003, 3M disposable masks were widely publicized in the Chinese media as the most effective way to prevent the deadly disease. Today, 3M disposable masks are widely used by Chinese for another purpose, to block out the pollution and fumes that envelop big northern cities like Beijing, Jinan and Shanghai.

Other US companies with large China businesses have hit on tough times lately in China. P&G and Coca-Cola Company are losing market share to local competitors. Yum! Brands and Mondelez have both suffered from perceptions they peddle unhealthy food. Their best days in China, from my vantage point,  are probably behind them.

3M, meanwhile, quietly and steadily goes from strength to strength. If any US company can add another $7 billion in revenue in China over next decade, 3M is the most likely.

3M not only introduced its products to China, it also transplanted its rather unique American Midwestern personality. 3M China is, by local standards, modest, elf-effacing, even dull. It doesn’t advertise much, or throw its weight around as one of the largest US companies operating here. The Maplewood, Minnesota-based parent barely even mentions China in its 2013 10-K annual report. When you are doing this well in the world’s strongest-growing major market and beating up your competitors, why crow about it?-

 

How China buried India

March 6th, 2014 5 comments

Forbes India cover story 1994

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Twenty years ago, India, not China, was the object of my absolute and total focus.  Back then, I was living in London and working as a European bureau chief for Forbes Magazine. In May 1994, a story I co-wrote called “Now We Are Our Own Masters” appeared on the cover of Forbes (click here to read the article). It was the first time a big American magazine took the risk to suggest India, after so many years of pathetic growth, famine and unending poverty, was ready for an economic take-off. It turned out to be a smart call. Since then, India’s economy has surged, growing seven-fold while poverty has declined steeply.

India GDP growth 1950-2010

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I spent about a month in India researching the article, meeting with political and business leaders. It was my third trip to the country. The first had been in 1978, as a young backpacking college student, on my way back to the US from a summer in Taiwan studying Mandarin. The two most vivid memories of that first trip — nearly dying from untreated amoebic dysentery, and hiding out for days in a place called Aurangabad as masses of Indian men rioted on the streets against the forced sterilization policy of India Gandhi. (Life lesson learned at 19: political popularity will be short-lived wherever a leader orders men at gunpoint to undergo genital surgery.)

It took another three years before I first set foot in China. On a lot of levels, the two countries struck me as similar back then, both in the extent of the obvious poverty as well as the shared disappointment some thirty years after each had gained full independence as socialist states under charismatic intellectual leaders, Jawaharlal Nehru in India and Mao Zedong in China.

China began its reform process a decade earlier than India. I caught the first stirrings when I arrived in Nanjing as a student in 1981. When I went to India in 1994 for the Forbes article, it still seemed plausible India might one day emerge as the larger, more vibrant of the two economies. China had suffered a sharp setback in 1989, during the Tianmen Square Protests of 1989, an event I witnessed first-hand in Beijing. At the same time, India had begun at last to liberalize and energize its over-regulated and inefficient state-run economy.

While India’s growth has since surpassed my optimistic hopes in 1994, I firmly believe it will never rival China. This chart below shows how far the gap between the two has grown. Since 1994, China has all but left India behind in its tailpipe exhaust.

China vs. India GDP Growth 1960-2010

In per capita PPP terms, China is now almost 2.5 times wealthier than India. Year by year, the gap grows, as China’s gdp expands faster than India’s, while India’s birth rate is now almost triple China’s.

I haven’t been back to India since 1994. I have no doubt it’s changed out of all recognition. Changed for the better. Poverty is down. Exports are way up. Its biggest misfortune may be having to compete for capital, and for attention, with China.

Living full-time and working in China now for more than four years, I’m more impressed than ever how superbly China is engineered for rising prosperity. The comparisons I read between India and China generally give a lot of weight to the difference in political systems, between India’s raucous federal democracy with dozens of parties and China’s one-party centralized rule. The indisputable conclusion: sound economic policies are easier in China to design and execute.

The few times I’ve been asked to contrast the two countries, I prefer to focus on their most valuable long-term assets.  India has English. China has Confucius.

India doesn’t out-compete China in too many industries. But, in two of these — pharmaceuticals and computer software — English is probably the main reason. India’s educated population is basically native fluent in the language. China has tried to make more of a game of it, especially in computer software and services. But, China is now and will likely remain a bit player in these two large, global high-margin industries.

India also has, overall, a more innovative financial services industry. This isn’t really the result of widespread English, but the fact that India has a more open financial and currency system than China’s.

Both nations benefit from having large diasporas. In India’s case, it’s a huge source of cash, with remittances of over $65 billion a year, equal to 4% of gdp. In China, the benefits are as much in kind as in cash. Companies owned or managed by ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and the US have been large corporate investors in China, with the capital matched by transfer of technologies and manufacturing know-how. This is an ever-renewing remittance, as money pours in each year to finance projects with solid long-term rates of return.

China’s trump card, though, is its Confucian value system. Its potency as an economic force is amply demonstrated by the affluence of China’s Confucian neighbors, not just Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan, but South Korea and Japan. Its impact is measurable as well in the outsized economic clout of Chinese immigrants in Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia. Free market capitalism and Confucianism. Anywhere in the world you find sustained economic success and rising prosperity, you will find at least one. In China, they are entwined in a kind of ideal synthesis.

India, too, has close-knit families and a tradition of thrift and obedience. Confucianism adds to these a reverence for education and practical problem-solving. It contains nothing transcendent, not much, if any,  spiritual guidance for a soul-searcher make sense of his place in the cosmos. Honor your ancestors with burnt offerings, sweep their graves at least once-a-year and they’ll grease the wheels of success in this life.

The Confucian system hasn’t changed much for two thousand years. One vital adaptation over the last century, though,  was to accept that women could, and should, play an active role outside the house, reaching the same educational level as men and joining the workforce in equal numbers. Here, India is woefully far behind. China’s growth has been on steroids these past twenty years because its 650 million women have contributed exponentially more to economic growth and prosperity than India’s.

Of the couple hundred stories I wrote while at Forbes, I’m probably proudest of this India cover story published twenty years ago. It may not seem like it now, but it was a gamble to suggest back then under my byline India was about to come out of its long economic coma. Imagine if instead I’d gone on the record 20 years ago to forecast the coming economic miracle in Russia, Mexico or South Africa – all countries back then seen by some to be “the next great emerging market”.  I heard afterward the article helped generate more interest in India’s economic reforms and ultimately more investment in India by US multinationals. This grew about 30-fold in the ten years after the article appeared.

On a personal level, I made a larger, and I think even safer bet with my own professional life, to move to China and start a business here. Yes, India has English. I work every day in an alien tongue and in a culture steeped in Confucian values that play little or no part in my own ethical code. But, China was, is and shall long remain the great economic success story of all-time. I don’t need someone else’s magazine cover story to tell me that. I live it every day.

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China’s SOEs attract PE interest — Private Equity International Magazine

March 4th, 2014 No comments

Private Equity International Magazine

www.peimedia.com

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China’s state-owned enterprise promise big returns for PE investors, as well as a big challenge.

By: Clare Burrows-

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In 2013, private equity investment in China dropped to just $4.5 billion – about 47 percent below the equivalent figure for 2012, according to data from Thomson Reuters. Since China’s dry powder level was estimated at $59 billion at the end of 2012, it’s clear that China’s GPs need to find new ways to deploy the vast amounts of capital raised during better times.-

What seems to be catching the industry’s eye more than ever are the country’s state-owned enterprises:large, government-controlled organisations, many of which are in dire need of restructuring. While state-owned enterprises account directly or indirectly for 60 percent of China’s GDP, according to research by China First Capital, almost 100 percent of institutional capital, especially private equity, has
been invested into China’s privately-owned sector.

However, as the number of traditional opportunities falls, “this may leave investing in SOEs as the best, largest and most promising new area for private equity investment,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive at China First Capital suggests.-

And, some industry sources ask: what better target for private equity than these bloated, inefficient giants, which the newly-appointed Chinese government is apparently so keen to reform? SOEs are highly compliant when it comes to tax and accounting laws (a rare phenomenon among China’s privately-owned companies). Better still, they’re a bargain – because China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) regulates their price based on net asset value.-

“If you have a highly profitable SOE that has very low net assets, you can potentially buy it at incredibly low P/E multiples,” Fuhrman says. With one deal China First is advising on, 51 percent of the business is being offered at 2x EBITDA, he adds. China First is currently acting as an investment banker for five of China’s largest SOEs, including China Aerospace, China State Construction, China Huadian, Wuliangye Group and Shandong Energy.

Click here to read full article

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