Why Taiwan has a Largan and China doesn’t — Nikkei Asian Review

February 4th, 2016 No comments

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Why Taiwan has a Largan and China doesn’t

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No Asian technology company is currently more successful, dominant and more deeply engrained in the daily lives of a billion-plus people worldwide than Largan Precision. While you may not know the name, odds are you carry Largan technology around with you every day.

Largan makes the tiny plastic camera lenses for the high-megapixel cameras built into the iPhone and most higher-end Android devices. Largan enjoys a near-monopoly and is probably the only company in the world supplying an important high-margin component to both Apple and its Android rivals. That means even if Apple’s growth begins to cool, Largan won’t suffer as acutely as other key Apple component suppliers like Silicon Valley favorites Cirrus Logic and InvenSense. Apple may now be more dependent on Largan than Largan is on Apple.

Not that Largan is eager for the world-at-large to know. Though publicly-traded on the Taiwan Stock Exchange, the company is extremely reticent about sharing much information on its robust financial health and its current hammerlock hold on Apple. Largan habitually issues rather gloomy-sounding forecasts, as it did earlier this month, suggesting its growth rate may be slowing. Though its share price has nearly doubled in the last two years, it still trades at an anemic p/e multiple of under 10 times projected 2016 net income.

Smartphone sales are beginning to plateau Also casting a potential shadow, Apple is said to be keen to find an alternative camera lens supplier. The Cupertino company loathes having single-source suppliers like Largan. But, so far it’s proving all but impossible for Apple to find another supplier to match Largan’s price, volume and quality. Patents, Largan has them in abundance. But, its most valuable innovations, the ones Apple and its other customers pay good money for,  are mainly unpublished: the sophisticated manufacturing know-how needed to produce in massive quantities at low-cost tiny specs of curved plastic at optical quality.

Fortunes rise and fall quickly in the mobile phone industry. If more proof were needed, just look at Xiaomi, which went from the world’s highest valued to perhaps most overvalued startup in less than a year. Largan, meanwhile, quarter after quarter, remains the envy of the entire Apple and Android manufacturing world.

Cameras — and the quality of photos they take — have never been a more important selling point for mobile handset makers. All the key trends — higher resolution lenses with larger apertures, high-quality cameras front and back, optical zoom and image stabilization — play directly to Largan’s proprietary strengths and know-how.  The result, Largan also enjoys about the highest growth rate and market share along with net profit margins among all key mobile component manufacturers.

Despite the slowdown in the growth of mobile phone sales, Largan’s 2015 revenues rose by over 20% to reach $1.7bn, while net income surpassed $700mn. Largan’s +40% net profit margin are double Apple’s.

Few are the public companies anywhere that throw up numbers like Largan’s:

Largan is an example of a company that waited a long time for its moment in the sun. It was started 29 years ago and is still run by its two original founders, Tony Chen and Scott Lin. Both are now dollar billionaires and well past Taiwan’s official retirement age of 65.

I’ve never met the founders, or anyone else from Largan. I’ve learned about the company from the CEOs of some other large Apple and Android suppliers we work with. They uniformly sing Largan’s praises. “Though I try, I can’t find a single weak point except maybe that the founders should probably be retired and working on their golf game” muses one whose Hong Kong-listed company has been trying without success to get into the business selling plastic camera lens to Apple.

If rumors are correct, the next version of the larger iPhone will include dual cameras, front and back, each with much higher megapixel count than the current iPhone6. If so, and Largan as is likely remains the principal supplier, Largan’s revenues and profits from each iPhone sold will increase. Largan already makes similar lenses in bulk for Android brands.

For many years, the company was a small, niche manufacturer, one of dozens in the optics industry clustered around the city of Taichung. Largan’s focus then and now was producing high-quality lenses from plastic rather than glass. Early on plastic lenses seemed more like a novelty, too low in quality to ever seriously compete with the fine glass optical lenses made in Japan for the country’s major camera brands like Nikon, Canon and Minolta.

Largan’s plastic lenses were originally consigned mainly for use inside desktop scanners and projectors. Then the smartphone came along. A decade ago, only half the smartphones sold each year had a built-in camera. Now, it’s nearly 100%. Megapixel count has risen from two to sixteen and sometimes higher. Largan has been at the forefront throughout, but especially over the last five years as specs get higher and customers more demanding. A handset camera needs to take great pictures, but do so without adding much weight, sucking too much battery life or hogging too much space. Glass simply can’t cut it.

Among plastic lens manufacturers, no one else can currently match Largan’s know-how, precision and manufacturing skill. The camera in your mobile phone is a remarkable bit of gear. A typical high-end smartphone camera now has multiple aspherical Largan lenses with different dispersion and refractive properties, stacked about four millimeters high inside a plastic mount. To achieve perfect focus, the lenses need to be perfectly aligned, moveable, have as wide an aperture as possible and optical image stabilization.

Largan makes only lenses. The complete camera module (see photo below of the module from the iPhone) is assembled by other manufacturers, a task that still requires some hand labor and offers tiny margins of 5% or less.

Hon Hai, more commonly known as Foxconn, is one of the companies doing the low-paid module assembly work. Foxconn and Largan are both key Apple suppliers, but sit at opposite ends of the margin spectrum.

Two other things they share in common: both are Taiwanese companies with a large manufacturing presence in China. This underscores an important point about the relative level of technology development in Taiwan and the PRC. Taiwan companies remain light-years ahead in the majority of cases.

Looking just at the Apple ecosystem, while most components as well as finished products are manufactured in China, mainland Chinese companies barely earn a dime from all this. There is no more unbalanced balance-of-trade than the iPhone’s manufacturing and sales in China. Chinese bought around 70 million iPhones last year, with a retail value of over $70bn. But, only a fraction of that stays in China, mainly in the form of sales tax collected by the government from sales in official retail channels and the wages paid to assembly staff at hundreds of factories producing for Apple. The picture isn’t very different with Android phones. What profits there are end up in the hands of high-value non-PRC software and component suppliers, including Largan.

Despite the PRC’s generous subsidies to technology companies and a massive government push to foster indigenous innovation, China’s domestic technology manufacturers remain overwhelmingly stuck producing low-margin commoditized products without any globally significant high-margin IP. True, the PRC got a late start compared to Taiwan. But, there are some other often overlooked systemic factors at work here.

Start with the fact intellectual property remains weakly protected. Mainland Chinese companies have less incentive to do as Largan did and plow years of effort and investment into a new technology with an uncertain path to market.

Seeking risk capital is most often a hopeless quest. The Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges does not allow smaller companies with promising technology and zero profits to go public. China’s domestic venture capital industry most always shuns start-ups working on truly innovative high-tech products, preferring knock-offs of successful US online business models where revenues, if not profits, can be generated more quickly. Longer-term bank lending is all but non-existent.

Another factor that I believe inhibits innovation in China – the country relied on technology transfer, on forcing companies from the developed world to turn over to Chinese joint venture partners some proprietary technology in return for access to the Chinese market. Why innovate at home when foreign companies can be made to hand over trade secrets, albeit outdated ones, for free? This has stunted the growth of a strong foundation of homegrown innovation in China.

China took on low-margin work spurned by earlier generations of Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese manufacturers. But, Chinese companies have so far mainly failed to build something more substantial on top of this by adding their own proprietary improvements that can command higher prices. Margins, always threadbare, are instead vaporizing across the domestic manufacturing sector due to rising wages, benefits, environmental compliance and energy costs as well as taxes.

Then look at Largan. Its margins, despite weak overall mobile phone growth, are on track to actually increase this year above already stellar levels. As good as the camera on your mobile is, there is enormous scope for the hardware to get better, smaller, lighter, faster, flatter. It’s hard to envisage anyone else pushing the process more propulsively and successfully than Largan.

 

As published in Nikkei Asian Review

 

Government cyber-surveillance is the norm in China — and it’s popular: Washington Post

January 31st, 2016 No comments

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Government cyber-surveillance is the norm in China — and it’s popular

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SHENZHEN, China

When they met most recently, President Obama extracted from his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, a solemn pledge to rein in Chinese surveillance and hacking of U.S. government agencies, companies and individuals. The backsliding seems to have begun almost immediately , with new reports of attacks by Chinese hackers in the United States. This conflict is not only a matter of competing national interests. At its heart are radically opposed conceptions of personal privacy and the legality of government monitoring.

Within China, government monitoring of private communication is not only common, but it is also explicit, institutionalized and generally quite popular. How much so? Just about every time I get an international phone call on my Chinese mobile phone, I’m pinged within seconds by a text message. It’s an automated message from the anti-fraud department of the city of Shenzhen’s Public Security Bureau (PSB), China’s version of the FBI.

This message informs me in polite Chinese that the PSB knows I’m on the phone with someone calling from outside China, and so I should be especially vigilant, because the caller could be part of some scheme to steal my money or otherwise cheat me. The phone number for the anti-fraud hotline is included. International fraud is, as of now, the only criminal activity that China’s government uses the mobile network to warn me about.

I do like knowing the Chinese police are on the job, warning and protecting the innocent. But I find it a little unsettling that they know immediately when I get an international call and are eager to inform me that they are keeping tabs. There’s also the fact that I get these messages every time my 83-year-old father calls from Florida. Does the Chinese security apparatus know something about him that I don’t?

China Mobile is the world’s largest mobile phone company, with more than 800 million customers. To generate that automatic anti-fraud text message, international calls routed across the network in all likelihood pass through a server layer controlled and monitored by the PSB; calls from certain countries get flagged, and the text message is dispatched as the call is taking place. This isn’t cyberspying. This is a deep integration.

It’s not only the PSB. Upon landing on a trip to another country, I usually get an automatic Chinese-language text message from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs reminding me to behave politely and providing me with emergency contact numbers. It’s a neat bit of coding. China Mobile reports to the foreign ministry, and perhaps other departments as well, when a user’s phone begins seeking a roaming signal outside China. The system then generates the text welcoming the user to that country and populating the message with the number for the nearest Chinese embassy and consulate.

The U.S. National Security Agency has ways, if Edward Snowden’s revelations are to be believed, to detect when a U.S. mobile phone is being used anywhere in the world. But it goes to a lot of trouble to keep a user from knowing that. Not so the Chinese state.

I’ve asked Chinese friends about this, and none expressed the slightest quibble about their government knowing where they travel or when they receive international calls. The government is just trying to be helpful, they explain. There’s no real civil liberties debate about it, not even in the online channels where criticisms of Chinese policy are voiced.

In contrast, the United States has gone through a particularly bitter and protracted national debate over whether and how mobile phone companies, along with email providers, should share information and communications metadata with the NSA. It’s not certain how much U.S. companies actively assisted the NSA in its domestic surveillance. But it’s beyond doubt that none cooperates to the extent China Mobile evidently does with the PSB.

In the past several years, China has introduced some of the world’s toughest laws, regulations and guidelines on data privacy. These tightly circumscribe what data companies can collect and introduce strict penalties for privacy breaches. Xi cites the laws as evidence that China has zero tolerance for hacking.

The quizzical result is: E-commerce giant Alibaba must not share anything about my Taobao account and is legally and financially responsible if my account gets hacked. But state-owned China Mobile (along with its two state-owned rivals, China Unicom and China Telecom) will freely share my private data with government departments at the national, provincial and local levels.

According to China’s latest cybersecurity law, all companies operating in China, foreign and domestic, must share private data with the government to aid in official investigations. No specific mention is made of state-owned enterprises such as China Mobile. So, we don’t know if China Mobile is required, encouraged or expected to share data that isn’t part of any official investigation — such as who is getting international calls or traveling outside the country.

Some U.S. companies, including Apple, have introduced encryption techniques that make it harder for the NSA to access user data and conversations. No such effort is underway in China, nor, as far as I can tell, is anyone seriously suggesting it.

I’m no civil-liberties purist, so I don’t particularly mind getting these text messages from the Chinese government. But it does serve as a vivid reminder that while living in China I’m subject to a set of rules and an official mind-set that are the obverse of those in the United States. Online and mobile communication privacy as we Americans understand it simply does not exist here.

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/cyber-surveillance-is-a-way-of-life-in-china/2016/01/29/e4e856dc-c476-11e5-a4aa-f25866ba0dc6_story.html

China’s Xiaomi Under Pressure to Prove Value to Investors — Wall Street Journal

January 11th, 2016 No comments

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Xiaomi’s Redmi 2 smartphones on display during a launch in Brazil in June, 2015.
Xiaomi’s Redmi 2 smartphones on display during a launch in Brazil in June, 2015. Photo: Reuters

BEIJING—In January 2015, Xiaomi Corp. founder Lei Jun announced to his staff in an open letter that the Chinese smartphone maker was the world’s most valuable technology startup.

“We will journey into the constellations, to places where others haven’t dreamed of,” he wrote.

Living up to those high expectations has been a challenge. Xiaomi missed its 2015 sales target of 80 million smartphones, according to people familiar with the company, and investors are beginning to question its $46 billion valuation, which was based on yet unrealized plans to generate substantial revenue from Internet services.

China’s economic slowdown, coupled with turbulence in the stock market, is prompting investors to take a second look at China’s high startup valuations. Startups such as Xiaomi, which raised vast sums on China’s mobile Internet boom, are now facing growing pressure to live up to expectations.

“With China’s economy slowing, many startups will need to be more cautious in their expansion strategies,” said Nicole Peng, an analyst for market research firm Canalys.

Xiaomi shot to the top of China’s smartphone market in 2014 with the novel idea of selling hardware by gathering a large user base, a business model usually favored by Internet companies, not those selling a physical product. Sales that year tripled to 61 million smartphones, compared with a year earlier. Mr. Lei cultivated fan clubs and used “flash sales” to sell smartphones with iPhone-rivaling hardware at a fraction of the price. He swallowed thin margins, betting he could later sell services to users.

Investors swooned. In December 2014, Xiaomi raised a $1.1 billion round that valued it at $46 billion, topping even ride-sharing startup Uber Technologies Inc. at the time, although Uber has since regained the lead.

But Xiaomi’s smartphones, which once sold out in minutes in limited batches via online flash sales, are now easily available—a shift that analysts say signals slowing demand.

A slowdown in China’s smartphone market has laid bare Xiaomi’s weaknesses.

Xiaomi has lost market share against established competitors with more financial and technological firepower, such as Huawei Technologies Co., which launched a high-end smartphone line and overtook Xiaomi as China’s top handset maker in the third quarter 2015, according to research firm Canalys.

Huawei, which sold more than 100 million mobile devices last year, is beefing up its marketing in overseas markets in a bid to challenge Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. , the world’s two biggest smartphone makers. Huawei’s engineering strength and brand image built up over decades make it difficult for Xiaomi to compete in China, analysts say.

“The competition in China’s smartphone market has intensified tremendously this year,” said a Xiaomi spokeswoman, who declined to comment on the company’s valuation or say whether it met its 2015 sales target. She said Xiaomi sales were “within expectations” and its flash sales are primarily for new phones when production ramps up.

The lack of its own high-end chip technology also proved to be a competitive disadvantage for Xiaomi in 2015. When early versions of the Qualcomm Inc. ’s Snapdragon 810 processor were reported to overheat, it dampened sales of Xiaomi’s most expensive handset yet, the 2,299 yuan (US$349) Mi Note, analysts said. Xiaomi couldn’t fall back on an in-house developed chip to get around the problem, as Huawei and Samsung did.

Xiaomi and Qualcomm declined to comment on the processor. Analysts say the problems have since been fixed.

Overseas growth has also been slow for Xiaomi, with the percentage of its smartphones sold overseas in the first nine months of 2015 rising to 8%, compared with 7% in the 2014 calendar year, according to Canalys. It faced tough competition overseas, and found consumers unaccustomed to online phone-buying, said Ms. Peng, the analyst from Canalys.

Xiaomi’s thin patent portfolio also became a hurdle as it sought to expand in markets such as India. A lack of patents led to a court ruling that crimped its access to the crucial India market. In December 2014, India’s Delhi High Court ordered Xiaomi to stop selling all smartphones not running on Qualcomm chips due to a patent lawsuit filed by Sweden’s Ericsson. A year later, the injunction remains, which means Xiaomi can’t sell its popular models running chips made by Taiwanese chip maker MediaTek Inc.

Xiaomi said it sold 3 million smartphones in India from July 2014 through August 2015, and 1 million smartphones there in the third quarter. Its average quarter-over-quarter growth is 45%, it said.

The lack of a diversified customer base is another challenge for Xiaomi. It remains “locked in a Chinese demographic ghetto of mainly males 18 to 30,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China-focused boutique investment bank China First Capital. Xiaomi’s focus on low prices has hit its brand image, he said.

Xiaomi’s average smartphone price fell to $122 in the third quarter from $160 a year earlier, despite China’s smartphone sector moving upmarket, according to IDC. The average price of a smartphone in China rose to $240 from $202. Huawei’s rose to $209 from $201. Xiaomi’s best-selling model last year was its cheapest, the $76 Redmi 2A, IDC analyst James Yan said.

Xiaomi’s supporters say the outlook is still bright, as it shifts to building an ecosystem of smart home products. The company has invested in 56 startups so far, ranging from iconic scooter maker Segway to a manufacturer of air purifiers, essential in China’s smog-choked cities.

“Xiaomi’s promise lies in its ecosystem,” said Steven Hu, former partner in Xiaomi investor Qiming Venture Partners.

But others are skeptical.

“Mobile services, e-commerce, branded consumer products—these still are largely just a figment rather than a huge and growing source of profits that could validate last year’s sky-high valuation,” said Mr. Fuhrman.

 

http://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-xiaomi-under-pressure-to-prove-value-to-investors-1452454204

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At the hub of China’s “One Belt, One Road” – a visit to Manzhouli, the frozen city where China, Russia and Mongolian converge

December 27th, 2015 No comments

Manzhouli

Where did you spend Christmas? Mine was spent in temperatures reaching 38-below zero on the frozen lakes and grasslands of Northeastern China. I was there to give a speech on Christmas Day at a conference in Manzhouli on Russian, Chinese and Mongolian economic integration.

Manzhouli is a Chinese city but with a unique pedigree and location. First settled around 1900 by the Russians building the Trans-Manchurian spur of the Trans-Siberian Railway, it was then conquered by the Japanese before China took control after World War Two. It sits at the single point on the map where the borders of China, Russia and Mongolia all converge. Manzhouli’s train and road border crossing between Russia and China is the busiest inland port in China, with most of China’s $50 billion in annual exports to Russia passing through here.

China, Russia and Mongolia are now partners in China’s ambitious new strategic trade initiative known as “One Belt, One Road“, or OBOR, as well as the Chinese-sponsored Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. The conference was meant to encourage closer trade ties among the three. OBOR is designed in part to redirect China’s investment focus away from more developed countries, especially those participating in the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership.

China’s exclusion from TPP is perhaps the biggest single economic policy setback for China in the last decade. The TPP countries include most of China’s key trading partners. If enacted, TPP will cause trade and investment flows to shift away from China especially towards Vietnam, Malaysia and Philippines. The three are all parties to the TPP agreement, and so will benefit from preferential tariffs. All have aspirations to take market share away from China as a global manufacturing center. TPP will grant them a significant long-term cost and market-access advantages.

OBOR is a consolation prize of China’s own construction. The countries inside the OBOR plan look more like a cast of economic misfits, not dynamic free traders like the TPP nations and China itself. I don’t believe anyone in Beijing policy-making circles believes that increased trading with OBOR nations Pakistan, Myanmar and the Central Asian -stans is a credible substitute. China’s best option is to find a way to persuade TPP countries to allow it to enter the group. There’s not even a remote sign of this happening. China was excluded from TPP by design.

China does not live in a particularly desirable or affluent neighborhood. It shares land borders with fourteen countries. Of these, Russia is by far and away the richest of these countries. Mongolia, with its three million inhabitants most of whom still live in yurts as nomadic herdsmen, ranks third. This gives some sense of how poor many of the places that are now the focus of China’s OBOR are.

Another key component of OBOR, but one often overlooked, is to open up new markets to the most troubled part of China’s industrial economy, the manufacturers of basic products like steel, aluminum, basic machinery and chemicals, turbines, cars, trucks, trains. They all are suffering from acute overcapacity with vanishing profit margins up and down the supply chain.

The Chinese leadership recently announced that dealing with overcapacity in China will be one of its major economic policy priorities for 2016. The problems are most severe among state-owned industrial conglomerates. The Chinese government is their controlling shareholder. Two obvious solutions — shrinking capacity and cutting employment — are, for the time being at least, politically off limits. OBOR is meant to be a lifeline.

China itself cannot absorb this excess domestic capacity. Demand for basic industrial products is already evaporating, never to return, China is already well along in the transition to a service economy. China will pay or lend tens of billions of dollars to poorer OBOR countries to finance their imports of Chinese capital goods. The trade won’t likely be very profitable but it will keep jobs and revenues from deteriorating even more sharply.

You may download the seven-page English-language talking points, map and charts from my speech by clicking here.

At night, there was a banquet for political leaders from the three countries. Afterward, a beauty contest was staged, featuring Chinese, Russian and Mongolian contestants in bikinis and evening gowns. You can see photos here, including ones of me with the Chinese winner and the nine Mongolian contestants. An ice fishing expedition was also organized.

If OBOR does achieve its goal by drawing Russia and Mongolia into a closer economic relationship with China, Manzhouli stands to benefit more than anywhere else in China. As if in readiness, Manzhouli storefronts are in Chinese and Cyrillic, the new airport terminal is in the Russian style, and the main park in the city lorded over by a 10-story Matryoshka doll.

For now, though, no one is seeing much sign of OBOR stimulating greater trade. The main focus for investment in Manzhouli is in tourism facilities to attract Chinese summer vacationers to the surrounding grasslands, China’s finest. This time of year, the cement tourist yurts are empty and the long-haired riding ponies are left to graze and amble in the arctic wind and snow.

 

 

 

 

Fosun boss ‘assisting investigation’ — South China Morning Post

December 14th, 2015 No comments

SCMP

 

Fosun arrest

 

Fosun Group chairman Guo Guangchang, who went missing on Thursday, has been “assisting an investigation” since Thursday afternoon but is now in contact with his staff, Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical said in a stock exchange filing last night.

The tycoon, whose disappearance triggered speculation that he may have become the latest victim of President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption, can participate in his company’s decision making “in proper ways”, Shanghai Fosun said.

Shares of Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical will resume trading on Monday. It was suspended yesterday along with six other Fosun companies, including two listed in Hong Kong.

Two Fosun officials told the South China Morning Post that Guo was allowed to make phone calls but his movements have been restricted.

The Guo incident comes amid a nationwide probe into alleged market wrongdoings in the wake of the summer’s stock market rout that has already netted senior government officials and top executives at state-owned banks and brokerages.

“Chinese entrepreneurs are struggling with the most complicated legal environment in the world, given the government’s heavy meddling in the economy and business. It is just too easy to take away their wealth by abusing the judiciary,” said Hangzhou-based lawyer Chen Youxi.

The pillars of China’s powerful private sector are shaking, said Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive of investment advisory firm China First Capital, “possibly for the first time ever”.

Fosun, more than any other of the 60-million-plus private companies in the mainland, embodies and exemplifies the rise of the private sector from illegality and irrelevance 20 years ago to its current position as the main source of growth, employment and taxes in China, Fuhrman said.

“The incident brings home, as no previous event has, the fact that China’s anti-corruption campaign means to usher in a new way of doing business for all of China Inc, not only the state-owned rump.”

Industry sources said the investigation into Guo started as early as the summer. A source with knowledge of the matter said Guo was detained in July by graft busters to assist in probes into high-level party officials, including some from Shanghai.

In August, Wang Zongnan, a former head of state-owned Bright Food Group, was sentenced to 18 years in jail for embezzlement and bribery. A court verdict said Fosun had sold property below market rates to Wang.

A businessman, who cannot be identified, told the Post that Guo could have been questioned over his relationships with either Yao Gang, a vice-chairman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, or Ai Baojun, a vice-mayor of Shanghai.

Meanwhile, several mainland media sources reported orders from their headquarters to delete articles related to Guo. Fosun holds substantial stakes in many mainland media, including the influential 21st Century Media.

Dollar bonds of Fosun International fell by a record yesterday while stocks related to Guo’s companies trading in the US and Europe took a beating as well.

 

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China SOEs, the meaning of their existence — Week In China Magazine

December 4th, 2015 No comments

 

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His was a deceptively simple question. “What exactly is the purpose of a Chinese SOE?”

I had just finished speaking to the Asian management committee of one of the larger and more successful Fortune 500 companies operating in China. They have for years done profitable business with large SOEs in China. That business has begun to evaporate. Having just heard me summarize the deteriorating situation at many SOEs, and the decision last month by the Chinese government to quietly shelve plans for a root-and-branch restructuring, one senior executive wanted to know what Chinese SOEs are now in business to do. Make money? Provide and protect jobs? Project national power?

I reminded him Chairman Mao was a keen student and devoted follower of Lenin. He fully embraced the Leninist concept of the state and party controlling the “commanding heights” of the economy. China’s SOEs are still very much in that business: owning most, sometimes all, of China’s large-scale assets in petroleum, gas, electricity generation and distribution, coal, banking and finance, transport, steel, aluminum and a wide range industrial chemicals.

The executive then reminded me that Mao had been gone a long time and anyway hadn’t Deng Xiaoping begun 35 years ago dismantling state power to create the conditions where today’s vibrant Chinese private sector could emerge. The private sector is the source of all net new job creation in China and contribute far more to GDP than the SOE segment. The country’s best companies are private sector firms, not SOEs. What, he insisted, were SOEs in business to do?

It was obvious he wasn’t going to accept an answer based on Leninist political economic theory. “Why don’t they just privatize the state-owned sector?”, he pushed back. That, I told him, was out of the question, at least for now. “Why?” he wanted to know.

Looking for an opening to collect my thoughts, I steered him toward the coffee machine.

Above all” I started in again, “an SOE is an instrument to achieve Chinese government and party policy goals. This is as true today as it was at their origin. Sometimes those policies, at least originally, were quite high-minded, even socialistic, like providing sufficient energy at an affordable price to everyone in the country.

Energy is today plentiful in China, but cheap it’s not. Subsidies have been eliminated and prices hiked to levels generally well above those in the US. The money paid to the petroleum and power monopolies are a transfer of private wealth to state-owned coffers, in other words, a mechanism for hidden tax collection.

 

Download complete article here.

http://www.weekinchina.com/2015/12/fit-for-purpose-2/

 

Xiaomi’s $45 Billion Valuation Seen `Unfeasible’ as Growth Cools — Bloomberg

November 26th, 2015 No comments

Bloomberg

Xiaomi’s $45 Billion Valuation Seen `Unfeasible’ as Growth Cools

By Tim Culpan

November 25, 2015 — 7:00 PM HKT

Things were going so well for Xiaomi Corp. Customers were lining up, investors were swooning and the Beijing-based startup closed funding at a $45 billion valuation. That was last year.

Now the high-flying smartphone maker is stumbling. Founder Lei Jun’s latest business, one of China’s most exciting startup stories of the past few years, is likely to miss its own goal of selling 80 million smartphones this year, according to two people with knowledge of its production plans. Suppliers also cut their internal targets for Xiaomi in anticipation of the shortfall, they said.
Xiaomi’s falter shows the startup’s challenge in trying to maintain momentum after a meteoric ascent past Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. in China. Investors bought into the company’s story of youthful disruption and online sales, yet the subsequent lowering of China’s growth target and the copying of its sales strategy by rivals have neutralized Xiaomi’s first-mover advantage, putting its high price tag in doubt.

“All those expectations of growth aren’t being realized, which now makes that $45 billion valuation unfeasible,” said Alberto Moel, an analyst at Sanford C Bernstein in Hong Kong. “The argument was that their business is kind of like Apple and they’re growing very fast, but they’re no longer growing so fast and they’re not as good as Apple.”
Shipments Drop

Xiaomi doesn’t provide exact shipment targets to its suppliers, instead working on a real-time basis with orders fulfilled as they come in on Xiaomi’s website. Yet the companies tasked with preparing the components and capacity to meet Xiaomi’s needs have started scaling back production and diverting resources elsewhere, said the people, who have knowledge of the supply chain and asked not to be identified because the details are private.

Domestic shipments of Xiaomi smartphones, including its premium Mi 4 and more economical Redmi series, dropped 8 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier, its first-ever decline, according to researcher Canalys. IHS, another research firm, estimates that Xiaomi shipments dropped 3.9 percent, barely maintaining the lead over Huawei Technologies Co.

That’s a big change from the bold growth projections used to justify Xiaomi’s tag as one of the world’s most-valuable technology startups. In March of last year, Lei predicted selling 100 million smartphones in 2015. Through the first nine months of this year, Xiaomi shipped about 53 million smartphones.

With its optimistic forecast, Xiaomi secured $1.1 billion in December from investors including GIC Pte., All-Stars Investment Ltd. and DST. Xiaomi drew comparisons to Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the Chinese e-commerce company that months earlier held the largest initial public offering ever.

‘Hype, Hope’

At 3.75 times last year’s $12 billion in revenue, Xiaomi’s fundraising gave it a price-to-sales ratio exceeding that of Apple, which currently trades at 2.9.

That pricing of Xiaomi does not seem to have been based on any known or accepted valuation methodology, said Peter Fuhrman, chairman and CEO of China First Capital. “Hype and hope seem to have been the two key drivers,” he said.

In March, after that round of funding and after China set its lowest growth target in 15 years, Lei trimmed his earlier prediction to “80 million to 100 million” units for the year.

Its first year-on-year decline came during a quarter when Xiaomi released its Redmi Note 2, a lower-priced handset that sold for an average of 801 yuan ($125) each. On Tuesday it unveiled a metallic version of that phone with a fingerprint sensor, as well as a new tablet computer and air purifier.

‘Substantial’ Market

Growth might be reignited in the fourth quarter by China’s Nov. 11 Singles’ Day shopping promotions and the latest version of the Redmi Note. The company, which traditionally unveils an update to its marquee Mi smartphones during the third quarter, hasn’t yet announced a Mi 5 after last year’s Mi 4.

“I am not concerned about the valuation because, over time, their market is substantial,” said Hans Tung, managing partner at Xiaomi investor GGV Capital in Menlo Park, Calif. “Over the next 12 months, it’ll become increasingly obvious what Xiaomi is doing in the smart home and services space.”

Hugo Barra, a Xiaomi vice president, declined to comment on shipment targets or valuations and referred questions to Chief Financial Officer Shou Zi Chew, who didn’t reply to an e-mail seeking comment.

Xiaomi eschews the label of smartphone maker, claiming instead to be an “Internet company” furnishing a range of devices and online services. Xiaomi and its affiliates sell TVs, air filters, battery packs, action cameras, fitness trackers and even a self-balancing scooter. Its non-hardware offerings include games, payments, mobile-phone services and cloud storage.

No Loyalty

It’s those other products, such as the Mi Air Purifier 2 released this week, which Tung sees helping Xiaomi expand its sales and keeping consumers coming back to an ecosystem that connects home devices to the Internet and through mobile apps.

The ancillary businesses are still relatively small, with the company expecting the services units to account for just $1 billion of its $16 billion in projected revenue this year, Barra said in a July interview. Sales of smartphones outside China accounted for just 7 percent of its total in the third quarter, according to Strategy Analytics.

Xiaomi has struggled partly because competitors Huawei, Lenovo Group Ltd. and Gionee — among others — quickly copied its business model with ultra-thin devices, glossy websites and lower prices, allowing consumers to easily switch to the hippest new phone.

“Xiaomi was very popular because it was the first brand that marketed its phones as being limited edition,” said Chen Si, a 25-year-old real estate worker in Beijing who bought the Mi 3 after its 2013 release, citing its cool design. “I wouldn’t say I am loyal to Xiaomi, I just think that a phone should be affordable and easy to use. If not, then I’ll just change.”

A year later, she switched to the iPhone 6.

Click here to download.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-11-25/xiaomi-s-45-billion-valuation-seen-unfeasible-as-growth-cools

 

Shale Gas, China’s Very Buried Treasure — Nikkei Asian Review

November 19th, 2015 1 comment

Nikkei2

 

Water, water not a drop to drink. While that may not precisely sum up China’s dilemma, it is clear that the country with the world’s largest shale gas reserves, and urgent need to extract it,  will have problems achieving its ambitious long-term goals. The newly-finalized Five Year Plan calls for an enormous increases in natural gas output in China. The carbon emission reduction agreement signed by President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping also requires China to diversify away from coal. Shale gas is the obvious replacement.

As of now, virtually all that gas remains trapped in the ground. The two companies given the plum rights to develop the gas, China’s oil giants Sinopec and PetroChina, may not have the technical competence to fully develop the resource. The companies that have the skills, mainly a group of small entrepreneurial US drillers, has so far shown zero inclination to either come to China or come to the aid of the two SOE giants by providing equipment and know-how.

To attract them to China will likely require a significant shift in the way China’s energy resources are owned and allocated. It will mean creating terms in China every bit as favorable, if not more so, than skilled shale gas drilling companies enjoy in the US and elsewhere.

 

shaleMap

This is why for China’s senior leaders and economic planners, this map is as much a curse as blessing. Knowing that vast quantities of much-needed clean energy is in the ground but not having the domestic infrastructure and technology to get it to market efficiently is about as tough and frustrating as any economic problem China now confronts.

The Chinese policy goal and the on-and-in-the-ground situation in China are on opposite sides of the spectrum. China has said it must quickly increase the share of natural gas as part of total energy consumption to around 8% by the end of 2015 and 10% by 2020 to alleviate high pollution resulting from the country’s heavy coal use.  The original target announced with great fanfare was for shale gas production to increase almost 200-fold between 2012 and the end of the decade. But, this goal was quietly slashed by 30% last year. More slashes may be on the way.

What’s most needed and in shortest supply in China: more commercial competition, more players, more market signals.

Based on the US experience, drilling for shale gas isn’t the kind of thing that big oil companies are good at. Unfortunately for China, all it has are giants. Rather inefficient ones at that. Sinopec, PetroChina are, based on metrics like output-per-employee, perhaps only one-tenth as efficient as the majors like Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon and BP. Note, these big Western companies all pretty much missed the boat with shale gas. In other words, the bigger the oil company the worse it’s been so far at exploiting shale gas. Yes, it’s these big global giants who now seem the most interested to work with Sinopec and PetroChina to develop shale gas China. In fact, Shell is already partnered up with Sinopec. How’s this likely to work out? Think of a pack of elephants ice fishing.

China’s dilemma comes down to this: it’s probably the most entrepreneurially-endowed country on the planet, but entrepreneurs are basically not allowed in the oil and gas extraction businesses. It’s a legacy of old-style Leninism, that the state must hold control over the pillars of the economy. It works okay when the problem is pumping petroleum or natural gas from giant onshore or offshore fields. But, shale gas is another world, with many and smaller wells. A typical one in the Barnett Shale gas region of Texas costs $2mn – $5mn, barely a rounding error for large oil and gas companies. These smaller wells, depending on prevailing price and drilling direction, can achieve a return within one year or less.

Profits are usually much higher for shale wells with horizontal drilling capability. But, it’s also much trickier to do. Production drops off dramatically in most shale gas wells, falling by about 90% during the first two years. So, you need to know how to make money efficiently, quickly, then move on to another opportunity.

The one place where Sinopec is now producing a decent amount of shale gas, at field in Sichuan province, the cost of getting the gas out of the ground is running at least twice the US level. Partly its geography and partly it’s the fact giant state-owned companies operating in a competition-free environment usually need three dollars to do what an entrepreneurial company can do for one.

Ancient Chinese oil well

China was the first country to drill successfully for oil, over 1500 years ago.   It could use more of that native ingenuity to unlock the country’s buried wealth. The shale gas industry is largely the product of one brilliant and stubborn Greek-American entrepreneur, George Mitchell, who began experimenting with horizontal drilling in Texas about 30 years ago. He had his big breakthrough in 1998. Everyone knew the gas was down there, as they do now in China. The trick Mitchell solved was getting it out of the ground at a low-cost. The company he started Mitchell Energy & Development, now part of Devon Energy, remains at the forefront of shale gas exploration and production.

China needs Mitchell Energy as well its own George Mitchells, who can use their pluck and tolerance for risk to make the gas pay. Not only shale gas, but China is also blessed with equally abundant deposits of coalbed methane. Pretty much all this methane is in the hands of big state-owned coal companies. Talk about a wasting asset. The coal miners have zero expertise, and for now it seems zero incentive to go after this fuel in a big way. Just about everything about the oil and gas business in China is state-owned and price-controlled.

The applause was nearly deafening, especially in the US and Europe, when the leaders of the US and China announced the big agreement to reduce carbon emissions. No one can argue with the sentiments, with the policy goal of creating a cleaner world. But, absent from the discussion are specifics on how China will meet its promises. It’s only going to happen if and when natural gas becomes a major part of the energy mix.

China has of course built pipelines to bring gas from Russia and more are on the way. But, even this huge flow of Russian gas, an expected 98 billion cubic meters per year by 2020,  will provide at most 17% of China’s projected gas needs by that year. Clearly then, the most meaningful thing that could happen is for the shale fields in China to be thrown open to all-comers, but especially the mainly-US companies that are experts at doing this. That isn’t happening.

I’ve been in the room with Chinese government officials when the topic was discussed about how to make it enticing for US specialist shale companies to drill in China. There’s a growing understanding this is the right way to go, but still the policy environment remains inhospitable. While China has the most shale gas, there is a lot of it in countries including stalwart US allies like Poland and Australia where the US companies are far more welcome and don’t have to deal with a market rigged in favor of state-owned goliaths. Everyone who wants to see a cleaner China and so a cleaner world should wish above all else that China’s shale and methane fields become a stomping ground rather than a no-go area for great entrepreneurs.

An edited version was published in the Nikkei Asia Review. 

Click here to download article. 

 

 

 

 

Shining lights brighten future of SOEs — China Daily Commentary

October 23rd, 2015 No comments

 

China Daily

Shining lights brighten future of SOEs

By PETER FUHRMAN (China Daily) Updated: 2015-10-23 07:29

Shining lights brighten future of SOEs
While the need for SOE reform is great and too many SOEs still fight to maintain the troubled status quo, there are also some Chinese SOEs leading by example.

As China’s leadership prepares its 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20), it confronts multiple economic challenges, reform of State-owned enterprises being one of them.

Shining lights brighten future of SOEs

SOEs account for at least 30 percent of China’s total GDP. Some estimates put the share as high as 45 percent. But there are two worrying signs of the worsening situation for China’s SOEs: Their profits are dropping and indebtedness is rising sharply. According to the Ministry of Finance on Wednesday, the profits of the SOEs from January to August decreased by 8.2 percent year-on-year, while the total debt of SOEs from January to September has surpassed 77 trillion yuan, a 20 percent year-on-year increase.

Last month, the government introduced its guidelines for the next stage of SOE reform, including more outside capital. The guidelines are in the right direction, but, there is also some enormous potential within the SOE sector in China that, if unleashed, would also help contribute to the overall turnaround.

There are centers of research excellence, especially in applied engineering, on par with the best in the US and Europe. One example is the China Iron and Steel Research Institute Group in Beijing. It employs 2,000 staff with doctorates along with other experienced research scientists. Every visit, I leave impressed not only by the commitment of the large staff, but also the level of the research institute’s globally-important innovation.

If there is an area that needs improving-one not uncommon for SOE research institutes-it is in how to commercialize their many technologies and how to initiate and structure profitable licensing deals, both with other SOEs in China and global steel and new materials companies. The Institute, based in Beijing’s Haidian district, is making great strides, but, a greater focus as well as a stronger push from the government to get technologies out of the lab and into factories would be helpful.

SOEs too often focus excessively on increasing gross output rather than on pleasing customers and accumulating profits. One positive mold-breaker here is Yangzhou’s AVIC Baosheng Group, which makes steel and copper cable. Though operating in a brutally-competitive market with lots of competitors, Baosheng holds its own. Also in Yangzhou are two examples of how SOEs can take a valuable traditional brand name and rejuvenate it. Restaurant chain Yechun Teahouse and cosmetic manufacturer Xiefuchun have both been around since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and became SOEs in the 1950s.

Yechun is now opening beautiful restaurants both inside and outside China that maintain consistently high quality. Xiefuchun is more of a jewel-in-the-making, with great all-natural products in tune with buying trends in China and abroad. However, Xiefuchun is not as good as it could be on branding, packaging and retail, areas where SOEs often tend to do poorly. Xiefuchun, against all commercial logic, is now stuck inside a large SOE chemicals holding company.

Meanwhile, China Huadian Corporation stands out for its success doing something few SOEs have mastered-investing to build from the ground up and then running profitable large-scale projects outside China. All SOEs know about the central government’s “Go Global” policy. Huadian is getting it right and so has much to teach other globally-ambitious SOEs.

Then there’s my choice for most exceptional high-tech SOE in China, Sichuan Aerospace Tuoxin Basalt Industrial. Though little known, it could be a model for how SOEs might develop in the future. Based in Chengdu, 90 percent of the company is owned by the giant centrally-managed SOE, China Aerospace Group. Tuoxin internally developed a revolutionary process for using ordinary quarried stone to produce a lightweight waterproof, heat-resistant material with broad applications in everything from auto parts to wind-energy. It is on track to become a billion-dollar company within the next five years. Tuoxin suggests what more SOEs could be capable of.

But to get to where it is, Tuoxin needed an owner with long-term vision and patient capital, as well as a senior management team that wants to break out of the cocoon of supplying mainly other SOEs by partnering extensively with China’s private sector companies.

While the need for SOE reform is great and too many SOEs still fight to maintain the troubled status quo, there are also some Chinese SOEs leading by example. They are blazing a path toward a more productive and profitable SOE sector all Chinese can take pride in.

The author is chairman and chief executive officer of China First Capital

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2015-10/23/content_22260934.htm

An insider’s view of Chinese M&A — Intralinks Deal Flow Predictor

October 22nd, 2015 No comments

intra

Intralinks Dealflow Predictor

 

Intralinks: The meltdown of China’s equity markets that began in the summer, despite measures by officials in Beijing aimed at calming investors’ nerves, has left many global investors jittery. Is this just a correction of an overheated market or the start of something more serious, and how would you describe the mood in China at the moment?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Never once have I heard of a stock market correction that was greeted with glee by the mass of investors, brokers, regulators or government officials. So too most recently in China. The dive in Chinese domestic share prices, while both overdue and in line with the sour fundamentals of most domestically quoted companies, has caused much unhappiness at home and anxiety abroad. The dour outlook persists, as more evidence surfaces that China’s real economy is indeed in some trouble. I first came to China 34 years ago, and have lived full-time here for the last six years. This is unquestionably the worst economic and financial environment I’ve encountered in China. Unlike in 2008, the Chinese government can’t and won’t light a fiscal bonfire to keep the economy percolating. The enormous state-owned sector is overall on life support, barely eking out enough cash flow to pay interest on its massive debts. Salvation this time around, if it’s to be found, will come from the country’s effervescent private sector. It’s already the source of most job creation and non-pump-primed growth in China. The energy, resourcefulness, pluck and risk-tolerance of China’s entrepreneurs knows no equal anywhere in the world. The private sector has been fully legal in China for less than two decades. It is only beginning to work its economic magic.

 

Intralinks: Much has been made of slowing economic growth in China. What are you seeing on the ground and how reliable do you view the Chinese official growth statistics?

 

Peter Fuhrman: If there’s a less productive pastime than quibbling with China’s official statistics, I don’t know of it. Look, it’s beyond peradventure, beyond guesstimation that China’s economic transformation is without parallel in human history. The transformation of this country over the 34 years since I first set foot here as a graduate student is so rapid, so total, so overwhelmingly positive that it defies numerical capture. That said, we’re at a unique juncture in China. There are more signs of economic worry down at the grassroots consumer level than I can recall ever seeing. China is in an unfamiliar state where nothing whatsoever is booming. Real estate prices? Flat or dropping. Manufacturing? Skidding. Exports? Crawling along. Stock market prices? Hammered down and staying down. The Renminbi? No longer a one-way bet.

 

Intralinks: What impact do you see a slowing Chinese economy having on other economies in the APAC region and elsewhere?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Of course there will be an impact, both regionally and globally. There’s only one certain cure for any country feeling ill effects from slowing exports to China: allow the Chinese to travel visa-free to your country. The one trade flow that is now robust and without doubt will become even more so is the Chinese flocking abroad to travel and spend. Only partly in jest do I suggest that the U.S. trade deficit with China, now running at a record high of about $1.5 billion a day, could be eliminated simply by letting the Chinese travel to the U.S. with the same ease as Taiwanese and Hong Kong residents. Manhattan store shelves would be swept clean.

 

Intralinks: With prolonged record low interest rates and low inflation in most of the advanced economies, many multinational companies have looked to China as a source of growth, including through M&A. Which sectors in China have tended to attract the majority of foreign interest? Do you see that continuing or will the focus and opportunities shift elsewhere? Is China a friendly environment for inbound M&A?

 

Peter Fuhrman: The challenges, risks and headaches remain, of course, but M&A fruit has never been riper in China. This is especially so for U.S. and European companies looking to seize a larger slice of China’s domestic consumer market. The M&A strategy that does work in China is to acquire a thriving Chinese private sector business with revenues in China of at least $25m a year, with its own-brand products, distribution, and a degree of market acceptance. The goal for a foreign acquirer is to use M&A to build out most efficiently a sales, brand and product strategy that is optimized for China, in both today’s market conditions, as well as those likely to pertain in the medium- to long-term.

The botched deals tend to get all the headlines, but almost surreptitiously, some larger Fortune 500 companies have made some stellar acquisitions in China. Among them are Nestle, General Mills, ITW, FedEx and Valspar. They bought solid, successful, entrepreneur-founded and run companies. Those acquired companies are now larger, often by orders of magnitude. The acquirer has also dramatically expanded sales of its own global products in China by utilizing the localized distribution channels it acquired. In Nestle’s case, China is now its second-largest market in revenue-terms after the U.S. Four years ago, it ranked number seven.

Chinese government policy towards M&A is broadly positive to neutral. More consequential but perhaps less well-understood are the negative IPO environment for domestic private sector companies, as well as the enormous overhang of un-exited PE invested deals in China. These have transferred pricing leverage from sellers to buyers in China. Increasingly, the most sought-after exit route for domestic Chinese entrepreneurs is through a trade sale to a large global corporation.

 

Intralinks: After years of being seen mainly as “an interested party”, rather than an actual dealmaker, Chinese players are increasingly frequently the successful bidder in international M&A transactions. What has changed in their approach to dealmaking to ensure such success?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Yes, Chinese buyers are increasingly more willing and able to close international M&A deals. But, the commonly-heard refrain that Chinese buyers will devour everything laid in front of them stands miles apart from reality. It seems like every asset for sale in every locale is seeking a Chinese buyer. The limiting factor isn’t money. Chinese acquirers’ cost of capital is lower than anywhere else, often fractionally above zero. The issue instead is too few Chinese companies have the managerial depth and experience to close global M&A deals. There are some world-class exceptions and world-class Chinese buyers. In the last year, for example, a Chinese PE fund called Hua Capital has led two milestone transactions, the proposed acquisition for a total consideration north of $2.5bn, of two U.S.-quoted semiconductor companies, Omnivision and ISSI. Hua Capital has powerful backers in China’s government, as well as outstanding senior executives. These guys are the real deal.

 

Intralinks: When it comes to doing deals, what are the differences between private/public companies and SOEs?

 

Peter Fuhrman: With rare exceptions, the SOE sector is now paralyzed. No M&A deals can be closed. Every week brings new reports of the arrest of senior SOE management for corruption. In some cases, the charges relate directly to M&A malfeasance, bribes, kickbacks and the like. SOE M&A teams will still go on international tire-kicking junkets, but getting any kind of transaction approved by the higher tiers within the SOE itself and by the government control apparatus is all but impossible for now. That leaves China’s private sector companies, especially quoted ones, as the most likely club of buyers. We work with the chairmen of quite a few of these private companies. The appetite is there, the dexterity often less so.

 

Intralinks: China has long been a fertile dealmaking environment for PE funds – both home-grown and international. In what ways does the Chinese PE model differ from what we see in other markets?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Perhaps too fertile. For all the thousands of deals done, Chinese PE’s great Achilles heel is an anemic rate of return to their limited partner investors, especially when measured by actual cash distributions. Over the last three, five, seven years, Chinese PE as a whole has underperformed U.S. PE by a gaping margin. It’s a fundamental truth too often overlooked. High GDP growth rates do not correlate, and never have, with high investment returns, especially from alternative investment classes like PE. If there is one striking disparity between PE as practiced in China as compared to the U.S. and Europe, it’s the fact that that Chinese general partners, whether they’re from the world’s largest global PE firms or pan-Asian or China-focused funds, too often think and act more like asset managers than investors. The 2 takes precedence over the 20.

Intralinks: What opportunities and challenges are private equity investors facing?

 

Peter Fuhrman: The levels of PE and venture capital (VC) investing activity in China have dropped sharply. What money is being invested is mainly chasing after a bunch of loss-making online shopping and mobile services apps. The hope here is one will emerge as China’s next Alibaba or Tencent, the two giants astride China’s private sector. PE investment in China’s “real economy,” that is manufacturing businesses that create most of the jobs and wealth in China, has all but dried up. Though out of favor, this is where the best deals are likely to be found now. Contrarianism is an investing worldview not often encountered at China-focused PE and VC firms.

 

Intralinks: As in many other markets, PE investors are having to deal with a backlog of portfolio companies ready to be exited. Do you feel that PE’s focus on minority investments in China could prove a challenge when it comes to exiting those investments? What do you see as the primary exit route?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Exits remain both few in number and overwhelmingly concentrated on a single pathway, that of IPO. M&A exits, the main source of profit for U.S. and European PE firms, remain exceedingly rare in China. In part, it’s because PE firms usually hold a minority stake in their Chinese investments. In part, though, the desire for an IPO exit is baked into the PE investment process in China. Price/Earnings (P/E) multiple arbitrage, trying to capture alpha through the observed delta in valuation multiples between private and public markets, remains a much-beloved tactic.

 

Intralinks: Finally, what is your overall outlook on China and advice for foreign companies and investors seeking opportunities to engage in M&A or invest there?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Yes, China’s economy is slowing. But the salient discussion point within boardrooms should be that even at 5% growth, China’s economy this year is getting richer faster in dollar terms than it did in 2007 when GDP growth was 14%. That’s because the economy is now so much larger. This added increment of wealth and purchasing power in China in 2015 is larger than the entire economies of Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Much of the annual gain in China, likely to remain impressively large for many long years to come, filters down into increased middle class spending power. This is why China must matter to global businesses with a product or service to sell. M&A in China has a cadence and quirks all its own. But, the business case can often be compelling. The terrain can be mastered.

 

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One of China’s Best State Enterprises Shows Need for Reform — Financial Times

October 6th, 2015 No comments

FT logo

 

Financial Times article Peter Fuhrman

China’s ruling State Council last month released a much-anticipated plan meant to kick the country’s huge state-owned enterprise (SOE) sector into shape. No small amount of kicking is required. Not all but many of China’s 155,000 SOEs are inefficient and often loss-making. Where SOEs do make money, it’s usually because of markets and lending rules rigged by the government in their favor.

Finding a truly good SOE, one that can take on and outcompete private sector rivals in a fair fight is hard. Gong He Chun is one. Customers throng daily to buy its high-quality products, often forming long queues. The employees, unlike at so many SOEs in China, are helpful and enthusiastic and take evident pride in what they are doing. Though local private sector competitors number in their hundreds, Gong He Chun has them all beat.

Gong He Chun is a small restaurant chain, with just four shops in the ancient and Grand Canal city of Yangzhou, about 300km up the Yangtze river from Shanghai. It specializes in preparing and serving meticulously-prepared versions of dishes that have for over 1,000 years made Yangzhou synonymous with fine eating in China.

It’s a rather long and mouth-watering list, including crab and pork-stuffed xiaolongbao dumplings (below centre), potstickers (below right), steamed shrimp dumplings, shredded tofu and of course Yangzhou’s most famous culinary export, Yangzhou fried rice.

Gong Hechun

Gong He Chun was founded in 1933 as a private concern, but was then, like almost all other private businesses, expropriated in 1949. It’s been an SOE ever since, its shares owned by the Yangzhou government branch of SASAC, the government agency now responsible for holding shares and guiding the management of all SOEs. Gong He Chun somehow held on through the long dark years during Mao Zedong’s rule when most restaurants in China were shuttered, and investment in the SOE sector was directed toward Stalinist heavy industry – steel mills, coal mines, power plants, railroad rolling stock and the like.

Yangzhou, Yangzhou cuisine and places like Gong He Chun represented just about everything that Chairman Mao Zedong most detested. Since at least the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the town has had a reputation for its mercantile traditions, beautiful women and traditional culture. To eradicate such bourgeois roots, Mao and his planners crammed the city in the 1950s and 1960s with ugly sooty chemical factories and smelters.

I remember first visiting Yangzhou in 1981 and being shocked by the sight of once-splendid Ming Dynasty temples and courtyard homes converted to makeshift factories and communal dwellings. In those days, finding anything to eat, even at the few hotels where foreigners were allowed to stay, was no simple matter. All food, including dumplings, was available only with ration coupons.

Things have improved over the last twenty-five years. One not-unimportant reason for this is that Jiang Zemin, who ran China from 1989-2002 is a native son of Yangzhou while his successor, Hu Jintao, was raised in the next door town of Taizhou. Jiang still visits Yangzhou at least once a year, usually during Qingming Festival when filial Chinese return to their home to sweep the graves of their ancestors. Yangzhou this year is celebrating with pomp the 2,500th anniversary of its founding.

Gong He Chun (see photo) still hews closely to the recipes and cooking methods perfected in the 1930s by the founder Wang Xuecheng. This means cutting thin soup noodles by hand, preparing the dumplin skins in such a way as to create tiny pores and air pockets that allow flavor to seep in.

Ever wonder exactly how a properly prepared potsticker should look?

At Gong He Chun, as all its many cooks are taught, they must fulfill Wang’s precise prescription: the overall outward appearance of a sparrow’s head, with its slender sides resembling a lotus leaf and its bottom fried to the color of a gold coin. If only the management and workers at China’s huge substandard SOE oil refineries took as much care, China’s polluted skies would surely improve.

While the quality of what comes out of the kitchen is world class, there are places where the dead hand of state ownership can be detected. The toilets are primitive, plastic plates and bowls are old and chipped, and the overall décor looks like a 1950s US high school lunchroom.

Though its brand-name and reputation are known nationally, Gong He Chun has no apparent intention to expand outside Yangzhou. The three-tiered system of SOE management in China, with ownership spread among national, provincial and local branches of SASAC, makes it both rare and difficult for any local SOE like Gong He Chun to expand outside its home base.

Meantime, a Taiwan company, Din Tai Fung, has taken Yangzhou cuisine, especially the crab xiaolongbao, and built a high-end chain of global renown, with Michelin-starred restaurants across East and Southeast Asia as well as the US, Australia and Dubai. Its China outlets sell dumplings at three times the price of Gong He Chun.

I’m lucky to know the China chairman of Din Tai Fung, and have spent time with him inside Din Tai Fung restaurants. Every detail is sweated over by the chairman, from the starched white tablecloths to the polish on the bamboo steamers to the precise number of times a xiaolongbao dumpling should be pinched closed. Gong He Chun’s state owners are utterly devoid of the drive, vision and hunger for profits and expansion that only a private proprietor can bring.

A newly-announced government policy on SOE restructuring has already come in for criticism in China. Xi Jinping and his State Council – once keen to expose SOEs to more market rigor and competition – have opted for a more “softly-softly” approach, with no specific targets for improving the woeful performance of many SOEs. One reason is that a fair chunk of China’s SOE system is in chaos, thanks to a more high-priority policy of the Xi government. Every week brings new reports about bosses and senior management at China’s largest SOEs being investigated or arrested for corruption.

If there was ever an economic rationale for a small chain of traditional dumpling shops to be owned by the state, no one seems able to recall it. What profit Gong He Chun makes is not being reinvested in this rare SOE jewel, but is used instead to prop up SOE losers in Yangzhou. As China’s new SOE reform policy now begins its tentative roll-out, it looks certain Gong He Chun will for years to come remain a rare bright spot in a blighted SOE landscape.

Peter Fuhrman is Chairman & CEO China First Capital. He has no business relationship with Gong He Chun.

 

http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2015/10/05/one-of-chinas-best-state-enterprises-shows-need-for-reform/

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“A lot hasn’t gone to plan”: SuperReturn Interview

September 15th, 2015 No comments

Superretrun

Does [China’s] shift from a manufacturing-driven economy to a service-driven one make macroeconomic shocks like those seen this summer inevitable?

Peter Fuhrman: China has enjoyed something of a worldwide monopoly on hair-raising economic news of late: a stock market collapse followed by a klutzy bail-out, then a devaluation followed by a catastrophic explosion and finally near-hourly reports of sinking economic indicators. As someone who first set foot in China 34 years ago, my view is we’re in an unprecedented time of economic and financial uncertainty . Consumers and corporates are noticeably wobbling. For a Chinese government long used to ordering “Jump!” and the economy shouting back “How high?” this is not the China they thought they were commanding.  Everyone is looking for a bannister to grab.

And yet, China still has some powerful fundamentals working in its favour. Urbanization is a big one. It alone should add at least 3-4% to annual GDP a year for many years to come. The shift towards services and domestic growth as opposed to exports are two others. For now, these forces are strong enough to keep China propelling forward even as it tows heavy anchors like an ageing population, and a cohort of monopolistic state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that suck up too much of China’s capital and often achieve appalling results with it.

Look, the Chinese stock market had no business in the first place almost tripling from June last year to June of this. The correction was long, long overdue. It’s often overlooked that China’s domestic stock market has a pronounced negative selection bias. Heavily represented among the 3,000 listed companies are quite a number of China’s very worst companies, with the balance made up of lethargic, low-growth, often loss-making SOEs. The good companies, like Tencent or Baidu, predominantly expatriate themselves when it comes time to IPO. To my way of thinking, China’s domestic market still seems overpriced. The dead cats are, for now, still bouncing.

 

Given this overall picture, do you expect to see greater or fewer opportunities [in China] for alternative investments and why? 

Peter Fuhrman: The environment in China has been challenging, to say the least, for alternative investment firms not just in the last year, but for the better part of the last decade. A lot hasn’t gone to plan. China’s growth and opportunities proved alluring to both GPs and LPs. And yet too often, almost systematically, the big money has slipped between their fingers. Partly it’s because of too much competition, and with it ballooning valuations, from over 500 newly-launched domestic Chinese PE and VC firms. The fault also sits with home-grown mistakes, with errors by private equity firms in investment approach. This includes an excessive reliance on a single source of deal exit, the IPO, all but unheard-of in other major alternative investment environments.

Overall PE returns have been lacklustre in China, especially distributions, before the economy began to slip off the rails. In the current environment, challenges multiply. A certain rare set of investing skills should prove well-adapted: firms that can do control deals, including industry consolidating roll-ups. In other words, a whole different set of prey than China PE investors have up to now mainly stalked. These are not pre-IPO deals, not ones predicated on valuation arbitrage or the predilections of Chinese young online shoppers. There’s money to be made in China’s own Rust Belt, backing solid well-managed manufacturers, a la Berkshire Hathaway. There’s too much fragmentation across the industrial board. China will remain the manufacturing locus for the world, as well as for its own gigantic domestic market.

Another anomaly that needs correcting: Global alternative investing has been overwhelmingly skewed in China towards equity not debt. The ratio could be as high as 99:1. This imbalance looks even more freakish when you consider real lending rates to credit-worthy corporates in China are probably the highest anywhere in the advanced world, even a lot higher than in less developed places like India and Indonesia. Regulation is one reason why global capital hasn’t poured in in search of these fat yields. Another is the fact PE firms on the ground in China have few if any team members with the requisite background and experience to source, qualify, diligence and execute China securitized debt deals. There’s a bit of action in the China NPL and distress world. But, straight up direct collateralized lending to China’s AA-and-up corporates and municipalities remains an opportunity global capital has yet to seize. Meanwhile, China’s shadow banking sector has exploded in size, with over $2.5 trillion in credit outstanding, almost all of which is current. There’s big money being made in China’s securitized high-yield debt, just not by dollar investors.

 

What’s the overall story of alternative investors engaging with central planning? How would you characterise the regulatory environment?

Peter Fuhrman: China has had a state regulatory and administrative apparatus since Europeans were running around in pelts and throwing spears at one another. So, yes, there is a large regulatory system in China overseen by a powerful government that is very deeply involved in economic and financial planning and rule-making. One must tread carefully here. Rules are numerous, occasionally contradictory, oft-time opaque and liable to sudden change.

Less observed, however, and less harrowing for foreign investors is the core fact that the planning and regulatory system in China has a strong inbuilt bias towards the goal of lifting GDP growth and employment. Other governments talk this talk. But it’s actually China that walks the walk. The days of anything-goes, rip-roaring, pollute-as-you-go development are about done with. But, still the compass needle remains fixed in the direction of encouraging strong rates of growth.

The Chinese government has also gotten more and more comfortable with the fact that most of the growth is now coming from the highly-competitive, generally lightly-regulated private sector. Along with a fair degree of deregulation lately in industries like banking and transport, China also often pursues a policy of benign neglect, of letting entrepreneurs duke it out, and only imposing rules-of-the-game where it looks like a lot of innocents’ money may be lost or conned. To be sure, foreign investors in most cases cannot and should not operate in these more free-form areas of China’s economy. They often seem to be the first as well as the fattest targets when the clamps come down. Just ask some larger Western pharmaceutical companies about this.

 

In the long view, how long can the parallel USD-RMB system run? Do you expect to see the experiments in Shanghai’s Pilot Free Trade Zone (FTZ) replicated and extended? 

Peter Fuhrman: Unravelling China’s rigged exchange rate system will not happen quickly. Every baby step — and the steps are coming more fast of late — is one in the direction of a more open capital account, of greater liberalization. But, big change will all unfold with a kind of stately sluggishness in my view. Not because policy-makers are particularly wed to the notion of an unconvertible currency. There’s the deadweight problem of nearly $4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. What’s the market equilibrium rate of the Dollar-Renminbi? Ask someone facing competition from a Chinese exporter and they’re likely to say three-to-one, or an almost 100% appreciation. Ask 1.4 billion Chinese consumers and they will, with eminent good reason, say it should be more like 12-to-one. Prices of just about everything sold to consumers in China is higher, often markedly higher, than in the US where I’m from. This runs from fruit, to supermarket staples, to housing, brand-name clothing up to ladder to cars and the fuel that powers them.

I think the irrational exuberance about Shanghai’s FTZ has slammed into the wall of actual central government policy of late.  It will not, cannot, act like a free market pathogen.

 

Reform of China’s state-owned enterprises has been piecemeal, and private equity has had patchy success with SOEs. Do you expect this to change, and why?

Peter Fuhrman: For those keeping score, reform of SOEs has yet to really put any points on the board. The SOE economy-within-an-economy remains substantially the same today as it was three years ago. Senior managers continue to be appointed not by competence, vision and experience, but by rotation. The major shareholder of all these SOEs, both at centrally-administered level as for well as those at provincial and local level, act like indifferent absentee proprietors, demanding little by way of dividends and showing scant concern as margins and return-on-investment droop year-by-year at the companies they own.

There are good deals to be done for PE firms in the SOE patch. The dirty little secret is that the government uses a net asset value system for state-owned assets that is often out-of-kilter with market valuations. Choose right and there’s scope to make money from this. But, if you’re a junior partner behind a state owner who cares more about jobs-for-the-boys than maximizing (or even earning) profits then no asset however cheaply bought will ever really be in the money.

 

TPP has been described as ‘a club with China left out’. If it comes to pass, how do you expect China to respond?

Peter Fuhrman: China has responded. Along with its rather clumsy-sounding “One Belt, One Road” initiative it also has its Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. The logic isn’t alien to me. When American Jews were barred from joining WASP country clubs, they tried to build better clubs of their own. When Chase Manhattan, JP Morgan and America’s largest commercial banks wouldn’t hire Jews, they went instead into investment banking, where there was more money to be made anyway.

But, China may not so easily and successfully shrug off their exclusion from TPP. It increases their aggrieved sense of being ganged-up upon. The US understands this and now frets more about China’s military power. The partners China are turning to instead – especially the countries transected by the “One Belt, One Road” – look more like a cast of economic misfits, not dynamic free traders like the TPP nations and China itself. I don’t think anyone in Beijing seriously believes that increased trading with the Central Asian -stans is a credible substitute. Even so, China will not soon be invited to join the TPP. China has hardly acted like a cozy neighbour of late to the countries with the markets and with the money. Being feared may have its strategic dividends. But the neighbourhood bully rarely if ever gets invited to the block party.

 

Peter Fuhrman will be speaking at SuperReturn Asia 2015, 21-24 September 2015, JW Marriott, Hong Kong.

 

http://www.superreturnasia.com/blog/super-return-private-equity-conference/post/id/7653_A-lot-hasnt-gone-to-plan-Peter-Fuhrman-China-First-Capital-on-alternative-investments-in-the-PRC?xtssot=0

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The Economist Survey on China Business

September 11th, 2015 No comments

Econ

Econ survey2

With a timing that can only be described as exquisite, the Economist today publishes their in-depth survey of business in China. It appears at a time when the media is brimming with stories, often in my view overblown,  about China’s economic problems and challenges. The Economist survey provides light where there’s been way too much heat of late. I couldn’t recommend more highly taking the time to read it in full.

Please click here to go direct to the survey on the Economist website. It includes nine separate articles, each offering a banquet of analysis, ideas and insights on where China’s economy, both private sector and SOE, is heading.

The author of the survey is Vijay Vaitheeswaran, the China business and finance editor. This is the first Economist China business survey in many years. It was certainly no small undertaking. China’s size, complexity and ever-morphing business environment make a comprehensive future-looking summary of this kind difficult in the extreme to do well.

I got to meet Vijay during his research phase. I took him for Tibetan food in Shenzhen. He ended up quoting me briefly in one of the articles in the survey.

Vijay paid particular attention to accelerating innovation cycles in China’s hardware industry. He spent a few days in Shenzhen including attending a kind of hacker forum for hardware geeks. He calls Shenzhen “the world’s best place to start a hardware firm” and visited my favorite exemplar of this, 18-month-old mobile phone brand OnePlus.

Quick aside, since the launch of its new model, the OnePlus 2 six weeks ago, the waiting list to buy one has grown to over five million people. If OnePlus’s factories can keep pace with the exploding demand, the company is on track to sell over $2 billion of phones in coming twelve months.

While overall highly positive about China’s economic prospects and the ambitions of its vast pool of private sector entrepreneurs, the survey sounds a note of caution. It argues that the less efficient state-owned sector appears more and more like an unevolved creature from a foregone era.  They are, the survey warns, sucking up too much of China’s capital and achieving too little with it, all the while fighting to maintain the cozy monopolies that keep the far more dynamic and efficient private sector shut out.

How much market? How much government control and ownership? All countries struggle to find a balance. China stands out because the private sector has come so far so fast. Thirty years ago when I first set foot in China there was no private sector to speak of. Now, in all but the so-called “commanding heights” of China’s economy, entrepreneurs run rampant. 1.4 billion Chinese benefit from this fact every day.

 

China Adjusts to a New Economic Normal — Toronto Globe And Mail

September 11th, 2015 No comments

Globe and Mail

China adjusts to a new economic normal

Nathan VanderKlippe

GONGYI ZHUANGCUN, CHINA — The Globe and Mail

No one at the California River Town golf course saw the axe coming. Ever since 2007, when its sprawling fairways began to take over rural fields that once grew beans and pears, California River Town had been a thriving staple of the local economy. It picked up awards, employed more than 500 and welcomed more than 300 golfers a day. Local celebrities and comedians walked its greens.

Golf was sweeping across China, with hundreds of courses being opened to a rising upper-middle class with money to spend – and the benefits spread widely.

More than 60 of the employees at California River Town came from the nearby village of Gongyi Zhuangcun, whose residents were put to work cleaning bathrooms and cutting grass.

It made for good work.

“I was quite happy there. There are so many flowers and green grass,” said Ms. Liu, a woman who worked at the course for seven years and declined to provide her full name for fear of reprisals.

Then on June 10, her boss came to tell her not to come back the following day. Instead of an advance dismissal notice, she was given a week’s pay and asked to sign papers saying her departure was voluntary. It was not. The golf course suggested the 51-year-old woman retire (in China, female factory workers can stop work at 50; public sector workers can retire at 55).

Five days later, another cohort was let go. She figures at least a third of the employees are now gone.

“They said business was bad,” Ms. Liu said. She was shocked. For most of the past four decades, China has known nothing but growth, a world where wages gained 10 per cent a year, employment was plentiful and tomorrow was practically guaranteed to be more prosperous than today.

“Now the economy is suddenly falling,” Ms. Liu said. She can’t understand it. “Golf used to be very popular. Why has it suddenly gone bad?” she asked.

It’s an increasingly common question across China, which is grappling with an economic slowdown that has shocked exporters, property developers and stock investors, and is now hitting something perhaps more important: public confidence. Economic weakness is suddenly taking centre stage, as the toll of shrinking gross domestic product figures – China is on track to post its slowest growth in 25 years, and economists increasingly question the official numbers – begins to grow apparent.

“Companies are suffering acutely from shrinking revenues and profits. This is a first, arguably since reform began,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, a boutique mainland China-based investment bank.

The collapse of the stock market may have simply been air rushing out of a giant bubble. But to many in China, it was a signal that things have changed, that there is now “a whole new world within China,” Mr. Fuhrman said.

“From what we understand, from companies out selling stuff in China, pretty much everybody has just has been sitting on their wallets since July. It’s been the sharpest drop that anyone has not only seen, but could imagine, in such a short period of time.”

It’s apparent not just in golf courses, but in hotels, restaurants and delivery services, along with factories and construction sites.

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Traditional Chinese Medicine — regulated cures or regulated quackery?

August 24th, 2015 No comments

medical diagnosisChina has the world’s second largest drug market and it’s growing fast. Estimates are that by 2020 prescription pharmaceutical sales will top $300 billion a year, second only to the US. Drug sales are regulated by the Chinese FDA, which on the surface, has been modeled after the US FDA.

In fact, though, China’s drug industry and regulation is like nowhere else in the world. The reason: one third of all drug sales in China are of approved traditional Chinese medicines (“TCM”) made from dried leaves, roots, stems, fungi, flowers, and seeds, along with a variety of animal, insect and lizard skins and secretions.

The same Chinese FDA regulatory system that tests and approves Western medicines also approves TCM ingredients and potions. China’s healthcare industry thus stands with one foot planted in 21st century science and one foot in its opposite, a world of age-old popular folklore and folk cures.

Chinese medicine has been around in China for at least 2,000 years. Western drugs and teaching hospitals arrived about a century ago. The two regard one another with almost mutual incomprehension. Pharmaceutical executives will tell you that TCM has utterly failed to prove its efficacy in clinical tests, while many of China’s 400,000 traditional Chinese doctors and practitioners consider most “Xi Yao” (西药), or Western medicine, to be disruptive or toxic to the natural yin-yang balance. At most larger general hospitals in China, one can find doctors separately practicing each type of medicine. On the ground floor, two separate pharmacies dispense prescriptions.

Chinese navigate between the two worlds. When feeling unwell, they will self-diagnose and decide to seek either Western drugs or TCM. Visiting the doctor is one China’s more popular indoor activities. Each year, Chinese make over four billion visits to a clinic, with about one-fifth of those being to see a TCM practitioner.  No surprise, TCM is more popular among older folks in China.

China’s pharmaceutical industry, and the regulations that govern it, are a nice allegory for the state of China’s national genome — part relentlessly modern, part three-thousand year-old archive of analects, customs, superstitions. The two coexist, but the results can sometimes be less than the best-of-both-worlds. Such is the case with drug regulation.

For all Western-style pharmaceuticals now seeking approval in China, there are well-established standards, based on multi-phase clinical trials and double-blind studies. With TCM, such standards that do exist are not so much the product of rigorous evidence-based medical science. If it doesn’t poison your system and the ingredients have been used for centuries in China then it’s likely going to get approved.

The result is, as one CEO of a Chinese pharmaceutical company explained to me recently, “down the hall at the China FDA from scientists with PhDs in biology and chemistry are a bunch of guys giving the green light to TCM substances that have not been proved by accepted scientific standards to have any medical benefit whatsoever. How can these things be regulated, sold and labeled as medicines? ”

This CEO then makes a larger point. The Chinese FDA’s split personality, of administering both a clinical drug approval regime for Western drugs and one for TCM that doesn’t demand any proof of efficacy is likely part of the reason China’s pharmaceutical industry has yet to come up with any genuine breakthroughs.

In his mind, TCM should be only sold and regulated as foods.  A government agency, in other words, shouldn’t be telling people something is a medicine on the basis of nothing more than a history of people believing it to be.

One famous case in point: Yunnan Baiyao. It is among the most famous and widely-sold TCM formulations. It’s also big business. The eponymous publicly-traded company has a nearly $12 billion market cap. It is sold as a medicine, but its ingredients are a state-secret. No one, perhaps not even the regulators, knows what’s in it. Could any of its ingredients be bad for you or harvested and processed in less-than-sanitary conditions? No one knows and yet Chinese keep relying on it.

Among the best-selling TCM cold cures is a packaged potion called 999 made in Shenzhen. Many Chinese swear by it. The US FDA says its recent on-site inspection of the facility where it’s made revealed “significant violations of current good manufacturing practice (CGMP) regulations for finished pharmaceuticals.”

The official correspondence is quite damning. The makers of 999, according to the US FDA inspectors, “failed to establish laboratory controls that include scientifically sound and appropriate specifications, standards, sampling plans, and test procedures designed to assure that components, drug product containers, closures, in-process materials, labeling, and drug products conform to appropriate standards of identity, strength, quality, and purity.“ But, as far as can be determined, China’s own FDA has never visited the factory or never found any problems with the way 999 is being made.

Over the last five years, China’s ruling Communist Party has moved decisively to create and manage a large First World-scale regulatory apparatus. Transportation, hiring and firing, air and water quality, foods and medicines are all now subject to very clear-cut rules, often as tight as those as in the US. Enforcement grows more strict every year.

At the apex of this new regulatory system is China’s FDA. It was remade from top-to-bottom, beginning seven years ago when its one-time chief was arrested and then executed for corruption and approving tainted products for sale in China. In 2013, standards were toughened up again, the old agency disbanded and the newly-constituted CFDA was created and elevated to ministerial level.

The Chinese public is being told this new agency will be a fierce, powerful and incorruptible guardian of the national health. But, the tough cop seems to have a big blind spot when it comes to TCM.