WikiLeaks Dump Adds to China’s Foreign-Tech Wariness — Wall Street Journal

March 10th, 2017 No comments

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While the purported CIA documents leaked this week by WikiLeaks focus on the likes of Apple and Samsung, Chinese companies like Huawei do get some coverage. 

While the purported CIA documents leaked this week by WikiLeaks focus on the likes of Apple and Samsung, Chinese companies like Huawei do get some coverage.  

BEIJING—The latest WikiLeaks trove hands fresh ammunition to China’s cyberspace hawks, already pushing to reduce dependence on foreign products that could be vulnerable to espionage, observers say.

“The level of alarm in China will certainly increase, and with it a renewed determination to clamp down still further on U.S. technology companies’ operations in China,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of Shenzhen-based advisory firm China First Capital, which follows China’s tech sector.

The documents released this week—more than 8,000 pages in all—purport to show how the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency breaks into computers, smartphones, TVs and other electronics for surveillance. Many documents deal with leading non-Chinese brands like Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co., though there is some coverage of Chinese products, including routers from Huawei Technologies Inc. and Baidu Inc.’s search engine.

The Chinese-product references are relatively sparse—and, in some cases, obscure. An undated list of CIA internal hacking demonstrations, for example, includes the “Panda Poke-Huawei credless exploit”—which one cybersecurity specialist says may be a method for taking advantage of vulnerabilities without logins or other “credentials.” There is also the “Huawei VOIP Collection,” a reference to “voice over internet Protocol,” making phone calls over the internet.

The document doesn’t say whether these methods were used for intelligence gathering. Huawei declined to comment.

A file titled “Small Routers Research-work in progress” lists router models from Huawei and ZTE Corp. It also mentions China’s three state-owned telecom companies and Baidu’s search engine, without further details.

The telecom companies and Baidu declined to comment.

The leak also offered what seem to be workaday notes among colleagues, including one CIA worker’s complaint about one piece of software’s default-language setting. “I don’t speak Chinese,” he griped.

WikiLeaks’ website is blocked in China, but Chinese state-run media reported the document leak, focusing on U.S. companies. Overall response has been muted, possibly because the official spotlight this week is on Beijing’s annual legislative gathering.

Cybersecurity experts say China maintains its own robust cyberhacking apparatus, though Beijing characterizes itself as purely a hacking victim, not a perpetrator.

“China is opposed to any form of cyberattack,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Thursday. “We urge the U.S. side to stop its wiretapping, surveillance, espionage and cyberattacks on China and other countries. China will firmly safeguard its own cybersecurity.”

In recent years, China has seized on leaks about U.S. surveillance to fan public support for its domestic tech products. U.S. tech brands felt a chill after former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed NSA surveillance methods in 2013.

“It is like snow on more snow,” one China executive of a U.S. technology company said of the potential sales impact of the latest leaks.

These leaks could help countries counter CIA tapping and develop their own capabilities, said Nigel Inkster, former deputy chief of U.K. spy agency MI6.

“China, Russia et al will now both be better attuned to the risks posed by these capabilities,” he said, “and will no doubt seek to use them themselves.”

 

https://www.wsj.com/articles/wikileaks-dump-adds-to-chinas-foreign-tech-wariness-1489061414

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China’s Healthcare Sector a Big Draw for Private Equity Investors — South China Morning Post

January 19th, 2017 No comments

 

China’s healthcare sector a big draw for private equity investors

 
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017

Private equity firms and hedge funds are investing heavily into China’s healthcare industry in a bet on the sector’s upbeat growth potential, fund managers told a Hong Kong forum.

Private hospitals and drug makers are among the bright spots for investors focusing on China, where rising income and an ageing population are boosting the demand for quality medical services.

Private hospitals are set to attract large amounts of capital in the coming decade amid an underdeveloped private medical industry and a shortage of doctors, said investment professionals.

“Healthcare has been the single area that probably everyone can foresee globally an enormous amount of capital and investment,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital told the Asia Private Equity Forum in Hong Kong on Wednesday.

China’s population of individuals aged 60 or older is set to rise 90 per cent to 240 million by 2020, according to the World Health Organisation.

Meanwhile, one consequence of the nation’s one-child policy, introduced in 1979 and officially phased out in 2015, is that the burden of caring for ageing parents will put tremendous pressures on the young generations.

The healthcare sector in China will become a US$1 trillion a year business by 2020, according to a report by consulting firm McKinsey & Company.

Among healthcare institutions, private hospitals are set to become the best investment for this sector, said Li Bin, chief executive of Ally Bridge LB Healthcare Fund, a hedge fund that focuses on investing in China and Asia healthcare companies.

However, he said there are problems that will likely hinder the industry’s growth.

Among barriers, Li cited a shortage of quality doctors, the lack of an ecosystem to support the development of private hospitals, as well as the long time frame needed to build up a trusted reputation.

Although about half of the hospitals in the country are private, more than 80 per cent of medical professionals work in the public sector, which offer higher salaries and better career prospects, according to a recent report by Citi.

“Five years ago I said it would take 10 years for private hospitals to mature in China, now I think it would take another 10 years,” he said.

Alice Au Miu Hing from SpencerStuart, an executive search consultancy, said it remains extremely difficult to find experienced private hospital executives with China experience who can speak Putonghua.

“The common approach now is to bring someone from the industry from outside and see if the person can survive in the mainland market,” said Au.

Meanwhile, pharmaceutical and biotech start-ups will flourish with China’s emerging middle class seeking better healthcare services.

Judith Li, partner at the life science-focused Lilly Asia Ventures, told the forum that China spends about 6 per cent of its GDP on healthcare, versus an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development average of 10 per cent.

“China has so many white spaces where there is nothing exists, and it’s very compelling,” she said.

“If you can bring it [a drug] from the US, you can then avoid the fundamental scientific risk of developing something that’s completely unavailable.”

http://www.scmp.com/business/article/2063273/chinas-healthcare-sector-big-draw-private-equity-investors

Turbulence and Paralysis: the Year Ahead in US-China Relations — Financial Times

December 13th, 2016 No comments

 

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A month before his official inauguration, Donald Trump is already tossing diplomatic grenades in China’s direction. It is a sign of things to come. 2017 is shaping up to be a highly eventful, taut and precarious year for China-US relations. This is partly due to a simple scheduling coincidence.

2017 will be the first time ever when both the US and the PRC in the same year will usher in new governments. The US will kick things off on January 20th by swearing in Donald Trump as President. China, meanwhile, will undertake its own large political upheaval, its five-yearly change in political leadership, culminating in the 19th Communist Party Congress sometime late in the year. Virtually the entire government hierarchy, from local mayors on up, will be changed in a monumental job-swapping exercise orchestrated by Xi Jinping, China’s president.

The US under Mr Trump, with a Republican Congress at his back, seems intent to challenge China more assertively in trade, investment and as a currency manipulator while intensifying the military rivalry. China’s leadership, meantime, will become deeply absorbed in its own highly secretive, inward-looking and internecine political maneuvering. While Mr Xi tries to further consolidate his power, Mr Trump will likely be asserting his, leading to a globally ambitious US and an introspective China. This would represent something of a role reversal from recent precedent.

With the chess pieces all in motion, businesses should be plotting their moves in China with caution. The proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal is dead, leaving China’s still-evolving “One Belt,One Road” initiative as the main impetus for new trade flows in Asia. Donald Trump says he will push for what he claims to be more “more fair” bilateral trade deals. China, with its $365bn trade surplus with the US and high barriers to much inward investment, is clearly in his sights.

How will China react? The only certainty is that as the year progresses, China’s government apparatus will slow, and with it decision-making at policy-making bodies and many State-owned enterprises (SoEs). All will wait to hear what new tunes to march to, once the new ruling Politburo is revealed to the public in the fourth quarter.

Chinese officials at all levels are already jockeying for promotion. That means falling into line with Mr Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. The Party Secretary in Jiangsu province, one of China’s wealthiest, got an early head start. He instituted his own form of localized prohibition, ordering that government officials could no longer drink alcohol at any time, in any kind of setting, anywhere in Jiangsu.

The booze embargo did include one loophole. If senior foreign guests are present, alcohol can flow as before, like an undammed torrent.

As the Party Congress approaches, it will be even harder to get a deal with a Chinese SoE lined up and closed within any kind of reasonable time frame. Even after the Party Congress ends, it will likely take more months for any real deal momentum to return. Investment banking bonuses along with billings at global law, accounting and consulting firms are all likely to take a hit.

One other certainty: the renminbi will come under increasing pressure as the US ratchets up its moves to apply tariffs to Chinese exports and China’s own economy remains, relatively speaking, in the doldrums. How much pressure, though, is another question.

Anyone making predictions about the speed and degree of the renminbi’s decline is playing with a loaded weapon. A year ago some of the world’s biggest and loudest hedge fund bosses, including Kyle Bass, David Tepper and Bill Ackman, were proclaiming the imminent collapse of the renminbi. The renminbi, despite slipping by about 6 per cent during 2016, has yet to behave as the money guys predicted.

The Chinese government uses non-market mechanisms to slow the renminbi’s decline. A recent example: its abrupt move in November to tightly control outbound investment and M&A. But shoring up the currency will undercut one of China’s larger economic imperatives, the need to upgrade the country’s industrial and technological base. That will require a prodigious volume of dollars to acquire US and European technology companies such as recent Chinese deals to acquire German robot-maker Kuka and US semiconductor company Omnivision.

Chinese investors and acquirers not only face tighter controls on the outflow of US dollars. The US is also becoming more antagonistic toward Chinese acquisitions in the US and globally. Deals of any significant size need to pass a national security review overseen by a shadowy interagency body known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS.

CFIUS works in secret. In recent months, it has blocked Chinese investment in everything from a San Diego hotel, to Dutch LED light bulbs as well as US and European companies more explicitly involved in high-tech industry including semiconductor design and manufacturing. The strong likelihood is CFIUS will become even more restrictive once Mr Trump takes over.

Unlike most areas of bilateral tension between the US and China, this is one area where the Chinese have no room to retaliate in kind. China already has a blanket prohibition on investment by US, indeed all foreign companies, into multiple sectors of the Chinese economy, from tech industries like the internet and e-commerce all the way to innocuous ones like movies, cigarettes and steel smelting. So, for now, China quietly seethes as the US intensifies moves to prevent China investment deals from being concluded.

China will probably need to regroup and start playing the long game. That means investing more in earlier stage tech companies, especially in the Silicon Valley, and hoping some then strike it big. These venture capital investments generally fall outside the tightening CFIUS net. China wants to spend big and spend fast, but will find it often impossible to do so.

Even as political and military tensions rise between the US and China in 2017, one ironic certainty will be that a record number of Chinese are likely to go to the US as tourists, home buyers or students and spend ever more there. China’s ardour for all things American – its clean air, high-tech, good universities, relatively cheap housing, and retail therapy – is all but unbounded.

If informal online surveys are to be believed, ordinary Chinese seem to like and admire Mr Trump, especially for his business acumen. Mr Xi, understandably, may view the new US President in a harsher light. Xi faces cascading complexities as well as factional opposition within China. He could most use a US leader cast in the previous mold, committed to constructive cooperation with China. Instead, he’s likely to contend with an unpredictable, disapproving and distrustful adversary.

 

https://www.ft.com/content/b1801637-4219-3222-9f45-658740aa1187

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John Pomfret’s Majestic New Survey of China-US Relations, “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom”

December 7th, 2016 No comments

 

John Pomfret

Congratulations to John Pomfret on the publication of his for-the-ages comprehensive summary of the history of China-US relations, “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom”.

I’m proud to call John my oldest and closest friend. We share a near-40 year history and fascination with China. But, his wisdom far surpasses mine. I’m awed by his achievement and now by the unanimity of praise for the book in the major English-speaking media.

Here are reviews and article about the book from the FT, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and the Economist:

Financial Times

New York Times

Wall Street Journal

Economist

 

China’s depressed northeast is down but not out – if officials can fix its ailing state-owned firms — South China Morning Post

December 1st, 2016 No comments

I’m delighted to share the OpEd essay written by my China First Capital colleague Dr. Yansong Wang and published in today’s South China Morning Post. Her piece is titled “China’s depressed northeast is down but not out – if officials can fix its ailing state-owned firms”. It offers up her analysis on the disappointing economic conditions and vast untapped potential in her home region, China’s Northeast, formerly known as Manchuria, and in Chinese as 中国东北. I agree with her policy prescriptions as well as prudent optimism the region can be transformed just as America’s Rust Belt.

Her final paragraph notes a paradox familiar to me as well. In Shenzhen, we’re lucky enough to know two of China’s most consistently successful listed company chairmen, Mr. Gao Yunfeng , the founding entrepreneur of Han’s Laser Group  (大族激光集团), the world’s largest laser machine tool company, and Mr. Xing Jie, of a highly innovative and successful publicly-traded SOE, Tagen Group (天健集团).

Both, like Yansong, come from Jilin Province and all three have found success far from where they were raised, in Shenzhen. Yansong puts across her final point with conviction: “We need to create the conditions where the younger versions of these two successful entrepreneurs choose to stay in the northeast and build an economic future there that we can all take pride in.”

 

SCMP logo

Dongbei Yansong Wang

Over the course of my 35 years, China’s northeast has gone from being the country’s economic powerhouse to its most systematically troubled large region. Much of the region’s enormous state-owned industrial complex is in difficulty, while gross domestic product growth continues to lag. The deepest and most poignant signs of the economic malaise are a falling population and the fact that the northeast’s birth rate is now one-third below the national average.

The concern about how to revive the economy animates not only the highest levels of the central government, but also many people who recall the key role the region has played leading China’s modernisation. The concern is warranted. It now needs to be matched by some fresh thinking and new policy initiatives. I’d like to see the northeast become a laboratory for bold ideas about how to restructure state-owned enterprises in China.

I care deeply about what happens in the northeast. Though I now live and work in Shenzhen, I was born and raised in Jilin (吉林) province. My parents and 95-year-old grandmother still live there. I owe a lot of my life’s achievements up to now – undergraduate study at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei (合肥), followed by a PhD in physics from Princeton, to my current role in an international investment bank – to the mind-expanding public education I received growing up in the northeast.

The climate and its mainly landlocked geography are a challenge. But there is no reason the northeast should be a victim of its geography. The part of the US with the most similar conditions, the states of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, has successfully moved away from a focus on heavy industry to being a world leader in all kinds of advanced manufacturing and food processing. Great companies, including 3M, Cargill and Amway, all hail from this part of the US.

Could my home region produce its own world-conquering companies? I believe so.

Step one is to reorient investment capital away from the tired and often loss-making state-owned enterprises towards newer, nimbler private-sector firms. At present, too much investment goes to one of the most unproductive uses of all: new loans to companies that can’t repay their existing ones. This kind of rollover lending generally does not produce one new job or one new increment of GDP.

The central government is stepping up, announcing in August plans for 127 major projects, at a cost of 1.6 trillion yuan (HK$1.8 trillion). The problem isn’t so much that the northeast has too much heavy industry; it’s more that it has too much of the wrong kind. Basic steel is in vast oversupply. But the northeast could shine in developing speciality steel for advanced applications in China. One example that strikes me every time I ride on China’s high-speed rail network: too much of the special steel used on tracks is imported from Japan and Europe. We can make that.

How do we go from being a tired rust belt to a rejuvenated region pulsing with opportunity? The central and provincial governments should encourage more experimentation to push forward the scope and pace of state-owned enterprise reform. A starting point: banks could shoulder more of the cost of restructuring state firms. That will allow for new forms of mixed ownership, asset sales, and bigger and more effective debt-for-equity swaps.

I would also like to see the northeast become the first place where service industries, now mainly restricted to state firms – including banking and insurance – are opened up to private competitors.

There is no shortage in the northeast of the most important facilitator of economic development: a well-educated population. For now, sadly, too many of the entrepreneurially inclined leave the region. Indeed, two of the most visionary listed company chairmen I know are, like me, Jilin natives now living in Shenzhen, Gao Yunfeng of Han’s Laser and Xin Jie of Tagen Group. We need to create the conditions where the younger versions of these two successful entrepreneurs choose to stay in the northeast and build an economic future there that we can all take pride in.

Dr Yansong Wang is chief operating officer at China First Capital

 

http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2050099/chinas-depressed-northeast-down-not-out-if-officials-can-fix

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CICC eyes return to greatness — IFR Asia

November 23rd, 2016 No comments

 

ifr

China International Capital Corp has unveiled its much-anticipated acquisition of unlisted China Investment Securities, in a move that may see the PRC’s oldest investment bank regain the top spot in the country’s securities industry.

CICC said on November 4 it planned to acquire 100% of Shenzhen-based CIS for Rmb16.7bn (US$2.47bn) through the issuance of 1.68bn domestic shares to current owner Central Huijin Investment at Rmb9.95 each. The issuance price represents a discount of 0.6% to CICC’s closing prior to the announcement of the proposed acquisition.

The move marks a significant shift in strategy for CICC, which has long flirted with the idea of setting up a retail brokerage unit as its share of business has dwindled, but has so far remained wedded to its institutional clients.

“If you look at CICC’s business model, it has a very strong institutional focus, but we all know China’s capital markets are primarily driven by retail investors,” said Benjamin Quinlan, chief executive officer and managing partner at Quinlan & Associates. “CIS has a strong retail franchise, so it seems to complement CICC’s existing business quite well.”

CICC made its reputation bringing some of China’s biggest state-owned enterprises and red chips to the equity and debt markets. This included the US$21.9bn IPO of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in 2006 and the US$22bn IPO of Agricultural Bank of China four years later.

After being ranked the number one brokerage firm in China in 2010, it fell to number 23 last year, according to Securities Association of China data, as the flow of giant SOE listings dried up and other Chinese securities firms expanded rapidly, using their stronger capital bases and wider branch networks to build intermediary businesses, especially around margin trading.

Bi Mingjian, appointed CEO of CICC last December, has made expanding the bank’s brokerage and asset management units a key part of his overall strategy and has sought to reduce reliance on institutional and wealthy clients.

CICC has only 20 branches in the PRC versus the 200 of CIS, according to its website. CICC’s small retail footprint has affected its earning capacity from retail investors, who account for most of the trading in the onshore capital markets.

“CICC was originally founded to be China’s one ready-for-Wall Street, global investment bank, but that strategy is no longer perfectly aligned with the profits and priorities of China’s banking industry,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman and CEO at China First Capital.

“Instead of trying to compete with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, CICC will now be matched against a group of domestic competitors. This is ideal as investment banking fees within China, both for IPOs and the secondary market, are high and not that troublesome to earn.”

ADVISORY BUSINESS

Most analysts consider the acquisition, at around 1.1 times forward book value, as good value and a good strategic fit that should help propel CICC up the league tables.

“If you aggregate the market share of both firms across the equity and debt capital markets and M&A advisory, the combined entity could come out as number one in all three rankings,” said Quinlan.

“This might not be the case, but we expect CICC to be at least a top-five player in ECM and DCM, following the acquisition, and most probably top three for M&A advisory.”

The proposed acquisition will boost CICC’s balance sheet. CICC ranked 24 in terms of total assets in 2015 with Rmb63bn, while CIS was 18th with Rmb92bn. Their ranking would advance to 13 after the integration, still far short of the industry leader Citic Securities with total assets of Rmb484bn.

CICC ranked 23 among China’s 125 securities firms in 2015 in revenue terms, while CIS ranked 17, according to the Securities Association of China.

Some questions have been raised about the potential cultural mismatch between the two firms and there have also been suggestions that the Chinese government may be directing the acquisition as it seeks to improve the sector’s reputation for probity.

China’s securities sector has expanded at a considerable pace in the last few years with the combined asset base of the 125 securities companies operating there increasing fourfold between 2011 and 2015 to Rmb6.4trn and there are few signs that the pace of growth is likely to abate.

“It could be a win-win situation for the two firms, because their business models are very complementary,” said an analyst.

“However, it is also a big challenge for CICC on whether it can generate the synergies it expects, by applying its strengths in high-end services to the huge customer base and network of CIS,” said the analyst.

Following the acquisition, CIS will become a wholly owned subsidiary of CICC, while Huijin’s stake in CICC will increase to 58.7% from 28.6%.

CICC and ABC International are financial advisers for the transaction. The deal requires approval from shareholders and regulators.

 

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Bill Gross, America’s “Mr. Unicorn”, Plots A Future in Asia

November 15th, 2016 No comments

 

bill-gross

Few technology entrepreneurs start one unicorn, a tech company with a market valuation of over $1 billion. Elon Musk has started three. Xiaomi’s Lei Jun two. Bill Gross has started and exited from seven, and has another two in his active porfolio.

Gross is the founder and chairman of Idealab, one of America’s oldest and probably still most successful technology incubators. Idealab was established in 1996. Gross was 38 years old then. He had already started and sold two software companies. He decided to take some of that money, as well as some from investors he knew, and start his own incubator.

From the beginning, Idealab has pursued a unique path among technology investors in California. Unlike most other incubators and VC funds, Gross himself comes up with most of the ideas for the new Idealab companies. Idealab then provides the first round of capital for each new company, hires a CEO and Gross takes on the role as non-executive chairman. Idealab has a full-time team to manage the back office work like HR and accounting for new companies during their early stages.  Idealab headquarters is in an old brick warehouse in the California city of Pasadena, near Los Angeles, and close to Caltech, where Gross went to school.

In the last 20 years, Gross has started 150 businesses. Of these, 45 have had successful exits, either through IPOs or M&A. A similar number are still in the Idealab portfolio.

The unicorns Gross created include some of the most successful early successes in e-commerce and online advertising. The companies are: eToys, Overture, Tickets.com, Netzero, Centra, Shopping.com and  Citysearch. Two other Idealab companies have recently merged with other tech startups. These merged companies, Twilio and Taboola, also now have valuations above $1 billion. Over the years, Gross also started and sold companies to Google, eBay, AOL, AirBNB. Along with internet companies, Gross has also started companies in solar and renewable energy, robotics, online education, wireless networking, 3D printing machinery, home medical care.

Gross long ago stopped raising money from outside investors. Idealab is a corporation, not a fund. Gross has the kind of freedom most tech entrepreneurs can only dream of – the imagination and drive to start new technology companies, a few new ones every year, and the capital to help them grow. Idealab’s capital contribution into each new company is about $250,000. If a company begins to grow according to plan, Idealab then raises outside money from VC firms, mainly the large ones based in Silicon Valley. Idealab’s return on invested capital up to now: 13.5 times.

Gross was born in Japan, but moved to California as a boy and got his start as an entrepreneur while in middle school. For 20 years, he has seen technology business opportunities earlier than most people. Anyone interested in where technology is headed, the important problems it may solve, how to incubate successful startups, and how China and East Asia may become more deeply integrated into California’s innovation ecosystem should listen to what Gross has to say.

 

Venture capital investing and incubators have grown very large in the last few years, both in the US and also elsewhere including China. There’s still a lot of capital looking for good ideas. Let’s dissect please how you look at the world. What are the key “metatrends” you see that will impact the shape and size of the global economy over the next 35 years?

Let me take you through those quickly. Start with population growth. The projections are there will be 9.7 billion people on the planet by 2050, up from 7.4 billion today. Larger population means lots of possibly negative impacts and so areas where technology needs to come up with new solutions. What are the major challenges in the future? I think mostly about six. I’m an engineer, so let me give you a list:

  1. climate change;
  2. how to the meet the need to provide better, more affordable healthcare and prevention against global epidemics
  3. food security, having enough safe food available across the world
  4. the growing technological divide between people living with the benefits of modern technologies and those who are left behind
  5. the workforce of the future, how to make sure people have the right skills to find productive jobs
  6. the future of the internet, how to provide security and privacy to everyone using it.

 

The people working to solve these problems probably hope to win Nobel Prizes, not become technology entrepreneurs.  So, where do you see the concrete business opportunities, where there’s both a future market and a potential for some kind of new technology breakthrough?

Of course, you wouldn’t expect me to hand over the keys to my kingdom, to give you the exact business areas we are now working on. But, I can share the industries where I think there’s lots of opportunity worldwide and where we’re actively coming up with new business ideas and looking to start new companies. Again, if you don’t mind, let me give it to you as a list.

  1. Autonomous cars and drones
  2. Clean water and clean energy
  3. New education models, including MOOCs
  4. Agriculture technology, including urban farming, growing food closer to population centers
  5. Advanced machine-meaning and deep neural networks to provide better, smarter data and decision-making
  6. 3D Printing, using metal, new materials
  7. IoT consumer and business
  8. Home automation
  9. Virtual reality and human-computer interaction
  10. New forms of transportation, including hyperloop and perhaps even flying cars
  11. Space, inexpensive launches, to space mining and microsatellites
  12. Software and information security systems to manage each of these

While it’s still possible to start successful companies with limited capital and get to market quickly as we’ve been doing for the last 20 years, some of the newer business opportunities I like will need much larger amounts of money and a longer incubation period. But, the rewards for success will be larger than anything we’ve seen up to now.

 

Up to now, you’ve focused only on building breakthrough tech companies in California to serve to US market. There are other places in the world with money and markets for good technology.

Yes, I definitely see a fusion of powerful and positive forces taking place in Asia that could allow Greater China to emerge as an important constituent in globally-important innovation, both as a market and as a base of ideas and manufacturing. This will be good for China, good for Asia, good for the US, good for the world.

I’m an inventor, and so have always looked to China. I have huge respect for the ingenuity, diligence and entrepreneurship of the Chinese people. Look at the example of China’s greatest inventor, Lu Ban, who lived almost 2,500 years before America’s Thomas Edison. He came up with ideas for flying machines and all kinds of advanced wooden implements .

 

So what role can you envision China playing as one of the world’s centers of technology innovation?

China, like the US, is a place where a large domestic market, manufacturing strength, capital and entrepreneurial culture all come together.

A few years ago, I gave myself a challenge, to come up with one new business idea every day.  I’ve mainly been able to keep up that pace. We could start even more companies, but there’s often one big constraint. We can’t find enough great people to run each new company. Greater China is blessed with having a large number of talented managers and engineers. That’s a huge and valuable resource. On the downside, intellectual property protection in China isn’t nearly as robust as it needs to be.

 

All of Idealab’s billion dollar exits happened during the early years of the internet, with IPOs for companies including eToys, Citysearch, Tickets.com and the sale of online-advertising business Overture to Yahoo. Have big exits become harder?

IPOs have certainly slowed down. The total number of annual IPOs in the US has been falling since we got started 20 years ago. It used to be over 300 companies on average IPOd every year in the US. It’s now below 100. This year is looking like one of the slowest for US IPOs. A big reason is the cost and regulatory burden of being a public company in the US. Our exits now come from M&A.  We continue to do pretty well.

Let me quickly go over our three of our most recent M&A exits. The three are all in different industries — mobile phone security, solar energy and robotics. We started Authy to provide simple but more effective mobile phone data and transaction security. We merged it last year with Twilio, which IPOd this summer on the New York Stock Exchange and now has a market cap of over $4 billion.

RayTracker is a company we started to improve the performance and energy production from solar panels by getting them to track the movement of the sun across the sky. This has been a passion of mine since high-school, to make solar energy more affordable and efficient. We sold RayTracker to First Solar, a Nasdaq-listed company. Today ground mounted trackers like RayTracker invented account for more than 90% of all solar installations in the US and First Solar is a leader the field.

The other recent exit is a little bittersweet, because we may have come to market a little too early with a product consumers originally didn’t really understand. They do now. Being too early with an idea can lead to failure just as quickly as being too late.  Our company was Evolution Robotics, which was probably the first company to design hardware and software for a home robot to clean floors. We had to come up with substantial new technology in vision recognition and spatial mapping, including our own proprietary indoor GPS system using infrared. We sold our company to a competitor, iRobot, which is now by far the largest company in this industry.

 

Can we have a peek inside the current Idealab portfolio? Talk to us about companies you think have the potential to grow into billion dollar businesses within the next few years?

I mentioned already my lifelong passion for clean energy and making solar energy cheaper and more efficient. We have two companies now, Edisun and Cool Energy, that have unique solutions that are finding a lot of market acceptance. Edisun both generates and stores solar energy, so it can be delivered to the grid when it’s needed. Cool Energy uses a Stirling Engine to capture low temperature waste heat, like from machines in a large factory, and turn it into clean electricity.  It can also make electricity from waste cold, like the huge refrigeration vessels used for LNG storage.

Mark Andreesen, the guy who invented the first commercial web browser and is now a successful venture capital investor, has said that “software is eating the world”. He means that just about every product and service is going to need more and better software in the future. I agree. The problem is, where are all those new software engineers going to come from? We’ve started two companies to teach kids how to write software, CodeSpark and Ucode. We’re noticing CodeSpark has more and more kids in China using it to learn to write software. We need to come up with a Chinese version, as well as Japanese, Korean.

One other area where we see huge potential is capturing and analyzing more and better mobile data, then using it for more efficient advertising. This could be as big a future market as “Pay-per-click” online advertising that earns so much money for Google and Baidu. I have a longer history in this area than most people. Overture, a company I started and sold to Yahoo for $1.6 billion in 2003, was an early successful pioneer of online advertising.

 

In the last 20 years, you’ve started 150 businesses, and had ideas for hundreds of others. Few people anywhere at any time have done that much business creation. What you have you learned about the reasons why start-ups succeed and fail?

I believe that the startup organization is one of the greatest forms to make the world a better place. If you take a group of people with the right equity incentives and organize them in a startup, you can unlock human potential in a way never before possible. You get them to achieve unbelievable things.  But if the startup organization is so great, why do so many fail?

This matters to me as an investor and entrepreneur. I’ve started more failed companies than probably just about anyone else. They all looked promising at the beginning, had money and people in place, but ended up dying. Each time a company fails it’s heartbreaking for the entrepreneur. So, trying to get some usable analysis on this process may end up reducing the failure rate for me and I hope many others too.

I tried to look across what factors accounted the most for company success and failure. So I looked at the five key factors — the idea, the team, the execution, the business model and the timing. It accounted for 42 percent of the difference between success and failure. Team and execution came in second, and the idea, the differentiability of the idea, the uniqueness of the idea, actually came in third.

 

After 20 years at Idealab, and twenty years before that starting and running your own start-ups, aren’t you getting tired of this, the pressure, the risk, the uncertainty of starting new companies? There’s got to be an easier way to earn a living.

I think we are in a very exciting time where technology and innovation permeates everything we do, and every company.  If the previous 20 years of my life were devoted to fostering entrepreneurship, I would love my next 20 to be about pushing new technological boundaries to make the world a better place. To happen, it’s going to need Asia and California to push together.

 

Version as published by Nikkei Asian Review

Chinese version as published by Caijing Magazine (财经杂志中文版)

Bill Gross’s TED Talk on why startups succeed

 

 

The Big Sort — The Economist

November 11th, 2016 No comments

 

Economist

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“THE vultures all start circling, they’re whispering, ‘You’re out of time’…but I still rise!” Those lyrics, from a song by Katy Perry, an American pop star, sounded often at Hillary Clinton’s campaign rallies but will shortly ring out over a less serious event: a late-night party in Shenzhen to kick off “Singles’ Day”, an online shopping extravaganza that takes place in China on November 11th every year.

The event was not dreamt up by Alibaba, but the e-commerce giant dominates it. Shoppers spent $14.3bn through its portals during last year’s event. That figure, a rise of 60% on a year earlier, was over double the sales racked up on America’s two main retail dates, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, put together. Chinese consumers are still confident, so sales on this Singles’ Day should again break records.

It points to an intriguing question: how will all of those purchases get to consumers? Around 540m delivery orders were generated during the 24-hour spree last year. That is nearly ten times the average daily volume, but even a slow shopping day in China generates an enormous number. By the reckoning of the State Post Bureau, 21bn parcels were delivered during the first three quarters of this year.

The country’s express-delivery sector, accordingly, is doing well. In spite of a cooling economy, revenues rose by 43% year on year in the first eight months of 2016, to 234bn yuan ($36bn). And although the state’s grip on China’s economy is tightening, the private sector’s share of this market is actually growing. The state-run postal carrier once had a monopoly on all post and parcels. Now far more parcels are delivered than letters, and the share of the market that is commanded by the country’s private express-delivery firms far exceeds that of Express Mail Service, the state-owned courier.

China’s very biggest couriers have been rushing to go public on the back of the strong growth. Most of them started life as scrappy startups, and are privately held. But because of regulatory delays, which mean a big backlog of initial public offerings, many companies have resorted to other means. Last month, two of them, YTO Express and STO Express, used “reverse mergers”, in which a private company goes public by combining with a listed shell company, to list on local exchanges. In what looks to be the largest public flotation in America so far this year, another, ZTO Express, raised $1.4bn in New York on October 27th. Yet another, SF Express, China’s biggest courier, recently won approval to use a reverse merger too.

But investors could be in for a rocky ride. Shares in ZTO, for example, have plunged sharply since its flotation. That is because the breakneck growth of courier companies masks structural problems. For now, the industry is highly fragmented, with some 8,000 domestic competitors, and it is inefficient.

One reason is that regulation, inspired by a sort of regional protectionism, obliges delivery firms to maintain multiple local licences and offices. Cargoes are unpacked and repacked numerous times as they cross the country to satisfy local regulations. Firms therefore find it hard to build up national networks with scale and pricing power. All the competition has led to prices falling by over a third since 2011. The average freight rate for two-day ground delivery between distant cities in America is roughly $15 per kg, whereas in China it is a measly 60 cents, according to research by Peter Fuhrman of China First Capital, an advisory firm.

A handful of the biggest companies now aim to modernise the industry. Some are spending on advanced technology: SF Express’s new package-handling hub in Shanghai is thought to have greatly increased efficiency by replacing labour with expensive European sorting equipment. A semi-automated warehouse in nearby Suzhou run by Alog, a smaller courier in which Alibaba has a stake, seems behind by comparison but in fact Alog is a partner in Alibaba’s logistics coalition, which is known as Cainiao. The e-commerce firm has helped member companies to co-ordinate routes and to improve efficiency through big data.

Other investments are also under way. Yu Weijiao, the chairman of YTO, recalls visiting FedEx, a giant American courier, in Memphis at its so-called “aerotropolis” (an urban centre around an airport) in 2007. He was awed by the firm’s embrace of advanced technology. He returned to China and sought advice from IBM on how his company could follow suit. YTO is using the proceeds of its recent reverse merger to expand its fleet of aircraft, buy automatic parcel-sorting kit and introduce heavy-logistics capabilities for packages over 50kg.

There is as yet little sign that China’s regions will begin allowing packages to move freely, so regulation will remain a brake on the industry. More ominously, labour costs are rising. There are fewer migrant labourers today who are willing to work for a pittance delivering parcels. This week China Daily, a state-owned newspaper, reported that ahead of Singles’ Day, courier firms were offering salaries on the level of university graduates.

http://www.economist.com/news/business/21710004-chinas-express-delivery-sector-needs-consolidation-and-modernisation-big-sort

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China Inc.’s Investment Bank Dives Into Troubled Retail Market — Bloomberg

November 8th, 2016 No comments

 

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China International Capital Corp., the investment bank ex-Premier Zhu Rongji set up two decades ago to help restructure the Chinese economy, is again taking on a role that fits with the government’s agenda.

CICC’s $2.5 billion acquisition of China Investment Securities Corp. will plunge the firm into the retail investor market, a segment it had long shunned because of thin margins and a traditional focus on institutional clients. The deal is part of Chief Executive Officer Bi Mingjian’s push to lessen dependence on volatile investment banking fees.

Yet the transaction also ties in with a key objective of the government, which will become CICC’s largest shareholder as a result of the purchase. Having used CICC to take some of the largest state companies public since the late 1990s, China is now looking for assistance in its quest to reform a retail-driven equities market that’s prone to speculative booms and busts.

In the wake of the latest such episode, a stock market meltdown last year, the government launched an unprecedented crackdown on the securities industry and arrested several high-ranking executives.

“CICC will once again play this civilizing and globalizing role, only with the more far-reaching aim of helping to professionalize the often-shambolic Chinese stock market,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, a Shenzhen-based advisory firm. “Its reputation is still unsullied in China, unlike other banks whose leaders have been marched out in handcuffs and whose market practices are widely blamed for the rampant speculative fever that often afflicts China’s domestic capital markets.”

Reforming Role

In announcing the takeover on Friday, CICC hinted at a reforming role by saying the two firms will “work together to improve the quality and efficiency of mass market services” through training and by upgrading technology systems at China Investment Securities’ 192 branches across the country that serve retail clients.

CICC is buying China Investment Securities from state-owned Central Huijin Investment Ltd. It will issue shares to Central Huijin, more than doubling the entity’s stake in CICC to 58.7 percent. CICC had to get a waiver from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange for the transaction, so that Central Huijin’s controlling stake wouldn’t be classified as a reverse takeover.

An additional rationale for the deal is Huijin’s push to consolidate the securities industry by combining institutional and retail brokerage businesses, said Zhang Chunxin, an analyst at CMB International Capital Holdings Corp. She cautioned that “the reform process will be long and gradual.”

China Investment Securities ranked 17th among Chinese securities firms by revenue last year, while CICC was 23rd, according to official data. Bi’s overhaul has the support of the firm’s foreign shareholders, who had already been pushing CICC to diversify into areas such as asset and wealth management, a person with knowledge of the matter said.

Sherry Tan, spokeswoman at CICC, declined to comment.

Shareholder Backing

The combined stakes of CICC’s main foreign backers — private equity firms TPG Capital and KKR & Co., and Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC Pte — will drop to 15.3 percent as a result of the takeover. However, the foreign firms may buy additional stakes from Central Huijin in future, people familiar with the matter said.

When former premier Zhu Rongji created CICC in 1995, China was launching a shakeup of its state-run industrial sector, leading to the closure of some 60,000 firms and loss of 40 million jobs. Since then, CICC has worked on some of the biggest listings of state enterprises, such as China Construction Bank Corp. and China Mobile Ltd. It was the top adviser on mergers involving Chinese companies in 2014, 2015 and so far this year.

Buying China Investment Securities is a departure from former CEO Levin Zhu’s strategy. The son of the former premier, who ran the firm until two years ago, had long resisted expanding into retail broking, fearing it would erode margins and its differentiation from other Chinese securities firms, according to people familiar with the matter.

Last year’s leverage-fueled equities rally and the subsequent implosion brought worldwide attention to the shortcomings of China’s markets. The government responded with an effort that included enlisting securities firms in supporting the stock market as well as jailing senior brokerage executives for alleged wrongdoing. CICC wasn’t among the firms that took part in the stock-market rescue, but China Investment Securities was.

Market Manias

China’s 114 million individual investors account for the bulk of equities trading. That makes them a hard-to-ignore segment, but also one that tends to be susceptible to market manias. Critics contend that the government’s efforts to restore market calm last year only served to hurt investor confidence further.

The Shanghai Composite Index remains 39 percent below its June 2015 peak. Xiao Gang, who was removed from his post as chairman of China’s securities regulator this year, in January acknowledged loopholes and ineptitude within the regulatory system.

Some analysts aren’t convinced the deal is in CICC’s best interest. The stock fell 2.1 percent on Monday after a trading halt was lifted.

The transaction makes the firm “more like a state-owned company, which could compromise CICC’s corporate governance, operational autonomy” and its ability to retain top talent, said Fred Hu, Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s former Greater China chairman.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-11-07/china-inc-s-investment-bank-dives-into-troubled-retail-market

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Has Yum Worked Out How Fast-Food Firms Can Crack China? — Bloomberg

November 3rd, 2016 No comments

 

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Global consumer companies trying to find a business model for China’s burgeoning domestic market will be watching closely as one of the oldest Western brands in the country starts a new strategy.

Yum! Brands Inc., which opened its first KFC restaurant in China in 1987 and also operates Pizza Hut outlets, has been losing market share thanks to a food-safety scare, changing tastes, increasing local competition and a host of other challenges that foreign companies face in China. It carved out its China operations into a separate company, Yum China Holdings Inc., which begins trading today in New York.

Ring-fencing the business, the largest independent restaurant company in China with 7,000 outlets and more than $900 million cash on hand, offers Yum a number of advantages in dealing with a fast-changing market. Yum’s example could provide a road map for other global consumer brands in the world’s most populous nation.

Yum China has issued 386 million shares at $24.36, which puts its valuation at around $9 billion, according to New Jersey-based research firm Edge Consulting Group LLC. The stock rose about 2 percent to $24.85 as of 9:59 a.m. in New York, while Yum Brands gained 0.7 percent to $62.49.

“When their China operations get so big and are clearly catering just to the China market, splitting off could unlock a lot of value for shareholders,” said Shaun Rein, Shanghai-based managing director of China Market Research Group. “If I were an activist hedge fund investor, I would be looking at carving out brands within large conglomerates that are China plays.”

Doing so allows Yum’s management of the China business to tailor its operations and products more swiftly to changing local conditions, such as the menu preferences of diners in different parts of the country, mobile-based payments systems, hiring and other factors.

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It also helps tap Chinese investors willing to pay high premiums for a stake of an international brand’s China operations. Yum sold a combined $460 million stake in its Chinese business to Primavera Capital Group and an Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. affiliate, Ant Financial Services Group, in September.

 

In recent years, Yum has ceded market share to local competitors because it was slow to react to market changes, said Rein.

“They didn’t make corporate decisions quickly enough, such as in adopting mobile payments, or adapting to consumers wanting more premium offerings,” Rein said. “Their ability to deal with the more complex environment here was held back by the lack of knowledge, the slowness of the U.S.”

Localization of offerings at KFC and Pizza Hut outlets in China will be an important component of the firm’s strategy for the country, Yum China Chief Executive Officer Micky Pant said at a briefing Tuesday in Shanghai. The company plans to increase investment in new outlets across its brands and does not plan to raise more capital, he said.

An activist hedge fund investor upset with the company’s handling of its China business is how Yum China came into being.

After a food-safety scandal in 2014 and cheaper local competition torpedoed Yum’s sales and profit in China, Corvex Management founder Keith Meister in mid-2015 urged the company to split off its Chinese operations — which contribute about half the group sales — saying that the move could generate an additional $16 a share in value for the Louisville, Kentucky-based company.

Yum’s total share of China’s market for fast-food chains dropped to 30 percent last year, from 40 percent in 2012, according to data from Euromonitor International. While sales have been growing again in China in the mid-single digits since late last year, the company has suffered from consumers shifting to healthier options and domestic chains sprouting up with more variety.


Volatility Reduction

Unlike Yum’s U.S. operations, where most of its restaurants are run by franchisees, Yum China directly operates over 90 percent of its outlets and plans to triple the number to more than 20,000 in the long term.

Yum’s spinoff would reduce volatility for its remaining business, while “giving investors with a higher risk tolerance access to a more pure-play China growth story,” said Jonathan Morgan, an analyst for Edge Consulting. “China’s economic slowdown could induce other U.S.-listed restaurant stocks to spin off their China businesses, to protect their core businesses.”

So far, companies with China consumer arms have often chosen instead to sell the division to a local competitor and take a stake in that business instead.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in June sold its e-commerce platform Yihaodian to China’s second-largest e-commerce company, JD.com Inc., for a 5 percent stake in JD. In August, Uber Technologies Inc. surrendered after a year-and-a-half battle with Didi Chuxing and agreed to sell its business in China. It departed the country in exchange for $1 billion in cash and a 17.7 percent stake in Didi.

McDonald’s Corp., meanwhile, is seeking to sell its 20-year mass franchise rights for China and Hong Kong for a reported $2 billion.

Starbucks Corp. is the only other major U.S.-listed food and beverage chain in China beside Yum, which owns and operates its outlets, numbering 2,400 stores across 110 cities.

China, Starbucks’ largest international market, represents the most significant opportunity for the company, said a company representative. The company has no intention to change its operation model in the market, according to the spokesperson.

 

Jackpot Valuations

“What we’ve seen across various industries is that foreign players eventually pull out or find a local partner,” said Hong Kong-based S&P Global Ratings’ restaurant and retail analyst Shalynn Teo. “It’s the local market knowledge and local relationships that determine which foreign businesses survive in China, and local players will always have an edge.”

With Chinese investors paying a premium for market share, such deals can prove attractive, said Peter Fuhrman, CEO of Shenzhen-based investment bank and advisory firm China First Capital. “As long as Chinese investors are offering jackpot valuations,

Those that don’t face the need to tailor their businesses to China’s widely diverse and morphing consumer market. Only from March this year did KFCs in China began accepting WeChat Pay; they started accepting Alipay mobile payments in July last year. Yet the country leads the world in the use of such transactions, with four out of 10 Chinese consumers using mobile payments at physical stores, research firm EMarketer estimated.

Starbucks stores in China still do not accept Alipay or WeChat, only Apple Pay, a decision which costs them 5 to 10 percent of sales, estimates China Market Research Group’s Rein.

Starbucks launched its own mobile payment system in China in July, allowing customers to pay with preloaded Starbucks Gift Cards via their mobile devices, according to the company.

As China’s consumer market continues to grow, more overseas companies may consider following Yum down the path of segregation.

“Four out of 10 spinoffs do not generate a return in the first year of separation,” said Edge Consulting’s Morgan. “How Yum China performs will help U.S.-listed companies evaluate their strategic options in China.”

 

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-31/yum-s-spinoff-offers-roadmap-for-western-brands-in-china-market

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PAG Said to Pay About $250 Million for Chinese School Operator — Bloomberg

October 31st, 2016 No comments

 

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By Cathy Chan

(Bloomberg) — PAG Asia Capital has paid about $250 million for Golden Apple Education Group, a Chinese company that’s been embroiled in legal action brought by creditors of its former owner, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Hong Kong-based private equity firm acquired Golden Apple from Sichuan Harmony Group, a Chengdu-based property developer, the people said, requesting anonymity because the details of the transaction are private. Golden Apple became involved in legal cases brought since 2014 by Sichuan Harmony’s creditors because it guaranteed some of the property developer’s loans, the people added.

The sale of Golden Apple helped resolve legal claims from about 60 individuals and money lenders, some of which had foreclosed on Sichuan Harmony assets, according to an official at Sichuan Financial Assets Exchange, the state-backed entity which was appointed to lead the Sichuan Harmony debt restructuring together with PAG.

“It’s highly unusual for a foreign private equity firm to buy a Chinese company undergoing court-supervised administration,” said Peter Fuhrman, the chairman of China First Capital, a Shenzhen-based investment banking and advisory firm.

The unwillingness of many Chinese creditors to write off part of their loans, a concession needed to restructure debt and give a company a new start, makes such deals “worlds away both in complexity and investment appeal” from other private equity transactions, Fuhrman said.

 One-Child Policy

A spokesman for PAG declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Golden Apple referred to an Aug. 25 media interview posted on the company’s website which said it is partnering with PAG and plans to invest 2 billion yuan ($295 million) in its facilities over the next two to three years. She declined to comment further on the PAG acquisition or on the company’s legal issues.

PAG, co-founded by former TPG Capital veteran Shan Weijian, is buying Golden Apple partly because China’s move to repeal its decades-old one-child policy has bolstered the prospects of the education industry, according to the people. The Chinese government has estimated that the change is likely to add three million newborns each year. Investors have taken note, with venture capital companies conducting 10 fundraising rounds in the first half for startups in the maternity and pediatric market, according to VC Beat Research, which tracks internet health-related investment and fundraising.

   Kindergartens

Golden Apple operates 33 kindergartens and two primary schools, mostly based in Chengdu, with more than 12,000 students, the people said. PAG plans to expand the number of primary schools and develop secondary schooling after acquiring the business, according to the people.

Sichuan Harmony has reduced its outstanding loans from state-backed lenders from 2.5 billion yuan to 1.9 billion yuan, according to the Sichuan Financial Exchange official, who asked not to be identified by name. The company has 4.5 billion yuan of assets and will focus on its medical and community nursing- home businesses, the official added.

The market for online education services in China has also attracted overseas interest. KKR & Co. last year agreed to invest $70 million in Tarena International Inc., which offers in-person and online classes in information technology, marketing and accounting. GIC Pte and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

were among investors putting $200 million into TutorGroup, a Chinese online education platform, in its third round of financing in November. CVC Capital Partners in May sold its stake in Education International Corp., China’s biggest overseas educational counselling service provider, to a consortium led by Chinese private equity fund NLD Investment LLP.

 

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An Unspoiled African Paradise Where Many of the World’s Most Valuable Diamonds Wash Ashore — Fortune

October 27th, 2016 No comments

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Much has been written about “blood diamonds” and how these precious jewels fuel lawlessness and vicious feuds in parts of Africa. But, many of the world’s most valuable raw diamonds travel a much less violent pathway to market. They take a 90 million year waterborne journey, starting from a riverbank in inland South Africa and eventually wash ashore on the pristine Atlantic coastline of Namibia. There is no more tranquil, low-tech nor more valuable mining going on anywhere in the world. Diamonds are collected off the beach like seashells, as The Wall Street Journal highlighted in an article last week.

Sound far-fetched? If I hadn’t been there myself, I would have said the same. I’m one of the relatively few outsiders allowed into the “Forbidden Area” in Namibia. At the time, I was a journalist living in London and for years I gently but persistently prodded De Beers in London and South Africa to let me visit. I had first learned about the Forbidden Area as a school kid, when I saw it in an atlas. I made it then my goal to visit it some day. Not easy to do, but I did finally succeed. After seven years or so of asking, De Beers finally agreed.

I stayed there for two days in 1989 as a guest of De Beers. The first diamonds were discovered on the beach here in 1908 and almost immediately after, a 10,000 square-mile tract of southern African coastline and desert was closed off as a diamond concession. De Beers gained exclusive control soon after and has been gathering diamonds along the Forbidden Area’s 200 mile-long pristine beach ever since.

Over the years, political control over the Forbidden Area, also known by its German name the Sperrgebiet, has changed hands three times, from Germany, to South Africa and since 1990, it’s been a part of the independent African state of Namibia. The Forbidden Area makes up about 3% of that country’s total land mass, and is off limits to almost the entire citizenry. The Namibian government is now a 50-50 partner with De Beers, sharing the revenues from this most lucrative of all commodity operations.

Today, the Forbidden Area is probably the most unspoiled large plot of land left on the planet. The diamonds that come ashore here are particularly prized because on average, they are larger and higher- quality than those dug out of the ground. Sea currents over tens of millions of years gradually polish these raw stones to a state of unusual
clarity and brilliance.

As far as geologists can determine, beginning sometime during the Jurassic Age, the diamonds that wash up in Namibia were pushed to the surface by Kimberlite Pipes about 800 kilometers to the east, along what’s now the Orange River. The biggest, heaviest diamonds were gradually pulled down the river by currents and then eventually far out into the sea in Namibian coastal waters. The tides are now slowly but surely pushing them back on land.

About 10 years ago, De Beers began experimenting with ways to accelerate their recovery of these sea diamonds. They now have a fleet of five sea-going vessels that vacuum small quadrants of the seabed about 20 kilometers from the coast.

When I visited, De Beers relied almost exclusively on men from the Ovambo tribe to do the diamond harvesting along the beach. The De Beers facility inside the Forbidden Area was identical in appearance, if not in purpose, to a high-security prison. The Ovambo workers stayed in barracks near the beach for six months at a time. When their stay was up, they were subjected to a full manual body search as well as an x-ray search. I too had to undergo both.

The security is tight for a good reason. Today, almost 10% of Namibia’s economy, estimated at $2.5 billion, comes from the Namibian government’s share of the money collected from selling sea diamonds to cutters and polishers in Tel Aviv, London and Antwerp.

The raw Namibian diamonds sell for around $1,000 a carat, at least triple the price of the high-quality stones mined in Botswana, and well over 10 times the price of most other rough diamonds.

When big money is at stake, however, human ingenuity will often find ways to outsmart the most elaborate security systems. As I was told during my stay, one Ovambo worker did come up with a successful way to smuggle diamonds out of the Forbidden Area. Each time his six-month stint was up, he would return to his village and collect a homing pigeon. He would then smuggle the pigeon back into the Forbidden Area each time he returned. The X-ray search was only on the way out.

Once back in his barrack, he took the biggest diamonds he had hidden away during his last six-month shift, put it in a small pouch around the pigeon’s neck, and let the bird loose. It flew over the tall barbed wire fences and found its way back home. When his six-month shift was done, he returned home to find the pigeon and the diamonds waiting for him.

Even the De Beers Afrikaner guards spoke with admiration about the brilliance and audacity of it. How then was he discovered? One time he got a little too greedy and put so many diamonds in the pouch the pigeon could barely gain the speed and altitude to make it over the fence. One of the guards in a guard tower saw it and a team of them quickly hunted the struggling pigeon down. The guards removed most of the diamonds from the pouch, and followed the pigeon back on its slow flight to its roost. Once there, they asked who owned the pigeon roost. They then knew immediately which of the workers had devised this almost-foolproof smuggling method. They drove back to the Forbidden Area. The worker confessed and returned to De Beers the diamonds he had kept hidden in his home.

While diamond prices continue to go up, lately because of surging demand in China, the total supply of new rough diamonds is in steep long-term decline. Many of the original diamond mines in South Africa are tapped out. But, as far as geologists can estimate, there are still about 80 million carats washing around in the waters off the Forbidden Area’s coastline. Assuming no big changes in tides or technology, the last of these stragglers — likely to be among the biggest and most valuable of all — will be gathered up by De Beers before the end of this century.

 

Peter Fuhrman is chairman & chief executive officer of China First Capital, an investment bank and advisory firm based in Shenzhen, China. Neither he nor his firm are investors in De Beers.

 

As published by Fortune

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ZTO Spurns Huge China Valuations For Benefits of U.S. Listing — Reuters

October 21st, 2016 No comments

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By Elzio Barreto and Julie Zhu | HONG KONG

Chinese logistics company ZTO Express is turning up the chance of a much more lucrative share listing at home in favor of an overseas IPO that lets its founder retain control and its investors cash out more easily.

To steal a march on its rivals in the world’s largest express delivery market, it is taking the quicker U.S. route to raise $1.3 billion for new warehouses and long-haul trucks to ride breakneck growth fueled by China’s e-commerce boom.

Its competitors SF Express, YTO Express, STO Express and Yunda Express all unveiled plans several months ago for backdoor listings in Shenzhen and Shanghai, but ZTO’s head start could prove crucial, analysts and investors said.

“ZTO will have a clear, certain route to raise additional capital via U.S. markets, which their competitors, assuming they all end up quoted in China, will not,” said Peter Fuhrman, CEO of China-focused investment bank China First Capital.

With a backlog of about 800 companies waiting for approval to go public in China and frequent changes to the listing rules by regulators, a New York listing is generally a quicker and more predictable way of raising funds and taps a broader mix of investors, bankers and investors said.

“ZTO will have a built-in long-term competitive advantage – more reliable access to equity capital,” Fuhrman added.

U.S. rules that allow founder Meisong Lai to retain control over the company and make it easier for ZTO’s private equity investors to sell their shares were some of the main reasons to go for an overseas listing, according to four people close to the company. U.S. markets allow a dual-class share structure that will give Lai 80 percent voting power in the company, even though he will only hold 28 percent of the stock after the IPO.

Most of Lai’s shares are Class B ordinary shares carrying 10 votes, while Class A shares, including the new U.S. shares, have one vote. China’s markets do not allow shares with different voting power.

ZTO’s existing shareholders, including private equity firms Warburg Pincus, Hillhouse Capital and venture capital firm Sequoia Capital will also get much more leeway and flexibility to exit their investment under U.S. market rules. In China, they would be locked in for one to three years after the IPO.

As concerns grow about a weakening Chinese currency, the New York IPO also gives it more stable dollar-denominated shares it can use for international acquisitions, the people close to the company said.

IN DEMAND

Demand for the IPO, the biggest by a Chinese company in the United States since e-commerce giant Alibaba Group’s $25 billion record in 2014, already exceeds the shares on offer multiple times, two of the people said.

That underscores the appeal of the fast-growing company to global investors, despite a valuation that places it above household names United Parcel Service Inc and FedEx Corp.

The shares will be priced on Oct. 26 and start trading the following day.

ZTO is selling 72.1 million new American Depositary Shares (ADS), equivalent to about 10 percent of its outstanding stock, in the range $16.50 to $18.50 each. The range is equal to 23.4-26.3 times its expected 2017 earnings per share, according to people familiar with the matter.

By comparison, Chinese rivals SF Express, YTO Express, STO Express and Yunda shares trade between 43 and 106 times earnings, according to Haitong Securities estimates.

UPS and FedEx, which are growing at a much slower pace, trade at multiples of 17.8 and 13.4 times.

“The A-share market (in China) does give you a higher valuation, but the U.S. market can help improve your transparency and corporate governance,” said one of the people close to ZTO. “Becoming a New York-listed company will also benefit the company in the long-term if it plans to conduct M&A overseas and seek more capital from the international market.”

China’s express delivery firms handled 20.7 billion parcels in 2015, shifting 1.5 times the volume in the United States, according to consulting firm iResearch data cited in the ZTO prospectus.

The market will grow an average 23.7 percent a year through 2020 and reach 60 billion parcels, iResearch forecasts.

Domestic rivals STO Express and YTO Express have unveiled plans to go public with reverse takeovers worth $2.5 billion and $2.6 billion, while the country’s biggest player, SF Express, is working on a $6.4 billion deal and Yunda Express on a $2.7 billion listing.

ZTO plans to use $720 million of the IPO proceeds to purchase land and invest in new facilities to expand its packaged sorting capacity, according to the listing prospectus.

The rest will be used to expand its truck fleet, invest in new technology and for potential acquisitions.

“It’s a competitive industry and you do need fresh capital for your expansion, in particular when all your rivals are doing so or plan to do so,” said one of the people close to the company.

 

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-zto-express-ipo-idUSKCN12L0QH

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Google Returns to China, As a Hardware Company — Financial Times

October 11th, 2016 No comments

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The end is in sight for Google’s seven wilderness years in China. With none of the theatrics that accompanied its voluntary withdrawal from the country due to web-search censorship in January 2010, Google is now firmly on a path not only to return to China but also to potentially seize a spot alongside Apple as one of the most profitable tech companies there.

This is a likely outcome of Google’s announcement last week that it is entering with full force the global consumer hardware industry. Google Pixel mobile phones, Google Home artificial intelligence-enabled speakers, Google Daydream View virtual reality headsets, these will be the engines of Google’s revival in China. Based on what Google has so far revealed – including pricing – these products may find a large market among Chinese consumers.

The company has made no specific mention of plans to re-enter China. China’s government will not likely strew the ground with rose petals to welcome Google back.

Instead, Google can rely on China’s enormous grey market for electronics hardware to bring its products into China’s on-and-offline retail network. Hong Kong is usually the main transshipment point, not only because prices are lower than in the PRC, but the quality of hardware sold there is considered to be higher.

There is a precedent here. Apple took six years after the iPhone’s launch to ramp up its official sales channels in China by doing a deal with the main carrier, China Mobile. By that point, an estimated 30m to 50m grey market iPhones were already in use in China.

Mobile phones running Google’s Android system already dominate the Chinese market, with about 300m sold this year. Most are sold unlocked without carrier subsidy. None can freely access Google search, storage or maps. The Google Pixel will likely have similar limitations.

But Pixel will have huge advantages no other Android phone can match of closely integrating the operating system and device hardware to optimise the performance of everything else on the phone.

All of China’s many Android brands will be impacted, but none more so than the current market leader, Huawei. It now dominates the high-end Android market in China, even more so with Samsung’s recent woes. The Pixel will be priced to compete directly with Huawei’s flagship models.

It is not only in its home market of China that Huawei may get battered. It has also set great store on becoming the world’s leading Android phone brand in Europe. That will certainly be far harder to achieve now.

As it happens, Google’s announcement came at a time when just about everyone at Huawei, along with everyone else in China, was enjoying a week-long national holiday. They return to their desks this week to find the tech world disrupted. No one quite predicted Google would amp up its hardware strategy to this level.

Google had toyed around before, selling small volumes of its outsourced Nexus-branded mobile phone to showcase more of Android’s features. Huawei was one of the companies making Nexus phones. Google also bought in 2011 Motorola’s mobile phone business and unloaded it two-and-a-half years later to China’s Lenovo, a deal that has not worked out at all well for the Chinese company.

But, this time Google says it is not dabbling. It defines its future strategy as becoming, like Apple, a fully vertically-integrated hardware and software business, but one with the world’s most powerful system of proprietary voice and text-enabled artificial intelligence.

Google introduced three hardware products last week. More are certain to follow, including perhaps a mid-priced phone that will take aim squarely at China’s Xiaomi (among others), already reeling from falling sales and an inability to crack the more lucrative higher-end Android market.

Google’s advantages run so deep they can seem unfair. Not only does it own and develop the Android software its competitors except Apple rely on, it also already has one of the world’s best and most recognizable brands. Also worth noting, Google now has about $70bn in cash, mainly sitting outside the US, looking for new markets to conquer.

As for the other new Google hardware products – the home speaker and virtual reality (VR) headset – the market seems ripe for the taking. Despite billions of government dollars invested into Chinese companies working on machine-learning, artificial intelligence and VR, none has come to market in any significant way.

Even if they now do, none can match Google’s enormous breadth, capability and experience in human-machine dialogue.

Though a success in the US, Amazon’s Echo home speaker, which is capable of interacting with the human voice, is a non-entity in China. It does not understand spoken Chinese. Google, on the other hand, is quite adept at Chinese. While Google Maps, Gmail, Drive are all blocked in China, Google Translate is not.

Indeed, the Chinese government quietly stopped blocking it about a year ago. It’s the only one of Google’s major online offerings that can be readily accessed in China. The reason: Google Translate has become an essential tool for Chinese companies active internationally, as well as for many of the 150m middle class Chinese now vacationing abroad each year.

If Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, is correct, the world including China is moving from a “mobile-first to an AI-first world”. Google is already miles farther down this path than any Chinese company. It need not reestablish its search engine business in China to be a major force there.

As for China’s government, however it chooses to react to Google hardware products sweeping into China, its own aspirations to nurture globally-competitive indigenous tech companies probably just got a lot harder to achieve.

In the seven years since Google departed, China became in many areas even more of a tech Galapagos. Poised now to reenter China by the back door, Google should like the way the competitive landscape looks there.

If Google takes just 1 per cent of the China Android market – and my prediction is it will do markedly better – it will have $2bn of annual revenues in China, a business larger, more valuable and unassailable than when it pulled out.

Peter Fuhrman is Chairman & CEO of China First Capital, a boutique investment bank

 

As published in the Financial Times

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Can Xiaomi Reverse Its Slide in China? — CNBC Interview

September 28th, 2016 No comments

 

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From King-of-Mobile to possible also-ran in two short years, China’s Xiaomi is struggling to reclaim its spot at the top of China’s domestic phone market. Here’s my interview on CNBC on the tough challenges Xiaomi faces. Nerves are starting to fray among investors who put money into the company less than two years ago at a $45 billion valuation.

To watch the interview, please click here.