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Companies That Can IPO & Companies That Should: The Return to IPO Activity in China

June 30th, 2009 No comments

Ming Dynasty lacquer in China First Capital blog post

After a hiatus of nearly a year, IPO activity is set to resume in China. The first IPO should close this week on the Shenzhen Stock Market. This is excellent news, not only because it signals China’s renewed confidence about its economic future. But, the resumption of IPO activity will also help improve capital allocation in China, by helping to direct more investment to private companies with strong growth prospects.

With little IPO activity elsewhere, China is likely to be the most active IPO market in the world this year. How many Chinese companies will IPO in 2009 is anyone’s guess. Exact numbers are impossible to come by. But, several hundred Chinese companies likely are in the process of receiving final approval from the China Securities Regulatory Commission. That number will certainly grow if the first IPOs out of the gate do well.

Don’t expect, however, a flood of IPOs in 2009. The pace of new IPOs is likely to be cautious. The overall goal of China’s securities regulators remains the same: to put market stability ahead of capital efficiency. In other words, China’s regulators will allow a limited supply of companies to IPO this year, and would most likely suspend again all IPO activity if the overall stock market has a serious correction.

China’s stock markets are up by 60% so far in 2009. While that mainly reflects well-founded confidence that China’s economy has weathered the worst of the global economic downturn, and will continue to prosper this year and beyond, a correction is by no means unthinkable. There are concerns that IPOs will drain liquidity from companies already listed in Shanghai and Shenzhen.

Efficient capital allocation is not a particular strongpoint of China’s stock markets. In China, the companies that IPO are often those that can, rather than those that should. The majority of China’s quoted companies, including the large caps,  are not fully-private companies. They are State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs), of one flavor or another. These companies have long enjoyed some significant advantages over purely private-sector companies, including most importantly preferential access to loans from state-owned banks, and an easier path to IPO.

SOEs are usually shielded from the full rigors of the market, by regulations that limit competition and an implicit guarantee by the state to provide additional capital or loans if the company runs into trouble. So, an IPO for a Chinese SOE is often more for pride and prestige, than for capital-raising. An IPO has a relatively high cost of capital for an SOE. The cheapest and easiest form of capital raising for an SOE is to get loans or subsidies direct from the government.

Now, compare the situation for private companies, particularly Chinese SMEs. These are the companies that should go public, because they have the most to gain, generally have a better record of using capital wisely, and have management whose interests are better aligned with those of outside shareholders. However, it’s still much harder for private companies to get approval for an IPO than SOEs. Partly it’s a problem of scale. Private companies in China are still genuine SMEs, which means their revenues rarely exceed $100 million. The IPO approval process is skewed in favor of larger enterprises.

Another problem: private companies in China often find it difficult, if not impossible, to obtain bank loans to finance expansion. Usually, banks will only lend against receivables, and only with very high collateral and personal guarantees.

The result is that most good Chinese SMEs are starved of growth capital, even as less deserving SOEs are awash in it. More than anything, it’s this inefficient capital allocation that sets China’s capital markets apart from those of Europe, the US and developed Asia.

Equity finance – either from private equity sources or IPO — is the obvious way to break the logjam, and direct capital to where it can earn the highest return. But, for many SMEs, equity is either unknown or unavailable. I’m more concerned, professionally, with the companies for whom equity finance is an unknown. Equity finance, both from public listings and from pre-IPO private equity rounds, is going to become the primary source of growth capital in the future. Explaining the merits of using equity, rather than debt and retained earnings, to finance growth is one of the parts of my work I most enjoy, like leading to the well someone weak with thirst. Raising capital for good SME bosses is a real honor and privilege.

Most strong SMEs share the goal of having an IPO. So, the resumption of IPOs in China is a positive development for these companies. Shenzhen’s new small-cap stock exchange, the Growth Enterprise Market, should further improve things, once it finally opens, most likely later this year. The purpose of this market is to allow smaller companies to list. The majority will likely be private SME.

I’ll be watching the pace, quality and performance of IPOs on Growth Enterprise Market even more carefully than the IPOs on the main Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets. My hope is that it establishes itself as an efficient market for raising capital, and that the companies on it perform well. This is one part of a two-part strategy for improving capital allocation in China. The other is continued increase in private equity investment in China’s SME.

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China First Capital’s Report: 如何选择上市的时机和地点, “When and Where to IPO”

June 21st, 2009 No comments

China First Capital Chinese-language Report on "Where and When to IPO" for Chinese SME

 

I’m flying back from China as I write this, and bringing with me something of great value to me personally — even if I can’t claim to recognize every character. It’s the Chinese-language report prepared by my China First Capital colleagues on how a Chinese SME can avoid the quicksand and plan a successful IPO. Built on a first draft in English of mine, it’s written specifically for Chinese SME bosses. The report is called “如何选择上市的时机和地点

Download Here: 如何选择上市的时机和地点 “When & Where to IPO for Chinese SME”

We prepared the report with the explicit goal to help SME bosses make more informed decisions in capital-raising and IPO. There’s been an acute lack of reliable, well-researched information in Chinese on this topic. We hope the report will improve this “information deficit”. 

For me personally, this is the most important report we’ve prepared thus far for SME bosses. As this blog has discussed at length recently,  Chinese SMEs have been victimized disproportionately by every form of IPO indignity, from US OTCBB listings, to reverse mergers, Malaysian IPOs, SPACs and other schemes promoted by the predatory bankers, lawyers and advisors that swarm around China. 

Indeed, there are few bigger risks to a successful Chinese SME than making the wrong decision and heeding the wrong advice on where and when to IPO. 

I’d welcome feedback on the report. You can email me at [email protected]

For those who can’t read the report in Chinese, it provides a comprehensive summary of pluses and minuses for Chinese SME of listing on the US, Hong Kong and Chinese stock markets. It also discusses at length, with several case studies,  the damage done to good Chinese SME by OTCBB listings and reverse mergers in the US. The bad examples abound. 

Even if you can’t read the Chinese, I hope you’ll consider sending it on to those active in China’s capital markets, as well as to any Chinese businessmen contemplating a public offering.  Better Chinese-language information is the strongest antiseptic to kill off the bad deals and bad dealmakers in China. So, I hope all those with a genuine interest in promoting entrepreneurship in China will help spread the word.



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How the Bad IPO Deals Happen: Exploiting the Lack of Information and Knowledge to Bamboozle Chinese SMEs

June 17th, 2009 No comments

Qing Dynasty official statue, from China First Capital blog

In recent years, a large percentage of all OTCBB IPOs have been for Chinese SME companies. This is largely because too many Chinese SME fall too easily into the pit of investment vipers – the lawyers, accountants and self-described “investment bankers” and “private equity investors” that promote these OTCBB listings, reverse mergers and other schemes concocted by advisors generally for their own self-enrichment.

Once caught in the trap, the prospects for the SME are generally pretty bleak. They’ll be bled of badly-needed cash to pay the advisors, bankers and lawyers their fees, and later, by the costs of remaining a listed company. The bosses come to learn that a “US IPO” isn’t at all what it’s cracked up to be when it takes place on OTCBB: there are no celebratory news reports, no huge sums flowing into their personal or corporate bank accounts, no boost in company prestige or brand awareness. At best, it turns out to be a very expensive lesson. At worst, it’s the transaction that leads to the company’s premature demise.

Of course, by the time the SME realizes the scale of the mistake it made by agreeing to IPO on OTCBB, the advisors, lawyers and bankers are all long gone. I’ve heard from a Chinese lawyer friend that these advisors will change their mobile phone numbers after the IPO so the SME boss can no longer contact them.

Indeed, the distinguishing characteristic of these advisors and bankers is their disregard for the future condition of the Chinese SMEs once they’ve done the OTCBB transaction. They have no stake in the long-term success of the company, because they cash out at IPO, and move onto their next victim, er client.

It is not unusual that advisors earn millions of dollars from these OTCBB deals. It may be the most successful and durable investment banking racket of all time. Hundreds of Chinese companies have been ensnared over the last seven years.

How has it gone on for so long? For one thing, the OTCBB is not regulated in any real sense of the word. So, the SEC has little or no power to crack-down. The larger factor, though, is the complete lack of adequate scrutiny by the Chinese SME bosses. They put their business’s future in the hands of a bunch of guys with a proven talent (and mile-long rap sheets) for destroying companies, not building them.

I’m constantly amazed that great Chinese SME bosses I’ve met will do no independent due diligence on financial advisors. They don’t ask for a full track record of past deals, or partner bios, or a list of satisfied past customers to consult. Everything is taken at face value, and appropriately enough, the common result is a very large loss of face for the Chinese boss, after these bad deals have closed, and the damage is calculated.

Even if a Chinese boss wanted to do some proper due diligence, it’s by no means simple. There’s a notable lack of good, current information about the OTCBB in Chinese. Chinese journalists don’t ever seem to write about it, perhaps because these IPOs take place outside China. I did a search of OTCBB on China’s main search engine, Baidu.com, and the top results included information that’s three to four years old, and a site called OTCBB.com.cn that offers very little information, and seems to be owned and run by the kind of advisory firm that specializes in (you guessed it) doing OTCBB listings of Chinese companies. You won’t find anything too useful here.

It doesn’t take a lot of digging, assuming one can speak some English and knows where to look, to discover information that should start alarm bells ringing loud enough to wake the dead. For example, the Chinese government doesn’t recognize the OTCBB as a legitimate stock market for many transactions. Here’s a kernel of disclosure language from the SEC filing of a Chinese company that listed on OTCBB. (Underlined for emphasis:)

“The stock portion of the purchase price of Weihe to Weihe’s stockholders because the delivery of shares of the Company’s common stock in connection with the acquisition of Weihe is not permitted pursuant to applicable PRC law, so long as the Company is listed and traded on the OTCBB, rather than an exchange recognized by the applicable PRC governmental authorities, such as Nasdaq, AMEX and the NYSE.”

Imagine for a second you’re a lawyer, working with a Chinese SME on a proposed OTCBB listing. You must know this fact, that the Chinese government doesn’t recognize that stock market as legitimate. What do you do? Do you exercise your duty-of-care, and tell the client of the danger of an OTCBB listing? Or, do you just gloss over it, so that the deal will go through and you’ll earn big legal fees?

No prizes for guessing which course many of the lawyers take who advise Chinese SME on OTCBB listing. This is why it’s not, in my mind, exaggerating to say that these advisors are often a disgrace to their professions.

What can be done about all of this? It’s already too late for hundreds of Chinese companies that went down this road. For the other thousands of good SME bosses, however, access to better information in Chinese is obviously going to be important, to give them a solid basis to decide which kind of capital markets transaction to pursue.

I’ve done my share lately of cursing the darkness in this blog, remonstrating against the advisors, lawyers and bankers who’ve grown rich off promoting OTCBB and Pink Sheet listings, reverse mergers and SPAC deals. It’s time I also lit a candle.

Together with my colleagues at China First Capital, we’ve been working on a Chinese-language publication called “如何选择上市的时机和地点” or “When and Where to IPO”. It discusses at some length the problems with listing on OTCBB, or doing other kinds of rushed IPOs.

We’ll be completing it this week, and once done, we’ll do our utmost to make it as widely available as possible, in print and online.

 

 

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Size Matters – Why It’s Important to Build Profits Before an IPO

June 9th, 2009 No comments

Qing Dynasty plate -- in blog post of China First Capital

Market capitalization plays a very important part in the success and stability of a Chinese SME’s shares after IPO. In general, the higher the market capitalization, the less volatility, the more liquidity. All are important if the shares are to perform well for investors after IPO.

There is no simple rule for all companies. But, broadly speaking, especially for a successful IPO in the US or Hong Kong, market capitalization at IPO should be at least $250 million. That will require profits, in the previous year, of around $15mn or more, based on the sort of multiples that usually prevail at IPO.

Companies with smaller market capitalizations at IPO often have a number of problems. Many of the larger institutional investors (like banks, insurance companies, asset management companies) are prohibited to buy shares in companies with smaller market capitalizations. This means there are fewer buyers for the shares, and in any market, whether it’s stock market or the market for apples, the more potential buyers you have, the higher the price will likely climb.

Another problem: many stock markets have minimum market capitalizations in order to stay listed on the exchange. So, for example, if a company IPOs on AMEX market in the US with $5mn in last year’s profits, it will probably qualify for AMEX’s minimum market capitalization of $75 million. But, if the shares begin to fall after IPO, the market capitalization will go below the minimum and AMEX will “de-list” the company, and shares will stop trading, or end up on the OTCBB or Pink Sheets. Once this happens, it can be very hard for a company’s share price to ever recover.

In general, the stock markets that accept companies with lower profits and lower market capitalizations, are either stock markets that specialize in small-cap companies (like Hong Kong’s GEM market, or the new second market in Shenzhen), or stock markets with lower liquidity, like OTCBB or London AIM.

Occasionally, there are companies that IPO with relatively low market capitalization of around RMB300,000,000 and then after IPO grow fast enough to qualify to move to a larger stock market, like NASDAQ or NYSE. But, this doesn’t happen often. Most low market capitalization companies stay low market capitalization companies forever.

Another consideration in choosing where to IPO is “lock up” rules. These are the regulations that determine how long company “insiders”, including the SME ownerand his family, must wait before they can sell their shares after IPO. Often, the lock up can be one year or more.

This can lead to a particularly damaging situation. At the IPO, many investment advisors sell their shares on the first day, because they are often not controlled by a lock up and aren’t concerned with the long-term, post-IPO success of the SME client.  They head for the exit at the first opportunity.

These sales send a bad signal to other investors: “if the company’s own investment advisors don’t want to own the shares, why should we?” The closer it gets to this time when the lock up ends, the further the share price falls. This is because other investors anticipate the insiders will sell their shares as soon as it becomes possible to do so.

There are examples of SME bosses who on day of IPO owned shares in their company worth on paper over $50 million, at the IPO price. But, by the time the lock up ends, a year later, those same shares are worth less than $5mn. If it’s a company with a lot market capitalization, there is probably very little liquidity. So, even when the SME bosshas the chance to sell, there are no buyers except for small quantities.

The smaller the market capitalization at IPO, the more risky the lock-in is for the SME boss. It’s one more reason why it’s so important to IPO at the right time. The higher an SME’s profits, the higher the price it gets for its shares at IPO. The more money it raises from the IPO, the easier it is to increase profits after IPO and keep the share price above the IPO level.   This way, even when the lock up ends, the SME boss can personally benefit when he sells his shares.

Of all the reasons to IPO, this one is often overlooked: the SME boss should earn enough from the sale of his shares to diversify his wealth. Usually, an SME boss has all his wealth tied up in his company. That’s not healthy for either the boss or his shareholders. Done right, the SME boss can sell a moderate portion of his shares after lock in, without impacting the share price, and so often for the first time, put a  decent chunk of change in his own bank account.

We give this aspect lot of thought in planning the right time and place for an SME’s IPO. We want our clients’ owners and managers to do well, and have some liquid wealth. Too often up to now, the entrepreneurs who build successful Chinese SMEs do not benefit financially to anything like the extent of the cabal of advisors who push them towards IPO. 

 

 

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How to Time an IPO – the Right Path to the Stock Market for a Strong Chinese SME

June 4th, 2009 No comments

Ching Dynasty snuff bottle in China First Capital blog post

 

The timing of IPO is the most important question for all Chinese SME preparing for a public listing. Unfortunately, the correct answer is often the one most rarely heard. Instead, many investment bankers and advisors in China tell the SME boss that an IPO should be scheduled “as soon as possible”.

This is often music to the bosses untrained ears, since they’re wrongly assuming that the proceeds of an IPO will go directly into their pockets – a misconception these same investment bankers and advisors can literally cash in on. They’ll tell the SME boss the “bad” news — that the IPO proceeds must go to the company not to his personal bank account, and that the boss won’t be able to sell any of his own shares for a year or more after the IPO – towards the end of the expensive pre-IPO planning process, when it’s usually too late to pull out, without losing a huge amount of money.

This is if they bother to mention it at all. I’ve heard of instances where the Chinese boss is never told directly by his investment bankers, lawyers and advisors, but only finds out if his staff prepares a Chinese translation of the SB-2 prospectus used in OTCBB listings.

So, if not “right away”, what is the correct answer to the question: “when should a Chinese SME IPO”? Of course, circumstances will differ for each company. But, as a general principle, an IPO should come at the apex of an SME’s growth curve, when the company is achieving its historical highest return on equity and return on investment. This way, the SME will get a fuller value for its shares when it does list them publicly.

This also explains why pre-IPO private equity can have such a key role to play in the process. The purpose: put more capital to work than the company can generate internally, or can borrow from banks. This equity capital is then invested where it will earn the highest return over a two to three year period – for example, increasing production and improving economies of scale, or accelerating the pace of opening new distribution outlets.

The PE firm will also help improve efficiencies – in their role as risk-sharing partner with the SME boss – that can lead to significant improvement in net margins. In most cases, the pre-IPO PE capital can result in a doubling of profits. Done right, the pre-IPO capital will result in only modest level of dilution for existing owners – usually no more than 25%. It’s like switching on the after-burners: the SME can speed up its growth, improve its margins, seize large available market opportunities, and so position itself for a far more successful IPO in two to three years’ time.

An IPO has one great value above everything else: it will be the cheapest and most efficient way for an SME to raise the capital it needs to expand its business. The shares will likely be valued at multiples two times higher than a pre-IPO PE investor will pay. Since the amount of capital raised will be a multiple of profits, the higher the profits at IPO the better.

To illustrate this, let’s imagine a company with profits last year of RMB75 million. It has its IPO now, at a PE of 15 and its market capitalization at IPO is RMB 1,125,000,000. The company sells 25% of its shares in the IPO, and so it raises RMB 281,250,000. If instead the company waits another year, it raises a RMB50 million of pre-IPO private equity to help push its profit growth. A year later, profits have reached RMB120 million. If the company now has its IPO, at the same PE of 15, and sells 25% of the shares, it will raise RMB450,000,000 or 60% more.

Let’s  assume  the company continues to maintain a high return-on-investment, after IPO. If so, the more money raised at IPO, the higher profits should be able grow in the future. This is perhaps the most important predictor of overall share performance after IPO. By waiting to IPO, so that its size and profits would be larger, this company will be able to raise much more at IPO and so continue generate higher profits for many years into the future.

A company can IPO only once. So, it is important to raise the optimal amount during this one IPO. If a company IPOs too early, it will sacrifice its ability to finance its growth in the future. Many of the most successful IPOs in China were for private SME companies that had pre-IPO investment from private equity companies: Baidu, Alibaba, Suntech, Belle. That isn’t a coincidence. It’s the result of the sort of smart IPO-planning that is too rare in China.

 

 

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