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

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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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