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China’s Brand New Brand Names

January 30th, 2010 1 comment

Ming Jiajing jar from China First Capital blog post

1837. That’s when the first and still grandest of all consumer brand companies got its start.  Procter & Gamble started off selling soap and candles, then in 1879, introduced its first major branded product, Ivory soap, which quickly became the leading soap brand in the US. P&G then gradually, over the next 130 years, added other brands that became market leaders, including Tide, Crest, Pampers, Gillette, Olay, Head & Shoulders

This same slow-and-steady pace characterizes most other well-known consumer brand companies, including: Unilever, Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Mercedes-Benz, Gucci, Tiffany, Nike, Hershey, Crayola (http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/blog/archives/927), etc. 

The lesson: building brands takes time. Lots and lots of time. 

Except, that is, in China. Here, brands go from drawing board to market dominance in a matter of a few years, or less. The reason? Like so much else in China, economic and social change occurs so rapidly that time seems compressed. Three years of economic growth in China is faster than a generation’s economic growth elsewhere. No major economy in modern times has grown as fast, for as long, as China has over the last 30 years.

gdp

 The other reason, peculiar to China, is that there were few brands of any kind before the 1980s. Back then, a stolid proletarian China had a depressingly small number of equally stolid proletarian brands. Many have since disappeared. Those that are still around have often been overwhelmed into irrelevance by newer Chinese brands, or ones imported from abroad.

Good examples of this are Flying Pigeon bicycles and Bee & Flower soap. They were once near-monopolies in China, during Mao’s time. Today, they are bare remnants of their former, dominant selves. Neither has more than a 1% market share, if that. It’s hard to find any other examples outside China during the last 25 years of once-dominant brands losing so much market share so quickly. 

In the US and Europe, older brands often have cache. In China, they are toxic, for the most part, because they are the products of an era of scarcity and little to no consumer choice. So, the tens of thousands of Chinese consumer brands created over the last 25 years entered a market with few, if any, well-established incumbents. A few foreign brands have also done well in China’s mass market over this time: P&G has a great business here with Crest, Tide, Olay, Pantene. Other winners include junk food giants McDonalds & KFC, along with Coca-Cola, Nokia, Apple, Nike, Marlboro, Loreal.

But, in many cases, new Chinese brands have fought and won against competition from well-known imports. Protectionist trade rules have played some part in this, of course. But, a lot of the credit really belongs to smart Chinese entrepreneurs. Thanks to them, China’s consumer market has gone from brand-less to branded in less than a generation.

P&G’s kingpins, like Crest, Pantene and Tide, face a proliferation of Chinese competitors, priced both lower and higher than the global brands. In many other product markets, Chinese brands stand alone, including tissues and toilet paper (sold here in bulky ten-roll packs), bed linen, men’s and women’s underwear, and most food products.

Overall, there are few dominant brands with market shares large enough to discourage new competitors. In fact, new brands arrive all the time. In evolutionary terms, China is in the middle of a kind of Cambrian Explosion, with the rapid appearance of all kinds of new brands. Inevitably, the huge number of brands will shrink, as winners emerge, and has-beens die out. This process took decades in the US and Europe. It will almost certainly happen far more quickly in China. 

One reason for the especially rapid pace: lots of capital is now available to create and support new brands. Why? There is so much to be gained for any company that establishes a dominant brand in China. China will soon have the largest domestic market in the world. Grabbing a few points of market share in China will often equate to billions of dollars in revenue over the next five to ten years. 

In many of the most promising consumer markets, no brand has even emerged yet, with national scope and distribution. Here, smart entrepreneurs can build a brand in fertile virgin turf, rather than trying to force their way into an already crowded patch. If done right, you can turn a new brand into a billion-dollar household name in a short-time. 

I see this process very clearly with one of our clients. It’s still quite a ways from being that billion-dollar colossus, but it has a real potential to become one. The entrepreneur spotted a huge market opportunity five years ago, to create a brand to sell designer accessories to Chinese women from 20 to 35 years-old.

His key insight: the process of urbanization in China is creating an enormous group of working women in this age bracket, with the spare income to spend on not-too-expensive, but well-designed earrings, bracelets, necklaces, sunglasses. 

His business is now growing very fast, with over 100 stores in most of China’s major cities. Sales should double in 2010 to about $50mn, and keep doubling every 18 months for a long time to come. The best part: he faces no real competition, and so every day, his brand grows more and more known, and so less and less vulnerable to whatever competitors may one day come along. My guess is that this brand will be one of the quickest new consumer product companies in Chinese history to reach Rmb 1 billion in sales. 

Like many of the best entrepreneurs, this one makes it look very easy. It isn’t. He takes hands-on responsibility for the four key disciplines needed to build and sustain the brand: marketing, design, management and manufacturing.

That’s the other part about brand-building in China: it not only happens fast, it often happens inside smaller founder-run companies without the input of “specialists” or ad agencies.  I don’t know how many people in China have studied product marketing in school, but my guess is not many.

 

 

New CFC Report on Assessing Risk in PE Investment in China

January 25th, 2010 No comments

China First Capital Report on Assessing Risk in PE Investment in China

“Risk and Reward.  They are the yin and yang of investing.”

So begins the latest of CFC’s Chinese-language research reports on risk and reward in private equity investment in China. The 18-page report (titled 风险与回报 in Chinese)  has just been published, and is downloadable via the CFC website by clicking this link:  http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/Riskandreward.pdf

The report’s goal, as stated in the introduction, is to “summarize the ways PE firms evaluate the risks of an investment opportunity so that entrepreneurs will better understand the decision-making process of PE firms, and so greatly improve the odds of succeeding in raising PE capital.” 

The report identifies five key areas of risk that private equity investors attempt to quantify, manage and where possible, mitigate: They are:

  1. 1.      Market Risk
  2. 2.      Execution Risk
  3. 3.      Technology Risk
  4. 4.      Political Risk 
  5. 5.      Due Diligence Risk

As far as we know, this is the first such detailed report prepared in Chinese, specifically for Chinese entrepreneurs. It was written with input from the entire CFC team, and represents a collation of our experiences in dealing both with the founders and owners of Chinese SME and the PE firms that invest in them. 

Few, if any, Chinese entrepreneurs have experience raising private equity capital, or for that matter, answering pointed questions about their business. So, the whole PE process will often seem to them to be odd and protracted. The report aims to increase entrepreneurs’ level of understanding ahead of any PE fund-raising process. The report puts it this way: 

“ The goal of PE firms is to lower risk when they invest, not completely eliminate it. Risk is a necessary part of any profit-making activity. The basic principle of all PE investing is finding the best “risk-adjusted return” – which means, the best ratio of risk to potential future profit.”

Some strategies for entrepreneurs to lower an investor’s risk are also discussed. It’s practically impossible to fully eliminate these risks. But, an entrepreneur will have an important ally in managing them, if successful in raising PE capital. 

PE investment in China is a process in which an entrepreneur give up sole proprietorship over the risks in his business. It’s a new concept for most of them. But, the results are almost always positive. A problem shared is a problem halved. 

We hope the report contributes to the continued growth and success of the PE industry in China.

It can also be enjoyed, for entirely other reasons, by anyone who shares my love of Song Dynasty porcelains. Some beautiful examples of Jun, Guan, Ge, Yaozhou, Cizhou and Longquan ceramics are used as illustrations. 

Some examples:

Yaozhou4
Jun4

Guan6

 

 

 

 

 


PE-backed firms in China make huge contribution to Chinese economy and development

January 20th, 2010 No comments

Yellow snuff bottle from China First Capital blog post

Here’s an excellent article from AltAssets on the contributions of PE-backed companies in China. According to the study, Chinese firms receiving at least $20 million in private equity are leaders in contributing to job creation and economic growth in China.  


Chinese PE-backed companies have more positive social impact than listed firms 

The study compared 100 companies that received at least $20m US private equity investments between 2002 and 2006 with 2,424 publicly listed companies having major operations in China to determine their social impact.

The results of the study show that private equity firms support the development of inland provinces, contribute to foster domestic consumption, transfer management know-how to businesses in their portfolios and improve corporate governance. The study further shows that private equity-backed companies in China had a job creation rate 100 per cent higher and a profit growth rate 56 per cent higher than their publicly-listed peers during the study period of 2002 to 2008.

The survey, conducted by Bain & Company and the PE and Strategic Mergers & Acquisitions Working Group of the European Union Chamber of Commerce, also found that private equity-backed companies spent more than two-and-a-half times that of their publicly-listed counterparts on R&D.

Reflecting on their relatively stronger financial performance, private equity-backed companies yielded tax payments that grew at a 28 per cent rate compounded annually, ten percentage points higher than their benchmark peers in the study. 

Andre Loesekrug-Pietri, chairman of the European Chamber’s PE and Strategic M&A Working Group, said, “China has emerged as one of the leading destinations for private equity capital. This trend is continuing through the current turbulence.”

China is generating lots of interest in the private equity industry, with major firms setting up yuan-denominated funds in the country. Earlier this week Carlyle, the second biggest buy-out house, announced that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with Beijing city authorities to establish a fund there, to be known as the Carlyle Asia Partners RMB Fund.

http://www.altassets.net/private-equity-news/article/nz17691.html

More of China’s Art Treasures Belong At Home

January 18th, 2010 No comments

Song porcelain from China First Capital blog post

Hangzhou’s main art museum, known as the Zhejiang Provincial Museum,  sits on a nicer plot of land than any museum I’ve ever been to, including the Louvre in Paris and National Gallery in London. It’s on a small bend in the road that circles the city’s famous Xi Hu, or West Lake. From the museum entrance, you look out across the lake at a particularly lovely spot, with a small steep island ahead and the steeper mountains beyond. The museum itself is modern, in a classically-Chinese format, with pavilions reached by gabled walkways, set among small streams teeming with koi. 

The setting is perfect, but sadly, the museum’s contents are anything but. One pavilion offers a bunch of world “art treasures” that looked like they were bought for ten bucks each at airport souvenir stores . A low point: a set of mounted bull horns from Indiana. Another beautiful pavilion had the paintings and personal effects of a Hangzhou-born 20th century artist who had studied painting in France in the early part of the century, and then did some so-so pastiches of Chinese subject matter, incorporating elements of Cezanne, Picasso, Monet among others. 

A pavilion said to hold “historical relics” was locked and empty. Finally, you get to the two buildings with Chinese porcelains. My hopes remained high, since, after all, Hangzhou is the greatest of all China’s cultural cities, capital of the Southern Song dynasty, which produced (for my money) the finest porcelains the world has ever seen, including Jun, Ding, Guan, Yaozhou, Longguan, Qingbai, Cizhou, Ge styles. (The bowl above is an example of Song Dynasty Guan porcelain.) I’ve had the good fortune to see a lot of Song porcelains over the years, in museums in the West, and have handled a fair number at auctions in London and New York.  Many were produced close to Hangzhou. 

My not-unrealistic expectation, therefore,  was that the Hangzhou museum would have both more and better Song porcelains than I’d ever seen. So sure was I of this that I invited four CFC colleagues to come along with me, after we finished a client meeting. 

Bad choice. The museum, though in a gorgeous setting on a lake fabled for its beauty and historical meaning, is mainly a sad reminder that many of China’s most important art treasures are held outside the country, in museums and private collections. The porcelains in the Hangzhou museum look like (and most probably are) the leftovers after all the best pieces had been spirited away. The celadons have little sparkle or translucence, and have a gimpy shape.  There are no examples of the Jun and Guan styles most prized by connoisseurs. The one Yaozhou bowl is clumsily carved. Song burial urns are among the least ornate and less precisely-molded I’ve ever seen. 

The two pavilions with Song porcelains are a colossal disappointment, not just because the art works are generally of middling quality. Instead, a museum that should be a encapsulation of the greatness of Song culture is, instead, a subtle reminder of how much has been lost or pillaged.  Thousands of Song wares are in collections, public and private, around the world. At least six times a year, Sothebys and Christies hold auctions in London, New York and Hong Kong that include dozens of  works of Song porcelain far better than any on display in the Hangzhou museum. Museums from Tokyo to Paris to Washington D.C. are loaded with great works from the Song. 

But, here in Hangzhou, there are only cast-offs. Among the millions of Chinese who come to Hangzhou each year as tourists,  most will likely leave with no concrete appreciation of the paramount artistic achievements of the Song culture that sprang from here.  Instead, many must end up wondering, after visiting the museum, if there’s really anything much to be proud of from that period. One of the two pavilions for Song porcelain is almost entirely made up of shards of the most common sort of household pottery from the Song era, not the exquisite pieces crafted for emperors and scholars. 

The effect is a little like visiting Tiffany, expecting to ogle the diamonds, and finding it filled instead with broomsticks and knitting needles. 

The Chinese government, quite publicly, has been seeking to block the sale at auction of art objects looted from the Summer Palace in Beijing. It’s a small step toward the goal of one day recovering more of China’s lost artistic patrimony. I’d personally like to see the Chinese government more active, not just blocking the sale of items stolen long ago, but also buying some of the more important Chinese antiques that come on the market.

It’s easy to understand why the Chinese government has so far refused to do so, since they don’t want to let others profit from what it sees as wrongful expropriation. But, as a lesser of evils, I’d prefer them to bring back some of the more beautiful objects, and add them to the collections of important national museums like the one in Hangzhou. That way, at least, more Chinese would have opportunities to admire up close the crowning achievements of Chinese culture. 

It’s a good side project for CIC, China’s sovereign wealth fund, and China’s State Pension Fund. Along with trying to secure the country’s financial future, these two organizations could also invest, on a comparably small scale, to secure more of the country’s incomparable artistic heritage. 

The museum visit left me feeling sad, but also resolved to do my own small part. I’m fortunate to own a few Chinese porcelains and jade pieces from the Qing and Ming dynasties. The jade was left to me by my grandfather, who started collecting in the 1950s. I’d like to donate the art works to a Chinese museum when I die, if not sooner.  While nowhere near as important as the items regularly at auction at Sothebys and Christies, they are decent examples of the output of some of China’s finest artists and artisans. 

Art is a shared inheritance. But, more of China’s treasures should be seen where they were crafted. 


Navigating China’s Treacherous IPO Markets

January 11th, 2010 No comments

Song plate from China First Capital blog post

How do you say “Scylla and Charybdis”  in Chinese? Thankfully, you don’t need to know the translation, or even reference from Homer’s The Odyssey, to understand the severe dilemma faced by China’s stock exchange regulator, the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC)

Scylla and Charybdis were a pair of sea monsters guarding opposite sides of a narrow straight. Together, they posed an inescapable threat to sailors’ lives. By avoiding one, you sailed directly into the lair of the other. 

The CSRC has been trying to navigate between twin perils over the last months, since the October launch of ChiNext , the new Shenzhen stock exchange for smaller-cap private companies. They have tried to stamp out the trading volatility and big first day gains that characterized earlier IPOs in China. But, in doing so, they’ve created circumstances where the valuations of companies going public on the ChiNext have reached dangerous and unsustainably high levels. 

Monsters to the left, monsters to the right. The regulators at CSRC deserve combat pay. 

Based on most key measures, ChiNext has been a phenomenal success. So far, through the end of 2009, 36 companies have IPO’d on ChiNext, raising a total of over $2 billion from investors. That’s more than double the amount these 36 companies were originally seeking to raise from their IPOs. Therein lies the Scylla-Charybdis problem. 

Before ChiNext  opened, the CSRC was determined to avoid one common problem with Chinese IPOs on the main Shanghai and Shenzhen markets – that the price on the first day of trading typically rose very sharply, with lots of volatility. A sharp jump in the price on the first day is great for investors who were able to buy shares ahead of the IPO. In China, those lucky few investors are usually friends and business contacts of the underwriters, who were typically rewarded with first-day gains of over 20%. These investors could hold their shares for a matter of minutes or hours on the day of the IPO, then sell at a nice profit. 

But, while a first-day surge may be great for these favored investors, it’s bad news for the companies staging the IPOs. It means, quite simply, their shares were underpriced (often significantly so) at IPO. As a result, they raised less money than they could have. The money, instead, is wrongly diverted into the hands of the investors who bought the shares at artificially low prices. An IPO that has a 25% first-day gain is an IPO that failed to maximize the amount the company could raise from investors. 

Underwriters are at fault. When they set the price at IPO, they can start trading at a level that all but guarantees an immediate increase. This locks in profits for the people they choose to allocate shares to ahead of the start of trading. 

The CSRC, rightly,  decided to do something about this. They mandated that the opening price for companies listing on the CSRC should be set more by market demand, not the decision of an underwriter. The result is that the opening day prices on ChiNext have far more accurately reflected the price investors are willing to pay for the new offering.

Gains that used to go to first-day IPO investors are now harvested by the companies. They can raise far more money for the fixed number of shares offered at IPO. So far so good. The problem is: Chinese investors are bidding up the prices of many of these new offerings to levels that are approaching madness. 

The best example so far: when Guangzhou Improve Medical Instruments Co had its IPO last month, its shares traded at an opening price 108 times its 2008 earnings.  The most recent  group of companies to IPO on ChiNext had first-day valuations of over 80 times 2008 earnings. Because of the high valuations, these ChiNext-listed companies have raised more than twice the amount of money they planned from their IPO. 

On one hand, that’s great for the companies. But, the risk is that the companies will not use the extra money wisely (for example by speculating in China’s overheated property market), and so the high valuations they enjoy now will eventually plummet. Indeed, valuations at over 80x  are no more sustainable on the ChiNext now than they were on the Tokyo Stock Exchange a generation ago. 

Having steered ChiNext away from the danger of underpriced IPOs, the CSRC is now trying to cope with this new menace. They have limited tools at their disposal. They clearly don’t want to return pricing power to underwriters. But, neither do they want ChiNext to become a market with insane valuations and companies that are bloated with too much cash and too many temptations to misuse it.   

CSRC’s response: they just introduced new rules to limit the ways ChiNext companies can use the extra cash raised at IPO.  CSRC is also reportedly studying ways to lower IPO valuations on ChiNext. 

The new rules restrict the uses of the extra cash. Shareholder approval is required for any investment over Rmb 50 million, or more than 20% of the extra IPO proceeds on a single project. The CSRC also reiterated that ChiNext companies should use the additional proceeds from their IPOs to fund their main businesses and not for high-risk investments, such as securities, derivatives or venture capital.

The new rules are fine, as far as they go. But, they don’t go very far towards resolving the underlying cause of all these problems, of both underpriced and overpriced IPOs in China.

The problem is that CSRC itself limits the number of new IPOs, to try to maintain overall market stability. Broadly speaking, this restricted supply creates excessive demand for all Chinese IPOs. Regulatory interventions and tinkering with the rules won’t do much. There remains the fundamental imbalance between the number of domestic IPOs and investor interest in new offerings.

Faced with two bad options, Odysseus chose to take his chances with the sea monster Scylla, and survived, while losing quite a few of his crew. The alternative was worse, he figured, since Charybdis could sink the whole ship.

The CSRC may well make a similar decision and return some pricing power to underwriters, to bring down ChiNext’s valuations.  But, without an increased supply of IPOs in China,  the two large hazards will persist. CSRC’s navigation of China’s IPO market will certainly remain treacherous.  


The New Equilibrium – It’s the Best Time Ever to be a Chinese Entrepreneur

January 7th, 2010 1 comment

China Private Equity blog post

As I wrote the last time out, the game is changed in PE investing in China. The firms most certain to prosper in the future are those with ability to raise and invest renminbi, and then guide their portfolio companies to an IPO in China. For many PE firms, we’re at a hinge moment: adapt or die. 

Luckily for me, I work on the other side of the investment ledger, advising private Chinese companies and assisting them with pre-IPO capital raising. So, while the changes now underway are a supreme challenge for PE firms, they are largely positive for the excellent SME businesses I work with.

They now have access to a greater pool of capital and the realistic prospect of a successful domestic IPO in the near future. Both factors will allow the best Chinese entrepreneurs to build their businesses larger and faster, and create significant wealth for themselves. 

As my colleagues and me are reminded every day, we are very fortunate. We have a particularly good vantage point to see what’s happening with China’s entrepreneurs all over the country. On any given week, our company will talk to the bosses of five and ten private Chinese SME. Few of these will become our clients, often because they are still a little small for us, or still focused more on exports than on China’s burgeoning domestic market. We generally look for companies with at least Rmb 25 million in annual profits, and a focus on China’s burgeoning domestic market. 

For the Chinese companies we talk to on a regular basis, the outlook is almost uniformly ideal. China’s economy is generating enormous, once-in-a-business-lifetime opportunities for good entrepreneurs.

Here’s the big change: for the first time ever, the flow of capital in China is beginning to more accurately mirror where these opportunities are. 

China’s state-owned banks have become more willing to lend to private companies, something they’ve done only reluctantly in the past. The bigger change is there is far more equity capital available. Every week brings word that new PE firms have been formed with hundreds of millions of renminbi to invest.

The capital market has also undergone its own evolutionary change. China’s new Growth Enterprise Market, known as Chinext, launched in October 2009. In two months, it has already raised over $1 billion in new capital for private Chinese companies. 

In short, the balance has shifted more in favor of the users rather than the deployers of capital. That because capital is no longer in such short supply. This is among the most significant financial changes taking place in China today: growth capital is no longer the scarcest resource. As recently as a year ago, PE firms were relatively few, and exit opportunities more limited. Within a year, my guess is the number of PE firms and the capital they have to invest in private Chinese companies will both double. 

Of course, raising equity capital remains a difficult exercise in China, just as it is in the US or Europe. Far fewer than 1% of private companies in China will attract outside investment from a PE or VC fund. But, when the business model and entrepreneur are both outstanding,  there is a far better chance now to succeed.

Great business models and great entrepreneurs are both increasingly prevalent in China. I’m literally awestruck by the talent of the Chinese entrepreneurs we meet and work with – and I’ve met quite a few good ones in my past life as a venture capital boss and technology CEO in California, and earlier as a business journalist for Forbes

So, while life is getting tougher for the partners of PE firms (especially those with only dollars to invest), it is a better time now than ever before in Chinese history to be a private entrepreneur. That is great news for China, and a big reason why I’m so thrilled to go to work each day.  


The End of the Line for Old-Style PE Investing in China

January 4th, 2010 1 comment

Ming Dynasty flask, from China Private Equity blog post

As 2010 dawns, private equity in China is undergoing epic changes. PE in China got its start ten years ago. The founding era is now drawing to a close.  The result will be a fundamental realignment in the way private equity operates in China. It’s a change few of the PE firms anticipated, or can cope with. 

What’s changed? These PE firms grew large and successful raising and investing US dollars,  and then taking Chinese companies public in Hong Kong or New York. This worked beautifully for a long time, in large part because China’s own capital markets were relatively underdeveloped. Now, the best profit opportunities are for PE investors using renminbi and exiting on China’s domestic stock markets. Many of the first generation PE firms are stuck holding an inferior currency, and an inferior path to IPO. 

The dominant PE firms of yesterday, those that led the industry during its first decade in China, are under pressure, and some will not survive. They once generated hundreds of millions of dollars in profits. Now, these same firms seem antiquated, their methods and approach ill-suited to conditions in China. 

In the end, success in PE investing comes down to one thing: maximizing the difference between your entry and exit price. This differential will often be twice as large for investors with renminbi as those with dollars. The basic reason is that stock market valuations in China, on a current p/e basis, are over twice as high as in Hong Kong and New York – or an average of about 30 times earnings in China, compared to fifteen times earnings in Hong Kong and US. 

The gap has remained large and persistent for years. My view is that it will continue to be wide for many years to come. That’s because profits in China (in step with GDP) are growing faster than anywhere else, and Chinese investors are more willing to bid up the price of those earnings. 

For PE firms, the stark reality is: if you can’t enter with renminbi and exit in China, you cut your profit potential in half. 

chart1









If given the freedom, of course, any PE investor would choose to exit in China. The problem is, they don’t have that freedom. Only fully-Chinese companies can IPO in China. It’s not possible for Chinese companies with what’s called an “offshore structure”, meaning the ultimate holding company is based in Hong Kong, BVI, the Caymans or elsewhere outside China. Offshore companies could take in dollar investment from PE firms, swap it into renminbi to build their business in China, then IPO outside China. The PE firms put dollars in and took dollars out. That’s the way it worked, for example, for the lucky PE firms that invested in successful Chinese companies like Baidu, Suntech, Alibaba, Belle – all of which have offshore structure. 

In September 2006, the game changed. New securities laws in China made it all but impossible for Chinese companies to establish holding companies outside China. Year by year, the number has dwindled of good private companies in China with offshore structure. First generation PE firms with only dollars to invest in China have fewer good deals to chase. At the same time, the appeal of a domestic Chinese IPO has become stronger and stronger. Not only are IPO prices higher, but the stock markets in Shanghai and Shenzhen have become larger, more liquid, less prone to the kind of wild price-swings that were once a defining trait of Chinese investing. 

Of course, it’s not all sweetness and light. A Chinese company seeking a domestic IPO cannot choose its own timing. That’s up to the securities regulators. To IPO in China, a company must first apply to China’s securities market regulator, the CSRC, and once approved, join a queue of uncertain length. At present, the process can take two years or more. Planning and executing an IPO in Hong Kong or the US is far quicker and the regulatory process far more transparent. 

In any IPO, timing is important, but price is more so. That’s why, on balance, a Chinese IPO is still going to be a much better choice for any company that can manage one. 

Some of the first generation PE firms have tried to get around the legal limitations. For example, there is a way for PE firms to invest dollars into a purely Chinese company, by establishing a new joint venture company with the target Chinese firm. However, that only solves the smaller part of the problem. It remains difficult, if not impossible, for these joint venture entities to go public in China. 

For PE investors in China, if you can’t go public in Shanghai or Shenzhen, you’ve cut your potential profits in half. That’s a bad way to run a business, and a bad way to please your Limited Partners, the cash-rich pension funds, insurance firms, family offices and endowments that provide the capital for PE firms to invest.   

The valuation differential has other knock-on effects. A PE firm can afford to pay a higher price when investing in a Chinese company if it knows it can exit domestically.  That leaves more margin for error, and also allows PE firms to compete for the best deals. The only PE firms, however, with this option are those already holding renminbi. This group includes some of the best first generation PE firms, including CDH, SZVC, Legend. But, most first generation firms only have dollars, and that means they can only invest in companies that will exit outside China. 

Seeing the handwriting on the wall, many of the other first generation PE firms are now scrambling to raise renminbi funds. A few have already succeeded, including Prax and SAIF. But, raising an renminbi fund is difficult. Few will succeed. Those that do will usually only be able to raise a fraction of the amount they can raise is dollars. 

Add it up and it spells trouble – deep trouble – for many of the first generation PE firms in China. They made great money over the last ten years for themselves and their Limited Partners. But, the game is changed. And, as always in today’s China, change is swift and irreversible. The successful PE firms of the future will be those that can enter and exit in renminbi, not dollars.