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Life in the Fast Lane – Driving China’s Expressway Network

February 27th, 2010 No comments

Bamboo painting

 

“Do Not Drive Tiredly”  That’s the message, in English, on large highway signs spanning the roadway in Jiangxi. I was charmed by the idiosyncratic English, and even more by the fact that almost all highway signs in China, including mundane ones announcing upcoming exits or defining the hard shoulder, are all bilingual, Chinese and English.

Based on my recent highway travels through part of Jiangxi Province, I was probably the only one who could get much value from the English. That’s because almost all the other traffic on the highway consisted of very large and heavily-loaded long-distance Chinese trucks. Passenger cars are few and far between. 

Highways are a recent phenomenon in China, of course. I’ve never seen anything quite like them, in my +30 years of driving around the US and lot of the rest of the developed world. The Chinese highways are mainly well-built and usually in pristine condition. Besides the English-language signs, another source of frequent delight are the life-size plastic policemen, pointing plastic radar guns at oncoming traffic. They’re planted in the highway’s central meridian as not-so-subtle reminders to avoid speeding– or as the sign calls it, again in English, “Overspeeding”.

It’s those large trucks, though, that really define for me the current experience of highway driving in China. Despite their huge size – the trailers often have 20-wheels, and seem to stretch the length of seven or eight passenger cars – the trucks are often buckling under the weight of their loads. Most of the time, the cargo hold is open at the top, and covered with a very large tarpaulin, in various colors, intricately tried to the bottom of the flatbed. The trucks have a tendency to wobble and weave as they move along the road – the result of either unbalanced loads or, more likely, less-skilled drivers.

Long-distance trucking may be among the fastest-growing new professions in China. It’s a safe bet few of today’s drivers have been behind the wheel for more than two or three years. Many have their own particular style of driving. Heavy, slow-moving trucks often canter along, 30mph below the speed limit,  in the left-hand passing lane. Their side-view mirrors – the only way the drivers can see traffic behind or alongside them – are often tilted at angles that seem to defeat the purpose.  

Few of the trucks have any kind of marking on them. The concept of a truck as a moving billboard is still an alien one in China. Not so the ordinary highway billboard, which is very common, as are advertisements posted on overpasses. 

China produces so much, including a huge percentage of the world’s manufactured goods, that it’s hard to imagine how all this stuff moved around before the expressway network was built. The traffic on many expressways, including the ones I was on in Jiangxi, must be over 90% trucks. That’s only going to increase, as more production in China is moved to cheaper, inland areas.

The expressways are already quite crowded. Often, they are only two lanes wide in each direction – which may have seemed more-than-adequate 10 years ago when first designed, but now seem to belong in the Pleistocene Age. Within ten years, these roads will almost certainly all need to be widened. That can cost almost as much, per kilometer, as building new expressways. 

China’s toll fees are among the highest ones I’ve seen. In Jiangxi, it’s 0.4 Renminbi ( or around five US cents) per kilometer for passenger cars, and more for trucks. So, financing all this construction won’t necessarily put a big dent in state revenues.  

Even with all the slow-moving truck traffic, the expressway network in China is a godsend. It makes distances much less foreboding than they used to be in China. It’s possible to average over 100 kilometers-an-hour. On the older, ordinary road network, you’d be lucky to average half that speed. Where the trucks thin out, you can “overspeed” at around 160kph, and rustle the plastic policemen in your backdraft.

The Changing Formula of PE Investing in China: Too Much Capital ÷ Too Few PE Partners = Bigger Not Always Better Deals

February 16th, 2010 No comments

Yuan tray


In the midst of one of the worst global recession in generations and the worst crisis in recent history in the global private equity industry, China looks like a nation blessed. Its economy in 2009 outperformed all others of any size, and the PE industry has continued, with barely a hitch,  on its path of blazingly fast growth.

In 2009, over $10 billion  of new capital was raised by PE firms for investing in Asia, with much of that targeting growth investments in China. For the first time, a significant chunk of new PE capital was raised in renminbi, a clear sign of the future direction of the industry. 

This year will almost certainly break all previous records. A good guess would be at least $20 billion in new capital is committed for PE investment in China. For the general partners of funds raising this money, the management fees alone (typically 2% of capital raised) will keep them in regal style for many years to come. 

In such cases, where money is flooding in, the universal impulse in the PE industry is to do larger and larger deals. But, in China especially, bigger deals are almost always worse deals on a risk-adjusted basis. Once you get above a $20 million investment round, the likelihood rises very steeply of a bad outcome. 

The reasons for this are mostly particular to China. The fact is that the best investment opportunities for PE in China are in fast-growing, successful private companies focused on China’s booming domestic market. There are thousands of companies like this. But, few of these great companies have the size (in terms of current revenues and profits) to absorb anything much above $10mn. 

It comes down to valuation. Even with all the capital coming in, PE firms still tend to invest at single-digit multiples on previous year’s earnings. PE firms also generally don’t wish to exceed an ownership level of 20-25% in a company. To be eligible for $20 million or more, a Chinese company must usually have last year’s profits of at least $15 million. Very few have reached that scale. Private companies have only been around in China for a relatively short time, and have only enjoyed the same legal protection of state-owned businesses since 2005. (see my earlier blog post)

Seeing this, a rational PE investor would adjust the size of its proposed investment. In most cases, that will mean an investment round of around $10 million – $15 million. But, rational isn’t exactly the guiding principle here. Instead of doing more deals in the $10 million – $15 million range, PE firms flush with cash most often look to up the ante.  Their reasoning is that they can’t increase the number of deals they do, because they all have a limited number of partners and limited time to review investment opportunities. 

This herd mentality is quite pervasive. The certain outcome: these same cash-rich PE firms will bid up the prices of any companies large enough to absorb investment rounds of $20 million or more. This process can be described as “paying more for less”, since again, there are very few great private Chinese companies with strong profit margins and growth rates, great management, bright prospects and  profits of $20 million and up. 

Some day there will be. But, it’s still too early, given the still limited time span during which private companies have been free to operate in China. There are, of course, quite a few state-owned enterprises (SOEs) with profits above $20 million. Most, however, are the antithesis of an outstanding, high-growth Chinese SME. They are usually tired, uncompetitive businesses with bloated workforces, low margins, clapped-out equipment and declining market shares. They would welcome PE investment, and are likely to get it because of this rush to do larger deals. Some SOEs might even get a new lease on life as a result of the PE capital. 

The certain losers in this process: the endowments, pension funds and other institutions who are shoveling the money into these PE firms as limited partners. They probably believe, as a result of their own credulity and some slick marketing by PE firms,  their money is going to invest in China’s best up and coming private businesses. Instead, some of their money is likely to go to where it’s most easily invested, not where it’s going to earn the highest returns. 

Bigger is clearly not better in Chinese PE. I say this even though we are fortunate enough now to have a client that is both very large and very successful. It is on track to raise as much as $100 million. It is every bit as good (if not better) than our smaller SME clients. Unlike PE firms, we don’t seek bigger deals. We just seek to work with the best entrepreneurs we can find. Most often for us, that means working for companies that are raising $10 million – $15 million, on the strength of profits last year of at least $5 million. 

Our business works by different rules than the PE firms. We aren’t using anyone else’s capital. There’s no imperative to do ever-larger deals. We have the freedom to work with companies without much considering their scale, and can instead choose those whose founders we like and respect, and whose performance is generally off-the-charts. 

The ongoing boom in PE investment in China is likely to continue for many, many years. This is due largely to the strength of the Chinese economy and of the private entrepreneurs who account for a large and growing share of all output. 

But, the push to do larger deals will cause problems down the line for the PE industry in China. It will result in capital being less efficiently allocated and returns being lower than they otherwise would be. PE firms will collect their 2% annual management fee, regardless of how well or poorly their investments perform. 

Raising private capital for PE investment in China is a good business. And, at the moment, it’s also an easier business than finding great places to invest bigger chunks of capital. 

Is This China’s Worst New Brand? Cambridge University Clothing

February 9th, 2010 2 comments

store

 

In a recent blog post, I discussed how and why Chinese brands are not just holding their own in China, but winning against global titans like P&G, Nike, Unilever, Coca-Cola. A big reason is that there are Chinese entrepreneurs with a great feeling for what kind of brand messaging works best in China. 

But, of course, success is not automatic. China can also produce its share of Edsel brands, clunkers that seem from the start preordained to fail.

One such case has some special resonance for me. There’s a new retail clothing brand in China called “University of Cambridge”. It was just launched a few months ago, and there are already about ten stores across China, including one in the Shenzhen shopping mall closest to where I live. The parent company is also based in Shenzhen. 

I was more than a little surprised to see the Cambridge clothing shop open. For one thing, my guess is that I’m one of probably fewer than fifty graduates of the English university living in Shenzhen (Cantab. M.Phil 1985) . So, the “captive population” is going to be very small. What’s more, from a quick look around, I wouldn’t be caught dead wearing any of their clothing , best described as a slinky, polyester mélange of “Ye Olde England” and futuristic Chinese design. 

But, the bigger reason I was surprised to see the University of Cambridge store open is that I can’t believe the university would grant a license to a Chinese retailer to use the University of Cambridge name. Yet, on the walls of the store, as well as on the label of the apparel, it says that this company does, indeed, have the official license from Cambridge. Also, stuck into a lot of the clothing on display are pins emblazoned with the Cambridge emblem: cantab2If anyone can verify that this is legit, that this university did give this Chinese entrepreneur a license, I’d certainly like to know. The store is so brazen in claiming to have the license it’s hard to believe they’re making it all up. But, it could be. 

The store claims they are the first ever to get this kind of license from the university, and that it was granted in 2009, the 800th anniversary of Cambridge’s founding. They also say they have big plans for global expansion. If they don’t have a valid license to use the Cambridge name, then of course any such plan is going to fail from the outset. 

But, if they do have the license, I’d suggest someone at Cambridge should be doing a better job controlling how its name is being used. The clothing is really atrocious. If it were just t-shirts and sweatshirts with the Cambridge logo, it would be one thing. But, the store only has its own designs, both men’s and women’s, and nothing that really connects the styles to the university. 

The store is not without its sources of amusement. In describing the university, it provides a list of famous alumni, based on various categories. My favorite among these: “Politicians: Charles, Mandela, Lee Kuan Yew”.  I’m guessing they mean Prince Charles, though it’s clearly a stretch to describe him as a politician. 

I’m a particularly bad “one man focus group” to evaluate which brands are going to be successful in China. On most things, my tastes are way out of whack with those of the host population. But, I’m pretty confident the Cambridge University retail chain is going to sputter and die. Associating yourself with a famous European institution is not a bad idea by itself, and lots of successful Chinese brands look to capture a kind of European cache. But, this stuff is just too ugly, and too expensive, to catch on. 

The target market seems to be very affluent middle-aged Chinese of both sexes. They have much better, safer and more tasteful choices in the same mall: including Ralph Lauren, Zegna, Lacoste, Louis Vuitton, Canali, Gucci.

Ford marketed its Edsel brand for two years, before killing it off in what is still the biggest and fastest failure for any mainstream auto brand. My guess is that University of Cambridge retail chain won’t survive even that long.


 

Sino-American Relations – Some Overblown Analysis from the USA

February 3rd, 2010 No comments

Ge Vase from China First Capital blog post

Is China’s reaction to last week’s announced US arms sale to Taiwan really all that more strident than in the past? Should America be worried? To read some of the recent American news reporting, citing the usual ragbag of US-based “China experts”, you might conclude so.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/30/AR2010013002443.html
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/01/world/asia/01china.html?scp=1&sq=helene%20cooper&st=cse

I don’t buy it. China is not set, contrary to such reports, firmly on a course to antagonize America. It is, however, a great power with legitimate national interests to assert and protect. Sometimes those will clash with America’s national interests. But, the bilateral relationship also has a root system of common goals and shared admiration. 

I also don’t buy the line by American “China experts” about rising Chinese “triumphalism” , due to continued strength of Chinese economy. China’s economy has been outgrowing the US by eight to ten percentage points just about every year for the last 30 years. Same was true in 2009. The only difference: China grew by 8% while the US economy shrunk by over 5%. A similar net result as in the past, but one that highlighted a dramatic lessening of China’s economic dependence on the US. 

Do Chinese officials realize they now can maintain high economic growth without single-minded focus on exports to US, but look to domestic market instead? Yes. But, as you’ve also read, from Premier Wen Jiabao on down, there’s frequent public declarations on all the many problems and inefficiencies in China’s economy. 

Yes, China is getting stronger every year in every respect. But, is the tone now on arms sales to Taiwan really all that different? I don’t see it, and wonder how much others here see it, or whether it’s just the usual conventional US wisdom on China, a cousin of the “China expert” analysis that Chinese economic growth is a fraud, only resulting from cooked gdp numbers. 

China is mainly busy being China, just as America, most of the time is also mainly busy being America.  Both are continental powers with huge populations and vast domestic markets. Both also have a long history of being more inward- than outward-looking, quite patriotic, even occasionally xenophobic.

They often view the world with a similar sense of aloof distrust. There will always be points of friction between the US and China. But, time is gradually wearing down those points of friction, not sharpening them, as much of the US press would have us believe.