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

February 16th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

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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. 

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