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Archive for March, 2010

Zhejiang Province: Why It’s China’s Richest and Will Be Richer Very Soon

March 26th, 2010 3 comments

QIng Dynasty vase, from China First Capital blog post

Geography is destiny. Nowhere is this more true, of course, than in China. The country is the world’s fourth-largest, in terms of territory. But, much of the country is inhospitable: with deserts, mountains,  loess and other areas less fit for human habitation. In a population of 1.4 billion, over 550 million are peasants and farmers. Yet, only 14.86% of the land in China is well-suited for cultivation. Too many hands with too little land to hoe. That basically sums up China’s vast agricultural economy.    

The most fertile agricultural areas are also the ones that have had the highest rate of industrial and overall economic development in the last 30 years. The three richest provinces in China also have the highest concentrations of fertile land: Guangdong, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Together, these three coastal provinces have a population of about 230 million, or 17.5% of China’s total. But, their combined share of China’s gdp is almost twice that. 

When economic reform got underway, these provinces were already relatively well-off, because of the high quality and productivity of its farm output. They were not as heavily industrialized as more northern parts of China, which got the major share of government investment and attention during the first 30 years after the 1949 revolution. 

This lack of industrial infrastructure turned out to be a decisive advantage for the three provinces, especially Guangdong and Zhejiang.  As reform took hold, they weren’t weighed down by the bloat of forced industrialization. The rich farmland and relatively high living standards helped create a greater sense of economic security and this, in turn, bred more of an entrepreneurial mindset.

As the Chinese government relaxed controls on private business, Guangdong and Zhejiang were the first to seize the opportunities. Capital from private sources was more readily available because of the profitability of farming in the region. Entrepreneurship flourished. To this day, one can travel around Zhejiang and Guangdong and rarely, if ever, come across a state-owned business. Their economies are almost entirely in the hands of private business, with larger, private SME in the lead. 

Travel north or west and the situation is markedly different. Here, subsistence farming was often the norm. There were no large agricultural surpluses to finance the growth of private business. State-owned companies, often of the “we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” variety,  have predominated. The private sector still fights for its share of resources in these other regions of China. Those with entrepreneurial flair often emigrate. Shenzhen is particularly full of such transplants, drawn from every corner of China. I’ve met many successful entrepreneurs here from inland provinces, especially Jiangxi, Hunan, Sichuan and Hubei.  

I’m in Zhejiang as I write this, and am stuck struck by the beauty of its scenery as well as the industriousness and wealth of its people. It reminds me most of Northern Italy, where I’ve spent a lot of time, earlier in my life. Northern Italy is one of the world’s most prosperous places, as well as among its most visually stunning.

In both places, mountains are close by nearly everywhere, and over recent decades, much of the rich farmland has been plowed under to build factories. Northern Italy includes most of that country’s (and the world’s) most successful private-sector companies and brands, including Benetton, Luxottica, Armani. The food is also particularly excellent, another trait it shares in common with Zhejiang. 

Northern Italy, statistically, is the richest area, per capita, in Europe – richer even than next-door Switzerland. Zhejiang, similarly, is the richest place in China, per capita. While Zhejiang can’t yet claim its home to any internationally-renowned brands, it does have China’s strongest nucleus of SME businesses. Many of these, in coming decades, will likely grow into large businesses that dominate their markets. One Chinese auto brand, Geely, which is about to complete its purchase of Volvo from Ford, is based in Zhejiang.                                               

Zhejiang is unique among provinces in China. It has three cities that vie for commercial and entrepreneurial supremacy. Wenzhou, Ningpo and Hangzhou act like separate pumps, channeling energy and wealth into the province’s circulatory system. I spent time recently in Fuyang, the area about 30 miles to the south of Hangzhou. We’re now lucky to have an outstanding client SME in that city. Fuyang is mainly mountainous. Thin strips of flat richly-fertile land hold much of the population, transport infrastructure and industry. 

It’s hard to imagine there could be a more productive slice of our planet than this flat land in Fuyang, including in Northern Italy. In a hectic 36 hours, I visited six different companies in Fuyang, each from a different industry, and each already of a scale that puts it in the top flight of all China’s SME. They are a very small sample of the great entrepreneurial output of this area of Zhejiang.  I was very impressed with each company, and with each “laoban” (老板), Chinese for “boss”. 

These companies, and Zhejiang itself, embody the two most powerful forces that are now reshaping the Chinese economy: the twin reliance on private sector SME, and on producing for China’s domestic market rather than manufacturing OEM products for export.   

Zhejiang started out with a lot of natural advantages that other regions in China could only envy: the fertile land, an abundance of fresh water, inland waterways (including the Grand Canal) and plentiful rainfall, proximity to the coast and the major ports in Ningpo and nearby Shanghai. But, it’s richest blessing is a population of talented, instinctive entrepreneurs. They’ve taken what nature provided and augmented it, building a thriving, vibrant industrial economy in an area that 20 years ago was still mainly farmland and rice paddies. 

Other people’s idea of a perfect holiday is a week on some beach, or a visit to a tourist city like Rome or Paris. Mine is to spend time in a place with great food and great entrepreneurs, visiting their factories, hearing their strategies to conquer new markets and seize new opportunities to make money. 

Zhejiang really is my kind of place.

  

Beijing Outmuscles Shanghai to Take the Lead in China’s PE Industry

March 17th, 2010 No comments

Qing dynasty lacquer from China First Capital blog post

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way. Shanghai has lost its leading position at the center of the private equity industry in China. Instead, Beijing has grabbed the mantle, and is now the city in China with the densest network of active, top tier PE firms.

Could this be an example of the failure of central planning? It’s certainly the case that Chinese governments for the last twenty years have pursued explicitly the goal of making Shanghai the financial capital of China. The frequently-cited analogy: Shanghai, like New York, would serve the center of finance and trade, while Beijing would more closely resemble Washington, as a less commercial, more politically-focused city.

For quite awhile, this division of power prevailed. Shanghai’s stock market became the country’s largest, acting as magnet for banks and brokerage companies. Many of the first PE firms to enter China followed along, setting up their main offices in Shanghai.

Beijing, meanwhile, remained something of a financial backwater. It attracted the headquarters of the largest state-owned companies (like China Mobile, Sinopec, China Telecom), but never developed a capital market of its own. Beijing-based PE firms, in the main, were several steps behind their Shanghai competitors.  The capital and top talent were concentrated in Shanghai.

Today, the axis has shifted. Beijing is clearly in the ascendant. The money, the people and the future of the PE industry in China all seem to be going Beijing’s way. This shift was not the result of any specific government policy benefitting Beijing’s PE firms.

In fact, it’s only in Shanghai where such inducements are in place. The local government in Pudong, for example, has made a special push to attract PE firms, offering them various tax breaks to locate there.

How did Beijing gain the upper hand? Two main factors stand out: China’s central government has become the most significant large new source of PE capital. Second, the locus of IPO activity is also shifting from international stock markets, principally Hong Kong and New York, to China’s domestic exchanges. This has elevated the importance of Beijing-based China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC, or证监会  in Chinese). It makes the decisions about which Chinese companies can IPO in China and when.

There is simply no comparison between the work of the CSRC and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the institution on which it was loosely modeled. The SEC lets the market decide which companies should IPO. The CSRC is nowhere near that laissez-faire. It decides which companies, from which industries, with what kind of profit level should IPO, and when the IPO should take place.

Any PE firm that needs domestic IPOs to achieve an exit needs to know how the CSRC works, and when necessary, how to properly influence them. Beijing-based PE firms are in the right place to influence this key decision-maker in the process of gaining exit for their portfolio companies.

There is no rule that says investment funds from the central government should be managed in Beijing, by investment firms based there. But, in practice, that’s what’s happening. This is very noticeable when you look at the PE firms selected to received renminbi funds from China’s enormous National Social Security Fund (NSSF or 社保 in Chinese), which has over $100bn in total assets, and growing fast. It plans to invest around 10% of its assets in private equity and other alternative investments. This will soon make the NSSF the largest Limited Partner for private equity firms.

Of the 20 PE firms so far selected to receive NSSF funds, a significant majority are Beijing-based, including powerhouses like SAIF, CDH, Legend Capital, NewHorizon. In addition, the NSSF has chosen to provide capital to a group of domestic PE firms, including Brightstone .

The NSSF isn’t the only Chinese government body providing funding for PE firms. Two other powerful and cash-rich institutions, the National Reform and Development Commission (发改会 in Chinese) , and National Investment Commission (国资会),are also playing a role steering capital to PE firms.

The more crucial advantage, however, is probably the Beijing firms’ deeper connections with the Beijing-based CSRC. Staging an IPO in China is a complex, time-consuming process and not terribly transparent process. It often requires many levels of central government involvement and approval. The CSRC is at the apex of this bureaucratic pyramid. It has the final say on which companies can IPO and when.

For a PE firm, building good relations with the CSRC is almost as important as choosing good companies to invest in. Those portfolio companies will have a better chance of a timely and successful IPO in China if their PE investor knows how the CSRC works, and how to push the approval process through to a successful conclusion. Beijing firms are usually best at working these and other levers of Chinese power. This skill trumps any advantage Shanghai may have as China’s official “financial capital”.

It’s a cumulative process:  the Beijing firms’ are growing richer and more skilled in the intricacies of Chinese decision-making and IPO planning. Their edge over Shanghai firms is therefore only likely to grow in coming years.

My company has felt the impact of this shift towards Beijing, and we’re responding to it. I’m certainly traveling there more and more. Our goal is to help clients become highly successful publicly-traded companies by arranging pre-IPO PE investment. The Beijing PE firms have a decided – and increasingly decisive – advantage.

They are well-integrated into the system that makes the key decisions in China, both by receiving funding from the central government and by building consistent and productive working relationships with the CSRC and other key agencies. We advise our clients to consider very strongly the advantages that Beijing PE firms hold.

Beijing has another key asset. The firms we work with are all well-led, with great people, both at partner level and below. For Chinese companies seeking PE financing, the road to success more often leads to and through Beijing.


A Late Winter Snowstorm in Beijing

March 14th, 2010 No comments

Snow painting from China First Capital blog post

I fulfilled a life-long goal today – and I’m now paying the price for it. Since my first visit to Beijing in 1981, I always wanted to see the city during a snowstorm. Today, I got my wish. The snow starting falling this morning, and it’s still coming down, ten hours later, soft, clumpy and slow. I’m now stuck at Beijing’s Capital Airport, waiting out a four-hour snow delay.

Waking early this morning as the snow began to accumulate,  I knew precisely where I wanted to go. I took the articulated #1 bus down Changan Boulevard and got off at Nanchizi. I then wandered around on the eastern edge of the Forbidden City, and was stopped dead in my tracks by just the sort of view I’d long visualized. The snow covered the banks of a narrow, twisting canal leading to the palace’s vermillion bulwarks. The ancient trees were all duffeled by snow, as was a small ancient-style wooden skiff moored to a little dock.

It was a view of Beijing new to me, and yet also somehow deeply familiar. The living landscape mirrored images in traditional Song and Ming Dynasty Chinese landscape paintings I’ve admired for decades. There was the same sense of quiet serenity, of a natural order largely undisturbed by man. While I’ve long since forgotten most of what I once knew about Taoism, the landscape this morning in Beijing seemed a pure expression of the naturalism and stillness that are at the religion’s core.

Now, of course, there is much less of the old, Ming Dynasty Beijing left standing, compared with when I first visited 29 years ago.  All but a few fragments have gone under the wrecking ball.  Turning away from the canal near the Imperial Palace, the scene could no longer be mistaken for a Song Dynasty tableau. Instead, it looked more like Chicago during a snowstorm: lots of slush, and slow-moving automobile traffic.

In other words, Beijing in the snow wasn’t quite as I’d imagined it for all those years. Noticeably absent:  peddlars selling gloves lined with dog-fiur (I had a pair back in 1981) and small handheld coal-fired braziers, crenellated grey-tiled roofs piled with snow, and, most especially, Bactrian camels. Long, slow-moving caravans of Bactrian caravans.

Back at the sixth-story home of a friend, I stared out over a view far more typical of today’s Beijing: an intersection of vaulting bridges and curving exit ramps where two eight-lane roads intersect. Cars moved slower than usual, and there were far fewer of them. Overall, it was the quietest day I can recall in many years in Beijing.

I had a flight to catch tonight back to muggy Shenzhen, and the snowstorm caused the familiar sort of havoc. Most flights at Beijing’s large airport were cancelled.

It’s been a very long and unusually snowy winter in Beijing. Today’s storm was not particularly severe, about six inches or so. Oddly, the temperature stayed well above freezing all day.  The Chinese, I’m told, have a saying that it gets warmer during a snowstorm, and then things turn much colder afterward.

The snow falls on a very different Beijing than the city I first came to all those years ago. Much that was uniquely sublime about the city’s architecture and street-life are gone. But, Beijing is still a very special place, and no big modern city is more wondrously transformed in the snow.

Smart Commentary on China from Washington Post

March 7th, 2010 2 comments

John Pomfret article Washington Post in China First Capital blog post

From his perch at the Washington Post,  John Pomfret is one of the better-known American journalists writing about China. He is also, coincidentally, one of my oldest and closest friends. I quibble with him often about his take on China, particularly now that I’m living here and he isn’t. He moved back to the US five years ago, and wrote a well received book about China called “Chinese Lessons”.  Quite a lot of it was written in my dining room in LA. 

For a change, I actually agree with the main thrust of one of John’s articles on China. It’s an opinion piece, co-written with his colleague Steve Mufson, published recently in the Post. It’s title: “There’s a new Red Scare. But is China really so scary?” Read it here.

The key insight is that America, in the midst of a deep and long recession,  is undergoing one of its periodic bouts of self-laceration. The widespread anxiety that America is in decline is exacerbated by a sense that China is now better, smarter, faster in many important ways. A lot of this is plain silliness, as John’s article points out. 

America’s problems are home-grown. China’s rise over the last 30 years is overwhelmingly positive, for its own citizens first and foremost, but also for the rest of the world, US included. 

There’s a lot for an American to admire, even envy, about China. Two examples: even while remaking most aspects of its society, the family has retained its primacy in Chinese life, as a source of stability, happiness, and purpose. China also remains the most “kid friendly” country I know, measured by the care and affection lavished on the young Chinese, particularly infants and preschoolers. 

Americans, in the main,  have always had a special fondness for China, regardless of the state of the political relationship between the leaders of the two countries. But, that fondness doesn’t stop many of them from perpetuating simplistic notions about the place. Once, China was seem as hopelessly backward and poverty-stricken. Now, it’s seen as a novice superpower, outmuscling the US across the globe. 

John’s article cites a quote from Sun Tzu, “If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.”


Carlyle Goes Native: Renminbi Investing Gets Big Boost in China

March 1st, 2010 2 comments

 

Qing Dynasty lacquer box from China First Capital blog post

My congratulations, both personal and professional, to Carlyle Group, which announced last week the launch of its first RMB fund, in partnership with China’s Fosun Group. I happen to know some of the people working at Carlyle in China, and I’m excited about the news, and how it will positively impact their careers. 

Carlyle is the first among the private equity industry’s global elite to take this giant public step forward in raising renminbi in partnership with leading Chinese private company. It marks an important milestone in the short but impressive history of private equity in China, and points the way forward for many of the private equity firms already established in China. 

The initial size of the new renminbi fund is $100mn. By Carlyle’s standards, this seems almost like a rounding error – representing a little more than 0.1% of Carlyle’s total assets of $90 billion.  But, don’t let the size fool you. For Carlyle, the new renminbi fund just might play an important role in the firm’s future, as well as China’s. 

The reason: Carlyle will now be able to use renminbi to invest more easily in domestic companies in China, then help take them public in China, on the Shanghai or Shenzhen stock markets. Up to now, Carlyle’s investments in China, like those of its global competitors, have been mainly in dollars, into companies that were structured for a public listing outside China. Carlyle has a lot to gain, since IPO valuations are at least twice as high in China as they are in Hong Kong or USA. 

That means an renminbi investment leading to a Chinese IPO can earn Carlyle a much higher return, likely over 300% higher, than deals they are now doing.  By the way, the deals they are now doing in China are anything but shabby, often earning upwards of five times return in under two years. Access to renminbi potentially will make returns of 10X more routine.  Carlyle has ambitious plans to keep raising renminbi, and push the total well above the current level of $100mn. 

As rosy as things look for Carlyle, the biggest beneficiary may well turn out to be the Chinese companies that land some of this Carlyle money. PE capital is not in short supply in China, including an increasing amount of renminbi. But, smart capital is always at a premium. Capital doesn’t get much smarter – or PE investing more disciplined — than Carlyle. They have the scale, people, track record and value-added approach to make a significant positive impact on the Chinese companies they invest in. 

This is the key point: the best opportunities in private equity are migrating towards those firms that have both renminbi and a highly professional approach to investing. That’s why the leading global PE firms will likely join Carlyle in raising renminbi funds. Blackstone is already hard at work on this, and rumors are that TPG and KKR are also in the hunt. 

Carlyle now joins a very select group of world-class PE firms with access to renminbi. The others are SAIF, CDH, Hony Capital, Legend Capital and New Horizon Fund. These firms are all focused primarily (in the case of SAIF) or exclusively on China. While they lack Carlyle’s scale or global reach, they more than make up for it by commanding the best deal flow in China. SAIF, CDH, Hony, Legend and New Horizon have all been around awhile, starting first as dollar-based investors, and then gradually building up pool of renminbi, including most recently funds from China’s national state pension system. 

Like Carlyle, they also have outstanding people, and very high standards. They are all great firms, and are a cut above the rest. Up to now, they have done more deals in China than Carlyle, and know best how to do renminbi deals. Carlyle and other big global PE firms will learn quickly.  As they raise renminbi, they will elevate the overall level of the PE industry in China, as well as increase the capital available for investment. 

The certain outcome: more of China’s strong private SMEs will get pre-IPO growth capital from firms with the know-how and capital to build great public companies.