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Archive for December, 2010

The Greenest and Maybe Cleanest Vehicle on the Road

December 28th, 2010 6 comments

scooter

Is this the zero-emissions green vehicle of the future? For the masses, possibly not.  For me personally, maybe so. It’s a battery-powered electric scooter, with solar panels for recharging during daylight hours.

I’ve become a big fan, and a minor authority, on battery-powered electric scooters. I’ve owned a few. A Chinese-made electric scooter was my primary form of urban transportation while living and working in Los Angeles until moving to China last year.

Though I never saw another one on the road in LA, I’m a passionate believer in this mode of transport. In China, electric scooters are almost as common as passenger cars, with upwards of five million sold every year. The streets and sidewalks are crowded with them. They run on lead acid batteries, the same kind used in car batteries.

The electric scooters sold now in China rely on plug-in battery rechargers. That’s the biggest drawback of driving one. Lead acid batteries can take up to eight hours to recharge. This new solar-powered recharger should solve that problem. The battery recharges automatically as you ride around, as long as there’s sunlight. Assuming the solar recharger works, this electric scooter becomes a street-legal perpetual motion machine, never needing, at least during daytime, to stop for a recharge.

I met the inventor, Zhao Weiping, at a trade exhibition. I could barely contain my excitement. We discussed the science, the capacity of the solar panels, and the potential to upgrade the batteries to lighter, longer-lasting lithium batteries. He’s only built prototypes so far. He expects the cost, for a base model, to be around Rmb3,000 ($440).

With lithium batteries, the price goes up to around $750. Lithium batteries take half the time to recharge.

Another benefit of lithium: the batteries weigh less than half lead acid ones. Less weight means less drag and so farther range on a full battery and faster top speeds.  Engineer Zhao guesses top speed should be about 50kph (30mph) compared to 30kph (18mph) for lead acid models.

To me, it sounds like the ideal form urban transport: zero emissions, reliable, fast enough to keep up with traffic, and will rarely, if ever, require mains electricity to recharge. In other words, zero cost per kilometer traveled.

It gets better: in much of the US, including California, you don’t need a driver’s license or insurance to drive an electric scooter, and you can drive it legally in bicycle lanes. Of course, few traffic cops know any of these facts. I was pulled over routinely in California, while riding my electric scooter. Eventually, I created a plastic-coated car card with all the relevant clauses of the state traffic code. I’d present it to traffic police, and they’d usually let me head off after a few minutes.

In LA, I drove a Chinese electric scooter upgraded with lithium. Top speed was about 24 mph. Recharging time: four to five hours. As commutes go, my 9-mile trip to work was about as pleasant and relaxing as any could be. Most of my route was along the Pacific Ocean, and then through some of the hipper areas of Santa Monica and Venice. When the roads were crowded at rush hour, I’d switch into the bicycle lane. You can park anywhere on the sidewalk, just like a bicycle.

The biggest hazard is pedestrians. The scooters are so quiet that people don’t hear it coming. I had a few near misses.

I never understood why so few in California ride electric scooters. I never saw another one on the road. California is certainly one of the most environmentally-conscious places on earth. Motorized transport doesn’t get any greener than electric scooters. Zero emissions, zero fossil fuels, zero direct carbon footprint.

Those green credentials were never my main reasons for riding an electric scooter. I liked the convenience, the tranquility, the absence of traffic and the sheer exhilaration of riding it.

Exhilaration, however, is instantly transformed into despair when your battery runs out of juice.  It happened to me a few times, when I miscalculated the range. Open throttle riding, going uphill, lots of stops and starts can all drain the battery rather quickly. The meter showing battery life is, at best, unreliable. When the battery is empty, the scooter will shudder once, then conk out completely.

Run out of fuel with an internal combustion engine, you call the AAA or find a gas station. Run out of electricity with an electric scooter and your only real choice is to push the vehicle home for recharge. I’ve had to do it more than once.

Engineer Zhao’s solar-powered recharger should make that problem less common, if not eliminate it altogether. At worst, if the battery empties, you park it and in daytime, come back in a few hours and drive it away. Limitless range should make for limitless enjoyment.

Yes, but will Engineer Zhao’s machine work? Talking with him, it’s hard not to be confident it will. The solar panels are powerful enough to keep the batteries recharged and light enough not to create a lot of extra drag. The only way to find out, of course, is to get one. I’m thinking now of commissioning Engineer Zhao to build me one, with lithium batteries.

If it works, I’ll help Engineer Zhao get venture capital funding to build his company. My gut tells me I’m not the only one who’d ride around on one, and that there could be a very big market in the US, Europe and China for this solar-charged scooter.

I don’t particularly relish the idea of driving any sort of vehicle on Shenzhen’s streets. Driving is chaotic. Accidents common. Pollution awful. There are no bicycle lanes. But, I’m prepared to put my money – and perhaps my health – on the line to prove this is a vehicle with a future and perhaps even a mass market.

Wish me luck.

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Good News About China’s Food Price Inflation: Chinese Peasants’ Time of Unprecedented Plenty

December 14th, 2010 No comments

Bamboo painting from China First Capital blog post

Food prices in China, as everyone inside and outside the country now knows, are rising fast, in some cases by over 30% during 2010. The Chinese government puts some of the blame on speculators who are said to be buying large quantities of fresh food, holding it off the market and then profiting from price increases. There seems to be some evidence of this.

There’s no short-term fix for these price increases. The Chinese government has released for sale some of its food stocks. It is also urging peasants, and local cadres who govern rural China, to make sure more food is grown next year to increase supplies. The peasants probably won’t need any such encouragement.

The increases this year in food prices have done more, in a shorter time, to lift income levels for many of China’s 600 million peasants than any other single measure taken over the last 30 years.

There has never been a  better time, in China’s long agrarian history, to be a peasant. Fundamentally, food price inflation in China represents a colossal transfer of wealth from China’s more affluent urban areas to the rural hinterland where half of China’s population still lives.

If this lasts, it will narrow the gap in living standards and income levels between China’s cities and countryside. This is one of the overarching goals of the Chinese government. And yet, no one is applauding.

Instead, the Chinese central government has reacted with some alarm to the recent price increases. It knows that higher food prices are putting the squeeze on city-dwellers, including, of course, those in the capital Beijing and other major cities. In China, communist power originally took hold in the countryside, and a lot of party doctrine still speaks about its roots among the peasantry. But, political power today is firmly rooted in urban areas.  China’s political, economic and cultural elite all live in major cities, as do most of their friends and family. So, price rises effect this group directly.

When apples, the staple autumn fruit in most of China,  almost double in price, as they have this year, political leaders will soon hear about it. The fact that China’s apple farmers now have a lot more money in their pockets is not necessarily part of the political calculus.

Yet, it is undeniable that the fastest and most effective way to raise peasant living standards and real incomes is higher farm prices that don’t fuel overall inflation. There are signs that’s now the case, that the only area of significant double-digit inflation is in food prices. If so, this is unquestionably the best time in Chinese history to be tilling the land.

How long will this last? Of course, commonly, a spike in food prices leads to overall price levels rising as well. This can erode, or even wipe out,  the rise in income for farmers from higher food prices. Also, today’s high prices will certainly lead to more land being cultivated next year, as farmers chase the fat profits from today’s prices.

I was just in Jiangsu Province, in central China, and it seemed like most of the farmland is under plastic cover this winter, allowing peasants to keep growing and selling vegetables. Supply goes up, price comes down. Eventually.

How high are food prices at present? Looking around my local covered market, prices in the stalls for many fruits and vegetables are now as higher or higher than prices commonly seen in the US. Looking just at autumn fruit, apples are about $1 a pound; navel oranges around 60 cents; clementines about $1 a pound; bananas are 50 cents a pound. Meat prices have risen sharply.

Pork remains comparatively cheap at about $2 a pound, but chicken is quite a bit higher here. Garlic and ginger, the two fundamental staples of all Chinese cooking, are both at all-time highs of around $1 a pound.

So far, in my experience, higher food prices haven’t yet fed through to higher prices at restaurants, noodle shops or even the outdoor steamer wagon where I buy corn-on-the-cob and potatoes as snacks. This means restaurant margins must be hurting. One notable exception, McDonalds in China. They recently announced price increases to counter effect of rising raw material costs.  With about 900 restaurants in China, all in larger cities, McDonalds feeds a lot of people.

Wages are also rising very steeply in urban China, as is household wealth for anyone who owns property. This seems to be allowing most urban Chinese to absorb higher food costs without much of a fuss.

In other words, just about everyone across this country of 1.4 billion is doing much better, year by year. For now, the 600 million peasants are doing best of all. Viewed across the breadth of China’s long history, no less than across the last 30 years of unparalleled economic progress, this is a singularly welcome development.

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CFC’s New Research Report, Assessing Some Key Differences in IPO Markets for Chinese Companies

December 7th, 2010 No comments

China First Capital research report cover

For Chinese entrepreneurs, there has never been a better time to become a publicly-traded company.  China’s Shenzhen Stock Exchange is now the world’s largest and most active IPO market in the world. Chinese companies are also active raising billions of dollars of IPO capital abroad, in Hong Kong and New York.

The main question successful Chinese entrepreneurs face is not whether to IPO, but where.

To help entrepreneurs make that decision, CFC has just completed a research study and published its latest Chinese language research report. The report, titled “民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市” (” Offshore or Domestic IPO – Assessing Choices for Chinese SME”) analyzes advantages and disadvantages for Chinese SME  of IPO in China, Hong Kong, USA as well as smaller markets like Singapore and Korea.

The report can be downloaded from the Research Reports section of the CFC website , or by clicking here:  CFC’s IPO Difference Report (民营企业如何选择境内上市还是境外上市)

We want the report to help make the IPO decision-making process more fact-based, more successful for entrepreneurs. According to the report, there are three key differences between a domestic or offshore IPO. They are:

  1. Valuation, p/e multiples
  2. IPO approval process – cost and timing of planning an IPO
  3. Accounting and tax rules

At first glance, most Chinese SME bosses will think a domestic IPO on the Shanghai or Shenzhen Stock Exchanges is always the wiser choice, because p/e multiples at IPO in China are generally at least twice the level in Hong Kong or US. But, this valuation differential can often be more apparent than real. Hong Kong and US IPOs are valued on a forward p/e basis. Domestic Chinese IPOs are valued on trailing year’s earnings. For a fast-growing Chinese company, getting 22X this year’s earnings in Hong Kong can yield more money for the company than a domestic IPO t 40X p/e, using last year’s earnings.

Chasing valuations is never a good idea. Stock market p/e ratios change frequently. The gap between domestic Chinese IPOs and Hong Kong and US ones has been narrowing for most of this year. Regulations are also continuously changing. As of now, it’s still difficult, if not impossible, for a domestically-listed Chinese company to do a secondary offering. You only get one bite of the capital-raising apple. In Hong Kong and US markets, a company can raise additional capital, or issue convertible debt, after an IPO.  This factor needs to be kept very much in mind by any Chinese company that will continue to need capital even after a successful domestic IPO.

We see companies like this frequently. They are growing so quickly in China’s buoyant domestic market that even a domestic IPO and future retained earnings may not provide all the expansion capital they will need.

Another key difference: it can take three years or more for many Chinese companies to complete the approval process for a domestic IPO. Will the +70X p/e  multiples now available on Shenzhen’s ChiNext market still be around then? It’s impossible to predict. Our advice to Chinese entrepreneurs is make the decision on where to IPO by evaluating more fundamental strengths and weaknesses of China’s domestic capital markets and those abroad, including differences in investor behavior, disclosure rules, legal liability.

China’s stock market is driven by individual investors. Volatility tends to be higher than in Hong Kong and the US, where most shares are owned by institutions.

One factor that is equally important for either domestic or offshore IPO: an SME will have a better chance of a successful IPO if it has private equity investment before its IPO. The transition to a publicly-listed company is complex, with significant risks. A PE investor can help guide an SME through this process, lowering the risks and costs in an IPO.

As the report emphasizes, an IPO is a financing method, not a goal by itself. An IPO will usually be the lowest-cost way for a private business to raise capital for expansion.  Entrepreneurs need to be smart about how to use capital markets most efficiently, for the purposes of building a bigger and better company.


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