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China Needs Shale Gas as Much, If Not More, Than US

May 25th, 2011 No comments

Shale gas is the most important major new source of energy on the planet, as well as the most important development in the petroleum economy since deep water drilling. Shale gas is reshaping the world’s energy market in a way that even a decade ago seemed unthinkable. This is especially true in the US, where most of the shale gas development is now taking place. Ten years ago, shale gas was just 1% of American natural-gas supplies. Today, it is about 25% and could rise to 50% within two decades. Estimates are that US has more than a 100-year supply of natural gas, thanks to the development of shale gas. Natural gas is used for everything from home heating and cooking to electric generation, industrial processes and petrochemical feedstocks.

Shale gas was first discovered over a century ago. But, it’s only become a commercially-viable source of natural gas with the invention, over the last twenty years, of new drilling technology to break layers of rock and release the gas trapped within. The technology is known as hydraulic fracturing (now widely known as “fracking” or “fracing”). The companies that have played the leading role in developing this technology are mainly all American. They are already making billions of dollars using their techniques to drill deep under the surface across the continental US and harvest the gas trapped there.  The US, which just a few years ago looked to be running out of natural gas, now may someday begin exporting, thanks to its large deposits of shale gas.

The US has long been the world’s largest user and importer of energy. Last year, it was announced that China has overtaken the US in overall energy consumption. Its energy imports are on track to overtake America’s. Although natural gas use is increasing in China, it only comprised 4 percent of the country’s total energy consumption in 2008.

Beneath China’s surface also lies shale gas, most likely quite a lot of it. According to information released by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) in April, China has 1,275 tcf of technically recoverable shale gas resources, nearly 50% more than the US.  Those estimated recoverable reserves are more than one thousand times the amount of natural gas used in China in 2010.

For China in decades to come, as much as for America, shale gas could be the energy “game-changer”, increasing energy self-reliance and helping to shift the country away from its heavy reliance on coal for electricity generation. Domestic shale gas, if fully exploited, would have enormous impacts not only in China, but worldwide. It could moderate China’s skyrocketing demand for petroleum, one of the primary drivers of higher oil prices. It would mean less coal gets mined and burned, which would have widespread environmental benefits and also ease the strain on the nation’s transportation infrastructure, a large part of which is now devoted to moving coal from where its mined to where its burned for electricity.

China already has more cars and busses running on natural gas than the US. Quite a few cities, including some large ones like Chongqing and Urumqi in Xinjiang, have many of their taxis running on natural gas. There is already a large infrastructure of “natural gas stations” across China. In other words, China stands to benefit, proportionately, even more from the US from a large supply of cheap, domestic natural gas.

The key question is: will China be able to tap its shale gas efficiently? In fact, it may be one of the most important questions in world energy markets over the next five to ten years. The technology is new, complex and almost entirely American. The owners may not be interested to share it with Chinese companies. For one thing, most of the companies with core technology and experience in tapping shale gas are themselves producers, not just suppliers of drilling equipment. Under current rules, they might not find China a very attractive market, especially when the US has so much untapped natural gas, as does neighboring Canada.

China’s leaders clearly understand the importance of shale gas to its economy and the importance of US shale gas technology. China’s goal is to produce 30 billion cubic meters a year from shale, equivalent to almost half the country’s gas consumption in 2008.  In November 2009, US President Barack Obama agreed to share US gas-shale technology with China, and to promote US investment in Chinese shale-gas development.

That sounds more significant than it probably is. President Obama cannot do much to help China, since the US government has little shale gas technology of its own, nor can he provide any real economic incentive for US companies to share technology with China. If there is a good market reason for US companies to drill for shale gas in China, they will surely do it. That is not the case now, as far as I can tell. Energy production and pricing are both heavily controlled by the Chinese government. A US shale gas producer would probably not be able to fully-own a shale gas field in China, nor sell its output at world market prices.  So, my guess is the owners of the best shale gas technology will not likely share it with China.

PetroChina and China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) bought stakes in North American shale drillers like Chesapeake Energy and EnCana with the intent of acquiring technology and ramping up production at home. But, it is not certain, to say the least, that this strategy will pay off — becoming a small shareholder is not the same as buying a right to that company’s technology and expertise.

That leaves China with two choices, neither of which is appetizing: first, rely on domestic technology; second, try to obtain US technology by other than legal means. It could take domestic producers a long time to master the technology, and even then, it may not be equal to the best of what the US now has. With the second route, the problem is that it’s not enough just to get hold of drilling equipment. Exploiting shale gas reserves requires a mix of special equipment and know-how, which is far harder to obtain. A lot of the most successful shale gas fields in the US, for example, use horizontal drilling, a method pioneered in US, that allows operators to “ drill down to a certain depth and then to drill at an angle or even sideways. This exposes more of the reservoir, permitting the recovery of a much greater amount of gas,” according to the noted energy researcher Daniel Yergin.

China needs its shale gas, now. It is of vital importance to China, as well as the rest of the developed world. Everyone is hurt if Chinese demand for petroleum continues to push prices higher and higher, especially when there is an attractive alternative, that China shifts more of its energy consumption to natural gas, produced at home.

It’s a troubling sign that China’s Ministry of Land and Resources continues to delay distribution of the country’s first official shale gas blocks. Its first announcements indicated that only Chinese state-owned energy companies could bid on rights to these shale gas deposits.

My preference would be for China’s government to make it as financially rewarding to exploit shale gas there as it is in the US. It can do this with a mix of tax incentives and various rebates available, for example, to US companies that develop shale gas fields in China. The US oil industry doesn’t bother much with politics. They go where there is money to be made.

China will likely spend over $180 billion this year on oil imports, enriching foreigners in places like Iran, Russia and Venezuela. Based on that uncomfortable fact, and that using more natural gas will cut the environmental damage caused by burning so much coal, the rational policy choice is to do about whatever it takes to get US shale gas producers to come to China and start drilling, fraccing and pumping.

My advice: let it be done, and let it be done soon.


Say Goodbye to “Zaijian”. Sorry about “duibuqi”

May 12th, 2011 5 comments

crops1311

 

I’m sorry, but there is only one proper way to say “I’m sorry” and “goodbye” in China. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer Chinese seem to agree with me.

The Chinese terms “zaijian (再见)” literally “see you again”, and “duebuqi (对不起”), meaning “I’m sorry”, have been among the most commonly-spoken phrases in China for hundreds of years. But, every day now, they grow less common, like forms of endangered speech.

Why? Because their English equivalents are taking over, everywhere.  Day by day, China is becoming a country where everyone says  “bye-bye” and “sorry”, rather than using the Chinese equivalents.

“Bye-bye” first started to gain popularity a decade ago. Today, it is rampant. Most probably, “bye-bye” entered the vernacular in China via Hong Kong, where it’s long been a main way Cantonese-speaking people say farewell to one another. I’ve never quite gotten used to hearing it in China, and still resolutely refuse to use anything other than “zaijian”.

I have never once knowingly used “bye-bye” anywhere outside China, so I’m certainly not going to use it inside. My own preference, in English, is for either “see you later”, or a simple “bye”.

I always liked the fact that Chinese traditionally bid farewell in the same way as many Italians and French do, by saying “see you again”. By contrast, “bye-bye” has no particularly clear underlying meaning, and sounds rather childish.

In Chinese internet slang, a common way to end an online chat is by writing “886”, in China pronounced “ba-ba-leo”, meant to approximate the sound of “bye-bye” with the addition of the modal particle 了,which indicates an action has been completed.

Cute slang, as some suggest, or a degradation of the beautiful Chinese language?  I know where I stand.

“Sorry” is not nearly as widely used as “bye-bye”, but it’s becoming more commonplace all the time. The first few dozen times I heard it, I assumed the person was shifting to English to be sure I understood the apology. Then I started overhearing it said between Chinese, as they bumped into one another on the subway, entered a crowded elevator or tried parting a throng of people.

This change aggravates me to my core. Along with its other merits, 对不起 is one of the more euphonious common phrases in Chinese. For non-Chinese speakers, it’s pronounced “dway boo chee” . It was among the first ten phrases I learned in my first Chinese class 31 years ago, and certainly among the most useful.  It is also precise in its meaning. The phrase literally acknowledges one’s act of rudeness.

“Sorry” is a kind of bastardized shorthand, far more commonly used in the UK than in US. Like “bye-bye” it seems to have smuggled itself into China via the ex-British colony of Hong Kong. When I lived in London, I heard “sorry” often and generally thought it hollow and insincere. Americans prefer to take personal culpability and say “I’m sorry”, or “Excuse me”.

Hearing Chinese say “sorry” , I feel it’s an alien presence, diminishing the level of common courtesy in China.

Mine is probably a minority view in China. New phrases gain currency in China very quickly. I’ve seen it not only with “bye-bye”, but another import from Hong Kong, the two-word phrase “mai dan”, meaning “give me the bill”. It’s a Cantonese term. Over the last ten years, it has all but exterminated across much of China the traditional Mandarin “ 算账”.  Again, it’s an example of a perfectly good, age-old Chinese phrase being pushed out by an inferior foreign import.

In France, the Academie Francaise has the specified role of preventing English terms from seeping into the French language. A lot of this can seem silly and pedantic,  like urging French to drop the use of English technology terms like “software”, “email”, in favor of clumsy, made-up French terms.

China has no such body, nor will it likely ever have, since Mandarin is spoken with so many different regional dialects and accents.  Still, I’d like to see more effort made to halt the spread of English terms.

The Mandarin spoken today is in many core ways similar to the Chinese language spoken seven hundred years ago.  Chinese language is the connecting rod linking China’s ancient past and present. It survived intact through upheavals, invasions and colonization. “Sorry” and “bye-bye” should be deported back to Hong Kong.


CFC’s Annual Report on Private Equity in China

May 2nd, 2011 No comments

2010 is the year China’s private equity industry hit the big time. The amount of new capital raised by PE firms reached an all-time high, exceeding Rmb150 billion (USD $23 billion). In particular, Renminbi PE funds witnessed explosive growth in 2010, both in number of new funds and amount of new capital. China’s National Social Security Fund accelerated the process of investing part of the country’s retirement savings in PE. At the same time, the country’s largest insurance companies received approval to begin investing directly in PE, which could add hundreds of billions of Renminbi in new capital to the pool available for pre-IPO investing in China’s private companies.

China First Capital has just published its third annual report on private equity in China. It is available in Chinese only by clicking here:  CFC 2011 Report. Or, you can download directly from the Research Reports section of the CFC website.

The report is illustrated with examples of Shang Dynasty bronze ware. I returned recently from Anyang, in Henan. Anyone with even a passing interest in these early Chinese bronze wares should visit the city’s splendid Yinxu Museum.

This strong acceleration of the PE industry in China contrasts with situation in the rest of the world. In the US and Europe, both PE and VC investments remained at levels significantly lower than in 2007. IPO activity in these areas remains subdued, while the number of Chinese companies going public, and the amount of capital raised, both reached new records in 2010. There is every sign 2011 will surpass 2010 and so widen even farther the gap separating IPO activity for Chinese companies and those elsewhere.

The new CFC report argues that China’s PE industry has three important and sustainable advantages compared to other parts of the world. They are:

  1. High economic growth – at least five times higher in 2010 than the rate of gdp growth in the US and Europe
  2. Active IPO market domestically, with high p/e multiples and strong investor demand for shares in newly-listed companies
  3. A large reservoir of strong private companies that are looking to raise equity capital before an IPO

CFC expects these three trends to continue during 2011 and beyond. Also important is the fact that the geographic scope of PE investment in China is now extending outside Eastern China into new areas, including Western China, Shandong,  Sichuan. Previously, most of China’s PE investment was concentrated in just four provinces (Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu) and its two major cities, Beijing and Shanghai. These areas of China now generally have lower rates of economic growth, higher labor costs and more mature local markets than in regions once thought to be backwaters.

PE investment is a bet on the future, a prediction on what customers will be buying in three to five years. That is the usual time horizon from investment to exit. China’s domestic market is highly dynamic and fast-changing. A company can go from founding to market leadership in that same 3-5 year period.  At the same time, today’s market leaders can easily fall behind, fail to anticipate either competition or changing consumer tastes.

This Schumpetrian process of “creative destruction” is particularly prevalent in China. Markets in China are growing so quickly, alongside increases in consumer spending, that companies offering new products and services can grow extraordinary quickly.  At its core, PE investment seeks to identify these “creative destroyers”, then provide them with additional capital to grow more quickly and outmaneuver incumbents. When PE firms are successful doing this, they can earn enormous returns.

One excellent example: a $5 million investment made by Goldman Sachs PE in Shenzhen pharmaceutical company Hepalink in 2007.  When Hepalink had its IPO in 2010, Goldman Sachs’ investment had appreciated by over 220 times, to a market value of over $1 billion.

Risk and return are calibrated. Technology investments have higher rates of return (as in example of Goldman Sachs’s investment in Hepalink)  as well as higher rates of failure. China’s PE industry is now shifting away from investing in companies with interesting new technologies but no revenue to PE investment in traditional industries like retail, consumer products, resource extraction.  For PE firms, this lowers the risk of an investment becoming a complete loss. Rates of return in traditional industries are often still quite attractive by international standards.

For example: A client of CFC in the traditional copper wire industry got PE investment in 2008. This company expects to have its IPO in Hong Kong later this year. When it does, the PE firm’s investment will have risen by over 10-fold.  Our client went from being one of numerous smaller-scale producers to being among China’s largest and most profitable in the industry. In capital intensive industries, private companies’ access to capital is still limited. Those firms that can raise PE money and put it to work expanding output can quickly lower costs and seize large amounts of market share.

Our view: the risk-adjusted returns in Chinese private equity will continue to outpace most other classes of investing anywhere in the world. China will remain in the vanguard of the world’s alternative investment industry for many long years to come.