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Crawling Blindfold & Naked Through A Minefield

June 27th, 2011 1 comment

 

Making a failed investment is usually permissible in the PE industry. Making a negligent investment is not. The PE firms now considering the “delist-relist” transactions I wrote about last time (click here to read)  are jeopardizing not only their investors’ money, but the firm’s own survival.  The risks in these deals are both so large and so uncontrollable that if a deal were to go wrong, the PE firm would be vulnerable to a lawsuit by its Limited Partners (“LPs”) for breach of fiduciary duty.

Such a lawsuit, or even the credible threat of one, would likely put the PE firm out of business by making it impossible for the firm to ever raise money from LPs again. In other words, PE firms that do “delist-relist” are taking existential risk. To this old guy, that is just plain dumb.

Before making any investment, a PE firm, to fulfill its fiduciary duty, will do extensive, often forensic, due diligence. The DD acts as a kind of inoculation, protecting the PE firm in the event something later goes wrong with the investment. As long as the DD was done properly, meaning no obvious risks were ignored, then a PE firm can’t easily be attacked in court for investing in a failed deal.

With the “delist-relist” deals however, there is no way for the DD process to fully determine the scale of the largest risks, nor can the PE firm do much to hedge, manage or alleviate them. This is because the largest risks are inherent in the deal structure.

The two main ones are the risk of shareholder lawsuits and the risk that the company, after being taken private, will fail to win approval for an IPO on a different stock market. If either occur, they will drain away any potential profit. Both risks are fully outside the control of the PE firm. This makes these deals a blindfolded and naked crawl through a minefield.

Why, then, are PE firms considering these deals? From my discussions, one reason is that they appear easy. The target company is usually already trading on the US stock market, and so has a lot of SEC disclosure materials available. All one needs to do is download the documents from the SEC’s Edgar website. Investing in private Chinese companies, by contrast, is almost always a long, arduous and costly slog – it involves getting materials, like an audit, and then making sure everything else provided by the company is genuine and accurate.

Another reason is ignorance of or indifference to the legal risks: many of the PE firms I’ve talked to that are considering these “delist-relist” deals have little direct experience operating in the US capital markets. Instead, the firm’s focus on what they perceive to be the “undervaluation” of the Chinese companies quoted in the US. One PE guy I know described the Chinese companies as “miss-killed”, meaning they are, to his way of thinking, basically solid businesses that are being unfairly scorned by US investors. There may well be some good ones foundering on US stock markets. But, finding them and putting the many pieces together of a highly-complex “delist-relist” deal is outside the circle of competence and experience of most PE firms active in China.

This investment approach, of looking for mispriced or distressed assets on the stock market,  is a strategy following by many portfolio managers, distress investors and hedge funds. PE firms operating in China, however, are a different breed, and raised money from their LPs, in most cases, by promising to do different sorts of deals, with longer time horizons and a focus on outstanding private companies short of growth capital. The PE firm acts as supportive rich uncle, not as a crisis counselor.

Abandoning that focus on strong private companies, to pursue these highly risky “delist-relist” deals seems not only misguided, but potentially reckless. Virtually every working day, private Chinese companies go public and earn their PE investors returns of 400% or more. There is no shortage of great private companies looking for PE in China. Just the opposite. Finding them takes more work than compiling a spreadsheet with the p/e multiples of Chinese companies traded in the US.  But, in most cases, the hard work of finding and investing in private companies is what LPs agreed to fund, and where the best risk-adjusted profits are to be made.  How will LPs respond if a PE firm does a “delist-relist” deal and then it goes sour? This, too, is a suicidal risk the PE firm is taking.

China PE Firms Do PF (Perfectly Foolhardy) “Delist-Relist” Deals

June 21st, 2011 No comments

Hands down, it is the worst investment idea in the private equity industry today: to buy all shares of a Chinese company trading in the US stock market, take it private, and then try to re-list the company in China. Several such deals have already been hatched, including one by Bain Capital that’s now in the early stages, the planned buyout of NASDAQ-quoted Harbin Electric (with PE financing provided by Abax Capital) and a takeover completed by Chinese conglomerate Fosun.

From what I can gather, quite a few other PE firms are now actively looking at similar transactions. While the superficial appeal of such deals is clear, the risks are enormous, unmanageable and have the potential to mortally would any PE firm reckless enough to try.

A bad investment idea often starts from some simple math. In this case, it’s the fact there are several hundred Chinese companies quoted in the US on the OTCBB or AMEX with stunningly low valuations, often just three to four times their earnings.  That means an investor can buy all the traded shares at a low overall price, and then, in partnership with the controlling shareholders,  move the company to a more friendly stock market, where valuations of companies of a similar size trade at 20-30 times profits.

Sounds easy, doesn’t it? It’s anything but. Start with the fact that those low valuations in the US may not only be the result of unappreciative or uncomprehending American investors. Any Chinese company foolish enough to list on the OTCBB, or do any other sort of reverse merger, is probably suffering other less obvious afflictions. One certainty:  that the boss had little knowledge of capital markets and took few sensible precautions before pulling the trigger on the backdoor listing which, among its other curses, likely cost the Chinese company at least one million dollars to complete, including subsequent listing and compliance costs.

Why would any PE firm, investing as a fiduciary, want to go in business with a boss like this? An “undervalued asset” in the control of a guy misguided enough to go public on the OTCBB may not be in any way undervalued.

Next, the complexities of taking a company private in the US. There’s no fixed price. But, it’s not a simple matter of tendering for the shares at a price high enough to induce shareholders to sell. The legal burden, and so legal costs, are fearsome. Worse, lots can – and often will – go wrong, in ways that no PE firm can predict or control. The most obvious one here is that the PE firm, along with the Chinese company, get targeted by a class action lawsuit.

These are common enough in any kind of M&A deal in the US. When the deal involves a cash-rich PE firm and a Chinese company with questionable management abilities, it becomes a high likelihood event. Contingency law-firms will be salivating. They know the PE firm has the cash to pay a rich settlement, even if the Chinese company is a total dog. Legal fees to defend a class action lawsuit can run into tens of millions of dollars. Settling costs less, but targets you for other opportunistic lawsuits that keep the legal bills piling up.

The PE firm itself ends up spending more time in court in the US than investing in China. I doubt this is the preferred career path for the partners of these PE firms. Bain Capital may be able to scare off or fight off the tort lawyers. But, other PE firms, without Bain’s experience, capital and in-house lawyers in the US, will not be so fortunate. Instead, think lambs to slaughter.

Also waiting to explode, the possibility of an SEC investigation,or maybe jail time. Will the PE firm really be able to control the Chinese company’s boss from tipping off friends, who then begin insider trading? The whole process of “bringing private” requires the PE firm to conspire together, in secret, with the boss of the US-quoted Chinese company to tender for shares later at a premium to current price. That boss, almost certainly a Chinese citizen, can work out pretty quickly that even if he breaks SEC insider trading rules, by talking up the deal before it’s publicly disclosed, there’s no risk of him being extradited to the US. In other words, lucrative crime without punishment.

The PE firm’s partners, on the other hand, are not likely immune. Some will likely be US passport or Green Card holders. Or, as likely, they have raised money from US institutions. In either case, they will have a much harder time evading the long arm of US justice. Even if they do, the publicity will likely render them  “persona non grata” in the US, and so unable to raise additional funds there.

Such LP risk – that the PE firm will be so disgraced by the transaction with the US-quoted Chinese company that they’ll be unable in the future to raise funds in the US – is both large and uncontrollable. The potential returns for doing these “delist-relist” deals  aren’t anywhere close to commensurate with that risk. Leaving aside the likelihood of expensive lawsuits or SEC action, there is a fundamental flaw in these plans.

It is far from certain that these Chinese companies, once taken private, will be able to relist in China. Without this “exit”, the economics of the deal are, at best, weak. Yes, the Chinese company can promise the PE firm to buy back their shares if there is no successful IPO. But, that will hardly compensate them for the risks and likely costs.

Any proposed domestic IPO in China must gain the approval  of China’s CSRC. Even for strong companies, without the legacy of a failed US listing, have a low percentage chance of getting approval. No one knows the exact numbers, but it’s likely last year and this, over 2,000 companies applied for a domestic IPO in China. About 10%-15% of these will succeed. The slightest taint is usually enough to convince the CSRC to reject an application. The taint on these “taken private” Chinese companies will be more than slight. If there’s no certain China IPO, then the whole economic rationale of these “take private” deals is very suspect.  The Chinese company will be then be delisted in the US, and un-listable in China. This will give new meaning to the term “financial purgatory”, privatized Chinese companies without a prayer of ever having tradeable shares again.

Plus, even if they did manage to get CSRC approval, will Chinese retail investors really stampede to buy, at a huge markup, shares of a company that US investors disparaged? I doubt it. How about Hong Kong? It’s not likely their investors will be much more keen on this shopworn US merchandise. Plus, these days, most Chinese company looking for a Hong Kong IPO needs net profits of $50mn and up. These OTCBB and reverse merger victims will rarely, if ever, be that large, even after a few years of spending PE money to expand.

Against all these very real risks, the PE firms can point to what? That valuations are much lower for these OTCBB and reverse merger companies in the US than comparables in China. True. For good reason. The China-quoted comps don’t have bosses foolish or reckless enough to waste a million bucks to do a backdoor listing in the US, and then end up with shares that barely trade, even at a pathetic valuation. Who would you rather trust your money to?

China Goes Shopping: The Compelling Logic of Doing M&A Deals in the US

June 13th, 2011 1 comment

Selling a business in the US?  Chinese can pay top dollar.

We are entering a golden age of Chinese M&A deals in the US. There is certainly a sharp pick-up in activity going on – not so much of announced deals yet, though there have been several, but in more intensive discussions between potential Chinese acquirers and US companies. There is also a lot more shopping and tire-kicking by Chinese buyers. I certainly see it in our business. We’re engaged now in several M&A deals whose goal is sale of a US company to a Chinese buyer. I expect to see more.

The reasons for this upsurge are many – including the recent appreciation of the Renminbi against the dollar, the growing scale and managerial sophistication of Chinese companies (particularly private as opposed to state-owned ones), attractive prices for target US companies, the launch in 2009 by the Shenzhen Stock Exchange of the Chinextboard for fast-growing private companies.

The best reason for Chinese buyers to acquire US firms is one less-often mentioned – to profit from p/e arbitrage. The gap between stock market valuations in the US and China, on price-earnings basis, are wide. The average trailing p/e in the US now is 14. On China’s Chinext board, it’s 45. For fast-growth Chinese companies, the p/e multiples can exceed 70. This gives some Chinese acquirers leeway to pay a higher price for a US business.

In the best cases, a dollar of earnings may cost $10-$15 to acquire through purchase of a US business, but that dollar is immediately worth fifty dollars or more to the Chinese firm’s own valuation. As long as the gap remains so large, it makes enormous economic sense for Chinese acquirers to be out buying US businesses.

This is equally true for Chinese companies already quoted on the Chinese stock market as well as those with that ambition. Indeed, for reasons unique to China, the incentive is stronger for private companies to do this p/e arbitrage. In China, public companies generally are forbidden from doing secondary offerings, nor can they use their own shares to pay for an acquisition. When a Chinese public company consolidates a US acquisition’s profits, its overall market value will likely rise. But, it has no way to capitalize by selling additional shares and replenish the corporate treasury.

For a private company, the larger the profits at IPO, the higher the IPO proceeds. An extra $1 million in profits the year before an IPO can raise the market cap by $50mn – $70mn when the company goes public on Chinext. Private Chinese companies, unlike those already public in China,  can also use their shares to pay for acquisitions. The better private companies also often have a private equity investor involved. The PE firms can be an important source of cash to finance acquisitions, since it will juice their own returns. PE firms like making money from p/e arbitrage.

In M&A, the best pricing strategy is to swap some of my overvalued paper to buy all of someone else’s undervalued paper.  At the moment, some of the most overvalued paper belongs to Chinese companies on the path to IPO in China.

Most M&A deals end up benefitting the selling shareholders far more than the buyers. That’s because the buyers almost always fail to capture the hoped-for savings and efficiencies from combining two firms. Too often, such synergies turn out to be illusory.

For Chinese acquirers, p/e arbitrage greatly increases the likelihood of an M&A deal paying off – if not immediately, then when the combined company goes public.

If the target company in the US has reasonable rate of profit growth, the picture gets even rosier. The rules are, a private Chinese company will generally need to wait three years after an acquisition to go public in China. As long as the acquired business’s profits keep growing, the Chinese companies market value at IPO will as well. Chinese acquirers should do deals like that all day long.

But, as of now, they are not. One reason, of course, is that things can and often also go wrong in M&A deals. Any acquirer can easily stumble trying to manage a new business, and to maintain its rate of growth after acquisition. It’s tougher still when it’s cross-border and cross-cultural.

Another key reason: domestic M&A activity in China is still rather scant. There isn’t a lot of experience or expertise to tap, particularly for private companies. Knowing you want to buy and knowing how to do so are very different beasts. I’ve seen that in our work. Chinese companies immediately grasp the logic and pay-off from a US acquisition. They are far less sure how to proceed. They commonly will ask us, investment bankers to the seller, how to move ahead, how to work out a proper valuation.

The best deals, as well as the easiest, will be Chinese acquiring US companies with a large untapped market in China. Our clients belong in this camp, US companies that have differentiated technology and products with the potential to expand very rapidly across China.

In one case, our client already has revenues and high profit margins in China, but lacks the local management and know-how to fulfill the demand in China.  The senior management are all based in the US, and the company sends trained US workers over to China, putting them up in hotels for months at a time, rather than using Chinese locals. Simply by localizing the staff and taking over sales operation now outsourced to a Chinese “agent”, the US company could more than double net profits in China.

The US management estimates their potential market in China to be at least ten times larger than their current level of revenues, and annual profits could grow more. But, to achieve that, the current  owners have concluded their business needs Chinese ownership.

If all goes right, the returns on this deal for a Chinese acquirer could set records in M&A. Both p/e arbitrage and high organic profit growth will see to that. Our client could be worth over $2 billion in a domestic IPO in China in four years’ time, assuming moderate profit targets are hit and IPO valuations remain where they are now on China’s Chinext exchange.

Another client is US market leader in a valuable media services niche, with A-List customers, high growth and profits this year above $5mn. After testing the M&A waters in the US, the company is now convinced it will attract a higher price in China. The company currently has no operations now in China, but the market for their product is as large – if not larger – than in the US. Again, it needs a Chinese owner to unlock the market. We think this company will likely prove attractive to quoted Chinese technology companies, and fetch a higher price than it will from US buyers.

The same is true for many other US companies seeking an exit. US businesses will often command a higher price in China, because of the valuation differentials and high-growth potential of China’s domestic market.

China business has prospered over the last 20 years by selling things US consumers want to buy. In the future,  it will prosper also by buying businesses the US wants to sell.

 


 

Chinese Press Interviews

June 7th, 2011 No comments

Back-to-back articles over the last several days in two Chinese dailies, Shenzhen Economic Daily (深圳商报)and Tianjin Ribao (天津日报). In both, I’m rather extensively quoted. You can read them here:

Shenzhen Economic Daily

Tianjin Ribao

For those whose Chinese is wanting (as is mine, some of the time), the Shenzhen Economic Daily article discusses the difficulties Chinese companies have run into after getting listed in the US stock market. One possible solution is to “de-list” these companies, by buying out all public shareholders, then applying for an IPO in China. Could it work? Perhaps, but my guess is that a Chinese company trying the Prodigal Son technique will likely meet with much skepticism from Chinese retail investors.

The article in the Tianjin Ribao is a general survey of developments in private equity in China. It discusses the shifting locus of PE investment towards inland China. This is a development I embrace. The vast majority of China’s vast population lives in places that have no outside equity capital, and no private companies on the stock market.

Over the last six months, I put in the time to prospect in regions that have thus far received little, to no, private equity. I’ve visited companies in Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangxi, Hunan, Sichuan, Qinghai, Henan, Liaoning, Xinjiang, Hebei, Shandong. We’ve taken on clients in quite a number of these. I hope to add more. The one constant in all these prospecting trips: there are outstanding entrepreneurs running outstanding businesses in every corner of this country.