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Two New CFC Research Reports

November 27th, 2012 No comments

China First Capital (中国首创)published two new research reports, one in English and one Chinese. Both are now available for download here. The contents are different, as is the focus.

To download the English report, titled “Private Equity in China 2012: The Pace of Change Quickens“, Click here

For the Chinese report, “2012-2013 中国私募股权融资与市场趋势” Click here

In fact, “No Exit” would be the more appropriate title for a report about private equity in China this year. Jean-Paul Sartres famous play of that name is a conversation between three dead people stuck in hell. They are eternally damned. PE funds currently stuck inside Chinese investments with no way to exit are not in such a hopelessly miserable situation. But, some may be feeling that way.

Over the course of the last twelve months, first the US stock market, then Hong Kong’s, and finally China’s own domestic bourse all pretty much slammed the door shut on IPOs for Chinese companies. In previous years, over 300 Chinese companies would IPO. This year, that number will fall by at least 80%, maybe more. Stock markets in the US, Hong Kong and China all have slightly different explanations for the sharp drop-off in IPOs of Chinese companies. But, a common thread runs throughout: a deep distrust among investors and regulators of the accuracy of Chinese companies’ financial accounts.  The view is that a Chinese company’s IPO prospectus may be as much a work of fiction as the Sartre play. Under such circumstances, companies can’t IPO, and PE firms can’t find buyers for their illiquid shares.

China’s domestic stock markets were the last to bar the door against Chinese IPOs. Until mid-year, China’s all-powerful securities regulator the CSRC was continuing to process and approve IPO applications, and companies were going public at a rate of about five a week. Then, in July, the whole complex system of approving and placing IPO shares basically stopped functioning. A Chinese company called Xindadi (新大地) exposed a serious defect at the heart of the regulatory system in China. The CSRC’s primarily function is to stop any bad company with dodgy accounts from accessing China’s domestic capital markets. Layer upon bureaucratic layer is piled up inside the CSRC to prevent officials from conspiring together to let a bad company’s application pass through. The underwriter, the lawyers and accountants are also held legally accountable to detect and expose bad companies. Yet Xindadi managed to slip through.

Xindadi’s IPO application was approved by the CSRC and the company was waiting its turn to go public when media reports surfaced that described a rather clumsy, though, nearly-successful fraud. Xindadi’s financial accounts  turned out to be fake from top to bottom. Xindadi’s business model is aptly summarized by comments made nearly a century ago by the US Federal Trade Commission about another rogue outfit, ” fraud, deceit, misrepresentation, dishonesty, breach of trust and oppression.”

The Xindadi IPO was pulled before the underwriters could sell any shares. The CSRC went into a kind of post-traumatic shock from which it’s yet to recover. It basically stopped approving new IPOs in most cases. Meanwhile the number of Chinese companies who’ve filed for IPO continues to lengthen, and now is over 800. If and when the CSRC goes back to its previous rate of approving IPOs, which isn’t likely anytime soon,  it would take four years to clear this backlog.

Predictably, for PE firms in China,  “No Exit” has now turned into “No Entrance”. Not knowing when IPO windows will reopen, PE firms have mainly stopped doing new deals.  Chinese private sector companies, for whom PE is the main source of growth capital, are feeling the pinch. Equity capital, even for good companies,  is difficult, if not impossible, to come by. The abrupt cut-off of PE financing will certainly lead to slower growth and fewer new jobs in China.

IPOs of Chinese companies in the US, Hong Kong and China have been an important, if little recognized, part of China’s growth story over the last decade. They fueled the boom in private equity  — both the creation over the last five years of hundreds of new PE firms and the raising of tens of billions of dollars in new capital —  and with it, a huge increase in total net new investment into China’s private sector companies. Chinese investment, particularly spending by state-owned companies, and government-backed infrastructure projects, is still largely financed by bank lending. But, the equity capital provided by PE firms has played a key part in financing the growth of larger private companies in China.  PE money has underpinned increased competition, choice and economic dynamism in China.

Now that gusher of PE money has turned to a trickle.  What next for private equity and corporate finance in China? The two new CFC reports summarize some of the main developments and trends in private equity and capital markets this year, and makes some predictions about the year to come. The Chinese-language report was written, as are other CFC Chinese reports, for the specific use and reference of domestic Chinese business-owners and senior management. The key message is that it’s getting far more difficult for companies to raise money, either through private placement or IPO.

The English report focuses more heavily on what’s going on in the private equity industry in China. Unlike many, I remain overall extremely positive about the fundamentals in China, that PE investment in China’s growing private sector companies represents the best risk-adjusted investment opportunity in the world. While exits through IPO are far fewer, China’s strongest investment asset remains firmly in place:  the compounded genius of its millions of private entrepreneurs to create wealth and push forward positive social and economic change.

 

If This is Chinese Corruption, Give Me More!

November 15th, 2012 1 comment

All governments favor local businesses. Some do it better than others. China is among the best. The system of government support in China is more extensive, more fair and less prone to corruption than elsewhere. Surprised? Many will be, since they operate on the false, though comforting,  assumption that everything Chinese officials do is the result of bribe-taking.

The thing about corruption is, most of it, everywhere, is hidden from view. There is no real empirical basis to assess which countries have the highest corruption. Instead, everyone tends to fall back on the “Corruption Perceptions Index”  reports generated by a group called Transparency International. It does what it can to measure the unmeasursable. Its results get skewed by relying rather heavily on Western businessmen’s own perceptions about where bribery is most rampant. For many of these people, China fits the Western stereotype of a country whose officialdom seems rotten from top to bottom.

The reality is rather different. Look, I’m not saying China doesn’t have a corruption problem. It manifestly does. The country’s own leadership is frequently heard denouncing the problem of corrupt officialdom. Indeed, China’s outgoing Communist Party boss, Hu Jintao, warned this week that if not tackled, official corruption would  “cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state.”

My point here is to discuss the productive, above-board and even-handed ways government in China, at every level, provides useful and valuable support to companies. Here, the comparison with the US is very stark indeed. Government favors in the US are mainly, and explicitly, sold to the highest bidder. It’s what drives much of the billions of dollars “invested” every year by companies, unions, lobbyists and individuals in political campaigns. You help a politician win, and he helps you then get a tax-break, a loophole, a sweetheart government contract, a loan guarantee, a no-bid contract, a regulatory exemption, an R&D grant, a zoning change.

In the US, the system of favors-for-money is so widespread, so deeply woven in the grain of the political system, that Americans don’t even bother to talk about it much. It’s as American as apple pie.

Let’s look at China. Buying off politicians is less visible, and outcomes are different, than in the US. China’s tax code is not the unwieldy monster it is in the US. It isn’t the product, as America’s is, of an anybody-want-to-buy-a-taxbreak system. In the US, General Electric can get away with paying no income tax despite billions in profits because it’s very good at working the system and buying the favors required to create tailor-made tax loopholes. In China, I know of no instance where a big and profitable company, including some very powerful SOEs,  pays no tax.

Big companies, especially SOEs, do get many special favors. One example:  the government tends to be very relaxed in its role as controlling shareholder. It seldom demands an SOE turn over a large percentage of its after-profits in the form of dividends. The Chinese system generally dings companies once, through profit tax, rather than twice.

Where China’s system of political favors works better than elsewhere is in spreading the perks far more widely and equitably. So, both state-owned giants and small entrepreneurial companies can both partake.  In the US, Europe or Japan, the system of political favors is “pay to play”. In China, it’s more a matter of maintaining a modest level of employment (probably above about 50 workers) and paying at least some of the taxes you nominally owe. Do that and the government will make available a wide assortment of grants and benefits, from land at low concessionary prices,  to investment credits and tax holidays to free infrastructure upgrades.

Again, what is most notable, and commendable, about the system of political favors in China is how much more inclusive it is. You don’t need to pay off a local official, or put his kid through college in the US. That sort of stuff may happen, and may for all I know bring even larger benefits. But, a payoff is not a prerequisite for a government favor or handout. In fact, the most valuable forms of government support I’ve heard of go to companies that successfully IPO. Nothing else. They don’t need to take government contracts or employ the mayor’s nephew. Companies are rewarded by the government for going public — which, by the way, given high IPO multiples in China,  is enough of a reward in itself. One reason companies get rewarded for going public is because it also is a big boost to local officials’ careers. In today’s China, a key metric used to evaluate local government officials’ job performance is how many local companies have IPO’d.

These newly-public companies are often, if not always, sold a piece of land to build a new headquarters on. The price of that land will almost certainly be sold to the newly cash-rich IPO company for a fraction of its market value.  I’ve also seen cases where a local government gives a plot of land, at a very low price, to a local company that successfully raises PE.

A case of rich getting richer? Perhaps. But, note, this valuable land is not sold to the guy offering the valise filled with untraceable $100 bills. It is a reward for achievement, not a backhander. I prefer this kind of businessman-to-politician transaction to what routinely goes in the US, or UK, where political parties, in return for donations,  sold knighthoods and other titles.

But, the land-for-IPO deals are a very small part of a very large whole, making up the totality of government favors and support available to businesses in China. The government in China has far more power and far more wealth at its disposal than anywhere else I’ve lived. In other words, it has complete discretion, as well as more prizes to dole out. The remarkable thing is how evenly they do try to spread their help around.

In the US, a small businessman is told by the newly-reelected President he is a “millionaire and billionaire”, and should cough up half his income in taxes, with little special in return. The same scale businessman in China pays less punitive rates and is rewarded by government with favors that help his business grow, and his profit margins increase. If this is corruption, give me more!

 

 

Jiuding Capital: Local Boy Makes Good Atop China’s PE Industry

November 2nd, 2012 1 comment

In China’s PE jungle, a mouse is king. Started just five years ago, Kunwu Jiuding Capital (昆吾九鼎投资管理有限公) has probably achieved the best results and best returns for investors in China’s private equity industry over the last three years. Indeed, few if any PE investors anywhere have out-performed Jiuding in recent years. (For a more recent analysis on challenges facing Jiuding, please click here. )

With only around $1 billion in assets, Jiuding is around 1%-2% the size of the leading global PE firms like Blackstone, KKR, Bain Capital and Carlyle. Yet, none of these firms matches Jiuding’s recent record at investing, exiting, and pocketing big returns in China. The firm is about as different from the likes of TPG, KKR and Carlyle as firms in the same industry can get. Jiuding isn’t staffed with Ivy League MBAs, operates out of modest offices, makes no claim to particular expertise in business operations, nor does it reward its partners with hundreds of millions in profits from carried interest.

Jiuding has mastered a form of PE investing devoid of glamour, prestige or deal-making genius. Rather than “Barbarians at the Gate“, think more “Accountants at the Cash Till“. Jiuding may want to savor its current status as “king of the China PE jungle”. The money-making formula Jiuding has used so effectively is getting tougher all the time.

The Jiuding investment method is blunt: it invests only in Chinese companies it believes will very soon thereafter get approved for domestic IPO. It’s not trying to guess which industries will flourish, or how Chinese consumers will spend their money in the future. It makes no bets on unproved technologies, or companies that may be growing fast, but are still years away from an IPO. Its investment technique is based on reproducing internally, as much as possible, the lengthy, opaque approval IPO process of China’s all-powerful securities regulator the CSRC.

Jiuding focuses more on guessing what the CSRC will do, rather than how a particular company will fare. This way, it hopes to capture a big valuation differential between its entry price and exit price after IPO. At its high point two years ago, there was a ten-fold gap between Jiuding’s entry and exit multiples. Jiuding bought in at a p/e of less than 10X, and could exit at over 80X. Though share prices and p/e multiples have fallen, the gap remains ample, still under 10X going in, and a likely 25X-30X going out.

Here’s the way it works: the CSRC IPO approval process can take anywhere from two to five years. Jiuding times its investment as close as legally permissible to the time when the company will file for IPO. It then gets to work doing everything it can to improve the likelihood of CSRC approval, attending meetings at the CSRC, lobbying backstage. When things go smoothly, Jiuding can enter and exit an investment in three years, including the mandatory one-year lockup after IPO.

The average hold time for other PE firms investing in China can be as long as six to eight years. These other firms are willing to invest earlier and then help the company transition, often over a two to three year period, to full tax and regulatory compliance. This is a prerequisite before filing for IPO. Change in China is perpetual, sudden, frenetic. The longer a PE firm holds an investment, the greater the risk some change in the rules, or the domestic market, or the exchange rate, or the competitive landscape will ruin a once-strong company.

These uncertainties, as well as the significant risk a Chinese company will not pass CSRC’s IPO approval process, are the two largest China PE investment risks that Jiuding tries to eliminate. For Jiuding, this means a hyper-technical focus on whether a company is paying all its taxes and whether its main customer is actually the founder’s brother-in-law. In other words, are there serious related party transactions? This is often the main reason the CSRC turns down an IPO application.

Other PEs, particularly the global giants,  take a different approach. They expend huge energy on the process of analyzing and predicting the future course of a company’s products, markets, competitive position. This involves a lot of brain power and also some guesswork. The results are mixed. A lot of deals never close, because the PE firm, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and lots of man-hours, can’t complete due diligence. Others will never reach the stage of even applying for IPO, let alone getting approval.

Jiuding seems perfectly-adapted to the Chinese investment terrain. When its process works, its bets pay off handsomely, often delivering returns of at least three times capital invested. Jiuding calls this a “PE factory method”. It tries to systematize as much of the investment process as possible. Jiuding has a huge staff of at least 250 people, ten times the size of other PEs in China. They are kept busy doing this work of collecting company data and then simulating the CSRC’s approval process. It invites its LPs, mainly wealthy Chinese bosses, to participate in deal screening and approval. If the majority of LPs doesn’t approve of a deal, it doesn’t get done. In the PE industry, this is often known as “letting the lunatics run the asylum”.

To be sure, Jiuding doesn’t always get it right. It does more deals each year than just about every other PE firm in China. Quite a few will flame out before IPO. But, Jiuding will usually get its original investment back, by forcing companies to buy back the shares. Meantime, its IPO hit rate is high, as far as I can tell. The company discloses information only sporadically, and its website lists only fourteen IPOs. Its actual tally is certainly far higher. Jiuding regards everything about its business — its portfolio of investments, its total capital, its staff size — as commercial secrets.

Jiuding differs in another important way from larger, better-known PE firms: it helps itself to less of its LPs’ money . Jiuding takes a lower management fee, usually a one-time 3% charge, rather than annual 1%-3%, and awards itself with a smaller carry on successful deals. Jiuding’s almost as efficient at raising money as it is investing it. It’s already raised at least ten different funds, including, recently, a dollar one.

With everything going so well, Jiuding, and its stripped-down approach to PE investing, looks unstoppable. But, there are some signs of serious problems ahead for Jiuding. Its main problems now aren’t raising money or even finding good companies. Partly, it’s a challenge familiar to most successful Chinese companies, including many Jiuding has invested in: copycats start springing up everywhere. In the last two years, hundreds of new Renminbi PE firms were founded. Many are trying to duplicate Jiuding’s formula. They also focus on companies ready to apply for IPO, and also try to anticipate the way the CSRC will rule on the application. Jiuding needs to fight harder now to win deals, and often does this by agreeing to invest at higher price than others. That will inevitably lower potential returns.

The second, larger problem is the CSRC’s IPO approval process itself. It is becoming slower, and also even more impenetrable and unpredictable, even to the savants at Jiuding. It’s harder now for Jiuding to get in and out of deals quickly, a key to its success. The backlog of Chinese companies with CSRC approval and waiting to IPO is now at around 500. In most cases, that means a wait of at least two years after the laborious CSRC process is complete. A lot can go wrong during that time. So, an investor like Jiuding will need to understand, before going in, more about a company and its longer-term prospects.

In China’s PE market, where good companies are plentiful and IPO exits are limited, Jiuding has prospered by focusing more on understanding the regulator than on understanding a company’s business model and industry. It never needed to bother much with monitoring the day-to-day dramas of running a company, or offering sage advice as a board member, or helping a company expand its partnerships and improve marketing. Yet, all this is becoming more and more necessary. These aren’t skills Jiuding has mastered. Who has? The same big global PE firms (including Carlyle, TPG, Blackstone, KKR, Bain Capital) that Jiuding has lately run circles around. Jiuding’s “PE factory” must adapt or die.