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The Ambow Massacre — Baring Private Equity Fails in Its Take Private Plan

March 27th, 2013 1 comment

 

In the last two years, more than 40 US-listed Chinese companies have announced plans to delist in “take private” deals.  About half the deals have a PE firm at the center of things, providing some of the capital and most of the intellectual and strategic firepower. The PE firms argue that the US stock market has badly misunderstood, and so deeply undervalued these Chinese companies. The PE firms confidently boast they are buying into great businesses at fire sale prices.

The PE firm teams up with the company’s owner to buy out public shareholders, with the plan being at some future point to either sell the business or relist it outside the US. At the moment, PE firms are involved in take private deals worth about $5 billion. Some of the bigger names include Focus Media, 7 Days Inn, Simcere Pharmaceutical.

The ranks of “take private” deals fell by one yesterday. PE firm Baring Private Equity announced it is dropping its plan to take private a Chinese company called Ambow Education Holding listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Baring, which is among the larger Asia-headquartered private equity firms, with over $5 billion under management,  first announced its intention to take Ambow private on March 15. Within eleven days, Baring was forced to scrap the whole plan. Here’s how Baring put it in the official letter it sent to Ambow and disclosed on the SEC website, “In the ten days since we submitted the Proposal, three of the four independent Directors and the Company’s auditors have resigned, and the Company’s ADSs have been suspended from trading on the NYSE. As a result of these unexpected events, we have concluded that it is not possible for us to proceed with the Transaction as set forth in our Proposal.”

Baring’s original proposal offered Ambow shareholders $1.46 a share, a 45% premium over the price at the time. Baring is already a shareholder of Ambow, holding about 10% of the equity. It bought the shares earlier this year.  Assuming the shares do start trading again, Baring is likely sitting on a paper loss of around $8mn on the Ambow shares it owns, as well as a fair bit of egg on its face. Uncounted is the amount in legal fees, to say nothing of Baring’s own time, that was squandered on this deal. My guess is, this is hardly what Baring’s LPs would want their money being spent on.

Perhaps the only consolation for Baring is that this mess exploded before it completed the planned takeover of the company. But, still, my question, “what did Baring know about any big problems inside Ambow when it tabled its offer ten days ago?” If the answer is “nothing”, well what does that say about the quality of the PE firm’s due diligence and deal-making prowess? How can you go public with an offer that values Ambow at $105 million and only eleven days later have to abandon the bid because of chaos, and perhaps fraud, inside the target company?

It is so easy, so attractive,  to think you can do deals based largely on work you can do on a Bloomberg terminal. Just four steps are all that’s needed. Download the stock chart? Check. Read the latest SEC filings, including financial statements? Check. Discover a share trading at a fraction of book value? Check. Contact the company owner and say you want to become his partner and buy out all his foolish and know-nothing US shareholders? Check. All set. You can now launch your bid.

Here the stock chart for Ambow since it went public on the NYSE:

 

 

So, in a little more than two years, Ambow’s market cap has fallen by 92%, from a high of over $1 billion, to the current level of less than $90mn. That’s not a lot higher than the company’s announced 2011 EBITDA of $54mn, and about equal to the total cash Ambow claimed, in its most recent annual report filed with the SEC, it had in the bank. Now really, who wouldn’t want to buy a company trading at 1.5X trailing EBITDA and 1X cash?

Well, start with the fact that it now looks like those numbers might not be everything they purport to be. That would be the logical inference from the fact that the company’s auditors and three of its board members all resigned en masse.

That gets to the heart of the real problem with these “PtP” (public to private) deals involving US-listed Chinese companies. The PE firms seem to operate on the assumption that the numbers reported to the SEC are genuine, and therefore that these companies’ shares are all trading at huge discounts to their intrinsic worth. Well, maybe not. Also, maybe US shareholders are not quite as dumb as some of the deal-makers here would like to believe. From the little we know about the situation in Ambow, it looks like, if anything, the US capital market was actually being too generous towards the company, even as it marked down the share price by over 90%.

A share price represents the considered assessment of millions of people, in real time. Some of those people (suppliers, competitors, friends of the auditor) will always know more than you about what the real situation is inside a company. Yes, sometimes share prices can overshoot and render too harsh a judgment on a company’s value. But, that’s assuming the numbers reported to the SEC are all kosher.  If we’ve learned anything in these last two years it’s that assuming a Chinese company’s SEC financial statement is free of fraud and gross inaccuracy is, at best, a gamble. There simply is no way a PE firm can get complete comfort, before committing to taking over one of these Chinese businesses listed in the US, that there are no serious dangers lurking within. Reputation risk, litigation risk, exit risk — these too are very prominent in all PtP deals.

Some of the other announced PtP deals are using borrowed money, along with some cash from PE firms, to pay off existing shareholders. In such cases, the risk for the PE fund is obviously lower. If the Chinese company genuinely has the free cash to service the debt, well, then once the debt is paid off, the PE firm will end up owning a big chunk of a company without having tied up a lot of cash.  Do the banks in these cases really know the situation inside these often-opaque Chinese companies? Is the cash flow on the P&L the same cash flow that passes through its hands each month?

There’s much else that strikes me as questionable about the logic of doing these PtP, or delist-relist deals. For one thing, it seems increasingly unlikely that these businesses will be able to relist, anytime in the next three to five years, in Hong Kong or China. I’ve yet to hear a credible plan from the PE firms I’ve talked to about how they intend to achieve ultimate exit. But, mainly, my concerns have been about the rigor and care that goes into the crafting of these deals. Those concerns seem warranted in my opinion, based on this 11-day debacle with Baring and Ambow.

Some of the Chinese-listed companies fell out of favor for the good reason that they are dubious businesses, run with shoddy and opaque practices, by bosses who’ve shown scant regard for the letter and spirit of the securities laws of the US. Are these really the kind of people PE funds should consider going into business with?

 

Correction: I see now Barings actually has owned some Ambow shares for longer, and so is likely sitting on far larger losses on this position. This raises still more starkly the issue of how it could have put so much of its LPs money at risk on a deal like this, upfront, and without having sufficient transparency into the true situation at the company. This looks more like stock speculation gone terribly wrong, not private equity.

Addition: Three other large, famous institutional investors also all piled into Ambow in the months before Baring made its bid. Fidelity, GIC and Capital Group reported owning 8.76%, 5.2% and 7.4% respectively, or a total of 21.3% of the equity. They might have made a quick buck had the Baring buyout gone forward. Now, they may end up stranded, sitting on large positions in a distressed stock with no real liquidity and perhaps nowhere to go but down.

 

 

China’s Beauty Revolution — Deng Xiaoping Deserves Some of the Credit

March 19th, 2013 4 comments

Rather than discuss again the state of Chinese private equity and billions of dollars in capital flows, this blog will turn now to an even weightier topic. Pretty women. Specifically, the increasing abundance of them in China.

To my eye,  Chinese women have undergone a spectacular makeover over the last 30 years every bit as dramatic as China’s economic growth and modernization. I first came to China 32 years ago, as a graduate student. At the time, China was still partly under the leaden pall of the Cultural Revolution, which had officially ended five years earlier. College girls dressed like soldiers, wore no makeup and kept their hair short, often in stumpy pigtails. Army caps and threadbare canvas sneakers were considered fashion accessories.

Coming to China in 1981 after four years at university in the US, a fair amount of it spent chasing coeds, Chinese college girls seemed adorned mainly for calisthenics and bayonet practice. I duly kept them at a distance. Just as well, since had I fallen for a Chinese girl, it would likely have brought her nothing but ceaseless political browbeating and struggle sessions from her peers and professors. Chinese girls were not to be fraternized with. The thought barely even occurred to me. Instead, I fell under the powerful spell of my very glamorous Italian female classmates, including one who became, for a brief time, a famous Chinese movie star and perhaps the most lusted-after woman in China. She finished her studies, left China when I did in 1982, and ended up marrying one of America’s most famous movie actors. But that, as they say, is another story.

What a difference 30 years of hypertrophic economic growth can make.  Deng Xiaoping is not short of praise or recognition. But, to his list of titanic accomplishments must be added that he did more to beautify Chinese women than any man who’s ever lived. He liberalized not only the economy, but social attitudes and unwound the straightjacket that had bound women’s fashion for decades. For, that he deserves the eternal gratitude of every man living now in China, myself included.

The magnitude of this change in women’s appearance, over the last 30 years, cannot be overstated. If there is another aspect of China’s modernization that created so many benefits, so much net happiness, with few if any offsetting disadvantages, I don’t know of it.

Women in China today have opportunities to express themselves in ways that were unthinkable a generation ago. This runs not only from the clothes they wear and ways they style their hair, but also including the many elements of accessorized femininity, all of which were basically unavailable 30 years ago. There was no make-up, no proper skin creams, no sunblock, no perfumes, no nail polish, no hair dye, no properly-engineered underwear. Chinese girls looked a lot like toy soldiers because they were wearing clothes and underwear designed to neutralize rather than accentuate their curves.

This is absolutely no longer the case. To choose one example, on my short walk home from the subway, I pass through a 50-meter long underground mall with five different underwear shops, all selling domestic brands, and all very far down the “skimpy spectrum”  towards the sexiest things for sale in a Victoria’s Secret. The customers cross all age barriers. There is a popularity, as well as exuberance in China to the buying of sexy underwear that I never saw elsewhere, including Italy. It is also much more of an everywoman’s activity in China.

From the little I can tell from glancing at the age of the customers in these underwear shops, Chinese mothers are almost certainly the world’s largest market for sexy underwear. As for the fashions that are more visible to casual onlookers, Chinese women generally display a sense of style, of trying to look their best, across all ages and income levels.  The most popular clothing comes from domestic brands no one outside China has heard of, not the famous Italian or French fashion houses. Chinese brands know how to design clothes to flatter the way Chinese are shaped.

I have one friend, who started and runs one of these larger domestic female clothing brands called Ozzo. He has over 400 stores across China and caters to middle class women over 30. He sees virtually unlimited capacity for growth for his brand across China.

While beauty is in the beholder’s eye, it seems to me an objective reality that women in China are more attentive to how they look in public than at any time in recent, as well as probably ancient, history. This is true from the smallest farming village to the largest metropolis.

My sense is that colors here are brighter and more varied than you see commonly in US and Europe, where women tend to wear black. It’s apparently meant to be “slimming”. That isn’t a major concern for the majority of Chinese women, from what I can tell. Food is plentiful, and appetites are large. I’ve personally yet to run across a Chinese women who engages in the self-mortification ritual known as dieting.

One small downside. Chinese women are smoking more than they used to. But, the number of women smokers is still a miniscule fraction of what it is in Europe and the US. One reason more Chinese women don’t smoke is they know it damages the skin.

I travel within China more than just about anyone here, excepting airline pilots and government officials. Along with all the new buildings, roads and the new sense of national pride over the last three decades, this focus among Chinese women on looking and dressing well is the most emphatic statement of how far the country has come.

I can already hear the “feminist critique” of what I’m writing here, to wit, that to beautify is to tyrannize, and to “objectify” — a word I still can’t quite define. But, the best proof of how much Chinese women themselves appreciate the changes, appreciate the freedom now to spend more of what they have to look their best,  is how very few Chinese women have rejected all this and stay dressed as Mao once obliged them to.

 

When Push Comes to Shove, Cover Story on China Private Equity Secondaries –AVCJ

March 14th, 2013 No comments

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AVCJ Magazine’s cover story, in current issue, on crisis in private equity in China caused by unexited deals, and the positive role direct secondaries might play.

Read complete article by clicking here.

 

 

 

 

More Trouble for the Big Four Accountants in China: Pushing Prudent Analysis or Propaganda?

March 6th, 2013 No comments

This is not a good time for the Big Four accounting firms in China. The SEC has charged them with breaking securities law, while one of the group, Deloitte, is now in serious hot water in the US, facing a shareholder class action in Delaware for aiding a US-listed Chinese company in defrauding US investors. If Deloitte loses, or opts to settle, it could uncork a tidal wave of copycat claims that would do serious, perhaps irreparable damage to the China business of Deloitte, and then also possibly to Ernst & Yong, Price WaterhouseCoopers and KPMG.

The charges against the Big Four all boil down to allegations they were either negligent in fulfilling their statutory duties, or in cahoots with bad guys scheming to defraud US investors. The implication of the SEC charges seems to be the accountants’ willy-nilly pursuit of fees led the Big Four to cut corners, surrender objectivity, and allow their judgment to become corrupted.

Similar doubts can be raised about the quality, credibility and soundness of the judgments the accountants provide in assessing China’s private equity industry. Even as the PE market began to slide into serious trouble last year, the accountants kept talking up the industry. In particular, it’s worth reading the two big and well-publicized reports on China private equity produced by Ernst & Young  and PWC. Both can be downloaded by clicking here. E&Y Report. PWC Report.

Both of these documents were published in late December 2012. All IPO activity for Chinese companies had come to an abrupt halt months earlier, and along with this, China’s PE firms basically went into hibernation, closing off almost all new investment in China. The situation has, if anything, worsened so far in 2013. And yet, to read these reports, my opinion would be that that everything was overall pretty rosy.

Nowhere is it mentioned that a main factor contributing to the collapse of Chinese IPOs is the widespread loss of confidence in the work of accountants. While the PWC report does note the challenge posed by limited exits, it echoes the generally bullish sentiment of the E&Y report. PWC confidently predicts, “We think new deal and exit activity will accelerate strongly from 2Q13 as pricing expectations adjust.” In other words, according to PWC, we’re weeks away now from not just the revival of the comatose China PE industry, it’s going to leap out of bed and begin doing wind-sprints.

Let’s see how things play out.  But, the greater likelihood in my opinion is that 2013 will be the worst year in recent history for China PE. Further out, things look even more dire, as hundreds of PE funds reach the end of their lives still holding tens of billions of dollars in illiquid investments made with LP money.

Why then all the optimism, the boosterism, the cheerleading from the accountants? I have a lot of respect for their professionalism. To me, it seems that their enthusiasm may be more a matter of  wishing, hoping and urging that the PE industry, and the fees that come from it, continue to grow. To crib a line from Warren Buffett’s latest Letter to Shareholders, “wishing makes dreams come true only in Disney movies; it’s poison in business.”

China PE has been good — no, make that, very good — to the Big Four accounting firms. It’s anybody’s guess, but I’d estimate the total fees earned as recently as 2011 by the Big Four for work done for PE firms in China is well above $75mn. This is for audits of existing and potential investments, for other due diligence services and for portfolio valuation.

PE firms are certainly one of the key sources of revenue for the Big Four in China. The Big Four also do work for Chinese corporations, but that market is much more crowded in China, with thousands of local accounting firms also getting their share of corporate audits and tax. The local firms charge about half what the Big Four do. The global PE firms rely almost exclusively on the Big Four to do all their work in China. The PE firms pay top dollar.

The Big Four get paid big money to do audits and projections on many of the deals the bigger PE firms are considering in China.  Very often during due diligence the PE firm opts to abandon a deal. Even when they do, the accounting firms get paid in full. At around $250,000 a pop, the financial DD package on PE deals that never close has become a very lucrative line of business. I’ve also known of cases where the PE firm paid for the audit and projections but then tossed them away after deciding the conclusions were flawed.

Reading the E&Y and PWC reports, it seems to me a primary purpose was marketing, to let the PE industry in China feel good about itself, to reassure distant LPs, and even to encourage China GPs to be a little more bold and active. Nowhere does one read any kind of more sober analysis pointing to the systemic problems in the industry caused by the enormous overhang of unexited deals, expiring fund life, the damage done to IPO markets by false accounting, the billions of dollars in LP money at risk. The reports seem more like propaganda than a prudent assessment.

It’s also puzzling that the accounting companies shared no serious research on the scale of the problem of unexited deals in China. Self-interest, as well as professional credibility,  would seem to dictate it.  Instead, it was my company, which earns fees of precisely zero from PE firms, that made the effort over six months to research and contextualize the problem of unexited deals in China. We had no financial incentive to do this work, but did so because we thought it’s the best way to put the China PE industry on a sounder long-term footing and get PEs to start again making new investments.

It’s not only the accountants that have been gorging on PE firm fees. The big US and UK law firms, management consultants like McKinsey, market research firms and placement agents have also been earning very fat fees and retainers from China’s PE business. My guess is the total amount of LP wealth transferred by China PE firms to professional services firms is above $250mn a year. None of these firms issued serious public warnings to their PE clients about problems bedeviling the industry. McKinsey, which interviews GPs, offered this in the 2012 report I saw on private equity in China, ” As one large GP in China told us, “We’re busier than we have been in the last eight or nine years.”

I can’t help but feel that all these professional services firms have perhaps gotten a little drunk and maybe a little lazy from all the easy money they’ve been earning from China-focused PE funds. No one wants to say anything that might close down the tap on the billions of new LP money coming into China each year, a meaningful slice of which always gets divided among these professional service firms. And so the rather utopian portrayals of China PE keep getting printed and circulated.

It’s similar to the way equity analysts at brokerage houses never seem to have a bad word to say about the companies their firms do business with. Even when an analyst decides the company is a loser, the published research will merely advise to “Hold” or “Accumulate”. In the head-to-head combat between a revenue stream and forthright assessment, the revenue stream always seems to win.

 

 

Secondaries offer solution for US capital locked in China — AltAssets

March 3rd, 2013 No comments

The future of private equity and venture capital in China is threatened by a huge overhang of illiquid investments. US institutional investors and pension funds are at risk in a market that until recently was a source of significant investment profits. Private equity secondaries offer a potential way out, according to China First Capital.

China’s private equity industry, having grown in less than a decade from nothing into a giant rivaling the private equity industry in the US, is in the early stages of a unique crisis that could undermine the remarkable gains of recent years, according to a newly-published research report by China First Capital, an international investment bank. Over $100bn in private equity and venture capital investments is now blocked inside deals with no easy exit. A significant percentage of that capital is from limited partners, family offices, university endowments in the USA.

Private equity firms in China are running out of time and options. Exit through trade sale or M&A, a common practice elsewhere, is almost nonexistent in China. One viable solution, the creation of an efficient and liquid market in private equity secondaries in China where private equity firms could sell out to one another, has yet to develop. As a result, private equity general partners, their limited partner investors and investee companies in China risk serious adverse outcomes.

Secondary deals will likely go from current low levels to gain a meaningful share of all private equity exits in China, China First Capital said.

In all, over $130bn is now invested in un-exited private equity deals in China. The un-exited private equity and venture capital deals are screened and analysed across multiple variables, including date, investment size, tier of private equity firm, industry, price-earnings ratio.

Secondary deals potentially offer some of the best risk-adjusted investment opportunities, as well as the most certain and efficient way for private equity and venture capital firms to exit investments and return money to their limited partners, the report finds. The most acute need for exit will be investments made before 2008, since private equity firms generally need to return money to their limited partners within five to seven years. But, more recent private equity and venture deals will also need to be assessed based on current market conditions.

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 slammed the door shut on IPOs for most Chinese companies. As a result, private equity firms can’t find buyers for illiquid shares, and so can’t return money to their Limited Partners.

“Many private equity firms are adopting what looks to be an unhedged strategy across a portfolio of invested deals waiting for capital markets conditions to improve,” according to China First Capital’s chairman and founder, Peter Fuhrman. “The need for diversification is no less paramount for exits than entries,” he continues. “Many of the same private equity firms that wisely spread their LPs money across a range of industries, stages and deal sizes, have become over-reliant now on a single path to exit: an IPO in Hong Kong or China. By itself, such dependence on a single exit path is risky. In the current environment, with most IPO activity at a halt, it looks even more so. ”

Secondary activity in China will differ significantly from secondaries done in the US and Europe, he added. Buyers will cherry-pick good deals, rather than buying entire portfolios, and escape much of the due diligence risk that plagues primary private equity deals in China. Sellers, in many cases, will be able to achieve a significant rate of return in a secondary sale and so return strong profits to their limited partners. Private equity-invested companies stand to benefit as well, since a secondary transaction can be linked to a new round of financing to provide additional growth capital to the business. In short, secondary deals in China should be three-sided transactions where all sides come out ahead.

But, significant obstacles remain. The private equity and venture capital industry in China has grown large, but has not yet fully matured. The industry is fragmented, with several hundred older dollar funds, and several thousand Renminbi firms launched more recently, some fully private and some state-owned with most falling somewhere in between.

Absent a significant and sustained surge in IPO activity in 2013, the pressure on private equity firms to exit through secondaries will intensify. According to the report, no private equity firm is now raising money for a fund dedicated to buying secondaries in China. There is a market need. As a fund strategy, private equity secondaries offer Limited Partners greater diversification across asset types and maturities in China.

Private equity has been a powerful force for good in China, the report concludes. Entrepreneurs, consumers, investors have all benefited enormously. Profit opportunities for private equity firms and Limited Partner investors remain large. Exit opportunities are the weak link. A well-functioning secondary market is an urgent and fundamental requirement for the future health and success of China’s private equity industry.

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