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Private Equity in China 2013: the Opportunity & The Crisis — China First Capital Research Report

June 29th, 2013 2 comments

Making money from private equity in China has become as challenging as “trying to catch a fish in a tree*. The IPO exit channel is basically shut. Fundraising has never been harder. One hundred billion dollars in capital is locked up inside unexited deals. LPs are getting very anxious. Private companies are suffocating from a lack of new equity financing. PE firms are splintering as partners depart the many struggling firms.

Looking beyond today’s rather grim situation, there are some points of light still shining bright. China remains the world’s fastest-growing major economy with the world’s most enterprising private sector. Entrepreneurship remains China’s most powerful, as well as inexhaustible, natural resource. So long as these two factors remain present, as I’m sure they will for decades to come, China will remain an attractive place to put money to work. But, where? With whom?

China First Capital has published its latest survey covering China PE, M&A and capital markets. The report is titled, ” Private Equity in China 2013 — The Opportunity & The Crisis“. It can be downloaded by clicking here.

During the last year, as China PE first stumbled, then fell into a deep pit, a lot of people I talk to in the industry suggested this was a positive development, that the formation of funds and fundraising had both gotten out of hand. Usually, the PE firm partners saying this quickly added, “but this doesn’t apply to us, of course”.  In other words, as the American saying has it,  “Don’t blame you. Don’t blame me. Blame the guy behind the tree.” It’s all somebody else’s fault.

That’s an interesting take. But, not one that holds up to a lot of scrutiny. The reality is that everyone in the business of financing Chinese companies, myself included, got a little drunk and disorderly. China, in business terms, is the world’s largest punchbowl filled with the world’s most intoxicating liquor. Too many good companies. Too much money to be made. Too much money to be had.

It was ever thus. From the first time outside investors and dealmakers got a look at China, they all went a little berserk with excitement.  This was as true of Marco Polo in the 14th century as British opium houses in the 19th century and American endowments and pension funds in the last decade. The scale of the place,  of the market,  is just so stupefying.

The curse of all China investing is counting one’s fortune before it’s made.  In the latter half of the 19th century, for example, European steel mills dreamed of the profits to be made from getting Chinese to switch from chopsticks to forks and knives.

PE firms did a lot of similar fantasizing. Pour money in at eight times earnings, and pull it out a few years later after an IPO at eighty.   All the spreadsheets, all the models, all the market research and top-down analytics — in the end, it all came back to this intoxicating formula. Put a pile of chips on number 11 then spin the roulette wheel. There were a few winners in China PE, a few deals that hit the jackpot. But, the odds in roulette, at 36-to-one, turned out to be much more favorable.

For every PE deal that made a huge return, there are 150 that either went bust or now sit in this near-endless queue of unexited deals, with scant likelihood of an IPO before the PE fund’s life expires.

The China First Capital research report, rather than making any predictions on when, for example, IPOs will resume and at what sort of valuation,  delves more deeply into some more fundamental issues. These include ideas on how best to resolve the “principal-agent dilemma”, and the growing risks to China’s economic reform and rebalancing strategy caused by the drying up of IPO and PE financing of private sector companies.

We hope our judgments have merit. But, above all, they are independent. Unconflicted. That seems more and more like a rarity in our profession.

 

* A prize to the first person who successfully identifies the source of this quote. A hint: it was said by a former, often-maligned ruler of China.

New capital drought threatens growth in China — China Daily

June 22nd, 2013 No comments

Continued lack of IPO proceeds and private equity input will damage China’s economic reform

By Peter Fuhrman

China’s private sector is experiencing an unprecedented shortage of new investment capital. The two predominant flows of growth capital for China’s private sector – initial public offering proceeds and new investments by more than 1,000 private equity firms active in China – have both dried up.

As recently as 2011, IPOs and PE firms pumped $20 billion (15 billion euros) to $30 billion a year of new capital into private companies in China. In the past nine months, that figure has dropped to almost zero.

Even when IPOs cautiously resume, the flow of capital to private companies will likely remain at levels far below recent years. If so, it will quite possibly damage the plans of the Chinese government, as well as the hopes of many of its citizens, to “rebalance” the Chinese economy away from reliance on state-owned enterprises and toward one oriented more toward meeting the needs and fulfilling the hopes of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

All companies need capital to grow. This is especially true among China’s private sector businesses. They operate in a particularly fast-growing market, where both opportunities and competitors are plentiful. Private sector companies are also the main source of new jobs in China, and an increasingly vital contributor to overall GDP growth.

Over the past decade, these Chinese companies became perhaps the world’s hottest investment targets. China’s PE industry, both dollar and yuan, grew from basically zero to become the second-largest in the world. PE firms raised more than $200 billion to invest in China and then put money in more than 10,000 Chinese companies. At the same time, Hong Kong, New York and China each year vied for the title of world’s largest IPO market, with most of the deals being new offerings by Chinese companies.

New capital drought threatens growth

China still has more of the world’s best, most talented private sector entrepreneurs than any country. Investing in their companies remains one of the best ways to make money anywhere. But, for the moment, only a few are willing to try.

This problem is at its core a market failure caused by the loss of investor confidence inside and outside China in the true financial situation of its private sector companies. Questions are raised about financial fraud inside Chinese private companies. Though the concerns are real, the problems are of limited scope, often technical, and the market’s reaction has been severely overblown.

The accounting issues first arose in the US, with the uncovering of several cases of phony accounts among Chinese private companies quoted there. The contagion of doubt spread first to other Chinese private sector companies already listed or seeking to IPO in the US, then to those waiting for an IPO in Hong Kong, until recently the largest market in the world for new IPOs.

Finally, from the summer of 2012, the stock markets on the Chinese mainland began shutting down new IPOs. When the IPOs stopped, most PE firms stopped investing.

The PE firms are sitting on more than $40 billion in capital that they say is for investing in China’s fast-growing private sector companies. But that money is now idle in bank accounts, not going to help good companies become better.

The longer China’s private sector goes without access to major new capital, the more unbalanced the Chinese economy may become.

I first came to China in 1981. During the past 32 years, China’s private sector has gone from non-existent to producing more than half of the country’s GDP. The private sector produces just about everything ordinary Chinese rely on to better the quality of their lives – not just more and better-paying jobs, but also new housing, shops, clothing, restaurants, tutoring for their children and a vibrant Internet and e-commerce industry.

As these private companies have gone from small mom-and-pops to some giant businesses, including virtually all China’s leading domestic consumer brands, the dependence on IPO proceeds and PE money has become almost absolute. So, the dramatic slowdown in the flow of capital to private companies will have an impact on these businesses, their customers and ultimately China’s GDP.

At this point, the only outside financing available for Chinese private companies are bank loans, which remain difficult and costly to arrange. The banking system is, however, fixated on lending to state-owned enterprises. That leaves only the so-called “shadow banking system”, where loan sharks provide short-term money at interest rates of at least 25 percent per year. But, recently, even many loan sharks have fled the marketplace.

The Chinese government has created a set of policies that allowed the private sector to flourish. It also encouraged the flow of capital from the PE industry and IPOs. The plan had been to rely on the private economy to shoulder much of the burden of restructuring the Chinese economy away from SOEs and exports, while creating new jobs and supplying the goods consumers most want.

But that planned rebalancing cannot happen without money, without new capital for the private sector. Instead of a rebalance, China’s economy is possibly headed toward a more lopsided reliance on the state sector and big-ticket government spending projects.

(The author is founder and chairman of China First Capital, a China-focused investment banking and advisory firm. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.)

 

Download PDF version.

 

M&A in China — New China First Capital Research Report, “A New Strategy for M&A, Buyouts & Corporate Acquisitions in China”

June 18th, 2013 No comments

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M&A in China is entering a new, more promising phase. At no previous time was the environment as favorable to identify and close, at attractive valuations, the acquisition of a profitable, high growth, well-run, larger private business in China.

This is the conclusion of a recently completed research study by China First Capital, as part of our M&A advisory work. (An abridged copy of the report is available by clicking here.) The report is titled, “A New Strategy for M&A, Buyouts & Corporate Acquisitions in China: Sourcing and executing successful corporate acquisitions and buyouts from unexited PE deals in China“.

The industrial logic of doing acquisitions in China has never been in doubt. The scale, high annual growth rate and fragmented nature of China’s domestic economy all create a powerful attraction for control investors. The challenge has traditionally been a negative selection bias on the sell-side, that the Chinese companies available for purchase are often troubled,  state-owned, inefficient or poorly-managed. China’s best corporate assets, its larger private companies, were not previously available to control investors.

As a result, M&A in China, for all the predictions of an impending take-off, has never gotten into gear. The theory behind most deals, if there was one, was to tie two stones together and see if they float.

The reason for the positive change in the environment for control deals in China is the serious degradation in the environment for minority ones. Specifically, China’s private equity industry is in a state of deepening crisis. Having financed the growth of many of China’s best private companies, the PE firms are now finding it increasingly difficult to engineer a liquidity event before the expiry of their fixed fund life. They are emerging as distress sellers of desirable assets — in this case, strong PE-backed companies that are left without any other viable means for investors to exit.

As elaborated in earlier research reports from China First Capital, (read  here, here, here) there is a large overhang of over 7,500 unexited private equity deals in China. Most of these deals were done on the expectation of exiting through an IPO within a few years. That was always statistically improbable. In no year did more than 150 PE-backed Chinese private companies IPO.

An IPO has gone from statistically improbable to virtually unattainable. This is not only impacting the thinking of PE firms, but of the entrepreneurs they back as well. The exit math for private company bosses in China has changed dramatically over the last 12 months. M&A looks more and more like the only viable path to exit.

For business owners, the challenge to getting a deal done are both psychological and practical. First, owners must accept that valuations are way below where they hoped them to be, as well as well below the level two years ago, when they topped out at over 100 times last year’s net income. Second, the number of companies looking to sell will quickly begin to outnumber the qualified and capable acquirers. This will put further downward pressure on valuations.

In other words, for private company bosses looking for a liquidity event, the pressure to consider selling the business is mounting. For investors, owners and acquirers, the result is the beginnings of a genuine market for corporate control for private sector businesses in China.

The new China First Capital report is directed towards all three classes of potential acquirers — 1) global businesses seeking China market entry; 2) corporate acquirers seeking market or margin expansion in China through strategic or tuck-in acquisitions; 3) China domestic or global buyout firms seeking quality operating assets that can be built up and sold.  Their methods, timetable, metrics and deal targets will often differ. But, all three will find the current situation in China more suitable than at any previous time for executing M&A transactions of USD$100mn and above.

While the number of attractive targets is increasing, the complexities of doing M&A in China remain. The invested PE firms are almost always minority investors. A control transaction will need to be structured and staged to incentivize the owner to sell at least a portion of his holding alongside the PE firm, and then likely remain for at least several years at the helm.

The report offers some possible deal structures and timing mechanisms, included using “blended valuation” to determine price. It also charts the all-important  “when does cash enter my pocket” timing from the perspective of a selling majority owner.

PE investment in China, the report concludes,  has altered permanently the business landscape in China. It has also prepared the ground for a surge now in M&A activity.

Over $150 billion in PE capital was invested to propel the growth of over 10,000 private businesses. PE finance helped create a more dynamic and powerful private sector in China. In quite a number of cases, the PE-invested businesses have emerged as industry leaders in their sectors in China, highly profitable, innovative, fast-growing, with revenues of $100mn and above.

These companies have the scale and established market presence to permit a strategic acquirer to substantially increase its activity in China, extending product range, customer relationships, distribution channels. For buyout firms or corporate acquirers, taking over a PE-invested company should offer satisfactory financial returns. Buyout ROE can be significantly enhanced in certain cases by using leverage to finance the acquisition.

The supreme irony is that this moment of opportunity in domestic M&A comes at the same time quite a number of PE firms are pursuing highly questionable “take private” deals involving troubled Chinese companies listed on the US stock market. (See earlier blog posts here, here, here, here.) The risks, and prices paid, are far higher than doing well-targeted domestic M&A in China.

When junk is priced like jewels — and vice versa — is there any doubt where the smart money should go?

 

 

 

Jiuding Capital: China’s “PE Factory” Breaks Down

June 11th, 2013 No comments

Less than 18 months ago, Harvard Business School published one of its famed “cases” on Kunwu Jiuding Capital (昆吾九鼎投资管理有限公), praising the Chinese domestic private equity firm for its ” outstanding performance ” and “dazzling investment results”. (Click here to read abridged copy.) Today,  the situation has changed utterly. Jiuding’s “dazzling results”, along with that HBS case, look more like relics from a bygone era.

Jiuding developed a style of PE investing that was, for awhile, as perfectly adapted to Chinese conditions as the panda is to predator-free bamboo jungles in Sichuan. Jiuding kept it simple. Don’t worry too much about the company’s industry, its strategic advantage, R&D or management skills. Instead,  look only for deals where you could make a quick killing. In China, that meant looking for companies that best met the requirements for an immediate domestic IPO. Deals were conceived and executed to arbitrage consistently large valuation differentials between public and private markets, between private equity entry multiples and expected IPO exit valuations.

Jiuding’s pre-investment work consisted mainly of simulating the IPO approval process of China’s securities regulator, the CSRC. If these simulations suggested a high likelihood of speedy CSRC IPO approval, a company got Jiuding’s money. The objective was to invest and then get out in as short a period as possible, preferably less than two years. A more typical PE deal in China might wait four years or more for an opportunity to IPO.

Jiuding did dozens of deals based on this investment method. When things worked according to plan, meaning one of Jiuding’s deals got quickly through its IPO, the firm made returns of 600% or more. After a few such successes, Jiuding’s fundraising went into overdrive. Once a small domestic Renminbi PE firm, Jiuding pretty soon became one of the most famous and largest, with the RMB equivalent of over $1 billion in capital.

Then, last year, a capital markets asteroid wiped out Jiuding’s habitat.  The CSRC abruptly, and without providing any clear explanation, first slowed dramatically the number of IPO approvals, then in October 2012, halted IPOs altogether. This has precipitated a crisis in China’s private equity industry. Few other PE firms are as badly impacted as Jiuding. The CSRC’s sudden block on IPOs revealed the fact that Jiuding’s system for simulating the IPO approval process had a fatal flaw. It could not predict, anticipate or hedge against the fact that IPOs in China remain not a function of market dynamics, but political and institutional policies that can change both completely and suddenly.

If Jiuding made one key mistake, it was assuming that the IPO approval system that prevailed from 2009 through mid-2012 was both replicable and likely to last well into the future. In other words, it was driving ahead at full speed while looking back over its shoulder.

Jiuding’s deals are now stranded, with no high probability way for many to achieve IPO exit before the expiry of fund life. That was another critical weakness in the Jiuding approach: it raised money in many cases by promising its RMB investors to return all capital within four to six years, about half the life cycle of a typical global PE firm like Carlyle or Blackstone.

Jiuding’s deals, like thousands of others in China PE,  are part of a backlog that could take a decade or more to clear. The numbers are stupefying: at its height the CSRC never approved more than 125 IPOs a year for PE-backed companies in China. There are already 100 companies approved and waiting to IPO, 400 more with applications submitted and in the middle of CSRC investigation, and at least another 2,000-3,000 waiting for a time when the CSRC again allows companies to freely submit applications.

Jiuding’s assets and liabilities are fundamentally mismatched. That’s as big a mistake in private equity as it is in the banking and insurance industries. Jiuding’s assets —  its shareholdings in well over a hundred domestic companies — are and will likely remain illiquid for years into the future. Meantime, the people whose capital it invests,  mainly rich Chinese businesspeople, will likely demand their money back as originally promised, sometime in the next few years. There’s a word for a situation where a company’s near-term liabilities are larger than the liquidatable value of its assets.

In the Harvard Business School case, Jiuding’s leadership is credited with perfecting a “PE factory”,  which according to the HBS document “subverted the traditional private equity business model.”  They might as well have claimed Jiuding also subverted the law of gravity. There are no real shortcuts, no assembly line procedure, for making and exiting successfully from PE investments in China.

In an earlier analysis, written as things turned out just as the CSRC’s unannounced block on IPOs was coming into effect, I suggested Jiuding would need to adjust its investment methods, and more closely follow the same process used by bigger, more famous global PE firms. In other words, they would need to get their hands dirty, and invest for a longer time horizon, based more on a company’s medium term business prospects, not its likelihood of achieving an instant IPO.

Jiuding, in short, will need to focus its investing more on adding value and less on extracting it. Can it? Will it? Or has its time, like the boom years of CSRC IPO approval and +80X p/e IPO valuations in China,  come and gone?

 

 

Smithfield Foods – Shuanghui International: The Biggest Chinese Acquisition That Isn’t

June 2nd, 2013 1 comment


It is, if voluminous press reports are to be believed, the biggest story, the biggest deal, ever in China-US business history. I’m talking about the announced takeover of America’s largest pork company, Smithfield Foods, by a company called Shuanghui International. The deal, it is said in dozens of media reports, opens the China market to US pork and will transform China’s largest pork producer into a global giant selling Smithfield’s products alongside its own in China, while utilizing the American company’s more advanced methods for pork rearing and slaughtering.

One problem. A Chinese company isn’t buying Smithfield. A shell company based in Cayman Islands is. Instead of a story about “China buying up the world”, this turns out to be a story of a precarious leveraged buyout deal (“LBO”) cooked up by some large global private equity firms looking to borrow their way to a fortune.

The media, along with misstating the facts, are also missing the larger story here. The proposed Smithfield takeover is the latest iteration in the “take private” mania now seizing so many of the PE firms active in China. (See blog posts hereherehere and here.) With China’s own capital markets in crisis and PE investment there at a standstill, the PE firms have turned their attention, however illogically, to finding “undervalued assets” with a China angle on the US stock market. They then attempt an LBO, with the consent of existing management, and with the questionable premise the company will relist or be sold later in China or Hong Kong. The Smithfield deal is the biggest — and perhaps also the riskiest —  one so far.

This shell that is buying Smithfield has no legal or operational connection to Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development (from here on, “Shuanghui China”) , the Chinese pork producer, China’s largest, quoted on the Shenzhen stock exchange. The shell is about as Chinese as I am.

If the deal is completed, Shuanghui China will see no obvious benefit, only an enormous risk. Its Chinese assets are reportedly being used as collateral for the shell company to finance a very highly-leveraged acquisition. The abundant risks are being transferred to Shuanghui China while all the profits will stay inside this separately-owned offshore shell. No profits or assets of Smithfield will flow through to Shuanghui China. Do Shuanghui China’s Chinese minority shareholders know what’s going on here? Does the world’s business media?

Let’s go through this deal. I warn you. It’s a little convoluted. But, do take the time to follow what’s going on here. It’s fascinating, ingenious and maybe also a little nefarious.

First, the buyer of Smithfield is Shuanghui International, a Cayman holding company. It owns the majority of Shuanghui China, the Chinese-quoted pork company. Shuanghui International is owned by a group led by China-focused global PE firm CDH, with smaller stakes owned by Shuanghui China’s senior management,  Goldman Sachs, Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, Kerry Group, and another powerful PE firm focused on China, New Horizon Fund.

CDH, the largest single owner of Shuanghui International,  is definitively not Chinese. It invests capital from groups like Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund , CALPERS, the Rockefeller Foundation, one big Swiss (Partners Group) and one big Liechtenstein (LGT) money manager, along with the private foundation of one of guys who made billions from working at eBay. So too Goldman Sachs, of course, Temasek and New Horizon. They are large PE firms that source most of their capital from institutions, pension fund and endowments in the US, Europe, Southeast Asia and Middle East. (For partial list of CDH and New Horizon Fund Limited Partners click here. )

For the Smithfield acquisition, Shuanghui International (CDH and the others) seem to be putting up about $100mn in new equity. They will also borrow a staggering $4 billion from Bank of China’s international arm to buy out all of Smithfield’s current shareholders.  All the money is in dollars, not Renminbi.

If the deal goes through, Smithfield Foods and Shuanghui China will have a majority shareholder in common. But, nothing else. They are as related as, for example, Burger King and Neiman Marcus were when both were part-owned by buyout firm TPG. The profits and assets of one have no connection to the profits or assets of the other.

Shuanghui International, assuming it’s borrowed the money from Bank of China for three years,  will need to come up with about $1.5 billion in interest and principal payments a year if the deal closes. But, since Shuanghui International has no significant cash flow of its own (it’s an investment holding company), it’s hard to see where that money will come from. Smithfield can’t be much help. It already has a substantial amount of debt on its balance sheet. As part of the takeover plan, the Smithfield debt is being assumed by Morgan Stanley, Shuanghui International’s investment bankers. Morgan Stanley says it plans then to securitize the debt. A large chunk of Smithfield’s future free cash flow ($280mn last year) and cash ($139 mn as of the first quarter of 2013) will likely go to repay the $3 billion in Smithfield debts owed to Morgan Stanley.

A separate issue is whether, under any circumstances, more US pork will be allowed into China. The pork market is very heavily controlled and regulated. There is no likely scenario where US pork comes flooding into China. Yes, the media is right to say Chinese are getting richer and so want to eat more meat, most of all pork. But, mainly, the domestic market in China is reserved for Chinese hog-breeders. It’s an iron staple of China’s rural economy. These peasants are not going to be thrown under the bus so Smithfield’s new Cayman Islands owner can sell Shuanghui China lots of Armour bacon.

Total borrowing for this deal is around $7 billion, double Smithfield’s current market cap. Shuanghui International’s piece, the $4 billion borrowed from Bank of China, will go to current Smithfield shareholders to buy them out at a 31% premium.  Shuanghui International owns shares in Shuanghui China, and two of its board members are Shuanghui China top executives, but not much else. So where will the money come from to pay off the Bank of China loans? Good question.

Can Shuanghui International commandeer Shuanghui China’s profits to repay the debt? In theory, perhaps. But,  it’s highly unlikely such an arrangement would be approved by China’s securities regulator, the CSRC. It would not likely accept a plan where Shuanghui China’s profits would be exported to pay off debts owed by a completely independent non-Chinese company. Shuanghui International could sell its shares in Shuanghui China to pay back the debt. But, doing so would likely mean Shuanghui International loses majority control, as well as flooding the Shenzhen stock market with a lot of Shuanghui China’s thinly-traded shares.

Why, you ask, doesn’t Shuanghui China buy Smithfield? Such a deal would make more obvious commercial and financial sense. Shuanghui China’s market cap is triple Smithfield’s. Problem is, as a domestic Chinese company listed on China’s stock exchange, Shuanghui China would need to run the gauntlet of CSRC, Ministry of Commerce and SAFE approvals. That would possibly take years and run a risk of being turned down.  Shuanghui International, as a private Caymans company controlled by global PE firms,  requires no Chinese approvals to take over a US pork company.

The US media is fixated on whether the proposed deal will get the US government’s go ahead. But, as the new potential owner is not Chinese after all — neither its headquarters nor its ownership — then on what grounds could the US government object? The only thing Chinese-controlled about Shuanghui International is that the members of the Board of Directors were all likely born in China. The current deal may perhaps violate business logic but it doesn’t violate US national security.

So, how will things look if Shuanghui International’s LBO offer is successful?  Shuanghui China will still be a purely-Chinese pork producer with zero ownership in Smithfield, but with its assets perhaps pledged to secure the takeover debts of its majority shareholder. All the stuff about Shuanghui China getting access to Smithfield pork or pig-rearing and slaughtering technology, as well as a Smithfield-led upgrade of China’s pork industry,  is based on nothing solid. The pork and the technology will be owned by Shuanghui China’s non-Chinese majority shareholder. It can, if it chooses, sell pork or technology to Shuanghui China. But, Shuanghui China can achieve the same thing now. In fact, it is already a reasonably big buyer of Smithfield pork. Overall, China gets less than 1% of its pork from the US.

If the deal goes through, the conflicts of interest between Shuanghui International and Shuanghui China will be among the most fiendish I’ve ever seen. Shuanghui China’s senior managers, including chairman Wan Long, are going to own personally a piece of Smithfield, and so will have divided loyalties. They will likely continue to manage Shuanghui China and collect salaries there, while also having an ownership and perhaps a management role in Smithfield. How will they set prices between the two fully separate Shuanghuis? Who will watch all this? Isn’t this a case Shuanghui China’s insiders lining their own pockets while their employer gets nothing?

On its face, this Smithfield deal looks to be among the riskiest of all the  “take private” deals now underway. That is saying something since several of them involve Chinese companies suspected of accounting frauds, while the PE firms in at least two cases (China Transinfo and Le Gaga) doing the PE version of a Ponzi Scheme by seeking to use new LP money to bail out old, severely troubled deals they’ve done.

Let’s then look at the endgame, if the Smithfield deal goes through. Shuanghui International, as currently structured,  will not, cannot, be the long-term owner of Smithfield. The PE firms will need to exit. CDH, New Horizon, Goldman Sachs and Temasek have been an indirect shareholders of Shuanghui China for many years — seven in the case of CDH and Goldman.

According to what I’m told, Shuanghui International is planning to relist Smithfield in Hong Kong in “two to three years”. The other option on the table, for Shuanghui International to sell Smithfield (presumably at a mark-up) to Shuanghui China, would face enormous, probably insurmountable,  legal, financial and regulatory hurdles.

The IPO plan, as of now, looks crackpot. Hong Kong’s IPO market has basically been moribund for over a year. IPO valuations in Hong Kong are anyway far lower than the 20X p/e Shuanghui International is paying for Smithfield in the US. A separate tactical question for Shuanghui International and its investment bankers: why would you believe Hong Kong stock market investors in two to three years will pay more than US investors are now paying for a US company, with most of its assets, profits and revenues in the US?

But, even getting to IPO will require Shuanghui International to do something constructive about paying off the enormous $4 billion in debt it is taking on. How will that happen? Shuanghui International is saying Smithfield’s current American management will stay on. Why would one assume they can run it far more profitably in the future than they are running it now? If it all hinges on “encouraging” Shuanghui China to buy more Smithfield products, or pay big licensing fees, so Shuanghui International can earn larger profits, I do wonder how that will be perceived by both Shuanghui China’s minority investors, to say nothing of the CSRC. The CSRC has a deep institutional dislike of related party transactions.

Smithfield has lately been under pressure from some of its shareholders to improve its performance. That may have precipitated the discussions that led to the merger announcement with Shuanghui International. Smithfield’s CEO, C. Larry Pope, stands to earn somewhere between $17mn-$32mn if the deal goes through. He will stay on as CEO. His fiscal 2012 salary, including share and option awards, was $12.9mn.

Typical of such LBO deals, the equity holders (in this case, CDH, Goldman, Temasek, Kerry Group, Shuanghui China senior management, New Horizon) would stand to make a killing, if they can pay down the debt and then find a way to either sell or relist Smithfield at a mark-up. If that happens, profits will go to the Shuanghui insiders along with the partners in the PE firms, CALPERS, the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations, Goldman Sachs shareholders and other LPs. Shuanghui China? Nothing, as far as I can tell. China’s pork business will look pretty much exactly as it does today.

In their zeal to proclaim a trend — that of Chinese buying US companies — the media seems to have been blinded to the actual mechanics of this deal. They also seem to have been hoodwinked by the artfully-written press release issued when the deal was announced. It mentions that Shuanghui International is the ” majority shareholder of Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development Co. (SZSE: 000895), which is China’s largest meat processing enterprise and China’s largest publicly traded meat products company as measured by market capitalization.” This then morphed into a story about “China’s biggest ever US takeover”, and much else besides about how China’s pork industry will now be upgraded through this deal, about dead pigs floating in the river in Shanghai, about Chinese companies’ targeting US and European brands.

China may indeed one day become a big buyer of US companies. But, that isn’t what’s happening here. Instead, the world’s leading English-language business media are suffering a collective hallucination.

Smithfield & Shuanghui: One little piggy comes to market — Week In China

June 2nd, 2013 No comments

week in china

A record bid for America’s top pork producer isn’t quite as it first appears

“What I do is kill pigs and sell meat,” Wan Long, chairman at Henan Shuanghui Development, told Century Weekly last year.

It’s an admirably succinct job description for a man who has been lauded by China National Radio as the “Steve Jobs of Chinese butchery” (Jobs, a vegan, probably wouldn’t have approved).

Starting out with a single processing factory in Luohe in Henan province, Shuanghui is now the largest meat producer in China, having benefitted in recent years from a shift in the Chinese diet away from rice and vegetables towards more protein.

So the announcement that it is now making a bid for the world’s largest hog producer, Smithfield Foods from Virginia in the US, prompted a flurry of headlines about the significance of the deal; its chances of getting security clearance from the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS); and the broader implications for the meat trade in both countries if the takeover goes through.

Yet although Wan makes his profession sound like a simple one, Shuanghui’s bid for Smithfield turns out to be rather more complicated than many first assumed. Far from a case of a Chinese firm swooping in on an American target, the takeover reflects more complex trends too, including some of the peculiarities of the Chinese capital markets.

What first made headlines on the deal?

Privately-owned Shuanghui International has bid $7.1 billion for Smithfield Foods (including taking on its debt) in what the media is widely presenting as the biggest acquisition yet by a Chinese company of a US firm.

Shuanghui has processing plants in 13 provinces in China and produces more than 2.7 million tonnes of meat each year. But the plan is now to add Smithfield’s resources to the mix. “The acquisition provides Smithfield the opportunity to expand its offering of products to China through Shuanghui’s distribution network,” Wan announced. “Shuanghui will gain access to high-quality, competitively-priced and safe US products, as well as Smithfield’s best practices and operational expertise.”

What’s behind the move?

Most analysts have chosen to focus on Shuanghui’s desire to secure a more consistent supply of meat. Currently, it raises 400,000 of its own hogs a year, only a small share of the 11 million that it needs. That makes it reliant on other breeders in a country where the latest scare about contaminated meat is never far from the headlines. In the most recent case in March, the carcasses of thousands of pigs suddenly started floating down the Huangpu river upstream of Shanghai, after an outbreak of disease in nearby farms and a clampdown on the illicit sale of infected meat (see WiC186).

Now Shuanghui is said to be looking further afield to secure meat, and from a source that would allow it to differentiate its product range from that of its competitors.

“They’re a major processor who wants to source consistent, large volumes of raw material. You want to look at the cheapest sources and in the US, we’re very competitive,” Joel Haggard from the US Meat Export Federation told Bloomberg. Average hog prices in China are currently about $2.08 per kilo or a third higher than in the United States, Haggard also suggested.

How about changes in the industry in China?

A second theory is that Shuanghui is developing a more integrated supply chain in China and wants Smithfield’s help to complete the process.

This was something that C Larry Pope, chief executive at Smithfield, cited as a key factor in its willingness to pay a 31% premium for Smithfield stock. If so, that’s something of an irony: Continental Grain, Smithfield’s largest investor, has been pushing for a break up of the business to unlock more value for investors.

Still, an argument can be made that industry conditions are different in China, where the supply chain is shifting away from its reliance on more traditional household farming (the Mandarin character for “home” depicts a pig under a roof, for instance) to one in which large-scale, industrialised production begins to dominate.

Food safety concerns and the need to improve quality standards are also driving change across the industry. Yet despite signs of consolidation in hog breeding and slaughtering, integration across the full supply chain is a challenge. Shuanghui has already been trying to develop more of its own cold chain rather than rely on third parties (it operates seven private railways to transport its goods to 15 logistics centres, for instance, and has also invested in hundreds of its own retail outlets). But the Smithfield acquisition could help further with the integration effort, especially in areas such as adopting technology that tracks meat from farm to fork.

Paul Mariani, a director at agribusiness firm Variant Capital Advisors, told the Wall Street Journal last week that these systems have huge food safety benefits, allowing producers to track meat back to “where it was grown”. By contrast, Chinese suppliers struggle to achieve the same level of control, especially for meat sourced from the large number of smaller, family-owned firms.

How about in the US? Are Americans pleased with the deal?

The bid has already been referred to CFIUS, the committee that reviews the national security implications of foreign investments in US firms. But Smithfield’s Pope sounds confident, saying that he doesn’t expect “any concern” from the regulatory committee.

“We’re not exporting tanks and guns and cyber security,” he told reporters. “These are pork chops.”

All the same, the regulators will look at Smithfield’s supply contracts with the military, as well as whether any of its farms and factories are close to sensitive locations, an issue that has led to transactions being blocked or amended in the past.

For instance, the Obama administration intervened in the purchase of four Oregon wind farms by a Chinese acquirer this year because they were too close to a naval base.

“There’s a difference between a foreign company buying Boeing and one buying a hot dog stand,” Jonathan Gafni, president of Compass Point Analytics, which specialises in security reviews of this type, told the New York Times. “But it depends on which corner the stand is on.”

The committee will also look at whether Shuanghui could be in a position to disrupt the distribution of pork to American consumers. Indeed, Charles Grassley, the Republican Senator of Iowa, has already urged regulators to look closely at whether the Chinese government has any influence on Shuanghui’s management.

More ominously on Wednesday the chairwoman of the Senate’s Agriculture Committee expressed her concerns. Debbie Stabenow said those federal agencies considering the merger must take into account “China’s and Shuanghui’s troubling track record in food safety”. She further added that those agencies must “do everything in their power to ensure our national security and the health of our families is not jeopardised”.

Despite such concerns, the food security argument looks limited in scope, although some of the Chinese newspapers don’t expect the review to pass without issue. “Even the conspicuous absence of national security factors can hardly guarantee that US protectionists will not poke their noses into it,” the China Daily suggested pointedly.

Back in Washington, Elizabeth Holmes, a lawyer working for the Center for Food Safety, has also called for regulators to consider the bid from the wider perspective of food safety. “They’re supposed to identify and address any national security concerns that would arise,” she warned. “I can’t imagine how something like public health or environmental pollution couldn’t be potentially construed as a national security concern.”

The implication is that the takeover might damage Smithfield’s operations in the United States in some way, even leading to contamination among its locally sold products. Hence the fact that Shuanghui was forced to recall meat tainted by the additive clenbuterol two years ago has been seized upon by the deal’s critics.

Again, the Chinese media response has tended to be indignant, with widespread reference to Smithfield’s own use of ractopamine, an additive similar to clenbuterol that’s banned in hog rearing in China but not by authorities in the US.

According to Reuters, Smithfield has been trying to phase out its usage of the drug, presumably to clear the way for an increase in sales to China. And in response to American anxiety about food safety post-takeover at Smithfield, both parties have gone out of their way to reiterate that the goal is to export more American pork to the Chinese, and not vice versa. Smithfield’s chief executive Pope has argued the case directly, citing the superiority of American meat. “People have this belief…that everything in America is made in China,” he told reporters. “Open your refrigerator door, look inside. Nothing in there is made in China because American agriculture is the most competitive and efficient in the world.”

Similarly, Shuanghui executives are insisting that nothing will change in how Smithfield serves up its sausages to American customers. The company will continue to be run on a standalone basis under its current management team, no facilities will be closed, no staff will be made redundant and no contracts will be renegotiated. Food safety standards will remain as today. “We want the business to stay the same, but better,” Wan said.

So it sounds like the Smithfield deal could turn out to be a major coup for the Chinese buyer?

Not really, says Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, a boutique investment bank and advisory firm based in Shenzhen. He thinks that much of the analysis of the bid for Smithfield has completely missed the point. That’s because Shuanghui International – the entity making the offer – is a shell company based in the Cayman Islands. It isn’t a Chinese firm at all, he says.

Shuanghui International also has majority control of Shuanghui Development, the Shenzhen-listed firm that runs the domestic meat business in China. But it is controlled itself by a group of investors led by the private equity firm CDH (based in China but heavily backed by Western money) and also featuring Goldman Sachs, Temasek Holdings from Singapore and Kerry Group.

The management at Shuanghui, led by Wan, holds a small stake in the new, offshore entity. But as far as Fuhrman is concerned, Shuanghui International has no legal or operational connection to Shuanghui’s domestic operations.

“If the deal goes through, Smithfield Foods and Shuanghui China will have a majority shareholder in common. But nothing else. They are as related as, for example, Burger King and Neiman Marcus were when both were part owned by buyout firm TPG. The profits and assets of one have no connection to the profits or assets of the other.”

Of course, this raises questions about how the bid for Smithfield is being debated, especially its portrayal as the biggest takeover of a US firm by a Chinese one to date. It prompts queries too about the national security review underway in Washington, particularly any focus on the supposedly Chinese identity of the bidder. As it turns out, the Shuanghui bidding vehicle simply isn’t constituted in the way that people like Senators Grassley and Stabenow seem to believe.

So what is going on? Fuhrman says the bid for Smithfield is actually a leveraged buyout, made during a period in which private equity firms have been prevented from exiting their investments in China by blockages in the IPO pipeline (see WiC176 for a fuller discussion on this).

Instead, the investors that own Shuanghui are borrowing billions of dollars from the Bank of China and others to fund their purchase, with Fuhrman noting speculation that the plan is to relist Smithfield at a premium in Hong Kong in two or three years time.

How Shuanghui International is going to meet the interest payments on its borrowings in the meantime is less clear. But one possibility is that it will lean on Shuanghui Development, the operator in the Chinese market, to share some of the financial load. That could be problematic, raising hackles at the China Securities Regulatory Commission. It also prompts questions about the potential conflicts of interest (“among the most fiendish I’ve ever seen,” says Fuhrman) in the relationship between the investors that own Smithfield and the fuller group of shareholders at Shuanghai in China.

Ma Guangyuan, an economics blogger with more than half a million readers, takes a similar view. “If Shuanghui International acquires Smithfield Foods and sells the meat at high prices to Shuanghui Development, this will increase profits for the privatised Smithfield, but may not do much to help Shuanghui Development,” he predicts.

A further possibility is that having to service the LBO debt could curtail much of the investment envisaged by those who see the Smithfield purchase as a game-changing move for the industry. Of course, if it all goes to plan, the bid for Smithfield might turn out to be a game-changer for a small group of highly leveraged investors.But the jury must still be out on whether it will be quite so transformational for China’s domestic meat industry at large.

 

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