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The China IPO Embargo: How and When IPOs May Resume

September 23rd, 2013 No comments

China IPO

China first slowed its IPO machinery beginning July 2012 and then shut it down altogether almost a year ago. Since then, about the only thing stirring in China’s IPO markets have been the false hopes of various analysts, outside policy experts, stockbrokers, PE bosses, even the world’s most powerful investment bank.  All began predicting as early as January 2013 the imminent resumption of IPOs.

So here we are approaching the end of September 2013 with still no sign of when IPOs will resume in China. What exactly is going on here? Those claiming to know the full answer are mainly “talking through their hat“. Indeed, the most commonly voiced explanation for why IPOs were stopped — that IPOs would resume when China’s stock markets perked up again, after two years of steady decline — looks to be discredited. The ChiNext board, where most of China’s private companies are hoping to IPO, has not only recovered from a slump but hit new all-time highs this summer.

Let me share where I think the IPO process in China is headed, what this sudden, unexplained prolonged stoppage in IPOs has taught us, and when IPOs will resume.

First, the prime causal agent for the block in IPOs was the discovery in late June last year of a massive fraud inside a Chinese company called Guangdong Xindadi Biotechnology.  (Read about it here and here.)

This one bad apple did likely poison the whole IPO process in China, along with the hopes of the then-800 companies on the CSRC waiting list. They all had underwriters in place, audits and other regulatory filings completed and were waiting for the paperwork to be approved and then sell shares on the Shenzhen or Shanghai stock exchanges. That was a prize well worth queuing up for. China’s stock markets were then offering companies some of the world’s highest IPO valuations.

After Xindadi’s phony financials were revealed and its IPO pulled, the IPO approval process was rather swiftly shut down. Since then, the CSRC has gone into internal fix-it mode. This is China, so there are no leaks and no press statements about what exactly is taking place inside the CSRC and what substantive changes are being considered. We do know heads rolled. Xindadi’s accountants and lawyers have been sanctioned and are probably on their way to jail, if they aren’t there already A new CSRC boss was brought in, new procedures to detect and new penalties to discourage false accounting were introduced.  The waiting list was purged of about one-third of the 800 applicants. No new IPO applications have been accepted for over a year.

IPOs will only resume when there is more confidence, not only within the CSRC but among officials higher up, that the next Xindadi will be detected, and China’s capital markets can keep out the likes of Longtop Financial and China MediaExpress, two Chinese companies once quoted on NASDAQ exchange. They, along with others, pumped up their results through false accounting, then failed spectacularly.  Overall, according to McKinsey, investors in U.S.-listed Chinese companies lost 72% of their investment in the last two years.

China’s leadership urgently does not want anything similar to occur in China. That much is certain. How to achieve this goal is less obvious, and also the reason China’s capital market remains, for now, IPO-less.

If there were a foolproof bureaucratic or regulatory way for the CSRC to detect all fraudulent accounting inside Chinese companies waiting to IPO in China,  the CSRC would have found it by now. They haven’t because there isn’t. So, when IPOs resume, we can expect the companies chosen to have undergone the most forensic examination practiced anywhere. The method will probably most approximate the double-blind testing used by the FDA to confirm the efficacy of new medicines.

Different teams, both inside the CSRC and outside, will separately pour over the financials. Warnings will be issued very loudly. Anyone found to be book-cooking, or lets phony numbers get past him,  is going to be dealt with harshly. China, unlike the US, does not have “country club prisons” for white collar felons.

The CSRC process will turn several large industries in China into IPO dead zones, with few if any companies being allowed to go public. The suspect industries will include retail chains, restaurants and catering, logistics, agricultural products and food processing. Any company that uses franchisees to sell or distribute its products will also find it difficult, if not impossible, to IPO in China. In all these cases, transactions are done using cash or informal credit, without proper receipts. That fact alone will be enough to disqualify a company from going public in China.

Pity the many PE firms that earlier invested in companies like this and have yet to exit. They may as well write down to zero the value of these investments.

Which companies will be able to IPO when the markets re-open? First preference will be for SOEs, or businesses that are part-owned by or do most of their business with SOEs. This isn’t really because of some broader policy preference to favor the state sector over private enterprise. It’s simply because SOEs, unlike private companies, are audited annually, and are long accustomed to paper-trailing everything they do. In the CSRC’s new “belt and suspenders” world, it’s mainly only SOEs that look adequately buckled up.

Among private companies, likely favorites will include high-technology companies (software, computer services, biotech), since they tend to have fewer customers (and so are easier to audit) and higher margins than businesses in more traditional industries. High margins matter not only, or even mainly, because they demonstrate competitive advantage. Instead, high margins create more of a profit cushion in case something goes wrong at a business, or some accounting issue is later uncovered.

The CSRC previously played a big part in fixing the IPO share price for each company going public. My guess is, the CSRC is going to pull back and let market forces do most of the work. This isn’t because there’s a new-found faith in the invisible hand. Simply, the problem is the CSRC’s workload is already too burdensome. Another old CSRC policy likely to be scrapped: tight control on the timing of all IPOs, so that on average, one company was allowed to IPO each working day. The IPO backlog is just too long.

The spigot likely will be opened a bit. If so, IPO valuations will likely continue to fall. From a peak in 2009, valuations on a p/e basis had already more than halved to around 35 when the CSRC shut down all IPOs.  IPO valuations in China will stay higher than, for example, those in Hong Kong. But, the gap will likely go on narrowing.

What else can we expect to see once IPOs resume? Less securitized local government borrowing. Over the last 16 months, with lucrative IPO underwriting in hibernation,  China’s investment banks, brokerage houses and securities lawyers all kept busy by helping local government issue bonds. It’s a low margin business, and one not universally approved-of by China’s central government.

How about things that will not change from the way things were until 16 months ago? The CSRC will continue to forbid companies, and their brokers, from doing pre-IPO publicity or otherwise trying to hype the shares before they trade. If first day prices go up or down by what CSRC determines is “too much”, say by over 15%, expect the CSRC to signal its displeasure by punishing the brokerage houses managing the deals.  The CSRC is the lord and master of China’s IPO markets, but a nervous one, stricken by self-doubt.

China needs IPOs because its companies need low-cost sources of growth capital. When IPOs stopped, so too did most private equity investment in China. It’s clear to me this collapse in equity funding has had a negative impact on overall GDP, and Chinese policy-makers’ plans to rebalance its economy away from the state-owned sector. It’s a credit to China’s overall economic dynamism, and the resourcefulness of its entrepreneurs,  that economic growth has held up so well this past 18 months.

IPOs in China are a creature of China’s administrative state. Companies, investors, bankers, are all mainly just bystanders. Right now, the heaviest chop to lift in China’s bureaucracy may be the one to stamp the resumption of IPOs. So, when exactly will IPOs resume? Sometime around Thanksgiving (November 24, 2013) would be my guess.

 

 

Investors Vs. Asset Managers: A Dysfunction at the Heart of China Private Equity

September 11th, 2013 1 comment

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Assuming the same level of risk, would you rather make $100 from investing $10 or from investing $50? Easy, right? Who wouldn’t choose to make ten times your money, rather than just double it? There is one group I know. Private equity firms active in China. At least some of them. They care more about the amount they can invest in a deal than the profits they stand to make.

The illogic at work here is the direct result of some particular, not very appealing characteristics,  of the PE industry in China. PE firms lately have more confidence in their ability to raise money than to invest it profitably by achieving a timely exit. To raise money, though, a PE firm needs first to spend most of what it already has. Result: a rush to get money out the door and parked in deals.

In industry parlance, “check size” is often more important than potential risk-adjusted returns.This is one reason for the recent rash of “take private” PtP deals of Chinese companies quoted in the US. (See previous articles, including here, here, here. ) The transactions seem to me ill-considered. PEs have invested billions of dollars in such deals but there is not a single successful example they can point to of such PtP deals done in the US making money for investors. This must be a PE industry first — so much LP money put at risk against an investment idea that is totally unproved.

Who’s most harmed from focus on “check size” over deal quality and prospective returns? Of course it’s the LPs whose money is put into these deals. They want and need high returns, not bigger deals done using their money to aid PE firms’ future fund-raising.

But, Chinese entrepreneurs also suffer in this environment, because many PE firms now simply won’t look at deals where they can’t invest at least $25mn for around 25% of the company. There are few deals out there in that size range, meaning deserving entrepreneurs can’t find investors.

The big picture here: PE in China has become more and more a business dominated by asset managers not investors. How to tell the two apart? An asset manager enjoys the comfort and certainty of making a steady 2% a year managing other people’s money. The more money they raise, the more money they keep. Good markets or bad, the money keeps rolling in.

An investor, on the other hand, is a whole different animal. They share some DNA with the entrepreneurs they back. They love the sport of finding and evaluating deals, spotting where big money can be made, putting money at risk. When it works, they make big sums for their investors, and keep a nice chunk themselves.

Needless to say, LPs give money to PE firms in hopes they have chosen investors not asset managers. PE firms know this, of course, and tailor their money-raising pitch accordingly. They stress their deal-making prowess, not the fact that over the life of a typical 10-year fund, an LP will start with a 20% cumulative loss, because of the typical annual management fee deductions.

In China, it used to be fairly easy to make money in PE. But, over the last three years, returns began to head south. More recently,  over the last 18 months, the performance has mainly been dismal, with few successful deals exiting with big profits. It’s getting harder and harder for LPs to make money in China PE, after those accumulated management fees have been deducted.

But, there’s a time lag — as well as an information asymmetry — at work here. While recent performance has been, on the whole, lousy, there’s still appetite among LPs to allocate more money to China. A big reason is that China’s economy, and capital markets, are both the second-biggest in the world. Most LPs are seriously underweight China and want to change that.

And so we arrive at the current paradoxical situation, where it’s still comparatively easier to collect money to invest in China than to make money deploying it. Now, of course, PE firms can only succeed in raising capital if they can point to some successful past deals. Here too there’s an information asymmetry at work. Many PE firms did well from 2005-2010, and so their fund-raising documents emphasize deals done during this era. But, the game has changed out of all recognition since then.

Few, if any, PE firms have shown they can continue to earn investors good money when markets become less accommodating. It’s no longer possible to play the game of valuation arbitrage, of investing in China deals at single digit p/e multiples, and exiting them soon after at 5-10 times higher multiples through an IPO.

Earning a profit on an investment takes preparation, luck and time. Making money by convincing people to pay you a fee to manage theirs, by contrast, is a much simpler proposition, as well as a no-lose one.

And so the gulf widens between the objectives of PE firms and the fiduciary responsibilities and performance goals of the institutions whose money they manage.

This can be a problem everywhere in the PE and VC industry, as well as more broadly wherever people get paid to manage assets owned by someone else. (See principal-agent dilemma.)   But, it’s probably especially pernicious in China PE.

The industry is staffed mainly be ex-investment bankers, who by background and temperament understand more about fee-based, than performance-based, compensation. Few have a background of actually managing a company, investing its capital to produce a return. Without this first-hand understanding, it’s far harder as an investor to plot how to make an operating business more valuable. The result: PE firms in China will often opt for an easier path: making money by raising money from, and managing for,  other financial professionals.

China SOEs — How They Think and Why

September 5th, 2013 No comments

China First Capital blog There are many flavors of State-Owned Enterprise (“SOE”)  in China, from polluting monster chemical factories to quaint dumpling houses that date from before the revolution.  Since coming to China, I’ve seen up-close quite a number SOEs, probably more than most other non-Chinese. No two are quite alike. But, equally, SOEs in China, from the largest centrally-administered “national champions” (known as 央企, or “yangqi”, in Chinese and include such familiar names like Sinopec, China Mobile, ICBC) that earn billions in profits every year to smaller local loss-making industrial companies with a few hundred employees, share a similar genetic code. Or more precisely, provide the same iron rice bowl.

That phrase (铁饭碗 ) was widely used during Mao’s time, and I still heard it frequently when I first came to China 1981.  It’s since faded from common use. But, the concept remains embodied within all SOEs. Simply put, an “iron rice bowl” means a job for life, and so a life without the worry of going unfed. In today’s China, with the threat and the memory of famine now extinguished, it’s more a way of expressing the unique way an SOE functions, how it views its role in society and the benevolent — some might say paternalistic — way it cares for its employees.

An SOE is, above all,  a very Chinese institution, and in many ways, one of the few holdovers from the Maoist era.  Chinese then didn’t so much work for a company as they belonged to a “work unit“, a 单位 (“danwei”). A paying job was in some senses the least important thing provided by one’s work unit, since cash salaries used to be very low, under $10 a month for mid-level managers. Instead, one’s work unit provided housing, schools, communal heating, medical care, ration tickets, permission to marry, to travel or have a child, subsidized meals and fresh food.

In theory, the work unit was the Great Provider, anticipating and meeting all of one’s needs in life. In practice, of course, it offered not a lot more than a very rudimentary existence and a job for life. For most Chinese, especially all working for private sector companies, the danwei system was dismantled ten years ago. A job is just a job, not a lifetime meal ticket.

But, for those working at SOEs, many of the more desirable features of the danwei system have been preserved, starting with the fact you are very unlikely ever to be fired. What’s more, the company itself is also highly unlikely to ever go bankrupt or face a serious crisis that would lead to mass layoffs.  Today’s SOEs hold, in effect, a permanent right to operate, regardless of market conditions.

China’s current group of SOEs are a privileged rump, those spared from a massive cull over ten years ago. That put the worst, least efficient SOEs out of business, and forced tens of millions to take early retirement or go off in search of new jobs, mainly in the private sector.

SOEs, along with the military and the Party, are the third of China’s key pillars of state power. While each is subject to the control of the country’s leadership, each also operates, to some extent,  by rules of its own. Chinese leaders are known to complain, at times, about the power, wealth and influence of the country’s larger SOEs.

SOEs are ultimately kept in business by other SOEs — loans from the state-owned banks, and orders or supplies from fellow SOEs. In most cases, they have a marked preference for doing business with one another.  Partly, this is because SOEs tend to understand better the way other SOEs think and act. Partly, it’s also because SOEs function together as mutual assistance society. If one gets in trouble, others will either voluntarily help out, or be ordered to do so by SASAC (“国资委”), the government organization that manages Chinese SOEs.

SOE jobs usually pay less than private sector competitors. But, for many, that’s more than compensated by the perks that come with the job. While Google is famous for its free food and recreation areas,  an SOE has its own attractions, tailored to the tastes of its Chinese employees. Workloads tend to be modest, and a long lunchtime siesta is built into every working day. During winter, the company will often provide extra cash to pay for heating.

There is, in my experience, an obvious camaraderie among SOE workers,  a shared identity and pride working for what are usually very large, well-known companies that tower over their private sector competitors and neighbors. If not always in practice, at least in theory, an SOE is meant to be in business for the benefit of all of China, not to accumulate profits or generate wealth purely for its shareholders.

It’s a noble mission, but one that can lead to its own rather systematic form of inefficiency. Urged on by SASAC, they set ambitious growth targets every year to increase output. They achieve this, in most cases, by pouring more borrowed money into new capital equipment, often to produce products the government says China needs or wants. The amounts invested, and the returns on those investments, tend to move in opposite directions.

SOEs can borrow at half the cost of private sector companies. Their hurdle rate is also often half that, or less, than private companies’.  As a result, projects with limited financial rationale often get built.

Take LEDs, solar and wind power. All three were heavily over-invested by SOEs because the Chinese government had made such “green energy” projects a national priority. More energy was probably consumed forging the steel and building factories and equipment to produce LED assemblies, solar panels and wind turbines than has been saved by lowering overall energy use in China. A lot of these LED, solar and wind projects are now mothballed, due to losses and falling demand.

Part of what SOEs exist to do is to take government economic policy and turn it into hard, if sometimes not very productive, assets. That outlook, of course, also impacts the way SOE staff work. Their pay isn’t linked to profits any more than company-wide strategy is.