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Archive for December, 2013

SOE Reform in China — Big Changes On the Way

December 24th, 2013 No comments

Qianlong emperor calligraphy

China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are a lucky breed, or so conventional wisdom would have it. They have lower cost of capital and less competitive pressures of private sector competitors. China’s big banks (also state-owned) are always happy to lend, and if things do turn sour, China’s government will bail everyone out.

The reality, however, is substantially different and substantially more challenging. SOEs live in a different world than they did ten, or even three years ago. They are more and more often under intensifying pressure to achieve two incompatible goals: to continue to expand revenues by 15%-25% a year, but to do so without corresponding large increases in net bank borrowing. The result, over time, will be that SOEs will need to rely increasingly on private sector capital to finance their future growth.

This message came through especially loud and clear in the policy document published by the Chinese leadership after the recent Third Party Plenum in November.  SOEs are told they need to become more attuned to the market and less dependent on government favors and protection. This new policy pronouncement is reverberating like a cannon blast inside the state-owned economy, based on conversations lately with the top people at our large Chinese SOE clients.

No one at these SOEs is entirely sure how to fulfill the orders from above. But, they are all certain, from long years of experience, that the environment SOEs operate in is going to undergo some significant change, likely the most significant since the “Great Cull” of the mid-1990s when thousands of SOEs were pushed into bankruptcy.Too many of the surviving SOEs have done little more than survive over the last twenty years. They managed to stay in the black, sometimes by resorting to rather idiosyncratic accounting that ignored depreciation.

The Chinese leadership is embarking on a tricky, somewhat contradictory, mission:  to simultaneously shake up the SOE sector, make it more efficient and responsive to market forces,  while keeping SOEs embedded in the foundation of China’s economy.  Much has changed about the way Chinese leaders view and manage SOEs. But, a key principle remains intact. The architect of the policy, Deng Xiaoping, put it this way, ” As long as we keep ourselves sober-minded, there is nothing to be feared. We still hold superiority, because we have large and medium state-owned enterprises.

In other words, SOE privatization is not on the menu, at least not in any large-scale way. SOEs, particularly the 126 so-called “centrally-administered SOEs” (央企)  will remain majority-owned by the government. The government is suggesting, however, it wants these SOEs, as well as the other 100,000 or so smaller ones active in most parts of the Chinese economy, to be run better and more profitably. But how? That’s the a topic of discussions I’ve been having over the last month with the bosses at our SOE clients.

The rate of return (as measured by return on assets) at SOEs has, in almost all cases, drifted down over the last ten years, and is now probably under 3% a year.  If bank borrowing and depreciation were more properly amortized, the rate of return would likely turn negative at quite a lot of SOEs.

In some cases, this reflects the cruel reality that many SOEs operate in low-margin highly-commoditized industries. But, another key factor is that the government body that acts as the owner of most SOEs, SASAC (国资委), is not your typical profit-maximizing shareholder.

SASAC manages the portfolio of SOE assets like the most risk-averse executor. It demands three things above all from SOEs: don’t lose money;  don’t pilfer state assets and keep revenues growing.

When your owner sets the bar a few inches off the ground, you don’t try to break the Olympic high jump record. No SOE manager ever got a bonus, as far as I’ve heard, from doubling profits, or improving cash flow. Pay-for-performance is basically taboo at SOEs. The whole SOE system, as it’s now configured, is designed to produce middling giants with tapering profits.

Rather than shake-up SASAC, the country’s leaders have given SOEs a green light to seek capital from outside sources, including private equity and strategic investors. They should provide, for the first time, a voice in the SOE boardroom calling for higher profits, higher margins, bigger dividends.

It’s a wise move. SOEs need to carry more of the load for China’s future gdp growth. You can’t do that when you are achieving such low return on assets. Among the SOEs we work with, there’s a genuine excitement about bringing in outside investment, and operating under a new, more strenuous regime. Surprised? The SOEs I know are run by professional managers who’ve spent much of their careers building the business and take pride in its scale and professionalism. They, too, see room for improvement and see the downsides of SASAC’s approach.

Outside capital can help these SOEs finance their future expansion.  It could also open new doors, especially in international markets. The big question: can — will — private equity, buyout firms, global strategic investors seek out investments in Chinese SOEs? It’s unfamiliar terrain.

Earlier this year, I arranged a series of meetings for twelve of the world’s-largest PE firms and institutional investors to meet a large SOE client of ours. These firms collectively have over $700 billion in capital, and each one has at least ten years’ experience in China. They are all keen on this particular deal. Yet, none of these firms have invested in any SOE deals over the last five years. For many of the visiting PEs, it was their first time ever meeting with the boss of a profitable and successful SOE to discuss investing.

In this case, it looks like a deal will get done, and so provide a blueprint for future PE investing in Chinese SOE.  The Chinese leadership ordered a shakeup to the state owned sector. It’s getting one.

 

The Big Churn — How High Partner Turnover Damages China’s Private Equity Industry

December 12th, 2013 No comments

China PE partner turnover 

What’s the biggest risk in China private equity investing?  Depends who you’re asking. If you ask LPs, the people who provide all the money that PE firms live off, you will often hear a surprising answer: turnover at PE firms. Nowhere else in the PE and VC world do you find so many firms where partners are feuding, quitting or being thrown off the bus.

A partnership at a PE firm was meant to be a long-term fiduciary commitment. In China, it rarely is. The result is billions of dollars of LP money often gets stranded, and possibly wasted. That’s because when a partner leaves, it often creates a bunch of orphaned investments. The departing partner is generally the only solid link between the PE firm and the investee company. Everyone left behind is harmed — the PE firms, the companies they invest in, and the LPs whose money is trapped inside these deals.

As the CEO one of Asia’s largest and most professional LPs told me recently, “Before committing to a new China fund, we spend more of our time trying to figure out how the partners get along than just about anything else. Will they hang on together through the life of the fund? We know from experience how damaging it is when partners fall out, when key people leave. We know turnover can mean we lose everything we’ve invested. And yet, we still often get stung.

In my nearly-twenty years in and around the PE and VC industry in the US, Europe and Asia, I’ve never seen anything quite like what happens here in China. A quick look through my Outlook contacts reveals that almost half the PE partners I know working in China have changed firms in the last five years. One reason you don’t see this elsewhere is that partners expect to earn carried interest on the deals they’ve made. If they leave, they forgo this.

Carry is a kind of unvested pay. On paper, it’s often quite sizable, and should represent the majority of a PE partner’s total comp, as well a kind of golden handcuff. The only reason for partners to leave is they believe they won’t get any of this money, either because of failed deals or, more commonly, large doubts that the head partner, the person running the firm, will share the rewards from successful deals.

Most China PE firms are partnerships in name only. There is usually one top dog, usually the founder and rainmaker. This person can unilaterally decide who stays, who goes, who gets carry and who gets a lump of coal. Top Dog tends to treat partners like overpaid, somewhat undeserving hired hands.

So, why have partners at all? Often it’s because LPs insist on it, that they want PE and VC firms in China to be structured like those elsewhere. The business card says “Partner” but the attitude, expectations and level of commitment say “Employee”.

Senior staff (VPs, Managing Directors) also frequently depart. In the US, you don’t often see that much, since these are the people in line to become partners, which is meant to be the crowning achievement of a long successful career in the trenches. They leave because they don’t believe they’ll be promoted, or if they are, that they’ll see any real change in their current status as wage-earners.

At a party celebrating a recent IPO of a PE-backed Chinese company, I ran into the PE guy who led the original investment, did all the heavy lifting. He had since left and joined another firm. He laughed when I asked why he would leave before the IPO, with his old firm certain to earn a big profit on his deal. “I don’t know who will get the carry, but I was sure it wouldn’t include me,” he explained.

Partners jump ship most often because someone is offering a higher salary, a higher guaranteed amount of pay. Their new firm will usually also offer them carry. Both sides will negotiate fiercely over the specific terms, what percent with what hurdle rate. And yet, more often than not, it seems to be a charade.

From day one, the new partners may already thinking about their next career move, how to trade up. Emblematic of this: here in China, when PE partners join a new firm, they almost always refer to it as “joining a new platform”. Note the choice of words: platform, not firm.

The LPs — and I speak to quite a lot of them — acknowledge, of course, that there are other big risks in China, that individual investments or even a whole portfolio turns sour. But, this is a risk inherent in all PE investing everywhere. High partner turnover is not.

If you’re interested, you can click here and read the email exchange I had recently with a newly-departed partner at one of China’s better-known VC firms. As I write there, I hate to sound like a scold. I know PE partners also want to earn a good living, and should work where they are happiest and best compensated. But, China’s PE industry serves a deeper economic purpose and holds in trust the assets of both investors and companies. “Looking out for Number One” should not be the only career goal of those working in senior levels in the industry.

 

 

China’s IPO Freeze to Melt in Midwinter

December 2nd, 2013 No comments

Kesi embroidery

IPOs are returning to China. The China Securities Regulatory Commission this weekend announced its long-awaited guidelines on a new, somewhat liberalized process for approving IPOs. The rush is now on to get new IPOs approved and the money raised before Chinese New Year, which falls on January 31st, less than two months from now. Ultimately, the CSRC hopes to clear within one year the backlog of over 800 Chinese companies now with IPO applications on file. Thousands of other Chinese companies are waiting for the opportunity to submit their IPO plans. The CSRC stopped accepting new applicants almost 18 months ago.

From what I can tell, the CSRC has concluded, rightly, its old IPO approval process was broken beyond repair. The regulator used to take primary responsibility for determining if a Chinese company was stable enough, strong enough, honest enough to be trusted with the public’s money. No other securities regulator took such a hands-on, the “buck stops with me” approach to IPO approvals. The CSRC now seems prepared to pass the buck, in other words, to put the onus where it belongs, on IPO applicants, as well as the underwriters, lawyers and accountants.

This should eliminate the moral hazard created by the old system. Companies, as well as their brokers and advisors, had a huge amount to gain, and much less to lose, by submitting an application and hoping for a CSRC approval. They could cut corners knowing the CSRC wouldn’t. For the successful IPO applicants who got the CSRC green light, valuations were sky-high, and so were underwriting and advisory fees.

Going forward, the CSRC seems determined to switch from security guard to prosecutor. Rather than trying to detect and prevent all wrongdoing, it is now saying it will punish severely companies, and their outside advisors, where there’s a breach in China’s tough securities laws. The CSRC’s powers to punish any wrongdoing are significant. Heaven help those who end up being convicted of criminal negligence or fraud. As I noted before,  there are no country club prisons in China for white collar offenders.

While baring its sharp teeth, the CSRC is also now using its more soothing voice to tell retail stock market investors they will need to do more of their own homework. It wants more and better disclosure from companies. It hopes investors will read before buying. And, the CSRC also hopes the stock market will itself begin to provide investors will clearer signals, through share price movements, on which companies may not be suitable for the more risk-averse.

Up to now, companies going public in China did so with a kind of “CSRC Warranty”. That’s because the CSRC itself said it had already done far more detailed, forensic scrutiny of the company than just reading through its public disclosure documents. The approval process could take two years or more, with company execs, lawyers and accountants being called frequently to meetings at the CSRC headquarters to be grilled. All this to give comfort to investors that nothing was awry.

The warranty has effectively been revoked. This may make some investors more nervous, but it represents a significant and positive breakthrough for the CSRC.

It needs to lighten its grip. Markets need regulation, need rules and effective mechanisms for punishing bad actors. But, the CSRC took on too much responsibility for assuring the orderly functioning of China’s stock market. This was always going to be difficult. China’s stock markets are far more prone to speculative frenzy than stock markets in the US, Europe. Shares on the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets are bought and sold mainly by retail investors, or as the Chinese say, “old granddads and grannies” (老爷爷老奶奶). Institutional investors are a minority. As for investment fundamentals, on China’s stock market there are mainly just two:  “Buy on rumor. Sell on rumor”.

Over the last year, I’ve written about problems at the CSRC that helped cause and prolong this long freeze in IPOs. The CSRC’s first instinct back in 2012 was to try to toughen its regulation, toughen its own internal systems and procedures for rooting out fraud. It then switched tracks, and decided to let the market play more of a role.  This is a major concession, as well as important proof that China’s larger process of economic transformation, of freeing rather than freezing markets, is headed in the correct direction.

As if on cue, this past week’s Wall Street Journal last week digested a section from the Nobel Prize acceptance speech by economist Friedrich Hayek.

“To act on the belief that we possess the knowledge and the power which enable us to shape the processes of society entirely to our liking, knowledge which in fact we do not possess, is likely to make us do much harm…Even if such power is not in itself bad, its exercise is likely to impede the functioning of those spontaneous ordering forces by which, without understanding them, man is in fact so largely assisted in the pursuit of his aims. ”

I’m delighted China’s IPO market is going to re-open. My own prediction here a couple of months ago was that it IPOs would resume around now, rather than next month. This just goes to show all forms of market timing — whether it’s trying to guess when a stock price has hit its peak or when a stock market itself will change course, and its once omnipotent regulator change its entire approach — is a fool’s errand.