Archive

Archive for January, 2014

The Misfortunes of the Big Four in China

January 28th, 2014 1 comment

China First Capital blog

Last week, an SEC judge in the US delivered a spanking to the Big Four accounting firms, barring their Chinese affiliates for six months from doing audit work for US-quoted Chinese companies. “To the extent [the Big Four] found themselves between a rock and a hard place,” the judge’s decision declares, “it is because they wanted to be there. A good faith effort to obey the law means a good faith effort to obey all law, not just the law that one wishes to follow.”

Overall, the judge’s 112-page ruling on the audit work of the Big Four in China makes for interesting, and at times damning, reading. You can click here to access it.The judge’s decision should probably be required reading for anyone working in Chinese private equity and capital markets transactions with Chinese companies. Investments in Chinese companies worth many tens of billions of dollars rely, at least to some extent, on the accuracy and reliability of Big Four audits. That audit bedrock looks shakier now than it did a week ago.

The Big Four are appealing the decision meaning that for now at least, they can continue to serve their US-listed Chinese clients, continue to audit their accounts, and continue to earn sizable fees for doing so. If they lose the appeal, they will need to suspend for six months their main activity in China. The Big Four have a near-monopoly on audit work for the over 160 Chinese companies listed in the US. Will their Chinese clients permanently go elsewhere? What about the 15,000 people working for the Big Four in China? How will the firms pay them during the half-year suspension? How will they spend their working days if not engaged in audit work?

This much is clear: whatever happens with the appeal, the reputation and trustworthiness of the Big Four’s work in China has taken a recent beating. The judge’s decision last week is particularly ill-timed. Chinese companies have only just regained some of the lost trust of US investors, allowing IPOs to resume. I have friends at all Big Four firms, and have worked with all of them over the last six years in China.

This dispute between the SEC and the Big Four has been bubbling away for over two years. It was triggered by a series of SEC investigations into serious misbehavior by some Chinese companies then-quoted in the US — fraudulent financial accounts, incomplete disclosure, faked revenues. The companies were punished, and their shares delisted from the US stock exchange. But, what about the Big Four auditors? Why hadn’t they uncovered and reported their clients’ misconduct to the SEC? Were the Big Four in China careless?  Negligent? Or even complicit in these Chinese companies’ attempts to mislead US investors?

This quickly became a focus of the SEC investigation. To determine if the Big Four audits were performed thoroughly and in compliance with US securities laws, the SEC asked the Big Four in China for their audit papers — that is, the complete written documentation showing what they did and with what level of diligence and accuracy. The Big Four refused the SEC requests to hand over the audit papers, saying that to do so would violate Chinese state secrecy laws.

They used the same argument with the judge. He rejected it outright. Instead, he says the Big Four demonstrated “gall” in “flouting” the SEC, were “oblivious” to some core legal issues, and took a “calculated risk” they wouldn’t get punished. Strong stuff. While the judge doesn’t say directly that greed was a major factor in the Big Four’s decision to disobey SEC orders, but it may be fair to make that inference. Their strategy seems basically having one’s cake and eating it too. They wanted to keep earning big fees for China audit work, while not fully complying with US securities laws. In specific cases cited by the judge, accounting fraud at US-listed Chinese companies was first brought to light by short-sellers, rather than by the Big Four audits.

The judge’s ruling notes the fact that over the last decade, the Big Four have built very large businesses in China. KPMG China and Ernst & Young China both tripled in size from 2004-2012. PWC grew fastest, increasing its staff four-fold to over 8,000 people. Such rapid growth is unprecedented as far as I know in the history of large accounting firms.

One large irony here is that the Big Four are accused by the judge of violating Sarbanes-Oxley. That law has overall been very good to the Big Four, since it gave accountants increased responsibility to police US-listed companies’ financial accounts. The scope of audits increased and with it the fees. But, when things go wrong, as they have with quite a number of Chinese quoted companies listed in the US, the auditors can potentially be held legally liable.

The Big Four all argued to the judge they should be treated leniently because if banned, no other accountants in China have the training and professionalism to do audit work that meets SEC standards for investor protection.  Any Chinese company that can’t find a new auditor would need to delist from the US stock exchanges. The judge dismissed this argument, and helpfully lists a group of five other accounting firms that have done audits in China and, unlike the Big Four, turned over audit papers to the SEC when asked.

Some big US multinationals including P&G, Amazon.com, Apple, The Coca-Cola Company and Nike, with large revenues and operations in China, would probably also need to find new Chinese auditors if the ban is upheld. Investing or operating a US-owned business in China, never easy, will become even trickier if the Big Four are forced to down pencils in China and serve the six-month SEC suspension.

 

China’s Capital Markets Go From Feast to Famine and Now Back Again, China First Capital New Research Report

January 19th, 2014 No comments

China First Capital 2014 research report cover

The long dark eclipse is over. The sun is shining again on China’s capital markets and private equity industry. That’s good news in itself, but is also especially important to the overall Chinese economy. For the last two years, investment flows into private sector companies have dropped precipitously, as IPOs disappeared and private equity firms went into hibernation. Rebalancing China’s economy away from exports and government investment will take cash. Lots of it. Expect significant progress this year as China’s private sector raises record capital and China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) gradually transform into more competitive, profit-maximizing businesses.

These are some of the conclusions of the most recent Chinese-language research report published by China First Capital. It is titled, “2014民企国企的转型与机遇“, which I’d translate as “2014: A Year of Transformation and Opportunities for China’s Public and Private Sectors”. You can download a copy by clicking here or visiting the Research Reports section of the China First Capital website, (http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/en/research-reports).

We’re not planning an English translation. One reason:  the report is tailored mainly to the 8,000 domestic company bosses as well as Chinese government policy-makers and officials we work with or have met. They have already received a copy. The report has also gotten a fair bit of media coverage over the last week here in China.

Our key message is we expect this year overall business conditions, as well as capital-raising environment,  to be significantly improved compared to the last two years.  We expect the IPO market to stage a significant recovery. Our prediction, over 500 Chinese companies will IPO worldwide during this year, with the majority of these IPOs here in China.

We also investigate the direction of economic and reform policy in China following the Third Plenum, and how it will open new opportunities for SOEs to finance their growth and improve their overall profitability, including through carve-out IPOs and strategic investment. SOEs will become an important new area of investment for PE firms and global strategics.

The SOEs we work with are all convinced of the need to diversify their ownership, and bring in profit-driven experienced institutional investors. For investors, SOE deals offer several clear advantages: scale is larger and valuations are usually lower than in SME deals; SOEs are fully compliant with China’s tax rules, with a single set of books; the time to IPO or other exit should be quicker than in many SME deals.

As financial markets mature in China, we think one unintended consequence will be a drop in activity on China’s recently-established over-the-counter exchange, known as the “New Third Board” (新三板).  The report offers our reasons why we think this OTC market is a poor, inefficient choice for Chinese businesses looking to raise capital. While the aims of the Third Board are commendable, to open a new fund-raising channel for private sector companies, the reality is that it offers too little liquidity, low valuations and an uncertain path to a full listing on China’s main stock exchanges.

Over the last three years, China has had the highest growth rate and the worst performing stock market among all major economies. In part, the long stock market slide is both necessary and desirable, to bring China’s stock market valuations more in line with those of the US and Hong Kong. But, it also points to a more uncomfortable reality, that China’s listed companies too often become listless ones. Once public, many companies’ profit growth and rates of return go into long-term decline. IPO proceeds are hoarded or misspent. Rarely do managers make it a priority to increase shareholder value.

A small tweak in the IPO listing rules offers some promise of improvement. Beginning this year, a company’s control shareholder, usually the owner or a PE firm, will be locked-in and prevented from selling shares for five years if the share price stays below the original IPO level.

Spare a moment to consider the life of a successful Chinese entrepreneur, both SOE and private sector. In two years, access to capital went from feast to famine. And now maybe back again. An IPO exit went from a reachable goal to an impossibility. And now maybe back again. Meanwhile, markets at home surged while those abroad sputtered. Government reform went from minimal to now ambitious.

2014 is going to be quite a year.

Private Equity in China 2014: A Dialogue

January 7th, 2014 No comments

pendant

PE in China is changing. But, from what and into what?

Over the last week, I had an email discussion with a managing director in China of one of the world’s five largest private equity firms. He wrote to tell me about the fund’s recent change in China strategy, which then triggered an email dialogue on the specific challenges his firm is trying to overcome, and the larger tides that are shaping the private equity industry in China.

I’ll share an edited version here. I’ve taken out the firm’s name and any references that might make it identifiable.

Think it’s easy to be a private equity boss in China, to keep your job and keep your LPs happy? It’s anything but.

PE Firm Managing Director: Peter, I want to share some change in our fund strategy with you and get your opinion on it.

We have optimized our investment strategy for our US$ fund. We will focus more on late-stage companies that can achieve an IPO within 1-2 years and exit/partial exit perhaps 3-4 years or less. Total investment amount is still $30-80M but we prefer larger deal sizes within the range. Since these are high quality companies, we have lowered our criteria and is willing to be more competitive and pay higher valuation and take less % ownership (minimum 4-5% is still OK). We can also buy more old shares and participate in small club deals as long as the minimum investment size is met.

We are also willing to work with high quality listed companies in terms of PIPE/CB. In sum, our strategy should be more flexible and competitive versus before.

Me: Thanks for sending me the summary on the new investment strategy. You could guess I wouldn’t just reply, “sounds fine to me”.

Here’s my view of it, after a day’s thought. If I didn’t know it was from [your firm], or didn’t focus on the larger check size, I’d say the strategy was identical to every RMB PE firm active in China, starting with Jiuding and then moving downward. That by itself is a problem since in my mind, [your firm] operates in a different universe from those guys — you are thoroughly professional, experienced, global, proper fiduciaries. Maybe that’s your opportunity, to be the ” thoroughly professional, experienced, global, proper fiduciary” version of an RMB fund?

Other problem is, unless your firm is even smarter and more well-connected in Zhongnanhai than I think, no one can have any real idea at this point which Chinese companies, other than Alibaba Group,  can gain an IPO in next two years. The English idiom here is “making yourself a hostage to fortune”. In other words, the only way a PE could consistently achieve the goal of “IPO exits within 24 months” is based more on luck than planning and deal execution.

If you asked me, I’d think the way to frame it is you will opportunistically seek early exits, but will focus always on companies where you have confidence EV will increase by +30% YOY over short- and medium-term, in part due to the money and know-how you provide. It’s kind of a hedge, rather than just hoping IPO exits will come roaring back after almost two years with basically zero Chinese IPOs.

The good news for you and for me is that China has so many great companies, great entrepreneurs that all of us can “free ride”, to some extent, on their genius and ability to generate growth and wealth.

PE MD: Thanks for the detailed message and for thinking so hard to help us.

First let me explain why the changes were made. Through extensive recent discussion with limited partners, it appears that a hybrid fund with small early stage, mid-sized growth stage and larger sized late stage or PIPE is not what LPs want as they are in the business of allocating funds to a variety of focused managers rather than just put the money to a single fund doing it all. For example, it could allocate a small portion of its capital to Sequoia or Qiming for early stage and pray they can get a huge return back in five years. For other (major) part of their allocation, they desire some fund which can focus more on IRR increase of Multiple of Capital.

I think this is where we are attempting to position our latest fund. Even though our returns are decent, our previous funds took too long to return distributions and result in lower IRRs.

As you know, my firm has [over $100 billion] AUM. Although the company including the Founder is extremely supportive of our fund, we have to do more to make our fund relevant to the firm financially. Therefore, we need to focus on bigger/latter stage project which can allow us to deploy/harvest capital more quickly than before (3-4 years versus 5-7 years) and building up more AUM per investment professional to reach at least the average for the firm.

Doing many small projects ($10-20 million) has also put a very high administrative burden/cost on our back-office. While the strategy means that we will go in a little bit later stage, taking a smaller-stake sometimes and perhaps pay a higher valuation (since the companies are more expensive as risks are lower closer to liquidity), it doesn’t change our commitment to each investment. In fact, due to the reduced number of investment, we can focus our value creation efforts on each one more. This is very different than the shoot and forget method of Jiuding.

It is true having a smaller stake will reduce our influence and perhaps reduce our ability to persuade the founder to sell in case an IPO is impossible. However, a smaller stake means it is more liquid after IPO and we can be more flexible in selling the stake pre-IPO to another PE. Of course we are not explicitly targeting IPO in 24 month but we are trying to be as late stage as possible while meeting our IRR stand. We do have some idea of what kind of company can IPO sooner based on years of experience. If the markets or regulatory agencies don’t cooperate on the IPO schedule, then we just have to make sure our investments can keep growing without an IPO.

Me: As a strategy, it can’t be faulted. In a nutshell, it’s “Get in, get out, get carry and get new capital allocations from one’s LPs.”

My doubts are down on the practical level. Are there really deals like this in the market? If so, I certainly don’t see them. I’m just one guy feeling the elephant’s tail, and so have nothing like the people, sources that your firm has in China. Maybe there are lots of these kinds of opportunities, well-run Chinese companies with pre-money valuations of +USD$200mn (implying net income of +USD$20mn), and so probably large enough to IPO now, but still looking, somewhat illogically,  to raise outside PE money from a dollar fund at a discount to public markets.  Maybe too there are enough to go around to fill the strategic needs of not just your firm but about every other one active here, including not only the RMB crowd, but all the other big global guys, who also say they want to find ways to write big dollar checks in China and exit these deals within 2-3 years. (This is, after all, the genesis of the craze to throw money into PtP deals in the US, none of which have made anyone any money up to this point.)

Is China deal flow a match for this China strategy? That’s the part I’ll be watching most closely.

My empirical view is that the gap may be growing dangerously ever wider between what China PEs are seeking and what the China market has to offer. This is a country where the best growth capital deals and best risk-adjusted investments are concentrated among entrepreneurial private sector businesses with (sane) valuations below $100mn. In other markets, scale is inversely correlated with risk. In China, it is probably the opposite. Bigger deals here usually have more hair on them than an alpaca.

From our discussions over the years, I know you’re someone who looks at deals through a special, somewhat contrarian prism. Your firm’s new strategy pulls in one direction, while your own inclinations, judgment and experience may perhaps pull you in another.

We’re finishing up now a “What’s ahead in 2014″ Chinese-language report that we’ll distribute to the +6,500 Chinese company bosses, senior management and Chinese government officials in our database.  I’ll send a copy when it’s done. You’ll see we’re basically forecasting 2014 will be a better year to operate and finance a business in China than the last two years. Our view is good Chinese companies should seize the moment, and try to outrun and outgun their competitors.  Your role: supply the fuel, supply the ammo.

 

IPO rules overhauled for PE and VC firms — China Daily

January 4th, 2014 No comments

China Daily article

Shanghai stock exchange trading floor

Friday, January 3, 2014

Private equity and venture capital firms will have to conduct their business differently in China in 2014, after regulators overhauled initial public offering rules.

Chinese PE and VC companies used to evaluate the companies by the standards of the China Securities Regulatory Commission for quicker IPOs, but now the market will play a more important role, said Peter Fuhrman, chairman, founder and chief executive officer at China First Capital.

“Under the new IPO system, the share pricing of an IPO company is decided by its strength and competitiveness, so investors will choose companies with real potential to invest in and provide them with the resources of strategy, management and market development to make their own return the best,” said Fuhrman *.

Private equity and venture capital firms will not find it easy to earn money any more after the new share-listing reform plan is carried out, because even if the companies they invested in get listed, they will still face the risk of losses, said Jin Haitao, chairman of leading Chinese equity investment firm Shenzhen Capital Group Co Ltd.

Jin said PE and VC institutions should cultivate real investment capabilities including those in value-discovery and negotiating. Pre-IPO deals cannot be guaranteed to earn money any more.

A total of 83 Chinese companies completed the examination and received approval from the China Securities Regulatory Commission. About 50 are expected to have finished all IPO procedures and be listed before the end of January. More than 760 companies are in line for approval. It will take about a year to audit all the applications.

In the IPO reform plan announced at the end of November, information disclosure has become more important and the China Securities Regulatory Commission will only be responsible for examining applicants’ qualifications, leaving investors and the markets to make their own judgments about a company’s value and the risks of buying its shares.

More and more Chinese companies applying for IPOs asked for cooperation with multinational accounting institutions, according to Hoffman Cheong, an assurance leader at Ernst & Young China North Region.

Cheong said the information disclosed can be different after the IPO reform plan is carried out.

According to the IPO reform plan, so long as an issuer’s prospectus is received by the commission, it will be released on the commission’s website. The company should buy back shares if there is a false statement or major omission. Also it should compensate investors if they lose money in certain situations.

http://www.chinadailyasia.com/business/2014-01/03/content_15109395.html

(* Note: I never spoke to the reporter. As far as I can tell, the quote was translated into English, rather clumsily, from a Chinese-language commentary of mine published recently in a Chinese business publication. If asked, I would have said that companies need to choose PE investors carefully, and vice versa.)