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WH Group Hong Kong IPO Goes Belly Up – Leaving Wall Street’s Most Famed Investment Banks and Some of Asia’s Biggest PE Firms at an Embarrassing Loss

April 30th, 2014 No comments

WSJ Shuanghui WH Group failed IPO

There will be an awful lot of embarrassed financial professionals sulking around Hong Kong and Wall Street today. The reason: a crazy IPO deal financially-engineered by a group of 29 big name investment banks, led by Morgan Stanley, together with several large China and Asian-based PE firms including China’s CDH and Singapore’s Temasek Holdings failed to find investors. Their pig’s ear didn’t, as they promised, turn into the silk purse after all. The planned IPO of WH Group has been aborted.

WH Group was created by the banks and PE firms to hold the assets of American pork producer Smithfield Foods bought last year in a leveraged buyout. The other asset inside of WH Group is a majority shareholding in China’s largest pork company Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development.

I was one of the few who actually called into question almost a year ago the logic as well as the economics of the deal. You can read my original article here.

There weren’t a lot of other doubters at the time. The mainstream financial press, by and large, went along with things, accepting at face value the story provided to them by Morgan Stanley, CDH and others. Over the last few months, as the now-failed IPO got into gear in anticipation of closing the deal around now, the press kept up its steady reporting, not raising too many tough questions about what were obviously some glaring weak points – the high debt, the high valuation, the crazy corporate structure that made the deal appear to be what it wasn’t, a Chinese takeover of a big US pork company.

I have no special interest in this deal, since me and my firm never acted for any of the parties involved, nor do I own any shares in any of the companies involved. I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents filed at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it, the chutzpah, that these big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausage bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to Hong Kong investors and institutions.

In other words, saying at the time it looked like the whole thing rested on a very shaky foundation was a reasonable conclusion for anyone who took the time to read the SEC filings. Instead, mainly what we heard about, over and over, was that this was (wrongly) China’s “biggest takeover of a US company,” a “merger between America’s largest pork producer and its counterpart in the world’s largest pork market.”

Morgan Stanley, CDH, Temasek and the others got a little too cocky. The original Smithfield “take private” deal last year went through smoothly. They moved quicker than originally planned to get the company re-listed in Hong Kong. Had they pulled it off, it would have meant huge fees for the investment bankers, and depending on the share price, a juicy return for the PE firms, most of whom had been stuck holding the shares in Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development for over seven years. First came word last week they wanted to cut back by 60% the size of the IPO due to the hostile reception from investors during the road show phase. Then the IPO was suddenly called off late on Tuesday, Hong Kong time.

One of the questions that never got properly answered is why these PE firms didn’t sell their Shuanghui shares on the Chinese stock market, but held them since IPO, without exiting. That’s unusual, especially since Shuanghui’s shares have traded well above the level CDH and others bought in at. I wasn’t in China at the time, but that original investment did not cover itself in praise and glory. Almost immediately after the PE firms went in, providing the capital to allow the state-owned Shuanghui to privatize itself in 2006, the rumors began to circulate that the deal was deeply corrupt, and for reasons never explained, was structured in a way where the PE firms did not have a way to exit through normal stock market channels.

The Smithfield acquisition never made much of any industrial sense. The PE firms that now own the majority (mainly CDH, Temasek, New Horizon, but also including Goldman Sachs’ Asia PE arm ) have no experience or knowledge how to run a pork business in the US. In fact, they don’t know how to run any business in the US. The Shuanghui China management, which is meant now to be serving two separate masters, simultaneously running the Chinese company and its troubled American cousin, similarly don’t know a hock from a snout when it comes to raising and selling pork in the US. This is, was and will remain the main business of Smithfield. Not exporting pork to China. How, when and why these US assets can be listed in Asia must certainly now count as a mystery to all of the big-name financial institutions involved, including Bank of China, which lent billions to finance the takeover last year, as did Morgan Stanley itself.

So, now we have this sorry spectacle of the PE firms, together with partners, having seemingly thrown more money away in a failed bid to rescue the original Shuanghui investment from its unexplained illiquidity. The WH Group IPO failure is also a stunning rebuke for the other PE-backed P2P take private deals now waiting to relist in Hong Kong. (Read here, here, here.) Smithfield, while no great shakes, is the jewel among the rather sorry group of mainly-Chinese companies taken private from the US stock exchange with the plan to sell them later to Hong Kong-based investors via an IPO.

This was among the most bloated IPOs ever, with 29 investment banks given underwriting mandates to sell shares. ( The IPO banks included not only Morgan Stanley, but also Citic Securities, Goldman Sachs, UBS, Barclays, Credit Suisse, JP Morgan, Nomura, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank.) All that expensive investment banking firepower. Result: among the most expensive IPO duds in history.

For the PE consortium that owns WH Group, they will have already likely lost over USD$15mn in LP money on legal, underwriting and accounting fees on this failed IPO. This is on top of a whopping $729mn fees paid by the PE firms for what are called “one-off fees and share-based payments” to acquire Smithfield. The subsequent restructuring ahead of IPO? Maybe another $100mn. If or when the WH Group IPO is tried again, the fees will likely be at least as high as the first time around. In short, the PE firms are already close to $1 billion in the red on this deal, not including interest payments on all the debt.  Smithfield itself remains lacklustre. Its net profit shrank 50% during the fiscal year leading up to the buyout.

With no IPO proceeds anywhere on the horizon, the issue looming largest now for the PE firms: is WH Group generating enough free cash to service the $7 billion in debt, including $4 billion borrowed to buy sputtering Smithfield? If not, next stop is Chapter 11.

By contrast, now feeling as delighted as pigs in muck are the mainly-US shareholders who last year sold their Smithfield shares at a 31% premium above the pre-bid price to the Chinese-led PE group. It doesn’t offset by much the US trade deficit with China, which reached a new record last year of $318 billion. But these US investors also get the satisfaction of knowing they have so far received the far better end of a deal against some of the bigger, richer financial institutions in Asia and Wall Street.

 

WH Group under scrutiny in wake of cancelled Hong Kong IPO — Financial Times

April 29th, 2014 No comments

FT

FT logo

WH Group under scrutiny in wake of cancelled Hong Kong IPO

By Josh Noble in Hong Kong

April 30, 2014 3:55 pm

Shuanghui

WH Group’s ditched Hong Kong listing has drawn fresh scrutiny over the structure and rationale behind its $7bn takeover of Smithfield Foods – the largest ever US acquisition by a Chinese company.

The Sino-US pork producer, now the leader in both markets, abandoned its planned initial public offering this week, having failed to win over investors – despite alreadycutting the deal size in half.

WH Group – formerly known as Shuanghui International – blamed deteriorating market conditions, while analysts pointed to poor sentiment towards China and the outbreak of a deadly pig virus in the US.

Though investors did show interest, many were “simply not on the same page as the company” when it came to valuation, said one person with knowledge of the sale process.

However, some have raised doubts over WH Group’s longer-term prospects, and questioned the thinking behind the Smithfield buy. WH Group had pitched itself as a global leader tapping rising Chinese consumption, but investors instead responded to two separate businesses – one in the US and one in China – bolted together and creaking with debt, say bankers.

“It’s like buying a house, ripping out the bathrooms and kitchen, and trying to flip it for a premium six months later,” said one senior equity banker.

Investors also expressed concerns that a trimmed deal would simply store up trouble down the road, by raising only a slice of the money needed to pay off debts. Further capital raising and shareholder sales would then be inevitable – creating a major overhang for a company seeking a valuation in line with established US peers.

The original case for purchasing Smithfield was to create one international company that could capitalise on cheap pork in the US by selling it into China, the world’s biggest consumer of the meat. Smithfield’s higher-margin pork products – such as ham and sausages – were also seen as a neat way to gain exposure to rising wealth and changing eating habits in China.

When announcing the deal in September last year, Wan Long, now chairman of WH Group, pointed to numerous advantages of combining the companies.

“Together we look forward to utilising our individual strengths – including Shuanghui’s extensive distribution network in China, and Smithfield’s leading production and safety protocols – to provide safe, high-quality products to consumers worldwide,” he said at the time.

But the company has yet to prove to investors that its plans will work, having completed the takeover only six months before attempting to list. Management has not yet been integrated, while Smithfield products are still some months away from arriving on Chinese supermarket shelves.

WH Group borrowed about $4bn to finance its purchase of Smithfield, much of which is not due to be repaid for years. Most of it was lent by Bank of China, although a chunk of about $1.5bn – originally a bridge loan from Morgan Stanley – has now been placed with US investors as five-year and seven-year debt. The company had sought a listing to help pay off some of its loans, largely because of the chairman’s own distrust of debt, according to two people with knowledge of the process.

Though the debt was borrowed at relatively cheap rates, the failure to attract new equity investment leaves the company with tens of millions of dollars a year of debt-servicing costs, and leaves private equity investors trapped for the foreseeable future.

Peter Fuhrman, chief executive of advisory firm China First Capital, describes the episode as one of the “most expensive IPO duds in history”, and believes the Smithfield deal was actually an attempt by private equity investors to bulk up the company to help provide an exit to their holdings in the original China-only business.

Those investors include Goldman Sachs, Temasek and New Horizon. However, CDH Investments, a Chinese private equity house, is by far the largest outside shareholder, and thought to have been a key driving force behind the deal.

“WH Group was created by the banks and PE firms to hold the assets of American pork producer Smithfield Foods bought last year in a leveraged buyout,” Mr Fuhrman wrote on his blog. “Now we have this sorry spectacle of the PE firms, together with partners, having seemingly thrown more money away in a failed bid to rescue the original Shuanghui investment from its unexplained illiquidity.”

Those familiar with the cancelled float say that WH Group is almost certain to return at a later date, with a new deal likely to involve a far smaller syndicate than the 29 bookrunners it hired first time round.

Attention will now shift to the company’s first-half earnings. Last year WH Group made a net loss of $67m, largely caused by share-based awards given to two executives worth almost $600m, according to its listing prospectus. Shares in the Chinese business – listed in Shenzhen under the name Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development – are down by a quarter so far this year.

PDF version

 

http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/7e8723fe-d03b-11e3-af2b-00144feabdc0.html

 

Pork chopped. Why did hog giant WH Group’s IPO fail to entice investors? — Week in China

April 29th, 2014 No comments
week in china

Week in China cover

Pork chopped

Why did hog giant’s IPO fail to entice investors?

During the world’s biggest probate dispute a few years ago, a fascinated audience learned that Nina Wang, the late chairwoman of Hong Kong real estate developer Chinachem, paid $270 million to her feng shui adviser (and lover) to dig lucky holes. As many as 80 of them were dug around Wang’s properties to improve her fortune.

One of these holes – about three metres wide and nine metres deep, according to the China Entrepreneur magazine – was burrowed outside a meat processing plant in China.

Why so? Chinachem was the first foreign investor brought in by Shuanghui bosses in 1994 to help the abattoir expand. Wang’s capital would jumpstart the firm’s extraordinary transformation from a state-owned factory in Henan’s Luohe city into China’s biggest (and privately-held) pork producer.

Seeing Shuanghui’s potential, Wang offered to acquire its trademark and then to buy a majority stake for HK$300 million ($38 million). Both proposals were rejected outright by Shuanghui’s chairman Wan Long (see WiC201 for a profile of the man known locally as the ‘Steve Jobs of Chinese butchery’). His rationale was that he wanted to “make full use of foreign capital, but not be controlled by it”. Despite never owning a majority stake in the hog firm, he insisted on running the company his own way.

Two decades have passed since Wan first courted Nina Wang’s cash and in that time a range of new investors have bought into the company. Last year they helped Shuanghui to acquire American hog producer Smithfield for $7.1 billion (including debt) and in January the firm was renamed WH Group, ahead of a multi-billion dollar Hong Kong listing. But embarrassingly the IPO was pulled this week, as plans for the flotation went belly-up.

Not bringing home the bacon…

When WH applied to list on Hong Kong’s stock exchange in January, the firm talked up the prospect of launching the city’s biggest IPO since 2010. It kicked off the investor roadshow early last month intending to raise up to $5.3 billion. Four fifths of the total was to be used to help WH repay loans taken to finance the Smithfield takeover, with bankers setting the price between HK$8 and HK$11.25 a share. This was “an unusually wide indicative range” according to Reuters, but also a recognition of the uncertain outlook in the Hong Kong stockmarket.

A few weeks later, the 29 banks hired to promote the IPO (a record) returned with lukewarm orders. WH was forced to cleave the offer by more than half. Excluding the greenshoe allotment, the new plan was dramatically less ambitious, and looked to raise between $1.34 billion and $1.88 billion. To boost investor confidence, existing owners also dropped plans to sell some of their own shares in the listing. WH’s trading debut was pushed back by a week to May 8.

But investors remained unenthused. Blaming “deteriorating market conditions and recent excessive market volatility” (the prefferred explanation for most failed IPOs), WH shelved its IPO on Tuesday.

“The world’s largest pork company has gone from Easter ham to meagre spare rib,” the Wall Street Journal quipped.

Were rough market conditions to blame?

The failed deal was another blow for bankers in Hong Kong’s equity capital markets, who have watched the planned IPO of Hutchison’s giant retail arm AS Watson slip away and have seen Alibaba Group opt to go to market in New York instead.

Volatile markets may have contributed to WH’s decision to postpone the listing. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index dropped 4.5% between the deal’s formal launch on April 10 and its eventual withdrawal on April 29, according to the South China Morning Post. Other IPOs haven’t been faring well recently. Japanese hotel operator Seibu Holdings and Chinese internet firm Sina Weibo both pared back share sales last month, while the Financial Times notes that concerns about China’s slowing economy have depressed interest in Chinese assets more generally.

Nevertheless, investors were anxious about WH’s investment story too and specifically whether the company’s valuation was too high.

One of the selling points of the original Shuanghui takeover of Smithfield was that it married a reputable American brand with a company that wanted to adapt best practices in product quality and food safety in China. But if one longer term goal was to improve the reputation of Chinese pork – and boost confidence among the country’s jaded consumers – the more immediate business logic was to sell Smithfield’s lower-cost meat into China, where prices at the premium end of the market are typically higher.

“We plan to leverage our US brands, raw materials and technology, our distribution and marketing capabilities in China and our combined strength in research and development to expand our range of American-style premium packaged meats products offerings in China,” the company said in its prospectus. “We expect [this] to positively affect our turnover and profitability.”

In recent months this strategy has faced headwinds, with prices going – from the pork giant’s perspective – in the wrong direction. American pig farmers are struggling with a porcine virus that has wiped out more than 10% of hog stocks. This has sent US pork to new highs, meaning it’s no longer so low-cost. In contrast, Xinhua notes that pork prices in many Chinese cities have fallen to their lowest levels in five years. As such, the commercial case for exporting US pork to China isn’t as strong. So fund managers have needed more convincing of the value of the newly combined Shuanghui and Smithfield businesses.

So WH’s valuation was too high?

Bloomberg said WH was prepared to sell its shares towards the bottom of the marketed price range, which equates to a valuation of 15 times estimated 2014 earnings.

At first glance that doesn’t look too demanding. Henan Shuanghui Investment, the Chinese unit of WH Group that is listed in Shenzhen, carries a market capitalisation of Rmb78 billion ($12.6 billion), or 20 times its 2013 net profit. Hormel, a Minnesota-based food firm that produces Spam luncheon meat (and is a key competitor for WH’s American pork business) trades at a price-to-earnings ratio of 23.

Hence China Business Journal concludes that WH priced itself as “not too high and not too low” among peers, especially if the company can generate genuine synergies between its China operation and its newly acquired American unit.

But an alternate view is that these synergies aren’t immediately obvious and that the new business model has hardly been tested (the Smithfield deal closed last September and exports to China didn’t start until the beginning of this year). The criticism is that WH hasn’t done much more than put Shuanghui Investment and Smithfield together into a holding vehicle, but is now asking for a valuation greater than the sum of the two parts. “Even at the bottom of the range, the IPO implies a valuation for Smithfield 21% above the price WH Group paid for the US pork producer barely eight months ago,” notes Reuters Breakingviews. (And let’s not forget, Smithfield was purchased at a 30% premium to its market price at the time.)

Or as one banker put it to the FT: “It’s like buying a house, ripping out the bathrooms and kitchen and trying to flip it for a premium six months later.”

CBN agreed that investors have the right to be wary: “The market simply has not had time to judge if there is meaningful synergy coming out of WH’s units. Nor is there a single signal that WH has the ability to properly manage an American firm.”

Why did WH want to IPO so fast?

This question brings us back to Shuanghui’s transformation from a state-owned enterprise to a privately-held firm. In April 2006 a consortium including Goldman Sachs and Chinese private equity funds CDH and New Horizon paid about $250 million to buy out the city government’s stake in Shuanghui.

The leveraged buyout was an unusual example of a Chinese national brand (and market leader) being snapped up by foreign buyers. Shuanghui was stripped of its SOE status, with majority ownership passing to private and foreign investors.

Century Weekly suggested last month that most of these Shuanghui shareholders “have waited patiently for at least eight years to exit”. Perhaps running low on their reserves of restraint, they then introduced the Smithfield bid last year to great fanfare as the largest takeover yet of a US company by a Chinese firm.

But as Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, a boutique investment bank, told WiC at the time, this wasn’t really the case. In fact the bid for Smithfield was a leveraged buyout by a company based in the Cayman Islands, not a Chinese one. And its main purpose was to facilitate a future sale by Shuanghui’s longstanding investors.

How so? WH’s set-up is complex: the IPO prospectus features an ownership chart containing WH Group, Shuanghui Group and Shuanghui Investment (not to mention several dozen joint ventures and Smithfield itself). One of these entities is listed in Shenzhen, but the investor group has been looking for other ways to cash out. A key motivation in last year’s dealmaking was that they thought they had found an alternative route via a Hong Kong IPO.

And less than a year after the Smithfield bid, WH made its move, not least because it needs to reduce some of the debt incurred in buying its new American business.

But many market watchers think it looked too hasty. “They rushed into an IPO and didn’t spend time to actually create the synergy between the US and Chinese business,” one fund manager in Hong Kong complained to FinanceAsia this week. “They wanted to float the stock to fund the acquisition and also let the private equity firms exit. But if WH Group is good, then ride with me. Why should I buy when you are selling?”

Fuhrman’s view is much more withering: “I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it, the chutzpah, that these big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausages bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to investors in Hong Kong.”

And what of the boss? Wan Long and another director Yang Zhijun pocketed almost $600 million in share options between them last year after the Smithfield bid went through. (The move pushed WH into a loss in 2013.) The size of the compensation package is said to have also deterred some fund managers.

What next for WH?

Any attempt to resurrect the offering will have to wait until after its first-half results, meaning a possible return to the market in September at the earliest. There have been reports that the deal is more likely be postponed until next year. CDH, the company’s single largest shareholder, told the Wall Street Journal that it refuses to sell its WH shares cheaply. “We have a strong belief in the business’ fundamentals and its long term value,” a spokesperson insisted.

But China Business Journal says that WH now needs to focus on convincing investors that it has a good story to tell, including providing a clearer integration plan for Smithfield and Shuanghui’s operations. The pressure will also increase to find alternative ways to retire some of the debt taken on to finance the Smithfield acquisition. Reports suggest that early refinancing was expected to reduce debt repayments by around $155 million on an annualised basis – or about 5% of last year’s profit.

WH may also use the delay to rethink how it goes to market next time, with the South China Morning Post reporting that senior executives have been blaming the banks for the breakdown. “Some of them were too confident, and even a bit arrogant, when they tried to price the deal and coordinate with each other,” the source told the newspaper.

Then again, the banks will be irked by the expenses inccurred on a deal that didn’t happen. And in retrospect it looks to have been a flawed decision to mandate 29 of them. As WH has learned, it diffused responsibility and may have disincentivised some of the participants.

Indeed, another comment on the situation is that the only winners from this IPO were the airlines and hotels that were used as part of the roadshow process.

http://www.weekinchina.com/2014/05/pork-chopped/?dm

 

WH’s canceled IPO shows dangers of misjudging demand — China Daily Article

April 28th, 2014 No comments

China Daily

WH’s canceled IPO shows dangers of misjudging demand

By Michael Barris (China Daily USA)

It could have been the largest IPO in a year. Instead the canceled initial offering of Chinese pork producer WH Group became an epic flop and an example of the pitfalls of failing to accurately gauge investor demand for IPOs.

Eight months ago, in the biggest-ever Chinese acquisition of a US company, WH, then known as Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd, acquired Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc, the world’s largest hog producer, for $4.7 billion. Awash in kudos for tapping into China’s increasing demand for high-quality pork, a Shuanghui team began working on a planned Hong Kong IPO.

By late April, however, the proposed offering was in deep trouble. Bankers slashed the deal’s marketed value to $1.9 billion from $5.3 billion. Finally, the company, now renamed WH Group, announced it would not proceed with the IPO because of “deteriorating market conditions and recent excessive market volatility”.

The decision handed the company a setback in its effort to cut the more than $2.3 billion of debt it took on in the Smithfield purchase and dealt a blow to Asia’s already struggling IPO market and the stock prices of some formerly high-flying Asian companies. The WH IPO debacle is even seen as possibly hampering the much-anticipated New York IPO of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, expected to occur later this year and valued at an estimated $20 billion.

WH's canceled IPO shows dangers of misjudging demand

What went wrong? To put it simply, investors scoffed at the idea of paying top price for WH shares without any clear indication of how the Smithfield acquisition would save money.

The price range of HK$ 8 to HK$ 11.25 per share ($1.03 to $1.45) was at a valuation of 15 to 20.8 times forward earnings. “The synergies between Shuanghui and Smithfield are untested. Why do investors have to buy in a hurry?” Ben Kwong, associate director of Taiwanese brokerage KGI Asia Ltd, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal. “They would rather wait until the valuation is attractive.”

A disease that infected pigs, inflating US prices, also turned off investors. US pork typically trades at about half the meat’s price in China, because US feed tends to be cheaper. But Chicago hog futures have soared 47 percent this year to $1.25 a pound. Investors also saw corporate governance practices which awarded shares to two executives before the listing occurred as worrisome.

“I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents filed at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it,” China First Capital CEO and Chairman Peter Fuhrman wrote on the Seeking Alpha investment website. “These big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausage bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to Hong Kong investors and institutions.

The Smithfield acquisition “never made much of any industrial sense”, Fuhrman wrote. The private equity firms behind WH – CDH Investments, Singapore state investor Temasek Holdings and New Horizon – “have no experience or knowledge how to run a pork business in the US. In fact, they don’t know how to run any business in the US”, he wrote.

One man’s meat, however, is another man’s poison. As Fuhrman wrote, the debacle has ended up putting smiles on the faces of the mainly-US shareholders who last year reluctantly sold their Smithfield shares at a 31 percent premium above the pre-bid price. Some of these same shareholders had protested that the Chinese company’s offer for the pork producer was too low. Ultimately, the sellers received the satisfaction of knowing they got the “far better end of a deal against some of the bigger, richer financial institutions in Asia and Wall Street,” Fuhrman wrote. And that, he said, has likely made them as delighted as pigs in muck.

 

http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/2014-05/14/content_17508033.htm

China IPO, the media headline and reality could hardly be more worlds apart — Reuters

April 21st, 2014 No comments

Reuters

Reuters headline

 

 

Spot the difference between the headline and the factual content of the article? One is designed to capture your attention, if not ruin your day. The other conveys less alarmist, less hyperventilated facts.

Something similar is at work in this article published by Reuters yesterday on China’s IPO market, the recent delays and the prospect for resumption later this year. Click here to read the Reuters article.

Reading just the headline, “China IPO promised land turns to desert as regulator review stokes confusion“, and you would likely conclude China’s IPO market had turned to a barren wasteland, where no Chinese company would anytime soon be able to tap the public markets for capital. One certainly would not expect, 24 hours earlier, another respected business publication, in this case the Wall Street Journal,  to publish an article that suggests the IPO process in China is about to boom.

Yet, that’s what happened. Same weekend. Same China. Wildly divergent realities.  Here’s the Journal article.

So, what’s going on here? Well, first off, the Wall Street Journal article is, both headline and body, a lot closer to the truth, at least as far as I’m able to judge. IPOs in China, after a two month hiatus, are about to start up again. The country’s securities regulator, the CSRC, is introducing a new market-based process of IPO approval. It’s a 180-degree change over the IPO system in China prevailing until the start of this year. Big change, and some big bumps along the road. But, overall, China is heading clearly in the direction where IPOs — which companies, when and at what listing price — will be decided by the market, by investor demand, not regulatory fiat.

The Reuters story, on the other hand, tries to mount a case that things have broken down rather seriously. The text of the article, to be fair, doesn’t entirely reflect the content of that headline. This sometimes happens, based on my experience back some twenty years ago working as a journalist. But, the gap here between headline and story, as well as between headline and fact, is larger than one might like to see.

My guess is the Reuters reporters started out with a plan to write about the breakdown in China’s IPO market, gathered up some quotes, as well as a bit of evidence, in the form of 24 companies (out of a total of over 700) dropping off the IPO waiting list. They called me ten days ago asking for a comment, probably knowing I don’t see things to be quite so dark and hopeless. That quote appears at the very bottom of the article. Here’s the full text of what I told them.

The Reuters article was written, edited and was waiting to be published when, perhaps inconveniently for Reuters,  the CSRC unexpectedly announced late Friday that 28 Chinese companies are well-along in their IPO plans and should close their fund-raising soon. That’s the story the Journal published.

Reuters went ahead and published its story. It didn’t bother to change that gloomy headline, and didn’t mention this news about a large batch of IPOs about to move forward. The “desert” Reuters describes apparently can sustain IPO life after all.

 

 

 

 

Alibaba’s Taobao and Other Online Shopping Sites are Pushing Traditional Retailers in China Toward Extinction

April 10th, 2014 2 comments

Welcome to the desolate future of mall retailing in China.

China shopping mall

This seven-story skylit shopping mall occupies a premier spot in a high-rent commercial district in booming Shenzhen’s main shopping street, with a huge underground parking lot and entrances that link it directly with a busy Metro stop. And yet,  everywhere you walk, floor after floor, retail shop fronts are boarded up, with most stores closed down. Only the ground floor supermarket, top floor Multiplex movie theater, basement chain restaurants and a large Starbucks are thriving. Thousands of square meters of retail space, fully rented as recently as twelve months ago at some of the highest commercial rents in the world, are silent and vacant. No customers, no tenants, no rent income.

Malls are starting to empty out in China, but Chinese are richer, and spending like never before. Overall, retail sales rose 13% in 2013. The paradox can be explained by a single word: Taobao.  It is China’s largest online shopping business, and the anchor asset of Alibaba Group, now preparing for one of the world’s richest-ever IPOs on the US stock market. Taobao, along with its sister site TMall, and a host of smaller online retailers including Jingdong, Amazon China and Wal-Mart-controlled Yihaodian, have landed like an asteroid, and are wiping out the ecosystem supporting traditional retail in China, especially brand-name clothing shops.

The impact of online shopping in China is already far more wide-ranging than anything seen in the US or elsewhere. The reason is price. Taobao and others sell the same brand-name products available in shopping malls, but at prices often 30%-50% cheaper.  More even than rising incomes, online shopping is the most powerful force in China for raising ordinary Chinese living standards and purchasing power.

Online shopping is everywhere in the world, at its heart, a price discovery tool. And Chinese are now discovering, in their hundreds of millions, they have been getting seriously ripped off by traditional stores, especially those selling foreign and domestic brand-name clothing and consumer electronics. They usually occupy 70% or more of a mall’s retail floor space.

Alibaba and other online merchants are joyously surfing a tidal wave of dissatisfaction with the high price of store shopping in China. Not only are brick-and-mortar stores’ prices much higher than buying online, they are also often more expensive, in dollar-terms, than the same or similar Made-in-China products sold at Wal-Mart or Target in the US.

Those two giant chains have fought back against online retailers in the US by using their buying power to offer brand name products at low prices. No retailer in China is really attempting this. Retailing in China is both fragmented and uncreative. As dynamic and innovative as China is in many industries, I’ve yet to see even one great home-grown retailing business here in China.

There’s also a big problem in the way Chinese shopping malls, especially high-end ones, are operated. Chinese mall owners are mainly a motley assortment of one-off developers who used government contacts to nab a valuable piece of commercially-zoned downtown land at a fraction of its market value. They then mortgaged the property, built a fancy shopping palace, and now take a cut of sales, along with a baseline rent. This revenue-sharing discourages retailers from cutting prices. If they do, they will fail to meet the landlord’s minimum monthly turnover figure.

Compounding the pressure on traditional retailers, mall owners often give the best ground-floor locations to global brands like Louis Vuitton or Prada, who pay little or no rent, but are meant to give the mall a high-class ambiance. The big luxury brands’ China outlets seem to have rather anemic sales, but use their China stores as a form of brand promotion richly subsidized by mall owners. Domestic brands are shunted to higher floors. Fewer shoppers venture up there, and so the stores will often end up failing.

The result, as in the photo above taken on a recent Sunday, floor after floor of vacant space. China is creating an entire new retail landscape – a glamorously-appointed mall in a nice part of town whose upper floors resemble downtown Detroit after a riot, with boarded-up shop fronts and scarcely a soul.

Anywhere else in the world, a mall with so much vacant space would either need to cut rents drastically or hand the property over to the banks that lent the money. Neither is happening. For now, the banks can often afford to be patient. Malls that have been around for a few years have probably already paid off the loan principal. Newer loans look far shakier. There are hundreds of bank-financed high-end malls now under construction or opening this year across China.

The stampede away from malls is only just beginning. Though China has already overtaken the US in dollar terms as largest online shopping market, there is every sign that the shift to buying online is accelerating and irreversible. Online sales in China should reach 10% of total retail sales this year, well above the US level of 6%. We project this percentage will rise to over 15% within the next decade. That’s because more Chinese will shop online, especially using their mobile phones, and because the range of items that are cheaper to buy online is so much larger in China than anywhere else.

For that, online merchants must also thank the country’s parcel delivery businesses, led by Shunfeng Express. They charge so little (about one-tenth the price of Fedex or UPS) and are so efficient in getting your parcel into your hands quickly that it makes economic sense not only to buy higher-priced apparel and consumer electronics, but also packaged food, soap, personal care items, even knickknacks that sell for less than $1.

The retail stores that remain in shopping malls are increasingly being used as free showrooms to facilitate sales by online competitors. Chinese shoppers go to stores to find what they like, try it on, check the price, then go home and buy direct from Taobao. That’s one reason malls are still drawing crowds.

Online shopping is not only cheaper, customer service is usually much better. Most merchants selling on Taobao manage and run their own online shops. Taobao is nothing more than an aggregation of millions of motivated individual entrepreneurs. They are available just about any time, day or night, by phone or online chat to answer questions, or even, when asked, offer an additional discount. They are, in my experience, smart, self-confident, friendly, competent.

Sales help in stores are often poorly-paid younger women who cling together behind the cash register. They clearly don’t much enjoy what they are doing, nor are they there to enhance the shopping experience. Often just the opposite.

So what’s going to happen to all the malls in China? There are over 2,500 across the country, already more than double the number of enclosed malls in the US. More are opening around China every week. Who will fill up all the space? There’s serious money to be made by investors or operators who can take advantage of the large disruptions now underway in traditional retailing.

Restaurants in malls are still doing well, and they don’t have anything to fear from Taobao. But, food outlets generally pay lower rent, per square foot, than retail stores and occupy either the top or basement floors. Premium office space is also still in demand in the downtown areas where many malls are located. Should malls be turned into food and entertainment centers? Or converted to commercial offices? Neither path looks easy.

The US went through a large wave of shopping mall bankruptcies in the 1990s, as large operators like DeBartolo and Campeau failed, and better ones like Simon Property Group and Westfield Group thrived. The good operators lowered costs, improved the economics and did well as newer retailers like Victoria’s Secret, Abercrombie & Fitch, Hollister, Juicy Couture, H&M, Apple, Papyruys, Teavana, Nordstrom honed retail formulas that could withstand online competition.

Retailers in China are in such peril because they charge too much, never innovate and do so little to win the loyalty of their customers. Alibaba and other online sellers are hastening them towards extinction.