Month: June 2014
The World Cup has begun. Along with being the globe’s most watched event it is also certainly the most gambled upon. Thirty-two teams, sixty-four matches to determine the winner on July 13th in Rio de Janiero. To choose the winner, you want to look at the individuals, the team management, the history of past success, the competition. In other words, it’s a lot like the process a private equity or venture capital firm uses to choose which companies to invest in.
It would be ill-advised, if not borderline crazy, to bet one’s life savings on the USA team to win the World Cup this year. Coral, the big British bookmaker itself owned by three PE firms, is offering odds of four hundred to one.
While no one is offering odds or a betting pool, the current mania among PE firms in China for investing in loss-making internet and mobile services businesses looks like an even wilder bet. Herd behavior is a familiar enough phenomenon across the PE and VC world. But, the situation in China has reached almost comical proportions. At the moment, there is little, if any, PE money going to large, profitable, mature, comparatively “de-risked” manufacturing companies. Instead, almost all the publicly-announced deals are investments in a variety of mainly online shopping sites or mobile-phone travel, game and taxi-booking services, none of which has a true technological barrier to entry, and all of which seem to hinge mainly on the same prayed-for low-probability outcome: a purchase down the road by China’s two internet leviathans, Tencent or Alibaba.
A US IPO is also at least theoretically possible. This year has already seen successful IPOs for Chinese internet and mobile companies, including Zhaopin, Cheetah Mobile, Qihoo 360, Leju, Chukong Technologies, Sina Weibo, Tuniu. But, deals being done now are for smaller, newer less well-established China companies that mainly face a steep failure-filled mountain climb of at least two to three years to even reach a point at which an IPO in New York might even be possible.
It is true that China’s online shopping and services industry is booming. Problem is, almost all the money is being earned by these same two large firms. In online shopping, 80% goes to Alibaba. In online gaming, a far smaller money-maker, Tencent is about as dominant. Both have done a few deals in the last year, buying out or investing alongside PE firms in smaller Chinese companies which have gained some traction. At the same time a few Chinese internet companies have gone public in the US and Hong Kong. But, the overall environment is much less positive. There are far too many “me too” businesses with business models copy-catted from the US pouring out PE and VC cash to buy customers or a thin allotment of a 20 year-old Chinese male’s online gaming budget.
China is the world’s best mass manufacturer with the world’s largest, or second-largest, domestic market in just about every imaginable category. Simply put: there are so many better, less risky, more defended Chinese companies out there than the ones now getting most of the PE and VC time and money.
My bet is that Tencent and Alibaba will also soon lose their appetite for buying smaller Chinese internet players. They are at a similar phase as companies like Amazon, Google, eBay, Cisco, Microsoft, Electronic Arts, IAC/InterActiveCorp, once were. These giants at one time bought small US internet companies by the bucket-load. But, most have either quit or cut back doing so. The businesses usually fail to prosper, are non-core, and prove hard to integrate. Minority deals usually turn out worse. Corporate investors make bad VCs.
In other key respects, there is every difference in the world between the US VC scene and this current activity in China. The US has far more trade buyers for successful VC-backed companies, far more genuine innovation, far more success stories, far less monopolistic internet and mobile industries, and a far richer “early adaptor” market to tap. You don’t need to look back very far to see where this kind of investing activity can lead. It’s only a little more than two years since PE firms poured hundreds of millions of Renminbi into Chinese group shopping sites modeled to some extent on US Groupon. Almost all these companies are now out of business or losing serious money. Chinese like group-buying. They just don’t let any company make any money from offering such a service.
Scan through the last three weekly summaries of new PE and VC deals in China, as digested by Asia Private Equity in Hong Kong. Virtually all involve deals to invest in online and mobile services. (Click here to look at the list of these deals.)
I talk or meet with PE partners on a regular basis. I can recall only a single discussion, over the last six months, where the PE firm’s primary focus was not on these kind of deals. This lonesome PE is the captive fund of one of China’s largest state-owned automobile groups. At this stage, about as differentiated as Chinese PE investment gets is whether the money should go into one of the many online sites for takeaway meals or one of the even larger number selling cosmetics.
China PE is slowly emerging from a prolonged period of inactivity and crisis, the result of both a slowdown in IPO activity and PE portfolios bloated with unexited deals. It’s good to see some sign of animal spirits again, that some PE firms at least are looking to do deals. But at least up to now, it looks like some bad old habits are being repeated: too many PE firms enslaved to the same investment thesis, chasing the same few companies, bidding up their valuations, inadequate diversification by industry or stage.
In the US, in most VC-backed companies, one of the busiest members of senior management is the head of business development. This job is often to find strategic partnerships, barter and co-bundling deals to generate more growth at less expense. This kind of thing is much rarer in China. Instead, for most, the primary method of customer acquisition is to spend a lot of money on Baidu advertising.
Baidu is far more accommodating than Google. It’s the dirty, not-so-well-kept secret of China’s internet industry. Baidu, which handles over 60% of all Chinese search requests, lets advertisers buy placement on the first page of what are called “organic search results”. There is basically no such thing in China as “most relevant” search results. The only search algorithm is: “who has paid us the most”. It’s one reason Google’s pullback from the China market is so damaging overall for the Chinese internet.
The “pay to play” rules in China’s internet leads to companies taking lots of expensive short cuts, often using PE and VC firm cash. There’s more than a little here to remind me of the Internet Bubble years in the US. I ended up running a VC firm in California right after the bubble burst. I still shake my head at some of the deals this VC firm invested in before I got there, when, as is now in China, pouring lots of LP money in any kind of dot.com or shopping site was seen as prudent fiduciary investing. Things turned out otherwise. They turned out messy. They will too with this PE infatuation with online and mobile anything in China. A bet on the USA to win the World Cup offers more attractive odds and upside.
Twenty-five years ago on the evening on June 3, 1989, I was standing in the northeast corner of Tiananmen Square as Chinese soldiers emerged in large numbers from inside the National History Museum a short distance away. From loudspeakers came instructions that all those gathered in the square should leave in an orderly way. The Tiananmen Square Protest, begun seven weeks earlier, was entering its final and most brutal phase.
It would be another seven hours or so on the morning of June 4th before the last of the demonstrators would be led unharmed out of the Square. The violence that night occurred elsewhere. Chinese troops entering the city by road encountered stiff resistance, particularly to the west and south of the square. I witnessed some of this at close quarters – the mayhem and loss of life. I was a reporter at the time. I don’t reflect often on these events, and this is also the first time I’ve written about what I saw there.
Most of what I and so many others thought was true and inevitable at that time turned out to be wrong. There was no civil war, no fracturing of the country, no return to Maoism, no retreat into bitter isolation, no dying of the universal hope here for a better life.
China today is an infinitely better, fairer, richer, more open and freer place than it was in 1989. This is the reality that too many in the West are unable or unwilling to see. Their views about China were cast in concrete that awful night in June 1989. All they often choose to see are ghosts of repression and despotism.
So what I have learned these twenty-five years? China’s long history, for all its stunning achievements and millennia of global weight and prestige, is also etched with pain — from war, famine, civil discord. No single cataclysm could possibly define its destiny or determine the country’s future. Not Tiananmen. Not the Cultural Revolution. Not the civil war that brought the Communists to power in 1949. Not the Japanese conquest of the 1930s, nor the Taiping Rebellion eighty years earlier in which perhaps 30 million Chinese perished.
“Amnesia” is what some Western commentators and authors now choose to call it. I prefer to think of it as a deep, practical and praiseworthy resiliency. China is where it is today, at a moment of prosperity and bright prospects unprecedented in its history, because most, if not all, of the country of 1.3 billion willed it there. Through toil. Through self-reliance and self-improvement. Through an unshifting focus on bettering their own lives, and those of their families. And, also through knowing when and how to bury the past.
Was this made easier because no news about the Tiananmen protests circulates in official media, and nothing is taught in schools? Quite likely. But, by itself, the impact of this was negligible on China’s transformation since 1989. The country is now thirteen times larger, in per capita gdp terms, than it was then. The improvement in people’s lives goes beyond the scale of numerical measurement. It is the largest, most complete and most rapid uplift in human history.
Yes, some problems from 1989 still remain. China has polluted air and water, as it did in 1989. It has corrupt officials. As it did in 1989. Its politics are now and were then opaque and closed in most parts to public scrutiny. Then, as now, China confounds and sometimes infuriates those who visit it, study it, admire it, or seek to trade with it.
I left Beijing on June 15th 1989, together with my oldest and closest friend, who was expelled as an Associated Press journalist “due to alleged links with student ringleaders”. We met as two of a handful of American students in Nanjing in 1981, when food was still rationed and China was as poor, per capita, as India and poorer than just about everywhere in Africa.
I stayed away for many years, moving back almost five years ago. That friend is also back now in China, raising his three children in Beijing. He and I don’t see eye to eye on China. Our interpretations are quite different on what happened in Tiananmen that night, and the impact it exerts over today’s China. We speak about it rarely. He’s writing a history book now on the many ties that bind the US and China together. He is more fixated on politics, with intrigues and policy shifts in Beijing. I care little about that, and far more about what happens here financially and economically.
We both feel grateful to live in China now, and in our own ways, grateful also to hold onto a few memories of China as it was 33 years ago, and also on that night in 1989. No amnesia. Some late middle-aged forgetfulness for sure.
China is not at all like the sad place we expected it to become when we left Beijing together in 1989. It is our home. It provides us both with opportunity, friendship, purpose, careers, happiness, love, occasional frustrations and, when we remember to take note, a sense of astonishment at all we’ve witnessed, and how much farther China has come than we ever dared imagine.