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China Inc.’s Investment Bank Dives Into Troubled Retail Market — Bloomberg

November 8th, 2016 No comments

 

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China International Capital Corp., the investment bank ex-Premier Zhu Rongji set up two decades ago to help restructure the Chinese economy, is again taking on a role that fits with the government’s agenda.

CICC’s $2.5 billion acquisition of China Investment Securities Corp. will plunge the firm into the retail investor market, a segment it had long shunned because of thin margins and a traditional focus on institutional clients. The deal is part of Chief Executive Officer Bi Mingjian’s push to lessen dependence on volatile investment banking fees.

Yet the transaction also ties in with a key objective of the government, which will become CICC’s largest shareholder as a result of the purchase. Having used CICC to take some of the largest state companies public since the late 1990s, China is now looking for assistance in its quest to reform a retail-driven equities market that’s prone to speculative booms and busts.

In the wake of the latest such episode, a stock market meltdown last year, the government launched an unprecedented crackdown on the securities industry and arrested several high-ranking executives.

“CICC will once again play this civilizing and globalizing role, only with the more far-reaching aim of helping to professionalize the often-shambolic Chinese stock market,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, a Shenzhen-based advisory firm. “Its reputation is still unsullied in China, unlike other banks whose leaders have been marched out in handcuffs and whose market practices are widely blamed for the rampant speculative fever that often afflicts China’s domestic capital markets.”

Reforming Role

In announcing the takeover on Friday, CICC hinted at a reforming role by saying the two firms will “work together to improve the quality and efficiency of mass market services” through training and by upgrading technology systems at China Investment Securities’ 192 branches across the country that serve retail clients.

CICC is buying China Investment Securities from state-owned Central Huijin Investment Ltd. It will issue shares to Central Huijin, more than doubling the entity’s stake in CICC to 58.7 percent. CICC had to get a waiver from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange for the transaction, so that Central Huijin’s controlling stake wouldn’t be classified as a reverse takeover.

An additional rationale for the deal is Huijin’s push to consolidate the securities industry by combining institutional and retail brokerage businesses, said Zhang Chunxin, an analyst at CMB International Capital Holdings Corp. She cautioned that “the reform process will be long and gradual.”

China Investment Securities ranked 17th among Chinese securities firms by revenue last year, while CICC was 23rd, according to official data. Bi’s overhaul has the support of the firm’s foreign shareholders, who had already been pushing CICC to diversify into areas such as asset and wealth management, a person with knowledge of the matter said.

Sherry Tan, spokeswoman at CICC, declined to comment.

Shareholder Backing

The combined stakes of CICC’s main foreign backers — private equity firms TPG Capital and KKR & Co., and Singapore sovereign wealth fund GIC Pte — will drop to 15.3 percent as a result of the takeover. However, the foreign firms may buy additional stakes from Central Huijin in future, people familiar with the matter said.

When former premier Zhu Rongji created CICC in 1995, China was launching a shakeup of its state-run industrial sector, leading to the closure of some 60,000 firms and loss of 40 million jobs. Since then, CICC has worked on some of the biggest listings of state enterprises, such as China Construction Bank Corp. and China Mobile Ltd. It was the top adviser on mergers involving Chinese companies in 2014, 2015 and so far this year.

Buying China Investment Securities is a departure from former CEO Levin Zhu’s strategy. The son of the former premier, who ran the firm until two years ago, had long resisted expanding into retail broking, fearing it would erode margins and its differentiation from other Chinese securities firms, according to people familiar with the matter.

Last year’s leverage-fueled equities rally and the subsequent implosion brought worldwide attention to the shortcomings of China’s markets. The government responded with an effort that included enlisting securities firms in supporting the stock market as well as jailing senior brokerage executives for alleged wrongdoing. CICC wasn’t among the firms that took part in the stock-market rescue, but China Investment Securities was.

Market Manias

China’s 114 million individual investors account for the bulk of equities trading. That makes them a hard-to-ignore segment, but also one that tends to be susceptible to market manias. Critics contend that the government’s efforts to restore market calm last year only served to hurt investor confidence further.

The Shanghai Composite Index remains 39 percent below its June 2015 peak. Xiao Gang, who was removed from his post as chairman of China’s securities regulator this year, in January acknowledged loopholes and ineptitude within the regulatory system.

Some analysts aren’t convinced the deal is in CICC’s best interest. The stock fell 2.1 percent on Monday after a trading halt was lifted.

The transaction makes the firm “more like a state-owned company, which could compromise CICC’s corporate governance, operational autonomy” and its ability to retain top talent, said Fred Hu, Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s former Greater China chairman.

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-11-07/china-inc-s-investment-bank-dives-into-troubled-retail-market

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Has Yum Worked Out How Fast-Food Firms Can Crack China? — Bloomberg

November 3rd, 2016 No comments

 

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Global consumer companies trying to find a business model for China’s burgeoning domestic market will be watching closely as one of the oldest Western brands in the country starts a new strategy.

Yum! Brands Inc., which opened its first KFC restaurant in China in 1987 and also operates Pizza Hut outlets, has been losing market share thanks to a food-safety scare, changing tastes, increasing local competition and a host of other challenges that foreign companies face in China. It carved out its China operations into a separate company, Yum China Holdings Inc., which begins trading today in New York.

Ring-fencing the business, the largest independent restaurant company in China with 7,000 outlets and more than $900 million cash on hand, offers Yum a number of advantages in dealing with a fast-changing market. Yum’s example could provide a road map for other global consumer brands in the world’s most populous nation.

Yum China has issued 386 million shares at $24.36, which puts its valuation at around $9 billion, according to New Jersey-based research firm Edge Consulting Group LLC. The stock rose about 2 percent to $24.85 as of 9:59 a.m. in New York, while Yum Brands gained 0.7 percent to $62.49.

“When their China operations get so big and are clearly catering just to the China market, splitting off could unlock a lot of value for shareholders,” said Shaun Rein, Shanghai-based managing director of China Market Research Group. “If I were an activist hedge fund investor, I would be looking at carving out brands within large conglomerates that are China plays.”

Doing so allows Yum’s management of the China business to tailor its operations and products more swiftly to changing local conditions, such as the menu preferences of diners in different parts of the country, mobile-based payments systems, hiring and other factors.

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It also helps tap Chinese investors willing to pay high premiums for a stake of an international brand’s China operations. Yum sold a combined $460 million stake in its Chinese business to Primavera Capital Group and an Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. affiliate, Ant Financial Services Group, in September.

 

In recent years, Yum has ceded market share to local competitors because it was slow to react to market changes, said Rein.

“They didn’t make corporate decisions quickly enough, such as in adopting mobile payments, or adapting to consumers wanting more premium offerings,” Rein said. “Their ability to deal with the more complex environment here was held back by the lack of knowledge, the slowness of the U.S.”

Localization of offerings at KFC and Pizza Hut outlets in China will be an important component of the firm’s strategy for the country, Yum China Chief Executive Officer Micky Pant said at a briefing Tuesday in Shanghai. The company plans to increase investment in new outlets across its brands and does not plan to raise more capital, he said.

An activist hedge fund investor upset with the company’s handling of its China business is how Yum China came into being.

After a food-safety scandal in 2014 and cheaper local competition torpedoed Yum’s sales and profit in China, Corvex Management founder Keith Meister in mid-2015 urged the company to split off its Chinese operations — which contribute about half the group sales — saying that the move could generate an additional $16 a share in value for the Louisville, Kentucky-based company.

Yum’s total share of China’s market for fast-food chains dropped to 30 percent last year, from 40 percent in 2012, according to data from Euromonitor International. While sales have been growing again in China in the mid-single digits since late last year, the company has suffered from consumers shifting to healthier options and domestic chains sprouting up with more variety.


Volatility Reduction

Unlike Yum’s U.S. operations, where most of its restaurants are run by franchisees, Yum China directly operates over 90 percent of its outlets and plans to triple the number to more than 20,000 in the long term.

Yum’s spinoff would reduce volatility for its remaining business, while “giving investors with a higher risk tolerance access to a more pure-play China growth story,” said Jonathan Morgan, an analyst for Edge Consulting. “China’s economic slowdown could induce other U.S.-listed restaurant stocks to spin off their China businesses, to protect their core businesses.”

So far, companies with China consumer arms have often chosen instead to sell the division to a local competitor and take a stake in that business instead.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in June sold its e-commerce platform Yihaodian to China’s second-largest e-commerce company, JD.com Inc., for a 5 percent stake in JD. In August, Uber Technologies Inc. surrendered after a year-and-a-half battle with Didi Chuxing and agreed to sell its business in China. It departed the country in exchange for $1 billion in cash and a 17.7 percent stake in Didi.

McDonald’s Corp., meanwhile, is seeking to sell its 20-year mass franchise rights for China and Hong Kong for a reported $2 billion.

Starbucks Corp. is the only other major U.S.-listed food and beverage chain in China beside Yum, which owns and operates its outlets, numbering 2,400 stores across 110 cities.

China, Starbucks’ largest international market, represents the most significant opportunity for the company, said a company representative. The company has no intention to change its operation model in the market, according to the spokesperson.

 

Jackpot Valuations

“What we’ve seen across various industries is that foreign players eventually pull out or find a local partner,” said Hong Kong-based S&P Global Ratings’ restaurant and retail analyst Shalynn Teo. “It’s the local market knowledge and local relationships that determine which foreign businesses survive in China, and local players will always have an edge.”

With Chinese investors paying a premium for market share, such deals can prove attractive, said Peter Fuhrman, CEO of Shenzhen-based investment bank and advisory firm China First Capital. “As long as Chinese investors are offering jackpot valuations,

Those that don’t face the need to tailor their businesses to China’s widely diverse and morphing consumer market. Only from March this year did KFCs in China began accepting WeChat Pay; they started accepting Alipay mobile payments in July last year. Yet the country leads the world in the use of such transactions, with four out of 10 Chinese consumers using mobile payments at physical stores, research firm EMarketer estimated.

Starbucks stores in China still do not accept Alipay or WeChat, only Apple Pay, a decision which costs them 5 to 10 percent of sales, estimates China Market Research Group’s Rein.

Starbucks launched its own mobile payment system in China in July, allowing customers to pay with preloaded Starbucks Gift Cards via their mobile devices, according to the company.

As China’s consumer market continues to grow, more overseas companies may consider following Yum down the path of segregation.

“Four out of 10 spinoffs do not generate a return in the first year of separation,” said Edge Consulting’s Morgan. “How Yum China performs will help U.S.-listed companies evaluate their strategic options in China.”

 

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-31/yum-s-spinoff-offers-roadmap-for-western-brands-in-china-market

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PAG Said to Pay About $250 Million for Chinese School Operator — Bloomberg

October 31st, 2016 No comments

 

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By Cathy Chan

(Bloomberg) — PAG Asia Capital has paid about $250 million for Golden Apple Education Group, a Chinese company that’s been embroiled in legal action brought by creditors of its former owner, according to people familiar with the matter.

The Hong Kong-based private equity firm acquired Golden Apple from Sichuan Harmony Group, a Chengdu-based property developer, the people said, requesting anonymity because the details of the transaction are private. Golden Apple became involved in legal cases brought since 2014 by Sichuan Harmony’s creditors because it guaranteed some of the property developer’s loans, the people added.

The sale of Golden Apple helped resolve legal claims from about 60 individuals and money lenders, some of which had foreclosed on Sichuan Harmony assets, according to an official at Sichuan Financial Assets Exchange, the state-backed entity which was appointed to lead the Sichuan Harmony debt restructuring together with PAG.

“It’s highly unusual for a foreign private equity firm to buy a Chinese company undergoing court-supervised administration,” said Peter Fuhrman, the chairman of China First Capital, a Shenzhen-based investment banking and advisory firm.

The unwillingness of many Chinese creditors to write off part of their loans, a concession needed to restructure debt and give a company a new start, makes such deals “worlds away both in complexity and investment appeal” from other private equity transactions, Fuhrman said.

 One-Child Policy

A spokesman for PAG declined to comment. A spokeswoman for Golden Apple referred to an Aug. 25 media interview posted on the company’s website which said it is partnering with PAG and plans to invest 2 billion yuan ($295 million) in its facilities over the next two to three years. She declined to comment further on the PAG acquisition or on the company’s legal issues.

PAG, co-founded by former TPG Capital veteran Shan Weijian, is buying Golden Apple partly because China’s move to repeal its decades-old one-child policy has bolstered the prospects of the education industry, according to the people. The Chinese government has estimated that the change is likely to add three million newborns each year. Investors have taken note, with venture capital companies conducting 10 fundraising rounds in the first half for startups in the maternity and pediatric market, according to VC Beat Research, which tracks internet health-related investment and fundraising.

   Kindergartens

Golden Apple operates 33 kindergartens and two primary schools, mostly based in Chengdu, with more than 12,000 students, the people said. PAG plans to expand the number of primary schools and develop secondary schooling after acquiring the business, according to the people.

Sichuan Harmony has reduced its outstanding loans from state-backed lenders from 2.5 billion yuan to 1.9 billion yuan, according to the Sichuan Financial Exchange official, who asked not to be identified by name. The company has 4.5 billion yuan of assets and will focus on its medical and community nursing- home businesses, the official added.

The market for online education services in China has also attracted overseas interest. KKR & Co. last year agreed to invest $70 million in Tarena International Inc., which offers in-person and online classes in information technology, marketing and accounting. GIC Pte and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

were among investors putting $200 million into TutorGroup, a Chinese online education platform, in its third round of financing in November. CVC Capital Partners in May sold its stake in Education International Corp., China’s biggest overseas educational counselling service provider, to a consortium led by Chinese private equity fund NLD Investment LLP.

 

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Quietly But Successfully, US Companies Are Buying Chinese Businesses

September 14th, 2016 1 comment

--FILE--RMB (renminbi) yuan and US dollar bills are pictured at a bank in Huaibei city, east Chinas Anhui province, 16 September 2011. Chinas yuan edged down versus the dollar on Tuesday (11 October 2011), consolidating its biggest single-day gain a day earlier, brushing aside a record central bank mid-point as US lawmakers prepare to vote on a bill aimed at punishing Beijing for alleged currency manipulation. The Peoples Bank of China, the countrys central bank, set the yuan central parity rate at 6.3483 against the dollar, compared with 6.3586 on Monday.

Is China really buying up America? Or is it the opposite?

Chinese investments in the US draw lots of headlines and occasional handwringing about China’s growing influence and ownership. It is true that Chinese investors, especially SOE, have been throwing billions of dollars around, mostly for US real estate.

Far more quietly, and perhaps with better overall results, US investors have been buying businesses in China. The US acquirers do their utmost to stay out of the headlines. They prefer to shop quietly, without competitors finding out. This does a lot to keep prices down and give these US buyers maximum negotiating leverage. A lot of these US acquisitions in China stay secret long after they close.

Contrast this style with that of Chinese investors in the US. Most end up bidding against one another for the same assets. Overpaying has become a hallmark of Chinese purchases in the US.

Compared to the huge number of Chinese companies shopping for assets in the US, not nearly as many US companies are sizing up deals and kicking tires in China. Partly this stems from some misunderstandings among less-experienced US acquirers about what kinds of Chinese businesses can be targeted. Topping the list of sweeping generalizations: Chinese companies, especially privately-owned ones, are said to have owners who rarely wish to sell. Those that do, want to sell their deeply troubled companies at Neiman Marcus prices.

There is some truth to this arm-chair analysis. But, equally, there are good deals being done. I’ve written before about the most successful US acquisition in China, by food giant General Mills. (Click here to read.) It’s a textbook case of how to do M&A in China and also how to build a billion dollar business there without anyone really noticing.

Why buy rather than build in China? For one thing, China has huge and fast-growing markets in almost all industries except the smoke-stack ones. For buyers that choose and execute well, the China market is proving lucrative ground to do M&A. It’s a truth that remains a known to a select group of smart buyers.

Lifting the veil a bit, here are some of the largely-unpublicized acquisitions done by smart American buyers in China.

 

3d

In April 2015, 3D Systems, a New York Stock Exchange-quoted manufacturer of 3D printers, purchased 65% of a Chinese 3D printing sales and service company Wuxi Easyway. The Chinese company’s customers in China include VW, Nissan, Philips, Omron, Black & Decker, Panasonic and Honeywell. 3D Systems has an option to purchase the remainder of the business within five years.

Along with acquiring a developed sales network and increased distribution in China, another key aspect of the deal was to make the founder of Easyway, a Western-educated Chinese, the CEO of a newly-formed subsidiary,  3D Systems China.  The plan is to make the Chinese founder the king of a larger kingdom, a carrot frequently dangled by American companies to persuade Chinese founders to sell to them.

Since the deal closed, 3D Systems also accelerated the build-out of its operational infrastructure in China. What lies behind the deal? 3D Systems acquired a local management team as well sales channels, customer relationships.  It did not acquire manufacturing capability.

3D Systems manufactures high-quality 3D printers that sells at significantly higher prices than Chinese domestic competitors. Owning a Chinese business with established customer relationships in China will make it easier for 3D Systems to penetrate more deeply what should become the world’s largest market for 3D printers. The shift is particularly strong among Chinese private sector manufacturing companies making products for China’s consumer market.

Prior to the acquisition, Easyway was not a major client or partner of 3D Systems. As the integration moves forward, Easyway will likely expand its product offerings in China beyond relatively commoditized business of producing 3D prototypes. 3D Systems’ printers have broader capabilities, including the production of end-use parts, molds for advanced tool production, medical and surgical supplies.

The dual-track strategy is for Easyway to maintain its existing comparatively low-end service business in China while adding two new sources of revenue: the sale of 3D Systems’ 3D printers in China and an enhanced/upgraded service business of using 3D Systems printers to produce higher-quality and more complex parts to order for Chinese customers.  Both should positively impact 3D Systems’ P&L.

3D Systems used a deal structure that often works well in China. They bought a majority of Easyway, while leaving the target company founder/owner with a 35% minority stake in an illiquid subsidiary of 3D Systems. 3D Systems has the option to buy out the remaining shares and assume 100% control. But, the option may never be exercised. 3D Systems now enjoys the benefits of holding corporate control, including consolidation, while also keeping the previous owner aligned and incentivized.

The deal isn’t without its risks, of course. 3D Systems previously had no corporate presence in China. It therefore did not have its own management team in place and on-the-ground in China to manage the integration of Easyway and monitor the business going forward.

 

illinois

In July 2013, Illinois Tool Works (“ITW”), a huge and hugely-successful US industrial conglomerate, purchased 100% of a Chinese kitchen supply manufacturer Gold Pattern Holdings, based in Guangzhou, from global private equity firm Actis.

The acquisition fits well with the expansion strategy of ITW of looking to make tuck-in acquisitions in their core business segments. ITW has a large food equipment business with over $2 billion in annual revenue, 15% of ITW’s total.  Gold Pattern’s business is selling Western-style kitchen equipment to restaurants and hotels in China.

From discussions we’ve had with ITW since the acquisition, the deal is considered a solid success within ITW. The company says it has a strengthened appetite to make more such acquisitions in China, a key market for the company going forward.

ITW owns some of the most well-known brands in the food equipment industry, including Hobart mixers and Vulcan ranges. Buying Gold Pattern was part of a strategy to increase sales and distribution of these ITW brands in the fast-growing China market. Gold Pattern’s own commercial kitchen equipment is lower-priced and generally considered lower-quality.  But, the domestic sales channels used to sell Gold Pattern’s equipment is also suitable to distribute ITW’s US brands.

ITW expects that as China continues to grow more affluent, the demand among the Chinese middle class for European and American food will expand significantly. This will create a long-term market opportunity for ITW to sell Western style commercial kitchen equipment. More and more four-and-five star hotels in China are being equipped with Western kitchens as well as Chinese ones.

ITW mitigated its deal risk by buying Gold Pattern from a well-regarded international PE fund. As a result, Gold Pattern already had fully-compliant GAAP accounting, established corporate governance structures, and a professional management team. No less important, ITW knew from the outset that Gold Pattern had already successfully undergone the forensic due diligence process that preceded Actis buying control of the company. This significantly lower due diligence risk, a prime reason many deals in China – both minority and control – fail to close.

ITW has significant experience buying and integrating businesses globally. They had operations in China for twenty years prior to this acquisition.  ITW and another diversified Midwestern industrial company, Dover Corporation, are both actively, but ever-so-quietly seeking more acquisitions in China, aimed primarily at expanding their sales and distribution in China’s growing domestic market.

 

 amazon

This deal happened a long time ago, but continues to pay dividends for Amazon. In August 2004, they bought 100% of Chinese e-commerce company Joyo, paying a total of $75mn including an earn-out.  At the time, e-commerce in China was in its infancy, while Amazon was less than one-tenth its current size. The purchase of Joyo was a calculated gamble that China’s online shopping industry, despite huge impediments at the time including no established online payment systems would eventually achieve meaningful scale.

The gamble has paid off handsomely for Amazon. The e-commerce industry in China is now at least 50X larger than in 2004, with revenues last year of over $700bn. E-commerce revenues are projected to double in China by 2020. Amazon is the only non-Chinese company with meaningful market share and revenues in this hot sector. That said, Amazon is dwarfed by Alibaba’s Taobao, which has a market share in China estimated at 75%.

But, Amazon in 2012 spotted an opportunity to use its China-based business to establish a highly-lucrative cross-border business facilitating direct export sales by Chinese manufacturers and individual traders on Amazon’s main US and UK websites.  This is a business Alibaba has tried and so far failed to enter.  As a result, Amazon’s senior management, if they know no one is listening, will tell you the Joyo acquisition is a big success. It generates meaningful revenue in China (approx. $3bn), while supporting the infrastructure to build out the cross-border exports.  Amazon continues to invest aggressively in China, with enormous warehouse facilities (800,000 total sqm) and wholly-owned logistics business.

When Amazon bought Joyo, it knew full well that Chinese law, as written, forbids foreign companies from owning a domestic internet company. The Chinese government views the internet and e-commerce as “strategic national industries”. At the time, Amazon got around this by using an ownership structure for its China business called a “Variable Interest Entity” (“VIE”) also used by some domestic Chinese e-commerce companies that listed on the US stock market. The Chinese government, if they chose to, could probably shut Amazon down in China, because it’s using this loophole to operate in China. That could leave Amazon scrambling to find a way to stay in business in a country in which it now has hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.

The boards of many other large US companies would blanch at approving a deal where the assets are owned indirectly and control could be so easily forfeited by Chinese regulatory action. But, Amazon, with founder Jeff Bezos firmly in control, has shown itself time and again to be comfortable with making rather bold bets. Success in China often requires that mindset.

 

negative

Of course, US buyers have also slipped on their share of Chinese banana peels. Three well-known Silicon Valley technology companies tried and mainly failed to do M&A successfully in China. All three followed a similar strategy to acquire domestic Chinese technology companies started and owned by Chinese who had previously studied and worked in the tech field in the US. The acquisitions followed the general strategic logic of most tech M&A within the US: to identify and acquire companies with complimentary proprietary IP. But, the results in China fell well short of expectations.

The three deals were:

  1. Cirrus Logic acquired Caretta Integrated Circuits in 2007. By 2008, the acquired company was shut down and Cirrus recorded a $12mn loss.
  2. Netgear acquired CP Secure in 2008. There is now no trace of the original CP Secure business, nor any indication it is ongoing concern.
  3. Aruba Networks acquired Azalea Networks in 2010, a Chinese wireless LAN provider.

Over the last five years, no similar M&A deals in China were announced by larger Silicon Valley companies. The strategy has shifted from acquiring companies for their IP to targeting companies for their domestic Chinese distribution and sales channels.  This reflects the fact that indigenous innovation in China has not made much of a global impact. IP protection in China is still inadequate by US standards. China is also a late adopter market, which further impedes the development of globally-competitive domestic technology companies.

The successful US acquisitions in China were all rooted in a different, more viable strategy: to buy one’s way directly or indirectly into China’s burgeoning consumer market.

 

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Abridged version as published in Nikkei Asian Review

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Chinese Firms Are Reinventing Private Equity — Nikkei Asian Review

July 27th, 2016 No comments

 

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Pudong

July 26, 2016  Commentary

Chinese firms are reinventing private equity

Henry Kravis, his cousin George Roberts and his mentor Jerry Kohlberg are generally credited with having invented private equity buyouts after forming KKR 40 years ago. Even after other firms like Blackstone and Carlyle piled in and deals reached mammoth scale, the rules of the buyout game changed little: Select an underperforming company, buy it with lots of borrowed money, cut costs and kick it into shape, then sell out at a big markup, either in an initial public offering or to a strategic buyer.

This has proved a lucrative business that lots of small private equity firms worldwide have sought to copy. China’s domestic buyout funds, however, are trying to reinvent the PE buyout in ways that Kravis would barely recognize. Instead of using fancy financial engineering, leverage and tight operational efficiencies to earn a return, the Chinese firms are counting on Chinese consumers to turn their buyout deals into moneymakers.

Compared to KKR and other global giants, Chinese buyout firms are tiny, new to the game and little known inside China or out. Firms such as AGIC, Golden Brick, PAG, JAC and Hua Capital have billions of dollars at their disposal to buy international companies. Within the last year, these five have successfully led deals to acquire large technology and computer hardware companies in the U.S. and Europe, including the makers of Lexmark printers, OmniVision semiconductors and the Opera web browser.

So what’s up here? The Chinese government is urgently seeking to upgrade the country’s manufacturing and technology base. The goal is to sustain manufacturing profits as domestic costs rise and sales slow worldwide for made-in-China industrial products. The government is pouring money into supporting more research and development. It is also spreading its bets by providing encouragement and sometimes cash to Chinese investment companies to buy U.S. and European companies with global brands and valuable intellectual property.

While the hope is that acquired companies will help China move out of the basement of the global supply chain, the buyout funds have a more immediate goal in sight, namely a huge expansion of the acquired companies’ sales within China.

This is where the Chinese buyout firms differ so fundamentally from their global counterparts. They aren’t focusing much on streamlining acquired operations, shaving costs and improving margins. Instead, they plan to leave things more or less unchanged at each target company’s headquarters while seeking to bolt on a major new source of revenues that was either ignored or poorly managed.

So for example, now that the Lexmark printer business is Chinese-owned, the plan will be to push growth in China and capture market share from domestic manufacturers that lack a well-known global brand and proprietary technologies. With OmniVision Technologies, the plan will be to aggressively build sales to China’s domestic mobile phone producers such as Huawei Technologies, Oppo Electronics and Xiaomi.

The China Android phone market is the biggest in the world.  Omnivision used to be the main supplier of mobile phone camera sensor chips to the Apple iPhone, but lost much of the business to Sony.

In launching last year the $1.8bn takeover of then then Nasdaq-quoted Omnivision, Hua Capital took on significant and unhedgeable risk. The deal needed the approval of the US Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States, also known as CFIUS. This somewhat-shadowy interagency body vets foreign takeovers of US companies to decide if US national security might be compromised. CFIUS has occasionally blocked deals by Chinese acquirers where the target had patents and other know-how that might potentially have non-civilian applications.

CFIUS also arrogates to itself approval rights over takeovers by Chinese companies of non-US businesses, if the target has some presence in the US. It used this justification to block the $2.8 billion takeover by Chinese buyout fund GO Scale Capital of 80% of the LED business of Netherlands-based Philips. CFIUS acted almost a year after GO Scale and Philips first agreed to the deal. All the time and money spent by GO Scale with US and Dutch lawyers, consultants and accountants to conclude the deal went down the drain. CFIUS rulings cannot be readily appealed.

Worrying about CFIUS approval isn’t something KKR or Blackstone need do, but it’s a core part of the workload at Chinese buyout funds. Hua Capital ultimately got the okay to buy Omnivision five months after announcing the deal to the US stock exchange.

The Chinese buyout firms see their role as encouraging and assisting acquired companies to build their business in China. This often boils down to business development and market access consulting. Global buyout firms say they also do some similar work on behalf of acquired companies, but it is never their primary strategy for making a buyout financially successful.

Chinese buyout funds count on two things happening to make a decent return on their overseas deals. First is a boost in revenues and profits from China. Second, the funds have to sell down their stake for a higher price than they paid. The favored route on paper has been to seek an IPO in China where valuations can be the highest in the world. This path always had its complications since it generally required a minimum three-year waiting period before submitting an application to join what is now a 900-company-long IPO waiting list.

The IPO route has gotten far more difficult this year. The Chinese government delivered a one-two punch, first scrapping its previous plan to open a new stock exchange board in Shanghai for Chinese-owned international companies, then moving to shut down backdoor market listings through reverse mergers.

The main hope for buyout funds seeking deal exits now is to sell to Chinese listed companies. In some cases, the buyout funds have enlisted such companies from the start as minority partners in their company takeovers. This isn’t a deal structure one commonly runs across outside China, but may prove a brilliant strategy to prepare for eventual exits.

There is one other important way in which the new Chinese buyout funds differ from their global peers. They don’t know the meaning of the term “hostile takeover.” Chinese buyout funds seek to position themselves as loyal friends and generous partners of a business’s current owners. A lot of sellers, especially among family-controlled companies in Europe, say they prefer to sell to a gentle pair of hands — someone who promises to build on rather than gut what they have put together. Chinese buyout funds sing precisely this soothing tune, opening up some deal-making opportunities that may be closed to KKR, Blackstone, Carlyle and other global buyout giants.

The global firms are also finding it harder to compete with Chinese buyout funds for deals within China, even though they have raised more than $10 billion in new funds over the last six years to put into investments in the country. They have basically been shut out of the game lately because they can’t and won’t bid up valuations to the levels to which domestic funds are willing to go.

The global buyout giants won’t be too concerned that they face an existential threat from their new Chinese competitors. It is also unlikely that they will adopt similar deal strategies. Instead, they are getting busy now prettying up companies they have previously bought in the U.S. and Europe. They will hope to sell some to Chinese buyers. Along with offering genial negotiations and a big potential market in China, the Chinese buyout funds are also gaining renown for paying large premiums on every deal. No one ever said that about Henry Kravis.

Peter Fuhrman is the founder, chairman and CEO of China First Capital, an investment bank based in Shenzhen.

Abridged version as published in Nikkei Asian Review

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Chinese Private Equity Funds Are Taking on the World’s Giants — Bloomberg

July 21st, 2016 No comments

Bloomberg logo

Bloomberg headline

Cathy Chan 

July 21, 2016 — 12:00 AM HKT

  • PE firms from China pursue overseas deals at record pace
  • One Italian target says China links are what matter most

 

Giuseppe Bellandi never imagined that his company, a 30-year-old maker of industrial automation components in the foothills of the Italian Alps, would end up in the hands of a private-equity fund from China.

But when the chief executive officer of Gimatic Srl realized that Asia’s largest economy was key to his firm’s future, and that Chinese PE executives had the expertise to help him grow there, Bellandi jumped at the chance to partner up. Last month, Gimatic turned down bids from Europe and the U.S. in favor of selling a majority stake to AGIC Capital, the PE firm founded by Chinese banker Henry Cai with backing from the nation’s sovereign wealth fund.

“I was really surprised when I realized how strong Chinese private equity firms are,” Bellandi said by e-mail.

China’s PE industry is expanding globally at an unprecedented pace, putting firms like AGIC, Legend Capital and Golden Brick Capital in competition with European and U.S. counterparts like never before. Fueled by China’s growing wealth, investor sophistication and desire to gain exposure to overseas assets, homegrown funds have taken part in at least $16.4 billion of cross-border deals so far this year, exceeding the previous annual record of $11 billion in 2012, according to Asian Venture Capital Journal.

The overseas push marks a coming of age for an industry that just a few years ago was better known for “buy-and-flip” investments in local companies already primed to go public. The approach was so pervasive that Chinese regulators asked KKR & Co.’s Henry Kravis, a private equity pioneer, to lecture domestic players on how to add more value.

This year, Chinese PE firms have participated in the $3.6 billion takeover of U.S. printer company Lexmark International Inc., the $2.75 billion purchase of Dutch chipmaker NXP Semiconductors NV’s standard products unit and the $600 million acquisition of Oslo-based Opera Software ASA’s web browser business. The sum of overseas transactions so far in 2016 is higher than Asian deals by foreign PE firms for the first time, according to AVCJ.

“These Chinese funds are already beginning to alter the calculus for buyout deals worldwide,” said Peter Fuhrman, the chairman and CEO of China First Capital, a Shenzhen-based investment banking and advisory firm. “It’s about buying companies that, once they have Chinese owners, can start making really big money selling products in China.”

For a QuickTake explainer China’s outbound M&A, click here.

The firepower to pull off such deals comes in part from China’s growing army of high-net worth individuals, whose ranks expanded at the fastest pace worldwide last year despite the country’s weakest economic growth in a quarter century, according to Capgemini SA. Rich Chinese investors are increasingly keen to diversify overseas after last year’s devaluation of the yuan spurred concern of more weakness to come.

“There’s a lot of domestic capital available, obviously looking for a home, and that’s fueling the emergence of these funds,” said Michael Thorneman, a partner at Bain & Co., a Boston-based consulting firm.

It’s no coincidence that the increased focus on international deals comes amid a record overseas shopping spree by Chinese companies, who have announced about $149 billion of outbound acquisitions so far this year. In some cases, PE funds are working with Chinese corporates and financial firms to help structure the deals and amplify their buying power.

For the Lexmark purchase, Legend Capital partnered with PAG Asia Capital and Apex Technology Co., a Chinese maker of ink cartridge chips. On the $9.3 billion takeover of U.S.-listed Qihoo 360 Technology Co., Golden Brick Capital teamed up with Chinese investors including Ping An Insurance (Group) Co.

Domestic Players

“PE funds like us have very experienced teams, who can do the whole thing from deal sourcing to negotiation to due diligence to deal structure,” said Parker Wang, the CEO of Beijing-based Golden Brick, which has invested about $2 billion since it opened in 2014 and also led the purchase of Opera Software’s browser unit.

It hasn’t always been smooth sailing. The Opera Software deal, for example, was originally supposed to be a takeover of the entire company, but suitors including Golden Brick failed to secure government approval.

Chinese funds are also becoming more active in their home market. They’ve been helped by a regulatory bottleneck for initial public offerings — which encouraged companies to turn to PE firms for financing — and the rise of China’s Internet industry, a business that the government shields from foreign ownership.

Local funds participated in domestic investments worth $48 billion last year, exceeding Chinese deals by foreign PE firms by a record margin, according to AVCJ. The number of active Chinese funds, at 672 during 2013-2015, was the highest in at least five years, according to data compiled by Bain & Co.

For more on one of the latest China PE investments, click here.

Among the most high-profile firms doing domestic deals is Yunfeng Capital, founded by Alibaba Group Holding Ltd. Chairman Jack Ma. The firm has purchased stakes in Citic Securities Co. and smartphone maker Xiaomi, while also participating in offers for U.S.-listed Chinese companies such as iKang Healthcare Group Inc. and WuXi PharmaTech.

Domestic funds typically have a home-field advantage over foreign firms in identifying promising investment targets, according to William Sun, general manager of Beijing Jianguang Asset Management Co., a PE firm that focuses on the technology industry.

“We’re all optimistic about China opportunities, but we probably have a better grasp of them than foreign funds,” Sun said.

To be sure, overseas players aren’t walking away from China. Some have partnered with domestic PE firms on consortium deals, as California-based Sequoia Capital did with Yunfeng on the WuXi PharmaTech takeover.

Growing Competition

Others have identified niches. KKR has spent about $1 billion on five food-related investments in China since 2008, betting that its global track record in the industry will help it thrive in a country that’s faced several food-safety scandals in recent years.

More broadly, foreign firms may be concerned about rising valuations in China, according to Bain & Co.’s Thorneman. The average PE-backed Chinese acquisition target in 2015 had an enterprise value of about 18 times earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, up from about 11 in 2013, according to data compiled by Bain.

“There’s just more competition out there,” Thorneman said. “That translates typically into higher valuations, more competitive deals, and more players pushing prices up.”

Most signs point toward a bigger role for Chinese PE firms both at home and abroad. They controlled the largest portion of an estimated $128 billion cash pile in Asia-focused PE funds at the end of 2015, data compiled by Bain show.

Given that China is still growing faster than most major countries, any PE firm with the ability to help companies thrive there will have a leg up on international competitors, said Cai, the former Deutsche Bank AG investment banker who started AGIC last year and calls it an “Asian-European” PE firm. The fund, which counted Chinese insurance companies among its early investors, has offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong and Munich.

“Few companies nowadays would care about the money or how much you pay them,” Cai said. “They care if the investor can help them break into the Greater China market.”

 

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-07-20/chinese-funds-that-kravis-urged-to-grow-up-are-now-kkr-rivals

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Can China Succeed Where the Japanese Failed Investing in US Real Estate?

July 13th, 2016 1 comment

China map

Chinese money is cascading like a waterfall into the US real estate market. Chinese institutional money, individual money, state-owned companies and private sector ones, Chinese billionaires to ordinary middle-class wage-earners, everyone wants in on the action. This year, the amount of Chinese money invested in US real estate assets is almost certain to break new records, surpassing last year’s total of over $40 billion, and continue to provide upward momentum to prices in the markets where Chinese most like to buy, the golden trio of major cities New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, plus residential housing on both coasts.

To many, it summons up memories of an earlier period 25 years ago when it was Japanese money that flooded in, lifting prices spectacularly. For the Japanese, as we know, it all ended rather catastrophically, with huge losses from midtown Manhattan to the Monterrey Peninsula.

There is no other more important new force in US real estate than Chinese investors. Will they make the same mistakes, suffer the same losses and then retreat as the Japanese did? Certainly a lot of US real estate pros think so. There is some evidence to suggest things are moving in a similar direction.

But, there are also this year more signs Chinese are starting to adapt far more quickly to the dynamics of the US market and adjusting their strategies. They also are trying now to dissect why things went so wrong for the Japanese, to learn the lessons rather than repeat them.

This week, one of China’s leading business magazines, Caijing Magazine, published a detailed article on Chinese real estate investing in the US. I wrote it together with China First Capital’s COO, Dr. Yansong Wang. It looks at how Chinese are now assessing US real estate investing.  What kinds of investment approaches are they considering or discarding?

Here is an English version I adapted from the Chinese. It is also published this week in a widely-read US commercial real estate news website, Bisnow. The original Chinese version, as published in Caijing, can be read by clicking here.

 

——————–

headSome of the biggest investors in America’s biggest industry are certain history is repeating itself. The Americans believe that Chinese real estate investors will invest as recklessly and lose as much money as quickly in the US as Japanese real estate investors did 25 years ago. The Japanese lost – and Americans made — over ten billion dollars first selling US buildings to the Japanese at inflated prices, then buying them back at large discounts after the Japanese investors failed to earn the profits they expected.

Chinese investors are now pouring into the US to buy real estate just as the Japanese did between 1988-1993. To American eyes, it all looks very familiar. Like the Japanese, the Chinese almost overnight became one of the largest foreign buyers of US real estate. Also like the Japanese, the Chinese are mainly still targeting the same small group of assets — big, well-known office buildings and plots of land in just three cities: New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Pushed up by all the Chinese money, the price of Manhattan office buildings is now at a record high, above $1,400 square foot, or the equivalent of Rmb 100,000 per square meter.

The term “China price” has taken on a new meaning in the US. It used to mean that goods could be manufactured in China at least 33% cheaper. Now it means that US real estate can be sold to Chinese buyers for at least 33% more. Convincing US sellers to agree a fair price, rather than a Chinese price, takes up more time than anything else we do when representing Chinese institutional buyers in US real estate transactions.

While there are similarities between Chinese real estate investors today and Japanese investors 25 years ago, we also see some large differences. American investors should not start counting their money before its made. Based on our experience, we see Chinese investors are becoming more disciplined, more aware of the risks, more professional in evaluating US real estate.  There is still room to improve. The key to avoiding potential disaster: Chinese investors must learn the lessons of why the Japanese failed, and how to do things differently.

chart1

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Twenty-five years ago, many economists in the US believed the booming Japanese investment in US real estate was proof that Japan’s economy would soon overtake America’s as the world’s largest. Instead, we now know that Japanese buying of US property was one of the final triggers of Japanese economic collapse. The stock market, property prices both fell by over 70%. GDP shrunk, wages fell. Japanese banks, then the world’s largest, basically were brought close to bankruptcy by $700 billion in losses. To try to keep the economy from sinking even further, the Japanese government borrowed and spent at a level no other government ever has. Japan is now the most indebted country in the developed world, with total debt approaching 2.5X its gdp. There are some parallels with China’s macroeconomic condition today — banks filled with bad loans, GDP growth falling, domestic property prices at astronomical levels.

Just how much money are Chinese investors spending to buy US property? Precise data can be difficult to obtain. Many Chinese investors are buying US assets without using official channels in China to exchange Renminbi for dollars. But, the Asia Society in the US just completed the first comprehensive study of total Chinese real estate investment in the US. They estimate between 2010-2015 Chinese investors spent at least $135 billion on US property. Other experts calculate total Chinese purchases of US commercial real estate last year rose fourfold. Chinese last year became the largest buyers of office buildings in Manhattan, the world’s largest commercial real estate market.

This year is likely to see the largest amount ever in Chinese investment in the US. While most Chinese purchases aren’t disclosed, large Chinese state-owned investors, including China Life and China Investment Corporation have announced they made large purchases this year in Manhattan. While the Chinese government has recently tried to restrict flow of money leaving China, a lot of Chinese money is still reaching the US. One reason: many Chinese investors, both institutional and individual, expect the Renminbi to decline further against the dollar. Buying US property is way to profit from the Renminbi’s fall.  Other large foreign buyers of US real estate — European insurance companies, Middle East sovereign wealth funds — cannot keep up with the pace of Chinese spending.

With all this Chinese money targeting the US, many US real estate companies are in fever mode, trying to attract Chinese buyers. The large real estate brokers are hiring Chinese and preparing Chinese-language deal sheets. Some larger deals are now first being shown to Chinese investors. The reason: like the Japanese 25 years ago, Chinese investors have gained a reputation for being willing to pay prices at least 25% higher than other foreign investors and 40% above domestic US investors.

Twenty-five years ago, anyone with a building to sell at a full price flew to Japan in search of a buyer. Today, something similar is occurring. Major US real estate groups are now frequent visitors to China. Their first stop is usually the downtown Beijing headquarters of Anbang Insurance.

Eighteen months ago, just about no one in US knew Anbang’s name. Now they are among US commercial real estate owner’s ideal potential customer. The reason: last year, Anbang Insurance paid $2bn for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. The seller was Blackstone, the world’s largest and most successful real estate investor. No one is better at timing when to buy and sell. A frequently-followed investment rule in the US Chinese investors would be wise to keep in mind:  don’t be the buyer when Blackstone is the seller.

Based on the price Anbang paid and Waldorf’s current profits, Anbang’s cap rate is probably under 2.5%. US investors generally require a cap rate of at least double that. Anbang hopes eventually to make money by converting some of the Waldorf Astoria to residential. It agreed to pay $149mn to the hotel’s union workers to get their approval to the conversion plan.

Earlier this year, Blackstone sold a group of sixteen other US hotels to Anbang for $6.5bn. Blackstone had bought the hotels three months earlier for $6bn. “Ka-Ching”.

Anbang’s chairman Wu Xiaogang now calls Blackstone chairman Steve Schwarzman his “good friend”.

 

chart4

 

Another Chinese insurance company, Sunshine, paid an even higher price per room for its US hotel assets than Anbang. Sunshine paid Barry Sternlicht’s Starwood Capital Group $2 million per room for the Baccarat Hotel. It is still most ever paid for a hotel. In order to make a return above 4% a year, the hotel will need to charge the highest price per room, on average, of just about any hotel in the US.

Another famous New York hotel, the Plaza, is also now for sale. The Plaza’s Indian owners, who bought the hotel four years ago, are now facing bankruptcy. They are aggressively seeking a Chinese buyer. We’ve seen the confidential financials. Our view: only a madman should consider buying at the $700mn price the Indians are asking for.

The common view in the US now — the Chinese are, like the Japanese before, buying at the top of the cycle. Prices have reached a point where some deals no longer make fundamental economic sense. At current prices, many buildings being marketed to Chinese have negative leverage. It was similar in the late 1980s. Japanese paid so much to buy there was never any real possibility to make money except if prices continue to rise strongly. Few US investors expect them to. That’s why so many are convinced it’s a good time to sell to Chinese buyers.

No deal better symbolized the mistakes Japanese real estate investors made than the purchase in 1989 of New York’s Rockefeller Center, a group of 12 commercial buildings in the center of Manhattan. Since the time it was built by John Rockefeller in 1930, it’s been among the most famous high-end real estate projects in the world. In 1989, Mitsubishi Estate, the real estate arms of Mitsubishi Group, bought the majority of Rockefeller Center from the Rockefeller family for $1.4 billion. At the time, the Rockefeller family needed cash and they went looking for it in Japan. Mitsubishi made a preemptive bid. They bought quickly, then invested another $500mn to upgrade the building. The Japanese analysis at the time: prime Manhattan real estate on Fifth Avenue was a scarce asset that would only ever increase in value.

Mitsubishi had no real experience managing large commercial real estate projects in Manhattan. They forecasted large increases in rent income that never occurred. The idea to bring in a lot of Japanese tenants also failed. Rockefeller Center began losing money, a little at first. By 1995, with over $600 million in overdue payments to its lenders, Rockefeller Center filed for bankruptcy. Mitsubishi lost almost all its investment, and also ended up paying a big tax penalty to the US government.

A group of smart US investors took over. Today Rockefeller Center, if it were for sale, would be worth at least $8 billion.

It was a similar story with most Japanese real estate investments in the US. They paid too much, borrowed too much, made unrealistically optimistic financial projections, acted as passive landlords and focused on too narrow a group of targets in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

According to Asia Society figures, over 70% of Chinese commercial real estate purchases have been in those same three cities. If you add in Silicon Valley and Orange County, the areas next to Los Angeles and San Francisco, then over 85% of Chinese investment in US real estate is going into these areas of the US. Prices in all these locations are now at highest level of all time. They are also the places where it’s hardest to get permission to build something new or change the use of the building you own.

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It’s easy enough to understand why almost all Chinese money is invested in these three places. They have the largest number of Chinese immigrants, the most flights to China, the deepest business ties to PRC companies. They are also great places for Chinese to visit or live.

But, all this doesn’t prove these are best places to invest profitably, especially for less-experienced Chinese investors. In fact, the Japanese relied on a similar local logic to justify their failed investment strategy. These are also the places with the largest number of Japanese-Americans. A quick look through financial history confirms that no two places in the world have made more money from foolish foreign investors than New York and California.

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Many of the largest US real estate groups are selling properties in New York and California to reinvest in other parts of the country where the financial returns and overall economy are better. Most of the gdp and job growth in the US comes from states in the South, especially Texas, Arizona and Florida.

Chinese investors should consider following the US smart money and shift some of their focus to these faster-growing markets. Another good strategy — partner with an experienced US real estate investor. The Japanese never did this and paid a very high price trying to learn how to buy, rent and manage profitably real estate in the US. In their most recent deals in Manhattan, both Fosun and China Life have chosen well-known US partners.

Another important difference: Japanese real estate investment in the US was almost entirely done by that country’s banks, insurance companies and developers.  With Chinese, the biggest amount of money is from individuals buying residential property. According to the Asia Society report, last year, Chinese spent $28.6bn buying homes in the US. That’s more than double the amount Chinese institutional investors spent buying commercial property. Residential prices, in most parts of the US, have still not returned to their levels before the financial crash of 2008.

Another big pool of Chinese money, almost $10bn last year, went into buying US real estate through the US government-administered EB-5 program. In the last two years, 90% of the EB-5 green cards went to Chinese citizens.

The original intention of the EB-5 program was to increase investment and jobs in small companies in America’s poorest urban and rural districts. Instead, some major US real estate developers, working with their lawyers, created loopholes that let them use the EB-5 program as a cheap way to raise capital to finance big money-making projects in rich major cities, mainly New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  Congress is now deciding if it should reform or kill the EB-5 program.

Chinese are by far the largest source of EB5- cash. Even so, Chinese should probably be happy to see the EB-5 program either changed or eliminated. There’s also been a lot of criticism about the unethical way some EB5 agents operate within China. They are paid big fees by US developers to find Chinese investors and persuade them to become EB-5 investors. Many of these agents never properly inform Chinese investors that once they get a Green Card, they have to pay full US taxes, even if they continue to live in China. The concept of worldwide taxation is an alien one for most Chinese.

Taxes play a huge role in deciding who will and will not make money investing in US real estate. All foreign investors, including Chinese, start at a disadvantage. They aren’t treated equally. They need to pay complicated withholding tax called FIRPTA whenever they sell property, either commercial or residential. To make sure the tax is paid, the US rules require the buyer to pay only 85% of the agreed price to a foreign seller, and pay the rest directly to the IRS.  The foreign seller only gets this 15% if they can convince the IRS they’ve paid all taxes owed.

Many larger real estate investors in the US use a REIT structure to buy and manage property. It can reduce taxes substantially. Up to now, few Chinese investors have set up their own REITs in the US. They should.

Another key difference between Japanese and Chinese investors: it is very unlikely that Chinese will ever, as the Japanese did between 1995-2000, sell off most of what they own in the US. The Chinese investors we work with have a long-term view of real estate investing in the US. They say they are prepared stay calm and steadfast, even if prices either flatten out or start to fall.

This long-term view actually gives Chinese investors a competitive advantage in the US. If the US real estate industry has a weakness, it is that too few owners like to buy and hold an asset for 10 years or longer.  Many, like Blackstone and GGP, are listed companies and so need to keep up a quick pace of buying and selling to keep investors happy. As a result, there are some long-term opportunities available to smart Chinese investors that could provide steady returns even if there is no big increase in overall real estate prices.

Two examples: The US, like China, is becoming a country with a large percentage of people 65 years and older. As the country ages, American biotech and pharmaceutical companies, the world’s largest, are spending more each year to develop drugs to treat chronic diseases old people suffer from, like dementia and Parkinson’s. There’s a growing shortage of new, state-of-the-art biotech research facilities. The buildings need special construction and ventilation that require significantly higher upfront cost than building an ordinary office building. They also need to be located in nice areas, with large comfortable offices for 800 – 1,500 management and researchers. The total cost to build a biotech center is usually between $200mn-$400mn. But, rents are higher, leases are longer and there are usually tax subsidies available.

 

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The other good way to make long-term money investing in US real estate is to take advantage of the fact American companies, unlike Chinese ones, do not like owning much real estate. It tends to hurt their stock market valuation. So, bigger US companies often build long-term partnerships with reliable real estate developers to act as landlord.   Starbucks is still growing quickly and is always interested to find more real estate partners to build and own dozens of outlets for them. Starbucks provides the design and often chooses the locations. It is happy to sign a 15-20-year lease that gives landlords a rate of return or 7%-8.% a year,  higher if the developer borrows money to buy and build the new Starbucks shops. The only risk if at some point in the next 10-20 years the 2%-3% of the US population that buy a coffee at Starbucks every day stop coming.

The Japanese never developed a similar long-term strategy to make money investing in US real estate. Instead, they just spent and borrowed money to buy famous buildings they thought would only go up in value. They not only lost money, they lost face. After staying away for 20 years, Japanese investors, mainly insurance companies, have just begun investing again in New York City.

Japanese investors arrived 30 years ago confident they would be as successful buying real estate in the US as they were selling cars and tvs there. They learned a bitter lesson and left with their confidence shattered. Chinese can, should and must do better

 

(Charts courtesy Asia Society and National Association of Realtors)

 

As published by Bisnow

财经杂志 《美国房地产投资负面清单》

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Five China financial news articles in the South China Morning Post

June 13th, 2016 No comments

SCMP logo good

 

Please click on headline to read article. Each includes quoted comments based on interviews with CFC.

 

Xinan

 

 

CSRC

 

 

Mergers

 

PE

 

Shunfenf

 

Investing in emerging markets — Financier Worldwide Magazine

May 25th, 2016 No comments

 

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Financier

 by Richard Summerfield

During the strains and stresses of the financial crisis, the world’s undeveloped nations proved a safe haven for investors. Flush with resources and opportunities, emerging markets such as Brazil, Russia, India, China and others were the ideal destination for beleaguered investors.

For years, the emerging markets experienced astronomical growth and development. Infrastructure projects were announced and completed, financial hubs developed and a consuming middle class emerged. For a while, the emerging markets were posited as the next influential force in global business and economics.

Yet in 2016, the rapid ascent enjoyed by many of the emerging markets is now a thing of the past. Brazil is in the midst of its worst recession in living memory and gripped by a political corruption scandal. Russia is beset by financial and geopolitical difficulties. China is wrestling with a substantial economic shift as its ruling class re-tools the national economy away from manufacturing and production toward a service based economy. Though China’s economy is still growing at a pace that many western leaders would happily accept, it is a shadow of what it was just a few years ago.

Though the stratospheric growth experienced in the emerging markets was never going to be infinite, the scale and speed of the decline has been eye opening. And investors, in recent years, have responded by shunning emerging markets and diverting their capital elsewhere.

This reversal in fortunes experienced is reflected in declining inbound M&A. KPMG International’s Cross-border Deals Tracker recorded a 3 percent decline in developed to emerging market deals last year, including a 50 percent drop in developed to emerging market activity in China. Much of the decline in investment into China from developed markets relates to the difficulties foreign firms encounter when entering the Chinese economy. Although it is a global powerhouse, the growth of the country’s economy does not really translate into viable investment opportunities for overseas investors, according to Peter Fuhrman, chief executive officer of China First Capital. China’s unwillingness to allow foreign investors into its financial markets and currency act as considerable barriers to international investment. “As long as this situation persists, China will likely continue to be rather unfriendly terrain for global capital,” says Mr Fuhrman. “The result is that the non-Chinese world’s investment institutions remain under-allocated to China. Its economy and capital markets are the second-largest in the world. But that size doesn’t translate into genuine global financial clout.”

BRICS and beyond

Given the scale of the opportunities available to investors, it is imperative to think beyond the traditional BRIC nations – Brazil, Russia, India and China – when considering the developing world. Though it is true that the BRICs have dominated the discussion around emerging markets since the acronym was first used in 2001, they have suffered more than most over the last few years and other developing nations have risen to prominence and attracted considerable investment.

Countries like Mexico – which has enacted considerable internal reforms to make it more attractive to investors – have risen out of the ashes of the BRICs. For every Brazil and Russia there is a Mexico and Philippines. While some of the BRICs have stumbled in recent years, a number of non-BRIC nations have driven emerging market growth. ASEAN and GCC countries have made great strides, as have a number of Sub-Saharan African states. Indonesia, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Mexico and Pakistan have also seen considerable activity. Mexico has emerged as a burgeoning Latin American powerhouse. According to a new study by the IE Business School, Mexico is the top investment destination in Latin America, and this optimistic outlook is supported by a recent announcement by Ford Motor Company which will be expanding into Mexico, creating 2800 new jobs by 2020. The country has also attracted considerable attention – and investment – from Asian investors of late.

Chile, too, has seen a rise in foreign investment. Its economic performance has been far from stellar in recent years – the country’s GDP has failed to recover from the steep slowdown seen in 2014-2015 – yet it has remained attractive to foreign investors. For Francisco Ugarte, a partner and co-head of corporate M&A at Carey, there are a number of reasons for the uptick in dealmaking activity in the country. “Among the most relevant reasons is the large currency depreciation that emerging markets have experienced, posing their assets at cheaper prices in dollar terms,” he says. “In Chile, for instance, $1 was 549 pesos about two years ago, whereas today $1 equals 661 pesos. Also, the current lacklustre market conditions make, in-house investing projects look less attractive and as a result industry consolidation cycles are triggered in search of greater operational efficiencies. We have seen this in Chile. A few examples are the US$600m acquisition of Cruz Verde by Mexican Femsa and the US$1bn acquisition of 50 percent of Zaldivar by Antofagasta Minerals.”

Turning the tide

Despite the headwinds prevalent across developing nations, it would seem that investors are slowly returning to emerging markets. In March and April alone, around $10bn of capital entered the emerging markets – a reversal in fortunes when compared with 2013-2015 which, according to research from Bank of America Merrill Lynch, saw $103bn leave emerging market debt.

Much of this resurgence has been predicated on a number of factors, including low valuations, currency movements, diversification and commodity prices which have risen gradually since February following persistent declines over the last two years. Furthermore, investors have been drawn back to emerging markets by expectations that the Federal Reserve will raise US rates in 2016 fewer times than previously thought.

Argentina, too, has contributed to the emerging market resurgence. In April, it issued debt to the international capital markets for the first time since its default in 2001, selling $15bn in the biggest single issuance of debt from an emerging market country, according to Dealogic.

One key stock index for emerging nations, the MSCI, is up 6.5 percent so far in 2016. That is markedly better than European markets, and ahead of the recent turnaround in US markets. “If valuations continue to be attractive relative to overall market conditions, deals will continue to be made,” says Wael Jabsheh, a partner at Akin Gump. “For the time being, as long as global markets remain stable and the cost of capital remains low, investment in emerging markets should not significantly subside.”

According to the Institute for International Finance, foreigners ploughed some $36.8bn into emerging stocks and bonds in March 2016 – the highest inflow of capital in nearly two years and well above monthly averages for the past four years. Investors were especially drawn to by Brazil’s equities, due to attractive valuations and hopes for political change in the wake of the ongoing corruption scandal and potential impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. Investors also sought out emerging markets as commodity prices slowly began to rebound and confidence grew that the Fed was on a slower path to raise interest rates.

Although there have been fears around the performance of emerging markets of late, there are many reasons why companies should not abandon the developing world yet. By taking a nuanced, measured approach, investors can still benefit. They must adopt a more studied approach, taking into account a number of factors including location, sector and risk-hedging strategies.

Patience will also be key for companies pursuing deals or investments in emerging markets. The rapid decline of prices may serve as a beacon for firms to dive in. Currently, emerging market stocks are trading at lower prices than developed stocks, but may not have bottomed out. Furthermore, prices may not be low enough to offset the high risk of investing in some markets. Nevertheless, the developing nations, with their burgeoning populations and nascent middle classes, are the future of global economic growth.

Local focus

For companies looking to invest in emerging markets, there are a number of precautions they must take. Chief among these is tapping into local knowledge and experience. Without embracing local experts, investors risk misunderstanding local business culture, which may be very different to their own. Equally, by utilising local expertise, investors can speed up processes and improve communications. “Local knowledge for investing in emerging markets is fundamental,” says Mr Ugarte. “Developed economies tend to be alike but each developing economy has its own rules. Several failures have happened when companies from developed markets operate in the developing world assuming certain rules as theirs. Successful deals in developing markets require knowledgeable local advisers, local insiders and usually a mix of local-foreign management capacity. Collaboration is likely to play a vital part in the successes – or failures – of many organisations’ efforts in the emerging markets.” As such, engaging with local talent and drawing on their knowledge and expertise is a step which investors should not overlook. Acknowledging that the cultural gap varies tremendously between countries does also help. “Chile, which has a free market economy and a good political stability index, is impregnated with western business culture, which in turn makes the country much more predictable for investors that relate to similar values. This partially explains the economic success we have seen in past years.”

Local experience can provide investors with an insight into issues which they might not otherwise have taken into consideration. “When investing in new markets, investors can sometimes fail to appreciate some of the intangible factors involved in their deals,” says Mr Jabsheh. “The political and cultural dimensions of the market and the business in which you are investing are just as important to understand as the legal and regulatory dimensions. While clearly there is no substitute for conventional due diligence, investors often overlook these less tangible factors because they are not necessarily top of mind when those investors do deals closer to home,” he adds.

Future prosperity

The end of the commodity boom has dealt a significant blow to the economic prosperity of the developing markets. But all is not lost. Many developing markets will continue to prosper, although that will be relative. “China provides proof that investment returns do not correlate neatly with GDP growth,” says Mr Fuhrman. “While the Chinese economy will add $600bn in new output during 2016 – more than the entire GDP of Taiwan – it remains a place where global investors’ hearts are routinely broken. It’s proven so hard consistently to make money there.”

Yet China is stabilising. Although only 2.8 percent growth was recorded in the Chinese stock market, all is not lost. Since February, the economy has been relatively stable, and with the Chinese economy in the midst of a huge transitional period, moving away from domestic stimulus and infrastructure development toward a more ‘Western’ model of relying on domestic consumers and urbanisation. The fact that China’s financial markets and currency are still out of bounds for non-Chinese investors acts as a roadblock, according to Mr Fuhrman; nevertheless, it makes sense for investors to keep China on their radar.

Emerging market investment will continue to be a risky business. Political and economic risks are a fact of life when operating in certain emerging markets, and investors must be mindful of the risks inherent in pursuing opportunities. But for those investors with the requisite appetite, there may yet be rich rewards.

 

http://www.financierworldwide.com/investing-in-emerging-markets#.V0TwZ-Qc1RI

 

 

China to fine-tune back-door listing policies for US-listed companies — South China Morning Post

May 11th, 2016 No comments

 

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China reverse mergers

Mainland China’s securities regulator will fine-tune policies related to back-door listing (reverse merger)attempts by US-listed Chinese companies, industry insiders say, but it is unlikely to ban them or impose other rigid restrictions.

“It is clear that the regulator does not like the recent speculation on the A-share markets triggered by the relisting trend and will do something to curb such conduct, but it seems impossible they would shut good-quality companies out of the domestic market,” Wang Yansong, a senior investment banker based in Shenzhen, said.

The China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) was considering capping valuation multiples for companies seeking relisting on the A-share market after delisting from the US market, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday. Another option being discussed was introducing a quota to limit the number of reverse mergers each year from companies formerly listed on a foreign bourse.

To curb speculation, it is most important to show the authorities have clear and strict standards for approving these deals
Wang Yansong.

However, Wang said the CSRC was more likely to strengthen verification of back-door listing deals on a case-by-case basis.

“To curb speculation, it is most important to show the authorities have clear and strict standards for approving these deals, and won’t allow poor-quality companies to seek premiums through this process,” she said.

US-listed mainland companies have been flocking to relist on the A-share market since early last year, when the domestic market started a bull run, in order to shed depressed valuations in American markets.

The valuations of relisted companies have boomed, and that has triggered a surge in speculation on possible shell companies – poorly performing firms listed on the Shanghai or Shenzhen bourses. In a process called a reverse takeover or back-door listing, a shell can buy a bigger, privately held company through a share exchange that gives the private company’s shareholders control of the merged entity.

The biggest such deal was done by digital advertising company Focus Media. Its valuation jumped more than eightfold to US$7.2 billion after it delisted from America’s Nasdaq in 2013 and relisted in Shenzhen in December last year, with private equity funds involved in the deal reaping lucrative returns.

Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank and advisory firm, said the trend of delisting and relisting was “one of the biggest wealth transfers ever from China to the US”.

“The money spent by Chinese investors to privatise Chinese companies in New York ended up lining the pockets of rich institutional investors and arbitrageurs in the US,” he said.

However, a tightening or freeze on approval of such deals would threaten not only US-listed Chinese companies in the process of buyouts and shell companies, but also the buyout capital sunk into delistings and relistings.

“The more than US$80 billion of capital spent in the ‘delist-relist’ deals is perhaps the biggest unhedged bet made in recent private equity history … if, as seems true, the route to exit via back-door listing may be bolted shut, this investment strategy could turn into one of the bigger losers of recent times,” he said.

On Friday, CSRC spokesman Zhang Xiaojun sidestepped a question about a rumoured ban on reverse takeover deals by US-listed Chinese companies in the A-share market, saying it had noticed the great price difference in the domestic and the US markets, and the speculation on shell companies, and was studying their influences.

http://www.scmp.com/business/markets/article/1943386/china-fine-tune-back-door-listing-policies-us-listed-companies

For article on a related topic published in “The Deal”, please click here

 

Leapfrogging the IPO gridlock: Chinese companies get a taste for reverse takeovers — Reuters

May 6th, 2016 No comments

Reuters

Leapfrogging the IPO gridlock: Chinese companies get a taste for reverse takeovers

In China, Yum and McDonald’s likely need more than an ownership change — Nikkei Asian Review

April 25th, 2016 No comments

Nikkei 1

NAR

HONG KONG — China’s fast-food sector has been dominated by U.S. chains like Yum’s KFC and Pizza Hut as well as McDonald’s. But now a question hangs over these household brands: Can new owners reverse their declining fortunes?

China Investment Corporation, a sovereign wealth fund, is reportedly leading a consortium that also includes Baring Private Equity Asia and KKR & Co. to acquire as much as 100% of Yum’s China division, valued at up to $8 billion. According to a Bloomberg report, Singaporean sovereign wealth fund Temasek Holdings, teaming with Primavera Capital, is also vying for a stake in Yum China, whose spinoff plans were announced on Oct. 20 — five days after Keith Meister, an activist hedge fund manager and protege of corporate raider Carl Icahn, joined the board.

Meanwhile, McDonald’s is likely to start auctioning its North Asian businesses in three to four weeks. Among its would-be suitors are state-owned China Resources, Bain Capital of the U.S. and South Korea’s MBK Partners, among other buyout firms. The winner or winners would oversee more than 2,800 franchises — plus another 1,500 to be added during the next five years — in China, Hong Kong and South Korea.

The company on Friday reported that sales in China surged 7.2% in the first quarter ended in March.

Yum’s and McDonald’s goal to become pure-play franchisers comes as competition in China’s food services market is heating up and as middle-class consumers grow increasingly concerned about food safety and nutrition.

Click here to read complete article

 

http://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Trends/In-China-Yum-and-McDonald-s-likely-need-more-than-an-ownership-change?page=1

How Renminbi funds took over Chinese private equity (Part 2) — SuperReturn Commentary

April 4th, 2016 1 comment

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How Renminbi funds took over Chinese private equity

(Part 2)

 
Large and small ships traverse the Huangpu River 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year.

Part two of a series. Read part one.

Gresham’s Law, as many of us were taught a while back, stipulates that bad money drives out good. There’s something analogous at work in China’s private equity and venture capital industry. Only here it’s not a debased currency that’s dominating transactions. Instead, it’s Renminbi private equity (PE) firms. Flush with cash and often insensitive to valuation and without any clear imperative to make money for their investors, they are changing the PE industry in China beyond recognition and making life miserable for many dollar-based PE and venture capital (VC) firms.

Outbid, outspent and outhustled

From a tiny speck on the PE horizon five years ago, Reminbi (RMB) funds have quickly grown into a hulking presence in China. In many ways, they now run the show, eclipsing global dollar funds in every meaningful category – number of active funds, deals closed and capital raised. RMB funds have proliferated irrespective of the fact there have so far been few successful exits with cash distributions.

The RMB fund industry works by a logic all its own. Valuations are often double, triple or even higher than those offered by dollar funds. Term sheets come in faster, with fewer of the investor preferences dollar funds insist on. Due diligence can often seem perfunctory.  Post-deal monitoring? Often lax, by global standards. From the perspective of many Chinese company owners, dollar PE firms look stingy, slow and troublesome.

The RMB fund industry’s greatest success so far was not the IPO of a portfolio company, but of one of the larger RMB general partners, Jiuding Capital. It listed its shares in 2015 on a largely-unregulated over-the-counter market called The New Third Board. For a time earlier this year, Jiuding had a market cap on par with Blackstone, although its assets under management, profits, and successful deal record are a fraction of the American firm’s.

The main investment thesis of RMB funds has shifted in recent years. Originally, it was to invest in traditional manufacturing companies just ahead of their China IPO. The emphasis has now shifted towards investing in earlier-stage Chinese technology companies. This is in line with China’s central government policy to foster more domestic innovation as a way to sustain long-term GDP growth.

The Shanghai government, which through different agencies and localities has become a major sponsor of new funds, has recently announced a policy to rebate a percentage of failed investments made by RMB funds in Shanghai-based tech companies. Moral hazard isn’t, evidently, as high on their list of priorities as taking some of the risk out of risk-capital investing in start-ups.

Dollar funds, in the main, have mainly been observing all this with sullen expressions. Making matters worse, they are often sitting on portfolios of unexited deals dating back five years or more. The US and Hong Kong stock markets have mainly lost their taste for PE-backed Chinese companies. While RMB funds seem to draw from a bottomless well of available capital, for most dollar funds, raising new money for China investing has never been more difficult.

RMB funds seldom explain themselves, seldom appear at industry forums like SuperReturn. One reason: few of the senior people speak English. Another: they have no interest or need to raise money from global limited partners. They have no real pretensions to expand outside China. They are adapted only and perhaps ideally to their native environment. Dollar funds have come to look a bit like dinosaurs after the asteroid strike.

Can dollar-denominated firms strike back?

Can dollar funds find a way to regain their central role in Chinese alternative investing? It won’t be easy. Start with the fact the dollar funds are all generally the slow movers in a big pack chasing the same sort of deals as their RMB brethren. At the moment, that means companies engaged in online shopping, games, healthcare and mobile services.

A wiser and differentiated approach would probably be to look for opportunities elsewhere. There are plenty of possibilities, not only in traditional manufacturing industry, but in control deals and roll-ups. So far, with few exceptions, there’s little sign of differentiation taking place. Read the fund-raising pitch for dollar and RMB funds and, apart from the difference in language, the two are eerily similar. They sport the same statistics on internet, mobile, online shopping penetration: the same plan to pluck future winners from a crop of look-alike money-losing start-ups.

There is one investment thesis the dollar PE funds have pretty much all to themselves. It’s so-called “delist-relist” deals, where US-quoted Chinese companies are acquired by a PE fund together with the company’s own management, delisted from the US market with the plan to one day IPO on China’s domestic stock exchange. There have been a few successes, such as the relisting last year of Focus Media, a deal partly financed by Carlyle. But, there are at least another forty such deals with over $20bn in equity and debt sunk into them waiting for their chance to relist. These plans suffered a rather sizeable setback recently when the Chinese central government abruptly shelved plans to open a new “strategic stock market” that was meant to be specially suited to these returnee companies. The choice is now between prolonged limbo, or buying a Chinese-listed shell to reverse into, a highly expensive endeavor that sucks out a lot of the profit PE firms hoped to make.

Outspent, outbid and outhustled by the RMB funds, dollar PE funds are on the defensive, struggling just to stay relevant in a market they once dominated. Some are trying to go with the flow and raise RMB funds of their own. Most others are simply waiting and hoping for RMB funds to implode.

So much has lately gone so wrong for many dollar PE and VC in China. Complicating things still further, China’s economy has turned sour of late. But, there’s still a game worth playing. Globally, most institutional investors are under-allocated to China.  A new approach and some new strategies at dollar funds are overdue.

Peter Fuhrman moderates our SuperReturn China 2016 Big Debate: ‘How Do You Best Manage Your Exposure To China?’. Discussants include:

  • John Lin, Managing Partner, NDE Capital (GP)
  • Xisheng Zhang, Founding Partner & President, Hua Capital (GP)
  • Bo Liu, Chief Investment Officer, Wanda Investment (LP)
The Big Debate takes place on Tuesday 19 April 2016 at 11:55 – 12:25 at SuperReturn China in Beijing. Can’t make it? Follow the action on Twitter.

Why Taiwan has a Largan and China doesn’t — Nikkei Asian Review

February 4th, 2016 No comments

Nikkei 1

 

iphone6

 

Why Taiwan has a Largan and China doesn’t

PSF

No Asian technology company is currently more successful, dominant and more deeply engrained in the daily lives of a billion-plus people worldwide than Largan Precision. While you may not know the name, odds are you carry Largan technology around with you every day.

Largan makes the tiny plastic camera lenses for the high-megapixel cameras built into the iPhone and most higher-end Android devices. Largan enjoys a near-monopoly and is probably the only company in the world supplying an important high-margin component to both Apple and its Android rivals. That means even if Apple’s growth begins to cool, Largan won’t suffer as acutely as other key Apple component suppliers like Silicon Valley favorites Cirrus Logic and InvenSense. Apple may now be more dependent on Largan than Largan is on Apple.

Not that Largan is eager for the world-at-large to know. Though publicly-traded on the Taiwan Stock Exchange, the company is extremely reticent about sharing much information on its robust financial health and its current hammerlock hold on Apple. Largan habitually issues rather gloomy-sounding forecasts, as it did earlier this month, suggesting its growth rate may be slowing. Though its share price has nearly doubled in the last two years, it still trades at an anemic p/e multiple of under 10 times projected 2016 net income.

Smartphone sales are beginning to plateau Also casting a potential shadow, Apple is said to be keen to find an alternative camera lens supplier. The Cupertino company loathes having single-source suppliers like Largan. But, so far it’s proving all but impossible for Apple to find another supplier to match Largan’s price, volume and quality. Patents, Largan has them in abundance. But, its most valuable innovations, the ones Apple and its other customers pay good money for,  are mainly unpublished: the sophisticated manufacturing know-how needed to produce in massive quantities at low-cost tiny specs of curved plastic at optical quality.

Fortunes rise and fall quickly in the mobile phone industry. If more proof were needed, just look at Xiaomi, which went from the world’s highest valued to perhaps most overvalued startup in less than a year. Largan, meanwhile, quarter after quarter, remains the envy of the entire Apple and Android manufacturing world.

Cameras — and the quality of photos they take — have never been a more important selling point for mobile handset makers. All the key trends — higher resolution lenses with larger apertures, high-quality cameras front and back, optical zoom and image stabilization — play directly to Largan’s proprietary strengths and know-how.  The result, Largan also enjoys about the highest growth rate and market share along with net profit margins among all key mobile component manufacturers.

Despite the slowdown in the growth of mobile phone sales, Largan’s 2015 revenues rose by over 20% to reach $1.7bn, while net income surpassed $700mn. Largan’s +40% net profit margin are double Apple’s.

Few are the public companies anywhere that throw up numbers like Largan’s:

Largan is an example of a company that waited a long time for its moment in the sun. It was started 29 years ago and is still run by its two original founders, Tony Chen and Scott Lin. Both are now dollar billionaires and well past Taiwan’s official retirement age of 65.

I’ve never met the founders, or anyone else from Largan. I’ve learned about the company from the CEOs of some other large Apple and Android suppliers we work with. They uniformly sing Largan’s praises. “Though I try, I can’t find a single weak point except maybe that the founders should probably be retired and working on their golf game” muses one whose Hong Kong-listed company has been trying without success to get into the business selling plastic camera lens to Apple.

If rumors are correct, the next version of the larger iPhone will include dual cameras, front and back, each with much higher megapixel count than the current iPhone6. If so, and Largan as is likely remains the principal supplier, Largan’s revenues and profits from each iPhone sold will increase. Largan already makes similar lenses in bulk for Android brands.

For many years, the company was a small, niche manufacturer, one of dozens in the optics industry clustered around the city of Taichung. Largan’s focus then and now was producing high-quality lenses from plastic rather than glass. Early on plastic lenses seemed more like a novelty, too low in quality to ever seriously compete with the fine glass optical lenses made in Japan for the country’s major camera brands like Nikon, Canon and Minolta.

Largan’s plastic lenses were originally consigned mainly for use inside desktop scanners and projectors. Then the smartphone came along. A decade ago, only half the smartphones sold each year had a built-in camera. Now, it’s nearly 100%. Megapixel count has risen from two to sixteen and sometimes higher. Largan has been at the forefront throughout, but especially over the last five years as specs get higher and customers more demanding. A handset camera needs to take great pictures, but do so without adding much weight, sucking too much battery life or hogging too much space. Glass simply can’t cut it.

Among plastic lens manufacturers, no one else can currently match Largan’s know-how, precision and manufacturing skill. The camera in your mobile phone is a remarkable bit of gear. A typical high-end smartphone camera now has multiple aspherical Largan lenses with different dispersion and refractive properties, stacked about four millimeters high inside a plastic mount. To achieve perfect focus, the lenses need to be perfectly aligned, moveable, have as wide an aperture as possible and optical image stabilization.

Largan makes only lenses. The complete camera module (see photo below of the module from the iPhone) is assembled by other manufacturers, a task that still requires some hand labor and offers tiny margins of 5% or less.

Hon Hai, more commonly known as Foxconn, is one of the companies doing the low-paid module assembly work. Foxconn and Largan are both key Apple suppliers, but sit at opposite ends of the margin spectrum.

Two other things they share in common: both are Taiwanese companies with a large manufacturing presence in China. This underscores an important point about the relative level of technology development in Taiwan and the PRC. Taiwan companies remain light-years ahead in the majority of cases.

Looking just at the Apple ecosystem, while most components as well as finished products are manufactured in China, mainland Chinese companies barely earn a dime from all this. There is no more unbalanced balance-of-trade than the iPhone’s manufacturing and sales in China. Chinese bought around 70 million iPhones last year, with a retail value of over $70bn. But, only a fraction of that stays in China, mainly in the form of sales tax collected by the government from sales in official retail channels and the wages paid to assembly staff at hundreds of factories producing for Apple. The picture isn’t very different with Android phones. What profits there are end up in the hands of high-value non-PRC software and component suppliers, including Largan.

Despite the PRC’s generous subsidies to technology companies and a massive government push to foster indigenous innovation, China’s domestic technology manufacturers remain overwhelmingly stuck producing low-margin commoditized products without any globally significant high-margin IP. True, the PRC got a late start compared to Taiwan. But, there are some other often overlooked systemic factors at work here.

Start with the fact intellectual property remains weakly protected. Mainland Chinese companies have less incentive to do as Largan did and plow years of effort and investment into a new technology with an uncertain path to market.

Seeking risk capital is most often a hopeless quest. The Shanghai and Shenzhen stock exchanges do not allow smaller companies with promising technology and zero profits to go public. China’s domestic venture capital industry most always shuns start-ups working on truly innovative high-tech products, preferring knock-offs of successful US online business models where revenues, if not profits, can be generated more quickly. Longer-term bank lending is all but non-existent.

Another factor that I believe inhibits innovation in China – the country relied on technology transfer, on forcing companies from the developed world to turn over to Chinese joint venture partners some proprietary technology in return for access to the Chinese market. Why innovate at home when foreign companies can be made to hand over trade secrets, albeit outdated ones, for free? This has stunted the growth of a strong foundation of homegrown innovation in China.

China took on low-margin work spurned by earlier generations of Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese manufacturers. But, Chinese companies have so far mainly failed to build something more substantial on top of this by adding their own proprietary improvements that can command higher prices. Margins, always threadbare, are instead vaporizing across the domestic manufacturing sector due to rising wages, benefits, environmental compliance and energy costs as well as taxes.

Then look at Largan. Its margins, despite weak overall mobile phone growth, are on track to actually increase this year above already stellar levels. As good as the camera on your mobile is, there is enormous scope for the hardware to get better, smaller, lighter, faster, flatter. It’s hard to envisage anyone else pushing the process more propulsively and successfully than Largan.

 

Download our Chinese-language article on Largan as published in Caijing Magazine

As published in Nikkei Asian Review

Download PDF version.

 

China’s Xiaomi Under Pressure to Prove Value to Investors — Wall Street Journal

January 11th, 2016 No comments

WSJ

Headline

Xiaomi’s Redmi 2 smartphones on display during a launch in Brazil in June, 2015.
Xiaomi’s Redmi 2 smartphones on display during a launch in Brazil in June, 2015. Photo: Reuters

BEIJING—In January 2015, Xiaomi Corp. founder Lei Jun announced to his staff in an open letter that the Chinese smartphone maker was the world’s most valuable technology startup.

“We will journey into the constellations, to places where others haven’t dreamed of,” he wrote.

Living up to those high expectations has been a challenge. Xiaomi missed its 2015 sales target of 80 million smartphones, according to people familiar with the company, and investors are beginning to question its $46 billion valuation, which was based on yet unrealized plans to generate substantial revenue from Internet services.

China’s economic slowdown, coupled with turbulence in the stock market, is prompting investors to take a second look at China’s high startup valuations. Startups such as Xiaomi, which raised vast sums on China’s mobile Internet boom, are now facing growing pressure to live up to expectations.

“With China’s economy slowing, many startups will need to be more cautious in their expansion strategies,” said Nicole Peng, an analyst for market research firm Canalys.

Xiaomi shot to the top of China’s smartphone market in 2014 with the novel idea of selling hardware by gathering a large user base, a business model usually favored by Internet companies, not those selling a physical product. Sales that year tripled to 61 million smartphones, compared with a year earlier. Mr. Lei cultivated fan clubs and used “flash sales” to sell smartphones with iPhone-rivaling hardware at a fraction of the price. He swallowed thin margins, betting he could later sell services to users.

Investors swooned. In December 2014, Xiaomi raised a $1.1 billion round that valued it at $46 billion, topping even ride-sharing startup Uber Technologies Inc. at the time, although Uber has since regained the lead.

But Xiaomi’s smartphones, which once sold out in minutes in limited batches via online flash sales, are now easily available—a shift that analysts say signals slowing demand.

A slowdown in China’s smartphone market has laid bare Xiaomi’s weaknesses.

Xiaomi has lost market share against established competitors with more financial and technological firepower, such as Huawei Technologies Co., which launched a high-end smartphone line and overtook Xiaomi as China’s top handset maker in the third quarter 2015, according to research firm Canalys.

Huawei, which sold more than 100 million mobile devices last year, is beefing up its marketing in overseas markets in a bid to challenge Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. , the world’s two biggest smartphone makers. Huawei’s engineering strength and brand image built up over decades make it difficult for Xiaomi to compete in China, analysts say.

“The competition in China’s smartphone market has intensified tremendously this year,” said a Xiaomi spokeswoman, who declined to comment on the company’s valuation or say whether it met its 2015 sales target. She said Xiaomi sales were “within expectations” and its flash sales are primarily for new phones when production ramps up.

The lack of its own high-end chip technology also proved to be a competitive disadvantage for Xiaomi in 2015. When early versions of the Qualcomm Inc. ’s Snapdragon 810 processor were reported to overheat, it dampened sales of Xiaomi’s most expensive handset yet, the 2,299 yuan (US$349) Mi Note, analysts said. Xiaomi couldn’t fall back on an in-house developed chip to get around the problem, as Huawei and Samsung did.

Xiaomi and Qualcomm declined to comment on the processor. Analysts say the problems have since been fixed.

Overseas growth has also been slow for Xiaomi, with the percentage of its smartphones sold overseas in the first nine months of 2015 rising to 8%, compared with 7% in the 2014 calendar year, according to Canalys. It faced tough competition overseas, and found consumers unaccustomed to online phone-buying, said Ms. Peng, the analyst from Canalys.

Xiaomi’s thin patent portfolio also became a hurdle as it sought to expand in markets such as India. A lack of patents led to a court ruling that crimped its access to the crucial India market. In December 2014, India’s Delhi High Court ordered Xiaomi to stop selling all smartphones not running on Qualcomm chips due to a patent lawsuit filed by Sweden’s Ericsson. A year later, the injunction remains, which means Xiaomi can’t sell its popular models running chips made by Taiwanese chip maker MediaTek Inc.

Xiaomi said it sold 3 million smartphones in India from July 2014 through August 2015, and 1 million smartphones there in the third quarter. Its average quarter-over-quarter growth is 45%, it said.

The lack of a diversified customer base is another challenge for Xiaomi. It remains “locked in a Chinese demographic ghetto of mainly males 18 to 30,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China-focused boutique investment bank China First Capital. Xiaomi’s focus on low prices has hit its brand image, he said.

Xiaomi’s average smartphone price fell to $122 in the third quarter from $160 a year earlier, despite China’s smartphone sector moving upmarket, according to IDC. The average price of a smartphone in China rose to $240 from $202. Huawei’s rose to $209 from $201. Xiaomi’s best-selling model last year was its cheapest, the $76 Redmi 2A, IDC analyst James Yan said.

Xiaomi’s supporters say the outlook is still bright, as it shifts to building an ecosystem of smart home products. The company has invested in 56 startups so far, ranging from iconic scooter maker Segway to a manufacturer of air purifiers, essential in China’s smog-choked cities.

“Xiaomi’s promise lies in its ecosystem,” said Steven Hu, former partner in Xiaomi investor Qiming Venture Partners.

But others are skeptical.

“Mobile services, e-commerce, branded consumer products—these still are largely just a figment rather than a huge and growing source of profits that could validate last year’s sky-high valuation,” said Mr. Fuhrman.

 

http://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-xiaomi-under-pressure-to-prove-value-to-investors-1452454204

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