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China and Ireland: Building a Powerful High-Tech Partnership. Enterprise Ireland Ambition Asia Conference, Dublin June 2019

June 25th, 2019 No comments

Enterprise Ireland, the Irish government export development agency, held a conference in Dublin earlier this month to promote more intensive collaboration between businesses in Ireland and China, particularly in high-technology. I was invited to give a keynote speech, titled “China and Ireland: Building a Powerful High-Tech Partnership”. You can watch the first six minutes by clicking here.

Many thanks to my friend and amateur cinematographer Elaine Coughlan, an Enterprise Ireland board member as well as managing partner at Altantic Bridge Capital. Elaine has an outstanding track record as a tech entrepreneur and investor, in Silicon Valley, Ireland and China. I was also honored to be on a panel Elaine moderated.

The Ambition Asia Pacific conference brought together about 300 business leaders from Ireland, China and elsewhere across Asia.

Ireland is the only country in the European Union that has a trade surplus with China. The country stands to benefit greatly from Brexit, as international tech companies move European operations out of the UK and to the only EU Eurozone country with English as its native language. Two other big plusses: Ireland is a business-friendly place with about the lowest corporate taxation rates around.

Enterprise Ireland has a great team in China, led by Mary Kinnane, Tom Cusack and Patrick Yau. I met executives from two of Ireland’s success stories in China, Decawave and Taoglas.

Small country. Big impact.

Adviser Banks Forced to Hold Stakes in IPOs on China Startup Board — Nikkei Asian Review

April 5th, 2019 No comments

HONG KONG — Investment banks bringing companies to list on China’s new board for technology startups are facing an unusual requirement: they will have to keep some of the shares for themselves.

The Shanghai Science and Technology Innovation Board marks a major experiment in the reform of China’s capital markets.

Chinese President Xi Jinping announced plans in November for a Nasdaq-style board for young tech startups, and it is expected to be operational later this year. It aims to attract young companies with fewer regulations and reporting requirements and, unlike China’s main markets, there are to be no limits on pricing and first-day trading movements.

Also unlike the country’s existing boards in Shanghai and Shenzhen, companies that list do not have to be profitable. In some cases, the tech board will not even require companies to have generated revenue.

The board signifies the realization of long-discussed plans to move from a system where Chinese regulators carefully review every applicant and maintain tight control over the flow of listings — leading to a backlog of hundreds of companies waiting years for an official nod — to a more market-driven system like that of major foreign exchanges.

The requirement that underwriters take a stake in initial public offerings, first flagged by officials last month, is an indicator of the authorities’ caution; members of the Chinese financial community say the stakeholding requirement is intended to insure underwriters bring only the companies in which they have confidence to market.

“Having lowered profitability requirements, it further makes sense to have sponsors with skin in the game,” said Brock Silvers, managing director of investment company Kaiyuan Capital in Shanghai.

Executives with two Chinese financial companies said the minimum stake will be “a low single-digit” percentage of the IPO. A lock up rule will block the underwriters from selling their shares within two years of the IPO. The rules have yet to be formally issued.

Victor Wang, executive director of financial sector research at China International Capital Corp., the country’s largest investment bank, said it is still unclear how the stakeholding requirement will be shared among different investment banks involved in an IPO. But the logic is, “if you don’t focus on quality and recommend some low-quality companies, you own money will be lost,” he said.

China Merchants Securities, which is sponsoring two companies preparing to list on the new board, declined to comment about the new rule. However, a local broker, who had not heard of it before, said he was not surprised at the requirement.

“China’s financial legal framework is not flawless and officials at the China Securities Regulatory Commission cannot completely trust sponsors’ due diligence work,” he said. “After all, there have been IPO frauds before. It is no surprise if regulators want some level of assurance by having brokers to share risks.”

Some market observers are wary of the consequences, however.

“The intention is a good one but once again investors are not being forced to make their own decisions and analysis,” said Fraser Howie, a veteran broker and co-author of three books on Chinese financial markets. “By forcing the (investment bank) to come in on every deal, it effectively tells investors, ‘Don’t worry. You don’t need to think for yourselves’.”

Howie also sees the rule as problematic for the banks. “The investment bank’s job is to bring a company fairly to market,” he said. “I think this (rule) conflicts with this. To me, they are creating a needless conflict of interest and additional risk for the bank.”

The burden of the requirement will favor larger investment banks, in the view of Yang Yingfei, a partner handling IPOs at Baker McKenzie FenXun Joint Operation Office in Beijing.

“Sponsors that are relatively stronger overall will become more competitive, whereas small and medium-sized securities firms may gradually lose the ability to sponsor tech board enterprises,” she said. “The effect of concentration in the sector will become conspicuous.”

Though the Innovation Board’s approach is unusual, other market regulators have also been wrestling with the question of how to ensure that underwriters take responsibility for companies they bring to market.

Last month, the Securities and Futures Commission of Hong Kong reprimanded and fined UBS, Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley and the securities arm of Standard Chartered Bank over their handling of IPOs.

UBS received the heaviest penalty, a fine of 375 million Hong Kong dollars ($47.78 million) and a one-year suspension from sponsoring listings on the Hong Kong market. The SFC said the bank had failed to confirm the existence of key claimed assets and customers of China Forestry Holdings before bringing it to market in 2009 and found problems with its work on two other IPOs.

China Forestry raised $216 million in its IPO but its shares stopped trading in 2011 after its auditor reported the discovery of accounting irregularities.

Preparations for the Shanghai Innovation Board have moved unusually quickly since it was first mooted in November. The authorities are keen to have “unicorns” — unlisted startups valued at $1 billion or more — list on domestic markets rather than offshore. After several abortive efforts, they are hoping they have created an attractive alternative at last.

As of yet, the country’s most valuable companies, online services companies Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent Holdings, are listed in New York and Hong Kong, respectively.

“There are certainly signals that the tech board’s IPO procedures will be more market-driven, with a less onerous process of CSRC approval and monitoring,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of investment bank China First Capital in Shenzhen. “That should be a positive development.”

Nine companies are set to launch on the new board as soon as June, but none are unicorns; combined, they are expected to raise only about $1.6 billion. Financiers say bigger startups are waiting for the board to work through its initial launch pains before moving forward themselves.

One Hong Kong-based banker who works with mainland Chinese companies said “a lot” of his clients were waiting in the wings.

https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Markets/Adviser-banks-forced-to-hold-stakes-in-IPOs-on-China-startup-board

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Chinese Education Startup Puts Western Teachers on Notice — Wall Street Journal

March 21st, 2019 No comments

A Chinese education company backed by U.S. investors including Kobe Bryant is cracking down on how its Western teachers cover politically fraught topics.

VIPKid, one of China’s most valuable online education startups, has put hundreds of its mostly American teachers on notice for using certain maps in their classes with Chinese students, and has severed two teachers’ contracts for discussing Taiwan and Tiananmen Square in ways at odds with Chinese government preferences, people familiar with the company say. Since last fall, teachers’ contracts state that discussing “politically contentious” topics could be cause for dismissal, according to one reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The moves highlight the balance a Chinese company must strike in fulfilling global aspirations while toeing Beijing’s line. Five-year-old VIPKid is currently in talks to raise as much as $500 million in new funding from U.S. and other investors that could value the company at roughly $6 billion, people familiar with the fundraising said.

 “A company must keep good relations with the government and ideology,” said Peter Fuhrman, chief executive of investment firm China First Capital . “But that can cause friction when you’re also courting foreign investors, expanding business overseas and employing a large American workforce.”

Beijing-based VIPKid says it has more than 60,000 teachers in the U.S. and Canada who teach English to more than 500,000 children ages 4 through 15, who live mostly in China. Teachers work as independent contractors and can earn between $14 and $22 an hour. They must have a bachelor’s degree, at least one year of teaching experience and eligibility to work in the U.S. or Canada.

Curricula are provided, and teachers give English-language instruction, sometimes using geography or historical figures. VIPKid’s approach is consistent with maps and materials in the Chinese education curriculum, which calls Taiwan a part of China. Textbooks don’t mention the military’s suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrators in 1989, and discussion of it is forbidden.

A spokesman said VIPKid has “an elevated level of responsibility to protect the safety and emotional development of the young children on our platform.” The company expects teachers to understand cultural expectations, he said, adding it had to “make a difficult decision” to terminate the contracts of “an exceptionally small number of teachers” who “decided to ignore the needs of their students” and “the preference of their parents.”

Western companies including Gap Inc. and hotel giant Marriott International Inc. have been forced to apologize in the past for online communications, websites or merchandise that angered Beijing or Chinese consumers on issues including Taiwan and Tibet.

Chinese education technology attracted $5.3 billion in investment last year, double the amount a year earlier, according to Dow Jones VentureSource data. VIPKid’s investors include U.S. hedge-fund firm Coatue Management LLC, venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital, Chinese social giant Tencent Holdings Ltd. and a venture fund co-launched by retired NBA star Kobe Bryant.

The company’s actions have rankled some teachers. Typically, these instructors have displayed maps of the world, including China, that they found on their own. Starting last fall, hundreds began receiving emails or calls from VIPKid stating their maps weren’t aligned with Chinese education standards, people familiar with the matter said. Teachers who refuse to adhere to the map standards could have their contracts terminated, after conversations with VIPKid. Map-related dismissals haven’t happened, said a person familiar with the company.

Will Rodgers, a 26-year-old American teacher based in Thailand, said he discussed Tiananmen Square twice during VIPKid lessons about famous Chinese landmarks. First, he told a 12-year-old student “the Chinese government jailed and killed many people just for protesting.” He then showed a 15-year-old student photos and video footage of the protest, and his contract was terminated. Mr. Rodgers said he doesn’t agree with VIPKid’s stance, but doesn’t blame the company for ending his contract.

Another American teacher’s contract was terminated earlier this year after he told students that Taiwan was a separate country, according to people familiar with his case. A third teacher received a call from VIPKid after telling a student that Tibet, an autonomous region in China with a history of separatist activity, is a country, during a lesson on China’s neighbors, according to a person familiar with the matter. He was told on the call he should refer to Tibet as part of China.

People familiar with VIPKid say it monitors classes for missteps over political content. Another person familiar with the matter said the company uses artificial intelligence to determine material students find engaging and to protect them from inappropriate behavior.

Some teachers and VIPKid investors say that education from foreign teachers, even if it is screened, can benefit students because they get exposed to other cultures. Rob Hutter, a founder and managing partner of Learn Capital, an early investor in VIPKid, said the company is trying to take a common-sense approach by teaching uncontroversial content.

“No matter what nation you’re teaching in, there are going to be things that we need to be thoughtful about,” he said. “Even in American classrooms, there are things you cannot discuss.”

“No matter what nation you’re teaching in, there are going to be things that we need to be thoughtful about,” he said. “Even in American classrooms, there are things you cannot discuss.”

https://www.wsj.com/articles/chinese-education-startup-puts-western-teachers-on-notice-11553160602?mod=hp_lista_pos3

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Chinese Private Equity Funding Hit By Sharp Downturn — Financial Times

March 15th, 2019 No comments

Fundraising by renminbi-denominated private equity groups in China plummeted 86 per cent last year, squeezed by a tighter availability of credit and a slower initial public offering market.

The fall — revealed in a new report published on Friday — underlines how the Chinese private equity market has gone into reverse from the boom times of a few of years ago, when scores of new funds were launched and the country’s technology companies attracted sky-high valuations.

Hundreds of small, inexperienced Chinese private equity funds that rushed into investments in technology and new economy companies have begun to suffer from a sharp contraction in fundraising and tougher environment for exiting investments.

Private equity houses raised about $13bn in renminbi-denominated funds in 2018, down about 86 per cent from the $93bn raised the year before, according to data compiled by the consultants Bain & Co.

At the same time, small Chinese private equity groups struggled to cash in on their investments in 2018. Sales and initial public offerings worth less than $100m fell by about 64 per cent last year compared to a five-year average.

“The level of optimism and fervour for investing in the tech sector foreshadowed what we are seeing now,” said Usman Akhtar, a partner at Bain & Co, referring to how many small private equity houses are struggling to exit from investments at expected prices. “It’s the start of this and it may take a few years to pan out.”

The tightening of credit in China is a broad trend with an impact far beyond private equity. Banks, trusts and other sources of capital have been squeezed during China’s attempt to slow the growth of debt.

So-called shadow banking has been an important source of funds for small private equity groups. Without these channels to fresh cash, many of the imperilled funds are simply shutting down, raising doubts over whether investors will be paid.

China’s woes are mirrored across Asia where large private equity is sucking up most of the available capital while also finding means to exit their investments, Mr Akhtar said. Hong Kong-based PAG, which is run by former TPG and JPMorgan executive Shan Weijian, raised a $6bn fund in November, following a more than $9bn fund raised by Hillhouse, the Beijing and Hong Kong-based group.

Large exits of more than $500m clearly diverged from smaller deals in 2018 by rising just over a quarter on the year before.

Global demand for Chinese technology IPOs started 2018 with a bang but quickly showed signs of fizzling out, leading to a bottleneck of private equity seeking to exit their investments.

Over the past year several large, private equity-backed groups have been forced to scale back their IPOs or delay them indefinitely.

Tencent Music, which is partly owned by private equity, was last year targeting a $4bn float but ended up raising only $1.1bn after several delays.

“The reality is that all PE and VC investing in China has been an unhedged bet that the IPO process in China would liberalise and institutional investors in US and Hong Kong would show consistent, strong interest in Chinese IPOs. Neither is true,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, a Shenzhen-based investment bank.

https://www.ft.com/content/c0cf8c6e-4634-11e9-a965-23d669740bfb

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Global Investment in Aviation Summit (GIAS), Dubai

February 28th, 2019 No comments

In splendid Dubai to attend the Global Investment in Aviation Summit and share data and outlook for China’s fast-growing and even faster-evolving aviation sector.

Here is the presentation I used during my talk.

My thanks to the kind invitation from the United Arab Emirates General Civil Aviation Authority. Anyone flying in and out of the Emirates will know that it is a benchmark for worldwide best practices in aviation and airport management.

Someday, I’d like to see the UAE’s second largest export to China, after petroleum products, will be aviation services, consulting, management.

Are US and China Decoupling? Guest Lecture at University of Michigan Ross School of Business

February 20th, 2019 No comments

I was honored and delighted to teach a class via video lecture at the University of Michigan Ross School of Business for third year, this time on the potential decoupling between the US and China, the competitive realignments as well as investment opportunities.

The lecture’s title: “Chimerica No More: Are China and the US Decoupling? How Will This Alter World Economics and Commerce?”

Thanks to Professor David Brophy and his class on Global Private Equity for the invitation an incisive questions.

This is a video link to the presentation. (Click here.)

This is a video link to the full two hour class. (Click here.)

This is the PDF of the presentation — without the animations. (Click here.)

China Merchants Steams in to Compete with SoftBank’s Vision Fund — Financial Times

July 10th, 2018 No comments

 

China Merchants Group has been adopting new technology to resist foreign competitors for nearly 150 years. Founded in the 19th century, the company brought steam shipping to China so it could compete with western traders.

Now an arm of the Chinese state, CMG has been enlisted once again to buy up technology at a time when global private equity is vying for a share of China’s burgeoning tech market.

The country’s largest and oldest state-owned enterprise, CMG said this month it would partner with a London-based firm to raise a Rmb100bn ($15bn) fund mainly focused on investing in Chinese start-ups.

The China New Era Technology Fund will be launched into direct competition with the likes of SoftBank’s $100bn Vision Fund, as well as other huge investment vehicles raised by top global private equity houses such as Sequoia Capital, Carlyle, KKR and Hillhouse Capital Management.

“They have been very important to China in the past, especially in reform,” said Li Wei, a professor of economics at Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing. “But you haven’t heard much about them in technology . . . It’s not too surprising to see them moving into this area, upgrading themselves once again.”

CMG is already one of the world’s largest investors. Since the start of 2015 its investment arm China Merchants Capital, which will oversee the New Era fund, has launched 31 funds aiming to raise a combined total of at least $52bn, according to publicly disclosed information.

But experts say little is known about the returns of those funds, most of which have been launched in co-operation with other local governments or state companies.

Before New Era, China Merchants Capital’s largest fund was a Rmb60bn vehicle launched with China Construction Bank in 2016. While almost no information is available on its investment activity, the fund said it would focus on high-tech, manufacturing and medical tech.

CMG’s experience investing directly into Chinese tech groups is limited, although it has taken part in the fundraising of several high-profile companies. In 2015 China Merchants Bank joined Apple, Tencent and Ant Financial to invest a combined $2.5bn into ride-hailing service Didi Chuxing, a company that now touts an $80bn valuation. It also invested in ecommerce logistics provider SF Express in 2013.

Success in Chinese tech investing is set to become increasingly difficult as more capital pours into the sector.

“Fifteen billion dollars can seem like a droplet in China,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive of tech-focused investment banking group China First Capital, based in Shenzhen. “We’re all bobbing in an ocean of risk capital. Still, one can’t but wonder, given the quite so-so cash returns from China high-tech investing, if all this money will find investable opportunities, and if there weren’t more productive uses for at least some of all this bounty.”

CMG, however, has always set itself apart from the rest of the country’s state groups. It is unlike any other company under the control of the Chinese government as it was founded before the Chinese Communist party and is based in Hong Kong, outside mainland China. Recommended Banks China Merchants Bank accused of US discrimination

The business was launched in 1872 as China Merchants Steam Navigation Company, a logistics and shipping joint-stock company formed between Chinese merchants based in China’s bustling port cities and the Qing dynasty court.

Mirroring its New Era fund today, it was designed to compete for technology with foreign rivals. At that time it was focused on obtaining steam transport technology to “counter the inroads of western steam shipping in Chinese coastal trade”, according to research by University of Queensland professor Chi-Kong Lai.

Nearly a century later, after falling under the control of the Chinese government, CMG became the single most important company in the early development of the city of Shenzhen, China’s so-called “window to the world” as it opened to the west.

Then led by former intelligence officer and guerrilla soldier Yuan Geng, the company used its base in Hong Kong to attract some of the first investors from the British-controlled city into the small Chinese town of Shenzhen, which has since grown into one of the world’s largest manufacturing hubs.

Its work in opening China to global investment gained CMG and Yuan, who led the company until the early 1990s, status as leading figures in the country’s reform era.

Today the company is a sprawling state conglomerate with $1.1tn in assets and holdings in real estate, ports, shipping, banking, asset management, toll roads and even healthcare. The company has 46 ports in 18 countries, according to the state-run People’s Daily, with deals last year in the sector including the controversial takeover of the Hambantota terminal in Sri Lanka and the $924m acquisition of Brazilian operator TCP Participações.

CMG did not respond to requests for comment. But one person who has advised it on overseas investments said the Chinese government was using it in the same way the company opened up Shenzhen to the outside world, helping “unlock foreign markets”.

https://www.ft.com/content/e7e81928-7f57-11e8-bc55-50daf11b720d

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University of Michigan Ross School of Business — Guest Lecture on China Investment, the Perils & Attractions

January 15th, 2018 No comments

 

 

I was in Ann Arbor this past week to guest lecture at the University of Michigan Ross Business School. The full video can be accessed by clicking here.

I was invited to speak at the business school by Professor David Brophy, who introduces me at the start. Professor Brophy teaches a winter semester class in Global Private Equity. He began researching and teaching PE at Michigan in the mid-1970s, not long after the field was invented by firms like KKR.

Along with speaking in person to students at the school, my talk was also streamed live to the Michigan Venture Capital Association.

 

Maurice Greenberg, Wall Street Journal.

 

In Today’s China, Paradoxes Still Abound. But So Do Opportunities — Site Selection Magazine

November 21st, 2017 No comments

 

In September, China First Capital Chairman and CEO Peter Fuhrman, familiar to attendees at the World Forum for FDI in Shanghai last year, delivered a talk from China to Harvard Business School alumni. Here, with Mr. Fuhrman’s permission, we present excerpts from his remarks.

————–

GDP growth has never and will never absolutely correlate with investment returns.

Any questions? No? Great. Thanks for your time.

Of course I’m joking. But that key reality of successful investing is all too often overlooked, and China has provided all of us over these last 30-some-odd years with a vivid reminder that IRR and GDP are by no means the same animal.

China is, was and will likely long remain a phenomenal economy. The growth that’s taken place here since I first set foot in China in 1981 has been something almost beyond human reckoning. Since I first came to China as a postgrad in 1981, per-capita GDP (PPP) has risen 43X, from $352 to $15,417. China achieved so much more than anyone dare hope, a billion people lifted out of poverty, freed to pursue their dreams, to make and spend a bundle.

China this year will add about $1 trillion of new GDP. Just to put that in context, $1 trillion is not a lot less than the entire GDP of Russia. So who is making all this newly minted money? And how can any of us hope to get a piece of it? Another question: Why, if China is such a great economy, has it proved such a disaster area for so many of the world’s largest, most sophisticated global institutional investors, private equity firms and Fortune 500s?

Turning Inward

Let’s start with the fact that China is a part of the World Trade Organization, but not entirely of it — not fully subscribed in any way to the notion that reciprocity, openness, free trade, level playing fields and equal treatment are positive ends unto themselves. As China has gotten richer it has seen even less and less need to attract foreign capital and foreign investment. That’s a tendency we see in other countries, including obviously some of the rhetoric we now hear in the U.S. — that more of the gains of the national economy should belong to its citizens. But China’s way is different.

The renminbi is a closed non-tradable currency, so getting US dollars into and out of China has always been difficult. China now has the world’s second-largest stock and bond markets, but those markets are largely closed to any investors other than Chinese domestic ones. But China also continues to provide companies going public with by far the highest multiples anywhere in the world.

When I first came to China 36 years ago China was a 100-percent state-owned economy. Twenty years ago the first rules were put in place to allow a private sector to function. Today, according to anyone’s best estimate, it’s about 70 percent private and 30 percent state, and most of the value creation is being provided by that private-sector economy. So in theory there should be very interesting M&A opportunities. But it’s been exceedingly difficult to get successful transactions done. One of the core reasons is that by and large all private-sector companies in China, large and small, are family-owned.

The other thing important to consider is a Mandarin term: guifan. It’s the Chinese way of explaining the extent to which a company in China is abiding by all the rules of the road — the taxes you should pay, the environmental and labor laws you should follow. It’s not at all uncommon that successful private-sector companies in China are successful by virtue of having negotiated to pay little or no corporate tax on profits.

For foreign-owned companies in China it’s an entirely different story. They are by and large 100-percent compliant with the written rules. This has an enormous impact on the operating performance of any company, so you can imagine how potentially skewed the competitive environment becomes. And keep in mind that corporate taxation in China in the aggregate is, if not the highest in the developed world, then among the highest, and the environmental and labor laws are every bit as difficult, rigorous, tough and expensive to implement as they are in the U.S.

China is a country where local government officials are scored on the measurable success of their time in office, and success is overwhelmingly attributed to GDP growth. So it should be no surprise if what they’re trying to do is optimize GDP growth, the percentage of a company’s income that goes back to the government in taxation can have an adverse effect on that. Instead the government will continue to urge its local companies to take the money and, rather than pay tax, continue to invest, expand and therefore build local GDP.

The Hum of Consumerism

The reasons to stay engaged and find a viable investment angle include GDP growth. China’s GDP is likely to continue to grow by at least 6 percent a year. Second, across my 25 years of involvement in China, every one of the predictions of imminent collapse — financial catastrophe, local government debt, bad bank loans, real estate bubbles — have proved to be false. It appears China has some resiliency, and it’s certainly the case that the government has the tools and financial resources to ride out most challenges.

Third has been how effortlessly it’s made the transition that still bedevils lots of Europe, from a smokestack economy to a consumer-spending paradise. At this moment every major consumer market in China is booming both online and offline. Alibaba, Baidu and Tencent are now operating as three of the most profitable companies in the world.

How does China have a robust, booming consumer economy and an enormous appetite for luxury brands, yet on average salary levels that are still one-fifth or one-sixth the levels in the US? The simple answer is that almost all the Chinese now living in urban China — about half the population, compared to about 15 percent when I first got here — owns at least a single apartment if not multiple, which is more and more common. The single best-performing asset in history has probably been Chinese urban real estate over the last 30 years. It’s fair to say the average appreciation over the last 10 years is at least 300 percent.

Though China has a population whose incomes on paper look like those of people flipping burgers at McDonald’s, they seem to have the spending power and love of luxury goods like the people summering in East Hampton. Even Apple itself has no idea how big its market is here in China. It’s likely that at least 100 million iPhone 8s will be sold to Chinese over the next year. The retail price here in China is at least 30 to 40 percent higher than in the US, with most phones bought for cash, without a carrier subsidy.

‘You’ll Be Older Too’

So where is it possible to make money in China? One message above all: Active investing beats passive investing every time. What you need to do is either be the owner-operator or be a close strategic partner with one, and stay actively engaged.

There are four major areas of opportunity: Tech, health-care services, leisure and education (see graphic below). The potential for building out a chronic care business in China is enormous. Looking ahead 25 to 30 years, sadly China will likely suffer a demographic disaster. This country will become a very old society very quickly. That’s the inevitable product of 30 years of a one-child-per-family policy. By 2040 or 2050, 25 percent of China will be over the age of 65.

The overall rate of GDP growth is unlikely to ever rival that of a few years ago at 10 to 12 percent a year, but overall what we have is higher-quality growth. People in China are living well. Things should continue to motor along very smoothly at least for one more generation — a generation whose members are better educated, more skilled, ambitious and globalized than their parents.

There’s no denying the reality of what a better, happier, freer, richer country China has become since I first set foot here. I marvel every day at the China that I now live in, even while I occasionally curse some of the unwanted byproducts like heavy pollution in most parts of the country, overcrowding at tourist attractions, bad traffic, and a pushy culture that’s lost touch with some of China’s ancient glories.

China will continue to amaze, inspire and stupefy the world. The Chinese have done very well and will do better. At the same time, those of us investing in China may do a little better in years to come than we have up to now. More of the newly minted trillions in China just may end up sticking to our palms.

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China’s Soccer Push Puts a Storied Team Under Murky Ownership — The New York Times

November 17th, 2017 No comments

 

 

 

 

 

 

By SUI-LEE WEE, RYAN McMORROW and TARIQ PANJA

NOV. 16,    2017

Li Yonghong in April with David Han Li, left, of Rossoneri Sport Investment, part of A.C. Milan’s new ownership group, and Marco Fassone, the club’s chief executive.

BEIJING — When the Chinese businessman Li Yonghong bought A.C. Milan, the world-famous Italian soccer club, virtually nobody in Italy had heard of him.

Virtually nobody in China had, either.

Mr. Li had never been named to one of China’s lists of the country’s richest people. The mining empire he described to Italian soccer officials was hardly known even in mining circles.

Nevertheless, Mr. Li seemed to have what mattered most: money. He bought the club in April for $860 million from Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister, to clinch China’s biggest-ever soccer deal.

Today, Mr. Li’s acquisition of A.C. Milan appears to be emblematic of a string of troubled Chinese deals.

The soccer club, bleeding money after a spending spree on star players, is seeking new investors or a refinancing of the high-interest loan that Mr. Li took to buy the club. That loan comes due in a year.

Chinese corporate records show that — on paper, at least — someone else owns his mining empire. That company’s offices were empty on a recent visit, and a sign on the door from the landlord cited unpaid rent. A spokesman for A.C. Milan said Mr. Li’s control of the mining business had been verified by lawyers and banks involved in the transaction.

Chinese records also show a series of business disputes and run-ins between Mr. Li and Chinese regulators.

China’s emergence as a world economic power came with a ready checkbook for major brand names. Chinese owners now control the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, AMC theaters, the Hollywood production company Legendary Entertainment and A.C. Milan.

Then Chinese officials began to worry that the spending was simply part of an exodus of money from China so vast that it once threatened to destabilize the country’s economy, the world’s second largest. This summer, the government ordered its banks to scrutinize lending to some of the country’s biggest deal makers.

Outside China, some of the deals led regulators to ask questions about the tycoons behind them. Some wealthy people in China list their holdings under the names of relatives or associates to avoid scrutiny, a practice that has attracted criticism inside and outside the country.

In the case of Mr. Li, the mines that he told A.C. Milan he controlled have been owned by four different people since last year, according to Chinese corporate records. The business changed hands twice for no money, the documents show.

Mr. Li declined an interview request through A.C. Milan. The club spokesman defended Mr. Li on his business disputes, saying that sometimes he was a victim and that sometimes he was not aware of complicated rules. The spokesman also said the club was evaluating several refinancing proposals and was confident it could cover the loan.

Chinese spending on soccer totaled $1.8 billion over the past five years, according to Dealogic, a data provider, but Chinese officials are putting a stop to the spree amid concerns about the flight of money abroad.

“There’s a lot of ways to invest in football and the sports industry for much less money,” said Mark Dreyer, who tracks Chinese soccer investments on his website, China Sports Insider. “People were basically using the government’s previous push for sports as a way to diversify into different industries and get their money out of China.”

Mr. Li had plenty of reasons to buy A.C. Milan. President Xi Jinping had professed his love for soccer and wanted China to be a superpower in the sport by 2050. The Chinese government had laid out a plan for increasing sports investment.

An acquisition of A.C. Milan would be a marquee deal. A decade ago, the club was home to some of soccer’s biggest talents, including Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, who is known as Kaká, and Andrea Pirlo. It was a seven-time European champion.

But it has not won an Italian championship for six years or a European title for 10. Fans welcomed Mr. Li’s arrival as a potential catalyst. This summer, A.C. Milan began to spend on new players in a way that seemed to signal a desire to compete again.

Still, Mr. Li and Mr. Berlusconi struck the deal at a difficult time. Beijing, spooked by the unprecedented capital outflows and a weakening currency, had imposed restrictions on overseas investment at the end of last year.

Mr. Li set up companies in the British Virgin Islands and Luxembourg that would put the club’s legal ownership outside China, according to Marco Fassone, A.C. Milan’s chief executive officer. Mr. Li also borrowed about $354 million from the hedge fund firm Elliott Management, a loan he must pay back by October 2018. A spokeswoman for Elliott declined to comment.

A.C. Milan remains debt laden and unprofitable, and could have trouble repaying what it owes on its own. It spent about $274 million to sign 11 players this summer, according to the club spokesman, making it among the biggest spenders in European soccer.

In August, A.C. Milan had to wait for the transfer of two players it had signed from other teams because it had not deposited the required bank bonds. The club blamed a timing issue for the delay, and the transfers were eventually completed. The team is in seventh place but, with more than two-thirds of the season left to play, must finish among the top four to earn a spot in European soccer’s elite Champions League next season. The team could lose valuable television revenue if it fails to reach that level.

It is unclear how much Mr. Li’s wealth might help the club address its troubles.

He was initially unknown to the deal makers trying to sell the club, the people involved in the transaction said. He was originally part of a group that included Sonny Wu, a well-known investor who is chairman of the private equity firm GSR Capital, these people said. But Mr. Wu pulled out of the deal.

In an email, Mr. Wu said he had not talked to bankers about Mr. Li or his consortium. Rothschild & Company, the investment bank that advised Mr. Li, declined to comment.

Mr. Li told A.C. Milan that his holdings included phosphate mining operations in the city of Fuquan in Guizhou Province.

But Chinese corporate filings show that the mines are owned by another party: Guangdong Lion Asset Management, an investment company. And Guangdong Lion has had a complicated ownership record over the past two years, involving a number of people with similar family names. (One court proceeding suggests Mr. Li has a relationship with Guangdong Lion, although it is not clear what kind.)

Originally, Guangdong Lion was ultimately owned by two investors, Li Shangbing and Li Shangsong, according to filings. Like Li Yonghong, the two men come from the same area of Maoming, a city on China’s southern coast, according to the documents. But in a phone interview, Li Shangbing said he did not know Li Yonghong.

Li Shangsong, who declined to comment, sold his interest in Guangdong Lion in 2015 to a person named Li Qianru, according to the documents. The documents did not include personal information about Li Qianru, who could not be reached for comment.

In May 2016, according to the filings, Li Shangbing and Li Qianru, sold Guangdong Lion to yet another Li: Li Yalu. The sale price: $0. The filings do not provide personal information about Li Yalu.

Three weeks later, Li Yalu sold a half stake in Guangdong Lion to a similarly obscure investor, Zhang Zhiling. The price: $0. Neither could be reached for comment.

Li is a common surname in China, and the relationships among the various Lis are unclear. The A.C. Milan spokesman declined to comment.

Li Yonghong, the A.C. Milan owner, and Li Shangbing have two things in common.

The first is a relationship with Guangdong Lion. A Chinese court cited Li Yonghong and Guangdong Lion in April for failing to resolve a loan dispute with another Chinese company, saying both parties had disappeared. The court did not specify the relationship. The A.C. Milan spokesman said that Li Yonghong had merely guaranteed the loan and that “he is a victim in this case.”

The second is an interest in investing in European sports.

In May 2016, a day before Li Shangbing sold Guangdong Lion for no money, he started a company called Sino-Europe Sports Asset Management Changxing Company, according to China’s corporate database.

Two days after he registered the Sino-Europe firm, another person registered a new company with a strikingly similar name: Sino-Europe Sports Investment Management Changxing Company. The two companies’ headquarters were in the same building in the city of Huzhou.

Sino-Europe Sports Investment owns a stake in A.C. Milan as a result of its role as a shareholder in Rossoneri Sport Investment, a Chinese company that is part of the group led by Li Yonghong that owns the soccer club.

In the phone interview, Li Shangbing denied setting up either Sino-Europe company and said he did not own any part of A.C. Milan. He declined to answer further questions. A.C. Milan declined to comment on Li Shangbing. The listed owner of the Sino-Europe Sports Investment Management Changxing Company, Chen Huashan, could not be reached for comment.

Guangdong Lion’s listed headquarters are in a fancy skyscraper in Guangzhou. In August, the offices were closed, with an eviction notice on the door. Inside, desks and chairs were in disarray, computers were missing hard drives, and maggots festered in a trash can.

The phone number listed for Guangdong Lion connects to a woman who said she helped companies register with Chinese regulators.

Li Yonghong has an extensive business history, but Chinese records show it includes disputes with regulators and others.

In 2013, China’s securities watchdog fined Mr. Li $90,250 for failing to report the sale of $51.1 million in shares of a real estate company. A.C. Milan said Mr. Li had simply been unfamiliar with listing rules.

In 2011, that same real estate company said in a stock filing that Mr. Li was the chairman of Grand Dragon International Holding Company, a Chinese aviation company. Grand Dragon said in June that he had no present or past association with the company. The A.C. Milan spokesman said he had no knowledge of this.

In 2004, Mr. Li’s family business, the Guangdong Green River Company, teamed up with two other companies to bilk more than 5,000 investors out of as much as $68.3 million, according to The Shanghai Securities News, the official newspaper of China’s financial watchdogs. They had sold contracts for lychee and longan orchards and promised investors hefty returns, according to the report.

Mr. Li’s father and brother were sentenced to jail. Mr. Li was investigated but not accused of wrongdoing, the report said.

A.C. Milan said the episode had nothing to do with Mr. Li, adding that “he was not aware of the situation until the investigation.”

Amid Chinese concerns about deals abroad, China’s purchases of soccer teams with prestige names is likely to slow considerably for some time to come.

“If outbound investment should have the purpose of ‘strengthening the nation,’ even within the broadest of definitions,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman of the investment bank China First Capital, said in an email, “buying a soccer team in the U.K. or Italy would hardly seem to qualify.”

 

As published in The New York Times

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China Investing, The Pain and the Perks — Harvard Business School Global Alumni Lecture

October 10th, 2017 No comments

 

It was a delight and a privilege to give a talk on China investing to Harvard Business School’s global alumni organization. If you’d like to see the slide deck, please click here. The audio version of the lecture, done by worldwide webcast,  is also up on YouTube.

The topic was a big one — why have China investment returns so often failed to keep pace with the phenomenal growth in the country’s economy, and can investors do anything to improve the odds of success? Given an hour to discuss, I could only really scratch the surface.

A key takeaway: the past needn’t be prologue. Investing in China may prove less vexatious in the future. In part, that’s because of the growth of a mass affluent consumer market in China, a shift that plays to the strengths of many US, European and East Asian companies and institutional investors. Second, of course, everyone now can learn from past mistakes and misperceptions.

As I said in closing, “China will continue to amaze, inspire and stupefy the world. Chinese have done very well and will do better. At same time, those of us investing in China may do a little better here in years to come than we have up to now. More of the newly minted trillions in China just may end up sticking to our palms.”

 

 

 

Alzheimer’s: China’s Looming Health Challenges — The Diplomat

October 2nd, 2017 No comments

 

 

 

 

Trans-Pacific View author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Peter Fuhrman Chairman, Founder and Chief Executive Officer of China First Capital, Ltd.is the 109th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  

With 9.5 million diagnosed Alzheimer’s sufferers in China, why is Alzheimer’s the country’s biggest future health problem?

I would broaden it to say that the treatment of chronic diseases, with Alzheimer’s at the forefront, is the largest future challenge to China’s national healthcare system. From a country that in living memory only offered a very rudimentary system of barefoot doctors, who were often nothing more than well-meaning but untrained quacks, China in 20 short years has expanded genuine healthcare coverage to all corners of the country, providing acute care and medications to the vast majority of its citizens. That’s an enormous achievement; one that’s done more good for more people than probably any other government initiative anywhere at any time. Chronic diseases, on the other hand, were never a focus, indeed never much of a problem. But, Chinese life expectancy has lengthened dramatically, thanks in part of the improvement in the delivery of acute health services. Chinese are now living as long as people in Europe and the United States. The result: China is already feeling the strain of millions of older ill folks with no real treatment options in place. The demographic die is already cast. Within 25 years, China will become a more geriatric society, where at least 25 percent of the population is over 65. Chronic disease will become commonplace, more prevalent than in any other country.

What cultural challenges hinder or help Chinese society in managing Alzheimer’s?    

The generation of people now growing old in China had limited expectations, as they mainly grew up in dire poverty. As they aged, they accepted more stoically that society couldn’t provide much assistance except for immediate medical emergencies. Their children and grandchildren, however, are constituted differently. They often have education and expectations similar to people in the West, including that there should be quality treatment options in China for every medical issue, as there are in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and elsewhere. They increasingly want better treatment for their sick parents, and will certainly expect even more for themselves when they grow older and are diagnosed with chronic diseases like dementia and Parkinson’s, or need extended care and rehabilitation after a stroke or heart attack, both quite common in China. There is still so little care available in China to fulfill this growing need.

What can China learn from the United States and Europe?

Probably the key lesson is to not to expect, as too many in the U.S. and Europe did, a big breakthrough in Alzheimer’s care, the development of drugs to arrest the progress or undo the damage of the disease. The sad reality is despite huge sums spent on research, we’re as far away from such a medical miracle as we were 20 years and at least $20 billion ago. Instead, China needs to foster the development of thousands of quality treatment centers for Alzheimer’s patients, to care for them according to the best global standards, to lengthen and enrich their lives. This requires along with lots of new buildings a huge number of trained doctors, geriatricians, specialist nurses, and aides.

Describe differences between Chinese rural and urban treatment of Alzheimer’s.

Quality healthcare in China is still available mainly in large national hospitals located in major cities. Though the number of rural Chinese with Alzheimer’s is large and growing fast, there is virtually no professional care available for them locally. The government is seeking to change this, not only for chronic diseases, to raise the standards of healthcare in small cities and rural townships, to relieve the huge disproportionate burden on the big urban hospitals.

Identify opportunities for the international healthcare industry in addressing China’s looming Alzheimer’s challenge?  

Over the next 40 years in China, there is no single area offering better investment fundamentals than chronic care, including the care of Alzheimer’s. Sober forecasts are, by 2045, there will be over 40 million Chinese with Alzheimer’s, four times the number presently. By then, it’s likely half the total number of Alzheimer’s cases worldwide will be here in China. As of today, there are fewer than 500 beds in China for patients needing specialist Alzheimer’s treatment. A French company, Orpea, has a first mover advantage, having already opened a world-class facility in Nanjing. In financial terms, quality Alzheimer’s and chronic care provides very solid returns. As or more important, though, is that the benefits will be captured also by Chinese society as a whole. This will certainly be one of those areas where investors will do quite well by doing good, by contributing to a China where the diseases of old age will be competently managed and families kept happy and intact for longer.

 

As published by The Diplomat

 

 

 

Venture Fundraising in Yuan Soars as Investors Target Chinese Tech Firms — The New York Times

September 23rd, 2017 No comments

 

HONG KONG (Reuters) – China-focused venture capital funds are increasing their bets on local technology companies and a further opening of Chinese domestic capital markets, raising money in the yuan at the fastest pace in five years.

Fund managers have raised 95.8 billion yuan ($14.54 billion) this year through late September in funds denominated in the Chinese currency, which is also known as the renminbi, compared with 56.7 billion yuan in all of 2016. That puts 2017 on pace to be the biggest year since 2012, when 145.8 billion yuan was raised, according to data provider Preqin.

There are currently 78 funds looking to raise as much as another 1.15 trillion yuan over the next couple of years, Preqin said, most of it coming from mammoth-sized state-owned entities and so-called government guidance funds, which seek to foster domestic innovation in different industries from advanced engineering and robotics to biotechnology and clean energy.

 Those include the 350 billion yuan sought by the China Structural Reform Fund, 200 billion yuan targeted by the China State-Owned Capital Venture Investment Fund and a proposed 150 billion yuan for the state-owned Enterprise National Innovation Fund.

The enormous size of the fundraising ambitions of the Chinese state-backed funds means it may take some time before they reach their final goals. The China Structural Reform Fund, which was launched in 2016, has raised 20 percent of its registered capital and its president said in an interview with Caixin Global that funding will be completed by the end of 2018.

“We’re at the all-time highest of capital-raising high water marks, with a tsunami of government-backed entities seeding incubators, VC funds, locally, provincially, nationally,” said Peter Fuhrman, CEO of China-focused investment bank China First Capital. “China has a lot of money in its government apparatus. It wants to seed innovation and entrepreneurship and this is how it’s doing it.”

The surge contrasts with the slowdown in seed financing for start ups in the United States, which is down for the past two years. It also compares with flat growth expected for U.S. venture capital fundraising in 2017, according to estimates from the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA).

CATCHING ENTREPRENEURS

Firms such as Lightspeed China Partners, Morningside Venture Capital, GGV Capital and investment and merchant bank Ion Pacific that previously only had U.S. dollar funds are launching their first funds in yuan. Others like Hillhouse Capital, Sequoia Capital China and China Renaissance that have raised funds in both currencies are adding to their yuan cash pile with new funds.

Key to those firms is to not lose potential investment opportunities in sectors closed to foreign investors or miss out on investing with the Chinese entrepreneurs who now want to list their companies locally instead of in the United States.

“Catching the right entrepreneurs in the ecosystem is our number one priority, so currencies to us are just tools, those are the tools that I need to catch these entrepreneurs,” said Harry Man, partner at Matrix Partners China, which has funds in both currencies. “That’s why if you don’t have RMB in your hand, ultimately you’ll be missing 50 percent of the deals. Then you’ll be forced to raise an RMB fund and that’s why everybody is doing it.”

Sequoia Capital China, which backed top Chinese technology firms such as Alibaba Group (BABA.N), is looking to raise at least 10 billion yuan for a new fund, while Hillhouse Capital, an early investor in companies including Tencent Holdings Ltd (0700.HK), Baidu Inc (BIDU.O) and JD.com Inc (JD.O), is targeting about 8 billion yuan for its fund, sources told Reuters.

The investment management arm of securities firm China Renaissance is also adding to its yuan reserves with a new fund worth about 6 billion yuan, according to a person familiar with the plans who couldn’t be named because details of the fundraising aren’t yet public. Ion Pacific is raising 1 billion yuan for its debut fund in the Chinese currency, while GGV Capital is about to close fundraising for its first yuan-denominated fund.

“Some sectors don’t allow foreign investors, so for example, in the culture and media industry you need to apply for certain licenses like video licenses and you need to be a local investor,” said Helen Wong, a partner at Qiming Venture Partners.

“Now the IPO window is open for the local stock market, so that encourages a lot of companies to go for a local listing,” she added, in reference to the increase in IPO approvals by regulators in 2017 that is prompting more companies to start preparations to go public. Previously, a slow approval process and long line of companies waiting for clearance dissuaded many from those plans.

The shift would give an added boost to the Shenzhen and Shanghai bourses. China has had 322 new listings this year, raising a combined $22.9 billion, Thomson Reuters data showed. This already surpasses the 252 for all of 2016, even after the country’s securities regulator slowed the number of weekly IPO approvals in May.

It could also reduce the influence of the Nasdaq and New York stock exchanges, where many Chinese technology companies previously flocked when they went public.

“For the RMB side, you see more companies in restricted sectors like healthcare and media and certain parts of cleantech that needs government support to get started,” said Hans Tung, managing partner at GGV Capital. “You also see companies in the fintech space and a lot of them need a license to operate a business in the financial services industry, so they tend to want to list in China.”

 

As published in The New York Times.

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Why Has China’s GDP So Outpaced IRR?

September 22nd, 2017 No comments

It’s the paradox at the core of China investing: why has such a phenomenal economy proved such a disappointing investment destination for so many global institutional investors, PE firms and Fortune 500s.

Financial theory provides a conceptual explanation. Investment returns are not absolutely correlated to GDP growth. China will likely go down in history as the best proof of this theorem. China as certainly delivered exceptional GDP growth. In per capita PPP terms, China is 43 times larger than in 1981, when I first set foot in China as a grad student. No other country has ever grown so fast, for so long and lifted so many people out of poverty and into the consumer middle class.

Commensurate investment returns, however, have been far harder to lock in. Harvard Business School’s global alumni organization invited me to give an hour-long talk on this topic this week. It required a quick gallop through some recent and not always happy history to arrive at the key question — does the future hold m0re promise for global institutional investors looking to deploy capital in China.

 For more detailed look at some reasons for the big disconnect between China’s national GPD growth and investment IRR, and some suggestions how to improve matters, please have a look by clicking here at the HBS talk slide deck.

Publicly-quoted shares in Chinese companies have failed by far and away to keep pace with the growth in overall national income. In the alternative investment arena, global PE and VC firms enjoyed some huge early success in late 1990s and first part of the 2000s. Since then, the situation has worsened, as measured in cash returns paid out to Limited Partners. One major reason — the explosion within China of Renminbi investment funds, now numbering at least 1,000. They’ve bid up valuations, gotten first access to better opportunities, and left the major global PE and VC firms often sitting on the sidelines. With tens of billions in dry powder, these global firms look more and more like deposed financial royalty — rich, nostalgic, melancholy and idle.

China this year will add approximately $1 trillion of new gdp this year – that’s not a lot less than the entire gdp of Russia. Indeed, China gdp growth in 2017 is larger than the entire gdp of all but 15 countries. Who is making all this money? Are all the spoils reserved for local investors and entrepreneurs? Can global investors find a way at last to get a bigger piece of all this new wealth?

Overall, I’m moderately sanguine that lessons have been learned, especially about the large risks of following the Renminbi fund herd into what are meant to be sure-thing “Pre-Ipo” minority deals. Active investment strategies have generally done better. With China’s economy well along in its high-speed transition away from smokestack industries and OEM exports to one powered by consumer spending, there are new, larger and ripe opportunities for global investors. In virtually all major, growing categories of consumer spending, Western brands are doing well, and will likely do better, as Chinese consumers preferences move upmarket to embrace high-quality, well-established global household brand names.

Harvard, its alumni and benefactors have a two hundred year history of investing and operating in China. So, there’s some deep institutional memory and fascination, not least with the risks and moral quandaries that come with the territory. The Cabot family, at one time among America’s richest, provided huge grants to Harvard funded in part by profits made opium running into China.

Harvard Management Company, the university’s $35 billion endowment, was an early and enthusiastic LP investor in China as well as large investor in Chinese quoted companies including Sinopec. Their enthusiasm seems to be waning. Harvard Management is apparently considering selling off many of its LP positions, including those in PE and VC funds investing in China.

This looks to be an acknowledgment that the GP/LP model of China investing has not regularly delivered the kind of risk-adjusted cash-on-cash returns sophisticated, diversified institutional investors demand. While China’s economy is doing great, it’s never been harder to achieve a successful private equity or venture capital investment exit. True, the number of Chinese IPOs has ratcheted up this year, but there are still thousands of unexited deals, especially inside upstart Renminbi funds.

While decent returns on committed capital have been scarce, the Chinese government continues to pour billions of Renminbi into establishing new funds in China. There’s hardly a government department, at local, provincial or national level that isn’t now in the fund creation business. Diversification isn’t a priority. Instead, two investment themes all but monopolize the Chinese government’s time and money — one is to stimulate startups and high-tech industry (with a special focus on voguish sectors like Big Data, robotics, artificial intelligence, biotech) the other is to support the country’s major geostrategic initiative, the One Belt One Road policy.

One would need to be visionary, reckless or brave to add one’s own money to this cash tsunami. Never before has so much government money poured into private equity and venture capital, mainly not in search of returns, but to further policy and employment aims. It’s a first in financial history. The distortions are profound. Valuations and deal activity are high, while returns in the aggregate from China investing will likely plummet, from already rather low levels.

Where should a disciplined investor seek opportunity in China? First, as always, one should follow the money — not all the government capital, but the even larger pools of cash being spent by Chinese consumers.

In China, every major consumer market is in play, and growing fast. This plays to the strengths of foreign capital and foreign operating companies. There are almost unlimited opportunities to bring new and better consumer products and services to China. Let the Chinese government focus on investing in China’s future. High-tech companies in China, ones with globally competitive technology, market share and margins are still extraordinarily rare, as are cash gains from investing here.

Meantime, as I reminded the HBS alumni, plenty of foreign companies and investors are doing well today in China’s consumer market. Not just the well-known ones like Apple and Starbucks. Smaller ventures helping Chinese spend money while traveling globally, or obtain better-quality health care and education options, are building defendable, high-margin niches in China. One company started by an HBS alumnus, a native New Yorker like me, is among the leading non-bank small lending companies in China. It provides small loans to small-scale entrepreneurs, mainly in the consumer market. Few in China know much about Zhongan Credit, and fewer still that it’s started and run by a Caucasian American HBS grad. But, it’s among the most impressive success stories of foreign investment in China.

Of course, such success investing in China is far from guaranteed. Consumer markets in China are tricky, fast-changing, and sometimes skewed to disadvantage foreign investors. For over two hundred years, most foreign investors have seen their fond dreams of a big China payday crash on the rocks of Chinese reality.

The rewards from China’s 35 years of remarkable economic growth has mainly — and rightly — gone to the hard-working people of China. But, there’s reason to believe that in the future, more of the new wealth created each year in China will be captured by smart, pragmatic investors from HBS and elsewhere.

 

As published by China Money Network

As published by SuperReturn

YouTube video of the full lecture to Harvard Business School alumni organization

 

 

 

China Steps Up Warnings Over Debt-Fueled Overseas Acquisitions — The New York Times

August 21st, 2017 No comments

BEIJING — China moved on Friday to curb investment overseas by its companies and conglomerates, issuing its strongest signal yet that it wants to rein in runaway debt that could pose a threat to the country’s slowing economy.

Beijing has stepped up its efforts in recent months to restrict some of its most acquisitive companies from buying overseas assets, worried that a series of purchases by China’s conglomerates around the world has been driven by excessive borrowing.

In the latest move, a statement published by China’s cabinet, the State Council, said the authorities would punish companies for violating foreign investment rules, and establish a blacklist of businesses that did so. The statement was attributed to the National Development and Reform Commission, the commerce ministry, the foreign ministry and the central bank.

The statement pointed to acquisitions in sectors ranging from entertainment and sports clubs to hotels, but it was unclear whether or how the government would block deals.

It reiterated a warning issued in December that restrictions on overseas investments were being imposed because of “irrational” investment trends.

That statement said that the kinds of investments overseas it described were “not in accordance with macro-control policies.” The government wants to “effectively guard against all sorts of risks,” it said. The State Council document said the government nevertheless supported overseas investments in sectors such as oil and gas and in China’s “One Belt, One Road” program, which aims to promote infrastructure projects along the historic Silk Road trading route.

“It’s the loudest yet of wake-up calls that the government holds the keys to the lockbox of the country’s wealth, public and private,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank, said in an emailed response to questions. “Bad M&A is all but criminalized.”

A surge in overseas acquisitions by Chinese investors in recent years has ignited fears that soaring corporate debt levels could destabilize the country’s economy, the world’s second largest, and further weaken its currency.

Companies like Anbang Insurance Group, Fosun International, the HNA Group and Dalian Wanda Group have capitalized on cheap loans provided by state banks to snap up trophy assets such as the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York and AMC Theaters.

Beijing’s clampdown on overseas investments shows how the interests of private business can collide with those of the Communist Party government. Beijing has made financial stability a priority this year, with the party’s congress scheduled in the fall. Among the party’s top concerns: controlling debt, stemming the flow of capital leaving the country, and China’s opaque “shadow banking” system.

But while the latest statement from the State Council is likely to have an impact on mergers and deals, a lot of Chinese money is already offshore and thus not easily restricted by the government in Beijing, said Alexander Jarvis, chairman of Blackbridge Cross Borders, which has advised Chinese companies on several soccer acquisitions.

“Deals are still going to happen,” Mr. Jarvis said. “There is plenty of Chinese capital overseas in offshore tax havens, in the U.S., across Europe, Hong Kong. I’m not sure they can fully control that capital.”

In a sign of that deal making, a Chinese businessman, Gao Jisheng, struck a deal to buy an 80 percent stake in Southampton Football Club, a soccer team in the English Premier League, for about $271 million. Mr. Gao obtained the loan from a bank in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China that is administered under separate laws, Bloomberg reported on Thursday.

Geoffrey Sant, a partner at New York-based law firm Dorsey and Whitney, said it is likely that the latest announcement from Beijing will result in a “temporary pause” in overseas acquisitions.

“I think they are thinking there’s a bit of irrational exuberance in the market right now and they just want to cool that off,” said Mr. Sant, who represents Chinese companies. “It doesn’t make sense to permanently ban some of these areas.”

The State Council statement comes amid increased scrutiny of China’s “gray rhinos” — threats that are large and obvious but often neglected even so.

In recent months, the government has said it would increase scrutiny of companies’ balance sheets, warning that some of the largest companies could pose a systemic risk to the economy.

Encouraged by the slew of acquisitions made by some of the country’s most powerful tycoons, many smaller Chinese companies started looking overseas, spurred by China’s slowing economic growth to look for new markets.

Many, however, had no experience running the businesses they were targeting. In one such example, Anhui Xinke New Materials, a copper processing company in central China, made a deal to buy Voltage Pictures, an American film financing and production firm, for $350 million. A month later, Anhui Xinke pulled out of the transaction.

In other cases, it was not clear whether many of the big trophy acquisitions were actually good deals.

In 2015, Legendary chalked up a net loss of $540 million, according to a regulatory filing that Wanda Film filed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Fosun International, meanwhile, paid a premium to buy French resort operator Club Med, which was until then an unprofitable company, eventually agreeing to a $1.1 billion price tag in 2015 after a long takeover battle. The firm made a small profit last year, according to Fosun’s filings. And last year, AC Milan, the Italian soccer club that was acquired by a Chinese consortium for about $870 million, made a net loss of about $88 million.

“I agree with the Chinese government. A lot of these deals are bad,” said Mr. Jarvis.

Companies have already started feeling the pinch of Beijing’s clampdown on overseas investments, which started in earnest in December.

The number of newly announced outbound mergers and acquisitions by Chinese firms fell by 20 percent in the first six months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016, though it picked up in May and June, according to Rhodium Group, a New York-based research firm.

In March, Dalian Wanda, the Chinese conglomerate that owns AMC Theaters and Legendary Entertainment, was forced to abandon its $1 billion deal to buy Dick Clark Productions, the firm behind the Golden Globes and Miss Universe telecast after Beijing tightened its controls on capital outflows. Months later, Wanda sold a majority stake in 13 theme parks to property firm Sunac China Holdings and handed 77 hotels to R&F Properties, another real estate company based in the southern city of Guangzhou, for $9.5 billion.

 

As published in The New York Times.

The New York Times Interview Transcript

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