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Nanjing: A Special Kind of Chinese Boomtown

November 18th, 2014 No comments

Nanjing City Investment Promotion Consultant

In 1981, when I first arrived in Nanjing as a student,  the ancient and rather sleepy city had a population of four million and a GDP of Rmb 4 billion. Today, the population has doubled to eight million and GDP is two hundred times larger. Yes, you read that right. This year’s GDP will exceed Rmb 850bn. Even by recent Chinese standards, that kind of growth rate for a major city is just about unheard of. Since 1981, Nanjing’s GDP has grown almost twice as fast as China as a whole. It is now richer in per capita terms than Beijing, and its economy continues to expand more quickly than the capital, Shanghai and just about every other major city in the country.

I was back in Nanjing in the last week to visit friends and clients, as well as receive from the Nanjing city government an official appointment as an “investment promotion consultant”. That’s me in the photo above celebrating with Mr. Kong Qiuyun, the cultured an charismatic director-general of Nanjing Municipal Investment Promotion Commission. It’s an especially welcome honor since I consider Nanjing, all these years later, my hometown in China, my  “laojia”. Every return is a homecoming.

With or without the official status, saying good things about Nanjing comes easily. It’s a special kind of boomtown. Despite the steep economic ascent over the last 33 years, today’s Nanjing is visibly woven from strands of its 2,500 year-old history as a city at the core of Chinese civilization. Old parks, streets and buildings stand. Though stained by tragedy – including the Nanjing Massacre in 1937 and bloody civil war at the end of the Taiping Rebellion civil war 73 years earlier — Nanjing is a city with a lightness of spirit and an intimate association with Chinese traditional culture of painting, calligraphy, poetry.

There is an ease, prosperity and comfort to life in Nanjing that is largely absent in Beijing. One is built upon the parched steppes below the Gobi Desert. Camel country. The other is set amid China’s most fertile, well-irrigated patch of bottomland –a kind of Chinese Eden, saturated by rivers, lakes, ponds and paddies, where just about everything can be grown or reared in abundance. The city is a symbiosis of man and duck. In a typical year, the people of Nanjing will consume over one hundred million of them. Every trip, including this most recent one, I return to Shenzhen with a suitcase padded out with three or four salt-preserved Osmanthus-scented ducks. Each trip back to the US I carry several with me and deliver them to my father in Florida. Somehow, age 82, he has developed a fine appreciation for them.

Nanjing took awhile to get its economic act together. During much of the 1980s, it was a backwater, trailing far behind the nearby cities of Shanghai and Suzhou as well as the coastal cities of Guangdong and Fujian. Earlier it had a reputation for being not very well-managed. Today the opposite is true.

Nanjing is the most ideally-situated large city in China. It is at the back door of China’s richest, most developed region, the Yangtze River Delta, stretching from Shanghai through Hangzhou, Suzhou, Wuxi and Changzhou. It is also now the front door for China’s huge market of the future, the inland regions where growth is now strongest, particularly the provinces of Hubei, Sichuan, Chongqing, Anhui farther up the Yangtze.

Nanjing’s is a large economy but without especially large and dominant companies. Few even in China can name its largest businesses or employers. This sets it apart from Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Hangzhou, Tianjin. Credit Nanjing government’s hands-on far-sighted economic management. It’s made up for the lack of large businesses by encouraging the growth of smaller mainly private-sector entrepreneurial businesses, as well as bringing in investment from abroad. Sharp, BASF, A.O. Smith, ThyssenKrupp are among the larger foreign companies with significant investment in Nanjing.

Major American investors are still comparatively few. This needs correcting. I hope to help in my new role as a consultant. Americans in the first half of the 20th century played a conspicuously positive role in Nanjing’s development. US academics and missionaries helped establish the city’s two oldest universities, Nanjing University (where I studied) and Nanjing Normal University. They remain the rock-solid backbones of Nanjing’s outstanding university system with over 25 institutions of higher learning.

An American team of architects and urban designers were responsible for creating the layout of much of the modern city of Nanjing, including the city’s main shopping district of Xinjiekou. The city was designed to combine elements of Paris and Washington D.C., with wide boulevards, stately traffic roundabouts like the Place de l’Etoile, and an elegant diplomatic quarter with large mansions spread along arching plane tree-shaded streets.

During the pre-1949 era, American companies were the most prominent and successful businesses in Nanjing. Two in particular – Socony (then the world’s leading petroleum company, a part of the Rockefeller Standard Oil group, and now ExxonMobil.) and British American Tobacco – managed large operations in China from their headquarters in Nanjing. They were then among the largest companies in China of any kind. They left in 1949 never to return to Nanjing and their previous prominence.

An individual American, a long-term resident of Nanjing, wrote while there the most popular and influential book about China in English. It was then made into a successful film which etched in the minds of many Westerners the enduring image of China’s Confucian values and pre-revolution rural poverty. Pearl Buck’s “The Good Earth” was for years a best-seller and played an influential role in winning her the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. *

To my thinking, America has an unfulfilled destiny in Nanjing. It’s a smart place for smart capital to locate. In modernizing, it has kept its soul intact.

* For sharing his rich and consummate knowledge of America’s multi-facetted engagement with  Nanjing in the first half of the 20th century, I’m indebted to John Pomfret. John’s book “Chinese Lessons”, about his years as a student at Nanjing University and the lives thereafter of his Chinese classmates, is as good as anything published about China’s remarkable transformation these last thirty years. You can read more about the book, and about John, by visiting http://www.johnpomfret.org/

 

Why and how Beijing became one of the world’s more unmanageable major cities

August 21st, 2014 No comments

Beijing Bactrian camel

What if most of what we think about government spending was wrong? What if government money causes, rather than cures,  pollution, unaffordable and substandard housing, impossible traffic, more expensive and less available healthcare? Sounds impossible, right? Not if you live in or have traveled to Beijing lately. The city’s now infamous urban problems are at least in part the result of a deluge of government spending since the onset of the financial crisis in 2008. Direct central government funding doubled to over Rmb 14 trillion ($2.2 trillion) over this period while local governments borrowed an additional Rmb 13 trillion ($2.1 trillion) to finance their spending.

The government money, of course, wasn’t meant to turn Beijing into an urban sprawl with a population larger than every state in the US except California. In fact, most of the government stimulus was targeted for big projects outside the capital. But, in China, the nature of things is that much of government spending travels on a round-trip ticket. It is dispensed in Beijing and then a big part of it eventually returns home. And no, this isn’t all in kickbacks. A large part is from the build out of a huge new infrastructure in Beijing to support, steer and encourage the distribution of more government cash.

In the last five years, it seems like everyone rushed to open or expand offices in Beijing:  companies of all sizes from all part of China and the world; governments from the smallest local hamlet 3,000 kilometers away to provinces with populations larger than every country in Western Europe also staffed up. Result: commercial and residential real estate prices skyrocketed to the point now where they are among the highest anywhere in the world.

More people begets more cars, more cars begets more traffic, more traffic begets restrictions on the days-per-week any car can be on the road, which in turn begets Beijingers buying an extra car to get around the prohibition. End result: pollution that is now substantially caused by auto emissions, not as in the old days by nearby-factories burning coal. Many polluting factories have been shut down, which added to the available land for development into commercial and residential property in and around Beijing, particularly in areas you need a car to get to.

Here are the two charts, showing residential real estate prices and cars registered in Beijing from 2008 through last year. The numbers are likely underestimates. But, they show the trend.

data

 

The torrent of government cash had all kinds of spillover effects that have altered Beijing permanently. More restaurants, higher prices, more wining and dining, leading to prohibitions last year, as part of the big anti-corruption crusade, on government officials accepting invitations to party outside the office. This then drives the behavior underground, so high-end restaurants empty out, while more expensive and exclusive “members only” clubs flourish.

Beijing has morphed into the financial capital of China. That’s attracted a large group of players to move from Shanghai and Hong Kong to get a piece. PE funds, private bankers, lawyers, consultants, so-called “guanxi merchants” who arrange access to government officials. Among my circle of friends in PE industry, I can count 15 who have moved to Beijing in recent years, to get closer to the action, and only one who left, who finally couldn’t take the crowds, pollution, high cost.

Beijing’s precise population is unknown. The official number is 21.1 million. Some in government say 25 million. Others claim the real number is closer to 30 million, when you count more recent migrants living rough, plus the huge throngs in Beijing for shorter periods, either for work or pleasure.

Since 2008, far more of China’s total economic activity is decided by government bureaucrats in Beijing. Overall government spending has more than doubled. Result, more people need to travel to Beijing more often.

Look at passenger numbers at Beijing’s Capital Airport. Between 2008 and 2013, this already crowded-facility saw passenger numbers increase by a remarkable 50%. It is, as of March this year, now the busiest airport in the world, eclipsing Atlanta’s Hartsfield. Capital Airport is now breaking under the load, and so Beijing is about to embark on building an even larger new airport in the southern part of the city. This mammoth $11 billion project by itself could support a lot of Beijing’s gdp growth in the coming few years. But, it will be just the cherry on top.

Beijing has the best hospitals in China, so people come from all over the country to try to get admitted for medical treatment. This has led to price increases and longer waiting times. Equally, those with a serious grievance about their local government, or who feel maltreated, will often gather up their documents go to Beijing to try to get redress. This trek to Beijing has been around since the days of the Emperors. As China’s government grows in power and economic clout and ordinary Chinese have the money to fight back, those seeking to petition central government’s help increase.

To serve all the new arrivals and visitors, Beijing continues to expand its Metro system. The average daily ridership is now 10 million, about triple London’s, and also triple the amount five years ago in Beijing.  Waits at rush hour to get into some stations can be horrific, so the government recently proposed to raise fares. Beijing currently has the cheapest public transportation of any big city in China.  While some may leave Beijing, the likely result of higher Metro fares will be more people trying to buy a car.

How bad is traffic in Beijing. Horror stories abound. A more reasonable evaluation: the manager of a big telecommunications company I know told me recently if he doesn’t leave his house by 7am, it will take 90 minutes to drive 10 km from his house to his office. That’s about speed of sedan chairs used to carry emperor and his cohorts within the Forbidden City.

To be sure, Beijing is not Dhaka. Since 2008, many aspects of the city’s infrastructure have been upgraded. It is a thoroughly modern city, with scarcely a trace of either poverty or blight. When I first visited the city in 1981, Bactrian camels were still occasionally seen on the streets hauling cargo.

For first time since 1949, the leader of the country, Xi Jinping,  is Beijing born and bred. Since he was a boy, Beijing’s population has about quadrupled, while China overall has almost exactly doubled.  Will he try to shift gears, slow or even reverse the growth in the city’s population? It won’t be easy. Government stimulus spending, once turned on is notoriously hard to scale back in any serious way. Do so and overall GDP growth will likely suffer.

In its 3,000 years as China’s major urban outpost on the country’s northern perimeter,  Beijing has experienced countless invasions, barbarian pillages, conquests, uprisings. But, nothing in history has altered Beijing as quickly, deeply, and perhaps permanently as five years of bounce-back and kickback from trillions in government pump-priming.

 

 

 

A Practical Peasant Revolution in China

February 11th, 2014 1 comment

Ming painting China First Capital

It’s commonly held that the biggest threat to social stability, and therefore continued Chinese Communist Party rule, is a growing gap between rural and urban China. City folks grow prosperous while peasants struggle along in something akin to Neolithic poverty.  It’s a comfortable shorthand for understanding today’s China. But, it’s also increasingly far from the truth.

Rural China is undergoing a very powerful, if little noticed, transformation, as more agricultural production shifts to a system where peasants work for guaranteed cash wage to grow food. This is increasing incomes, as well as removing much of the risk from the traditional system where peasants would live off tilling their own small plot of land, and so be subject to all the hardships and vagaries that frequent unfavorable weather or adverse markets could deliver.

To be sure, there is still a  large gap in cash earnings of city and rural Chinese. This will likely always be true in China, as it is in the US and Europe. But, the gap in living costs is similarly large. You need far less money to live acceptably well in China’s countryside. The health care and education systems in rural China are also undergoing very powerful change, getting both better and cheaper for locals. While you can’t measure it precisely, because of huge differences in relative prices and purchasing power, my view is that the quality-of-life differential between city and rural China is fast getting narrower, rather than wider.

One primary force behind this change is the shift of more agricultural production to a wage-based system where peasants work as hired labor for the food, landscaping, Chinese medicine industries among others. In most cases, peasants are paid a guaranteed wage and given training as well as free fertilizer and pesticides to grow crops on their own land or fields leased by large companies. Beyond the basic wage, most will also earn bonuses depending on output. The bonuses may either be in cash or in kind: the peasant gets to keep and sell output above a pre-agreed minimum.

In Chinese, this rapidly-spreading agricultural contract production system is called 订单农业,”dingdan nongye“. It means farming done to fulfill fixed orders, at a fixed price, rather than growing things subject to the vagaries of nature and day-to-day market pricing. Deng Xiaoping gave peasants back their own land to farm. This new system is reducing much of the risk and struggle associated with peasant toil.

In Europe and the US, governments guarantee farmers a minimum income. But, their way of doing this is through market-distorting subsidies and protectionism that leads to higher food prices for consumers. The Chinese system is manifestly better.

In the last three years, I’ve visited quite a few companies and farming areas using this system as a key part of their business model. It is working well by all accounts, and spreading very quickly across rural China. From what I’m told, there is never a shortage of local peasants eager to participate in schemes like this. At a stroke, these peasants become fully part of the cash economy. Not only is the risk eliminated of suffering through a bad year, but it’s often possible for these peasants to work on, and profit from, a larger piece of land than their own small family plot.

In effect, this agricultural “putting out” system mirrors the way a lot of the manufacturing industry is organized in China. Manufacturing workers are given a fixed amount of work to do each month in return for a basic salary, and the promise of being paid regular bonuses for all output above the minimum. A similar system, for example, is in place at Foxconn, to encourage and reward all those thousands of workers turning out Apple iPads and iPhones.

In agriculture, this system solves one of a perennial problems both of Chinese farming and the Chinese food processing industry — small farm size, and so a lack of scale production. One example: I’m friendly with the boss of one of China’s largest brand-name “cellophane noodles” companies. They make vermicelli from sweet potato flour, a popular product across a lot of China. They need each year to secure an ever larger quantity of high-quality sweet potatoes. They can’t buy or rent an adequate amount of the land to farm themselves. So, they rely on a large number of Sichuan peasants to grow for them, based on annual contracts, with fixed salary and bonus.

A similar system is used by China’s largest producer of certain roots used commonly in Chinese medicine. The company now has about 35,000 acres under cultivation in an area of Northwestern China most suitable for producing these medicinal herbs. The local peasants have been growing these herbs for centuries, but with variable quality and unpredictable yields. The company has systematized the growing process. The impact on local peasant incomes has been profoundly positive.  In addition, it now means there is a reliable supply of high-quality pharmacologically-active plants being grown every year. The company provides seeds, fertilizer, and what’s known in America as “agricultural extension” — experts who work with local peasants to make sure everything is being grown efficiently, using the correct amount of fertilizer and irrigation.

The owner of this Chinese medicine herbs business also owns the largest beef processing company in this region of China. Here too, the basic production process is the same — peasants raise the cattle for the company, following strict standards, in return for salaries and bonuses.

The Chinese government, which is attentive to the need to improve rural living standards, is generally supportive of this agricultural contracting system. In some cases, they will also rent farm land to companies on condition that they use this wage-based system to employ local peasants. I have no first-hand knowledge of any skullduggery here, of peasants being turfed off their own land, so that they must take jobs working for some giant food company. Does it happen? Might it happen? China is a big country, with half a billion peasants. But, my sense is that overall, this new agricultural production system is an optimal way to increase incomes and decrease the toil and hardships of farming in China.

Along with helping peasants to live better, and drawing more peasants back home from factory jobs in urban areas, it’s also allowing agricultural processing companies to grow larger in scale, and increase the quality and distribution of their products. I have the opportunity to travel quite often in rural and semi-rural parts of China. I’m always struck, as an American, by the contrast between farmland in China and the US. America is blessed with so much fertile, flat and well-irrigated land.

In China, farmland discloses even to an untrained eye the fact it’s been in continuous cultivation for longer than just about anywhere else on the planet. The land looks tapped out, and chopped into parcels too small for machinery or efficient growing.  Nothing is going to change this. But, the new system of guaranteed wages, provided along with the necessary inputs or fertilizer and pesticide, is perhaps the most workable solution, as well as the one providing the most direct benefits to those who work the land.

Thirty-five years on, China’s market economy remains the most successful engine ever for lifting masses of farming people out of poverty.

 

 

Beyond the Hype, Shenzhen Qianhai Economic Zone — Article in AVCJ Magazine

August 31st, 2013 No comments

avcj logo

AVCJ China First Capital

 

 

The Qianhai economic zone in Shenzhen is being primed as China’s next global financial services hub, a place where private equity firms can raise local currency funds from overseas investors. How is it getting on?

A small but burgeoning town on the outskirts of Shenzhen, Qianhai already has a fulsome epithet to which it can aspire – the “Manhattan of the Pearl River Delta.” With an imposing urban skyline sketched on architects charts and potentially even bolder financial reforms in the pipeline, local residents are quick to draw parallels between iconic downtown New York and ambitions writ large on the walls of the well-appointed Qianhai Authority Bureau Office.

The reality – a 15 square-kilometer site that is still basically a muddy piece of muddy reclaimed land – reminds visitors of just how far this economic zone has to go.

Much the same can be said of Qianhai’s attention-grabbing financial initiative: allowing renminbi to flow freely across the boundary with Hong Kong. This latest effort to internationalize China’s currency will, in theory, see locally-registered companies receive renminbi-denominated loans from Hong Kong banks, and locally-registered private equity funds raise renminbi capital from Hong Kong investors.

Several high-profile PE players have already bought into the idea. The Blackstone Group and KKR have reportedly held preliminary talks with the Qianhai authorities; John Zhao, CEO of Hony Capital, expressed interest in raising his next local currency fund via Qianhai; and Yawei Wang, who built a reputation as one of China’s top stock pickers during a 14-year career as a mutual fund manager with China Asset Management, registered a company in the zone.

But there remains a lot of talk and little action. Yung-Hoi Tse, chairman of Hong Kong-based BOCI-Prudential Asset Management, who also served as a consultant in the Qianhai Advisory Committee, attributes this to a lack of clarity as to what can be done with capital once it gets there.

“It is still a small universe because the offshore renminbi can only be invested in Qianhai as it stands,” Tse says. “Foreign enterprises expect to be able to ramp up their business and investments in Shenzhen, and in neighboring cities in Guangzhou province, later on. However, there is still uncertainty because no detailed rules have been introduced.”

This means a Hong Kong bank can lend to property developers responsible for building Qianhai, but not to those operating elsewhere. Similarly, a private equity firm could deploy its newly raised renminbi corpus in local companies, but no further. Little wonder they are still sitting on the sidelines.

A bright idea

Unveiled three years ago, the Qianhai Shenzhen-Hong Kong Modern Service Industry Cooperation Zone is intended to be part-port, part-trading hub, an integrated financial services, logistics and information technology platform on the threshold of China, just half an hour’s drive from Hong Kong. A total of $45 billion has been earmarked for the project.

As an added sweetener for the financial sector, firms that set up shop in Qianhai will receive tax breaks and permission to issue renminbi-denominated bonds.

The problem is China’s economic zones are no longer that special – there are too many of them and they offer similar incentives packages. President Xi Jinping chose to visit Qianhai on his first official trip outside Beijing in January, so clearly there is high-level support. And the new economic zone clearly wants to leverage Hong Kong’s financial strength and status as an offshore renminbi center. But can the magic last?

Seven years ago, Binhai New Area in Tianjin municipality became China’s first testing bed for financial services reforms. Located by the Bohai Sea, Binhai was supposed to replicate development seen in Shenzhen and Shanghai’s Pudong New Area. This coincided with the emergence of domestic private equity and it led to the creation of Bohai Industrial Investment Funds, a vehicle backed by a slew of state-owned enterprises that invested in small-scale high-tech manufacturing businesses.

Tianjin won its own epithet – the “private equity paradise” – thanks to tax incentives and easier registration processes. However, loose controls have proved liberating and limiting, with thousands of individual investors – who suffered losses after investing in unqualified managers – taking to the streets in protest at what they saw as poor government oversight of fundraising.

“Each local government has been aggressively looking to the central government to approve preferential policies, in particular to attract private equity investment,” says Frank Han, executive director at Bohai Industrial Investment Fund Management. “Qianhai was doing a massive amount of PR work last year. However, what they have is just a regulatory framework with no detailed implementation rules.”

As such, Qianhai risks running into the same problem as Tianjin – aggressively promoting the industry while underlying policy is uncertain and inadvertently straying beyond the central government’s comfort zone.

Replicating the success of Tianjin will also be difficult because the industry has changed enormously since 2006, when to all intents and purposes domestic private equity did not exist. By contrast, Qianhai’s renminbi fundraising initiative was announced at a time when local managers had no trouble attracting capital.

Had the astonishing highs of 2011 been maintained – $32.2 billion went into 235 renminbi funds in 2011 – or moderated slightly, by now firms might have been expected to be laying the groundwork. Instead, they are fighting for survival. Hurt by uncertainty in the IPO market, 46 local funds attracted just $8.9 billion in commitments in the first seven months of 2013.

“Long term, China private equity should have an outstanding future and Qianhai should become an important cluster of investors, bankers, lawyers and accountants. By an accident of timing, however, Qianhai launched during a time of unprecedented crisis and downturn in China PE,” says Peter Fuhrman, chairman and CEO of Shenzhen-based China First Capital.

Limited activity

This state of affairs has no doubt contributed to the slow pick up in Qianhai. About 600 enterprises have registered to open offices in the zone, 70% of which are financial institutions, including a handful of private equity firms.

To date, Shenzhen Raytai Fund Management is the only one to raise a fund domiciled in Qianhai, targeting RMB10 billion ($1.63 billion) over a seven-year period (investments will be made concurrently). The firm was aiming for a first close of RMB10 million but reduced it to RMB5 million, with more than a half the capital coming from the GP’s own coffers.

“We see the IPO hiatus as a chance to make good M&A investments,” says Peter Kwong, a partner at the firm. “A lot of enterprises are under pressure to exit, having agreed to valuation adjustment mechanisms with PE investors, which guarantee a certain level of return from an IPO within a short period of time. We will buy majority stakes in these companies and exit them to listed companies that are looking to expand.”

According to the Qianhai registration center, only five foreign private equity firms have filed for permission from the Shenzhen government to raise offshore renminbi in Hong Kong. Their caution is rooted in uncertainty – about investment restrictions and, by extension, how big the Qianhai project could actually become.

“What does Qianhai have to offer that other places in China cannot? If it’s only the possibility for some offshore renminbi to come back legally into China, then that’s a bit of a damp squib.” a China-focused GP says. “That could happen anywhere, with the right policy, or everywhere once the renminbi becomes fully convertible.”

Hong Kong investors are more sophisticated than their mainland counterparts and have access to global markets. In this context, a fund that only invests in a particular Shenzhen district might not be attractive.

Furthermore, it is unclear whether the enterprises engaged in cross-border trading that hold most of the renminbi in Hong Kong would be interested in private equity at all. The traditional target investors – financial institutions – are subsidiaries of overseas entities and fund managers are skeptical of how much renminbi they could raise from local institutions.

“The Hong Kong subsidiaries of Chinese banks have large renminbi deposit bases, but they can’t invest in private equity. Large Chinese enterprises would have to be the primary fundraising targets,” says S.C. Mak, founding partner of Hong Kong-based Fuel Capital.

Foreign or local?

Another problem is that renminbi vehicles that include capital from offshore sources don’t qualify for local treatment on investments.

This is an extension of the “Blackstone guidance” issued in 2012. Following the introduction of the Qualified Foreign Limited Partnership (QFLP) program, which allows foreign capital to be channeled into renminbi vehicles, the Shanghai government said these funds would be able to operate on an equal footing with local players if less than 5% of the total corpus came from overseas. This implied less bureaucracy slowing down approvals and fewer restrictions on target investment areas.

However, when The Blackstone Group asked for clarification on this point, the National Development and Reform Commission indicated that local treatment would not apply to Blackstone “and this type of situation where the GP is foreign-invested.”

This has hampered the fundraising hopes of renminbi vehicles launched by global PE firms. The expectation is the same would apply to funds domiciled in Qianhai, which also operates a QFLP program.

BOCI’s Tse links the restrictions to wider government concerns about controlling inflows of speculative “hot money” that have the potential to destabilize the economy.

“They want to keep record of how that foreign capital is being used in the country and whether they are really supporting China’s physical economic growth,” he says. “Even though Qianhai is more convenient for foreign exchange conversion, every project is still examined by the regulator on deal-by-deal basis. This will dampen foreign investors’ appetite.”

Although plenty of companies have registered to open offices in Qianhai, so far none are in operation, which means investment targets are limited – unsurprising given the zone is still in its nascent stages.

There are plans for infrastructure that can support small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Three months ago, the Qianhai Equity Exchange launched with the bold ambition to become Shenzhen’s biggest over-the-counter exchange. Companies do not require administrative approval to list, there are no custodial fees or mandated changes in corporate structure, and information disclosure is limited.

More than 1,700 SMEs have listed via the online platform, but VC investors are unconvinced by it as a source of deals.

“It won’t help fund managers. Professional investors tend to work on their own targeted deal flows, which usually stay low-profile. Once a start-up is put online and enters the public domain the valuation jumps to a very high level. Investors therefore might not want to compete for these deals,” says York Chen, president and managing partner of iD TechVentures.

Even the tax breaks available to certain industries in Qianhai have drawn skepticism from some quarters. The corporate income tax rate has been set at 15%, compared to 25% nationally, and there are also plans to lower personal income tax rates for financial services professionals. Other cities in China have made similar promises but Danny Po, Asia Pacific and China national leader of M&A tax services at Deloitte, argues that comparisons should really be drawn with what is available to foreign PE firms offshore.

“In cases where a fund is managed entirely from offshore, it is only required to pay a withholding tax of 10% and zero corporate income tax because its tax transparent structure,” he explains. “As for individual income tax reductions, it really comes to a question of how much of a foreign executive’s income is driven by China business. If his salary is mostly generated from overseas operations, it isn’t important.”

Although the current prognosis might be negative, Qianhai remains a work in progress. Given a more favorable renminbi fundraising environment and a clear set of rules supporting the financial services industry, the project could still fly. The former is difficult to remedy but the latter can be addressed through more lobbying of the central government.

There is no doubt that Qianhai is well positioned to serve as a testing bed for capital account liberalization and currency convertibility, by which point the current rigid line between foreign and domestic investment will blur.

A number of industry participants therefore prefer to treat Qianhai as a broader financial sector play rather than a solely private equity phenomenon – not just because of government incentives for setting up financial institutions in the zone, but also because of the immense opportunities offered by China’s asset management sector.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” adds Zhang Ying, counsel at domestic law firm Fangda Partners. “The developments in the onshore asset management sector will create a conducive macro environment for onshore private equity fundraising and investments.”

 

Shenzhen: A beacon for private enterprises — China Daily

April 22nd, 2013 No comments


 

A beacon for private enterprises

2013-04-20

By Hu Haiyan and Chen Hong ( China Daily)

Shenzhen bears a superficial resemblance to Shanghai. There are dozens of multinationals and gleaming skyscrapers casting their shadows over narrow lanes. Their respective economic performances last year were also similar: Shenzhen’s GDP hit 1.3 trillion yuan ($210 billion), gaining by 10 percent from 2012. Shanghai GDP reached 2 trillion yuan, increasing by 7.5 percent from 2011.

Both are testing grounds for China’s economic reform policies. Still, for Peter Fuhrman, 54, Shenzhen is a private-sector city, a city that has its face pointed toward the future.

In 2009, Fuhrman moved to Shenzhen from California. The chairman and CEO of China First Capital, an international investment bank and advisory firm focused on China, he is always struck by how similar Shenzhen and California are.

“Both are places where new technologies, and valuable new technology companies, are born and nurtured. I treasure the role Shenzhen has played over these last 30 years in helping architect a new China of renewed purpose and importance in the world,” Fuhrman says. “It is impossible to imagine a US without California. It is so much the source of what makes America great. Shenzhen, too, is a major source of what makes China great, what makes this country such a joy for me to live in. “

More

Download PDF version.

 


A Bond Market for Private Companies in China

September 25th, 2012 No comments

Capital allocation in China was built on a wobbly pedestal. One of its three legs was missing. Equity investment and bank lending were available. But, there was no legal way for private companies to issue bonds.  That has now changed. In May this year, the Chinese government approved the establishment of a market for private company bonds in China. This is an important breakthrough, the most significant since the launch three years ago by the Shenzhen Stock Exchange of the Chinext board (创业板) for high-growth private companies. The new bond market has the potential to dramatically increase the scale of funding for private business in China.

Companies can issue bonds through a group of approved underwriters in China, who place the bonds with Chinese institutions. The bonds then trade on secondary markets established by both the Shenzhen or Shanghai stock exchanges. Bonds should lower the cost of capital for Chinese companies, and provide attractive returns for fixed-income investors. Another positive effect: the bonds disintermediate Chinese banks, which for too long have overcharged and under-served private company borrowers.

Up to now, though, China’s private company bond market is off to a bumpy start. Regulators are over-cautious, investors are inexperienced, companies are confused, the secondary markets are lacking in liquidity. We have no direct involvement in the private company bond market. We don’t issue or trade these instruments. But, we are eager to see private company bonds succeed in China. It will increase the capital available for good companies, and allow companies to achieve a more well-balanced capital structure. Capital remains in very short supply. Many PE firms in China have recently cut back rather dramatically in their funding to private companies, because of a decline in China’s stock market and a marked slowdown in the number of IPOs approved in China.

We recently prepared for the Chinese entrepreneurs we work with a short briefing memo on private company bonds. It’s in Chinese. The title is  “中国中小企业私募债”. You can download a copy by clicking here.

We explain some of the practical steps, as well as the potential benefits, for companies interested to float bonds. At the moment, only companies based in a handful of China’s more economically-advanced provinces (including Shanghai, Guangdong, Zhejiang, Jiangsu) may issue the bonds. Most underwriters expect the geographical limitations to ease, over the next year, allowing companies in all parts of the country to participate. There is no clear threshold on how big a company must be to issue bonds. But, there is a clear preference for larger businesses, with profits of at least Rmb20mn (USD$3mn). In several cases, underwriters have pooled together several smaller companies into a single bond issue. Real estate developers, currently hurting because of the cut-off in bank lending to this industry, are not eligible to issue bonds.

In theory, a company can issue bonds without offering collateral or third-party loan guarantees, both of which are required by banks to secure a typical short-term corporate loan. In practice, however, the market is signaling strongly it prefers these kinds of risk protections. Interest rates on some of the private company bonds already issued have been below the levels typically charged by banks for secured lending. But, the rate is starting to move up, to over 10%. My guess is that interest rates for good borrowers should move back below 10%. That level offers bondholders a very solid real rate of return, and prices in the risk. In the US and Europe, decent companies can borrow at LIBOR+4-6%, or around 5%-7% a year.

Overall, as the new bond market expands and matures, we expect these bonds to offer the lowest cost of capital for growth companies in China. Bond maturities can be as long as three years;  interest and principal payments can be structured to accommodate future cash flows. This is generally far more suitable than the rigid short-term lending facilities available from Chinese banks.

Underwriters are promising companies they can complete the process of issuing a bond, including regulatory approvals, in three months or less. That’s remarkably quick for any capital markets transaction in China, and reflects the fact China’s finicky securities regulator, the CSRC, has no role in approving private company bonds. The Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets regulate and approve bond issuance.

PE firms are starting to notice that access to bond market gives private companies more leverage and a little more pricing power when negotiating equity financing. The Chinese companies that can successfully issue bonds are generally the ones that PE firms also target.  Over time, though, PE firms should welcome the emergence of a functioning private company bond market in China.  The new bond market gives companies, including those with PE investment, an opportunity ahead of a domestic IPO to operate in the capital market, build a reputation for transparency and good performance. This should mean a higher IPO valuation if and when the company does decide to go public.

 

 

“If You Are Going to Do Something, Do It Big”

March 27th, 2012 No comments

The first thing that strikes you is complete geographic implausibility of it all. In a rural corner of China’s barren, sparsely-populated and dusty Loess Plateau, sits an enormous complex of factories, dormitories, roads, and train tracks occupying an area of 38 square kilometers (14.6 square miles, almost 19 million square feet). That’s over half the size of Manhattan, 58 times larger than LA’s Disneyland, three times larger than the world’s busiest international airport, Heathrow in London.

The site belongs to a single Chinese company. It’s private, been in business less than a decade, has come from nowhere to become the world’s largest manufacturer of a critical component used in steel production, with likely revenues this year of over USD$1.5 billion (Rmb10 billion), profits of over USD$130 million , and assets of over USD$2.4 billion (Rmb 15 billion).  It’s 99% owned by its founder and chairman, with the other 1% held by his wife and daughter. By any measures, it is among the largest private industrial companies in the world, and certainly among the fastest ever to get to $1 billion in sales.

Not only have you never heard of it, neither has virtually everyone in China. It’s never listed among the biggest private companies in China. Its owner is never included among the ranks of the country’s private sector billionaires. Just how unknown is this remarkably successful entrepreneur? Here’s one measure. Believe me, I’m a big nobody in China. But, a Baidu search turns up more articles and references to me and my company than to this company boss and his.  In terms of orders of magnitude, his company employs about 2,000 times more people than mine, and occupies a premises that’s about, well, 190,000 times larger.

I’m not going to disclose the company or the boss’s name. We’re in discussions with them, and it would be unprofessional to do so. None of my competitors, as well as virtually no credible PE firms,  have visited the company.

My purpose here is two-fold: to shed a little light on a remarkable individual entrepreneurial achievement and also to give some sense of the scale of entrepreneurial greatness in China. I find myself, more often than I’d like, drawn into discussions – occasionally arguments – with people in the US and Europe about how entrepreneurship in China is in a class by itself, compared to everywhere else in the world, excepting perhaps the US and Israel.

Entrepreneurs are more numerous here (over 70 million private companies) and the best ones, numbering at least in the thousands, have created more wealth and spawned more positive societal progress in the last ten years than any other single group of people on the planet. I live in a perpetual state of wonder, doing what I do for a living in China, having occasion to meet entrepreneurs of the caliber of this particular boss.

A little more about him. He is, by my eye, about as modest an individual as you would likely ever run across. The only obvious concession to his enormous wealth is a rose gold watch he wears along with standard-issue baggy Chinese suit. If he sat next to you on a plane, my guess is you’d pin him as the owner of a small hardware store, not the owner of the world’s largest manufacturing business for a component used in a lot of what’s for sale there.

His office is hardly palatial, and sits just above the oldest section of his giant factory complex. He never went to college, and has no engineering or technical background, despite founding and now running one of the more complicated large-scale engineering and manufacturing businesses you’d ever hope to see.

Everything about the man, except his ego, is huge. “If you are going to do something,” he tells me, “do it big.” This applies not only to the huge area his business occupies, but the size of the investments he is making in its future. He is taking his business downstream and building, simultaneously, at least four huge new production sites, with total planned investment of over $3 billion. The local government is busy decapitating the top half of a silt mountain to create a level 500 acre site (about one square mile) for one of these new production areas. He begins building on it this year.

As I drove away from the factory area, I remarked to my colleague that the whole complex must be a source of intense interest at the CIA and National Security Agency in Washington, DC. Satellite photos will show the vast scale of this enterprise, as well as all the construction taking place. One recently-completed building is four stories tall and a mile long, all indoors.

My guess is the two spy agencies aren’t all that sure what exactly is being produced or planned here. I drove through it. Within a year, it will start producing steel products for the auto and home appliance industry.

How did this one entrepreneur build such a huge business is such a short time? Obviously, good timing, luck, some support from his local government and banks played a part. But, one key factor was a gamble he made in 2008 that paid off big time. When the financial crisis hit, his state-owned competitors (there were once three within a few hundred miles of him) cut way back on raw material purchases. This boss did the opposite. He exploited a steep drop in commodity prices, bought big and so locked in very large profits when customer demand began to pick up in 2009. Of course, had prices kept falling, he would have likely been bankrupt. His state-owned competitors? Now, all out of business.

Just about every “yuan” of profit he earns is poured back into expanding production. His bank loans are moderate –  about 10% of total assets. He’s only drawn down 70% of the credit lines provided by local banks. Measured by scale (factory size, employees, revenues) his company is similar to many larger SOEs in China. Asked to make a comparison, he explains that SOEs target only top line growth — girth for its own sake. He is far more focused on making money. The projected annual rate of return on newer projects is well above 25%.

He’s thinking about an IPO within two to three years. At a guess, his business could have a market capitalization at that point in excess of USD$8 billion. An IPO on that scale will bring him a lot of unwanted notoriety. He would likely instantly be vaulted into the ranks of the five hundred richest people on the planet. Billionaires in China rarely have it easy. Quite a few seem to end up in prison, or targeted by waves of bad publicity. For him, the real appeal of going public is the potential to raise an additional $1.5 billion to $3 billion to invest in further downstream expansion.

Whether or not my company works with his, it was one of the signal delights of my 35-year professional career to meet this entrepreneur, tour his factories and eat in his dining room.  At this moment in history, China is the entrepreneurial center of the world.

A Sense of Place – The Key Role of Laojia in Forging Chinese Identity

February 7th, 2012 4 comments

Ask Chinese where the country’s leader Hu Jintao comes from and you will be told “Anhui Province”. Simple. Except it isn’t. In Jiangsu province recently, I was told by several locals that Hu was raised and schooled in Taizhou, a small city in the northeastern corner of their province. Disinformation meant to confound a foreigner? Apparently not.

In this case, as well as in China more generally, both can be true simultaneously true, that a person is said to come from one place, although he was actually born and raised in another. The reason for this seeming conundrum is the central importance Chinese themselves place on the concept of 老家,(“laojia”), literally one’s “old home”. It is, after asking someone’s name, the most common as well as most pertinent question you hear people ask one another when first introduced, “where in your laojia?” .

Chinese ask because nothing else is meant to be as telling, as shorthand, in determining the character, interests, personal habits, even taste in food of a person you’ve just met. Your laojia is Henan? It’s a place of con artists and simple poor peasants. Hubei? The smartest Chinese come from here.  Guangdong? Not keen on education but good at making money. Shandong? Strongly influenced by the values of the province’s native son, Confucius. And so on.

Laojia matters because Chinese are convinced it does. Living here, I’ve adopted the habit of asking a person’s laojia and have come to see it as providing some clues to a person’s character – if nothing else, it can often indicate a person’s tolerance for spicy food, preference for noodles or rice, yen for hard liquor.

In Hu Jintao’s case, he is considered a native of Anhui because his grandparents (and probably innumerable generations before them) came from this region of China. It is meant to inform his judgment, personality and provide the main reason Anhui Province is said to have experienced very high gdp growth during Hu’s tenure. He oversaw policies and spending decisions that gave a big boost to this once-poor area of China.  In US politics, this is known as “bringing home the bacon”.

And yet, from what I was told, Hu has little personal connection to Anhui. He was born and spent all his formative years in Jiangsu.  His grandparents emigrated there.  Then and now Jiangsu was among the most developed, economically successful areas of China, with a strong tradition of higher education and high professional achievement.

Hu’s spoken Chinese bears no trace of an Anhui accent, or any regional accent for that matter. His working years before becoming China’s party secretary were spent in various corners of the country, including Tibet and Guizhou, but never in Anhui. But, from what I was told, his parents raised him on Anhui food, and with a strong sense of identity as “安徽人”, or a person whose laojia is Anhui. My guess is that is you asked him to name his laojia, he would say “Anhui”.

China’s likely next leader, Xi Jinping, is a born and bred Beijinger.  He is about to embark on an important visit to the US, a kind of trial run ahead of his elevation to the top spot as Party Secretary later this year. He is son of a first generation leader of the Communist Party, and grew up, it is widely assumed, with all the perks available to a child of one of the country’s top officials.  And yet, his laojia is considered to be Shaanxi, the ancestral home of his father, and a place he was sent to at 16 years old, during the Cultural Revolution.

Shaanxi is the cultural and historical heartland of Han China. Xi, it is widely assumed, will bring to the job of China’s leader not so much the values of a Beijing son of high privilege and power, known in Chinese as a 太子党, or “Communist Party Prince” but the practicality and diligence of Shaanxi folk.

 When Chinese find out I’m American, they often follow up by asking “where do your ancestors come from?” In effect, I’m being asked to name my laojia. I offer the answer (in my case, Middle Europe) and also a quick discourse on why this idea of laojia hasn’t such resonant meaning outside China.  Americans tend to be far more interested in where a person was raised and schooled, rather than the locus of the ancestral burial ground.  Anyway, I often explain to Chinese that as a Jew, my ancestors were pretty much on the run for 1,900 years before disembarking from a ship on New York’s Ellis Island over a century ago. We have no ancestral burial ground. No home turf. I am, for all practical purposes, a person without a laojia.

That would never be possible – or acceptable – for a native Chinese. Laojia provides a middle layer of identity for all Chinese, between family and country. Yet, unlike those other two, laojia is often as much mystical as it is practical.

For many Chinese, not just the current and likely future leader of China, one’s laojia may be a place you’ve seldom, if ever, visited. And yet it’s also the root source of one’s values and preferences, shaping one’s choice of friends, profession, entertainment, food. In China, one can be of a place but not from it.


Xinjiang Is Changing the Way China Uses and Profits From Energy

November 18th, 2011 No comments

 

Two truisms about China should carry the disclaimer “except in Xinjiang”. China is a densely-populated country, except in Xinjiang. China is short on natural resources, except in Xinjiang. Representing over 15% of the China’s land mass, but with a population of just 30 million, or 0.2% of the total, Xinjiang stretches 1,000 miles across northwestern China, engulfing not only much of the Gobi Desert, but some of China’s most arable farmland as well. Mainly an arid plateau, Xinjiang is in places as green and fertile as Southern England.

Underneath much of that land, we are beginning to learn, lies some of the world’s largest and richest natural resource deposits, including huge quantities of minerals China is otherwise desperately short of, including high-calorie and clean-burning coal, copper, iron ore, petroleum.  How, when and at what cost China exploits Xinjiang’s natural resources will be among the deciding issues for China’s economy over the next thirty years. Already, some remarkable progress is being made, based on two past visits. I return to Xinjiang tomorrow for five days of client meetings.

Because of its vast size and small population, Xinjiang hasn’t yet had its mineral resources fully probed and mapped. But, every year, the size of its proven resource base expands. Knowing there’s wealth under the ground, and finding a cost-effective way to dig out the minerals and get them to market are, of course,  very different things. Until recently, Xinjiang’s transport infrastructure – roads and railways – was far from adequate to provide a cost-efficient route to market for all the mineral wealth.

That bottleneck is being tackled, with new expressways opening every year, and plans underway to expand dramatically the rail network. But, transport can’t alter the fact Xinjiang is still very remote from the populated core of China’s fast-growing industrial and consumer economy. Example:  it can still be cheaper to ship a ton of iron ore from Australia to Shanghai than from areas in Xinjiang.

Xinjiang’s key resource, and the one with the largest potential market, is high-grade clean-burning coal. Xinjiang is loaded with the stuff, with over 2 trillion tons of proven reserves. Let that figure sink in. It’s the equivalent of over 650 years of current coal consumption in coal-dependent China . The Chinese planners’ goal is for Xinjiang to supply about 25% of China’s coal demand within ten years.

Xinjiang’s coal is generally both cleaner (low sulphur content) and cheaper to mine than the coal China now mainly relies on, much of which comes from a belt of deep coal running through Inner Mongolia, Shanxi and Shandong Provinces. Large coal seams in Xinjiang can be surface mined. Production costs of under Rmb150 a ton are common. The current coal price in China is over four times higher for the dirtier, lower-energy stuff.

For all its advantages, Xinjiang coal is not going to become a primary source of energy in China. The Chinese government, rightly, understands that the cost, complexity and long distances involved make shipping vast quantities of Xinjiang coal to Eastern China unworkable. Moving coal east would monopolize Xinjiang’s rail and road network, causing serious distortions in the overall economy.

Instead, the Xinjiang government is doing something both smart and innovative. It is encouraging companies to use Xinjiang’s abundant coal as a feedstock to produce lower cost supplies of industrial products and chemicals now produced using petroleum. All kinds of things become cost-efficient to manufacture when you have access to large supplies of low-cost energy from coal. Shipping finished or intermediate goods is obviously a better use of Xinjiang’s limited transport infrastructure.

I’ve seen and met the bosses of several of these large coal-based private sector projects in Xinjiang. The scale and projected profitability of these projects is awesome. In one case, a private company is using a coal mine it developed to power its $500mn factory to produce the plastic PVC. The coal reserve was provided for free, in return for the company’s agreement to invest and build the large chemical factory next to it. The cost of producing PVC at this plant should be less than one-third that of PVC made using petroleum. China’s PVC market, as well as imports, are both staggeringly large. The new plant will not only lower the cost of PVC in China but reduce China’s demand for petroleum and its byproducts.

Another company, one of the largest private companies in China,  is using its Xinjiang coal reserve, again supplied for free in return for investment in new factories, to power a large chemical plant to produce glycerine and other chemical intermediates. This company is already a large producer of these chemicals at its factories in Shandong. There, they run on petroleum. In the new Xinjiang facility, coal will be used instead, lowering overall manufacturing costs by at least 20% – 30% based on an oil price of around $50. At current oil prices, the cost savings, and margins, become far richer.

The key, of course, is that the companies get the coal reserve for free, or close to it. True, they need to build the coal mine first, but generally, that isn’t a large expense, since it can all be surface-mined.  This means that the cost of energy in these very energy-intensive projects is much lower than it would be for plants using petroleum or, to be fair, any operator elsewhere who would need to purchase the coal reserve as well as build the capital-intensive downstream facilities.

The Xinjiang projects should lock-in a significant cost advantage over a significant period of time. As investments, they also should provide consistently high returns over the long-term. While the capital investment is large, I’m confident the projects are attractive on risk/return basis, and that in a few years time, these private sector “coal-for-petroleum” projects will begin to go public, and become large and successful public companies.

The Xinjiang government keeps close tabs on this process of providing free coal reserves for use as a feedstock.  Since in most cases, these projects are looking to enter large markets now dominated by petroleum and its byproducts, there is ample room for more such deals to be done in Xinjiang.

Deals are getting larger. This summer, China’s largest coal producer, Shenhua Group, announced it would invest Rmb 52 billion ($8 billion) on a coal-to-oil project in Xinjiang. The company plans to mine 70 million tons of coal a year and turn it into three million tons of fuel oil.

Remote and sparsely-populated as it now is, Xinjiang is going to play a decisive role in China’s industrial and energy future, just as the development of America’s West has helped drive economic growth for over 100 years, and created some of America’s largest fortunes.  My prediction:  China’s West will produce more coal and mineral billionaires over the next 100 years than America’s has over the past hundred.

What is the Major Source of China’s Economic Competitiveness? Surprise, it’s Not Labor Prices

October 17th, 2011 No comments

 

True of false? The basis of China’s global economic competitiveness is cheap labor? False. It’s cheap factory land.

No doubt,  until a few years ago, China’s low labor costs were a vital part of its economic growth story. That is no longer the case. Labor costs have risen sharply in the last five years. There are now many countries with a decided labor cost advantage over China. And yet China remains the “factory of the world”. For one thing, its workers have higher productivity than those earning lower wages in countries like Vietnam, India or Indonesia.

But, there is a more fundamental, and most often overlooked, reason for China’s global economic competitiveness. Factories, and other productive assets like mines or logistics centers, are built on land that is either free of close to it. The result is that in China land costs usually represent an inconsequential component of overall manufacturing and operating costs. This, in turn, gives China an inbuilt edge and, when added to the productivity of its workers, an insurmountable cost advantage over the rest of the world.

There is no good international data on the percentage of a company’s fixed costs that come from purchase or rental of land. But, it is certainly the case that in China, this percentage will be far lower than in any developed – and many developing – countries. This isn’t because land is cheap in China. It isn’t. The market price, in most areas, is often on par with land costs in the US. But, good businesses in China don’t pay market price. Often they pay nothing at all.

This has two useful aspects for the favored Chinese business. First, it means the cost of expanding operations is limited primarily to the cost of new capital equipment and factory construction. Second, the business given a plot of land is thus endowed with a valuable asset it can use as collateral to secure more funding from banks. Even better, if the business runs into trouble or later goes bust, the owner will be able to sell the land at market price and pocket a huge personal gain.

It can’t be overstated just how important this is to a business owner’s calculation of risk, and so the success of Chinese entrepreneurial companies. Owners know that if all goes bad, they still hold land acquired for little or nothing for that is worth millions of dollars.

All land in China belongs to the Chinese government. Every year, a fraction of it is released on a long-term lease (usually forty years or longer) for development into commercial or residential land. While there is no official central policy to make land available at low prices to successful businesses, in practice, this is the way the system works. Land is sold at deeply-discounted prices, or given outright, to businesses that are seeking to expand, often by building a new factory or office building.

Land in China, it goes without saying, is in very high demand. It’s a crowded country, and only 15% of the land is flat or fertile enough to be suitable for cultivation. This “good land” is also where most new factories get built.

There isn’t enough new land released every year to meet the enormous demand. This is true both for residential land, a key reason why housing prices are so high, and commercial land. For most businessmen, it’s impossible to get new land, at any price. A privileged group, however, not only gets land to expand, but gets it at artificially low prices. In China, land prices are elastic. Different levels of government have ways to transfer land to companies at prices equal to 5%-15% of its current market value.

Officially, the land allocation system in China is meant to work in a more market-oriented way, with new land for development being auctioned publicly, and selling prices controlled and verified by higher levels of government. In other words, the system is meant to discourage, if not prohibit, land being given to insiders at low prices. In practice, these rules are often more observed in the breach. Local governments have ways to control the outcome of land auctions and so guarantee that favored businesses get the land they want at attractive prices.

These below-market sales deprive the local government of revenue it might otherwise earn from a land deal done at closer to market prices. But, there is some economic logic at work. The sweetest of sweetheart land deals are generally offered to successful companies whose growth is being stifled by insufficient factory space. The new land, and the new factories that will be built there, will increase local employment and, down the road, tax revenues.

Note, the deeply-discounted land prices are available mainly to companies that are already successful, and straining at the leash to maintain growth and profits. Both private and state-owned companies are eligible. It’s a rare example of even-handed treatment by officials of state-owned and private companies.

Is corruption also a factor? Are cheap land deals really not all that cheap when various under-the-table payments are factored in? My personal experience, though limited, suggests such payoffs, if they happen,  are not compulsory.

I’ve played a walk-on part in several below-market land deals. My role is to meet with local officials, usually the mayor or party secretary,  to urge them to provide my client with the land needed for expansion. All local government officials in China are also motivated by, and rewarded for, having local companies go public. I stick to that point in my discussions with the local officials – my client needs land to grow and so reach the scale where the business can IPO.

In each case, the deal has gone forward, and clients have gotten the land they were seeking, at a price 5-15% of its then-market value. My client wins the trifecta: the business grows larger, unit costs remain low because of scale economies and the cheap land, and the balance sheet is strengthened by a valuable asset purchased on the cheap.

In all respects, this system of commercial land acquisition is unique to China. It is also a key component in the country’s economic policy, though it never has been proclaimed as such. The government at all levels is keen to keep GDP growing smartly. This process of rewarding good companies with cheap land for growth plays a key part in this, everywhere across China. China’s government (at national, provincial and local levels) is not hurting for cash, unlike for example America’s. Tax revenues are growing by upwards of 30% a year. So, maximizing the value of land released for development is not a fiscal priority.

Who loses? There are likely incidences where peasants are thrown off land with little or no compensation to make way for new commercial district. But, that way of doing things is becoming less common in China.

Mainly, of course, the losers are the international competitors of Chinese companies getting cheap land to expand. It’s hard enough to stay in business these days when facing competition from China. It verges on hopeless when the Chinese companies can build output and lower unit prices because of land they get for free or close to it.


Chengdu — Great City, but Where Are the Great Food Companies?

October 4th, 2011 No comments

Ge dish from China First Capital blog post

Among major cities in China, Chengdu takes the prize as most pleasant, livable,  comfortably affluent, relaxed and charming. I arrived back here today. I’m reminded immediately there’s much to like about Chengdu, and one thing to love: the food.

Chengdu is famed for its “小吃”, (“xiaochi”) literally “small eats”. To translate 小吃 as “snack”, as most dictionaries do, doesn’t even remotely begin to do it justice. A 小吃  is a often one-bowl wonder of intense, jarring flavors. They not only take the place of a full meal with rice, they make the Chinese staple seem almost superfluous, a waste of precious space in the stomach.

There are about a dozen小吃 that can stop me in mid-stride, any time of day. These include several varieties of cold noodles, including the bean jelly ones called 凉粉, literally “cold powder”,as well as dandan noodles served dazzlingly hot, in both senses of the word.

My favorite 小吃 , by a wide margin, is 抄手 , literally, “to fold one’s arms”. It’s an odd name, since the last thing I’d ever do when I see a bowl of抄手 in Chengdu is fold my arms. They are always thrust outward, in anticipation.  抄手 is a bowl of wontons steeped in a fire-engine red soupy sauce, optimally with enough Sichuan pepper corn to numb the tongue all the way down the gullet. This frees up the nose to do the real work of decoding all the subtle flavors.

Offiically, Chengdu has a per capital income of around $5,200, about half Shanghai’s. But, I’d prefer living and working in Chengdu any day. So would many Chinese I know. The economy is doing well, despite some geographic disadvantages. Chengdu is the most westerly of China’s large cities, and so isolated from the most developed regions of China. It’s over 1,000 miles to Shanghai, Beijing, and almost as far to Shenzhen.

Chengdu is doing well economically – though you don’t always have a sense this ranks as high on the list of civic priorities as drinking tea and playing mahjong. The electronics and telecom industries are both doing well. Quite a few companies have received PE investment.

The one industry, however, that is still relatively undeveloped is the food business. This is odd. By logic, Chengdu should be a center of China’s food processing and restaurant industry. Not only is it a great food town, situated in a very region valley producing some of China’s best fruits and vegetables, but it is also capital of Sichuan Province.

Sichuan food is almost certainly the most popular “non native” cuisine across China. Within a mile of where I live in Shenzhen, there are probably over 50 Sichuan restaurants. It’s the same in Beijing, Shanghai and most other major cities.

There’s an innate association in Chinese minds between Sichuan and good food. In this, Sichuan reminds me a lot like Italy. Italian food is prized across all of the Western world, and as a result, some of the Western world’s biggest and most successful food companies are based in Italy. Among the larger ones are Barilla, Bertolli, Buitoni, Parmalat, Ferrero. These, and thousands of smaller ones making wine, cheese, salami, all benefit from the widespread popularity of Italian food, and the high market value of associating a food brand with Italy.

Chengdu and Sichuan should be no different. It should be the capital of China’s food processing industry. But, as far as I can tell, there are as of yet no great food companies or food brands based there.  If you shop around in Chengdu, the food products being marketed as “authentic Sichuan food ” are mainly an assortment of beef jerky, along with sweet and savory biscuits made from beans and peanuts.

There’s nothing wrong with any of these products, but there isn’t a big brand national brand among them. The mass market is going unserved.

Let’s look at two of the biggest food product categories where Sichuan brands should predominate: chili sauce and instant noodles. Each of these product areas have sales of billions of dollars a year in China. Yet, the leading brands come from outside Sichuan. In the case of instant noodles, the leaders are mainly Taiwanese and Japanese.

In chili sauce, the biggest brands all seem to come from Guizhou province. This, particularly, should cause a collective loss of face across Sichuan. Their spicy food  “owns” the palettes of hundreds of millions of people and yet the main brands of chili sauce in supermarkets come from the poorer province to its south.

The companies selling bottled pre-made Sichuan sauces (for popular dishes like Gongbao Jiding, Mapo Toufu and Yuxing Rousi) mainly come from Taiwan, Shanghai, even Hong Kong. It’s as if the most popular brands of spaghetti sauce were made in Brazil. Chinese food companies all over are eating Sichuan’s lunch.

This situation is unnatural and, I’d hope, unsustainable. Sichuan companies should by rights eventually dominate the market for many food products in China, much as Italian food companies are among the largest in Europe.

Some lucky PE investors should someday make a lot of money backing Sichuan food companies. Me and my company would love to play our part in this. Ambitious food entrepreneurs in Chengdu, call us anytime — 0755 33222093. If ever there were a billion-dollar unfilled market opportunity in China, this would be it.

 

China: The World’s Best Risk Adjusted Investment Opportunity

August 20th, 2011 1 comment

Seoul, Korea. At the Harvard Project for Asia and International Relations’ annual conference, I gave a talk today titled “China, The World’s Best Risk-Adjusted Investment Opportunity”. A copy of the PPT can be downloaded by clicking here. 

The slides are mainly just talking points, rather than fully fleshed-out contents. The idea was to work backwards from the conclusion, as propounded in the title, to the reasons why. My argument is that a confluence of factors are at work here, to create this agreeable situation where investing in Chinese private companies offers the highest returns relative to risk.

Those factors are:

  1. China’s current stage of six-pronged development (Slide 2)  
  2. A large group of talented entrepreneurs tested and tempered by the difficulties of starting and managing a private business in China (Slide 5)
  3. Plentiful equity capital (from private equity and venture capital firms) with clearly-articulated investment criteria (Slide 6)
  4. An investment strategy that offers multiple ways for capital to impact positively the performance of a private company,  lowering the already-minimal risk an investment will tank (Slide 7)
  5. The returns calculus (Slide 8 ) – the formula here is profits (in USD millions) multiplied by a p/e multiple, producing enterprise valuation. The first equation is an example of investor entry price, pre-IPO, and the second is investor exit price, after a round PE investment and an IPO. The gain is twenty-fold.  Thus do nickels turn into dollars
  6. Downsides – best risk-adjusted returns does not mean risk-free returns. Here are some of the ways that a pre-IPO investment can go bad (Slide 9

Since the audience in Seoul was largely non-Chinese, I also included two slides with the same map of China, illustrating the progression of economic development in China, from a few favored areas on China’s eastern seaboard during the early phases, to the current situation where economic growth, and entrepreneurial talent, is far more broadly-spread across the country.

As a proxy to illustrate this diffusion of economic dynamism across China, slide 4 shows, in gold, the areas of China where CFC has added clients and projects in the last 18 months. Slide 3 shows the original nucleus of economic success in China – Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Beijing. We also have clients in these places. 

On seeing Slide 4, I realized it also displays my travel patterns over the last year.  I’ve been everywhere in red or gold, except Gansu, but adding in Yunnan, during that time. That’s a big bite out of a big country. This trip to Korea is my first flight outside China in two years, excepting a couple of short trips back to the US to see family. 

In the next two weeks, after returning from Korea, I’ll make three separate trips, to Henan, Jiangsu and Beijing, to visit existing clients and meet several potential new ones. While Chinese private SME provide the best risk-adjusted investment returns anywhere, you can’t do much from behind a desk. Opportunity is both widespread and widely-spread.

Chinese Press Interviews

June 7th, 2011 No comments

Back-to-back articles over the last several days in two Chinese dailies, Shenzhen Economic Daily (深圳商报)and Tianjin Ribao (天津日报). In both, I’m rather extensively quoted. You can read them here:

Shenzhen Economic Daily

Tianjin Ribao

For those whose Chinese is wanting (as is mine, some of the time), the Shenzhen Economic Daily article discusses the difficulties Chinese companies have run into after getting listed in the US stock market. One possible solution is to “de-list” these companies, by buying out all public shareholders, then applying for an IPO in China. Could it work? Perhaps, but my guess is that a Chinese company trying the Prodigal Son technique will likely meet with much skepticism from Chinese retail investors.

The article in the Tianjin Ribao is a general survey of developments in private equity in China. It discusses the shifting locus of PE investment towards inland China. This is a development I embrace. The vast majority of China’s vast population lives in places that have no outside equity capital, and no private companies on the stock market.

Over the last six months, I put in the time to prospect in regions that have thus far received little, to no, private equity. I’ve visited companies in Guizhou, Yunnan, Guangxi, Hunan, Sichuan, Qinghai, Henan, Liaoning, Xinjiang, Hebei, Shandong. We’ve taken on clients in quite a number of these. I hope to add more. The one constant in all these prospecting trips: there are outstanding entrepreneurs running outstanding businesses in every corner of this country.

 

 

Say Goodbye to “Zaijian”. Sorry about “duibuqi”

May 12th, 2011 5 comments

crops1311

 

I’m sorry, but there is only one proper way to say “I’m sorry” and “goodbye” in China. Unfortunately, fewer and fewer Chinese seem to agree with me.

The Chinese terms “zaijian (再见)” literally “see you again”, and “duebuqi (对不起”), meaning “I’m sorry”, have been among the most commonly-spoken phrases in China for hundreds of years. But, every day now, they grow less common, like forms of endangered speech.

Why? Because their English equivalents are taking over, everywhere.  Day by day, China is becoming a country where everyone says  “bye-bye” and “sorry”, rather than using the Chinese equivalents.

“Bye-bye” first started to gain popularity a decade ago. Today, it is rampant. Most probably, “bye-bye” entered the vernacular in China via Hong Kong, where it’s long been a main way Cantonese-speaking people say farewell to one another. I’ve never quite gotten used to hearing it in China, and still resolutely refuse to use anything other than “zaijian”.

I have never once knowingly used “bye-bye” anywhere outside China, so I’m certainly not going to use it inside. My own preference, in English, is for either “see you later”, or a simple “bye”.

I always liked the fact that Chinese traditionally bid farewell in the same way as many Italians and French do, by saying “see you again”. By contrast, “bye-bye” has no particularly clear underlying meaning, and sounds rather childish.

In Chinese internet slang, a common way to end an online chat is by writing “886”, in China pronounced “ba-ba-leo”, meant to approximate the sound of “bye-bye” with the addition of the modal particle 了,which indicates an action has been completed.

Cute slang, as some suggest, or a degradation of the beautiful Chinese language?  I know where I stand.

“Sorry” is not nearly as widely used as “bye-bye”, but it’s becoming more commonplace all the time. The first few dozen times I heard it, I assumed the person was shifting to English to be sure I understood the apology. Then I started overhearing it said between Chinese, as they bumped into one another on the subway, entered a crowded elevator or tried parting a throng of people.

This change aggravates me to my core. Along with its other merits, 对不起 is one of the more euphonious common phrases in Chinese. For non-Chinese speakers, it’s pronounced “dway boo chee” . It was among the first ten phrases I learned in my first Chinese class 31 years ago, and certainly among the most useful.  It is also precise in its meaning. The phrase literally acknowledges one’s act of rudeness.

“Sorry” is a kind of bastardized shorthand, far more commonly used in the UK than in US. Like “bye-bye” it seems to have smuggled itself into China via the ex-British colony of Hong Kong. When I lived in London, I heard “sorry” often and generally thought it hollow and insincere. Americans prefer to take personal culpability and say “I’m sorry”, or “Excuse me”.

Hearing Chinese say “sorry” , I feel it’s an alien presence, diminishing the level of common courtesy in China.

Mine is probably a minority view in China. New phrases gain currency in China very quickly. I’ve seen it not only with “bye-bye”, but another import from Hong Kong, the two-word phrase “mai dan”, meaning “give me the bill”. It’s a Cantonese term. Over the last ten years, it has all but exterminated across much of China the traditional Mandarin “ 算账”.  Again, it’s an example of a perfectly good, age-old Chinese phrase being pushed out by an inferior foreign import.

In France, the Academie Francaise has the specified role of preventing English terms from seeping into the French language. A lot of this can seem silly and pedantic,  like urging French to drop the use of English technology terms like “software”, “email”, in favor of clumsy, made-up French terms.

China has no such body, nor will it likely ever have, since Mandarin is spoken with so many different regional dialects and accents.  Still, I’d like to see more effort made to halt the spread of English terms.

The Mandarin spoken today is in many core ways similar to the Chinese language spoken seven hundred years ago.  Chinese language is the connecting rod linking China’s ancient past and present. It survived intact through upheavals, invasions and colonization. “Sorry” and “bye-bye” should be deported back to Hong Kong.


Toiling from Tang Dynasty to Today – Buying a House in Beijing

January 13th, 2011 1 comment

sancai16

How long would it take an ordinary Chinese peasant to save up and buy a nice apartment in Beijing? You’ll need to brush up on your dynastic history.

1,400 years ago, as the Tang Dynasty dawned in China, a peasant began farming a small plot of decent land 6mu (one acre) in size. Every year, in addition to providing for his family’s needs, he was able to earn a small profit by selling his surplus. His son followed him on the land, and maintained his father’s steady output and steady profit. Same with is children, and children’s children, through the Song, Yuan, Ming, Qing Dynasties into the Republican period and then the modern era marked by the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, down to present day.

Some 280 generations later, there should now be just about enough in the family bank account for the family to pay cash for a new two-bedroom apartment in Beijing. This is assuming no withdrawals from the bank account during that time, and even more unlikely, no bad years due to floods, famine, locusts, rebellion.

I heard this calculation second hand, and so can’t check the figures. But, it certainly has a ring of truth about it. Property prices in Beijing particularly, but other large cities as well, have reached levels utterly disconnected from average earning levels, especially in rural China.  New apartments can now cost over USD$1 million. Prices continue to rise by over 5% a month, despite aggressive actions by government to curb the increases in residential property prices. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Housing prices in the U.S. peaked at 6.4 times average annual earnings this decade. In Beijing, the figure is 22 times.”

The collapse of this “housing price bubble” has been widely predicted for years now  — not since the Tang Dynasty, but it sometimes seems that way. The housing price crash was meant to be imminent two years ago, when prices were about 30% of current levels.

Still, they keep rising, most recently and most dramatically in second and third tier cities in China, places like Lanzhou, a provincial capital in arid Western China, where the cost of a 100 square meter apartment has doubled in price in the last year, to about $300,000.  Some apartment owners in Lanzhou earned as much profit  during 2010 from the sale of their property as a typical peasant in surrounding Gansu Province might make in a century.

My prediction is that housing prices may soon peak relative to incomes, but will keep moving upward. There are a few fundamental factors at work that raise the altitude of housing prices: rising affluence, China’s continuing urbanization and a dearth of alternative investment opportunities. Real estate, despite what can seem like dizzying price levels, is often seen to be a safer long-term bet than buying domestically-quoted shares.

Introducing property taxes, and allowing ordinary Chinese to buy assets outside China, would both alter the balance somewhat.  But, many a hard-working peasant is still going to need a thousand years of savings to join the propertied classes in Beijing.


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