Archive

Archive for the ‘China SOE’ Category

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

Download PDF version.

 

-phttps://www.ft.com/content/e7e81928-7f57-11e8-bc55-50daf11b720ds://www.ft.com/content/e7e81928-7f57-11e8-bc55-50daf11b720d

 

 

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.

 –

China’s Bold “One Belt One Road” Move To Dramatically Extend Its Power and Commerce in the Indian Ocean — The Financial Times

September 27th, 2017 No comments

 

 

Much has been said — but far less is understood — about the One Belt One Road initiative, the centerpiece of Xi Jinping’s expansive foreign policy. That Mr. Xi has ambitions to extend across Eurasia China’s commercial, political and military power is not in doubt. But, the precise details on OBOR remain just about as unclear now as they did four years ago when the policy was unveiled — which countries are included, how much cash China will invest or lend, where are the first-order priority projects, will any of the trillions of dollars of proposed spending achieve commercial rates of return? Questions multiply. Answers are few.

There is one remote corner of the planet, however, where the full weight of OBOR’s grand strategy and profit-making potential are coming into view. It’s in a small village called Hambantota along the southern fringe of Indian Ocean beachfront in Sri Lanka.

One of China’s largest and most powerful state-owned companies, China Merchants Group, with total assets of $855 billion, is in the final stages of completing the purchase for $1.1 billion of a 99-year lease for a majority stake in a seven-year-old loss-making deep-water container port. It was built for over $1 billion on a turnkey basis by Chinese state-owned contractors. It is owned and operated by the Sri Lankan government’s Port Authority.

I’m just back in China from a rare guided visit inside Hambantota port. Like other bankers and investors, we’ve felt the pinch as much of Chinese outbound investment has been cancelled or throttled back this year. Hambantota, though, is full steam ahead.

Hambantota’s future appears now about as bright as its present is dreary. On the day I visited, there was virtually no activity in the port, save the rhythmic wobbling of a Chinese cargo ship stuck in Hambantota for three weeks. Due to choppy seas and also perhaps inexperienced Sri Lankan port staff, the Chinese ship has been sitting at anchor, unable to unload the huge Chinese-made heavy-duty cranes meant to operate on the quayside.

Though the Chinese ambassador to Sri Lanka has pledged that Hambantota will one day resemble Shanghai, as of today, elephants in the nearby jungle are about as numerous as dockworkers or pedestrians. Tragically, the region was ravaged, and partly depopulated, by the Tsunami of 2004. China Merchants will take over management of the port within the next month or so. There is much to do — as well as undo. The Hambantota port, under Sri Lankan government management, has been a bust, a half-finished commercial Xanadu where few ships now call. The port has lost over $300 million since it opened.

China Merchants’ plan to turn things around will rest on two prongs. Its port operations subsidiary, Hong Kong-listed China Merchants Port Holdings, will take over management of Hambantota. It is the largest port owner and operator in China. Almost 30% of all containers shipped into and out of China are handled in China Merchants’ ports. The ports business earned a profit of $850 million last year. China Merchants has what the Sri Lankan government’s Hambantota port operator could never muster: the operational skill, clout, capital and commercial relationships with shippers inside China and out to attract significant traffic to Hambantota. China’s state-owned shipping lines deliver more containers than those from any other country.

In addition, China Merchants will enlist other large China SOEs to invest and set up shop in an 11 square-kilometer special economic zone abutting the Hambantota port. The SEZ was created at the request of the Chinese government, with the promise of $5 billion of Chinese investment and 100,000 new jobs to follow. China Merchants is now drawing up the master plan.

A who’s who of Chinese SOE national champions are planning to move in, beginning with a huge oil bunkering and refining facility to be operated by Sinopec as well as a large cement factory, and later, Chinese manufacturing and logistics companies. This “Team China” approach – having a group of Chinese SOEs invest and operate alongside one another — is a component of other OBOR projects. But, the scale of what’s planned in Hambantota is shaping up to be far larger. The flag of Chinese state capitalism is being firmly planted on this Sri Lankan beachfront.

Hambantota is only ten to twelve nautical miles from the main Indian Ocean sea lane linking the Suez Canal and the Malacca Straits. Most of China’s exports and imports sail right past. An average of ten large container ships and oil tankers pass by every hour of every day. From the Hambantota port office building, one can see the parade of huge ships dotted across the horizon. Along with transshipping to India and the subcontinent, Hambantota will provide maintenance, oil storage and refueling for shipping companies.

Sri Lanka is the smallest of the four Subcontinental countries, with a population of 20 million compared to a total of 1.7 billion in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It has one geographic attribute its neighbors lack — a deep-water coastline close to Indian Ocean shipping lanes and conducive to building large deep-water ports able to handle the world’s largest container ships and supertankers. This should make Sri Lanka the ideal transshipment point for goods and natural resources going into and out of the Subcontinent.

The Port of Singapore is now the region’s main transshipment center. It is three to four times as distant from India’s major ports as Hambantota. Singapore is now the world’s second-busiest port in terms of total shipping tonnage. It transships about a fifth of the world’s shipping containers, as well as half of the world’s annual supply of crude oil.

Even before President Xi first articulated the OBOR policy, Sri Lanka was already seen as a key strategic and commercial beachhead for China’s future trade growth in the 40 countries bordering the Indian Ocean. China and Sri Lanka have had close and friendly diplomatic ties since the early 1950s. Both style themselves democratic socialist republics.

Sri Lanka is the one country in the region that enjoys cordial relations not only with China but also the US, and the three other Subcontinental nations. Sri Lanka’s GPD is $80 billion, less than one-tenth the total assets of China Merchants Group. Sri Lankan per capita GDP and literacy rate are both about double its Subcontinental neighbors. While a hardly a business nirvana, it is often easier to get things done there than elsewhere in region.

The first port was established in Hambantota around 250 AD. It was for centuries, until Chinese emperors sought to prohibit Chinese junks from sailing the open seas, a stopping point for Chinese ships trading with Arabia.

China Merchants has been trying for four years to close the deal there. China Merchants Port Holdings is a powerful presence in Sri Lanka. It already built and operates under a 35-year BOT contract a smaller, highly successful container port in the capital Colombo. It opened in 2013. It’s one of the few large-scale foreign direct investment success stories in Sri Lanka. The future plan is for the China Merchants’ Colombo port to mainly handle cargo for Sri Lanka’s domestic market, while Hambantota will become the main Chinese-operated transshipment hub in the Indian Ocean.

Chinese SOEs are also in the throes of building a port along the Pakistani coast at Gwadar and upgrading the main ports in Kenya. The direction of Beijing’s long-term planning grows clearer with each move. If not exactly a Chinese inner lake, the Indian Ocean will become an area where Chinese shipping and commercial interests will more predominate.

During the Hambantota negotiations, the Sri Lankan government blew hot and cold. The country needs foreign investment and Chinese are lining up to provide it, as well as additional infrastructure grants and loans. Chinese building crews swarm across a dozen high-rise building sites in Colombo. Chinese tourist arrivals are set to overtake India’s. The main section of the unfinished highway linking Colombo and Hambantota was just completed by the Chinese.

The new coalition government that came to power in Sri Lanka in early 2015 has sometimes showed qualms about the scale and pace of Chinese investment. India has already signaled unease with the Chinese plans to take over and enlarge the port in Hambantota. Prior to signing the contract with China Merchants, the Sri Lanka government provided India with assurances the Chinese will be forbidden to use the port for military purposes.

China Merchants will effectively pay off the construction loans granted by the state-owned Export-Import Bank of China to the Sri Lankan government in return for the 99-year operating lease. China Merchants plans to invest at least another $1 billion, but perhaps as much as $3 billion, to complete Hambantota port and turn it into the key Indian Ocean deep-water port for ships plying the route between Suez and East Asia. Rarely if ever in my experience do OBOR projects have the crisp commercial logic of Hambantota. Assuming ships do start to call there, Hambantota should prove quite profitable, as well as a major source of employment and tax revenue for Sri Lanka.

As of now, there is almost no housing and no infrastructure in Hambantota, only the port facility, a largely-empty international airport and a newly-opened Shangri-La hotel and golf course. The airport and port were pet projects of a local Hambantota boy made good, Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was Sri Lanka’s president from 2005 to 2015, when he was voted out of office. In December last year, the port was taken over by a mob of workers loyal to the Rajapaksa. They took several ships hostage before the Sri Lankan navy sailed in to end the chaos.

The port will be able to handle dry cargo, Ro-ro ships transporting trucks and autos, oil tankers as well as the world’s largest 400-meter container ships. Hambantota should lower prices and improve supply chains across the entire region, and so drive enormous growth in trade volumes — assuming power politics don’t intrude.

China and India have prickly relations, most recently feuding over Chinese road-building in the disputed region of Doklam. India has balked at direct participation in OBOR, and complains loudly about its mammoth trade deficit with China, now running about $5 billion a month. Chinese exports to India have quadrupled over the past decade, in spite of India’s extensive tariffs and protectionist measures. Hambantota should allow India’s manufacturing sector to be more closely intertwined with Chinese component manufacturers and supply chains. That is consistent with India’s goal to increase the share of gdp coming from manufacturing, and manufactured exports, both still far smaller than China’s. But, India will almost certainly push back, hard, if Hambantota leads to a big jump in its trade deficit with China.

China’s exports may be able to come in via the Sri Lankan backdoor. India and Sri Lanka have a free trade agreement that in theory lets Sri Lankan goods enter the vast market duty-free. Chinese manufacturers could turn the Hambantota free trade zone into a giant Maquiladora and export finished products to India. This would flood India with lower-priced consumer goods, autos, chemicals, clothing. Bangladesh, Pakistan and Burma — smaller economies but friendlier with China — would likewise absorb large increases in exported Chinese goods, either transshipped from Hambantota or assembled there.

No area within OBOR is of greater long-term significance to Chinese commerce. Fifty years from now, if UN estimates prove correct, the population of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh will be about 2.3 billion, or about double where China’s population will be by then.

Some China Merchants executives are dreaming aloud the Thai and Chinese governments will close a deal to build a canal across Southern Thailand. This would shave 1,200 miles off the sea route from Suez to China. The preferred canal route across the isthmus of Southern Thailand is actually shorter than the length of the Panama Canal. The canal would re-route business away from Singapore and the Malacca Straits. The likely cost, at around $25 billion, could be borne by China without difficulty. Hambantota would grow still larger in importance, commercially and strategically.

For now, though, the Thai canal is not under active bilateral discussion. Not only does the ruling Thai junta worry about its landmass being cleaved in two, the governments of the US, Japan, Singapore would likely have serious reservations about altering Asian geography to enhance China’s sea power and naval maneuverability.

By itself, a Chinese-owned and operated Hambantota will almost certainly reconfigure large trade flows across much of Asia, Africa and Europe, benefitting China primarily, but others in the region as well. It is a disruptive occurrence. While much of China’s OBOR policy remains nebulous and progress uncertain, Chinese control of Hambantota seems more than likely to become a world-altering fact.

PDF Version.

As published in The Financial Times

 

 

 

 

Turbulence and Paralysis: the Year Ahead in US-China Relations — Financial Times

December 13th, 2016 No comments

 

ft-logo

trumpxi

A month before his official inauguration, Donald Trump is already tossing diplomatic grenades in China’s direction. It is a sign of things to come. 2017 is shaping up to be a highly eventful, taut and precarious year for China-US relations. This is partly due to a simple scheduling coincidence.

2017 will be the first time ever when both the US and the PRC in the same year will usher in new governments. The US will kick things off on January 20th by swearing in Donald Trump as President. China, meanwhile, will undertake its own large political upheaval, its five-yearly change in political leadership, culminating in the 19th Communist Party Congress sometime late in the year. Virtually the entire government hierarchy, from local mayors on up, will be changed in a monumental job-swapping exercise orchestrated by Xi Jinping, China’s president.

The US under Mr Trump, with a Republican Congress at his back, seems intent to challenge China more assertively in trade, investment and as a currency manipulator while intensifying the military rivalry. China’s leadership, meantime, will become deeply absorbed in its own highly secretive, inward-looking and internecine political maneuvering. While Mr Xi tries to further consolidate his power, Mr Trump will likely be asserting his, leading to a globally ambitious US and an introspective China. This would represent something of a role reversal from recent precedent.

With the chess pieces all in motion, businesses should be plotting their moves in China with caution. The proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal is dead, leaving China’s still-evolving “One Belt,One Road” initiative as the main impetus for new trade flows in Asia. Donald Trump says he will push for what he claims to be more “more fair” bilateral trade deals. China, with its $365bn trade surplus with the US and high barriers to much inward investment, is clearly in his sights.

How will China react? The only certainty is that as the year progresses, China’s government apparatus will slow, and with it decision-making at policy-making bodies and many State-owned enterprises (SoEs). All will wait to hear what new tunes to march to, once the new ruling Politburo is revealed to the public in the fourth quarter.

Chinese officials at all levels are already jockeying for promotion. That means falling into line with Mr Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. The Party Secretary in Jiangsu province, one of China’s wealthiest, got an early head start. He instituted his own form of localized prohibition, ordering that government officials could no longer drink alcohol at any time, in any kind of setting, anywhere in Jiangsu.

The booze embargo did include one loophole. If senior foreign guests are present, alcohol can flow as before, like an undammed torrent.

As the Party Congress approaches, it will be even harder to get a deal with a Chinese SoE lined up and closed within any kind of reasonable time frame. Even after the Party Congress ends, it will likely take more months for any real deal momentum to return. Investment banking bonuses along with billings at global law, accounting and consulting firms are all likely to take a hit.

One other certainty: the renminbi will come under increasing pressure as the US ratchets up its moves to apply tariffs to Chinese exports and China’s own economy remains, relatively speaking, in the doldrums. How much pressure, though, is another question.

Anyone making predictions about the speed and degree of the renminbi’s decline is playing with a loaded weapon. A year ago some of the world’s biggest and loudest hedge fund bosses, including Kyle Bass, David Tepper and Bill Ackman, were proclaiming the imminent collapse of the renminbi. The renminbi, despite slipping by about 6 per cent during 2016, has yet to behave as the money guys predicted.

The Chinese government uses non-market mechanisms to slow the renminbi’s decline. A recent example: its abrupt move in November to tightly control outbound investment and M&A. But shoring up the currency will undercut one of China’s larger economic imperatives, the need to upgrade the country’s industrial and technological base. That will require a prodigious volume of dollars to acquire US and European technology companies such as recent Chinese deals to acquire German robot-maker Kuka and US semiconductor company Omnivision.

Chinese investors and acquirers not only face tighter controls on the outflow of US dollars. The US is also becoming more antagonistic toward Chinese acquisitions in the US and globally. Deals of any significant size need to pass a national security review overseen by a shadowy interagency body known as the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or CFIUS.

CFIUS works in secret. In recent months, it has blocked Chinese investment in everything from a San Diego hotel, to Dutch LED light bulbs as well as US and European companies more explicitly involved in high-tech industry including semiconductor design and manufacturing. The strong likelihood is CFIUS will become even more restrictive once Mr Trump takes over.

Unlike most areas of bilateral tension between the US and China, this is one area where the Chinese have no room to retaliate in kind. China already has a blanket prohibition on investment by US, indeed all foreign companies, into multiple sectors of the Chinese economy, from tech industries like the internet and e-commerce all the way to innocuous ones like movies, cigarettes and steel smelting. So, for now, China quietly seethes as the US intensifies moves to prevent China investment deals from being concluded.

China will probably need to regroup and start playing the long game. That means investing more in earlier stage tech companies, especially in the Silicon Valley, and hoping some then strike it big. These venture capital investments generally fall outside the tightening CFIUS net. China wants to spend big and spend fast, but will find it often impossible to do so.

Even as political and military tensions rise between the US and China in 2017, one ironic certainty will be that a record number of Chinese are likely to go to the US as tourists, home buyers or students and spend ever more there. China’s ardour for all things American – its clean air, high-tech, good universities, relatively cheap housing, and retail therapy – is all but unbounded.

If informal online surveys are to be believed, ordinary Chinese seem to like and admire Mr Trump, especially for his business acumen. Mr Xi, understandably, may view the new US President in a harsher light. Xi faces cascading complexities as well as factional opposition within China. He could most use a US leader cast in the previous mold, committed to constructive cooperation with China. Instead, he’s likely to contend with an unpredictable, disapproving and distrustful adversary.

 

https://www.ft.com/content/b1801637-4219-3222-9f45-658740aa1187

Download PDF version

 

China’s depressed northeast is down but not out – if officials can fix its ailing state-owned firms — South China Morning Post

December 1st, 2016 No comments

I’m delighted to share the OpEd essay written by my China First Capital colleague Dr. Yansong Wang and published in today’s South China Morning Post. Her piece is titled “China’s depressed northeast is down but not out – if officials can fix its ailing state-owned firms”. It offers up her analysis on the disappointing economic conditions and vast untapped potential in her home region, China’s Northeast, formerly known as Manchuria, and in Chinese as 中国东北. I agree with her policy prescriptions as well as prudent optimism the region can be transformed just as America’s Rust Belt.

Her final paragraph notes a paradox familiar to me as well. In Shenzhen, we’re lucky enough to know two of China’s most consistently successful listed company chairmen, Mr. Gao Yunfeng , the founding entrepreneur of Han’s Laser Group  (大族激光集团), the world’s largest laser machine tool company, and Mr. Xing Jie, of a highly innovative and successful publicly-traded SOE, Tagen Group (天健集团).

Both, like Yansong, come from Jilin Province and all three have found success far from where they were raised, in Shenzhen. Yansong puts across her final point with conviction: “We need to create the conditions where the younger versions of these two successful entrepreneurs choose to stay in the northeast and build an economic future there that we can all take pride in.”

 

SCMP logo

Dongbei Yansong Wang

Over the course of my 35 years, China’s northeast has gone from being the country’s economic powerhouse to its most systematically troubled large region. Much of the region’s enormous state-owned industrial complex is in difficulty, while gross domestic product growth continues to lag. The deepest and most poignant signs of the economic malaise are a falling population and the fact that the northeast’s birth rate is now one-third below the national average.

The concern about how to revive the economy animates not only the highest levels of the central government, but also many people who recall the key role the region has played leading China’s modernisation. The concern is warranted. It now needs to be matched by some fresh thinking and new policy initiatives. I’d like to see the northeast become a laboratory for bold ideas about how to restructure state-owned enterprises in China.

I care deeply about what happens in the northeast. Though I now live and work in Shenzhen, I was born and raised in Jilin (吉林) province. My parents and 95-year-old grandmother still live there. I owe a lot of my life’s achievements up to now – undergraduate study at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei (合肥), followed by a PhD in physics from Princeton, to my current role in an international investment bank – to the mind-expanding public education I received growing up in the northeast.

The climate and its mainly landlocked geography are a challenge. But there is no reason the northeast should be a victim of its geography. The part of the US with the most similar conditions, the states of Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin, has successfully moved away from a focus on heavy industry to being a world leader in all kinds of advanced manufacturing and food processing. Great companies, including 3M, Cargill and Amway, all hail from this part of the US.

Could my home region produce its own world-conquering companies? I believe so.

Step one is to reorient investment capital away from the tired and often loss-making state-owned enterprises towards newer, nimbler private-sector firms. At present, too much investment goes to one of the most unproductive uses of all: new loans to companies that can’t repay their existing ones. This kind of rollover lending generally does not produce one new job or one new increment of GDP.

The central government is stepping up, announcing in August plans for 127 major projects, at a cost of 1.6 trillion yuan (HK$1.8 trillion). The problem isn’t so much that the northeast has too much heavy industry; it’s more that it has too much of the wrong kind. Basic steel is in vast oversupply. But the northeast could shine in developing speciality steel for advanced applications in China. One example that strikes me every time I ride on China’s high-speed rail network: too much of the special steel used on tracks is imported from Japan and Europe. We can make that.

How do we go from being a tired rust belt to a rejuvenated region pulsing with opportunity? The central and provincial governments should encourage more experimentation to push forward the scope and pace of state-owned enterprise reform. A starting point: banks could shoulder more of the cost of restructuring state firms. That will allow for new forms of mixed ownership, asset sales, and bigger and more effective debt-for-equity swaps.

I would also like to see the northeast become the first place where service industries, now mainly restricted to state firms – including banking and insurance – are opened up to private competitors.

There is no shortage in the northeast of the most important facilitator of economic development: a well-educated population. For now, sadly, too many of the entrepreneurially inclined leave the region. Indeed, two of the most visionary listed company chairmen I know are, like me, Jilin natives now living in Shenzhen, Gao Yunfeng of Han’s Laser and Xin Jie of Tagen Group. We need to create the conditions where the younger versions of these two successful entrepreneurs choose to stay in the northeast and build an economic future there that we can all take pride in.

Dr Yansong Wang is chief operating officer at China First Capital

 

http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/2050099/chinas-depressed-northeast-down-not-out-if-officials-can-fix

Download PDF version.

CICC eyes return to greatness — IFR Asia

November 23rd, 2016 No comments

 

ifr

China International Capital Corp has unveiled its much-anticipated acquisition of unlisted China Investment Securities, in a move that may see the PRC’s oldest investment bank regain the top spot in the country’s securities industry.

CICC said on November 4 it planned to acquire 100% of Shenzhen-based CIS for Rmb16.7bn (US$2.47bn) through the issuance of 1.68bn domestic shares to current owner Central Huijin Investment at Rmb9.95 each. The issuance price represents a discount of 0.6% to CICC’s closing prior to the announcement of the proposed acquisition.

The move marks a significant shift in strategy for CICC, which has long flirted with the idea of setting up a retail brokerage unit as its share of business has dwindled, but has so far remained wedded to its institutional clients.

“If you look at CICC’s business model, it has a very strong institutional focus, but we all know China’s capital markets are primarily driven by retail investors,” said Benjamin Quinlan, chief executive officer and managing partner at Quinlan & Associates. “CIS has a strong retail franchise, so it seems to complement CICC’s existing business quite well.”

CICC made its reputation bringing some of China’s biggest state-owned enterprises and red chips to the equity and debt markets. This included the US$21.9bn IPO of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in 2006 and the US$22bn IPO of Agricultural Bank of China four years later.

After being ranked the number one brokerage firm in China in 2010, it fell to number 23 last year, according to Securities Association of China data, as the flow of giant SOE listings dried up and other Chinese securities firms expanded rapidly, using their stronger capital bases and wider branch networks to build intermediary businesses, especially around margin trading.

Bi Mingjian, appointed CEO of CICC last December, has made expanding the bank’s brokerage and asset management units a key part of his overall strategy and has sought to reduce reliance on institutional and wealthy clients.

CICC has only 20 branches in the PRC versus the 200 of CIS, according to its website. CICC’s small retail footprint has affected its earning capacity from retail investors, who account for most of the trading in the onshore capital markets.

“CICC was originally founded to be China’s one ready-for-Wall Street, global investment bank, but that strategy is no longer perfectly aligned with the profits and priorities of China’s banking industry,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman and CEO at China First Capital.

“Instead of trying to compete with Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, CICC will now be matched against a group of domestic competitors. This is ideal as investment banking fees within China, both for IPOs and the secondary market, are high and not that troublesome to earn.”

ADVISORY BUSINESS

Most analysts consider the acquisition, at around 1.1 times forward book value, as good value and a good strategic fit that should help propel CICC up the league tables.

“If you aggregate the market share of both firms across the equity and debt capital markets and M&A advisory, the combined entity could come out as number one in all three rankings,” said Quinlan.

“This might not be the case, but we expect CICC to be at least a top-five player in ECM and DCM, following the acquisition, and most probably top three for M&A advisory.”

The proposed acquisition will boost CICC’s balance sheet. CICC ranked 24 in terms of total assets in 2015 with Rmb63bn, while CIS was 18th with Rmb92bn. Their ranking would advance to 13 after the integration, still far short of the industry leader Citic Securities with total assets of Rmb484bn.

CICC ranked 23 among China’s 125 securities firms in 2015 in revenue terms, while CIS ranked 17, according to the Securities Association of China.

Some questions have been raised about the potential cultural mismatch between the two firms and there have also been suggestions that the Chinese government may be directing the acquisition as it seeks to improve the sector’s reputation for probity.

China’s securities sector has expanded at a considerable pace in the last few years with the combined asset base of the 125 securities companies operating there increasing fourfold between 2011 and 2015 to Rmb6.4trn and there are few signs that the pace of growth is likely to abate.

“It could be a win-win situation for the two firms, because their business models are very complementary,” said an analyst.

“However, it is also a big challenge for CICC on whether it can generate the synergies it expects, by applying its strengths in high-end services to the huge customer base and network of CIS,” said the analyst.

Following the acquisition, CIS will become a wholly owned subsidiary of CICC, while Huijin’s stake in CICC will increase to 58.7% from 28.6%.

CICC and ABC International are financial advisers for the transaction. The deal requires approval from shareholders and regulators.

 

Download PDF version.

 

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

July 13th, 2016 1 comment

China map

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

——————–

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

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

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

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

chart1

chart2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

chart4

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

chart3

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

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

chart5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

chart6

 

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

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

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

 

(Charts courtesy Asia Society and National Association of Realtors)

 

As published by Bisnow

财经杂志 《美国房地产投资负面清单》

Download PDF version.

 

 

The silver lining in high-priced urban land — China Daily commentary

June 22nd, 2016 No comments

China Daily logo

Chinadaily

For those of us living in prosperous first- and second-tier cities in China, the land beneath our feet is exploding in value. Every week seems to set a new price record, as real estate developers buy up land to build on in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing and elsewhere.

This has two ill effects. First, it adds more upward pressure on already high housing prices. Second, since the land buyers have mainly been large State-owned enterprises, they will need to sell the apartments they plan to build at one of highest prices per square meter in the world to make profits. It’s another matter that the SOEs are meant to help solve, rather than exacerbate, the serious lack of affordable housing for China’s ordinary urban population.

But there is one hidden and perhaps surprising benefit. The high and rising land prices are confirmation that land sales are becoming more transparent, less prone to potential favoritism and insider dealing. That is ultimately good for just about everyone in China. In the recent record-high land sales, the seller is the local government. In some cases, the price paid was more than double of what the government itself estimated the land would fetch. So it is up to the government now to spend the windfall wisely, in ways that will improve living standards for everyone in the city.

Too often in the past, urban land for residential development was sold for less than its true market price. The unfortunate result was that a comparatively few lucky real estate developers were able to buy land at artificially low prices and then make unconscionably high profits. Not for nothing was it said over the past 20 years that the easiest way in the world to make big money was to become a realty developer in one of China’s major cities.

When a local government sells land at artificially low prices to developers, it can amount to a transfer of wealth from China’s ordinary folks, the laobaixing, to those favored real estate companies. That’s because the developers take the cheap land and then build and sell expensive apartments on it. And the government itself gets less revenue than it should have. This means less money to spend on services that benefit everyone: urban transport, affordable housing, schools, parks, hospitals and the like.

Few Chinese developers have mastered the art and business of building and marketing high-quality apartments on time and within a set budget. Apartment prices have almost always risen during the three years it takes to go from an undeveloped plot to a finished building. If a developer got a good deal on land, he/she was able to sell the new apartments during construction, use the cash to pay off the bank loans and lock in a very high profit.

Going forward all this will become far more challenging. When a developer goes bankrupt, the real victims are usually the ordinary folks who have bought apartments during the construction phase. Time and again, it has proven difficult, nerve-wracking and time-consuming for these buyers to get their money back or make sure the apartments they bought are completed.

As the risk of bankruptcies rise with land prices, I’d like to see rules requiring residential developers to buy insurance to automatically reimburse buyers in case they go bust. The insurance will also put additional and useful pressure on developers to complete work on time and maintain an acceptable quality. If the developer isn’t making progress, or there are other signs of trouble, the insurance company would either withdraw coverage and reimburse buyers or require a new and more reliable developer to take over. Either way, the goal must be to protect, in a transparent and predictable way, the investment of ordinary homebuyers.

Up to now, too much pressure and risk has landed on the shoulders of buyers rather than builders, with cities also short-changing themselves. A fairer and better balance may now be emerging.

The author is chairman and CEO, China First Capital.

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2016-06/22/content_25798648.htm

Download PDF version.

Five China financial news articles in the South China Morning Post

June 13th, 2016 No comments

SCMP logo good

 

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

 

Xinan

 

 

CSRC

 

 

Mergers

 

PE

 

Shunfenf

 

Reworking a formula for economic success — China Daily Commentary

April 8th, 2016 No comments

 

China Daily logo

Reworking a formula for economic success

By PETER FUHRMAN (China Daily) Updated: 2016-04-08

Reworking a formula for economic success
An assembly line of a Daimler AG venture in Minhou, Fujian province.

My on-the-ground experience in China stretches back to the beginnings of the reform era in 1981. Yet I cannot recall a time when so much pessimism, especially in English-language media, has surrounded the Chinese economy. Yes, it is a time of large, perhaps unprecedented transition and challenge.

But the negative outlook is overdone, and starts from a false premise. China does not need to search for a new economic model to generate further prosperity. Instead, what is happening now is a return to a simple formula that has previously worked extraordinarily well: applying pressure on China’s State-owned enterprises to improve their efficiency and profitability, while also doing more to tap China’s most abundant and valuable “natural resource”-the entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people, the talent to start a company, provide new jobs and build a successful new business.

These two together provided the impetus for the economic growth since the 1990s. In the 1990s, SOEs accounted for perhaps as much as 90 percent of China’s total economic output. Today, the SOEs’ share has fallen to below 40 percent by most counts. Once the main engine of growth, SOEs are now more like an anchor. Profits across the SOEs have been sinking, while their debt has risen sharply.

Arresting that slide of SOEs is now vital. SOE reform has long been on the agenda of the Chinese government. But such a reform has become more urgent than ever, as well as more difficult. There are fewer SOEs today than in 1991 when serious SOE reform was first undertaken. Among those that remain, many are now extremely big and rank among the biggest companies in the world. The restructuring of any such large company is always difficult.

China, however, has taken some key first steps in that direction. The Chinese government has divided SOEs into those that will operate entirely based on market principles and those that perform a social function. It is downsizing the coal and steel industries, two of the largest red-ink sectors. Senior managers of some large SOEs have been dismissed or are under investigation for corruption, and experiments linking SOEs’ salaries more directly with profitability are underway.

Less noticed, but in my opinion, as important is a strong push now at some SOEs and SOE-affiliated companies to become not better but among the best in the world at what they do. Tsinghua Unigroup in semiconductors, China National Nuclear Corporation and China General Nuclear Power in building and operating nuclear power plants, and CITIC Group in eldercare are seeking global glory. They are trying to sprint while most other SOEs are limping.

Luckily for China, the overall situation in the entrepreneurial sector is far rosier. All it needs is a more level playing field. Important steps to further free up the private sector are now underway-taxes are being cut, banks pushed to lend more, and markets long closed to protect SOE monopolies are being pried open. Healthcare is a good example in this regard.

All these moves are part of what the government calls its new “supply side” policy. The aim is to demolish barriers to competition and efficiency. Chinese entrepreneurs have shown time and again they have world-class aptitude to spot and seize opportunities. They are leading the charge now into China’s underdeveloped service sector. This, more than manufacturing or exports, is where new jobs, profits and growth will come from.

Opportunities also await smart entrepreneurs in less efficient industries like agriculture, in getting food products to market quickly, cheaply and safely. In cities, traditional retail has been hit hard by online shopping. Struggling shopping malls are becoming giant laboratories where entrepreneurs are incubating new ideas on how Chinese consumers will shop, play, eat and be entertained.

China’s economy is now 30 times larger than what it was in 1991, and far more complex. The private sector 25 years ago was then truly in its infancy. But, there is still huge scope today for China to gain from its original policy prescription: prodding SOEs to get in line for reform while letting entrepreneurs meet the needs of Chinese consumers.

The author is chairman and CEO of China First Capital.

 

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2016-04/08/content_24364851.htm

Download PDF version.

 

At the hub of China’s “One Belt, One Road” – a visit to Manzhouli, the frozen city where China, Russia and Mongolian converge

December 27th, 2015 No comments

Manzhouli

Where did you spend Christmas? Mine was spent in temperatures reaching 38-below zero on the frozen lakes and grasslands of Northeastern China. I was there to give a speech on Christmas Day at a conference in Manzhouli on Russian, Chinese and Mongolian economic integration.

Manzhouli is a Chinese city but with a unique pedigree and location. First settled around 1900 by the Russians building the Trans-Manchurian spur of the Trans-Siberian Railway, it was then conquered by the Japanese before China took control after World War Two. It sits at the single point on the map where the borders of China, Russia and Mongolia all converge. Manzhouli’s train and road border crossing between Russia and China is the busiest inland port in China, with most of China’s $50 billion in annual exports to Russia passing through here.

China, Russia and Mongolia are now partners in China’s ambitious new strategic trade initiative known as “One Belt, One Road“, or OBOR, as well as the Chinese-sponsored Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. The conference was meant to encourage closer trade ties among the three. OBOR is designed in part to redirect China’s investment focus away from more developed countries, especially those participating in the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership.

China’s exclusion from TPP is perhaps the biggest single economic policy setback for China in the last decade. The TPP countries include most of China’s key trading partners. If enacted, TPP will cause trade and investment flows to shift away from China especially towards Vietnam, Malaysia and Philippines. The three are all parties to the TPP agreement, and so will benefit from preferential tariffs. All have aspirations to take market share away from China as a global manufacturing center. TPP will grant them a significant long-term cost and market-access advantages.

OBOR is a consolation prize of China’s own construction. The countries inside the OBOR plan look more like a cast of economic misfits, not dynamic free traders like the TPP nations and China itself. I don’t believe anyone in Beijing policy-making circles believes that increased trading with OBOR nations Pakistan, Myanmar and the Central Asian -stans is a credible substitute. China’s best option is to find a way to persuade TPP countries to allow it to enter the group. There’s not even a remote sign of this happening. China was excluded from TPP by design.

China does not live in a particularly desirable or affluent neighborhood. It shares land borders with fourteen countries. Of these, Russia is by far and away the richest of these countries. Mongolia, with its three million inhabitants most of whom still live in yurts as nomadic herdsmen, ranks third. This gives some sense of how poor many of the places that are now the focus of China’s OBOR are.

Another key component of OBOR, but one often overlooked, is to open up new markets to the most troubled part of China’s industrial economy, the manufacturers of basic products like steel, aluminum, basic machinery and chemicals, turbines, cars, trucks, trains. They all are suffering from acute overcapacity with vanishing profit margins up and down the supply chain.

The Chinese leadership recently announced that dealing with overcapacity in China will be one of its major economic policy priorities for 2016. The problems are most severe among state-owned industrial conglomerates. The Chinese government is their controlling shareholder. Two obvious solutions — shrinking capacity and cutting employment — are, for the time being at least, politically off limits. OBOR is meant to be a lifeline.

China itself cannot absorb this excess domestic capacity. Demand for basic industrial products is already evaporating, never to return, China is already well along in the transition to a service economy. China will pay or lend tens of billions of dollars to poorer OBOR countries to finance their imports of Chinese capital goods. The trade won’t likely be very profitable but it will keep jobs and revenues from deteriorating even more sharply.

You may download the seven-page English-language talking points, map and charts from my speech by clicking here.

At night, there was a banquet for political leaders from the three countries. Afterward, a beauty contest was staged, featuring Chinese, Russian and Mongolian contestants in bikinis and evening gowns. You can see photos here, including ones of me with the Chinese winner and the nine Mongolian contestants. An ice fishing expedition was also organized.

If OBOR does achieve its goal by drawing Russia and Mongolia into a closer economic relationship with China, Manzhouli stands to benefit more than anywhere else in China. As if in readiness, Manzhouli storefronts are in Chinese and Cyrillic, the new airport terminal is in the Russian style, and the main park in the city lorded over by a 10-story Matryoshka doll.

For now, though, no one is seeing much sign of OBOR stimulating greater trade. The main focus for investment in Manzhouli is in tourism facilities to attract Chinese summer vacationers to the surrounding grasslands, China’s finest. This time of year, the cement tourist yurts are empty and the long-haired riding ponies are left to graze and amble in the arctic wind and snow.

 

 

 

 

China SOEs, the meaning of their existence — Week In China Magazine

December 4th, 2015 No comments

Week In China logo

 

 

Headline

 

 

 

 

 

 

His was a deceptively simple question. “What exactly is the purpose of a Chinese SOE?”

I had just finished speaking to the Asian management committee of one of the larger and more successful Fortune 500 companies operating in China. They have for years done profitable business with large SOEs in China. That business has begun to evaporate. Having just heard me summarize the deteriorating situation at many SOEs, and the decision last month by the Chinese government to quietly shelve plans for a root-and-branch restructuring, one senior executive wanted to know what Chinese SOEs are now in business to do. Make money? Provide and protect jobs? Project national power?

I reminded him Chairman Mao was a keen student and devoted follower of Lenin. He fully embraced the Leninist concept of the state and party controlling the “commanding heights” of the economy. China’s SOEs are still very much in that business: owning most, sometimes all, of China’s large-scale assets in petroleum, gas, electricity generation and distribution, coal, banking and finance, transport, steel, aluminum and a wide range industrial chemicals.

The executive then reminded me that Mao had been gone a long time and anyway hadn’t Deng Xiaoping begun 35 years ago dismantling state power to create the conditions where today’s vibrant Chinese private sector could emerge. The private sector is the source of all net new job creation in China and contribute far more to GDP than the SOE segment. The country’s best companies are private sector firms, not SOEs. What, he insisted, were SOEs in business to do?

It was obvious he wasn’t going to accept an answer based on Leninist political economic theory. “Why don’t they just privatize the state-owned sector?”, he pushed back. That, I told him, was out of the question, at least for now. “Why?” he wanted to know.

Looking for an opening to collect my thoughts, I steered him toward the coffee machine.

Above all” I started in again, “an SOE is an instrument to achieve Chinese government and party policy goals. This is as true today as it was at their origin. Sometimes those policies, at least originally, were quite high-minded, even socialistic, like providing sufficient energy at an affordable price to everyone in the country.

Energy is today plentiful in China, but cheap it’s not. Subsidies have been eliminated and prices hiked to levels generally well above those in the US. The money paid to the petroleum and power monopolies are a transfer of private wealth to state-owned coffers, in other words, a mechanism for hidden tax collection.

 

Download complete article here.

http://www.weekinchina.com/2015/12/fit-for-purpose-2/

 

Shale Gas, China’s Very Buried Treasure — Nikkei Asian Review

November 19th, 2015 1 comment

Nikkei2

 

Water, water not a drop to drink. While that may not precisely sum up China’s dilemma, it is clear that the country with the world’s largest shale gas reserves, and urgent need to extract it,  will have problems achieving its ambitious long-term goals. The newly-finalized Five Year Plan calls for an enormous increases in natural gas output in China. The carbon emission reduction agreement signed by President Obama and Chinese leader Xi Jinping also requires China to diversify away from coal. Shale gas is the obvious replacement.

As of now, virtually all that gas remains trapped in the ground. The two companies given the plum rights to develop the gas, China’s oil giants Sinopec and PetroChina, may not have the technical competence to fully develop the resource. The companies that have the skills, mainly a group of small entrepreneurial US drillers, has so far shown zero inclination to either come to China or come to the aid of the two SOE giants by providing equipment and know-how.

To attract them to China will likely require a significant shift in the way China’s energy resources are owned and allocated. It will mean creating terms in China every bit as favorable, if not more so, than skilled shale gas drilling companies enjoy in the US and elsewhere.

 

shaleMap

This is why for China’s senior leaders and economic planners, this map is as much a curse as blessing. Knowing that vast quantities of much-needed clean energy is in the ground but not having the domestic infrastructure and technology to get it to market efficiently is about as tough and frustrating as any economic problem China now confronts.

The Chinese policy goal and the on-and-in-the-ground situation in China are on opposite sides of the spectrum. China has said it must quickly increase the share of natural gas as part of total energy consumption to around 8% by the end of 2015 and 10% by 2020 to alleviate high pollution resulting from the country’s heavy coal use.  The original target announced with great fanfare was for shale gas production to increase almost 200-fold between 2012 and the end of the decade. But, this goal was quietly slashed by 30% last year. More slashes may be on the way.

What’s most needed and in shortest supply in China: more commercial competition, more players, more market signals.

Based on the US experience, drilling for shale gas isn’t the kind of thing that big oil companies are good at. Unfortunately for China, all it has are giants. Rather inefficient ones at that. Sinopec, PetroChina are, based on metrics like output-per-employee, perhaps only one-tenth as efficient as the majors like Royal Dutch Shell, Exxon and BP. Note, these big Western companies all pretty much missed the boat with shale gas. In other words, the bigger the oil company the worse it’s been so far at exploiting shale gas. Yes, it’s these big global giants who now seem the most interested to work with Sinopec and PetroChina to develop shale gas China. In fact, Shell is already partnered up with Sinopec. How’s this likely to work out? Think of a pack of elephants ice fishing.

China’s dilemma comes down to this: it’s probably the most entrepreneurially-endowed country on the planet, but entrepreneurs are basically not allowed in the oil and gas extraction businesses. It’s a legacy of old-style Leninism, that the state must hold control over the pillars of the economy. It works okay when the problem is pumping petroleum or natural gas from giant onshore or offshore fields. But, shale gas is another world, with many and smaller wells. A typical one in the Barnett Shale gas region of Texas costs $2mn – $5mn, barely a rounding error for large oil and gas companies. These smaller wells, depending on prevailing price and drilling direction, can achieve a return within one year or less.

Profits are usually much higher for shale wells with horizontal drilling capability. But, it’s also much trickier to do. Production drops off dramatically in most shale gas wells, falling by about 90% during the first two years. So, you need to know how to make money efficiently, quickly, then move on to another opportunity.

The one place where Sinopec is now producing a decent amount of shale gas, at field in Sichuan province, the cost of getting the gas out of the ground is running at least twice the US level. Partly its geography and partly it’s the fact giant state-owned companies operating in a competition-free environment usually need three dollars to do what an entrepreneurial company can do for one.

Ancient Chinese oil well

China was the first country to drill successfully for oil, over 1500 years ago.   It could use more of that native ingenuity to unlock the country’s buried wealth. The shale gas industry is largely the product of one brilliant and stubborn Greek-American entrepreneur, George Mitchell, who began experimenting with horizontal drilling in Texas about 30 years ago. He had his big breakthrough in 1998. Everyone knew the gas was down there, as they do now in China. The trick Mitchell solved was getting it out of the ground at a low-cost. The company he started Mitchell Energy & Development, now part of Devon Energy, remains at the forefront of shale gas exploration and production.

China needs Mitchell Energy as well its own George Mitchells, who can use their pluck and tolerance for risk to make the gas pay. Not only shale gas, but China is also blessed with equally abundant deposits of coalbed methane. Pretty much all this methane is in the hands of big state-owned coal companies. Talk about a wasting asset. The coal miners have zero expertise, and for now it seems zero incentive to go after this fuel in a big way. Just about everything about the oil and gas business in China is state-owned and price-controlled.

The applause was nearly deafening, especially in the US and Europe, when the leaders of the US and China announced the big agreement to reduce carbon emissions. No one can argue with the sentiments, with the policy goal of creating a cleaner world. But, absent from the discussion are specifics on how China will meet its promises. It’s only going to happen if and when natural gas becomes a major part of the energy mix.

China has of course built pipelines to bring gas from Russia and more are on the way. But, even this huge flow of Russian gas, an expected 98 billion cubic meters per year by 2020,  will provide at most 17% of China’s projected gas needs by that year. Clearly then, the most meaningful thing that could happen is for the shale fields in China to be thrown open to all-comers, but especially the mainly-US companies that are experts at doing this. That isn’t happening.

I’ve been in the room with Chinese government officials when the topic was discussed about how to make it enticing for US specialist shale companies to drill in China. There’s a growing understanding this is the right way to go, but still the policy environment remains inhospitable. While China has the most shale gas, there is a lot of it in countries including stalwart US allies like Poland and Australia where the US companies are far more welcome and don’t have to deal with a market rigged in favor of state-owned goliaths. Everyone who wants to see a cleaner China and so a cleaner world should wish above all else that China’s shale and methane fields become a stomping ground rather than a no-go area for great entrepreneurs.

An edited version was published in the Nikkei Asia Review. 

Click here to download article. 

 

 

 

 

Shining lights brighten future of SOEs — China Daily Commentary

October 23rd, 2015 No comments

 

China Daily

Shining lights brighten future of SOEs

By PETER FUHRMAN (China Daily) Updated: 2015-10-23 07:29

Shining lights brighten future of SOEs
While the need for SOE reform is great and too many SOEs still fight to maintain the troubled status quo, there are also some Chinese SOEs leading by example.

As China’s leadership prepares its 13th Five-Year Plan (2016-20), it confronts multiple economic challenges, reform of State-owned enterprises being one of them.

Shining lights brighten future of SOEs

SOEs account for at least 30 percent of China’s total GDP. Some estimates put the share as high as 45 percent. But there are two worrying signs of the worsening situation for China’s SOEs: Their profits are dropping and indebtedness is rising sharply. According to the Ministry of Finance on Wednesday, the profits of the SOEs from January to August decreased by 8.2 percent year-on-year, while the total debt of SOEs from January to September has surpassed 77 trillion yuan, a 20 percent year-on-year increase.

Last month, the government introduced its guidelines for the next stage of SOE reform, including more outside capital. The guidelines are in the right direction, but, there is also some enormous potential within the SOE sector in China that, if unleashed, would also help contribute to the overall turnaround.

There are centers of research excellence, especially in applied engineering, on par with the best in the US and Europe. One example is the China Iron and Steel Research Institute Group in Beijing. It employs 2,000 staff with doctorates along with other experienced research scientists. Every visit, I leave impressed not only by the commitment of the large staff, but also the level of the research institute’s globally-important innovation.

If there is an area that needs improving-one not uncommon for SOE research institutes-it is in how to commercialize their many technologies and how to initiate and structure profitable licensing deals, both with other SOEs in China and global steel and new materials companies. The Institute, based in Beijing’s Haidian district, is making great strides, but, a greater focus as well as a stronger push from the government to get technologies out of the lab and into factories would be helpful.

SOEs too often focus excessively on increasing gross output rather than on pleasing customers and accumulating profits. One positive mold-breaker here is Yangzhou’s AVIC Baosheng Group, which makes steel and copper cable. Though operating in a brutally-competitive market with lots of competitors, Baosheng holds its own. Also in Yangzhou are two examples of how SOEs can take a valuable traditional brand name and rejuvenate it. Restaurant chain Yechun Teahouse and cosmetic manufacturer Xiefuchun have both been around since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and became SOEs in the 1950s.

Yechun is now opening beautiful restaurants both inside and outside China that maintain consistently high quality. Xiefuchun is more of a jewel-in-the-making, with great all-natural products in tune with buying trends in China and abroad. However, Xiefuchun is not as good as it could be on branding, packaging and retail, areas where SOEs often tend to do poorly. Xiefuchun, against all commercial logic, is now stuck inside a large SOE chemicals holding company.

Meanwhile, China Huadian Corporation stands out for its success doing something few SOEs have mastered-investing to build from the ground up and then running profitable large-scale projects outside China. All SOEs know about the central government’s “Go Global” policy. Huadian is getting it right and so has much to teach other globally-ambitious SOEs.

Then there’s my choice for most exceptional high-tech SOE in China, Sichuan Aerospace Tuoxin Basalt Industrial. Though little known, it could be a model for how SOEs might develop in the future. Based in Chengdu, 90 percent of the company is owned by the giant centrally-managed SOE, China Aerospace Group. Tuoxin internally developed a revolutionary process for using ordinary quarried stone to produce a lightweight waterproof, heat-resistant material with broad applications in everything from auto parts to wind-energy. It is on track to become a billion-dollar company within the next five years. Tuoxin suggests what more SOEs could be capable of.

But to get to where it is, Tuoxin needed an owner with long-term vision and patient capital, as well as a senior management team that wants to break out of the cocoon of supplying mainly other SOEs by partnering extensively with China’s private sector companies.

While the need for SOE reform is great and too many SOEs still fight to maintain the troubled status quo, there are also some Chinese SOEs leading by example. They are blazing a path toward a more productive and profitable SOE sector all Chinese can take pride in.

The author is chairman and chief executive officer of China First Capital

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2015-10/23/content_22260934.htm

“A lot hasn’t gone to plan”: SuperReturn Interview

September 15th, 2015 No comments

Superretrun

Does [China’s] shift from a manufacturing-driven economy to a service-driven one make macroeconomic shocks like those seen this summer inevitable?

Peter Fuhrman: China has enjoyed something of a worldwide monopoly on hair-raising economic news of late: a stock market collapse followed by a klutzy bail-out, then a devaluation followed by a catastrophic explosion and finally near-hourly reports of sinking economic indicators. As someone who first set foot in China 34 years ago, my view is we’re in an unprecedented time of economic and financial uncertainty . Consumers and corporates are noticeably wobbling. For a Chinese government long used to ordering “Jump!” and the economy shouting back “How high?” this is not the China they thought they were commanding.  Everyone is looking for a bannister to grab.

And yet, China still has some powerful fundamentals working in its favour. Urbanization is a big one. It alone should add at least 3-4% to annual GDP a year for many years to come. The shift towards services and domestic growth as opposed to exports are two others. For now, these forces are strong enough to keep China propelling forward even as it tows heavy anchors like an ageing population, and a cohort of monopolistic state-owned enterprises (SOEs) that suck up too much of China’s capital and often achieve appalling results with it.

Look, the Chinese stock market had no business in the first place almost tripling from June last year to June of this. The correction was long, long overdue. It’s often overlooked that China’s domestic stock market has a pronounced negative selection bias. Heavily represented among the 3,000 listed companies are quite a number of China’s very worst companies, with the balance made up of lethargic, low-growth, often loss-making SOEs. The good companies, like Tencent or Baidu, predominantly expatriate themselves when it comes time to IPO. To my way of thinking, China’s domestic market still seems overpriced. The dead cats are, for now, still bouncing.

 

Given this overall picture, do you expect to see greater or fewer opportunities [in China] for alternative investments and why? 

Peter Fuhrman: The environment in China has been challenging, to say the least, for alternative investment firms not just in the last year, but for the better part of the last decade. A lot hasn’t gone to plan. China’s growth and opportunities proved alluring to both GPs and LPs. And yet too often, almost systematically, the big money has slipped between their fingers. Partly it’s because of too much competition, and with it ballooning valuations, from over 500 newly-launched domestic Chinese PE and VC firms. The fault also sits with home-grown mistakes, with errors by private equity firms in investment approach. This includes an excessive reliance on a single source of deal exit, the IPO, all but unheard-of in other major alternative investment environments.

Overall PE returns have been lacklustre in China, especially distributions, before the economy began to slip off the rails. In the current environment, challenges multiply. A certain rare set of investing skills should prove well-adapted: firms that can do control deals, including industry consolidating roll-ups. In other words, a whole different set of prey than China PE investors have up to now mainly stalked. These are not pre-IPO deals, not ones predicated on valuation arbitrage or the predilections of Chinese young online shoppers. There’s money to be made in China’s own Rust Belt, backing solid well-managed manufacturers, a la Berkshire Hathaway. There’s too much fragmentation across the industrial board. China will remain the manufacturing locus for the world, as well as for its own gigantic domestic market.

Another anomaly that needs correcting: Global alternative investing has been overwhelmingly skewed in China towards equity not debt. The ratio could be as high as 99:1. This imbalance looks even more freakish when you consider real lending rates to credit-worthy corporates in China are probably the highest anywhere in the advanced world, even a lot higher than in less developed places like India and Indonesia. Regulation is one reason why global capital hasn’t poured in in search of these fat yields. Another is the fact PE firms on the ground in China have few if any team members with the requisite background and experience to source, qualify, diligence and execute China securitized debt deals. There’s a bit of action in the China NPL and distress world. But, straight up direct collateralized lending to China’s AA-and-up corporates and municipalities remains an opportunity global capital has yet to seize. Meanwhile, China’s shadow banking sector has exploded in size, with over $2.5 trillion in credit outstanding, almost all of which is current. There’s big money being made in China’s securitized high-yield debt, just not by dollar investors.

 

What’s the overall story of alternative investors engaging with central planning? How would you characterise the regulatory environment?

Peter Fuhrman: China has had a state regulatory and administrative apparatus since Europeans were running around in pelts and throwing spears at one another. So, yes, there is a large regulatory system in China overseen by a powerful government that is very deeply involved in economic and financial planning and rule-making. One must tread carefully here. Rules are numerous, occasionally contradictory, oft-time opaque and liable to sudden change.

Less observed, however, and less harrowing for foreign investors is the core fact that the planning and regulatory system in China has a strong inbuilt bias towards the goal of lifting GDP growth and employment. Other governments talk this talk. But it’s actually China that walks the walk. The days of anything-goes, rip-roaring, pollute-as-you-go development are about done with. But, still the compass needle remains fixed in the direction of encouraging strong rates of growth.

The Chinese government has also gotten more and more comfortable with the fact that most of the growth is now coming from the highly-competitive, generally lightly-regulated private sector. Along with a fair degree of deregulation lately in industries like banking and transport, China also often pursues a policy of benign neglect, of letting entrepreneurs duke it out, and only imposing rules-of-the-game where it looks like a lot of innocents’ money may be lost or conned. To be sure, foreign investors in most cases cannot and should not operate in these more free-form areas of China’s economy. They often seem to be the first as well as the fattest targets when the clamps come down. Just ask some larger Western pharmaceutical companies about this.

 

In the long view, how long can the parallel USD-RMB system run? Do you expect to see the experiments in Shanghai’s Pilot Free Trade Zone (FTZ) replicated and extended? 

Peter Fuhrman: Unravelling China’s rigged exchange rate system will not happen quickly. Every baby step — and the steps are coming more fast of late — is one in the direction of a more open capital account, of greater liberalization. But, big change will all unfold with a kind of stately sluggishness in my view. Not because policy-makers are particularly wed to the notion of an unconvertible currency. There’s the deadweight problem of nearly $4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. What’s the market equilibrium rate of the Dollar-Renminbi? Ask someone facing competition from a Chinese exporter and they’re likely to say three-to-one, or an almost 100% appreciation. Ask 1.4 billion Chinese consumers and they will, with eminent good reason, say it should be more like 12-to-one. Prices of just about everything sold to consumers in China is higher, often markedly higher, than in the US where I’m from. This runs from fruit, to supermarket staples, to housing, brand-name clothing up to ladder to cars and the fuel that powers them.

I think the irrational exuberance about Shanghai’s FTZ has slammed into the wall of actual central government policy of late.  It will not, cannot, act like a free market pathogen.

 

Reform of China’s state-owned enterprises has been piecemeal, and private equity has had patchy success with SOEs. Do you expect this to change, and why?

Peter Fuhrman: For those keeping score, reform of SOEs has yet to really put any points on the board. The SOE economy-within-an-economy remains substantially the same today as it was three years ago. Senior managers continue to be appointed not by competence, vision and experience, but by rotation. The major shareholder of all these SOEs, both at centrally-administered level as for well as those at provincial and local level, act like indifferent absentee proprietors, demanding little by way of dividends and showing scant concern as margins and return-on-investment droop year-by-year at the companies they own.

There are good deals to be done for PE firms in the SOE patch. The dirty little secret is that the government uses a net asset value system for state-owned assets that is often out-of-kilter with market valuations. Choose right and there’s scope to make money from this. But, if you’re a junior partner behind a state owner who cares more about jobs-for-the-boys than maximizing (or even earning) profits then no asset however cheaply bought will ever really be in the money.

 

TPP has been described as ‘a club with China left out’. If it comes to pass, how do you expect China to respond?

Peter Fuhrman: China has responded. Along with its rather clumsy-sounding “One Belt, One Road” initiative it also has its Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. The logic isn’t alien to me. When American Jews were barred from joining WASP country clubs, they tried to build better clubs of their own. When Chase Manhattan, JP Morgan and America’s largest commercial banks wouldn’t hire Jews, they went instead into investment banking, where there was more money to be made anyway.

But, China may not so easily and successfully shrug off their exclusion from TPP. It increases their aggrieved sense of being ganged-up upon. The US understands this and now frets more about China’s military power. The partners China are turning to instead – especially the countries transected by the “One Belt, One Road” – look more like a cast of economic misfits, not dynamic free traders like the TPP nations and China itself. I don’t think anyone in Beijing seriously believes that increased trading with the Central Asian -stans is a credible substitute. Even so, China will not soon be invited to join the TPP. China has hardly acted like a cozy neighbour of late to the countries with the markets and with the money. Being feared may have its strategic dividends. But the neighbourhood bully rarely if ever gets invited to the block party.

 

Peter Fuhrman will be speaking at SuperReturn Asia 2015, 21-24 September 2015, JW Marriott, Hong Kong.

 

http://www.superreturnasia.com/blog/super-return-private-equity-conference/post/id/7653_A-lot-hasnt-gone-to-plan-Peter-Fuhrman-China-First-Capital-on-alternative-investments-in-the-PRC?xtssot=0

Download PDF