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“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

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Trials and tribulations: China’s shifting business landscape highlighted in new report — Financier Worldwide

July 23rd, 2015 No comments

Financier

Trials and tribulations: China’s shifting business landscape highlighted in new report

BY Fraser Tennant

The deeper trends reshaping the business and investment environment in China today are the focus of a new report – ‘China 2015: China’s shifting landscape’ – by the boutique investment bank and advisory firm, China First Capital.

As well as highlighting slowing growth and a gyrating stock market as the two most obvious sources of turbulence in China at the midway point of 2015, the report also delves into the deeper trends radically reshaping the country’s overall business environment.

Chief among these trends is the steady erosion in margins and competitiveness among many, if not most, companies operating in China’s industrial and service economy. As the report makes abundantly clear, there are few sectors and few companies enjoying growth and profit expansion to match that seen in previous years.

The China First Capital report, quite simply, paints a none too rosy picture of China’s long-term development prospects.

“China’s consumer market, while healthy overall, is also becoming a more difficult place for businesses to earn decent returns,” explains Peter Fuhrman, China First Capital’s chairman and chief executive. “Relentless competition is one part, as are problematic rising costs and inefficient poorly-evolved management systems.”

To read complete article, click here.

China 2015 — China’s Shifting Landscape — China First Capital new research report published

July 20th, 2015 No comments

China First Capital research report

 

Slowing growth and a gyrating stock market are the two most obvious sources of turbulence in China at the midway point of 2015. Less noticed, perhaps, but certainly no less important for China’s long-term development are deeper trends radically reshaping the overall business environment. Among these are a steady erosion in margins and competitiveness in many, if not most, of China’s industrial and service economy. There are few sectors and few companies that are enjoying growth and profit expansion to match last year and the years before.

China’s consumer market, while healthy overall, is also becoming a more difficult place for businesses to earn decent returns. Relentless competition is one part. As problematic are rising costs and inefficient poorly-evolved management systems.  From a producer economy dominated by large SOEs, China is shifting fast to one where consumers enjoy vastly more choice, more pricing leverage and more opportunities to buy better and buy cheaper. Online shopping is one helpful factor, since it allows Chinese to escape from the poor service and high prices that characterize so much of the traditional bricks-and-mortar retail sector. It’s hard to find anything positive to say about either the current state or future prospects for China’s “offline economy”.

Meanwhile, more Chinese are taking their spending money elsewhere, traveling and buying abroad in record numbers. They have the money to buy premium products, both at home and abroad. But, too much of what’s made and sold within China, belongs to an earlier age. Too many domestic Chinese companies are left manufacturing products no longer quite meet current demands. Adapting and changing is difficult because so many companies gorged themselves previously on bank loans. Declining margins mean that debt service every year swallows up more and more available cash flow. When the economy was still purring along, it was easier for companies and their banks to pretend debt levels were manageable. In 2015, across much of the industrial economy, the strained position of many corporate borrowers has become brutally obvious.

These are a few of the broad themes discussed in our latest research report, “China 2015 — China’s Shifting Landscape”. To download a copy click here.

Inside, you will not find much discussion of GDP growth or the stock market. Instead, we try here to illuminate some less-seen, but relevant, aspects of China’s changing business and investment environment.

For those interested in the stock market’s current woes, I can recommend this article (click here) published in The New York Times, with a good summary of how and why the Chinese stock market arrived at its current difficult state. I’m quoted about the preference among many of China’s better, bigger and more dynamic private sector companies to IPO outside China.

In our new report, I can point to a few articles that may be of special interest, for the signals they provide about future opportunities for growth and profit in China:

  1. China’s most successful cross-border M&A ever, General Mills of the USA acquisition and development of dumpling brand Wanchai Ferry (湾仔码头), using a strategy also favored by Nestle in China
  2. China’s new rules and rationale for domestic M&A – “buy first and pay later”
  3. China’s most successful, if little known, recent start-up, mobile phone brand OnePlus – in its first full year of operations, 2015 worldwide revenues should reach $1 billion, while redefining positively the way Chinese brand manufacturers are viewed in the US and Europe
  4. Shale gas – by shutting out most private sector investment, will China fail to create conditions to exploit the vast reserves, larger than America’s, buried under its soil?
  5. Nanjing – left behind during the early years of Chinese economic reform and development, it is emerging as a core of China’s “inland economy”, linking prosperous Jiangsu and Shanghai with less developed heavily-populated Hubei, Anhui, Sichuan

We’re at a fascinating moment in China’s story of 35 years of rapid and remarkable economic transformation. The report’s conclusion: for businesses and investors both global and China-based, it will take ever more insight, guts and focus to outsmart the competition and succeed.

 

US Private Equity Soars While China Stalls

February 9th, 2015 1 comment

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In 2014, the gap between the performance of the private equity industry in China and the US opened wide.  The US had a record-breaking year, with ten-year net annualized return hitting 14.6%. Final data is still coming in, but it appears certain US PE raised more capital more quickly and returned more profits to LPs than any year previously.  China, on the other hand, had another so-so year. Exits picked up over 2013, but still remain significantly below highs reached in 2011. As a result profit distributions to LPs and closing of new China-focused funds are also well down on previous highs.

China’s economy, of course, also had an off year, with growth trending down. But, it’s hard to place the blame there. At 7.5%, China’s economy is still growing at around triple the rate of the US. China’s publicly-traded equities market, meanwhile, turned in a stellar performance, with the overall Chinese stock exchange average up 52% in 2014, compared to a 11.4% rise in the US S&P. When stock markets do well, PE firms should also, especially with exits.

While IPO exits for Chinese companies in US, HK and China reached 221, compared to only 66 in 2013, the ultimate measure of success in PE investing is not the number of IPOs. It’s the amount of capital and profits paid back to LP investors. This is China PE’s greatest weakness.

Over the last decade, China PE firms have returned only about 30% of the money invested with them to their LPs. This compares to the US, where PE firms over the same period returned twice the money invested by LPs. In other words, in China, as 2015 commences, PE firm investors are sitting on large cash losses.

China private equity distributions to LPs

 

China PE firms say they hope to return more money to their LPs in the future.  But, this poor pay-out performance is already having an adverse impact on the China PE industry. It is getting harder for most China PE firms to raise new capital. If this trend continues, there will be two negative consequences – first, the China PE industry, now the second largest in the world,  will shrink in size. Second, and more damaging for China’s overall economic competitiveness, the investment capital available for Chinese companies will decline. PE capital has provided over the past decade much-needed fuel for the growth of China’s private sector.

What accounts for this poor performance of China private equity compared to the US? One overlooked reason: China PE has lost the knack of investing and exiting profitably from Chinese industrial and manufacturing companies. Broadly speaking, this sector was the focus of about half the PE deals done up to 2011 when new deals peaked. That mirrors the fact manufacturing accounts for half of China’s GDP and traditionally has achieved high levels (over 30%) of value-added.

Manufacturing has now fallen very far from favor in China. Partly it’s the familiar China macro story of slowing export growth and margin pressures from rising labor costs and other inputs. But, another factor is at work: China’s own stock market, as well as those of the US and Hong Kong, have developed a finicky appetite when it comes to Chinese companies. In the US, only e-commerce and other internet-related companies need apply for an IPO. In Hong Kong, the door is open more widely and the bias against manufacturing companies isn’t quite so pronounced, especially if the company is state-owned. But, among private sector companies, the biggest China-company IPO have been concentrated in financial services, real estate, food production, retail.

For China-investing PE firms, this means in most cases their portfolios are mismatched with what capital markets want. They hold stakes in thousands of Chinese industrial and manufacturing companies representing a total investment of over $20 billion in LP money.  For now, the money is trapped and time is growing short. PE fund life, of course, is finite. Many of these investments were made five to eight years ago. China PE need rather urgently to find a way to turn these investments into cash and return money to LPs. Here too the comparison with US private equity is especially instructive.

The colossus that is today’s US private equity industry, with 3,300 firms invested in 11,000 US companies, was built in part by doing successful buyouts in the 1980s and 1990s of manufacturing and industrial companies, often troubled ones. Deals like Blackstone‘s most successful investment of all time, chemicals company Celanese, together with American Axle and TRW Automotive, KKR‘s Amphenol Corporation, Bain‘s takeover of  Sealy Corporation and many, many others led the way. Meanwhile, smart corporate investors like Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Emerson Electric and were also pouring billions into acquiring and shaping up industrial businesses. So successful has this strategy been over the last 30 years, it can seem like there are no decent industrial or manufacturing companies left for US PEs to target.

Along the way, US PEs became experts at selecting, acquiring, fixing up and then exiting from industrial companies. US PEs have shown again and again they are good at rationalizing, consolidating, modernizing and systematizing industrial companies and entire industrial sectors. These are all things China’s manufacturing industry is crying out for. Market shares are fragmented, management systems often non-existent, inventory control and other tools of “lean manufacturing” often nowhere to be found.

So here’s a pathway forward for China PE, to use in China the identical investing skills honed in the US. It should be rather easy, since among the US’s 100 biggest private equity firms, the majority have sizeable operations now in China, including giants like Carlyle, Blackstone, KKR, TPG, Bain Capital, Warburg Pincus. For these firms, it should be no more complicated than the left hand following what the right hand is doing.

It isn’t working out that way. This is a big reason why China PE is performing poorly compared to the US. PE partners in China in the main came into the industry after getting an MBA in the US or UK, then getting a job on Wall Street or a consulting shop. Few have experience working in,  managing or restructuring industrial companies. They often, in my experience, look a little out of place walking a factory floor. This is the other big mismatch in China PE — between the skill-sets of those running the PE firms what’s needed to turn their portfolio companies into winners.

Roll-up, about the most basic and time-tested of all US PE money-making strategies, has yet to take root in China. Inhospitable terrain? No, to the contrary. But, it requires a fair bit of sweat and grit from PE firms.

This may account for the fact that China PE firms are now mainly herding together to try to close deals in e-commerce, healthcare services, mobile games and other places where no metal gets bashed. PE firms formed such a crush to try to invest in Xiaomi, the mobile phone brand, that they drove the valuation up in the latest round of funding to $46 billion, so high none of them decided to invest. China PE is that paradoxical – fewer deals are getting done, fewer have profitable exits and yet valuations are often much higher than anywhere else.

Another worrying sign: of the big successful China company IPOs in 2014 – Alibaba, Dalian Wanda‘s commercial real estate arm, CGN, CITIC Securities, Shaanxi Coal, JD.com, WH Group  – only one had large global PE firms inside as large shareholders. That was WH Group, a troubled deal that had a hard time IPOing and has since sunk rather sharply. For the big global PE firms, 2014 had no big China IPO successes, which is probably a first.

The giant US PEs (Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR, Goldman Sachs Capital Partners, Bain Capital, TPG and the others) all voyaged to China a decade or more ago with high hopes. Some even dared predict China would become as important and profitable a market for them as the US. They were able to raise billions at the start, build big teams, but it’s been getting noticeably harder both to raise money and notch big successful deals. And so their focus is shifting back to the US.

China has so much going for it as an investment destination, such an abundance of what the US lacks. High overall growth, a government rolling in cash, a burgeoning and rapidly prospering middle class, rampant entrepreneurship, huge new markets ripe for taking. Why then are so many of the world’s most professional and successful investors finding it so tough to make a buck here?

 

WH Group Hong Kong IPO Goes Belly Up – Leaving Wall Street’s Most Famed Investment Banks and Some of Asia’s Biggest PE Firms at an Embarrassing Loss

April 30th, 2014 No comments

WSJ Shuanghui WH Group failed IPO

There will be an awful lot of embarrassed financial professionals sulking around Hong Kong and Wall Street today. The reason: a crazy IPO deal financially-engineered by a group of 29 big name investment banks, led by Morgan Stanley, together with several large China and Asian-based PE firms including China’s CDH and Singapore’s Temasek Holdings failed to find investors. Their pig’s ear didn’t, as they promised, turn into the silk purse after all. The planned IPO of WH Group has been aborted.

WH Group was created by the banks and PE firms to hold the assets of American pork producer Smithfield Foods bought last year in a leveraged buyout. The other asset inside of WH Group is a majority shareholding in China’s largest pork company Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development.

I was one of the few who actually called into question almost a year ago the logic as well as the economics of the deal. You can read my original article here.

There weren’t a lot of other doubters at the time. The mainstream financial press, by and large, went along with things, accepting at face value the story provided to them by Morgan Stanley, CDH and others. Over the last few months, as the now-failed IPO got into gear in anticipation of closing the deal around now, the press kept up its steady reporting, not raising too many tough questions about what were obviously some glaring weak points – the high debt, the high valuation, the crazy corporate structure that made the deal appear to be what it wasn’t, a Chinese takeover of a big US pork company.

I have no special interest in this deal, since me and my firm never acted for any of the parties involved, nor do I own any shares in any of the companies involved. I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents filed at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it, the chutzpah, that these big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausage bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to Hong Kong investors and institutions.

In other words, saying at the time it looked like the whole thing rested on a very shaky foundation was a reasonable conclusion for anyone who took the time to read the SEC filings. Instead, mainly what we heard about, over and over, was that this was (wrongly) China’s “biggest takeover of a US company,” a “merger between America’s largest pork producer and its counterpart in the world’s largest pork market.”

Morgan Stanley, CDH, Temasek and the others got a little too cocky. The original Smithfield “take private” deal last year went through smoothly. They moved quicker than originally planned to get the company re-listed in Hong Kong. Had they pulled it off, it would have meant huge fees for the investment bankers, and depending on the share price, a juicy return for the PE firms, most of whom had been stuck holding the shares in Henan Shuanghui Investment & Development for over seven years. First came word last week they wanted to cut back by 60% the size of the IPO due to the hostile reception from investors during the road show phase. Then the IPO was suddenly called off late on Tuesday, Hong Kong time.

One of the questions that never got properly answered is why these PE firms didn’t sell their Shuanghui shares on the Chinese stock market, but held them since IPO, without exiting. That’s unusual, especially since Shuanghui’s shares have traded well above the level CDH and others bought in at. I wasn’t in China at the time, but that original investment did not cover itself in praise and glory. Almost immediately after the PE firms went in, providing the capital to allow the state-owned Shuanghui to privatize itself in 2006, the rumors began to circulate that the deal was deeply corrupt, and for reasons never explained, was structured in a way where the PE firms did not have a way to exit through normal stock market channels.

The Smithfield acquisition never made much of any industrial sense. The PE firms that now own the majority (mainly CDH, Temasek, New Horizon, but also including Goldman Sachs’ Asia PE arm ) have no experience or knowledge how to run a pork business in the US. In fact, they don’t know how to run any business in the US. The Shuanghui China management, which is meant now to be serving two separate masters, simultaneously running the Chinese company and its troubled American cousin, similarly don’t know a hock from a snout when it comes to raising and selling pork in the US. This is, was and will remain the main business of Smithfield. Not exporting pork to China. How, when and why these US assets can be listed in Asia must certainly now count as a mystery to all of the big-name financial institutions involved, including Bank of China, which lent billions to finance the takeover last year, as did Morgan Stanley itself.

So, now we have this sorry spectacle of the PE firms, together with partners, having seemingly thrown more money away in a failed bid to rescue the original Shuanghui investment from its unexplained illiquidity. The WH Group IPO failure is also a stunning rebuke for the other PE-backed P2P take private deals now waiting to relist in Hong Kong. (Read here, here, here.) Smithfield, while no great shakes, is the jewel among the rather sorry group of mainly-Chinese companies taken private from the US stock exchange with the plan to sell them later to Hong Kong-based investors via an IPO.

This was among the most bloated IPOs ever, with 29 investment banks given underwriting mandates to sell shares. ( The IPO banks included not only Morgan Stanley, but also Citic Securities, Goldman Sachs, UBS, Barclays, Credit Suisse, JP Morgan, Nomura, Citigroup, Deutsche Bank.) All that expensive investment banking firepower. Result: among the most expensive IPO duds in history.

For the PE consortium that owns WH Group, they will have already likely lost over USD$15mn in LP money on legal, underwriting and accounting fees on this failed IPO. This is on top of a whopping $729mn fees paid by the PE firms for what are called “one-off fees and share-based payments” to acquire Smithfield. The subsequent restructuring ahead of IPO? Maybe another $100mn. If or when the WH Group IPO is tried again, the fees will likely be at least as high as the first time around. In short, the PE firms are already close to $1 billion in the red on this deal, not including interest payments on all the debt.  Smithfield itself remains lacklustre. Its net profit shrank 50% during the fiscal year leading up to the buyout.

With no IPO proceeds anywhere on the horizon, the issue looming largest now for the PE firms: is WH Group generating enough free cash to service the $7 billion in debt, including $4 billion borrowed to buy sputtering Smithfield? If not, next stop is Chapter 11.

By contrast, now feeling as delighted as pigs in muck are the mainly-US shareholders who last year sold their Smithfield shares at a 31% premium above the pre-bid price to the Chinese-led PE group. It doesn’t offset by much the US trade deficit with China, which reached a new record last year of $318 billion. But these US investors also get the satisfaction of knowing they have so far received the far better end of a deal against some of the bigger, richer financial institutions in Asia and Wall Street.

 

China’s SOEs attract PE interest — Private Equity International Magazine

March 4th, 2014 No comments

Private Equity International Magazine

www.peimedia.com

China’s state-owned enterprise promise big returns for PE investors, as well as a big challenge.

By: Clare Burrows


In 2013, private equity investment in China dropped to just $4.5 billion – about 47 percent below the equivalent figure for 2012, according to data from Thomson Reuters. Since China’s dry powder level was estimated at $59 billion at the end of 2012, it’s clear that China’s GPs need to find new ways to deploy the vast amounts of capital raised during better times.

What seems to be catching the industry’s eye more than ever are the country’s state-owned enterprises:large, government-controlled organisations, many of which are in dire need of restructuring. While state-owned enterprises account directly or indirectly for 60 percent of China’s GDP, according to research by China First Capital, almost 100 percent of institutional capital, especially private equity, has
been invested into China’s privately-owned sector.

However, as the number of traditional opportunities falls, “this may leave investing in SOEs as the best, largest and most promising new area for private equity investment,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman and chief executive at China First Capital suggests.

And, some industry sources ask: what better target for private equity than these bloated, inefficient giants, which the newly-appointed Chinese government is apparently so keen to reform? SOEs are highly compliant when it comes to tax and accounting laws (a rare phenomenon among China’s privately-owned companies). Better still, they’re a bargain – because China’s State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC) regulates their price based on net asset value.

“If you have a highly profitable SOE that has very low net assets, you can potentially buy it at incredibly low P/E multiples,” Fuhrman says. With one deal China First is advising on, 51 percent of the business is being offered at 2x EBITDA, he adds. China First is currently acting as an investment banker for five of China’s largest SOEs, including China Aerospace, China State Construction, China Huadian, Wuliangye Group and Shandong Energy.

Click here to read full article

China’s Capital Markets Go From Feast to Famine and Now Back Again, China First Capital New Research Report

January 19th, 2014 No comments

China First Capital 2014 research report cover

The long dark eclipse is over. The sun is shining again on China’s capital markets and private equity industry. That’s good news in itself, but is also especially important to the overall Chinese economy. For the last two years, investment flows into private sector companies have dropped precipitously, as IPOs disappeared and private equity firms went into hibernation. Rebalancing China’s economy away from exports and government investment will take cash. Lots of it. Expect significant progress this year as China’s private sector raises record capital and China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) gradually transform into more competitive, profit-maximizing businesses.

These are some of the conclusions of the most recent Chinese-language research report published by China First Capital. It is titled, “2014民企国企的转型与机遇“, which I’d translate as “2014: A Year of Transformation and Opportunities for China’s Public and Private Sectors”. You can download a copy by clicking here or visiting the Research Reports section of the China First Capital website, (http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/en/research-reports).

We’re not planning an English translation. One reason:  the report is tailored mainly to the 8,000 domestic company bosses as well as Chinese government policy-makers and officials we work with or have met. They have already received a copy. The report has also gotten a fair bit of media coverage over the last week here in China.

Our key message is we expect this year overall business conditions, as well as capital-raising environment,  to be significantly improved compared to the last two years.  We expect the IPO market to stage a significant recovery. Our prediction, over 500 Chinese companies will IPO worldwide during this year, with the majority of these IPOs here in China.

We also investigate the direction of economic and reform policy in China following the Third Plenum, and how it will open new opportunities for SOEs to finance their growth and improve their overall profitability, including through carve-out IPOs and strategic investment. SOEs will become an important new area of investment for PE firms and global strategics.

The SOEs we work with are all convinced of the need to diversify their ownership, and bring in profit-driven experienced institutional investors. For investors, SOE deals offer several clear advantages: scale is larger and valuations are usually lower than in SME deals; SOEs are fully compliant with China’s tax rules, with a single set of books; the time to IPO or other exit should be quicker than in many SME deals.

As financial markets mature in China, we think one unintended consequence will be a drop in activity on China’s recently-established over-the-counter exchange, known as the “New Third Board” (新三板).  The report offers our reasons why we think this OTC market is a poor, inefficient choice for Chinese businesses looking to raise capital. While the aims of the Third Board are commendable, to open a new fund-raising channel for private sector companies, the reality is that it offers too little liquidity, low valuations and an uncertain path to a full listing on China’s main stock exchanges.

Over the last three years, China has had the highest growth rate and the worst performing stock market among all major economies. In part, the long stock market slide is both necessary and desirable, to bring China’s stock market valuations more in line with those of the US and Hong Kong. But, it also points to a more uncomfortable reality, that China’s listed companies too often become listless ones. Once public, many companies’ profit growth and rates of return go into long-term decline. IPO proceeds are hoarded or misspent. Rarely do managers make it a priority to increase shareholder value.

A small tweak in the IPO listing rules offers some promise of improvement. Beginning this year, a company’s control shareholder, usually the owner or a PE firm, will be locked-in and prevented from selling shares for five years if the share price stays below the original IPO level.

Spare a moment to consider the life of a successful Chinese entrepreneur, both SOE and private sector. In two years, access to capital went from feast to famine. And now maybe back again. An IPO exit went from a reachable goal to an impossibility. And now maybe back again. Meanwhile, markets at home surged while those abroad sputtered. Government reform went from minimal to now ambitious.

2014 is going to be quite a year.

SOE Reform in China — Big Changes On the Way

December 24th, 2013 No comments

Qianlong emperor calligraphy

China’s state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are a lucky breed, or so conventional wisdom would have it. They have lower cost of capital and less competitive pressures of private sector competitors. China’s big banks (also state-owned) are always happy to lend, and if things do turn sour, China’s government will bail everyone out.

The reality, however, is substantially different and substantially more challenging. SOEs live in a different world than they did ten, or even three years ago. They are more and more often under intensifying pressure to achieve two incompatible goals: to continue to expand revenues by 15%-25% a year, but to do so without corresponding large increases in net bank borrowing. The result, over time, will be that SOEs will need to rely increasingly on private sector capital to finance their future growth.

This message came through especially loud and clear in the policy document published by the Chinese leadership after the recent Third Party Plenum in November.  SOEs are told they need to become more attuned to the market and less dependent on government favors and protection. This new policy pronouncement is reverberating like a cannon blast inside the state-owned economy, based on conversations lately with the top people at our large Chinese SOE clients.

No one at these SOEs is entirely sure how to fulfill the orders from above. But, they are all certain, from long years of experience, that the environment SOEs operate in is going to undergo some significant change, likely the most significant since the “Great Cull” of the mid-1990s when thousands of SOEs were pushed into bankruptcy.Too many of the surviving SOEs have done little more than survive over the last twenty years. They managed to stay in the black, sometimes by resorting to rather idiosyncratic accounting that ignored depreciation.

The Chinese leadership is embarking on a tricky, somewhat contradictory, mission:  to simultaneously shake up the SOE sector, make it more efficient and responsive to market forces,  while keeping SOEs embedded in the foundation of China’s economy.  Much has changed about the way Chinese leaders view and manage SOEs. But, a key principle remains intact. The architect of the policy, Deng Xiaoping, put it this way, ” As long as we keep ourselves sober-minded, there is nothing to be feared. We still hold superiority, because we have large and medium state-owned enterprises.

In other words, SOE privatization is not on the menu, at least not in any large-scale way. SOEs, particularly the 126 so-called “centrally-administered SOEs” (央企)  will remain majority-owned by the government. The government is suggesting, however, it wants these SOEs, as well as the other 100,000 or so smaller ones active in most parts of the Chinese economy, to be run better and more profitably. But how? That’s the a topic of discussions I’ve been having over the last month with the bosses at our SOE clients.

The rate of return (as measured by return on assets) at SOEs has, in almost all cases, drifted down over the last ten years, and is now probably under 3% a year.  If bank borrowing and depreciation were more properly amortized, the rate of return would likely turn negative at quite a lot of SOEs.

In some cases, this reflects the cruel reality that many SOEs operate in low-margin highly-commoditized industries. But, another key factor is that the government body that acts as the owner of most SOEs, SASAC (国资委), is not your typical profit-maximizing shareholder.

SASAC manages the portfolio of SOE assets like the most risk-averse executor. It demands three things above all from SOEs: don’t lose money;  don’t pilfer state assets and keep revenues growing.

When your owner sets the bar a few inches off the ground, you don’t try to break the Olympic high jump record. No SOE manager ever got a bonus, as far as I’ve heard, from doubling profits, or improving cash flow. Pay-for-performance is basically taboo at SOEs. The whole SOE system, as it’s now configured, is designed to produce middling giants with tapering profits.

Rather than shake-up SASAC, the country’s leaders have given SOEs a green light to seek capital from outside sources, including private equity and strategic investors. They should provide, for the first time, a voice in the SOE boardroom calling for higher profits, higher margins, bigger dividends.

It’s a wise move. SOEs need to carry more of the load for China’s future gdp growth. You can’t do that when you are achieving such low return on assets. Among the SOEs we work with, there’s a genuine excitement about bringing in outside investment, and operating under a new, more strenuous regime. Surprised? The SOEs I know are run by professional managers who’ve spent much of their careers building the business and take pride in its scale and professionalism. They, too, see room for improvement and see the downsides of SASAC’s approach.

Outside capital can help these SOEs finance their future expansion.  It could also open new doors, especially in international markets. The big question: can — will — private equity, buyout firms, global strategic investors seek out investments in Chinese SOEs? It’s unfamiliar terrain.

Earlier this year, I arranged a series of meetings for twelve of the world’s-largest PE firms and institutional investors to meet a large SOE client of ours. These firms collectively have over $700 billion in capital, and each one has at least ten years’ experience in China. They are all keen on this particular deal. Yet, none of these firms have invested in any SOE deals over the last five years. For many of the visiting PEs, it was their first time ever meeting with the boss of a profitable and successful SOE to discuss investing.

In this case, it looks like a deal will get done, and so provide a blueprint for future PE investing in Chinese SOE.  The Chinese leadership ordered a shakeup to the state owned sector. It’s getting one.

 

Private Sector Capital for China’s SOEs — China First Capital Press Release

October 27th, 2013 No comments

China First Capital press release

Hong Kong, Shenzhen, China:  China First Capital, an international investment bank and advisory firm focused on China, today announces it has received a pioneering mandate from a large Chinese State-Owned Enterprise (“SOE”) holding company to manage a process to revitalize and privatize part of the group by bringing in private capital.

“The investment environment for SOE deals in China is undergoing a significant and exciting change,” commented China First Capital chairman and founder Peter Fuhrman. “We are proud to play a role as investment bankers and advisors in this change, by working with some of China’s SOEs to complete restructuring of unquoted subsidiaries and then raise private sector capital to finance their future expansion. We see these SOE investment deals as the next significant opportunity for institutional investors eager to allocate more capital to China.”

By some estimates, China’s SOEs account for over 60% of total Chinese GDP. Yet, up to now, they have only rarely done private placements or spinoffs to access institutional investment, including from private equity firms. But, according to China First Capital’s internal research, an increasing number of China’s SOEs will face a funding gap in coming years. SOEs, in most cases, have ambitious expansion plans fully supported by the Chinese government. Yet, the SOEs are restricted in their ability to raise large amounts of new bank loans. They are under pressure from Chinese government to maintain or lower their debt-to-equity ratios.

More…

Neue Zurcher Zeitung Interview

 

China SOEs — How They Think and Why

September 5th, 2013 No comments

China First Capital blog There are many flavors of State-Owned Enterprise (“SOE”)  in China, from polluting monster chemical factories to quaint dumpling houses that date from before the revolution.  Since coming to China, I’ve seen up-close quite a number SOEs, probably more than most other non-Chinese. No two are quite alike. But, equally, SOEs in China, from the largest centrally-administered “national champions” (known as 央企, or “yangqi”, in Chinese and include such familiar names like Sinopec, China Mobile, ICBC) that earn billions in profits every year to smaller local loss-making industrial companies with a few hundred employees, share a similar genetic code. Or more precisely, provide the same iron rice bowl.

That phrase (铁饭碗 ) was widely used during Mao’s time, and I still heard it frequently when I first came to China 1981.  It’s since faded from common use. But, the concept remains embodied within all SOEs. Simply put, an “iron rice bowl” means a job for life, and so a life without the worry of going unfed. In today’s China, with the threat and the memory of famine now extinguished, it’s more a way of expressing the unique way an SOE functions, how it views its role in society and the benevolent — some might say paternalistic — way it cares for its employees.

An SOE is, above all,  a very Chinese institution, and in many ways, one of the few holdovers from the Maoist era.  Chinese then didn’t so much work for a company as they belonged to a “work unit“, a 单位 (“danwei”). A paying job was in some senses the least important thing provided by one’s work unit, since cash salaries used to be very low, under $10 a month for mid-level managers. Instead, one’s work unit provided housing, schools, communal heating, medical care, ration tickets, permission to marry, to travel or have a child, subsidized meals and fresh food.

In theory, the work unit was the Great Provider, anticipating and meeting all of one’s needs in life. In practice, of course, it offered not a lot more than a very rudimentary existence and a job for life. For most Chinese, especially all working for private sector companies, the danwei system was dismantled ten years ago. A job is just a job, not a lifetime meal ticket.

But, for those working at SOEs, many of the more desirable features of the danwei system have been preserved, starting with the fact you are very unlikely ever to be fired. What’s more, the company itself is also highly unlikely to ever go bankrupt or face a serious crisis that would lead to mass layoffs.  Today’s SOEs hold, in effect, a permanent right to operate, regardless of market conditions.

China’s current group of SOEs are a privileged rump, those spared from a massive cull over ten years ago. That put the worst, least efficient SOEs out of business, and forced tens of millions to take early retirement or go off in search of new jobs, mainly in the private sector.

SOEs, along with the military and the Party, are the third of China’s key pillars of state power. While each is subject to the control of the country’s leadership, each also operates, to some extent,  by rules of its own. Chinese leaders are known to complain, at times, about the power, wealth and influence of the country’s larger SOEs.

SOEs are ultimately kept in business by other SOEs — loans from the state-owned banks, and orders or supplies from fellow SOEs. In most cases, they have a marked preference for doing business with one another.  Partly, this is because SOEs tend to understand better the way other SOEs think and act. Partly, it’s also because SOEs function together as mutual assistance society. If one gets in trouble, others will either voluntarily help out, or be ordered to do so by SASAC (“国资委”), the government organization that manages Chinese SOEs.

SOE jobs usually pay less than private sector competitors. But, for many, that’s more than compensated by the perks that come with the job. While Google is famous for its free food and recreation areas,  an SOE has its own attractions, tailored to the tastes of its Chinese employees. Workloads tend to be modest, and a long lunchtime siesta is built into every working day. During winter, the company will often provide extra cash to pay for heating.

There is, in my experience, an obvious camaraderie among SOE workers,  a shared identity and pride working for what are usually very large, well-known companies that tower over their private sector competitors and neighbors. If not always in practice, at least in theory, an SOE is meant to be in business for the benefit of all of China, not to accumulate profits or generate wealth purely for its shareholders.

It’s a noble mission, but one that can lead to its own rather systematic form of inefficiency. Urged on by SASAC, they set ambitious growth targets every year to increase output. They achieve this, in most cases, by pouring more borrowed money into new capital equipment, often to produce products the government says China needs or wants. The amounts invested, and the returns on those investments, tend to move in opposite directions.

SOEs can borrow at half the cost of private sector companies. Their hurdle rate is also often half that, or less, than private companies’.  As a result, projects with limited financial rationale often get built.

Take LEDs, solar and wind power. All three were heavily over-invested by SOEs because the Chinese government had made such “green energy” projects a national priority. More energy was probably consumed forging the steel and building factories and equipment to produce LED assemblies, solar panels and wind turbines than has been saved by lowering overall energy use in China. A lot of these LED, solar and wind projects are now mothballed, due to losses and falling demand.

Part of what SOEs exist to do is to take government economic policy and turn it into hard, if sometimes not very productive, assets. That outlook, of course, also impacts the way SOE staff work. Their pay isn’t linked to profits any more than company-wide strategy is.

China SOE Accounting — BAAP Not GAAP Applies

August 15th, 2013 No comments

China SOE accounting

If the last two years of crisis in investing in Chinese companies proves anything, it’s that any Chinese company that pays more tax than it should, documents every transaction and practices the most forensic accounting methods is the one with the calmest, happiest investors. Such companies are very rare among the thousands invested in by private equity, and not very common among publicly-traded ones,  if professional short-sellers like Muddy Waters, as well as securities regulators in the US and Hong Kong are to be believed.

Chinese companies, especially private ones,  live under a cloud of suspicion their books are cooked, while their auditors turn a complicit blind eye. While that cloud hovers, it will remain impossible for Chinese private companies in large numbers to successfully sell their shares to the public through an IPO. Chinese companies already listed are not much better off. For many, their share prices remain seriously depressed because of investor doubts about the accuracy of the financial accounts.

For PE firms, it represents a very painful dilemma. To have any chance to IPO, their portfolio companies will often need to pay more tax. But, doing so makes the companies less profitable and so much less attractive to the capital markets. Pay first and pray for an IPO later is pretty much the current PE exit strategy in China.

What a refreshing change, therefore, it is to encounter the financial accounts of a Chinese state-owned enterprise (“SOE”). By Chinese standards, their accounts are often clean enough to eat off. SOEs often seem to take pride in paying as much tax as possible. Rather than hiding income, they seem to want to exaggerate it.

Why do SOEs operate this way? It could be argued that tax-paying is their form of national service. Most SOEs pay no dividends to the state, even though the state is the majority, indeed often the 100% owner. Or perhaps SOEs are trying to set a righteous, though generally ignored, example of dutiful tax compliance?

In fact, the heavy and perhaps over-scrupulous tax-paying can also be seen as the result of a system of diligent, almost fanatical record-keeping practiced inside SOEs. Everything bought or sold, every Renminbi moving inside or outside,  is tabulated by the SOEs large team of in-house bookkeepers. Note, I say bookkeepers, not accountants. An SOE has many of the former and few, if any, of the latter.

That’s because SOEs also operate by their own set of accounting standards. I call it “Chinese BAAP“, or “bureaucratically accepted accounting principles“. This is, needless to say, as different from GAAP as any two financial tracking systems could possibly be.

Under Chinese BAAP, the purpose of the annual financial statement is to produce a record that bureaucratic layers above can use. This means especially the administrators at SASAC, the government agency that owns and manages most SOEs. SASAC’s job is to make sure that SOEs are (a) increasing output while operating profitably; and (b) not engaged in any kind of corrupt hanky-panky.

Of the two, SASAC is probably more concerned that government property is not being pilfered, misappropriated, wasted or diverted to pay for senior management’s weekend gambling junket to Macao. This isn’t to say that such things can’t occur. But, the accounting system used by an SOE is designed to be so meticulous, so focused on counting and double-counting, that bad acts are harder to do and harder to hide.

If I could bill out all the time I’ve personally spent during 2013 studying and complying with SOE payment procedures, I’d probably have at least 100 billable hours by now. I should bill the SOE for all this time, but figuring out how to do so would probably take me another 60 hours.

The main purpose of all the rules seems to be to keep a very solid tamper-proof paper trail of money leaving the SOE. This is a far cry, of course, from accounting, at least as its understood outside China. The way assets are valued, and depreciated, follows a logic all its own. One example: an SOE client of ours bought and owns a quite large plot of suburban real estate outside Chengdu. Its main factory buildings are set on top of it. The land is booked at its purchase price as an intangible asset on the company balance sheet. Under Chinese BAAP, this is apparently allowed.

To meet SASAC-imposed growth targets, SOEs are known to boost revenues through a kind of wash-trading. Profit isn’t impacted. Only top-line. BAAP turns a blind eye.

Every SOE is audited once-a-year. Few private companies are. The main purpose of the audit is not only, as under GAAP, to determine accurately a company’s expenses and revenues. It’s also to make sure all of last year’s assets, plus any new ones bought during the current audit year,  can be located and their value tabulated.

From the standpoint of a potential investor, while the logic of Chinese BAAP may take some getting used to,  an SOEs books can be understood and, for the most part, trusted. There should be little worry, as in private sector companies, that there are three sets of books, that sales are being made without receipts to escape tax, and that company cash flows through an ever-changing variety of personal bank accounts. SOE management, in my view, wouldn’t know how to perpetrate accounting fraud if they were being paid to do so. They’ve grown up in a system where everything is counted, entered into the ledger, and outputted in the annual SASAC audit.

An investor who takes majority control of an SOE, as in the two deals we are now working on,  would want to transition the company to using more standard accounting rules. It would also want the company to avail itself, as few seem now to do, on all legal methods to defer or lower taxes. In short, there is good money to be made in China going from BAAP to GAAP.

 

China SOE Buyouts — Case Study Part 2

August 7th, 2013 No comments

Jin finial

When you can find them, State-Owned Enterprise (“SEO”)  buyouts are among the better investments in China. The reasons: the companies are cheap, professionally-managed and free of accounting fraud. The not-trivial challenge: finding good SOEs that can be bought.

For such an important part of the world’s second-largest economy, Chinese SOEs are widely misunderstood. They account for at least 20% of China’s GPD. Some estimates put SOEs’ contribution to GPD at 60% or higher. But, SOEs are often characterized, to quote from a World Bank analysis, as “dying dinosaurs that continuously absorb resources from the economy but produce little economic value.”

To be sure, there are many SOEs that fit this description. But, equally, there are plenty of good businesses among China’s more than 150,000 SOEs. The good ones, quite often, can be made substantially better by bringing in outside capital and chopping away at the heavy bureaucratic crust.

Buyouts make money when a new owner buys an business for less than it’s worth, then reinvigorates it. Generally that’s done by buying lazily-run subsidiaries inside larger conglomerates.

No conglomerate anywhere, at any time,  has been more laid-back about managing its assets than SASAC, the huge government organization that is the legal owner of most Chinese SOEs.

SOEs operate in, but are not entirely of, the market economy. They benefit from cheap and plentiful capital via loans from state-owned banks. But, SASAC is generally far more concerned with increasing revenues and investment than profits. SASAC generally doesn’t demand SOEs pay it dividends. Instead, it asks for an audit every year that shows an SOE’s revenues and assets are growing, and no money is actually being lost or assets pilfered. SASAC doesn’t act like an owner so much as a custodian.

SASAC’s casual attitude to profit-making filters down to all levels within an SOE.  Given the choice to maximize or minimize profits, most SOEs will choose the latter.  The goal is to make a little more than last year, but not so much that SASAC, or more senior levels in government, begin to ask questions. With few exceptions (mainly larger centrally-administered SOEs quoted in the US like China Mobile and PetroChina) the corporate equivalent of a “gentleman’s C“, a net margin of around 2.5%, is considered satisfactory.

You don’t need to be a Buffett, Bonderman, Kravis, or Rubenstein to make money buying the right Chinese SOE. You generally don’t need to get your hands too dirty, launch a hostile takeover, borrow a ton of money, or make yourself unpopular by firing surplus workers. It’s going to be enough in most cases just to retain and incentivize current managers, and inform them that their goal now is to deliver net margins as good as, if not better, than private sector competitors.

Not in all cases but many, the current management of an SOE is quite good, professional, dedicated. The managers operate within a system that downplays the importance of maximizing profit. So, they behave correspondingly. But, that doesn’t mean they don’t know how to do so, especially when they have their salary or share options tied to profitability.

In a previous post I mentioned our two new SOE clients. We are working now to privatize them by selling majority ownership to a private sector investor. Both are 100%-owned by one state-owned holding company which, in turn, is fully-owned by another, even larger SOE holding group. Above them, is the local SASAC in the city where the holding companies are both headquartered. No sooner did we start asking the managers how to improve profits, then they began to share information on how much additional profit was being left unclaimed — unnecessary commission payments, tax rebates not filed for, revenues booked through unrelated group companies.

In the case of these two companies, the current CEOs have been running the businesses since they were started more than five years ago. They are about as far from a stereotyped paper-pushing “SOE Manager” as one could imagine. They are in their mid-40s, and take evident pride in running their businesses as efficiently as any Western manager would. The difference is, a lot of the profit they earn is siphoned off through lots of internal layers within the holding group. At the moment, that’s of little concern to them. They are ordinary salaried workers giving SASAC precisely what it wants. Giving more would do nothing to advance their careers, or fatten their pay packets.

These two CEOs are excited and ambitious to run independent private sector companies that will be free to make and keep as much money as the market and tax laws allow. I have confidence that in both cases, net income would more than double within two years, and triple within five.

What’s needed isn’t restructuring. It’s gardening. You weed out all the unnecessary fees, commissions and chop back the overheads. This reveals the companies’ genuine – and impressive – bottom line.

We are still doing our internal work with the companies, but will soon start the search for new majority owners for each company. All the layers above, up to and including the local SASAC, seem to support these transactions. Why? The holding company already has one very successful publicly-traded company. Once spun off, these two subsidiaries should follow a similar path and one day go public. That is the surest way to assure the companies have sufficient access to low-cost capital and so finance continued growth. Both companies, with revenues of over $100mn, are growing quickly.

Everyone is currently in agreement that the best way for these two subsidiaries to become not just the largest but the most profitable companies in their industry in China is by bringing in majority private shareholders, both to invest in the business and provide more focused, profit-oriented ownership. They sought our investment banking and advisory help to do so.

This isn’t to say these deals, or any SOE takeover, is as effortless as body-surfing. The privatization process in China is still evolving. Any transaction like this will likely generate some opposition. From whom? And from what level? Both are impossible to say.

A separate concern of mine: there are far too few capable and experience takeover firms active in China. Among those that are around, the level of experience and comfort with buying control of an SOE is not uniformly high. Done right, the new owners would be able to profit from a large gap between the current asset value as calculated using SASAC rules and each company’s level of underlying and future profitability. In other words, you buy using NAV but sell later on a p/e multiple.

Making money on that swap, from NAV-to-p/e, is the simple idea at the heart of many of the world’s most successful takeovers. Opportunities to do this are now quite rare in the US and Europe, which is one reason the returns for big buyout firms like KKR, Blackstone and Carlyle has generally been trending down over the last 25 years, and why it’s harder for Warren Buffett to find the kind of underpriced gems he treasures most.

The best days of takeovers have passed, right? Or should Buffett, Rubenstein, Bonderman and Kravis be booking flights to China?

 

 

China Investment Banking Case Study: An SOE Privatization

July 30th, 2013 4 comments


China First Capital Signing ceremony

Anyone who’s dipped into this blog will know that I rarely, if ever, discuss directly what me and my company China First Capital do, our client work. Partly it’s because the work is usually by necessity confidential (clients, investors, deal terms) and partly because I don’t blog as a marketing tool.

But, I plan over coming months to share significant details about a “live deal” we are now working on, a buyout transaction involving a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE). The reasons: its size and structure make it an unusual transaction in China, and one that might also bust some myths about the way business in China, especially involving SOEs, actually works.

While I can’t reveal the name of the company, I can disclose why I think it’s such a compelling deal.  Our client is one of China’s largest, most well-known and most successful SOEs. The group’s overall annual profit of over Rmb12 bn (about USD$2bn) also make it one of the richest. Unlike a lot of SOEs, this one operates in highly-competitive markets, and has nothing like a monopoly in China.

The deal we’re working on is to restructure then “privatize” two profitable subsidiary companies of this SOE. Both of these subsidiaries are the largest businesses in China in their industry. Their combined revenues are about $220mn.

Privatization has two slightly different meanings in Chinese finance. First, is the type of deal, very common a decade ago, where big SOEs like China Mobile, Sinopec, PetroChina, ICBC, Air China, are converted into joint stock companies and then a minority share is listed through an IPO on stock markets in China, US or Hong Kong. The companies’ majority owner remains the Chinese state, with the shares usually held and managed by a powerful arm of the government known in Chinese as 国资委, in English known as the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission, or more commonly SASAC. In theory, SASAC probably holds the world’s largest and most valuable share portfolio, far bigger than Fidelity,  Vanguard, or the world’s sovereign wealth funds.

The other, rarer,  type of privatization is where a company’s majority ownership changes hands, from state to private ownership. This is the type of control deal we are working on. The plan is to spin out the two subsidiaries by selling a majority stake to either a strategic or financial acquirer. In all likelihood, each company will one day go public either in China or Hong Kong, at which time, I’d expect their market caps to each be well over US$1bn.

In essence, the deals are structured as a recapitalization, where a new private-sector majority owner will contribute capital in excess of the company’s current assessed value. That valuation is determined by an independent accounting firm,  based on current asset value.

The privatization process is heavily regulated and tightly controlled by SASAC. It involves multiple levels of review, outside valuation, and then an open-market auction process. The system has changed out of all recognition from the first generation of government asset sales done in the 1990s. These deals involved little to no public disclosure or transparency and generated quite a lot of criticism and resentment that Chinese state assets were being sold to insiders, or the well-connected, for a fraction of their true value.

For an investment bank, working with an SOE, especially a large and famous one, has a process, logic and rhythm all its own. There are many more layers of management than at a typical Chinese private company, and many more voices involved in decision-making. In this case, we’re rather fortunate that the chairman of the holding company is also the founder of the two subsidiaries we’re now seeking to spin out. He started the companies from zero less than ten years ago, and has built them into proud, successful, fast-growing businesses.

This chairman has far more sway over the strategy and direction of the SOE than is usual in China. I first met him over a year ago. I was called to visit the company to explain the process through which an SOE like his could raise outside capital. Though curious, the chairman said at the time it seemed like more trouble than it would be worth. He had a comfortable life, and was nearing mandatory retirement age.

In fact, as I now understand, that first meeting was really just a way to kickstart a long, complicated and confidential discussion process involving the chairman, his senior management team, as well as even more senior officials at the SOE.  Over the course of a year, the chairman was able to persuade himself, as well as the many others with a potential veto, that a spin-out of the two companies was worth considering in greater detail.

The privatization offers the promise of long-term access to capital and also, most likely, a greater degree of management autonomy.  Though the two subsidiaries do not sell to, rely on or otherwise have related party transactions with the parent, they are ultimately subject to some rather heavy and often-stifling bureaucratic controls. Contrary to the reputation of many Chinese SOE, the two companies sell high-end products to large fastidious global customers. They operate in highly kinetic markets but with a corporate structure above them that is as slow, ponderous and impenetrable as a five-hour Peking Opera performance.

The chairman invited me to return for another visit in June. What followed was a rather intensive process of me and my team submitting several different financing plans and options, including the privatization of either the whole holding company or various subsidiaries, either as standalones, or grouped into mini-conglomerates. These different plans got discussed very actively inside the SOE. In under a month, the company had decided how it wanted to proceed: that its two strongest and most successful subsidiaries should be separately spun off and majority control in each offered to a new investor.

It may not sound like it, but one month is a remarkably fast time for an SOE to consider, decide and then get necessary approvals to do just about anything. We also work with another even larger Beijing-headquartered SOE and it took them almost four months to get the eleven different people needed to approve, and apply the chop to, our template Non-Disclosure Agreement.

I was summoned with one day’s advance notice to return to the company in late July to sign a cooperation agreement to advise them on the proposed privatization/recapitalization of the two subsidiaries. Again, that’s rather typical of SOEs:  meetings are called suddenly, and one needs to drop whatever one’s doing and attend. For me, that meant a hastily-booked two hour flight, then a three-and-a-half hour drive to the company’s headquarters. A photo from the signing ceremony is at the top of this page. (I have to cover over the name of the company.)

The contract signing was followed by another in a series of very elaborate and extremely tasty meals. The chairman has converted a 13-acre plot of the company’s land into an organic farm, where he grows fruits and vegetables and raises free-range pigs, ducks, chickens. Everything I’ve eaten while visiting the company has come from this farm. Everything is remarkably good. And, yes, along with the food, a rather large amount of Chinese alcohol is poured.

In future posts, I’ll talk about different aspects of the transaction, including how to parse the balance sheet and P&L of an SOE, as well as the industrial and investment logic of doing a takeover of an SOE. In the current market environment in China, where so many PE minority investments are stranded with no means to exit, there has probably never been a better time to do buyout transactions, particularly of mature and successful industrial companies with scale, good profit margins and clean accounting. Good businesses like this are few. We are now working for two of them.

 

 

SOEs That Are SOL – China’s Forgotten and Unprivileged State-Owned Enterprises

July 23rd, 2012 3 comments

Perhaps the most commonly-heard criticism these days of the Chinese government’s economic policy is that secret policies favoring State-Owned Enterprises (so-called “SOEs”) are becoming more numerous, heavy-handed and harmful to the prospects of private business in China. This criticism, like others of China,  gains strength and credence because it is basically unfalsifiable. Since the policies are secret and the impact hidden from direct view, the only evidence offered is the continued growth and profits of SOE giants like China Mobile, ICBC, Sinopec and others.

While it’s undeniable that SOEs do enjoy a lot of advantages private companies can only dream of, often including easier access to bank loans and markets rigged to prevent free competition, I’m dubious that a real shift really is taking place, and that the Chinese government is wholesale turning its back on private business in order to make life easier for SOEs.

Not all SOEs are living a life of wine and roses. For them, government support is limited, haphazard, often counterproductive. There are hundreds of such SOEs in China. They aren’t the giant companies many foreigners have heard of. These SOEs are surviving, but not really prospering, with clapped-out equipment, low profits, bloated workforces and balance sheets larded with debt. It’s by no means clear that having a government owner is more of a benefit than a liability.

These SOEs have no real pressure to optimize profits and increase efficiency.  Their government owners, to the extent they even notice these smaller industrial SOEs,  are mainly concerned that they should continue to provide jobs, hand over a bit of money each year in taxes and dividends, and continue to increase output. In many ways, for all the epochal changes over the last 30 years in China, many SOEs are still run much as they were during the days of complete central planning:  growing bigger is still more important than growing more profitable, innovative, dynamic.

Thirty years ago, all of Chinese industry was state-owned and most urban Chinese were employed by the state. Then came the private sector reforms and liberalization under Deng Xiaoping, the rise of private business (which officially now contribute more than 70% of China’s gdp) and the bankruptcy of thousands of large SOEs, when many of the largest loss-making SOEs were forced to close. This process of culling the loss-making SOEs is often called “淘汰” (“taotai”) in Chinese, a term I quite like. It literally means to “wash clean” or “wipe out”.

But, many thousands of smaller, barely-profitable SOEs survived “taotai”. They are the ones now often living in a state more akin to Dickensian squalor than the plush recipients of government favor. Visit, as I did recently,  one of the “un-taotai’ed”  SOEs, and you will soon be disabused of the idea that all SOEs are prospering and that the Chinese government is running an economy to benefit SOEs at the expense of private business.

The SOE I visited is in Shaanxi province, about an hour’s drive from the capital, Xi’an. The factory was established in 1966, at the start of the Cultural Revolution, by a team of thousands of workers forcibly relocated from Tianjin. It manufactures certain special types of fiberglass, including some used by China’s military and space program. The SOE still produces many of the same products, on 45 year-old equipment, in a sprawling and broken-down facility the likes of which I’d never seen before in China. Most of the buildings are dilapidated, the roads inside potholed. Polluted waste water belches from pipes into overflowing holding pens.

This company, in one sense, is lucky. It has no competitors inside China, and only two elsewhere, Soviet-era factories in Byelorussia and Latvia. Saddled with unnecesarily large payroll and other ancillary costs not related to producing fiberglass, profit margins are low. But, the company earns money most years, including about $1 million in profits in 2011.

The problem, though, is that the company can’t get the capital to modernize, expand or rationalize its workforce of almost 2,500. It’s still responsible for the running costs of a local hospital, school and kindergarten. When the company’s boss goes to the government for help, he’s mainly told to fend for himself. The company is too small to get any attention from its government owners. So, it floats along in a kind of sad limbo.

With money and profit-seeking owners, the company could probably grow into a quite successful industrial business. The market for its products is actually growing. If they could let go excess payroll and obligations, margins would likely rise above 15%, generating sufficient surplus to finance the large expansion plans and upgrade the company’s boss has been trying, unsuccessfully, to implement for six years. The government says it has no cash to inject. State-owned banks, for all their supposed leniency towards SOEs, won’t increase lending. Instead, the government is urging the factory boss to find a private investor, to put together some kind of privatization plan.

But, in this case and many like it, whenever the Chinese government won’t invest, few if any sane private investors will. Any new investor would have to fund the cost of layoffs of up to 1,800 people. Most are entitled to one month severance for every month of employment.  Average salary is around $500 a month.

The new investor would also, according to Chinese law, probably need to buy its shares from the provincial arm of SASAC at a price tied to the company’s net assets, not its rather dismal operating performance. The entire business may be worth only $10 million. But, using the net asset formula, which includes a big chunk of valuable land, the price almost triples. After all this money goes out the door, the new investor would need to pump another $12mn-$15 mn into the company to finance improvements and expansion.

For any investor seeking to buy control of the company, the likely rate of return after all these outlays, even under the most optimistic scenarios, would be under 10% a year.  That’s a deal that few investors would consider. Along with the need to shell out all the money, a new owner would also acquire lots of contingent liabilities of unpredictable size and severity, including the cost of an environmental clean-up, repairs to company-owned housing where most of the current 2,300 workers, as well as retirees, live.

After spending the day with him, I sympathize with the company boss’s plight. He wants to run an efficient operation, turn it into a leading producer of certain high-technology fiberglass materials, and maybe earn his way into owning a small piece of the company. But, the current mix of policies in China will make that hard, if not impossible, to achieve.

While big SOEs do enjoy a lot of political clout, with sparkling new headquarters, and a low cost of capital that other companies envy, these smaller SOEs inhabit an altogether different and inhospitable world. Government ownership is far more of a hindrance than a help. And yet, they have no real way to free themselves.  These SOEs are, as Americans would say, SOL.