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China aims for greater tech independence as the rift with America and Europe widens. Will it work? — Washington Post

May 30th, 2018 No comments

 

 

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.

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

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

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

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

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

Turning Inward

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hum of Consumerism

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

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

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

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

‘You’ll Be Older Too’

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

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

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

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

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

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Why Has China’s GDP So Outpaced IRR?

September 22nd, 2017 No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

As published by China Money Network

As published by SuperReturn

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

 

 

 

China’s Wanda Group, Where to From Here — CNBC Interview

August 24th, 2017 No comments

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Interviewed this morning on CNBC’s Squawk Box about Wanda and its new “asset light strategy”.

My conclusion: “Wanda just underwent the corporate version of emergency bariatric surgery. It’s suddenly become a much slimmed-down company. What Wanda is today, what it will become, we don’t yet know. But, it looking clear Wanda is no longer one of the heavyweights of China’s private sector. “

 

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

August 21st, 2017 No comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

As published in The New York Times.

The New York Times Interview Transcript

Download PDF version.

 

 

After Wanda Deal, Chinese Property Developer Faces Debt Risk — The New York Times

July 17th, 2017 No comments

A Dalian Wanda property in Nanchang, China.

BEIJING — The Chinese property developer Sunac China Holdings has turned into one of the country’s biggest white knights, swooping in to help troubled companies with too much debt. The risk: Sunac is amassing its own large pile of debt in the process.

Sunac has more than doubled its debt load in a year to $38 billion. Its deal this week to buy a portfolio of theme parks and hotels from the Dalian Wanda Group, the heavily indebted Chinese conglomerate, will add to the tab. At $9.3 billion, the acquisition is larger than the market value of Sunac.

“The problem for Sunac is twofold,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank. “They themselves are already rather overleveraged and they are not paying distressed prices.”

Sunac is offering a much-needed lifeline.

For years, China fueled growth by providing easy credit. Chinese companies borrowed heavily, using the money to fund aggressive expansions.

As the economy now slows, companies are increasingly running into financial trouble, with some having to borrow even more to pay their debts. Policy makers are worried that the country’s Passover level of corporate debt could threaten the broader financial system.

Sunac, China’s seventh-largest property developer in terms of sales, has been able to tap into its financial strength to help companies under pressure. Since 2012, Sunac’s property sales have grown at double-digit rates nearly every year, giving it the firepower to scoop up assets and land plots.

Before the Wanda deal, Sunac in January pumped $2.2 billion into LeEco, a tech firm struggling to pay off its creditors. This May, it paid $1.5 billion for an 80 percent stake in Tianjin Xingyao, a property firm known for leaving its projects uncompleted.

In 2015, Sunac made a play to rescue Kaisa, pledging $1.2 billion to take over the troubled property company; it later pulled out after Kaisa did not meet certain conditions for the deal. That same year, it announced a partnership with the cash-poor Yurun Holding Group, which ran a business empire ranging from sausage making to property and finance.

It is a remarkable turnabout for the company’s founder, Sun Hongbin.

Mr. Sun started his career at the Lenovo Group, where he was promoted to run enterprise development. But he had a falling out with Liu Chuanzhi, the founder of Lenovo, over a business dispute. Related to the dispute, Mr. Sun was sentenced in 1992 to five years in jail for misappropriation of public funds.

After his release in 1994, he met with the founder of Lenovo and apologized, according to the website of The People’s Daily, the ruling Communist Party’s official newspaper. The Lenovo founder eventually lent Mr. Sun about $74,000, which he used to start a predecessor real estate firm to Sunac.

Lenovo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

When Mr. Sun started Sunac in 2003, he focused on the cities of Wuxi and Chongqing and then moved on to China’s most developed cities, among them Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Hangzhou, building apartments with names like Beijing Fontainebleau Chateau. Sunac built its residential projects in good locations near city centers and was aggressive in acquiring land plots — with higher debt.

 Sun Hongbin, the founder and chairman of Sunac China Holdings.

“People who have failed are those who have been defeated by themselves,” Mr. Sun told a newspaper, China Business News, in 2013. “But I often tell others: After you fail, you can start again.”

With the Wanda deal, Sunac is extending its reach into tourism, paying $9.3 billion for 76 hotels and a major chunk of its 13 tourism projects, in the country’s largest property acquisition ever. The purchase will help Sunac diversify its business, which is hurting from government restrictions on home sales as Beijing seeks to cool a frothy property market. It also strengthens the company’s hand in an industry dominated by bigwigs like the China Vanke Group and Country Garden.

“Within the housing industry, the powerhouses are really strong,” said Lu Wenxi, an analyst for Centaline Properties who is based in Shanghai. “If you don’t gobble up the fat ones, it is easy to be eaten up by others. Taking on more projects will prevent you from being eaten.”

Investors have rewarded Sunac for the deal. Shares of Sunac rose 14 percent in Hong Kong on Tuesday after they resumed trading after the deal announcement.

But the deal will add to an already significant debt load. In 2016, the company’s net gearing ratio — a measure of total debt to shareholders’ equity — rose to 121.5 percent, from to 75.9 percent in 2015. Fitch Ratings recently downgraded the company’s credit rating to BB-, saying Sunac’s acquisitive approach had made its financial profile “more volatile.”

Wanda is helping finance the acquisition. Sunac, in a statement to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Monday, said Wanda would procure a loan for the company worth about $4.4 billion.

Seller financing is not uncommon, both in China and the West. But Wanda’s role means that Sunac doesn’t have all the money upfront.

“In my experience, I’ve never seen it anywhere,” said Lester Ross, a Beijing-based partner with the law firm WilmerHale, who has advised deals in China for the last 20 years. “No client that I represent would accept a deal like that where you’re responsible for raising the money to pay for somebody else.”

Sunac did not return multiple calls for comment. The company said in a statement to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange on Tuesday that the deal with Wanda “will add a large number of prime land reserves and property assets for the company at a reasonable cost.”

The LeEco deal is also prompting concern.

Sunac invested $2.2 billion in LeEco, buying minority stakes in three of the conglomerate’s more stable businesses, including the smart TV affiliate Leshi Zhixin, Le Vision Pictures, and Leshi Internet. The two companies don’t have many overlapping interests, and LeEco’s finances have continued to sour. Before the Wanda deal, shares of Sunac were falling on fears that LeEco’s problems would spread.

In a January news conference, Mr. Sun said many people had tried to dissuade him from investing in LeEco, adding that several were “resolutely opposed” to it.

“I seriously considered their views, but I don’t think their opinions are sufficient to change my mind,” he said.

Article as published in the New York Times

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China Probe of Big Companies Could Redefine Their Role Overseas — VOA News

June 26th, 2017 No comments

China is probing the loan practices of a group of big private sector conglomerates who have been on a high-profile global spending spree over the past few years.And although the review targets only a few of the country’s most politically-connected companies, some analysts see an attempt to increase government control over the role played by the private sector in foreign markets.

“I think this is an attempt to change the direction (of) the role these Chinese companies play in the Chinese economy,” says Paul Gillis, a professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. “To align them more closely with the policies of the government and to reduce the risks that actions of these private companies could end up having a shock effect on the economy as a whole.”

Chinese authorities say they launched the probe because of worries that highly leveraged overseas deals pose risks to China’s financial system. Officials have already expressed worries over mounting debt among Chinese lenders, some of which may remain hidden by China’s opaque lending networks.

Notable companies targeted

According to media reports, the list of companies under review is a relative who’s who of Chinese enterprises.

Among those reportedly targeted are Dalian Wanda, which owns the AMC Theaters chain in the United States and has been actively courting deals in Hollywood. High-flying insurance company Anbang, which owns New York’s Waldorf Astoria and Essex House hotels. Also on the list is Hainan Airlines, which bought a 25 percent stake in Hilton Hotels last year and another insurance company Fosun, which owns Cirque de Soleil and Club Med.

Over the past few years, China has seen massive amounts of capital moving overseas with companies and wealthy individuals buying assets abroad. Authorities began taking steps late last year to tighten controls. But many big conglomerates view foreign investment as a golden opportunity – given the low global interest rate environment – and worth the risk of highly-leveraged investments.

Peking University’s Gillis says it appears the Chinese government is coming to terms with how to effectively regulate private enterprises, companies that behave more aggressively than their state-owned counterparts. But he also sees the move as a further consolidation of power by President Xi Jinping, bringing companies more under the control of the central government.

“I think many of the companies had a pretty favorable treatment from prior administrations, and I think Xi Jinping is less enamored of these large private companies than some of his predecessors were.”

Expensive acquisitions by companies like Wanda and Anbang have thrust China into the global spotlight. But the news and commentary that followed the companies’ mega-deals has not always been positive.

FILE - People walk past an entrance to the Anbang Insurance Group's offices in Beijing, June 14, 2017.

People walk past an entrance to the Anbang Insurance Group’s offices in Beijing, June 14, 2017.

In some cases, the deals have given China a black eye, says Fraser Howie, author of the Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise. Anbang’s attempt last year to purchase Starwood Hotels is one example, he says.

“This is high profile, global Bloomberg headline, Chinese company buys Starwood Group, next week it’s all off because the funding was never there, the due diligence could never be completed there, it made all Chinese bidders look horrible,” said Howie. “It looks dreadful for the party and for the leadership that these private entrepreneurs are running out there and yet China as a country is being impacted by it.”

Earlier this month, the head of Anbang was the latest to be swept up in the ongoing financial crackdown.

Regulating private spending?

Authorities so far have not said specifically what the targeted companies may have done wrong, if anything. Some analysts argue that the probe is just a part of a process that began six month ago to curtail the flight of capital from China.

“If cross-border M&A deals make sense, if they deliver strong returns, then there should be no problem either for bankers or those doing the buying. But, if Chinese groups overpay and get the money to do so from Chinese banks providing risky or underpriced loans, then Chinese regulators have an obligation to step in,” Peter Fuhrman, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of China First Capital tells VOA in an emailed response.

Others see a deeper message about Xi Jinping’s view on the role that private companies should serve broader national goals.

Howie says the probe challenges assumptions about the role of private enterprises in China.

“If anyone ever thought these companies were truly private in the sense of being independent or beyond government reach. Clearly that was never true,” he says. “Everyone operates at the discretion of the Communist Party, even if you’ve done nothing wrong and clearly even if you are wealthy.”

 

https://www.voanews.com/a/china-probes-big-comanys-overseas-loan-practices/3913190.html

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.”

 

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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

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The Big Sort — The Economist

November 11th, 2016 No comments

 

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“THE vultures all start circling, they’re whispering, ‘You’re out of time’…but I still rise!” Those lyrics, from a song by Katy Perry, an American pop star, sounded often at Hillary Clinton’s campaign rallies but will shortly ring out over a less serious event: a late-night party in Shenzhen to kick off “Singles’ Day”, an online shopping extravaganza that takes place in China on November 11th every year.

The event was not dreamt up by Alibaba, but the e-commerce giant dominates it. Shoppers spent $14.3bn through its portals during last year’s event. That figure, a rise of 60% on a year earlier, was over double the sales racked up on America’s two main retail dates, Black Friday and Cyber Monday, put together. Chinese consumers are still confident, so sales on this Singles’ Day should again break records.

It points to an intriguing question: how will all of those purchases get to consumers? Around 540m delivery orders were generated during the 24-hour spree last year. That is nearly ten times the average daily volume, but even a slow shopping day in China generates an enormous number. By the reckoning of the State Post Bureau, 21bn parcels were delivered during the first three quarters of this year.

The country’s express-delivery sector, accordingly, is doing well. In spite of a cooling economy, revenues rose by 43% year on year in the first eight months of 2016, to 234bn yuan ($36bn). And although the state’s grip on China’s economy is tightening, the private sector’s share of this market is actually growing. The state-run postal carrier once had a monopoly on all post and parcels. Now far more parcels are delivered than letters, and the share of the market that is commanded by the country’s private express-delivery firms far exceeds that of Express Mail Service, the state-owned courier.

China’s very biggest couriers have been rushing to go public on the back of the strong growth. Most of them started life as scrappy startups, and are privately held. But because of regulatory delays, which mean a big backlog of initial public offerings, many companies have resorted to other means. Last month, two of them, YTO Express and STO Express, used “reverse mergers”, in which a private company goes public by combining with a listed shell company, to list on local exchanges. In what looks to be the largest public flotation in America so far this year, another, ZTO Express, raised $1.4bn in New York on October 27th. Yet another, SF Express, China’s biggest courier, recently won approval to use a reverse merger too.

But investors could be in for a rocky ride. Shares in ZTO, for example, have plunged sharply since its flotation. That is because the breakneck growth of courier companies masks structural problems. For now, the industry is highly fragmented, with some 8,000 domestic competitors, and it is inefficient.

One reason is that regulation, inspired by a sort of regional protectionism, obliges delivery firms to maintain multiple local licences and offices. Cargoes are unpacked and repacked numerous times as they cross the country to satisfy local regulations. Firms therefore find it hard to build up national networks with scale and pricing power. All the competition has led to prices falling by over a third since 2011. The average freight rate for two-day ground delivery between distant cities in America is roughly $15 per kg, whereas in China it is a measly 60 cents, according to research by Peter Fuhrman of China First Capital, an advisory firm.

A handful of the biggest companies now aim to modernise the industry. Some are spending on advanced technology: SF Express’s new package-handling hub in Shanghai is thought to have greatly increased efficiency by replacing labour with expensive European sorting equipment. A semi-automated warehouse in nearby Suzhou run by Alog, a smaller courier in which Alibaba has a stake, seems behind by comparison but in fact Alog is a partner in Alibaba’s logistics coalition, which is known as Cainiao. The e-commerce firm has helped member companies to co-ordinate routes and to improve efficiency through big data.

Other investments are also under way. Yu Weijiao, the chairman of YTO, recalls visiting FedEx, a giant American courier, in Memphis at its so-called “aerotropolis” (an urban centre around an airport) in 2007. He was awed by the firm’s embrace of advanced technology. He returned to China and sought advice from IBM on how his company could follow suit. YTO is using the proceeds of its recent reverse merger to expand its fleet of aircraft, buy automatic parcel-sorting kit and introduce heavy-logistics capabilities for packages over 50kg.

There is as yet little sign that China’s regions will begin allowing packages to move freely, so regulation will remain a brake on the industry. More ominously, labour costs are rising. There are fewer migrant labourers today who are willing to work for a pittance delivering parcels. This week China Daily, a state-owned newspaper, reported that ahead of Singles’ Day, courier firms were offering salaries on the level of university graduates.

http://www.economist.com/news/business/21710004-chinas-express-delivery-sector-needs-consolidation-and-modernisation-big-sort

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

November 3rd, 2016 No comments

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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


Volatility Reduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jackpot Valuations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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ZTO Spurns Huge China Valuations For Benefits of U.S. Listing — Reuters

October 21st, 2016 No comments

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By Elzio Barreto and Julie Zhu | HONG KONG

Chinese logistics company ZTO Express is turning up the chance of a much more lucrative share listing at home in favor of an overseas IPO that lets its founder retain control and its investors cash out more easily.

To steal a march on its rivals in the world’s largest express delivery market, it is taking the quicker U.S. route to raise $1.3 billion for new warehouses and long-haul trucks to ride breakneck growth fueled by China’s e-commerce boom.

Its competitors SF Express, YTO Express, STO Express and Yunda Express all unveiled plans several months ago for backdoor listings in Shenzhen and Shanghai, but ZTO’s head start could prove crucial, analysts and investors said.

“ZTO will have a clear, certain route to raise additional capital via U.S. markets, which their competitors, assuming they all end up quoted in China, will not,” said Peter Fuhrman, CEO of China-focused investment bank China First Capital.

With a backlog of about 800 companies waiting for approval to go public in China and frequent changes to the listing rules by regulators, a New York listing is generally a quicker and more predictable way of raising funds and taps a broader mix of investors, bankers and investors said.

“ZTO will have a built-in long-term competitive advantage – more reliable access to equity capital,” Fuhrman added.

U.S. rules that allow founder Meisong Lai to retain control over the company and make it easier for ZTO’s private equity investors to sell their shares were some of the main reasons to go for an overseas listing, according to four people close to the company. U.S. markets allow a dual-class share structure that will give Lai 80 percent voting power in the company, even though he will only hold 28 percent of the stock after the IPO.

Most of Lai’s shares are Class B ordinary shares carrying 10 votes, while Class A shares, including the new U.S. shares, have one vote. China’s markets do not allow shares with different voting power.

ZTO’s existing shareholders, including private equity firms Warburg Pincus, Hillhouse Capital and venture capital firm Sequoia Capital will also get much more leeway and flexibility to exit their investment under U.S. market rules. In China, they would be locked in for one to three years after the IPO.

As concerns grow about a weakening Chinese currency, the New York IPO also gives it more stable dollar-denominated shares it can use for international acquisitions, the people close to the company said.

IN DEMAND

Demand for the IPO, the biggest by a Chinese company in the United States since e-commerce giant Alibaba Group’s $25 billion record in 2014, already exceeds the shares on offer multiple times, two of the people said.

That underscores the appeal of the fast-growing company to global investors, despite a valuation that places it above household names United Parcel Service Inc and FedEx Corp.

The shares will be priced on Oct. 26 and start trading the following day.

ZTO is selling 72.1 million new American Depositary Shares (ADS), equivalent to about 10 percent of its outstanding stock, in the range $16.50 to $18.50 each. The range is equal to 23.4-26.3 times its expected 2017 earnings per share, according to people familiar with the matter.

By comparison, Chinese rivals SF Express, YTO Express, STO Express and Yunda shares trade between 43 and 106 times earnings, according to Haitong Securities estimates.

UPS and FedEx, which are growing at a much slower pace, trade at multiples of 17.8 and 13.4 times.

“The A-share market (in China) does give you a higher valuation, but the U.S. market can help improve your transparency and corporate governance,” said one of the people close to ZTO. “Becoming a New York-listed company will also benefit the company in the long-term if it plans to conduct M&A overseas and seek more capital from the international market.”

China’s express delivery firms handled 20.7 billion parcels in 2015, shifting 1.5 times the volume in the United States, according to consulting firm iResearch data cited in the ZTO prospectus.

The market will grow an average 23.7 percent a year through 2020 and reach 60 billion parcels, iResearch forecasts.

Domestic rivals STO Express and YTO Express have unveiled plans to go public with reverse takeovers worth $2.5 billion and $2.6 billion, while the country’s biggest player, SF Express, is working on a $6.4 billion deal and Yunda Express on a $2.7 billion listing.

ZTO plans to use $720 million of the IPO proceeds to purchase land and invest in new facilities to expand its packaged sorting capacity, according to the listing prospectus.

The rest will be used to expand its truck fleet, invest in new technology and for potential acquisitions.

“It’s a competitive industry and you do need fresh capital for your expansion, in particular when all your rivals are doing so or plan to do so,” said one of the people close to the company.

 

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-zto-express-ipo-idUSKCN12L0QH

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Can Xiaomi Reverse Its Slide in China? — CNBC Interview

September 28th, 2016 No comments

 

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From King-of-Mobile to possible also-ran in two short years, China’s Xiaomi is struggling to reclaim its spot at the top of China’s domestic phone market. Here’s my interview on CNBC on the tough challenges Xiaomi faces. Nerves are starting to fray among investors who put money into the company less than two years ago at a $45 billion valuation.

To watch the interview, please click here.

 

Quietly But Successfully, US Companies Are Buying Chinese Businesses

September 14th, 2016 1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

The three deals were:

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

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

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

 

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Abridged version as published in Nikkei Asian Review

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What Alibaba Can Teach G20 Leaders — China Daily OpEd Commentary

September 6th, 2016 No comments

 

China Daily

 

 

Rural Taobao

It’s been 740 years since Hangzhou could rightly claim to be the most important city on earth. Back then, it was the capital of the world’s wealthiest and most developed nation, China during the Southern Song Dynasty. This week Hangzhou will briefly again be the center of the world’s attention and admiration, as the leaders of twenty of the world’s most developed countries arrive in the city to participate in the two-day G20 Summit.

The world’s spotlight will fall both on Hangzhou’s most famous historical landmark, West Lake, as well as its most famous local company, Alibaba, which also happens to be the world’s largest e-commerce company. Alibaba’s founder and chairman Jack Ma, is a Hangzhou native. He has spoken often of his pride that the G20 will be held in his hometown, boasting “Hangzhou has become the driving force of China’s new economy.” He suggests G20 visitors might want to rise one morning at 5am to walk about West Lake, to see Hangzhou scenery ancient and modern.

Alibaba has changed Hangzhou and changed China. But, to really grasp the full and positive extent of that change, world leaders would need to venture out from Hangzhou and visit some of China’s smallest, poorest and most remote rural villages. Here Alibaba’s impact is perhaps the most transformational. That’s because Alibaba has made a special effort to bring the benefits and convenience of online shopping to China’s rural families, the 45% of China’s population that still live on the land.

Since Alibaba listed its shares on the New York Stock Exchange in 2014, the company announced plans to spend RMB 10 billion on rural e-commerce infrastructure, to make it possible for people in over 100,000 Chinese rural villages for the first time to buy and sell on Alibaba’s Taobao marketplace.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of this effort. E-commerce now offers the fastest and most durable way to improve living standards among China’s traditional peasants. By getting online they can shop more widely and buy more cheaply a vast range of products never before available in village China. In addition, also for the first time, they can sell directly their farm products, both fresh and packaged, to tens of millions of customers living in cities across China.

I’m one of those urban dwellers in China who now does some of his food shopping from tiny rural family businesses on Taobao. In the last week I bought dried chili peppers from Sichuan, apple vinegar from Shanxi, goji berries from Qinghai and dried sweet potato chips from Shandong. Everything I buy from rural folks is great. But, for me and probably many others, the real enjoyment comes from knowing that, thanks to Alibaba, my money can go directly to the people working hard to build a better life for themselves and their families in rural China. This, in turn, helps narrow the income gap between rural and urban.

Unlike the two big US e-commerce companies, Amazon and eBay, Alibaba takes no commission on purchases made on Taobao. This is what economists call “frictionless trade”, where buyers and sellers can transact without any middlemen taking a cut. It’s a dream of farmers worldwide, to sell products directly to customers and so earn more for their hard work.

Online shopping in rural China is now growing far faster than in cities. And yet what’s most exciting, we’re still in the early days. In the future, farmers should be able to save significant money and improve harvests by buying seeds, fertilizer and tools on Taobao and other specialized online sales platforms.

To get there, Alibaba is paying for tens of thousands of “Village Taobao” centers across China. Here, farmers can get free help to buy and sell online. Nowhere else on the planet is e-commerce being as successfully introduced into the lives of small village farmers. The world should take note, and China should take pride.

This year marks the first time China has hosted a G20 summit. Looking at the agenda, the twenty world leaders will hold detailed discussion on trade, fostering innovation and eradicating poverty. Meantime, Alibaba is busy putting such talk into action. Its efforts to spread e-commerce in China’s countryside provide concrete proof of how tech innovation can be both inclusive and helpful to all of society.

By Peter Fuhrman

The author is chairman and CEO of China First Capital.

http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/opinion/2016-09/06/content_26709314.htm

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Five China financial news articles in the South China Morning Post

June 13th, 2016 No comments

SCMP logo good

 

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

 

Xinan

 

 

CSRC

 

 

Mergers

 

PE

 

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