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Five China financial news articles in the South China Morning Post

June 13th, 2016 No comments

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

 

Xinan

 

 

CSRC

 

 

Mergers

 

PE

 

Shunfenf

 

Why Taiwan Is Far Ahead of Mainland China in High-Tech — Financial Times commentary

June 8th, 2016 No comments

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Largan

Every country is touchy about some topics, especially when raised by foreigner. Living in China for almost seven years now, and having been a student of the place for the last forty, I thought I knew the hot buttons not to press. Apparently not.

The topic at hand: high-tech innovation in the PRC and why it seems to lag so far behind that of neighboring Taiwan. A recent issue of one of China’s leading business publications, Caijing Magazine, published a Chinese-language article I wrote together with China First Capital’s COO, Dr. Yansong Wang, about Taiwan’s high-flying optical lens company Largan Precision.

Soon after the magazine was published, it began circulating rather widely. Howls of national outrage began to reach me almost immediately. Mainly we were accused of not understanding the topic and having ignored China’s many tech companies that are at least the equal, if not superior, to Largan.

I didn’t think the article would be all that contentious, at least not the facts. Largan last year had revenues in excess of $1 billion and net profit margins above 40%, more than double those of its main customer, Apple, no slouch at making money. China has many companies which supply components to Apple, either directly or as a subcontractor. None of these PRC companies can approach the scale and profitability of Largan. In fact, there are few whose net margins are higher than 10%, or one-quarter Largan’s. Case in point: Huawei, widely praised within China as the country’s most successful technology company, has net margins of 9.5%.

Taiwan inaugurated its new president last month, Tsai Ing-wen, who represents the pro-Taiwan independence party. Few in the PRC seem to be in a mood to hear anything good about Taiwan. In one Wechat forum for senior executives, the language turned sharp. “China has many such companies, you as a foreigner just don’t know about them.” Or, “Largan is only successful because like Taiwan itself, it is protected by the American government” and “Apple buys from Largan because it wants to hold back China’s development”.

Not a single comment I’ve seen focused on perhaps more obvious reasons China’s tech ambitions are proving so hard to realize: a weak system of patent protection, widespread online censoring and restrictions on free flow of information, a venture capital industry which, though now large, has an aversion to backing new directions in R&D.  In Taiwan, none of this is true.

Largan is doing so well because the optical-quality plastic lenses it makes for mobile phone cameras are unrivalled in their price and performance. Any higher-end mobile phone, be it an iPhone or an Android phone selling for above $400, relies on Largan lenses.

Many companies in the PRC have tried to get into this business. So far none have succeeded. Largan, of course, wants to keep it that way. It has factories in China, but key parts of Largan’s valuable, confidential manufacturing processes take place in Taiwan. High precision, high megapixel plastic camera lenses are basically impossible to reverse-engineer. You can’t simply buy a machine, feed in some plastic pellets and out comes a perfect, spherical, lightweight 16-megapixel lens. Largan has been in the plastic lens business for almost twenty years. Today’s success is the product of many long years of fruitless experimentation and struggle. Largan had to wait a long time for the market demand to arrive. Great companies, ones with high margins and unique products, generally emerge in this way.

We wrote the article in part because Largan is not widely-known in China. It should be. The PRC is, as most people know, engaged in a massive, well-publicized multi-pronged effort to stimulate high-tech innovation and upgrade the country’s manufacturing base. A huge rhetorical push from China’s central government leadership is backed up with tens of billions of dollars in annual state subsidies. Largan is a good example close to home of what China stands to gain if it is able to succeed in this effort. It’s not only about fat profits and high-paying jobs. Largan is also helping to create a lager network of suppliers, customers and business opportunities outside mobile phones. High precision low-cost and lightweight lenses are also finding their way into more and more IOT devices. There are also, of course, potential military applications.

So why is it, the article asks but doesn’t answer, the PRC does not have companies like Largan? Is it perhaps too early? From the comments I’ve seen, that is one main explanation. Give China another few years, some argued, and it will certainly have dozens of companies every bit as dominant globally and profitable as Largan. After all, both are populated by Chinese, but the PRC has 1.35 billion of them compared to 23 million on Taiwan.

A related strand, linked even more directly to notions of national destiny and pride: China has 5,000 years of glorious history during which it created such technology breakthroughs as paper, gunpowder, porcelain and the pump. New products now being developed in China that will achieve breakthroughs of similar world-altering amplitude.

Absent from all the comments is any mention of fundamental factors that almost certainly inhibit innovation in China. Start with the most basic of all: intellectual property protection, and the serious lack thereof in China. While things have improved a bit of late, it is still far too easy to copycat ideas and products and get away with it. There are specialist patent courts now to enforce China’s domestic patent regime. But, the whole system is still weakly administered. Chinese courts are not fully independent of political influence. And anyway, even if one does win a patent case and get a judgment against a Chinese infringer, it’s usually all but impossible to collect on any monetary compensation or prevent the loser from starting up again under another name in a different province.

Another troubling component of China’s patent system: it awards so-called “use patents” along with “invention patents”. This allows for a high degree of mischief. A company can seek patent protection for putting someone else’s technology to a different use, or making it in a different way.

It’s axiomatic that countries without a reliable way to protect valuable inventions and proprietary technology will always end up with less of both. Compounding the problem in China, non-compete and non-disclosure agreements are usually unenforceable. Employees and subcontractors pilfer confidential information and start up in business with impunity.

Why else is China, at least for now, starved of domestic companies with globally-important technology? Information of all kinds does not flow freely, thanks to state control over the internet. A lot of the coolest new ideas in business these days are first showcased on Youtube, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. All of these, of course, are blocked by the Great Firewall of China, along with all kinds of traditional business media. Closed societies have never been good at developing cutting edge technologies.

There’s certainly a lot of brilliant software and data-packaging engineering involved in maintaining the Great Firewall. Problem is, there’s no real paying market for online state surveillance tools outside China. All this indigenous R&D and manpower, if viewed purely on commercial terms, is wasted.

The venture capital industry in China, though statistically the second-largest in the world, has shunned investments in early-stage and experimental R&D. Instead, VCs pour money into so-called “C2C” businesses. These “Copied To China” companies look for an established or emerging business model elsewhere, usually in the US, then create a local Chinese version, safe in the knowledge the foreign innovator will probably never be able to shut-down this “China only” version. It’s how China’s three most successful tech companies – Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu – got their start. They’ve moved on since then, but “C2C” remains the most common strategy for getting into business and getting funded as a tech company in China.

Another factor unbroached in any of the comments and criticisms I read about the Largan article: universities in China, especially the best ones, are extremely difficult to get into. But, their professors do little important breakthrough research. Professorial rank is determined by seniority and connections, less so by academic caliber. Also, Chinese universities don’t offer, as American ones do, an attractive fee-sharing system for professors who do come up with something new that could be licensed.

Tech companies outside China finance innovation and growth by going public. Largan did so in Taiwan, very early on in 2002, when the company was a fraction of its current size. Tech IPOs of this kind are all but impossible in China. IPOs are tightly managed by government regulators. Companies without three years of past profits will never even be admitted to the now years-long queue of companies waiting to go public.

Taiwan is, at its closest point, only a little more than a mile from the Chinese mainland. But, the two are planets apart in nurturing and rewarding high-margin innovation. Taiwan is strong in the fundamental areas where the PRC is weak. While Largan may now be the best performing Taiwanese high-tech company, there are many others that similarly can run circles around PRC competitors. For all the recent non-stop talk in the PRC about building an innovation-led economy, one hears infrequently about Taiwan’s technological successes, and even less about ways the PRC might learn from Taiwan.

That said, I did get a lot of queries about how PRC nationals could buy Largan shares. Since the article appeared, Largan’s shares shot up 10%, while the overall Taiwan market barely budged.

Our Largan article clearly touched a raw nerve, at least for some. If it is to succeed in transforming itself into a technology powerhouse, one innovation required in China may be a willingness to look more closely and assess more honestly why high-tech does so much better in Taiwan.

 

(An English-language version of the Largan article can be read by clicking here. )

(财经杂志 Caijing Magazine’s Chinese-language article can be read by clicking here.)

 

http://blogs.ft.com/beyond-brics/2016/06/07/why-taiwan-is-far-ahead-of-mainland-china-in-high-tech/

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Leapfrogging the IPO gridlock: Chinese companies get a taste for reverse takeovers — Reuters

May 6th, 2016 No comments

Reuters

Leapfrogging the IPO gridlock: Chinese companies get a taste for reverse takeovers

Reworking a formula for economic success — China Daily Commentary

April 8th, 2016 No comments

 

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Reworking a formula for economic success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The author is chairman and CEO of China First Capital.

 

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

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How Renminbi funds took over Chinese private equity (Part 2) — SuperReturn Commentary

April 4th, 2016 1 comment

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How Renminbi funds took over Chinese private equity

(Part 2)

 
Large and small ships traverse the Huangpu River 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and 365 days a year.

Part two of a series. Read part one.

Gresham’s Law, as many of us were taught a while back, stipulates that bad money drives out good. There’s something analogous at work in China’s private equity and venture capital industry. Only here it’s not a debased currency that’s dominating transactions. Instead, it’s Renminbi private equity (PE) firms. Flush with cash and often insensitive to valuation and without any clear imperative to make money for their investors, they are changing the PE industry in China beyond recognition and making life miserable for many dollar-based PE and venture capital (VC) firms.

Outbid, outspent and outhustled

From a tiny speck on the PE horizon five years ago, Reminbi (RMB) funds have quickly grown into a hulking presence in China. In many ways, they now run the show, eclipsing global dollar funds in every meaningful category – number of active funds, deals closed and capital raised. RMB funds have proliferated irrespective of the fact there have so far been few successful exits with cash distributions.

The RMB fund industry works by a logic all its own. Valuations are often double, triple or even higher than those offered by dollar funds. Term sheets come in faster, with fewer of the investor preferences dollar funds insist on. Due diligence can often seem perfunctory.  Post-deal monitoring? Often lax, by global standards. From the perspective of many Chinese company owners, dollar PE firms look stingy, slow and troublesome.

The RMB fund industry’s greatest success so far was not the IPO of a portfolio company, but of one of the larger RMB general partners, Jiuding Capital. It listed its shares in 2015 on a largely-unregulated over-the-counter market called The New Third Board. For a time earlier this year, Jiuding had a market cap on par with Blackstone, although its assets under management, profits, and successful deal record are a fraction of the American firm’s.

The main investment thesis of RMB funds has shifted in recent years. Originally, it was to invest in traditional manufacturing companies just ahead of their China IPO. The emphasis has now shifted towards investing in earlier-stage Chinese technology companies. This is in line with China’s central government policy to foster more domestic innovation as a way to sustain long-term GDP growth.

The Shanghai government, which through different agencies and localities has become a major sponsor of new funds, has recently announced a policy to rebate a percentage of failed investments made by RMB funds in Shanghai-based tech companies. Moral hazard isn’t, evidently, as high on their list of priorities as taking some of the risk out of risk-capital investing in start-ups.

Dollar funds, in the main, have mainly been observing all this with sullen expressions. Making matters worse, they are often sitting on portfolios of unexited deals dating back five years or more. The US and Hong Kong stock markets have mainly lost their taste for PE-backed Chinese companies. While RMB funds seem to draw from a bottomless well of available capital, for most dollar funds, raising new money for China investing has never been more difficult.

RMB funds seldom explain themselves, seldom appear at industry forums like SuperReturn. One reason: few of the senior people speak English. Another: they have no interest or need to raise money from global limited partners. They have no real pretensions to expand outside China. They are adapted only and perhaps ideally to their native environment. Dollar funds have come to look a bit like dinosaurs after the asteroid strike.

Can dollar-denominated firms strike back?

Can dollar funds find a way to regain their central role in Chinese alternative investing? It won’t be easy. Start with the fact the dollar funds are all generally the slow movers in a big pack chasing the same sort of deals as their RMB brethren. At the moment, that means companies engaged in online shopping, games, healthcare and mobile services.

A wiser and differentiated approach would probably be to look for opportunities elsewhere. There are plenty of possibilities, not only in traditional manufacturing industry, but in control deals and roll-ups. So far, with few exceptions, there’s little sign of differentiation taking place. Read the fund-raising pitch for dollar and RMB funds and, apart from the difference in language, the two are eerily similar. They sport the same statistics on internet, mobile, online shopping penetration: the same plan to pluck future winners from a crop of look-alike money-losing start-ups.

There is one investment thesis the dollar PE funds have pretty much all to themselves. It’s so-called “delist-relist” deals, where US-quoted Chinese companies are acquired by a PE fund together with the company’s own management, delisted from the US market with the plan to one day IPO on China’s domestic stock exchange. There have been a few successes, such as the relisting last year of Focus Media, a deal partly financed by Carlyle. But, there are at least another forty such deals with over $20bn in equity and debt sunk into them waiting for their chance to relist. These plans suffered a rather sizeable setback recently when the Chinese central government abruptly shelved plans to open a new “strategic stock market” that was meant to be specially suited to these returnee companies. The choice is now between prolonged limbo, or buying a Chinese-listed shell to reverse into, a highly expensive endeavor that sucks out a lot of the profit PE firms hoped to make.

Outspent, outbid and outhustled by the RMB funds, dollar PE funds are on the defensive, struggling just to stay relevant in a market they once dominated. Some are trying to go with the flow and raise RMB funds of their own. Most others are simply waiting and hoping for RMB funds to implode.

So much has lately gone so wrong for many dollar PE and VC in China. Complicating things still further, China’s economy has turned sour of late. But, there’s still a game worth playing. Globally, most institutional investors are under-allocated to China.  A new approach and some new strategies at dollar funds are overdue.

Peter Fuhrman moderates our SuperReturn China 2016 Big Debate: ‘How Do You Best Manage Your Exposure To China?’. Discussants include:

  • John Lin, Managing Partner, NDE Capital (GP)
  • Xisheng Zhang, Founding Partner & President, Hua Capital (GP)
  • Bo Liu, Chief Investment Officer, Wanda Investment (LP)
The Big Debate takes place on Tuesday 19 April 2016 at 11:55 – 12:25 at SuperReturn China in Beijing. Can’t make it? Follow the action on Twitter.

China’s Xiaomi Under Pressure to Prove Value to Investors — Wall Street Journal

January 11th, 2016 No comments

WSJ

Headline

Xiaomi’s Redmi 2 smartphones on display during a launch in Brazil in June, 2015.
Xiaomi’s Redmi 2 smartphones on display during a launch in Brazil in June, 2015. Photo: Reuters

BEIJING—In January 2015, Xiaomi Corp. founder Lei Jun announced to his staff in an open letter that the Chinese smartphone maker was the world’s most valuable technology startup.

“We will journey into the constellations, to places where others haven’t dreamed of,” he wrote.

Living up to those high expectations has been a challenge. Xiaomi missed its 2015 sales target of 80 million smartphones, according to people familiar with the company, and investors are beginning to question its $46 billion valuation, which was based on yet unrealized plans to generate substantial revenue from Internet services.

China’s economic slowdown, coupled with turbulence in the stock market, is prompting investors to take a second look at China’s high startup valuations. Startups such as Xiaomi, which raised vast sums on China’s mobile Internet boom, are now facing growing pressure to live up to expectations.

“With China’s economy slowing, many startups will need to be more cautious in their expansion strategies,” said Nicole Peng, an analyst for market research firm Canalys.

Xiaomi shot to the top of China’s smartphone market in 2014 with the novel idea of selling hardware by gathering a large user base, a business model usually favored by Internet companies, not those selling a physical product. Sales that year tripled to 61 million smartphones, compared with a year earlier. Mr. Lei cultivated fan clubs and used “flash sales” to sell smartphones with iPhone-rivaling hardware at a fraction of the price. He swallowed thin margins, betting he could later sell services to users.

Investors swooned. In December 2014, Xiaomi raised a $1.1 billion round that valued it at $46 billion, topping even ride-sharing startup Uber Technologies Inc. at the time, although Uber has since regained the lead.

But Xiaomi’s smartphones, which once sold out in minutes in limited batches via online flash sales, are now easily available—a shift that analysts say signals slowing demand.

A slowdown in China’s smartphone market has laid bare Xiaomi’s weaknesses.

Xiaomi has lost market share against established competitors with more financial and technological firepower, such as Huawei Technologies Co., which launched a high-end smartphone line and overtook Xiaomi as China’s top handset maker in the third quarter 2015, according to research firm Canalys.

Huawei, which sold more than 100 million mobile devices last year, is beefing up its marketing in overseas markets in a bid to challenge Apple Inc. and Samsung Electronics Co. , the world’s two biggest smartphone makers. Huawei’s engineering strength and brand image built up over decades make it difficult for Xiaomi to compete in China, analysts say.

“The competition in China’s smartphone market has intensified tremendously this year,” said a Xiaomi spokeswoman, who declined to comment on the company’s valuation or say whether it met its 2015 sales target. She said Xiaomi sales were “within expectations” and its flash sales are primarily for new phones when production ramps up.

The lack of its own high-end chip technology also proved to be a competitive disadvantage for Xiaomi in 2015. When early versions of the Qualcomm Inc. ’s Snapdragon 810 processor were reported to overheat, it dampened sales of Xiaomi’s most expensive handset yet, the 2,299 yuan (US$349) Mi Note, analysts said. Xiaomi couldn’t fall back on an in-house developed chip to get around the problem, as Huawei and Samsung did.

Xiaomi and Qualcomm declined to comment on the processor. Analysts say the problems have since been fixed.

Overseas growth has also been slow for Xiaomi, with the percentage of its smartphones sold overseas in the first nine months of 2015 rising to 8%, compared with 7% in the 2014 calendar year, according to Canalys. It faced tough competition overseas, and found consumers unaccustomed to online phone-buying, said Ms. Peng, the analyst from Canalys.

Xiaomi’s thin patent portfolio also became a hurdle as it sought to expand in markets such as India. A lack of patents led to a court ruling that crimped its access to the crucial India market. In December 2014, India’s Delhi High Court ordered Xiaomi to stop selling all smartphones not running on Qualcomm chips due to a patent lawsuit filed by Sweden’s Ericsson. A year later, the injunction remains, which means Xiaomi can’t sell its popular models running chips made by Taiwanese chip maker MediaTek Inc.

Xiaomi said it sold 3 million smartphones in India from July 2014 through August 2015, and 1 million smartphones there in the third quarter. Its average quarter-over-quarter growth is 45%, it said.

The lack of a diversified customer base is another challenge for Xiaomi. It remains “locked in a Chinese demographic ghetto of mainly males 18 to 30,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China-focused boutique investment bank China First Capital. Xiaomi’s focus on low prices has hit its brand image, he said.

Xiaomi’s average smartphone price fell to $122 in the third quarter from $160 a year earlier, despite China’s smartphone sector moving upmarket, according to IDC. The average price of a smartphone in China rose to $240 from $202. Huawei’s rose to $209 from $201. Xiaomi’s best-selling model last year was its cheapest, the $76 Redmi 2A, IDC analyst James Yan said.

Xiaomi’s supporters say the outlook is still bright, as it shifts to building an ecosystem of smart home products. The company has invested in 56 startups so far, ranging from iconic scooter maker Segway to a manufacturer of air purifiers, essential in China’s smog-choked cities.

“Xiaomi’s promise lies in its ecosystem,” said Steven Hu, former partner in Xiaomi investor Qiming Venture Partners.

But others are skeptical.

“Mobile services, e-commerce, branded consumer products—these still are largely just a figment rather than a huge and growing source of profits that could validate last year’s sky-high valuation,” said Mr. Fuhrman.

 

http://www.wsj.com/articles/chinas-xiaomi-under-pressure-to-prove-value-to-investors-1452454204

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

December 27th, 2015 No comments

Manzhouli

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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

November 19th, 2015 1 comment

Nikkei2

 

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

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

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

 

shaleMap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ancient Chinese oil well

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

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

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

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

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

An edited version was published in the Nikkei Asia Review. 

Click here to download article. 

 

 

 

 

An insider’s view of Chinese M&A — Intralinks Deal Flow Predictor

October 22nd, 2015 No comments

intra

Intralinks Dealflow Predictor

 

Intralinks: The meltdown of China’s equity markets that began in the summer, despite measures by officials in Beijing aimed at calming investors’ nerves, has left many global investors jittery. Is this just a correction of an overheated market or the start of something more serious, and how would you describe the mood in China at the moment?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Never once have I heard of a stock market correction that was greeted with glee by the mass of investors, brokers, regulators or government officials. So too most recently in China. The dive in Chinese domestic share prices, while both overdue and in line with the sour fundamentals of most domestically quoted companies, has caused much unhappiness at home and anxiety abroad. The dour outlook persists, as more evidence surfaces that China’s real economy is indeed in some trouble. I first came to China 34 years ago, and have lived full-time here for the last six years. This is unquestionably the worst economic and financial environment I’ve encountered in China. Unlike in 2008, the Chinese government can’t and won’t light a fiscal bonfire to keep the economy percolating. The enormous state-owned sector is overall on life support, barely eking out enough cash flow to pay interest on its massive debts. Salvation this time around, if it’s to be found, will come from the country’s effervescent private sector. It’s already the source of most job creation and non-pump-primed growth in China. The energy, resourcefulness, pluck and risk-tolerance of China’s entrepreneurs knows no equal anywhere in the world. The private sector has been fully legal in China for less than two decades. It is only beginning to work its economic magic.

 

Intralinks: Much has been made of slowing economic growth in China. What are you seeing on the ground and how reliable do you view the Chinese official growth statistics?

 

Peter Fuhrman: If there’s a less productive pastime than quibbling with China’s official statistics, I don’t know of it. Look, it’s beyond peradventure, beyond guesstimation that China’s economic transformation is without parallel in human history. The transformation of this country over the 34 years since I first set foot here as a graduate student is so rapid, so total, so overwhelmingly positive that it defies numerical capture. That said, we’re at a unique juncture in China. There are more signs of economic worry down at the grassroots consumer level than I can recall ever seeing. China is in an unfamiliar state where nothing whatsoever is booming. Real estate prices? Flat or dropping. Manufacturing? Skidding. Exports? Crawling along. Stock market prices? Hammered down and staying down. The Renminbi? No longer a one-way bet.

 

Intralinks: What impact do you see a slowing Chinese economy having on other economies in the APAC region and elsewhere?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Of course there will be an impact, both regionally and globally. There’s only one certain cure for any country feeling ill effects from slowing exports to China: allow the Chinese to travel visa-free to your country. The one trade flow that is now robust and without doubt will become even more so is the Chinese flocking abroad to travel and spend. Only partly in jest do I suggest that the U.S. trade deficit with China, now running at a record high of about $1.5 billion a day, could be eliminated simply by letting the Chinese travel to the U.S. with the same ease as Taiwanese and Hong Kong residents. Manhattan store shelves would be swept clean.

 

Intralinks: With prolonged record low interest rates and low inflation in most of the advanced economies, many multinational companies have looked to China as a source of growth, including through M&A. Which sectors in China have tended to attract the majority of foreign interest? Do you see that continuing or will the focus and opportunities shift elsewhere? Is China a friendly environment for inbound M&A?

 

Peter Fuhrman: The challenges, risks and headaches remain, of course, but M&A fruit has never been riper in China. This is especially so for U.S. and European companies looking to seize a larger slice of China’s domestic consumer market. The M&A strategy that does work in China is to acquire a thriving Chinese private sector business with revenues in China of at least $25m a year, with its own-brand products, distribution, and a degree of market acceptance. The goal for a foreign acquirer is to use M&A to build out most efficiently a sales, brand and product strategy that is optimized for China, in both today’s market conditions, as well as those likely to pertain in the medium- to long-term.

The botched deals tend to get all the headlines, but almost surreptitiously, some larger Fortune 500 companies have made some stellar acquisitions in China. Among them are Nestle, General Mills, ITW, FedEx and Valspar. They bought solid, successful, entrepreneur-founded and run companies. Those acquired companies are now larger, often by orders of magnitude. The acquirer has also dramatically expanded sales of its own global products in China by utilizing the localized distribution channels it acquired. In Nestle’s case, China is now its second-largest market in revenue-terms after the U.S. Four years ago, it ranked number seven.

Chinese government policy towards M&A is broadly positive to neutral. More consequential but perhaps less well-understood are the negative IPO environment for domestic private sector companies, as well as the enormous overhang of un-exited PE invested deals in China. These have transferred pricing leverage from sellers to buyers in China. Increasingly, the most sought-after exit route for domestic Chinese entrepreneurs is through a trade sale to a large global corporation.

 

Intralinks: After years of being seen mainly as “an interested party”, rather than an actual dealmaker, Chinese players are increasingly frequently the successful bidder in international M&A transactions. What has changed in their approach to dealmaking to ensure such success?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Yes, Chinese buyers are increasingly more willing and able to close international M&A deals. But, the commonly-heard refrain that Chinese buyers will devour everything laid in front of them stands miles apart from reality. It seems like every asset for sale in every locale is seeking a Chinese buyer. The limiting factor isn’t money. Chinese acquirers’ cost of capital is lower than anywhere else, often fractionally above zero. The issue instead is too few Chinese companies have the managerial depth and experience to close global M&A deals. There are some world-class exceptions and world-class Chinese buyers. In the last year, for example, a Chinese PE fund called Hua Capital has led two milestone transactions, the proposed acquisition for a total consideration north of $2.5bn, of two U.S.-quoted semiconductor companies, Omnivision and ISSI. Hua Capital has powerful backers in China’s government, as well as outstanding senior executives. These guys are the real deal.

 

Intralinks: When it comes to doing deals, what are the differences between private/public companies and SOEs?

 

Peter Fuhrman: With rare exceptions, the SOE sector is now paralyzed. No M&A deals can be closed. Every week brings new reports of the arrest of senior SOE management for corruption. In some cases, the charges relate directly to M&A malfeasance, bribes, kickbacks and the like. SOE M&A teams will still go on international tire-kicking junkets, but getting any kind of transaction approved by the higher tiers within the SOE itself and by the government control apparatus is all but impossible for now. That leaves China’s private sector companies, especially quoted ones, as the most likely club of buyers. We work with the chairmen of quite a few of these private companies. The appetite is there, the dexterity often less so.

 

Intralinks: China has long been a fertile dealmaking environment for PE funds – both home-grown and international. In what ways does the Chinese PE model differ from what we see in other markets?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Perhaps too fertile. For all the thousands of deals done, Chinese PE’s great Achilles heel is an anemic rate of return to their limited partner investors, especially when measured by actual cash distributions. Over the last three, five, seven years, Chinese PE as a whole has underperformed U.S. PE by a gaping margin. It’s a fundamental truth too often overlooked. High GDP growth rates do not correlate, and never have, with high investment returns, especially from alternative investment classes like PE. If there is one striking disparity between PE as practiced in China as compared to the U.S. and Europe, it’s the fact that that Chinese general partners, whether they’re from the world’s largest global PE firms or pan-Asian or China-focused funds, too often think and act more like asset managers than investors. The 2 takes precedence over the 20.

Intralinks: What opportunities and challenges are private equity investors facing?

 

Peter Fuhrman: The levels of PE and venture capital (VC) investing activity in China have dropped sharply. What money is being invested is mainly chasing after a bunch of loss-making online shopping and mobile services apps. The hope here is one will emerge as China’s next Alibaba or Tencent, the two giants astride China’s private sector. PE investment in China’s “real economy,” that is manufacturing businesses that create most of the jobs and wealth in China, has all but dried up. Though out of favor, this is where the best deals are likely to be found now. Contrarianism is an investing worldview not often encountered at China-focused PE and VC firms.

 

Intralinks: As in many other markets, PE investors are having to deal with a backlog of portfolio companies ready to be exited. Do you feel that PE’s focus on minority investments in China could prove a challenge when it comes to exiting those investments? What do you see as the primary exit route?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Exits remain both few in number and overwhelmingly concentrated on a single pathway, that of IPO. M&A exits, the main source of profit for U.S. and European PE firms, remain exceedingly rare in China. In part, it’s because PE firms usually hold a minority stake in their Chinese investments. In part, though, the desire for an IPO exit is baked into the PE investment process in China. Price/Earnings (P/E) multiple arbitrage, trying to capture alpha through the observed delta in valuation multiples between private and public markets, remains a much-beloved tactic.

 

Intralinks: Finally, what is your overall outlook on China and advice for foreign companies and investors seeking opportunities to engage in M&A or invest there?

 

Peter Fuhrman: Yes, China’s economy is slowing. But the salient discussion point within boardrooms should be that even at 5% growth, China’s economy this year is getting richer faster in dollar terms than it did in 2007 when GDP growth was 14%. That’s because the economy is now so much larger. This added increment of wealth and purchasing power in China in 2015 is larger than the entire economies of Taiwan, Malaysia, Thailand, and Hong Kong. Much of the annual gain in China, likely to remain impressively large for many long years to come, filters down into increased middle class spending power. This is why China must matter to global businesses with a product or service to sell. M&A in China has a cadence and quirks all its own. But, the business case can often be compelling. The terrain can be mastered.

 

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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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The Economist Survey on China Business

September 11th, 2015 No comments

Econ

Econ survey2

With a timing that can only be described as exquisite, the Economist today publishes their in-depth survey of business in China. It appears at a time when the media is brimming with stories, often in my view overblown,  about China’s economic problems and challenges. The Economist survey provides light where there’s been way too much heat of late. I couldn’t recommend more highly taking the time to read it in full.

Please click here to go direct to the survey on the Economist website. It includes nine separate articles, each offering a banquet of analysis, ideas and insights on where China’s economy, both private sector and SOE, is heading.

The author of the survey is Vijay Vaitheeswaran, the China business and finance editor. This is the first Economist China business survey in many years. It was certainly no small undertaking. China’s size, complexity and ever-morphing business environment make a comprehensive future-looking summary of this kind difficult in the extreme to do well.

I got to meet Vijay during his research phase. I took him for Tibetan food in Shenzhen. He ended up quoting me briefly in one of the articles in the survey.

Vijay paid particular attention to accelerating innovation cycles in China’s hardware industry. He spent a few days in Shenzhen including attending a kind of hacker forum for hardware geeks. He calls Shenzhen “the world’s best place to start a hardware firm” and visited my favorite exemplar of this, 18-month-old mobile phone brand OnePlus.

Quick aside, since the launch of its new model, the OnePlus 2 six weeks ago, the waiting list to buy one has grown to over five million people. If OnePlus’s factories can keep pace with the exploding demand, the company is on track to sell over $2 billion of phones in coming twelve months.

While overall highly positive about China’s economic prospects and the ambitions of its vast pool of private sector entrepreneurs, the survey sounds a note of caution. It argues that the less efficient state-owned sector appears more and more like an unevolved creature from a foregone era.  They are, the survey warns, sucking up too much of China’s capital and achieving too little with it, all the while fighting to maintain the cozy monopolies that keep the far more dynamic and efficient private sector shut out.

How much market? How much government control and ownership? All countries struggle to find a balance. China stands out because the private sector has come so far so fast. Thirty years ago when I first set foot in China there was no private sector to speak of. Now, in all but the so-called “commanding heights” of China’s economy, entrepreneurs run rampant. 1.4 billion Chinese benefit from this fact every day.

 

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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.”

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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.

 

The Shenzhen Unicorn — Week in China Magazine

July 17th, 2015 No comments

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OnePlus Two

A sizeable quotient of the techno-hip crowd in the US and Europe is counting down the days to the launch next week of the newest Android mobile phone by China’s OnePlus. It’s called the OnePlus Two and follows a little more than a year after the 18-month-old company’s first phone, the OnePlue One, went on sale in the US and Europe. With barely a nickel to spend on marketing and promotion, OnePlus insouciantly dubbed its OnePlus One a “flagship killer” claiming it delivered similar or better performance than Samsung, LG and HTC Android phones costing twice as much.

The tech media swooned, and buyers formed long online queues to buy one from the OnePlus website, www.oneplus.net, the only place the phones are sold. In little more than six months last year, OnePlus sold over one million phones.

The new OnePlus model is rumored to be built around a new top-of-the-line Qualcomm processor, and features a larger screen, an upgraded in-house version of Android software, fingerprint recognition. Price? Around $300. It will be available, as was the OnePlus One for most of the last year, on an “invitation-only cash-upfront” basis to prospective buyers. How to get a coveted invitation remains something of a dark art. New OnePlus owners are given a certain number of invitations to send to whoever they please.

The July 27th launch will be an online event broadcast in virtual reality. OnePlus manufactured and is giving away a cardboard virtual reality viewer said to be as good or better than the ones sold by Google for $20. The viewers have been flying out the door for the last month.

To read complete article, click here.

 

The Hidden Unicorn: China Venture Capital Fails to Spot OnePlus

June 3rd, 2015 No comments

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Missed investment opportunities are rarely this glaring. Despite having hundreds of firms managing billions of dollars and employing thousands of people all supposedly out scouring China for the next big thing, China’s venture capital industry not only failed to invest in the single-most successful startup in recent Chinese history, mobile phone manufacturer OnePlus, most failed even to take note of the company’s existence. Meantime, a fair chunk of the tech savvy population of Europe and the US was enduring long waits and by-invitation-only rationing system to buy one of its prized mobile phones.

Since its founding less than a year-and-a-half ago, OnePlus went from bootstrap startup to likely “unicorn” (a billion-dollar-plus valuation) faster than any company in Chinese history. Unlike China’s other unicorns — Xiaomi, Meituan, newly-merged Kuaidi and Didi Dache and drone maker DJI Innovations — OnePlus hasn’t yet raised a penny of VC or private equity money.

With its first phones going on sale just one year ago, OnePlus has racked up a rate of growth as well as a level of brand awareness in Europe and the US never seen before from a new Chinese electronics manufacturer. OnePlus is the real deal. Revenues last year from May through December were $300mn. This year, OnePlus is on track to surpass $1 billion in sales, mainly in the highly-competitive US and European mobile phone market.

Over roughly that same period, China PE and VC firms invested over $15 billion in 1,300 Chinese firms, many also operating in the mobile industry, either as manufacturers or service providers. Needless to say, not a single one of these VC-backed startups has performed as well over the last year as OnePlus, nor created half as much buzz.

If China venture capital has a big fat blind spot it’s for companies like OnePlus. That’s because China venture capital —  which now trails only the US in the number of firms and capital raised —  is most comfortable backing Chinese companies that copy a US online business model and then tweak it around the edges to make it more suitable to the China market.

OnePlus couldn’t be more dissimilar. It is disruptive, not imitative. It takes a special kind of venture investor to recognize and then throw money behind this kind of business. OnePlus’s bold idea was to compete globally, but especially in the US and European markets, against very large and very rich incumbents —Samsung, Google, LG, Motorola, HTC — by building a phone that targets their perceived weak spots. As OnePlus sees it, those competitors’ phones were too expensive, too slow, of middling quality and the Android software they run too difficult to customize. At the same time, OnePlus sought to turn the sales model in the US and Europe on its head: no retail, no carrier subsidy, phones built-to-order after the customer had paid. Until a month ago, only those with an invitation were allowed to buy.

Nothing quite like it had ever been attempted. Will OnePlus continue its ascent or eventually crash-and-burn along with other once high-flying mobile brands like Blackberry and Nokia? Whichever happens, it’s already achieved more with less than any Chinese company competing for market share in the US and Europe. That augurs well.

From my discussions with OnePlus’s 25 year-old co-founder Carl Pei, it seems few China-based venture firms sought out the company and those that did failed to make much of an impact. The company instead opted to run on a shoestring, by cutting the need for working capital by building phones only after the customer paid. They also economized on marketing and advertising, typically where much venture money gets burnt.

OnePlus spent a total of about USD$10,000 on advertising. Instead, it poured its effort and ingenuity into building a mass following on the three major US social media platforms, Youtube, Twitter and Facebook. There’s no better, cheaper or more difficult way now to establish a brand and build revenues than getting lots of praise on these social networks. OnePlus’s success at this dwarves anything previously achieved by other Chinese companies. Compared to Xiaomi, OnePlus has double the Facebook likes, four times the Twitter followers and five times more Youtube subscribers. All three, of course, remain blocked inside China itself.

Sales of OnePlus phones also got an immeasurable boost from a string of flattering reviews in some of the most influential newspapers and tech blogs in the US and Europe.

Having reached a likely billion-dollar-plus valuation and billion-dollar revenue run-rate as a very lean company, OnePlus is now near closing on its first round of venture finance. But, it is planning to raise money in Silicon Valley, not from a VC firm in China. DJI just opted for a similar strategy, raising $75 million from Accel Partners of Palo Alto at an $8 billion valuation to expand its sales and production of consumer and commercial drones. DJI, like OnePlus, is based in China’s high-tech hub, Shenzhen.

One can see a pattern here. Many of China’s more successful and globalized companies prefer to raise money outside China, either by listing shares abroad, as Alibaba did last year, or raising money direct from US venture firms. US-based venture firms were early investors in Baidu, New Oriental Education and Ctrip , all of which later went on to become multi-billion-dollar market cap companies listed in New York.

Why do so many of China’s best companies choose to raise money outside China, despite the fact there’s now so much money available here and valuations are often much higher in China than outside? I have my theories. One thing is indisputable: being local hasn’t conferred much if any advantage to China’s venture capital industry.

Being China’s hidden unicorn hasn’t evidently done OnePlus much harm. It has revealed, though, some blinkered vision at China’s venture capital firms.