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China PE value-added: Empty promises? AVCJ

May 23rd, 2013 No comments

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Author: Tim Burroughs

Asian Venture Capital Journal | 22 May 2013 | 15:47 secure

Tags: Gps | China | Operating partners | Buyout | Growth capital |Lunar capital management | Cdh investments management | Citic capital partners | Kohlberg kravis roberts & co. (kkr) | Jiuding Capital | Hony capital

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       China value-add: Empty promises?

Pulled by a desire to buy and build or pushed by a need to address restricted exit options, PE firms in China are placing greater emphasis on operational value-add. LPs must decide who’s all talk and who is action

By the time Harvard Business School published its case study of Kunwu Jiuding Capital in December 2011, the investment model being celebrated was already fading.

Within four years of its launch, the private equity firm had amassed $1 billion in funds and 260 employees, having turned itself into a PE factory “where investment activities were carried out in a way similar to large-scale industrial production.” Jiuding’s approach focused on getting a company to IPO quickly and leveraging exit multiples available on domestic bourses; and then repeating the process several dozen times over. With IRRs running to 500% or more, an army of copycats emerged as renminbi fundraising jumped 60% year-on-year to $30.1 billion in 2012.

But the average price-to-earnings ratio for ChiNext-listed companies had slipped below 40 by the end of 2011, compared to 129 two years earlier; SME board ratios were also sliding. Already denied the multiples to which they were accustomed, nearly a year later these pre-IPO investors were denied any listings at all as China’s securities regulator froze approvals.

The Harvard Business School case study noted that concerns had been raised about the sustainability of the quick-fire approach, given that some of these GPs appeared to lack the skills and experience to operate in normalized conditions. “The short-term mentality creates volatility,” Vincent Huang, a partner at Pantheon, told AVCJ in October 2011. “A lot of these GPs don’t have real value to add and so they won’t be in the market for the long run.”

Subsequent events have elevated the debate into one of existential proportions for pre-IPO growth capital firms. Listings will return but it is unclear whether they will reach their previous heights: the markets may be more selective and the valuations more muted.

There is also a sense that GPs have been found out lacking a Plan B; renminbi fundraising dropped to $5.1 billion in the second half of 2012. The trend is reflected on the US dollar side as the slowdown in Hong Kong listings over the course of the year left funds with ever decreasing certainty over portfolio exits. If GPs – big or small – face holding a company for longer than expected, what are they going to do with it?

“We value control and we can take advantage of the M&A markets if we have it. We also like the IPO markets here but any investment where we aren’t a controlling shareholder, we can’t set down the timetable for exit,” says H. Chin Chou, CEO of Morgan Stanley Private Equity Asia. “We ask ourselves, ‘Do we like holding this investment for five years because there is no IPO? At some point the IPO market will come back but until then you have to be very comfortable holding it.”

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China private equity bitten again by Fang — Financial Times

May 10th, 2013 No comments

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By Simon Rabinovitch in Beijing

Financier Fang Fenglei is betting on private equity recovery

China’s unruly markets have vanquished many a savvy investor, but if one man knows how to play them it is Fang Fenglei.

From the establishment of the country’s first investment bank in 1995 to the complex partnership that brought Goldman Sachs into China in 2004 and the launch from scratch of a $2.5bn private equity fund in 2007, Mr Fang has been at the nexus of some of the biggest Chinese deals of the past two decades.

Even his abrupt decision in 2010 to start winding down Hopu, his private equity fund, was impeccably well timed. Since he left the scene, the Chinese stock market has been among the worst performers in the world and the private equity industry, once booming alongside the country’s turbocharged economy, has gone cold.

So the news that Mr Fang, the son of a peasant farmer, will return with a new $2bn-$2.5bn investment fund is more than a passing curiosity. The financier is betting that China’s beleaguered private equity industry will recover – a wager that at the moment has long odds.

The most immediate obstacle for the private equity industry in China is a bottleneck on exits from investments. Regulators have halted approvals for all initial public offerings since October, a tried and tested method for putting a floor under the stock market by limiting the availability of shares. But a side effect has been eliminating the preferred exit route of private equity companies.

Even before the IPO freeze, the backlog was already building up. China First Capital, an advisory firm, estimates that there are more than 7,500 unexited private equity investments in China from deals done since 2000. Valuations may have appreciated greatly but private equity groups are struggling to sell their assets.

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When Push Comes to Shove, Cover Story on China Private Equity Secondaries –AVCJ

March 14th, 2013 No comments

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AVCJ Magazine’s cover story, in current issue, on crisis in private equity in China caused by unexited deals, and the positive role direct secondaries might play.

Read complete article by clicking here.

 

 

 

 

Direct Secondary Investment Opportunities in China Private Equity

February 26th, 2013 No comments

 

As detailed follow-up to our report on the current challenging crisis of unexited PE investments in China, China First Capital has prepared a new research note. You can download the abridged version by clicking here.

This note provides far more detailed data and analysis on the unexited PE deals: by industry, original deal size, currency, round, and most importantly, “tier of PE”. This should give a more concrete understanding of the current opportunity in direct secondaries in China, as well as numerical challenges all GPs active in China will face exiting.

China First Capital is currently the only firm with this data and analysis. In addition to this note, we will also share in coming weeks three others research notes:

1. Secondary deals modeled on prospective IRR and hold periods
2. Risk-scoring metrics for primary and secondary deals in China
3. Portfolio analytics specific to primary and secondary investments in China

Beyond this work, shared as a service to our industry, to help facilitate the development of an efficient and liquid exit channel of direct secondaries in China, everything else will remain our confidential work product to be deployed only for clients that retain us. An introduction to our secondaries services is available by clicking here.

 

Five Minutes with Peter Fuhrman — Private Equity International Magazine

February 1st, 2013 No comments

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The chairman of research firm China First Capital discusses China’s growing exit problem, and its possible impact on private equity in 2013.

A growing concern for private equity in China is the lack of IPO exits. How do you see that playing out in 2013?

“I don’t expect any substantial improvement or change in the problems that are blocking IPO exits domestically and internationally. And because the China private equity industry is significantly over-allocated to IPO exits, along with diminishing fund life, [this] will be a time of increasing difficulty for GPs. At the same time, the inability to exit will also continue to prevent [GPs] from doing new deals, and that is where the greatest economic harm will be done. Of course I don’t trivialise the importance of the $100 billion that’s locked away in unexited PE investments, but the real victims of this are going to be the private entrepreneurs of China. At this point, over half of all [China’s] GDP activity is generated from the private sector. The private equity money and the IPO money is what [businesses] need to grow, because private companies in China basically can’t borrow. They need private equity money and IPO proceeds to continue to thrive. ”  More…

China private equity specialist says IPO drought means investors must rethink — Week in China

January 28th, 2013 No comments

 

week in china

 

 

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With China’s IPO gusher now reduced to a trickle, prospects for some of the privately-owned companies which have traditionally boosted much of China’s economic growth could be at risk.

So says Peter Fuhrman, founder and chief executive at China First Capital, a boutique investment bank and advisory firm. His firm has just released a new report warning that new private equity investment has basically come to a halt in China since the middle of last year.

Fuhrman talked to WiC this week about the reasons for the slowdown, and why he would like to see more investors considering alternative exits, including sales in the secondary market. More…

China Private Equity Secondaries — the new China First Capital research report

January 16th, 2013 No comments

 

In the current difficult market environment for private equity in China, secondary transactions provide a valuable way forward.  Staging successful IPOs or M&A will remain severely challenging. This is the conclusion of a proprietary research report recently completed and published by China First Capital. An abridged version is available by clicking here.  You can also visit the Research Reports section of the China First Capital website.

Secondaries potentially offer some of the best risk-adjusted investment opportunities, as well as the most certain and efficient way for private equity and venture capital firms to exit investments. And yet these secondary deals still remain rare. As a result, General Partners, Limited Partners and investee companies, as well as China’s now-large private equity industry,  are all at risk from serious adverse outcomes.

This new CFC research report is a data-driven examination of the potential market for secondary transactions in China, the significant scope for profit on all sides of the transaction, as well as the no less significant obstacles to the development of an efficient, liquid, stable long-term market in these secondary positions in China.

The report’s conclusion is that secondaries have the potential to benefit all three core constituencies in the China PE industry — GPs, LPs and investee companies. The universe of deals potentially available for secondary exit is large, over 7,500 unexited investments made in China by PE firms since 2000.

However, the greatest potential for both PE sellers and buyers across the short to medium term is in a group of select companies CFC terms “Quality Secondaries“. These are PE investments that fulfill four criteria:

  1. unexited and not in IPO approval process, domestically or internationally
  2. investee companies have grown well (+25% a year) since the original round of PE investment, and have continuing scope to expand enterprise value and achieve eventual capital markets or trade sale exit in 3-6 year time frame
  3. businesses are sound from legal and regulatory perspective, have effective corporate governance, and a majority owner  that will support secondary sale to another PE institution
  4. current PE investor seeks secondary exit because of fund life or portfolio management reasons

CFC’s  analysis reveals that the potential universe of “Quality Secondaries” is at least 200 companies. This number will likely grow by approx. 15%-25% a year, as funds reach latter stage of their lives and if other exit options remain limited.

At the current juncture, in this market environment, and assuming “Quality Secondary” deals are done at market valuations, these investment represent some of the better values to be found in growth capital investing in China.  DD risk is significantly lower than in primary deals, and contingent risks (opportunity costs, and legal risks of pursuing other non-IPO exits) are lower.

Despite the current lack of significant deal-making activity in this area, secondaries will likely go from current low levels to gain a meaningful share of all PE exits in China.

The secondaries market in China will have unique factors compared to the US, Europe and elsewhere. There will likely be limited investor interest in any secondary deal involving a Chinese company or a portfolio that has underperformed since PE investment, or could otherwise be characterized as a  “distress” situation.

Quality Secondaries transactions in China will involve PE investors “cherry-picking” good companies at fair valuations.  The primary motivation for selling PEs is misalignment between its remaining fund life and the time required and risk inherent in achieving  domestic or offshore IPO or trade sale exit during that shortened time frame.

In contrast with secondary deals done outside China, we do not expect to see much activity involving the sale of all or most of a PE firm’s portfolio of investments. Specialist secondary firms operating elsewhere (e.g. Coller Capital, Harbourvest) do not currently have the experience or manpower in China to take on the complexities of managing and liquidating all or most of an existing portfolio of minority investments.

Rather, we expect those PEs with strong operating performance in growth capital investing in China to exploit favorable market conditions by becoming active buyers of Quality Secondaries.   GPs that prefer larger deals, (+USD25mn/Rmb200mn), should be particularly interested in Quality Secondaries, since company scale and investment amount will likely be larger, on average, than primary deals in China.

Selling PEs can pursue exit strategies based on option of selling either part or all of a successful unexited deal. A part liquidation in Quality Secondary transaction can mitigate risk and return capital to LPs while still retaining future upside. A full exit through secondary can increase fund’s realized IRR and so assist future fundraising. Importantly, a selling PE needs to act before pricing leverage is transferred mainly to buyers — generally this means secondary deals should be evaluated and priced in market when fund still has minimum of two years left of active period.

While clearly the most acute need for exit will be investments made before 2008, more recent investments need also to be assessed based on current market conditions. Many GPs are adopting what looks to be an unhedged strategy across a portfolio of invested deals waiting for capital markets conditions to improve.

In particular, much of this “wait and see” approach is based on the hope that Hong Kong’s once-vibrant, now-moribund IPO market for Chinese companies returns to its earlier state. The US stock market will certainly remain off limits to most Chinese companies for a long time to come. Exit through China’s domestic stock market is now seriously blocked by bureaucratic slowdowns and an approval backlog that even under optimistic scenarios could take three to five years to clear.

The need for diversification is no less paramount for exits than entries. Many of the same PEs that wisely spread their LPs money across a range of industries, stages and deal sizes, have become over-reliant now on  a single path to exit: the Hong Kong IPO.  By itself, such dependence on a single exit path is risky. In the current environment, it looks even more so.

The flood of Chinese IPOs in Hong Kong basically came to a halt a year ago.  When they do resume, it may prove challenging for all but the best and biggest Chinese companies to successfully issue shares there. What will become of the other deals? How will GPs and LPs profit from investments already made? That’s the focus on this new report, titled, “China Secondaries:  The Necessary & Attractive Exit For Private Equity Deals in China“.

 

Jiuding Capital: Local Boy Makes Good Atop China’s PE Industry

November 2nd, 2012 1 comment

In China’s PE jungle, a mouse is king. Started just five years ago, Kunwu Jiuding Capital (昆吾九鼎投资管理有限公) has probably achieved the best results and best returns for investors in China’s private equity industry over the last three years. Indeed, few if any PE investors anywhere have out-performed Jiuding in recent years. (For a more recent analysis on challenges facing Jiuding, please click here. )

With only around $1 billion in assets, Jiuding is around 1%-2% the size of the leading global PE firms like Blackstone, KKR, Bain Capital and Carlyle. Yet, none of these firms matches Jiuding’s recent record at investing, exiting, and pocketing big returns in China. The firm is about as different from the likes of TPG, KKR and Carlyle as firms in the same industry can get. Jiuding isn’t staffed with Ivy League MBAs, operates out of modest offices, makes no claim to particular expertise in business operations, nor does it reward its partners with hundreds of millions in profits from carried interest.

Jiuding has mastered a form of PE investing devoid of glamour, prestige or deal-making genius. Rather than “Barbarians at the Gate“, think more “Accountants at the Cash Till“. Jiuding may want to savor its current status as “king of the China PE jungle”. The money-making formula Jiuding has used so effectively is getting tougher all the time.

The Jiuding investment method is blunt: it invests only in Chinese companies it believes will very soon thereafter get approved for domestic IPO. It’s not trying to guess which industries will flourish, or how Chinese consumers will spend their money in the future. It makes no bets on unproved technologies, or companies that may be growing fast, but are still years away from an IPO. Its investment technique is based on reproducing internally, as much as possible, the lengthy, opaque approval IPO process of China’s all-powerful securities regulator the CSRC.

Jiuding focuses more on guessing what the CSRC will do, rather than how a particular company will fare. This way, it hopes to capture a big valuation differential between its entry price and exit price after IPO. At its high point two years ago, there was a ten-fold gap between Jiuding’s entry and exit multiples. Jiuding bought in at a p/e of less than 10X, and could exit at over 80X. Though share prices and p/e multiples have fallen, the gap remains ample, still under 10X going in, and a likely 25X-30X going out.

Here’s the way it works: the CSRC IPO approval process can take anywhere from two to five years. Jiuding times its investment as close as legally permissible to the time when the company will file for IPO. It then gets to work doing everything it can to improve the likelihood of CSRC approval, attending meetings at the CSRC, lobbying backstage. When things go smoothly, Jiuding can enter and exit an investment in three years, including the mandatory one-year lockup after IPO.

The average hold time for other PE firms investing in China can be as long as six to eight years. These other firms are willing to invest earlier and then help the company transition, often over a two to three year period, to full tax and regulatory compliance. This is a prerequisite before filing for IPO. Change in China is perpetual, sudden, frenetic. The longer a PE firm holds an investment, the greater the risk some change in the rules, or the domestic market, or the exchange rate, or the competitive landscape will ruin a once-strong company.

These uncertainties, as well as the significant risk a Chinese company will not pass CSRC’s IPO approval process, are the two largest China PE investment risks that Jiuding tries to eliminate. For Jiuding, this means a hyper-technical focus on whether a company is paying all its taxes and whether its main customer is actually the founder’s brother-in-law. In other words, are there serious related party transactions? This is often the main reason the CSRC turns down an IPO application.

Other PEs, particularly the global giants,  take a different approach. They expend huge energy on the process of analyzing and predicting the future course of a company’s products, markets, competitive position. This involves a lot of brain power and also some guesswork. The results are mixed. A lot of deals never close, because the PE firm, after spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and lots of man-hours, can’t complete due diligence. Others will never reach the stage of even applying for IPO, let alone getting approval.

Jiuding seems perfectly-adapted to the Chinese investment terrain. When its process works, its bets pay off handsomely, often delivering returns of at least three times capital invested. Jiuding calls this a “PE factory method”. It tries to systematize as much of the investment process as possible. Jiuding has a huge staff of at least 250 people, ten times the size of other PEs in China. They are kept busy doing this work of collecting company data and then simulating the CSRC’s approval process. It invites its LPs, mainly wealthy Chinese bosses, to participate in deal screening and approval. If the majority of LPs doesn’t approve of a deal, it doesn’t get done. In the PE industry, this is often known as “letting the lunatics run the asylum”.

To be sure, Jiuding doesn’t always get it right. It does more deals each year than just about every other PE firm in China. Quite a few will flame out before IPO. But, Jiuding will usually get its original investment back, by forcing companies to buy back the shares. Meantime, its IPO hit rate is high, as far as I can tell. The company discloses information only sporadically, and its website lists only fourteen IPOs. Its actual tally is certainly far higher. Jiuding regards everything about its business — its portfolio of investments, its total capital, its staff size — as commercial secrets.

Jiuding differs in another important way from larger, better-known PE firms: it helps itself to less of its LPs’ money . Jiuding takes a lower management fee, usually a one-time 3% charge, rather than annual 1%-3%, and awards itself with a smaller carry on successful deals. Jiuding’s almost as efficient at raising money as it is investing it. It’s already raised at least ten different funds, including, recently, a dollar one.

With everything going so well, Jiuding, and its stripped-down approach to PE investing, looks unstoppable. But, there are some signs of serious problems ahead for Jiuding. Its main problems now aren’t raising money or even finding good companies. Partly, it’s a challenge familiar to most successful Chinese companies, including many Jiuding has invested in: copycats start springing up everywhere. In the last two years, hundreds of new Renminbi PE firms were founded. Many are trying to duplicate Jiuding’s formula. They also focus on companies ready to apply for IPO, and also try to anticipate the way the CSRC will rule on the application. Jiuding needs to fight harder now to win deals, and often does this by agreeing to invest at higher price than others. That will inevitably lower potential returns.

The second, larger problem is the CSRC’s IPO approval process itself. It is becoming slower, and also even more impenetrable and unpredictable, even to the savants at Jiuding. It’s harder now for Jiuding to get in and out of deals quickly, a key to its success. The backlog of Chinese companies with CSRC approval and waiting to IPO is now at around 500. In most cases, that means a wait of at least two years after the laborious CSRC process is complete. A lot can go wrong during that time. So, an investor like Jiuding will need to understand, before going in, more about a company and its longer-term prospects.

In China’s PE market, where good companies are plentiful and IPO exits are limited, Jiuding has prospered by focusing more on understanding the regulator than on understanding a company’s business model and industry. It never needed to bother much with monitoring the day-to-day dramas of running a company, or offering sage advice as a board member, or helping a company expand its partnerships and improve marketing. Yet, all this is becoming more and more necessary. These aren’t skills Jiuding has mastered. Who has? The same big global PE firms (including Carlyle, TPG, Blackstone, KKR, Bain Capital) that Jiuding has lately run circles around. Jiuding’s “PE factory” must adapt or die.

 

 

Dollars No Longer Welcome

October 23rd, 2012 1 comment

2012 is going to be a bad year for new dollar investment in Chinese financial assets. This reverses what was thought to be, only a few years ago, an irreversible trend as more of the world’s largest and most sophisticated investors sought to increase the asset allocation in China. It’s not that China has fallen out of favor with institutional investors. If anything, China’s comparative strengths — in terms of solid +7% economic growth, a vibrant domestic consumer market, reasonably healthy banks, prudent fiscal policy — stand in ever starker contrast with the insipid economies and improvident governments of Europe, the US, Japan.

So, how come fewer dollars are flowing into China? The main reason is that the stock markets in the US and Hong Kong have fallen out of love with Chinese IPOs. These two stock markets have been the primary source for more than a decade of new dollar funding for domestic Chinese companies. Just two years ago, Chinese companies accounted for one-third of all IPOs in the US. The IPO market for Chinese companies listing in Hong Kong was even hotter. Last year, almost $70 billion was raised by Chinese companies listing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

Dollars raised in New York or Hong Kong IPOs were converted into Renminbi, then invested to fuel the growth of hundreds of Chinese private companies and SOEs. Stock markets in London, Frankfurt, Seoul, Singapore, Sydney also provided access for Chinese companies to list and raise capital there. Overall, the international capital markets have been a key source of growth capital for Chinese companies, and so an important part of China’s overall economic transformation.

This year, the US will probably host fewer than five Chinese IPOs, and the total amount raised by Chinese companies in Hong Kong will be down by at least 65% from last year. The two other sources of dollar investment in Chinese companies — private equity and institutional purchases of Chinese shares — are also trending downward. Of the two, PE money was by far the more important, particularly over the last decade. In a good year, over $5 billion of capital was invested into private Chinese companies by PE firms. But, rule changes in China began to make dollar PE investing more difficult starting five years ago. It’s harder now to get permission to convert dollars into Renminbi, and Chinese companies can no longer easily create offshore holding company structures to facilitate dollar investment and an eventual exit through offshore IPO.

Rule changes slowed, but didn’t stop, dollar PE investing in China. The bigger problem now is that stock market investors in the US, and to a slightly lesser extent those in Hong Kong, no longer want to buy Chinese shares at IPO. It’s mainly because retail and institutional investors outside China distrust the quality and truthfulness of Chinese corporate accounting. If offshore IPOs dry up, dollar PE investors have no way to cash out. M&A exit is still rare. The twin result this year: less dollar PE money entering China, and also a steep drop in offshore IPO fundraising for Chinese companies.

Consider what this means: the world’s largest pools of institutional capital are finding it more difficult to invest in the world’s fastest growing major economy. This makes no financial sense. Chinese companies have a huge appetite for growth capital, and have the potential to achieve high rates of return for investors. Investment in China’s private entrepreneurial companies remains perhaps the best risk-adjusted investment class in the world. But, all the same, this year will see a steep drop of new international investment in Chinese companies.

Perhaps partially to compensate, China this year has liberalized the rules somewhat to allow international institutions to buy shares quoted in China. But, since that money goes to buy shares held by other investors, rather than to the company itself, investing in Chinese-quoted shares has little, if any impact, in filling Chinese companies’ need for growth capital. The appeal of owning China-quoted shares is hardly overpowering, as the market has been a poor performer overall, and share prices are more propelled by rumor than fundamental value.

At any earlier time in recent history, a dramatic drop like this year’s in new dollar investment into China would be felt acutely by Chinese companies. But, as dollar investing has dried up, Renminbi investing has more than filled the gap. The Shenzhen and Shanghai stock markets are now far larger sources of fresh IPO capital for Chinese companies than New York or Hong Kong ever were. Also, Renminbi PE firms have proliferated.

For a mix of reasons, China is now, arguably, more financially self-reliant than it has been since Mao’s day. Autarky used to be state policy. Now, it is a consequence of China’s own rising affluence and capital accumulation, together with some nationalistic policy changes and the fall-off in interest among international investors to finance Chinese IPOs. Ironically, as China has been drawn more into the global trade and financial system, its need for external capital has lessened.

That is unfortunate. Dollar investment in China benefits both sides. It offers dollar investors higher potential rates of return than investing in mature developed economies. This means better-funded and more generous pensions for American and European retirees. For Chinese companies, dollar investors usually tend to be more hands-on, in a good way, than Renminbi funds. So, they help improve the overall competitiveness, professionalism, corporate governance and strategic planning of the Chinese firms they invest in. Many of China’s best entrepreneurial companies — including well-known firms like Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent, as well as hundreds of domestic Chinese brand-name companies few outside of China have heard of– were nurtured towards success by dollar investors.

Since just about everyone wins from new dollar investing in China, what can be done to reverse this year’s big slide? The answer is “not a lot”. I don’t see any strong likelihood that international investors will grow less allergic to Chinese IPOs. Renminbi PE and IPO funding for Chinese companies will continue to grow strongly. Only the removal of capital controls in China, and full Renminbi convertibility, would change the current situation, and lead, most likely, to large new flows of offshore capital into China.

But, full Renminbi convertibility is nowhere in sight. For the foreseeable future, China’s growth mainly will be financed at home.

 

 

 

Renminbi Funds: Can They Rewrite the Rules of Profitable Investing?

May 23rd, 2012 No comments

Renminbi private equity funds are the world’s fastest-growing major pool of discretionary investment funds, with over $20 billion raised in 2011. These Renminbi funds also play an increasingly vital role in allocating capital to China’s best entrepreneurial companies. Despite their size and importance, these Renminbi funds often have a structural defect that may limit their future success.

Most Renminbi funds are managed by people whose pay is only loosely linked, if at all, to their performance. They are structured, typically, much like a Chinese state-owned enterprise (“SOE”),  with multiple managerial levels, slow and diffuse decision-making, rigid hierarchies and little individual responsibility or accountability. The resemblance to SOEs is not accidental. Renminbi funds raise a lot of their money from state-owned companies, and many fund managers come from SOE background.

Maximizing profits is generally not the prime goal of SOEs. They provide employment, steer resources to industries favored by government plans and policies. A similar mindset informs the way many Renminbi funds operate. Individual greed along with individual initiative are discouraged. There are no big pay-outs to partners. In fact, in most cases, there are no partners whatsoever.

This represents a significant departure from the ownership structure of private equity and venture capital firms elsewhere. Partnership matters because it efficiently harnesses the greed of the people doing the investing.  The General Partners (“GPs”) usually put a significant percentage of their own money into deals alongside that of the Limited Partners who capital they invest. GPs are also highly incentivized to earn profits for these LPs. The usual split is 1:4, meaning the GP keeps 20% of net profits earned investing LPs’ money.

Of course, partnership structure doesn’t guarantee GPs are going to do smart things with LPs’ money. There’s lot of examples to the contrary. But, the partnership structure does seem to work better for both sides than any other form of business combination. GPs and LPs both know that the more the GP makes for himself, the more he makes for investors.

Renminbi funds, in most all cases, are structured like ordinary companies, or as subsidiaries of larger state-owned financial holding companies. Instead of partners, they have large management teams with layer upon cumbersome layer. The top people at Renminbi funds are picked as much for their political connections, and ability to source investment capital from government bureaus and SOEs, as their investing acumen. They are wage slaves, albeit well-paid ones by Chinese standards. But, their compensation might not even be 5% of what a partner at a dollar-based private equity firm can earn in a good year. A Renminbi fund manager will rarely have his own capital locked up alongside investors, and even more rarely be awarded that handsome share of net profits.

Renminbi funds differ in other key ways from PE and VC partnerships. The Renminbi funds usually have relatively flat pay scales, modest bonuses and a consensus approach with often as many as 20 or more staff members deciding on which deals to do.  A typical dollar-based PE fund in China might have a total of 15 people, including secretaries. A Renminbi fund? Teams of over 100 are not all that uncommon. The investment committee of a dollar PE firm might have as few as five people. Partners decide which deals to do. A Renminbi firm often have ICs with dozens of members, and even then, their decisions are often not final. Often Renminbi funds need to get investors’ approval for each individual deal they seek to do. They don’t have discretionary power, as PE partnerships do, over their investors’ money.

Renminbi funds have abundant manpower to scout for deals across all of China, and can throw a lot of people into the deal-screening and due diligence process. This bulk approach has its advantages. It can sometimes take a few months of on-the-spot paper-pushing, coaching and reorganizing to get a Chinese private company into compliance with the legal and accounting rules required for outside investment. Dollar funds don’t have that capacity, in most cases.

Also, Renminbi fund managers often have similar backgrounds to the middle management teams at private companies. They are comfortable with all the dining, wining, smoking and karaoke-ing that play such a core part of Chinese business life. The dollar funds? From partners on down, they are staffed by Chinese with elite educations, often including stints in the US working or studying.  Usually they don’t drink or smoke, and prefer to get back to the hotel early at night to churn through the target company’s profit forecast.

Kill-joys though they may be, the PE dollar funds still have, in my experience, some large – and most likely decisive — advantages over the Renminbi funds. Decision-making is nimble, transparent and centralized in the hands of the firm’s few partners. If they like a deal, they can issue a term sheet the same day. At a Renminbi fund, it can take months of internal meetings, report-writing and committee assessments before any kind of term sheet is prepared. Internal back-stabbing, politicking and turf battles are also common.

We’ve also seen deals where the Renminbi fund’s staff demand kickbacks from companies in return for persuading their firms to invest. An executive at one of China’s largest, oldest Renminbi fund estimates 60% of all deals his firm does probably include such under-the-table payoffs.

It’s often futile to try to figure out who really calls the shots at a Renminbi fund. Private company bosses, including several of our clients, are often loath to work with organizations structured in this way. The boss at one of our clients recently chose to take money from two dollar PE firms because he couldn’t get a meeting with the boss of the well-known Renminbi fund that was courting him hard. That firm compounded things by explaining the fund’s boss was anyway not really involved in investment decision-making and would certainly not join our client’s board.

The message this sent: “nobody is really in charge, so if we invest, you are on your own”. For a lot of China’s self-made entrepreneurs, this isn’t the sort of message they want to hear from an investor. They like dealing with partners who have decision-making power, their own money at stake alongside the entrepreneurs. PE partners almost always take a personal role in an investment by joining the board. In short, the PE partner acts like a shareholder because he is one, directly and indirectly.

At a Renminbi fund, the managers do not have skin in the game, nor a clear financial reward from making a successful investment. A Renminbi fund manager can be fired or marginalized by his bosses at any time during the long period (generally at least 3-5 years) from investment to exit. Private equity investing has long time horizon, and the partnership structure is probably the best way to keep everyone (GP, LP, entrepreneur) engaged, aligned and committed to the long-term success of a company.

It is possible for Renminbi funds to organize themselves as partnerships. But, few have done so, and it’s unlikely many will. The GP/LP structure is supremely hard to implement in China. Those with the money generally don’t accept the principle of giving managers discretionary power to invest, and also don’t like the idea of those managers making a significant sum from deals they do.

All signs are that Renminbi funds will continue to grow strongly in number and capital raised. This is, overall, highly positive for entrepreneurship in China. Hundreds of billions of Renminbi equity capital is now available to private companies. As recently as three years ago, there was hardly any. Less clear, however, is how efficiently that money will be invested. I know from experience that Renminbi funds find and invest in great companies. But, they also are prone to a range of inefficiencies, from bureaucratic decision-making to a lack of real accountability among those investing the money,  that can adversely impact their overall performance.

One way or the other, Renminbi funds will rewrite the rules for private equity investing, and eventually provide a huge amount of data on how well these managers can do compared to PE partners. My supposition is that Renminbi firms will not achieve as high a return as dollar-based PE firms investing in China. The reason is simple: investing absent of greed is often investing absent of profit.

Chinese Private Equity Moves from IPO to IRR

April 10th, 2012 1 comment

Most investors, including me,  would be delighted to make 15% to 20% per year, year after year. But, for many private equity firms active in China, that kind of return would be cause for shame. The reason is that recent past returns from Chinese PE , and so the expectations of LPs, is much higher, often overall annual increases of 40%-60% a year, with successful individual deals increasing by 100% a year in value during a typical three to five year holding period.

But, it is quickly becoming much more challenging to earn those +40% annual rates of return. My prediction is that profits from PE investing in China will soon begin a rather steep downward slide. This isn’t because there are fewer good Chinese companies to invest, or that valuations are rising sharply. Neither is true. It’s simply that a declining percentage of PE deals done in China will achieve those exceptionally high profits of 500%-800% or more over the life of an investment.

The reason is that fewer and fewer PE deals in China will achieve exit through IPO. Those are the deals where the big money is made. There are no precise numbers. But, my estimate would be that in recent years, one in four PE investments made by the top 50 firms active in China managed to have an IPO. Those are the deals with the outsized rates of return that do so much to lift a PE firm’s overall IRR.

In the future, the rate of successful IPO exit may fall by 30% or more for the good firms. For lesser PE firms, including many of the hundreds of Renminbi firms set up over the last three years, the percentage of deals achieving a domestic IPO in China may not reach 10%. If so, overall returns for each PE firm, as well as the industry as a whole, will fall rather dramatically from the high levels of recent years.

The returns for most PE and VC firms across the world tend toward bell curve distribution, with a small number of highly successful deals more than covering losses at the deals gone sour, and the majority of deals achieving modest increases or declines. In China, however, the successful deals have tended to be both more numerous and more profitable.  This has provided most of the propulsive thrust for the high rates of return.

The higher the rate of return, the easier it is to raise new money. PE firms each year keep 1% to 2% of the money they raise every year as a management fee. It’s a kind of tithe paid by LPs. PE firms also usually keep 20% of the net investment profits. But, this management fee is risk-free, and usually is enough to fully pay for the PE and VC firms salaries, offices, travel and other operating expenses, with anything left over split among the partners.

So, high rates of investment return in the past ends up translating into lots of new money unlinked to actual investment performance in the future. It’s a neat trick, and explains why the PE partners currently most actively out raising capital are mainly those investing in China. The more you raise now, the longer your guaranteed years of the good life. In other words, even if overall investment results deteriorate in coming years, the guaranteed income of PE firms will remain strong. Most funds have a planned lifespan of seven to ten years. So, if you raise $1 billion in 2012, you will have perhaps $20mn a year in guaranteed management fee income all the way through 2022.

The more new capital that’s raised for PE deals in China, the more investment deals can get done. The problem is, IPOs in China are basically a fixed commodity, with about 250 private companies going public a year. These domestic Chinese IPOs are the common thread linking most of the highest return PE deals. The Chinese IPOs will continue, and most likely continue to provide some of the highest profits available to PE firms anywhere. But, with the number of IPOs static and overall PE investment surging, the odds of a PE-backed company in China getting the green light for IPO will drop — rather precipitously if the current gusher of new money for PE deals in China persists.

Meantime, the number of Chinese companies going public outside China is dropping and will likely continue to. The US has all but barred the door to Chinese companies, following a spate of stories in 2011 about fraudulent accounting and false disclosure by Chinese companies quoted there. In Hong Kong, the only Chinese companies generating investor enthusiasm at IPO are ones with both significant size (profits of at least USD$25mn) and an offshore legal corporate structure. It used to be both simple and common for Chinese companies to set up holding companies outside China. The Chinese government has moved aggressively to shut down that practice, beginning in 2006. So, the number of private Chinese companies with the legal structure permitting a Hong Kong (or US, Singapore, Korean, Australian) IPO will continue to shrink.

Add it up and the return numbers for PE firms active in China begin to look much less rosy going forward than they have in the past. More deals will end in mandatory buybacks, rather than IPOs. This is the escape mechanism written into just about every PE investment contract. It allows the PE firm to sell their shares back to the company if an IPO doesn’t take place within a specified period of time, typically three to five years. The PE gets its original investment back, plus an annual rate of return (“IRR”), usually 10% to 20%.

This way PE firms can’t get stuck in an illiquid investment. The buybacks should become an increasingly common exit route for PE deals in China. But, they only work when the company can come up with the cash to buy the PE shares back. That will not always be certain, since pooling large sums of money to pay off an old investor is hardly the best use of corporate capital. Fighting it out in court will likely be a fraught process for both sides.

The direction of Chinese PE is moving from IPO to IRR.  As this process unfolds, and PE returns in China begin to trend downward, the PE investment process and valuations are likely to change, most likely for the worse. IRR deals seldom make anyone happy—not the PE firms, their LPs or the entrepreneur.

Chinese PE still offers some of the best risk-adjusted returns of any investment class. But, as often happens, the outsized returns of recent years attracts a glut of new money, leading to an eventual decline in overall profits. In investing, big success today often breeds mediocrity tomorrow.


CFC’s New Research Report on Capital Allocation and Private Equity Trends in China

February 28th, 2012 No comments

 

Capital allocation, not the amount of capital,  is the largest financial challenge confronting the private equity industry in China. Capital continues to flood into the PE sector in China. 2011 was a record year, with over $30billion in new capital raised by PE firms, including both funds investing in dollars and those investing in Renminbi. China’s private equity industry seems destined now to outstrip in size that of every other country, with exception of the US. Ten years ago, the industry hardly existed in China.

Yes, it is a time of plenty. Yet, plenty of problems remain. Many of the best private companies remain starved of capital, as China’s domestic banks continue to choke back on their lending. As a result, PE firms will play an increasingly vital role in providing growth capital to these companies. 

These are some of the key themes addressed in CFC’s latest research report, titled “2012-2013: 中国私募股权融资与市场趋”. It can be downloaded from the CFC website or by clicking here.

The report is available in Chinese only.

Like many of CFC’s research reports, this latest one is intended primarily for reference by China’s entrepreneurs and company bosses. Private equity, particularly funds able to invest Renminbi into domestic companies,  is still a comparatively new phenomenon in China. Entrepreneurs remain, for the most part, unfamiliar with all but the basics of growth capital investment. The report assesses both costs and benefits of raising PE.

This calculus has some unique components in China. Private equity is often not just the only source for growth capital, it is also, in many cases, a pre-condition to gaining approval from the CSRC for a domestic IPO. It’s a somewhat odd concept for someone with a background only in US or European private equity. But, from an entrepreneur’s perspective, raising private equity in China is a kind of toll booth on the road to IPO. The entrepreneurs sells the PE firm a chunk of his company (usually 15%-20%) for a price significantly below comparable quoted companies’ valuation. The PE firm then manages the IPO approval process.

Most Chinese companies that apply for domestic IPO are turned down by the CSRC. Bringing in a PE firm can often greatly improve the odds of success. If a company is approved for domestic IPO, its valuation will likely be at least three to four times higher (on price/earnings basis) than the level at which the PE firm invested. Thus, both PE firm and entrepreneur stand to benefit.

The CSRC relies on PE firms’ pre-investment due diligence when assessing the quality and reliability of a company’s accounting and growth strategy. If a PE firm (particularly one of the leading firms, with significant experience and successful IPO exits in China) is willing to commit its own money, it provides that extra level of confidence the CSRC is looking for before it allows a Chinese company to take money from Chinese retail investors.

From a Chinese entrepreneur’s perspective, the stark reality is “No PE, No IPO”.

CFC’s Jessie Wu did most of the heavy lifting in preparing this latest report, which also digests some material previously published in columns I write for “21 Century Business Herald” (“21世纪经济报道) and “Forbes China”  (“福布斯中文”). The cover photo is a Ming Dynasty Xuande vase.

Too Few Exits: The PE Camel Can’t Pass Through the Eye of China’s IPO Needle

February 21st, 2012 2 comments

The amount of capital going into private equity in China continues to surge, with over $30 billion in new capital raised in 2011. The number of private equity deals in China is also growing quickly. More money in, however, does not necessarily mean more money will come out through IPOs or other exits. In fact, on the exit side of the ledger, there is no real growth, instead probably a slight decline, as the number of domestic IPOs in China stays constant, and offshore IPOs (most notably in Hong Kong and USA) is trending down. M&A activity, the other main source of exit for PE investors,  remains puny in China. 

This poses the most important challenge to the long-term prospects for the private equity industry in China. The more capital that floods in, the larger the backlog grows of deals waiting for exit. No one has yet focused on this issue. But, it is going to become a key fact of life, and ultimately a big impediment, to the continued expansion of capital raised for investing in China. 

Here’s a way to understand the problem: there is probably now over $50 billion in capital invested in Chinese private companies, with another $50 billion at least in capital raised but not yet committed. That is enough to finance investment in around 6,500 Chinese companies, since average investment size remains around $15mn. 

At the moment, only about 250 Chinese private companies go public each year domestically. The reason is that the Chinese securities regulator, the CSRC, keeps tight control on the supply of new issues. Their goal is to keep the supply at a level that will not impact overall stock market valuations. Getting CSRC approval for an IPO is becoming more and more like the camel passing through the eye of a needle. Thousands of companies are waiting for approval, and thousands more will likely join the queue each year by submitting IPO applications to the CSRC.

Is it possible the CSRC could increase the number of IPOs of private companies? In theory, yes. But, there is no sign of that happening, especially with the stock markets now trading significantly below their all-time highs. The CSRC’s primary role is to assure the stability of China’s capital markets, not to provide a transparent and efficient mechanism for qualified firms to raise money from the stock market. 

Coinciding now with the growing backlog of companies waiting for domestic IPOs, offshore stock markets are becoming less and less hospitable for Chinese companies. In Hong Kong, it’s generally only bigger Chinese companies, with offshore shareholder structure and annual net profits of at least USD$20 million, that are most welcome.

In the US, most Chinese companies now have no possibility to go public. There is little to no investor interest. As the Wall Street Journal aptly puts it, “Investors have lost billions of dollars over the last year on Chinese reverse mergers, after some of the companies were accused of accounting fraud and exaggerating the quality and size of their assets. Shares of other Chinese companies that went public in the United States through the conventional initial public stock offering process have also been punished out of fear that the problem could be more widespread.”

Other minor stock markets still actively beckon Chinese companies to list there, including Korea, Singapore, Australia. Their problem is very low IPO price-earnings valuations, often in single digits, as low as one-tenth the level in China. As a result, IPOs in these markets are the choice for Chinese companies that truly have no other option. That creates a negative selection bias.  Bad Chinese companies go where good companies dare not tread. 

For the time being, LPs still seem willing to pour money into funds investing in China, ignoring or downplaying the issue of how and when investments made with their money will become liquid. PE firms certainly are aware of this issue. They structure their investment deals in China with a put clause that lets them exit, in most cases, by selling their shares back to the company after a certain number of years, at a guaranteed annual IRR, usually 15%-25%. That’s fine, but if, as seems likely, more and more Chinese investments exit through this route, because the statistical likelihood of an IPO continues to decline, it will drag down PE firms’ overall investment performance.

Until recently, the best-performing PE firms active in China could achieve annual IRRs of over 50%. Such returns have made it easy for the top firms like CDH, SAIF, New Horizon, and Hony to raise money. But, it may prove impossible for these firms to do as well with new money as they did with the old. 

These good firms generally have the highest success rates in getting their deals approved for domestic IPO. That will likely continue. But, with so many more deals being done, both by these good firms as well as the hundreds of other newly-established Renminbi firms, the percentage of IPO exits for even the best PE firms seems certain to decline. 

When I discuss this with PE partners, the usual answer is they expect exits through M&A to increase significantly. After all, this is now the main exit route for PE and VC deals done in the US and Europe. I do agree that the percentage of Chinese PE deals achieving exit through M&A will increase from the current level. It could barely be any lower than it is now.

But, there are significant obstacles to taking the M&A exit route in China, from a shortage of domestic buyers with cash or shares to use as currency, to regulatory issues, and above all the fact many of the best private companies in China are founded, run and majority-owned by a single highly-talented entrepreneur. If he or she sells out in M&A deal,  the new owners will have a very hard time doing as well as the old owners did. So, even where there are willing sellers, the number of interested buyers in an M&A deal will always be few. 

Measured by new capital raised and investment results achieved, China’s private equity industry has grown a position of global leadership in less than a decade. There is still no shortage of great companies eager for capital, and willing to sell shares at prices highly appealing to PE investors. But, unless something is done to increase significantly the number of PE exits every year,  the PE industry in China must eventually contract. That will have very broad consequences not just for Chinese entrepreneurs eager for expansion capital and liquidity for their shares, but also for hundreds of millions of Chinese, Americans and Europeans whose pension funds have money now invested in Chinese PE. Their retirements will be a little less comfortable if, as seems likely,  a diminishing number of the investments made in Chinese companies have a big IPO payday.

 

 

 

A Three-Way Formula For Success in Private Equity in China

September 19th, 2011 1 comment

Most investors, over time, will underperform the stock market as a whole. This is as true for people investing their own money in shares, as it is for mutual fund managers, hedge funds, PE and VC firms. So, any investor with a big sustainable “unfair” advantage should seize it.

Right now, in private equity industry in China, certain private equity firms have this unfair advantage. They get the most cash, the most good deals and the most certain exit through a domestic IPO in China. These PE firms are one part of a tripartite alliance, the likes of which the investment world has never seen.  The other two are China’s National Social Security Fund, soon to be the largest source of investible capital in the world, and the CSRC, China’s securities regulator, which has all the say in approving all domestic IPOs.

The PE firms get funding through one, and profits through the other. The deck is heavily stacked in their favor. For the hundreds of other PE firms active in China, including the global giants  TPG, KKR, Carlyle, Blackstone and Goldman Sachs,  making money investing in China is riskier, harder and slower.

Among the PE firms that are members of this new elite in China are CDH, SAIF, New Horizon,  Hony Capital. To many investment professionals outside China, these names will be unfamiliar. Yet, they operate in an environment, and achieve outcomes,  that ought to be the envy of  other investors.

The firms mainly got their start about ten years ago. They were present at the creation of the Chinese PE industry. They raised their initial capital, in most cases, from prestigious American investors, like Stanford and Princeton endowments. The firms’ investment focus has shifted somewhat over time – from technology deals to more traditional industries, from investing only dollars to now using also Renminbi. They did well almost from the beginning. This early success set in motion policies and preferences that have led more recently to their position today.

The two key developments took place within the last 18 months. First, in October 2009, China’s Shenzhen Stock Exchange launched the ChiNext (创业板)board for private companies to go public. It’s been a resounding success, with over 230 companies now listed, having raised over $5 billion from the public. Chinext’s total aggregate market cap is now over $100 billion.

The Chinext p/e multiples, from the start, have been well above levels in the US and Hong Kong. Currently, the average is 42X trailing year’s earnings. The high valuations make it a very profitable place for PE firms to exit from their investments. But, the CSRC acts as a strict gatekeeper, controlling both the number and quality of Chinese companies allowed to IPO on Chinext. Most Chinese firms who apply for Chinext listing are turned down.

The CSRC has a clear preference for companies that have received PE finance from one of the top PE firms in China, since this means, in effect, the company has already passed through a more rigorous due diligence process than the CSRC can attempt. The CSRC’s logic is impeccable: if a good PE firm was willing to put its own capital at risk when the company was private, that business should be a safer investment for public shareholders than a Chinese company without a top PE investor.

Who comes top of the CSRC’s list of favored PE firms? The firms listed above. This means that the companies invested in by these PE firms have a better chance of being chosen by the CSRC to go public on Chinext. In turn,  because of Chinext’s high valuations,  this all but guarantees these PE firms achieve better annual investment returns than others.

When the NSSF announced it was going to begin investing up to 10% of the national pension system’s capital in alternative investments, particularly PE, only a few firms were able to pass through its rigorous selection criteria. It chose firms with strong performance and high standards. Leading the list when the NSSF started handing out money last year: CDH, SAIF, New Horizon, Hony Capital.

The favored PE firms now have access to enormous capital from the state pension fund, along with what seems to be preferential access for its deals to China’s IPO market. In the future, any gains these favored PE firms have from investments using NSSF funds will flow back into higher pensions for millions of Chinese retirees. Will the CSRC consider this, when it deliberates which Chinese companies should be approved for IPO? It seems a fair assumption.

China’s pay-as-you-go pension system only got started recently. So, most of the profits from the PE deals won’t get distributed to pensioners for many years. In the meantime, the gains will be recycled back into more PE investing in domestic companies that then get preferential access to China’s capital markets. It’s a process as elegant as it is practical: Chinese investors bid up the shares at IPO, locking in high profits for a PE firms investing NSSF money. The major part of the PE’s profits is then returned to the NSSF to finance higher pension payments in the future to those same Chinese investors.

All the other PE firms outside this loop, including the global giants, will claim the system is rigged against them, that it’s harder and harder for them to compete with the favored PE firms, and to get approval for their portfolio companies to IPO in China. They probably have a point. But, in the end, this system in China will result in more private Chinese companies getting growth capital, leading to more jobs, more successful IPOs, and more comfortable retirements for China’s many millions. Those are outcomes most Chinese, as well as many others, including me, can endorse unreservedly.

Private Equity in China, CFC’s New Research Report

August 14th, 2011 No comments

 

The private equity industry in China continues on its remarkable trajectory: faster, bigger, stronger, richer. CFC’s latest research report has just been published, titled “Private Equity in China 2011-2012: Positive Trends & Growing Challenges”. You can download a copy by clicking here.

The report looks at some of the larger forces shaping the industry, including the swift rise of Renminbi PE funds, the surging importance of M&A, and the emergence of a privileged group of PE firms with inordinate access to capital and IPO markets. The report includes some material already published here.

It’s the first English-language research report CFC has done in two years. For Chinese readers, some similar information has run in the two columns I write, for China’s leading business newspaper, the 21st Century Herald (click here “21世纪经济报道”) as well as Forbes China (click here“福布斯中文”) 

Despite all the success and the new money that is pouring in as a consequence, Chinese private equity retains its attractive fundamentals: great entrepreneurs, with large and well-established companies, short of expansion capital and a knowledgeable partner to help steer towards an IPO. Investing in Chinese private companies remains the best large-scale risk-adjusted investment opportunity in the world, bar none.