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The Big Sort — The Economist

November 11th, 2016 No comments

 

Economist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 21st, 2016 No comments

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By Elzio Barreto and Julie Zhu | HONG KONG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IN DEMAND

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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Chinese Firms Are Reinventing Private Equity — Nikkei Asian Review

July 27th, 2016 No comments

 

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July 26, 2016  Commentary

Chinese firms are reinventing private equity

Henry Kravis, his cousin George Roberts and his mentor Jerry Kohlberg are generally credited with having invented private equity buyouts after forming KKR 40 years ago. Even after other firms like Blackstone and Carlyle piled in and deals reached mammoth scale, the rules of the buyout game changed little: Select an underperforming company, buy it with lots of borrowed money, cut costs and kick it into shape, then sell out at a big markup, either in an initial public offering or to a strategic buyer.

This has proved a lucrative business that lots of small private equity firms worldwide have sought to copy. China’s domestic buyout funds, however, are trying to reinvent the PE buyout in ways that Kravis would barely recognize. Instead of using fancy financial engineering, leverage and tight operational efficiencies to earn a return, the Chinese firms are counting on Chinese consumers to turn their buyout deals into moneymakers.

Compared to KKR and other global giants, Chinese buyout firms are tiny, new to the game and little known inside China or out. Firms such as AGIC, Golden Brick, PAG, JAC and Hua Capital have billions of dollars at their disposal to buy international companies. Within the last year, these five have successfully led deals to acquire large technology and computer hardware companies in the U.S. and Europe, including the makers of Lexmark printers, OmniVision semiconductors and the Opera web browser.

So what’s up here? The Chinese government is urgently seeking to upgrade the country’s manufacturing and technology base. The goal is to sustain manufacturing profits as domestic costs rise and sales slow worldwide for made-in-China industrial products. The government is pouring money into supporting more research and development. It is also spreading its bets by providing encouragement and sometimes cash to Chinese investment companies to buy U.S. and European companies with global brands and valuable intellectual property.

While the hope is that acquired companies will help China move out of the basement of the global supply chain, the buyout funds have a more immediate goal in sight, namely a huge expansion of the acquired companies’ sales within China.

This is where the Chinese buyout firms differ so fundamentally from their global counterparts. They aren’t focusing much on streamlining acquired operations, shaving costs and improving margins. Instead, they plan to leave things more or less unchanged at each target company’s headquarters while seeking to bolt on a major new source of revenues that was either ignored or poorly managed.

So for example, now that the Lexmark printer business is Chinese-owned, the plan will be to push growth in China and capture market share from domestic manufacturers that lack a well-known global brand and proprietary technologies. With OmniVision Technologies, the plan will be to aggressively build sales to China’s domestic mobile phone producers such as Huawei Technologies, Oppo Electronics and Xiaomi.

The China Android phone market is the biggest in the world.  Omnivision used to be the main supplier of mobile phone camera sensor chips to the Apple iPhone, but lost much of the business to Sony.

In launching last year the $1.8bn takeover of then then Nasdaq-quoted Omnivision, Hua Capital took on significant and unhedgeable risk. The deal needed the approval of the US Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States, also known as CFIUS. This somewhat-shadowy interagency body vets foreign takeovers of US companies to decide if US national security might be compromised. CFIUS has occasionally blocked deals by Chinese acquirers where the target had patents and other know-how that might potentially have non-civilian applications.

CFIUS also arrogates to itself approval rights over takeovers by Chinese companies of non-US businesses, if the target has some presence in the US. It used this justification to block the $2.8 billion takeover by Chinese buyout fund GO Scale Capital of 80% of the LED business of Netherlands-based Philips. CFIUS acted almost a year after GO Scale and Philips first agreed to the deal. All the time and money spent by GO Scale with US and Dutch lawyers, consultants and accountants to conclude the deal went down the drain. CFIUS rulings cannot be readily appealed.

Worrying about CFIUS approval isn’t something KKR or Blackstone need do, but it’s a core part of the workload at Chinese buyout funds. Hua Capital ultimately got the okay to buy Omnivision five months after announcing the deal to the US stock exchange.

The Chinese buyout firms see their role as encouraging and assisting acquired companies to build their business in China. This often boils down to business development and market access consulting. Global buyout firms say they also do some similar work on behalf of acquired companies, but it is never their primary strategy for making a buyout financially successful.

Chinese buyout funds count on two things happening to make a decent return on their overseas deals. First is a boost in revenues and profits from China. Second, the funds have to sell down their stake for a higher price than they paid. The favored route on paper has been to seek an IPO in China where valuations can be the highest in the world. This path always had its complications since it generally required a minimum three-year waiting period before submitting an application to join what is now a 900-company-long IPO waiting list.

The IPO route has gotten far more difficult this year. The Chinese government delivered a one-two punch, first scrapping its previous plan to open a new stock exchange board in Shanghai for Chinese-owned international companies, then moving to shut down backdoor market listings through reverse mergers.

The main hope for buyout funds seeking deal exits now is to sell to Chinese listed companies. In some cases, the buyout funds have enlisted such companies from the start as minority partners in their company takeovers. This isn’t a deal structure one commonly runs across outside China, but may prove a brilliant strategy to prepare for eventual exits.

There is one other important way in which the new Chinese buyout funds differ from their global peers. They don’t know the meaning of the term “hostile takeover.” Chinese buyout funds seek to position themselves as loyal friends and generous partners of a business’s current owners. A lot of sellers, especially among family-controlled companies in Europe, say they prefer to sell to a gentle pair of hands — someone who promises to build on rather than gut what they have put together. Chinese buyout funds sing precisely this soothing tune, opening up some deal-making opportunities that may be closed to KKR, Blackstone, Carlyle and other global buyout giants.

The global firms are also finding it harder to compete with Chinese buyout funds for deals within China, even though they have raised more than $10 billion in new funds over the last six years to put into investments in the country. They have basically been shut out of the game lately because they can’t and won’t bid up valuations to the levels to which domestic funds are willing to go.

The global buyout giants won’t be too concerned that they face an existential threat from their new Chinese competitors. It is also unlikely that they will adopt similar deal strategies. Instead, they are getting busy now prettying up companies they have previously bought in the U.S. and Europe. They will hope to sell some to Chinese buyers. Along with offering genial negotiations and a big potential market in China, the Chinese buyout funds are also gaining renown for paying large premiums on every deal. No one ever said that about Henry Kravis.

Peter Fuhrman is the founder, chairman and CEO of China First Capital, an investment bank based in Shenzhen.

Abridged version as published in Nikkei Asian Review

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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.

 

Focus Media Reaches $7.4 Billion Deal to List in Shenzhen — New York Times

June 4th, 2015 No comments

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HONG KONG — Years after delisting in the United States after a short-selling attack, one of China’s biggest advertising companies is hoping to cash in on a market rally on its home turf.

Focus Media, a company based in Shanghai that was privatized and delisted from the Nasdaq two years ago after being targeted by short-sellers, on Wednesday reached a 45.7 billion renminbi, or about $7.4 billion, deal for a listing on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. The transaction values Focus at about twice the $3.7 billion that its management and private equity backers — led by the Carlyle Group — paid to take the company private in 2013.

Focus and its investors, which also include the Chinese companies FountainVest Partners, Citic Capital Partners, CDH Investments and China Everbright, are trying to tap into China’s surging domestic stock markets. The main Shanghai share index has risen 51 percent this year, while the Shenzhen index, where Focus will be listed, has more than doubled, increasing by 114 percent.

Other Chinese companies that retreated from American markets, as well as their private equity backers, are likely to be watching the Focus deal closely. If it goes through and the new shares rise sharply, it could offer an incentive for others to follow suit — and give private equity firms an easier way to sell their stakes.

Some other big Chinese companies that delisted from the United States market in recent years include Shanda Interactive Entertainment, which was valued at $2.3 billion when it was privatized by its main shareholders in 2012; and Giant Interactive, which was privatized last year in a $3 billion deal.

Focus is coming back to the market through a so-called backdoor listing, in which its main assets are sold to a company already listed in exchange for a controlling stake in the listed firm. Such an approach can offer a more direct path to the market than an initial public offering — especially in mainland China, where hundreds of companies are waiting for regulatory approval for their I.P.O.s.

But such deals can also be complex. In mainland China, they often subject shareholders to lengthy periods during which they are prohibited from selling or transferring shares. Also, unlike an I.P.O., the moves tend not to help the companies involved raise cash.

“All backdoor listings are convoluted exercises, not capital-raising events,” said Peter Fuhrman, the chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank based in Shenzhen, which is in southern China. “When you do them domestically in China, they become even more hair-raising.”

Dozens of Chinese companies retreated from American exchanges in the last five years after a wave of accounting scandals and attacks by short-sellers. Some of those companies were forcibly delisted by the Securities and Exchange Commission; others were taken private by management after their share prices slumped.

Focus was the biggest of those privatizations. In November 2011, the company was targeted by Muddy Waters Research, a short-selling firm founded by Carson C. Block. Muddy Waters accused Focus of overstating the number of digital advertising display screens it operated in China, and of overpaying for acquisitions.

Focus rejected the accusations, but its shares fell 40 percent on publication of the initial report by Muddy Waters. In summer 2012, the company’s chairman, Jason Jiang, and a group of Chinese and foreign private equity firms announced plans to delist Focus and take it private, a deal that was completed in early 2013.

On Wednesday, Jiangsu Hongda New Material, a Shenzhen-listed manufacturer of silicone rubber products, said it would pay 45.7 billion renminbi, mostly by issuing new stock, to acquire control of Focus. Shares in Jiangsu Hongda have been suspended from trading since December, when it first announced plans for a restructuring that did not mention Focus. The shares remain suspended pending further approvals of the Focus deal, including from shareholders and regulators in China.

If completed, the deal would leave Mr. Jiang, the Focus chairman, as the biggest single shareholder of Jiangsu Hongda, with a 25 percent stake.

The mainland China brokerages Huatai United Securities and Southwest Securities are acting as financial advisers on the deal.

Just a few of the Chinese companies delisted from stock exchanges in the United States in recent years have attempted a new listing elsewhere.

Last year, China Metal Resources Utilization, a small metal recycling company, successfully listed in Hong Kong. It had been listed on the New York Stock Exchange, under the name Gushan Environmental Energy.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/04/business/dealbook/focus-media-in-shenzhen-listing-deal.html?_r=0

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Tencent Stalks Alibaba — China’s Number Two Internet Company Quietly Takes Lethal Aim at its Number One

January 7th, 2015 No comments
China's two most successful internet entrepreneurs share a last name but have very different strategies for mobile e-commerce. The future belongs to which?

China’s two most successful internet entrepreneurs share a last name but have very different strategies for mobile e-commerce. The future belongs to which Ma?

China’s second-largest private sector company Tencent is aiming a cannon at China’s largest private sector company and new darling of the US stock markets Alibaba. Will Tencent fire? There’s a vast amount of money at stake: these two companies, cumulatively, have market cap of $400 billion, Tencent’s $140bn and Alibaba’s $260bn.

Alibaba, as most now know,  currently has China’s e-commerce market in a stranglehold, processing orders worth over $300 billion a year, or about 80% of all Chinese online sales by China’s 300 million online shoppers. Meanwhile, Tencent is no less dominant in online chat and messaging, with over 400mn users for its mobile chat application WeChat, aka “Weixin” (微信).

The two businesses appear worlds apart. And yet, they are now on a collision course. The reason is social selling, that is, using a mobile phone chat app to sell stuff to one’s friends and contacts. It’s based on the simple, indisputable notion it’s more reliable and trustworthy to buy from people you know. Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin are all quite keen on social selling in the US. But, nowhere is as fertile a market as China, because nowhere else is the trust level from buying through unknown online merchants as low.

Alibaba has accumulated most of its riches from this low-trust model at Taobao’s huge online bazaar. It is a collection of thirty million small-time individual peddlers that Alibaba can’t directly control. The result, especially in a country with no real enforceable consumer protection laws or litigation, Taobao can be a haven for people selling stuff of dubious quality and authenticity.

Chinese know this, and don’t much care for it. It’s one reason both US-listed JD.com and Amazon China both seem to be gaining some ground on Alibaba. Their strategies are similar:  to be the “anti-Taobao”, selling brand-name stuff directly, using their own buying power and inventory, their own delivery people, and a no-questions-asked return policy. Their range of merchandise, however, is far more limited than Taobao’s. Tencent in 2014 bought a significant minority stake in JD.com.

Thanks to Weixin, Tencent now has the capability directly to become Alibaba’s most potent competitor and steal away billions of dollars in transactions. Will it?

As of now, Tencent seems oddly reluctant. Even as millions of Weixin users have started using the app to buy and sell goods directly with their friends, Tencent has countered by making it more difficult. Tencent introduced limits on the number of contacts each Weixin user can add, has made sending money tricky, and has more or less banned users to include price quotes in their mobile messages. For now, Weixin users appear undaunted, and are using various ruses to get around Tencent’s unexplained efforts to limit their profit-making activities. One common one: using the character for “rice” (米) instead of the symbol for the Chinese Renminbi (元).

This social selling through Weixin is called “Weishang” (微商) in Chinese, literally “commerce on Weixin”. It is without doubt the hottest thing in online selling now in China.

It’s hard to understand why Tencent wouldn’t passionately embrace social selling on Weixin. For now, Weixin looks to be an enormous money sink for Tencent. The Weixin app is free to download and use. What money it earns from it comes mainly from promoting pay-to-play online games. That’s small change compared to the tens of millions of dollars Tencent spends on maintaining the server infrastructure to facilitate and store the hundreds of millions of text, voice, photo and video messages sent daily on the network.

Chinese of all ages are glued to Weixin at all hours of the day. It can be hard for anyone outside China to quite fathom how deeply-woven into daily life Weixin has become in the four years since its launch. Peak Weixin usage can exceed 10mn messages per minute. With only slight exaggeration, Tencent’s founder and chairman Pony Ma explains Weixin has become like a  “vital organ” to Chinese.

It’s not just young kids. I took part in a meeting recently with a partner from KKR and the chairman of a large Chinese publicly-traded company At the end of the discussion, they eagerly swapped Weixin accounts to continue their confidential M&A dialogue.

My office is in the building next to Tencent’s headquarters in Shenzhen. I know quite a few of the senior executives. But, no one can or will articulate why Tencent, at least for now, is unwilling to use Weishang take on Alibaba. Some who claim to know say it’s because the Chinese government is holding them back, not wanting to have Tencent steal Alibaba’s spotlight so soon after its most-successful-in-history Chinese IPO in the US.

The two have sparred before. Tencent years ago launched its own copycat version of Taobao, now called Paipai. But it failed to put a dent in Alibaba’s franchise. Alibaba, in turn,  launched its own online message system to compete with Weixin. But, it’s sunk from sight as quickly as a heavy stone dropped in a deep pond.

Seen from a seller’s perspective, Weishang is fundamentally more attractive than selling on Taobao. Margins are higher, not only because Tencent charges no fees, but it’s getting much harder and more expensive to get noticed on Taobao. That’s good for Alibaba’s all-important ad revenues, but bad for merchants.

How does Weishang work? A woman, for example, buys twenty sweaters at a wholesale price, then takes a selfie wearing one. She sends this out to her 300 contacts on Weixin. Though the message includes neither the price nor much of a sales pitch, since both may be monitored by Tencent, she will often get back replies asking how to buy and how much. The sales are closed either by phone call, or through voice messaging over Weixin, with payment sent direct to the seller’s bank account.

Tencent knows Weixin is being used more and more like this, but because it’s driven the commerce somewhat underground, Tencent has no idea on the exact scale of Weishang. My guess is aggregate Weishang sales are already in the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars.

Alibaba has clearly noticed. But, social selling isn’t something its Taobao e-commerce marketplace can do. Its mobile e-commerce strategy amounts to making it easy to scroll through Taobao items on a small screen. Social selling in China is and will remain Tencent’s natural monopoly.

For anyone wondering, Alibaba’s IPO prospectus from a few months ago did not mention Weishang and Weixin, and Tencent gets a single nod as one of many possible competitors. Weishang really began to gain traction only during the second half of 2014, after the main draft of the Alibaba prospectus was completed.

To those outside China especially on Wall Street, Alibaba seems to be on the top of the world, as well as the top of its game. In the last four months, it’s collected $25 billion from the IPO and another $8 billion in a bond offering. Its share price price is up 50% since the IPO. For a lot of us living here in China, the boundless enthusiasm in the US for “Ali” (as the company is universally known here) can sometimes seem a bit unhinged.

When will Tencent make its move? Why is it now so reticent to promote Weishang, or discuss its plans with the investment community? Is it busy next door to me readying a dedicated secure payment system and warranty program for Weishang purchases?

I don’t have the answer, but this being China, I do know where to look for guidance. Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, written 2,500 years ago, remains the country’s main strategic handbook, used as often in business as in combat. The pertinent passage, in Chinese, goes “微乎微乎,至于无形;神乎神乎,至于无声;故能为敌之司命.” In English, you can translate it as “be extremely subtle, even to the point of formlessness. Be extremely mysterious, even to the point of soundlessness. “

In other words, don’t let your competitor see or hear you coming until its already too late.

Alibaba grabs the IPO money but the future belongs to Jeff Bezos and Amazon China

September 10th, 2014 5 comments

Amazon China & Alibaba

Alibaba Group should next week collect the big money from its NYSE IPO. But, Seattle’s Amazon owns the future of China’s $400 billion online shopping industry. Amazon’s China business is better in just about every crucial respect: customer service, delivery, product quality even price when compared to Alibaba’s towering Taobao business. Hand it to Jeff Bezos. While few have been watching, he is building in China what looks to me to be a better, more long-term sustainable business than Alibaba’s Jack Ma.

Amazon’s China business fits a familiar pattern. The company is often mocked for keeping too much secret, investing too much and earning too little. In China, far away from the Wall Street spotlight, Amazon has invested hugely, with a long-term aim perhaps to overtake Alibaba and become a dominant online retailer in the country. But, it has zero interest in letting its shareholders, competitors, or the world at large know what it’s doing in China. Open the company’s most recent SEC 10-K filing and there are three passing mentions of China, and nothing about the size of its business there, the strategy.

Amazon shareholders may well wake up one day and suddenly find Bezos has built for them one of the most valuable online businesses in the world’s largest e-commerce market, the only one not owned and managed by a Chinese corporation. No rickety and risky VIE structure, unlike Alibaba and virtually all the other Chinese online companies quoted in the US.  (Read damning report by US Congress investigators on these Chinese VIE companies here. )

Jeff Bezos has been in the online shopping business from its genesis, in 1994. He first got serious in China ten years later, by buying a small online shopping business called Joyo in 2004. Taobao was founded by Jack Ma a year earlier. Within three years Taobao had demolished eBay’s then-lucrative China online auction business, by making it free for sellers to list their products on Taobao. Buyers and sellers both pay Taobao zero commission. It earns most of its money from advertising. EBay China closed its doors in 2006. Since then, Alibaba has grown from about $170mn in revenues to over $6 billion in 2013. Approximately three out of every four dollars spent online shopping in China goes through Alibaba’s hands. Overall, online shopping transaction value is on track to exceed $1 trillion by the end of this decade.

online shopping China

The champagne and baijiu will flow at Alibaba next week. Meantime, Bezos will continue executing on his plan, begun in earnest around 2012, to first gain on Taobao, and one day outduel it in China. How? To buy from Amazon China is to see Bezos’s mind at work. He has clearly assessed Taobao’s pivotal weaknesses, and is targeting them with precision.

Taobao has done phenomenally well. But, it is much the same business today as a decade ago. It is mainly a raucous collection of individual sellers where counterfeit, used-sold-as-new or substandard goods are rife. Everything is ad hoc. Sellers can appear and disappear overnight. They charge whatever they like to ship you your merchandise. Try to return things and it can be anything from complicated to impossible. Most payments are processed by Alipay, a business with similar ownership to Alibaba, but not fully consolidated as part of the IPO. Alipay tries to act like an impartial escrow service between Chinese buyers and sellers who too often seem to be out to try to cheat one another.

Taobao is a product of its time, a China where getting stuff cheap, of whatever origin, authenticity and quality, was paramount. It’s also been a great way to create an army of small entrepreneurs in China, eight million in total, with their own shops selling merchandise to over 200 million different individual customers on Taobao. But, Chinese are much richer and more discriminating today than ten years ago. They are getting richer by the day. The larger trends all point in Amazon’s favor.

Here’s why. When you buy things on Amazon China, you mainly purchase direct from Amazon, not from individual sellers. As in the US, Amazon China sells a full range of merchandise not just books. While it has far fewer items for sale than Taobao, it does many things that Taobao cannot. First, it has its own nationwide delivery service. Where I am in Shenzhen, I get delivery the next morning from a guy in an Amazon shirt with his electric motorcycle parked on the sidewalk in front of my building. You can either pay online by credit card, or pay the delivery guy in cash, COD. Delivery is free and reliable. Parcels are professionally packaged in Amazon boxes and generally arrive in mint condition. It’s a limousine service compared to Taobao.

Stuff ordered on Taobao can take days to arrive, and is sent using any of a group of different independently-owned parcel delivery companies. They don’t accept returns, or cash, and often in my experience as a Taobao customer for the last five years the parcels arrive pretty badly roughed up. The Taobao sellers do their own packaging, sometimes good and sometimes no, usually with boxes rescued from the trash, then call whichever parcel company offers them the cheapest rate. The seller usually takes a mark-up since delivery on Taobao is generally not included.

Amazon China is putting its brand and reputation behind everything it sells. This provides a quality guarantee that no individual seller on Taobao can match. I’ve also found over the course of the last year that prices for similar items are often now cheaper on Amazon than on Taobao. How so? For one thing, unlike the Taobao army, Amazon can use its buying power to extract lower prices and better payment terms from its suppliers. Taobao has a subsidiary business called TMall, where major brands directly sell their products. Here at least there should be no worries about the quality and authenticity of what’s being sold. But since each brand manages its own store on TMall, the prices are often higher than on Amazon China. Delivery is also less efficient, in my experience.

What does Taobao still do better than Amazon China? Its website seems a bit easier for Chinese to navigate than Amazon China’s, which looks and acts a lot like the main Amazon website designed and managed in Seattle.

As Bezos’s shareholders know well and occasionally grumble about, he loves spending money on warehouses, shipping technology and other expensive infrastructure. The China business is a marvel of its kind, a kind of “Bezosian” tour de force. The scale and complexity of what Amazon China are doing is formidable. Bezos started and prospered originally with a no inventory business model, letting outside wholesalers hold and so finance the inventory of books he was selling online.

In China, Amazon must stock huge inventories to get products delivered to customers overnight. Where these facilities are and how much Amazon has spent is beyond knowing. Anything I buy on Amazon China — most recently three books, an electronic garlic-mincer and some ceramic carving knives — is delivered to me next day, within about 15 hours of when I ordered it. In a country China’s size, where moving things around long-distance by truck as UPS and Fedex do in the US is difficult and expensive, Amazon has apparently invested in a large nationwide distributed network of warehouses to hold all this inventory. Whether these are owned by Amazon or third parties is also not disclosed. But, it all works smoothly. I get what I order quickly and efficiently, direct from Amazon’s own liveried delivery team, at prices Taobao can’t match.

Every delivered package drives home the message how much faster, cheaper and more reliable Amazon China is compared to Taobao. Try us once, Bezos seems to be saying here in China, and you’ll try us again.

Amazon China delivery guyCan Amazon China be making any money here? My guess is No, that the current operation in China is a big money sink. How big? China’s other big online shopping business, JD.com, which went public earlier this year and has a business model more like Amazon China than Alibaba’s, is losing money every quarter. (Nonetheless, it has a current market cap of $40bn.)

Alibaba, by contrast, is making money hand-over-fist, Rmb8 billion ($1.3bn) in net income the last quarter of 2013. To get noticed, those eight million individual Taobao sellers, as well as TMall brands, need to pay more and more to Taobao for ads and preferential placement.

Longer term, though, the Taobao ad-supported model looks ill-adapted to where China is headed. Traditional store retailers in China are getting slaughtered by online competitors. Among those online players, it seems likely business will shift to those that can guarantee quality, authenticity, easy product returns and efficient next-day-delivery. That describes Amazon.

One reason it’s crazy to bet against Bezos is he has shown no compunction about using shareholder money to build a business that can only start to make real money in ten maybe fifteen years. Jack Ma has no such luxury, especially now that Alibaba will be quoted on the NYSE. Alibaba is not likely to attract the kind of patient shareholders drawn to Amazon.

This is perhaps one reason why Ma has been out spending a huge pile of Alibaba money buying into all kinds of businesses to tack onto Alibaba. These include US car service Lyft, messaging business Tango, and all sorts of domestic Chinese businesses, including a big slice of China’s Twitter, Weibo, the digital mapping company AutoNavi,  16.5% of China’s YouTube knockoff, NYSE-quoted Youku and a Hong Kong-quoted film studio that seems to have been cooking its books. He also bought control of a professional soccer team in China, hoping to upgrade the much-maligned image of the domestic game. Add it up and it looks like even Ma isn’t fully convinced Taobao will be able to keep spinning money for years to come.

His most successful recent venture begun last year is an online money management business called Yuebao that pays Chinese savers about 4% on deposits, compared to the less than 0.5% offered by local Chinese banks. As of early September, it had Rmb574 billion, nearly $100 billion, under management. This business is not included in the Alibaba entity going public in New York. That points up another worrying aspect of Jack Ma’s business style. He has shown a proclivity to put some of the more valuable assets into vehicles that only he, rather than the shareholder-owned company, controls. Yahoo! and Japan’s SoftBank have some bitter direct experience with this.

How far can Bezos go in China? After all, he doesn’t speak Chinese and doesn’t seem to visit China all that often. Can a kid from a Miami high school really build a better China business than scrappy Hangzhou-native Jack Ma? One pointer is that the most successful traditional retailers are now mainly foreign-owned and managed. Domestic retailers couldn’t adapt to this new era of rampant low-price online competition. But, Zara, H&M and Sephora are all thriving here. They, too, focused on details often overlooked here, like good customer service, no-questions-asked return policy, competitive prices and great merchandising.

Alibaba’s market cap next week, after its biggest-of-all-time IPO, may temporarily overtake Amazon’s, at $160 billion. But, make no mistake, Amazon will likely prove the more valuable business over time, both in China and globally.

 

Investment in China PIPEs grows on Alibaba’s coattails — The Deal

September 9th, 2014 No comments

deal

 

Investment in China PIPEs grows on Alibaba’s coattails

By Bill Meagher    Updated 07:45 PM, Sep-09-2014 ET

 

Fueled by the anticipated initial public offering of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., a renewed wave of investor interest has swept into U.S.-registered Chinese companies.

Such companies have raised $4.43 billion in 35 private-investment-in-public-equity transactions this year, compared to $276.8 million in 13 PIPEs last year, according to PrivateRaise, The Deal’s data service that tracks the PIPE market. Those figures exclude transactions that raised less than $1 million.

“Everything ultimately comes back to Alibaba,” said Peter Fuhrman, CEO of China First Capital, an investment bank in Shenzhen, China.

Alibaba’s imminent IPO has increased investor awareness that all things related to Internet shopping in China could be a “money-spinner,” Fuhrman said in an e-mail.

“Pretty much all the China IPOs in US this past 12 months have been internet-related. Now comes the Daddy of them all,” he wrote. “This perception of a boom of titanic proportions in online shopping in China is well-founded. The challenge for US investors is whether the companies that have gone public, with exception of Alibaba and to a lesser extent Jingdong will be able to scale up and make real money over time in China.”

To read complete article, click here.

 

Neue Zurcher Zeitung Interview

July 10th, 2014 No comments

nzz

paper

Monday’s “Neue Zurcher Zeitung” of Switzerland published an article based on the interview I gave last week while in London with the newspaper’s financial editor Christof Leisinger. For those whose German is up to the task, click here to read the article in full.

To get a flavor of what we discussed, here are some of the quotes, in English:

China has the world’s second largest economy and capital market. GPD growth and corporate earnings are both growing far faster than in OECD countries. And yet, global institutional capital is in almost all cases seriously underweight China. How to explain this? Simple, there are just too few attractive and legal ways for international capital to invest in China.

“The Chinese companies quoted in the US and Hong Kong mainly come from two unrepresentative pools: large, slower-growing Chinese state-owned companies, and internet and mobile services “concept” stocks often with limited revenues and profits. The powerful engine of long-term economic growth in China, its millions of successful private sector entrepreneur-founded businesses serving domestic market, are almost all off-limits to non-Chinese investors. To invest, you need state approval to buy Renminbi and later permission to convert back into dollars, Euros or other freely-tradable currencies.

“China no longer especially needs or wants Western capital to finance its economic growth. The best way now to invest in China, to increase allocation there,  is probably through M&A, by putting money into US or European companies that are aggressively acquiring good Chinese private sector ones.”

“Overall, the country is doing an excellent job managing the transition from export-reliance to domestic consumption, a economic challenge Germany is still struggling with. The Chinese economy has undergone enormous structural change over the last five years, most of it positive, with more and more of economic activity coming from the private sector, rather than state-owned one, from producing and selling products to satisfy the needs of  China’s 1 billion consumers rather than those of Wal-Mart shoppers in the US.

“On the macro level I do not expect any big change anytime soon, no free convertibility for the Renminbi. But, more quietly and pragmatically, the Chinese government has solved a rather large problem related to this, by making it legal and simple now for every Chinese citizen to use Renminbi to buy up to $50,000 a year in dollars, to pay for travel, educating their children, or buy shares or other assets outside China. In other words, the capital account remains closed, but Chinese individually now have a lot of the benefits of free exchange between dollars and Renminbi. It’s one of the reasons the Champs d’Elysees and Bond Street are jammed with Chinese tourists.”

 –

Alibaba files for IPO in US — China Daily article

May 8th, 2014 No comments

China Daily

 

 

Updated: 2014-05-07 06:56

By MICHAEL BARRIS in New York (chinadaily.com.cn)

Alibaba files for IPO in US

Alibaba Chairman and Non-executive Director Jack Ma participates in a teleconference in Hong Kong in this October 22, 2007 file photo, one day before its initial public offering in the territory. [Photo/Agencies]

Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group Holding officially filed on Tuesday to go public in the US in what could be the largest initial public offering ever.

A regulatory filing gave a $1 billion placeholder value for the offering, but the actual amount is expected to be far higher, possibly exceeding $20 billion and topping not only Facebook’s $16 billion 2012 listing, but Agricultural Bank of China Ltd’s record $22.1 billion offering in Shanghai and Hong Kong in 2010.

Alibaba, founded by former English teacher Jack Ma in a Hangzhou apartment, and its bankers have been moving to throw their own shares behind the IPO, analysts have said.

In its filing Alibaba gave no date for the proposed IPO or whether it would be on the New York Stock Exchange or Nasdaq. It cited its advantageous placement in a nation in which e-commerce is fast becoming a way of life, as Chinese consumers turn to the Internet to buy innumerable items. But Alibaba’s prospectus cited statistics showing that the market hasn’t been fully tapped. Just 45.8 percent of China’s population used the Internet, while 49 percent of customers shopped online.

Often described as a combination of eBay and Amazon, Alibaba handled $240 billion of merchandise in 2013. With more than 7 million merchants, it has more than $2 billion in revenue and profit of more than $1 billion.

Alibaba’s sheer size could weigh on the stock price of US rival Amazon.com if the Chinese company’s shares are added to indexes and portfolios targeting e-commerce and related sectors, analysts said.

“Amazon simply doesn’t measure up to the size of Alibaba’s earnings and earnings growth rate,” analyst Robert Wagner wrote.

Shares aren’t expected to begin trading for several months, as the US Securities and Exchange Commission reviews Alibaba’s offering materials and the company promotes its prospects to institutional investors.

The offering managers are Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup.

Ma, who has described the challenge of providing what he calls personal business as “my religion”, is Alibaba’s biggest individual shareholder, with an 8.9 percent stake.

Alibaba’s announcement continues a flurry of IPO filings by Chinese technology companies. Internet security application developer Cheetah Mobile is expected to go public on the New York Stock Exchange on Thursday and is expected to raise $153.75 million to $178.35 million. Three weeks ago, Weibo Corp, the Chinese micro blogging service owned by Sina Corp and Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd, raised $285.6 million in a Nasdaq IPO, while real-estate listings website Leju Holdings Ltd raised $100 million in an initial offering on the NYSE.

“The key question for China is how much new money, if any, Alibaba will raise in this US IPO,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman and CEO of China First Capital, told China Daily.

“If all the cash goes to Japan’s Softbank and US’s Yahoo, then it’s hard to see how Alibaba, its customers and the hundreds of millions of Taobao-addicted Chinese consumers will benefit from the IPO.” US web-portal company Yahoo is a 24-percent Alibaba shareholder, while Japan’s Softbank has a 37-percent stake.

http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2014-05/07/content_17490099.htm

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

April 30th, 2014 No comments

WSJ Shuanghui WH Group failed IPO

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Pork chopped. Why did hog giant WH Group’s IPO fail to entice investors? — Week in China

April 29th, 2014 No comments
week in china

Week in China cover

Pork chopped

Why did hog giant’s IPO fail to entice investors?

During the world’s biggest probate dispute a few years ago, a fascinated audience learned that Nina Wang, the late chairwoman of Hong Kong real estate developer Chinachem, paid $270 million to her feng shui adviser (and lover) to dig lucky holes. As many as 80 of them were dug around Wang’s properties to improve her fortune.

One of these holes – about three metres wide and nine metres deep, according to the China Entrepreneur magazine – was burrowed outside a meat processing plant in China.

Why so? Chinachem was the first foreign investor brought in by Shuanghui bosses in 1994 to help the abattoir expand. Wang’s capital would jumpstart the firm’s extraordinary transformation from a state-owned factory in Henan’s Luohe city into China’s biggest (and privately-held) pork producer.

Seeing Shuanghui’s potential, Wang offered to acquire its trademark and then to buy a majority stake for HK$300 million ($38 million). Both proposals were rejected outright by Shuanghui’s chairman Wan Long (see WiC201 for a profile of the man known locally as the ‘Steve Jobs of Chinese butchery’). His rationale was that he wanted to “make full use of foreign capital, but not be controlled by it”. Despite never owning a majority stake in the hog firm, he insisted on running the company his own way.

Two decades have passed since Wan first courted Nina Wang’s cash and in that time a range of new investors have bought into the company. Last year they helped Shuanghui to acquire American hog producer Smithfield for $7.1 billion (including debt) and in January the firm was renamed WH Group, ahead of a multi-billion dollar Hong Kong listing. But embarrassingly the IPO was pulled this week, as plans for the flotation went belly-up.

Not bringing home the bacon…

When WH applied to list on Hong Kong’s stock exchange in January, the firm talked up the prospect of launching the city’s biggest IPO since 2010. It kicked off the investor roadshow early last month intending to raise up to $5.3 billion. Four fifths of the total was to be used to help WH repay loans taken to finance the Smithfield takeover, with bankers setting the price between HK$8 and HK$11.25 a share. This was “an unusually wide indicative range” according to Reuters, but also a recognition of the uncertain outlook in the Hong Kong stockmarket.

A few weeks later, the 29 banks hired to promote the IPO (a record) returned with lukewarm orders. WH was forced to cleave the offer by more than half. Excluding the greenshoe allotment, the new plan was dramatically less ambitious, and looked to raise between $1.34 billion and $1.88 billion. To boost investor confidence, existing owners also dropped plans to sell some of their own shares in the listing. WH’s trading debut was pushed back by a week to May 8.

But investors remained unenthused. Blaming “deteriorating market conditions and recent excessive market volatility” (the prefferred explanation for most failed IPOs), WH shelved its IPO on Tuesday.

“The world’s largest pork company has gone from Easter ham to meagre spare rib,” the Wall Street Journal quipped.

Were rough market conditions to blame?

The failed deal was another blow for bankers in Hong Kong’s equity capital markets, who have watched the planned IPO of Hutchison’s giant retail arm AS Watson slip away and have seen Alibaba Group opt to go to market in New York instead.

Volatile markets may have contributed to WH’s decision to postpone the listing. Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index dropped 4.5% between the deal’s formal launch on April 10 and its eventual withdrawal on April 29, according to the South China Morning Post. Other IPOs haven’t been faring well recently. Japanese hotel operator Seibu Holdings and Chinese internet firm Sina Weibo both pared back share sales last month, while the Financial Times notes that concerns about China’s slowing economy have depressed interest in Chinese assets more generally.

Nevertheless, investors were anxious about WH’s investment story too and specifically whether the company’s valuation was too high.

One of the selling points of the original Shuanghui takeover of Smithfield was that it married a reputable American brand with a company that wanted to adapt best practices in product quality and food safety in China. But if one longer term goal was to improve the reputation of Chinese pork – and boost confidence among the country’s jaded consumers – the more immediate business logic was to sell Smithfield’s lower-cost meat into China, where prices at the premium end of the market are typically higher.

“We plan to leverage our US brands, raw materials and technology, our distribution and marketing capabilities in China and our combined strength in research and development to expand our range of American-style premium packaged meats products offerings in China,” the company said in its prospectus. “We expect [this] to positively affect our turnover and profitability.”

In recent months this strategy has faced headwinds, with prices going – from the pork giant’s perspective – in the wrong direction. American pig farmers are struggling with a porcine virus that has wiped out more than 10% of hog stocks. This has sent US pork to new highs, meaning it’s no longer so low-cost. In contrast, Xinhua notes that pork prices in many Chinese cities have fallen to their lowest levels in five years. As such, the commercial case for exporting US pork to China isn’t as strong. So fund managers have needed more convincing of the value of the newly combined Shuanghui and Smithfield businesses.

So WH’s valuation was too high?

Bloomberg said WH was prepared to sell its shares towards the bottom of the marketed price range, which equates to a valuation of 15 times estimated 2014 earnings.

At first glance that doesn’t look too demanding. Henan Shuanghui Investment, the Chinese unit of WH Group that is listed in Shenzhen, carries a market capitalisation of Rmb78 billion ($12.6 billion), or 20 times its 2013 net profit. Hormel, a Minnesota-based food firm that produces Spam luncheon meat (and is a key competitor for WH’s American pork business) trades at a price-to-earnings ratio of 23.

Hence China Business Journal concludes that WH priced itself as “not too high and not too low” among peers, especially if the company can generate genuine synergies between its China operation and its newly acquired American unit.

But an alternate view is that these synergies aren’t immediately obvious and that the new business model has hardly been tested (the Smithfield deal closed last September and exports to China didn’t start until the beginning of this year). The criticism is that WH hasn’t done much more than put Shuanghui Investment and Smithfield together into a holding vehicle, but is now asking for a valuation greater than the sum of the two parts. “Even at the bottom of the range, the IPO implies a valuation for Smithfield 21% above the price WH Group paid for the US pork producer barely eight months ago,” notes Reuters Breakingviews. (And let’s not forget, Smithfield was purchased at a 30% premium to its market price at the time.)

Or as one banker put it to the FT: “It’s like buying a house, ripping out the bathrooms and kitchen and trying to flip it for a premium six months later.”

CBN agreed that investors have the right to be wary: “The market simply has not had time to judge if there is meaningful synergy coming out of WH’s units. Nor is there a single signal that WH has the ability to properly manage an American firm.”

Why did WH want to IPO so fast?

This question brings us back to Shuanghui’s transformation from a state-owned enterprise to a privately-held firm. In April 2006 a consortium including Goldman Sachs and Chinese private equity funds CDH and New Horizon paid about $250 million to buy out the city government’s stake in Shuanghui.

The leveraged buyout was an unusual example of a Chinese national brand (and market leader) being snapped up by foreign buyers. Shuanghui was stripped of its SOE status, with majority ownership passing to private and foreign investors.

Century Weekly suggested last month that most of these Shuanghui shareholders “have waited patiently for at least eight years to exit”. Perhaps running low on their reserves of restraint, they then introduced the Smithfield bid last year to great fanfare as the largest takeover yet of a US company by a Chinese firm.

But as Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, a boutique investment bank, told WiC at the time, this wasn’t really the case. In fact the bid for Smithfield was a leveraged buyout by a company based in the Cayman Islands, not a Chinese one. And its main purpose was to facilitate a future sale by Shuanghui’s longstanding investors.

How so? WH’s set-up is complex: the IPO prospectus features an ownership chart containing WH Group, Shuanghui Group and Shuanghui Investment (not to mention several dozen joint ventures and Smithfield itself). One of these entities is listed in Shenzhen, but the investor group has been looking for other ways to cash out. A key motivation in last year’s dealmaking was that they thought they had found an alternative route via a Hong Kong IPO.

And less than a year after the Smithfield bid, WH made its move, not least because it needs to reduce some of the debt incurred in buying its new American business.

But many market watchers think it looked too hasty. “They rushed into an IPO and didn’t spend time to actually create the synergy between the US and Chinese business,” one fund manager in Hong Kong complained to FinanceAsia this week. “They wanted to float the stock to fund the acquisition and also let the private equity firms exit. But if WH Group is good, then ride with me. Why should I buy when you are selling?”

Fuhrman’s view is much more withering: “I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it, the chutzpah, that these big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausages bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to investors in Hong Kong.”

And what of the boss? Wan Long and another director Yang Zhijun pocketed almost $600 million in share options between them last year after the Smithfield bid went through. (The move pushed WH into a loss in 2013.) The size of the compensation package is said to have also deterred some fund managers.

What next for WH?

Any attempt to resurrect the offering will have to wait until after its first-half results, meaning a possible return to the market in September at the earliest. There have been reports that the deal is more likely be postponed until next year. CDH, the company’s single largest shareholder, told the Wall Street Journal that it refuses to sell its WH shares cheaply. “We have a strong belief in the business’ fundamentals and its long term value,” a spokesperson insisted.

But China Business Journal says that WH now needs to focus on convincing investors that it has a good story to tell, including providing a clearer integration plan for Smithfield and Shuanghui’s operations. The pressure will also increase to find alternative ways to retire some of the debt taken on to finance the Smithfield acquisition. Reports suggest that early refinancing was expected to reduce debt repayments by around $155 million on an annualised basis – or about 5% of last year’s profit.

WH may also use the delay to rethink how it goes to market next time, with the South China Morning Post reporting that senior executives have been blaming the banks for the breakdown. “Some of them were too confident, and even a bit arrogant, when they tried to price the deal and coordinate with each other,” the source told the newspaper.

Then again, the banks will be irked by the expenses inccurred on a deal that didn’t happen. And in retrospect it looks to have been a flawed decision to mandate 29 of them. As WH has learned, it diffused responsibility and may have disincentivised some of the participants.

Indeed, another comment on the situation is that the only winners from this IPO were the airlines and hotels that were used as part of the roadshow process.

http://www.weekinchina.com/2014/05/pork-chopped/?dm

 

WH’s canceled IPO shows dangers of misjudging demand — China Daily Article

April 28th, 2014 No comments

China Daily

WH’s canceled IPO shows dangers of misjudging demand

By Michael Barris (China Daily USA)

It could have been the largest IPO in a year. Instead the canceled initial offering of Chinese pork producer WH Group became an epic flop and an example of the pitfalls of failing to accurately gauge investor demand for IPOs.

Eight months ago, in the biggest-ever Chinese acquisition of a US company, WH, then known as Shuanghui International Holdings Ltd, acquired Virginia-based Smithfield Foods Inc, the world’s largest hog producer, for $4.7 billion. Awash in kudos for tapping into China’s increasing demand for high-quality pork, a Shuanghui team began working on a planned Hong Kong IPO.

By late April, however, the proposed offering was in deep trouble. Bankers slashed the deal’s marketed value to $1.9 billion from $5.3 billion. Finally, the company, now renamed WH Group, announced it would not proceed with the IPO because of “deteriorating market conditions and recent excessive market volatility”.

The decision handed the company a setback in its effort to cut the more than $2.3 billion of debt it took on in the Smithfield purchase and dealt a blow to Asia’s already struggling IPO market and the stock prices of some formerly high-flying Asian companies. The WH IPO debacle is even seen as possibly hampering the much-anticipated New York IPO of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Group, expected to occur later this year and valued at an estimated $20 billion.

WH's canceled IPO shows dangers of misjudging demand

What went wrong? To put it simply, investors scoffed at the idea of paying top price for WH shares without any clear indication of how the Smithfield acquisition would save money.

The price range of HK$ 8 to HK$ 11.25 per share ($1.03 to $1.45) was at a valuation of 15 to 20.8 times forward earnings. “The synergies between Shuanghui and Smithfield are untested. Why do investors have to buy in a hurry?” Ben Kwong, associate director of Taiwanese brokerage KGI Asia Ltd, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal. “They would rather wait until the valuation is attractive.”

A disease that infected pigs, inflating US prices, also turned off investors. US pork typically trades at about half the meat’s price in China, because US feed tends to be cheaper. But Chicago hog futures have soared 47 percent this year to $1.25 a pound. Investors also saw corporate governance practices which awarded shares to two executives before the listing occurred as worrisome.

“I just couldn’t get over, in reading the SEC documents filed at the time of the takeover, the brazenness of it,” China First Capital CEO and Chairman Peter Fuhrman wrote on the Seeking Alpha investment website. “These big institutions seemed to be betting they could repackage a pound of sausage bought in New York for $1 as pork fillet and sell it for $5 to Hong Kong investors and institutions.

The Smithfield acquisition “never made much of any industrial sense”, Fuhrman wrote. The private equity firms behind WH – CDH Investments, Singapore state investor Temasek Holdings and New Horizon – “have no experience or knowledge how to run a pork business in the US. In fact, they don’t know how to run any business in the US”, he wrote.

One man’s meat, however, is another man’s poison. As Fuhrman wrote, the debacle has ended up putting smiles on the faces of the mainly-US shareholders who last year reluctantly sold their Smithfield shares at a 31 percent premium above the pre-bid price. Some of these same shareholders had protested that the Chinese company’s offer for the pork producer was too low. Ultimately, the sellers received the satisfaction of knowing they got the “far better end of a deal against some of the bigger, richer financial institutions in Asia and Wall Street,” Fuhrman wrote. And that, he said, has likely made them as delighted as pigs in muck.

 

http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/2014-05/14/content_17508033.htm

Chinese IPOs Try to Make a Comeback in US — New York Times

November 4th, 2013 No comments

NYT

 

I.P.O./Offerings

Chinese I.P.O.’s Try to Make a Comeback in U.S.

BY NEIL GOUGH

HONG KONG — Chinese companies are trying to leap back into the United States stock markets.

The return, still in its early days and involving just a handful of companies, comes after several years of accounting scandals that pummeled their share prices and prompted scores of companies to delist from markets in the United States.

But the spate of recent activity suggests investors may be warming once more to Chinese companies that seek initial public offerings in the United States.

Qunar Cayman Islands, a popular travel website owned by Baidu, China’s leading search engine company, began trading on Nasdaq on Friday and nearly doubled in price. On Thursday, shares in 58.com, a Chinese classified ad website operator that is often compared to Craigslist, surged 42 percent on the first trading day in New York after its $187 million public offering.

The question now — for both American investors and the companies from China waiting in the wings to raise money from them — is whether these recent debuts are an anomaly or have truly managed to unfreeze a market that was once a top destination for Chinese companies seeking to list overseas.

Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank and advisory firm based in Shenzhen, China, said that for both sides, the recent signs of a détente between American investors and Chinese companies is “a matter of selectively hoping history repeats itself.”

“Not the recent history of Chinese companies dogged by allegations, and some evidence, of accounting fraud and other suspect practices,” he added. “Instead, the current group is looking back farther in history, to a time when some Chinese Internet companies with business models derived, borrowed or pilfered from successful U.S. companies were able to go public in the U.S. to great acclaim.”

That initial wave of Chinese technology listings began in 2000 with the I.P.O. of Sina.com and later featured companies like Baidu, which has been described as China’s answer to Google. In total, more than 200 companies from China achieved listings on American markets, raising billions of dollars through traditional public offerings or reverse takeovers.

But beginning about 2010, short-sellers and regulators started exposing what grew into a flurry of accounting scandals at Chinese companies with overseas listings. In some cases, such accusations have led to the filing of fraud charges by regulators or to the dissolution of the companies. Prominent examples include the Toronto-listed Sino-Forest Corporation, which filed for bankruptcy last year after Muddy Waters Research placed a bet against the company’s shares in 2011 and accused it of being a “multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme.”

Concerns about companies based in China were reinforced in December when the United States Securities and Exchange Commission accused the Chinese affiliates of five big accounting firms of violating securities laws, contending that they had failed to produce documents from their audits of several China-based companies under investigation for fraud.

In response, American demand for new share offerings by Chinese companies evaporated, and investors dumped shares in Chinese companies across the board. It became so bad that the tide of listings reversed direction: Delistings by Chinese companies from American markets have outnumbered public offerings for the last two years.

Despite the renewed activity, it is too early to say whether Chinese stocks are back in favor. The listing by 58.com was only the fourth Chinese public offering in the United States this year, according to Thomson Reuters data. LightInTheBox, an online retailer, raised $90.7 million in a June listing but is trading slightly below its offering price. China Commercial Credit, a microlender, has risen 50 percent since it raised $8.9 million in August. And shares in the Montage Technology Group, based in Shanghai, have risen 41 percent since it raised $80.2 million in late September.

Still, this year’s activity is already an improvement from 2012, when only two such deals took place, according to figures from Thomson Reuters. Last month, two more Chinese companies — 500.com, an online lottery agent, and Sungy Mobile, an app developer — submitted initial filings for American share sales.

But the broader concerns related to Chinese companies have not gone away. In May, financial regulators in the United States and China signed a memorandum of understanding that could pave the way to increased American oversight of accounting practices at Chinese companies. But the S.E.C.’s case against the Chinese affiliates of the five big accounting firms remains in court.

The corporate structure of many Chinese companies is another unresolved area of concern. Because foreign companies and shareholders cannot own Internet companies in China, both 58.com and Qunar rely on a complex series of management and profit control agreements called variable interest entities. Whether such arrangements will stand up in court has been a cause for concern among foreign investors in Chinese companies.

And short-sellers continue to single out companies from China, often with great success.

In a report last month, Muddy Waters took aim at NQ Mobile, an online security company based in Beijing and listed in New York, accusing it of being “a massive fraud” and contending that 72 percent of its revenue from the security business in China last year was “fictitious.”

NQ Mobile has rejected the accusations, saying that the report contained “numerous errors of facts, misleading speculations and malicious interpretations of events.” The company’s shares have fallen 37 percent since the report was published.

(http://dealbook.nytimes.com/2013/11/01/chinese-i-p-o-s-attempt-a-comeback-in-u-s/?_r=1)
 
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Pactera ‘Challenged By Investors Every Day’ — Wall Street Journal

May 21st, 2013 No comments

WSJ

By Paul Mozur

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal  on May 10th,  the chief executive of China’s largest software outsourcing company Pactera Inc. PACT -1.04% said investors had been pestering the company “every day” to carry out share buybacks to bolster the company’s share price.

“Our shares are trading very badly, it’s at a multiple that I can’t even imagine,” CEO Tiak Koon Loh said during the interview.

Since that interview, Mr. Loh, along with Blackstone Inc. BX -0.58% and several other Pactera executives, decided to try to cash in on that low price with a bid to take the company private for $7.50 a share or a 42.5% premium to where shares closed Friday on the Nasdaq Stock Market NDAQ -0.19%.

Following on the heels of a bid by a CITIC Capital Partners-led consortium to take private another Chinese IT services company AsiaInfo-Linkage Inc. ASIA -0.17%, the Pactera deal has led bankers and commentators to wonder whether the recent trend of private equity firms jumping to take Chinese companies listed in the U.S. private  is looking a little frothy.

“The [Pactera] deal may go down in the annals of most expensive [leveraged buyouts] ever launched. Blackstone is offering current shareholders a price equal to over 200 times 2012 net income,” said Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital.

Nonetheless, in the interview before the deal, Mr. Loh laid out his reasoning for why Pactera has good growth potential ahead of it. In particular, he said the company stands to benefit over the next decade, not just in the industry of software outsourcing, but also in tech consulting services as China’s technology industry booms.

For example, Pactera partnered with Microsoft Corp. MSFT -1.33% and 21Vianet Group Inc. to help develop Windows and Office cloud services in China, which launched on Wednesday.  Mr. Loh said that the company has a number of other cloud projects it is working on, in particular helping provincial governments build cloud infrastructure.

“China has always grown faster than the global [outsourcing] market,” Mr. Loh said.

But there are reasons to be more bearish on Pactera, especially in the short term. With more than 10% of its revenues coming from Japan, the company is likely to be hit hard this year by the falling Yen, according to Mr. Loh.

“Everything you do is in Japanese Yen, and every contract is signed in Japanese Yen, and it has just dropped 25%,” he said, adding that business has grown despite recent political difficulties between China and Japan.

Another issue is integration. Pactera was formed by the 2012 merger of HiSoft Technology International Ltd. and VanceInfo Technologies Inc. Mr. Loh acknowledged that there had been some “leakage” of productivity as the two companies work to integrate cultures and some employees or teams had left, but he nonetheless said that he expected growth to return.

“But beyond this year and getting back to the norm we should see ourselves growing…. no less than the industry and no less than the industry is at least 16% [revenue growth] year on year,” he said.

More than just saying it, Mr. Loh is betting on it. Now it’s a matter of whether shareholders believe that kind of growth in the coming years could get them more than the $7.5 per share on offer from the deal.

Blackstone did not immediately return calls.