When you can find them, State-Owned Enterprise ("SOE") buyouts are among the better investments in China. The reasons: the companies are cheap, professionally-managed and free of accounting fraud. The not-trivial challenge: finding good SOEs that can be bought.
For such an important part of the world's second-largest economy, Chinese SOEs are widely misunderstood. They account for at least 20% of China's GPD. Some estimates put SOEs' contribution to GPD at 60% or higher. But SOEs are often characterized, to quote from a World Bank analysis, as "dying dinosaurs that continuously absorb resources from the economy but produce little economic value."
To be sure, there are many SOEs that fit this description. But, equally, there are plenty of good businesses among China's more than 150,000 SOEs. The good ones, quite often, can be made substantially better by bringing in outside capital and chopping away at the heavy bureaucratic crust.
Buyouts make money when a new owner buys a business for less than it's worth, then reinvigorates it. Generally that's done by buying lazily-run subsidiaries inside larger conglomerates.
No conglomerate anywhere, at any time, has been more laid-back about managing its assets than SASAC, the huge government organization that is the legal owner of most Chinese SOEs.
SOEs operate in, but are not entirely of, the market economy. They benefit from cheap and plentiful capital via loans from state-owned banks. But SASAC is generally far more concerned with increasing revenues and investment than profits. SASAC generally doesn't demand SOEs pay it dividends. Instead, it asks for an audit every year that shows an SOE's revenues and assets are growing, and no money is actually being lost or assets pilfered. SASAC doesn't act like an owner so much as a custodian.
SASAC's casual attitude to profit-making filters down to all levels within an SOE. Given the choice to maximize or minimize profits, most SOEs will choose the latter. The goal is to make a little more than last year, but not so much that SASAC, or more senior levels in government, begin to ask questions. With few exceptions (mainly larger centrally-administered SOEs quoted in the US like China Mobile (NYSE:CHL) and PetroChina (NYSE:PTR)) the corporate equivalent of a "gentleman's C," a net margin of around 2.5%, is considered satisfactory.
You don't need to be a Buffett, Bonderman, Kravis or Rubenstein to make money buying the right Chinese SOE. You generally don't need to get your hands too dirty, launch a hostile takeover, borrow a ton of money, or make yourself unpopular by firing surplus workers. It's going to be enough in most cases just to retain and incentivize current managers, and inform them that their goal now is to deliver net margins as good as, if not better, than private sector competitors.
Not in all cases but many, the current management of an SOE is quite good, professional, dedicated. The managers operate within a system that downplays the importance of maximizing profit. So, they behave correspondingly. But, that doesn't mean they don't know how to do so, especially when they have their salary or share options tied to profitability.
We are working now to privatize two SOEs by selling majority ownership to a private sector investor. Both are 100%-owned by one state-owned holding company which, in turn, is fully-owned by another, even larger SOE holding group. Above them is the local SASAC in the city where the holding companies are both headquartered. No sooner did we start asking the managers how to improve profits then they began to share information on how much additional profit was being left unclaimed - unnecessary commission payments, tax rebates not filed for, revenues booked through unrelated group companies.
In the case of these two companies, the current CEOs have been running the businesses since they were started more than five years ago. They are in their mid-40s and take evident pride in running their businesses as efficiently as any Western manager would. The difference is a lot of the profit they earn is siphoned off through lots of internal layers within the holding group. At the moment, that's of little concern to them. They are ordinary salaried workers giving SASAC precisely what it wants. Giving more would do nothing to advance their careers or fatten their pay packets.
These two CEOs are excited and ambitious to run independent private sector companies that will be free to make and keep as much money as the market and tax laws allow.
What's needed isn't restructuring. It's gardening. A new investor will weed out all the unnecessary fees, commissions and chop back the overhead. This reveals the companies' genuine - and impressive - bottom line.
Once spun off, these two subsidiaries should follow a similar path and one day go public. That is the surest way to assure the companies have sufficient access to low-cost capital and finance continued growth. Both companies, with revenues of over $100mn, are growing quickly.
This isn't to say these deals, or any SOE takeover, is as effortless as body-surfing. The privatization process in China is still evolving. Any transaction like this will likely generate some opposition. From whom? And from what level? Both are impossible to say.
A separate concern of mine: there are far too few capable and experience takeover firms active in China. Among those that are around, the level of experience and comfort with buying control of an SOE is not uniformly high. Done right, the new owners would be able to profit from a large gap between the current asset value as calculated using SASAC rules and each company's level of underlying and future profitability. In other words, you buy using NAV but sell later on a p/e multiple.
Making money on that swap, from NAV-to-p/e, is the simple idea at the heart of many of the world's most successful takeovers. Opportunities to do this are now quite rare in the US and Europe, which is one reason the returns for big buyout firms like KKR, Blackstone and Carlyle has generally been trending down over the last 25 years, and why it's harder for Warren Buffett to find the kind of underpriced gems he treasures most.
The best days of takeovers have passed, right? Or should Buffett, Rubenstein, Bonderman and Kravis be booking flights to China?