Private Equity in China: Blackstone and Others May Grab the Money, Miss the Best Opportunities

 |  Includes: BX, CNY
by: Peter Fuhrman

Blackstone (NYSE:BX), the giant American PE firm, is now trying to raise its first renminbi fund. Its stated goal is to provide growth capital for China’s fast-growing companies. Blackstone isn’t the only international private equity firm seeking to raise renminbi to invest in China. In fact, many of the world’s largest private equity firms, including those already investing in China using dollars, are looking to tap domestic Chinese sources for investment capital.

Dollar-based investors are increasingly at a serious disadvantage in China’s private equity industry: investing is more difficult, often impossible, and deals take longer to close than competing investors with access to renminbi.

Blackstone enjoys a big leg up in China over other international private equity firms looking to raise renminbi. Its largest institutional shareholder is China’s sovereign wealth fund, CIC. Knowing how to get Chinese investors to open their wallets is a skill both highly rare and highly advantageous in today’s global private equity industry.

There are two reasons for this stampede to raise renminbi. First, more and more of the best investment opportunities in China are SME with purely domestic structure – meaning they cannot easily raise equity in any other currency except renminbi. The second reason is the most basic of all in the financial industry: if you want money, you go where there’s the most to spare. Right now, that means looking in China.

In theory, the big international private equity companies have a lot to offer Chinese investors – principally, very long track records of successful deal-making that richly rewarded their earlier investors.

The international PE firms have more experience picking companies and exiting from them with fat gains. They also do a good job, in general, of keeping their investors informed about what they’re doing, and acting as prudent fiduciaries.

So far so good. But, there’s one enormous problem here, one that Blackstone and others presumably don’t like talking about to prospective Chinese investors. Their main way of making money in the past is now both broken, and wholly unsuited to China. They’re trying to sell a beautiful left-hand drive Rolls-Royce to people who drive on the right.

Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR, Cerberus and most of the other largest global private equity companies grew large, rich and powerful by buying controlling stakes in companies, using mainly money borrowed from banks. They then would improve the operating performance over several years, and make their real money by either selling the company in an M&A deal or listing it on the stock market.

The leverage (in the form of the bank borrowing) was key to their financial success. Like buying a house, the trick was to put a little money down, borrow the rest, and then pocket most of any increase in the value of the asset.

It can be a great way to make money, as long as banks are happy to lend. They no longer are. As a result, these kinds of private equity deals – which really ought to be called by their original name of “leveraged buyouts”, have all but vanished from the financial landscape. It was always a rickety structure, reliant as much on access to cheap bank debt as on a talent for spotting great, undervalued businesses. If proof were needed, just look at Cerberus’s disastrous takeover of Chrysler last year, which will result in likely losses for Cerberus of over $5 billion.

In his annual letter to shareholders this year, Warren Buffett highlighted the inherent weaknesses in this form of private equity: “A purchase of a business by these [private equity] firms almost invariably results in dramatic reductions in the equity portion of the acquiree’s capital structure compared to that previously existing. A number of these acquirees, purchased only two to three years ago, are now in mortal danger because of the debt piled on them by their private-equity buyers. The private equity firms, it should be noted, are not rushing in to inject the equity their wards now desperately need. Instead, they’re keeping their remaining funds very private.”

On their backs at home, it’s no wonder Blackstone, Carlyle, KKR are looking to expand in China, All have a presence in China, having invested in some larger deals involving mainly State-Owned Enterprises. But, to really flourish in China, these PE firms will need to hone a different set of skills: choosing solid companies, investing their own capital for a minority position, and then waiting patiently for an exit.

There’s no legal way to use the formula that worked so well for so long in the US. In China, highly-leveraged transactions are prohibited. PE firms also, in most cases, can’t buy a controlling stake in a business. That runs afoul of strict takeover rules in China.

I have little doubt Blackstone, KKR, Carlyle can all succeed doing these smaller, unleveraged deals in China. After all, they employ some of the smartest people on the planet. But, these firms all still have a serious preference for doing larger deals, investing at least $50mn. This is also true in China.

There are few good deals on this scale around. Very few private companies have the level of annual profits (at least $15mn) to absorb that amount of capital for a minority stake. Private companies that large have likely already had an IPO or are well along in the planning process. As for large SOEs, the good ones are mostly already public, and those that remain are often sick beyond the point of cure. In these cases, private equity investors find it tough to push through an effective restructuring plan because they don’t control a majority on the board seats.

Result: some of the companies best-positioned to raise renminbi funds, including Blackstone, have an investment model that seems ill-suited to Chinese conditions. They may well succeed in raising money, but then what? They’ll either need to learn to do smaller deals (of $10mn-$20mn) or bear the heavy risk of making investments in the few larger deals around in China.

Any prospective Chinese LP should be asking Blackstone and the other large global private equity firms some very searching questions about their investment models for China. True, these firms all have excellent track records, by and large. But, that past performance, based on the leveraged buyouts that went well, is of scant consequence in today’s China. What matters most is an eye for spotting great entrepreneurs, in fast-growing industries, and then offering them both capital and the knowledge that comes from building value as investors in earlier deals.

Prediction: raising huge wads of cash in China will turn out to be easier for Blackstone and other large global PE firms than putting it to work where it will do the most good and earn the highest returns.

Disclosure: None