Most investors, including me, would be delighted to make 15% to 20% per year, year after year. But, for many private equity firms active in China, that kind of return would be cause for shame. The reason is that recent past returns from Chinese PE, and so the expectations of LPs, are much higher - often seeing overall annual increases of 40%-60% a year, with successful individual deals increasing by 100% a year in value during a typical three to five year holding period.
But, it is quickly becoming much more challenging to earn those +40% annual rates of return. My prediction is that profits from PE investing in China will soon begin a rather steep downward slide. This isn't because there are fewer good Chinese companies to invest, or that valuations are rising sharply. Neither is true. It's simply that a declining percentage of PE deals done in China will achieve those exceptionally high profits of 500%-800% or more over the life of an investment.
The reason is that fewer and fewer PE deals in China will achieve exit through IPO. Those are the deals where the big money is made. There are no precise numbers. But, my estimate would be that in recent years, one in four PE investments made by the top 50 firms active in China managed to have an IPO. Those are the deals with the outsized rates of return that do so much to lift a PE firm's overall IRR.
In the future, the rate of successful IPO exit may fall by 30% or more for the good firms. For lesser PE firms, including many of the hundreds of Renminbi firms set up over the last three years, the percentage of deals achieving a domestic IPO in China may not reach 10%. If so, overall returns for each PE firm, as well as the industry as a whole, will fall rather dramatically from the high levels of recent years.
The returns for most PE and VC firms across the world tend toward bell curve distribution, with a small number of highly successful deals more than covering losses at the deals gone sour, and the majority of deals achieving modest increases or declines. In China, however, the successful deals have tended to be both more numerous and more profitable. This has provided most of the propulsive thrust for the high rates of return.
The higher the rate of return, the easier it is to raise new money. PE firms each year keep 1% to 2% of the money they raise as a management fee. It's a kind of tithe paid by LPs. PE firms also usually keep 20% of the net investment profits. But, this management fee is risk-free, and usually is enough to fully pay for the PE and VC firms' salaries, offices, travel and other operating expenses, with anything left over split among the partners.
So, high rates of investment return in the past ends up translating into lots of new money unlinked to actual investment performance in the future. It's a neat trick, and explains why the PE partners currently most actively out raising capital are mainly those investing in China. The more you raise now, the longer your guaranteed years of the good life. In other words, even if overall investment results deteriorate in coming years, the guaranteed income of PE firms will remain strong. Most funds have a planned lifespan of seven to ten years. So, if you raise $1 billion in 2012, you will have perhaps $20mn a year in guaranteed management fee income all the way through 2022.
The more new capital that's raised for PE deals in China, the more investment deals can get done. The problem is, IPOs in China are basically a fixed commodity, with about 250 private companies going public a year. These domestic Chinese IPOs are the common thread linking most of the highest return PE deals. The Chinese IPOs will continue, and most likely continue to provide some of the highest profits available to PE firms anywhere. But, with the number of IPOs static and overall PE investment surging, the odds of a PE-backed company in China getting the green light for IPO will drop - rather precipitously if the current gusher of new money for PE deals in China persists.
Meantime, the number of Chinese companies going public outside China is dropping and will likely continue to. The US has all but barred the door to Chinese companies, following a spate of stories in 2011 about fraudulent accounting and false disclosure by Chinese companies quoted there. In Hong Kong, the only Chinese companies generating investor enthusiasm at IPO are ones with both significant size (profits of at least USD$25mn) and an offshore legal corporate structure. It used to be both simple and common for Chinese companies to set up holding companies outside China. The Chinese government has moved aggressively to shut down that practice, beginning in 2006. So, the number of private Chinese companies with the legal structure permitting a Hong Kong (or US, Singapore, Korean, Australian) IPO will continue to shrink.
Add it up and the return numbers for PE firms active in China begin to look much less rosy going forward than they have in the past. More deals will end in mandatory buybacks, rather than IPOs. This is the escape mechanism written into just about every PE investment contract. It allows the PE firm to sell their shares back to the company if an IPO doesn't take place within a specified period of time, typically three to five years. The PE gets its original investment back, plus an annual rate of return ("IRR"), usually 10% to 20%.
This way PE firms can't get stuck in an illiquid investment. The buybacks should become an increasingly common exit route for PE deals in China. But, they only work when the company can come up with the cash to buy the PE shares back. That will not always be certain, since pooling large sums of money to pay off an old investor is hardly the best use of corporate capital. Fighting it out in court will likely be a fraught process for both sides.
The direction of Chinese PE is moving from IPO to IRR. As this process unfolds, and PE returns in China begin to trend downward, the PE investment process and valuations are likely to change, most likely for the worse. IRR deals seldom make anyone happy - not the PE firms, their LPs or the entrepreneur.
Chinese PE still offers some of the best risk-adjusted returns of any investment class. But, as often happens, the outsized returns of recent years attracts a glut of new money, leading to an eventual decline in overall profits. In investing, big success today often breeds mediocrity tomorrow.
Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.