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Peter Fuhrman
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Chairman, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at China First Capital ( , a China-based international investment bank and advisory firm for capital markets and M&A transactions. China First Capital was established in 2007 and has its headquarters in Shenzhen, China.... More
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  • Hong Kong: The World Capital Of IPOs Enters A Rocky Phase

    From the world's leading IPO stock market to a grubby financial backwater with the sordid practices of America's notorious OTCBB. Is this what's to become of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange ?

    I see some rather disturbing signs of this happening. Underwriters, with the pipeline of viable IPO deals drying up, are fanning out across China searching for mandates and making promises every bit as mendacious and self-serving as the rogues who steered so many Chinese companies to their doom on the US OTCBB.

    The Hong Kong Stock Exchange ("HKSE") may be going wrong because so much, until recently, was going right. Thanks largely to a flood of IPO offerings by large Chinese companies, the HKSE overtook New York in 2009 to become the top capital market for new flotations. While the IPO markets turned sharply downward last year, and the amount of IPO capital raised in Hong Kong fell by half, the HKSE held onto the top spot in 2011. US IPO activity remains subdued, in part due to regulatory burdens and compliance costs heaped onto the IPO process in the US over the last decade.

    During the boom years beginning around 2007, all underwriting firms bulked up by adding expensive staff in expensive Hong Kong. This includes global giants like Goldman Sachs, Citibank and Morgan Stanley, smaller Asian and European firms like DBS, Nomura, BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank and the broking arms of giant Chinese financial firms CITIC, ICBC, CIIC, and Bank of China. The assumption among many market players was that the HKSE's growth would continue to surge, thanks largely to Chinese listings, for years to come.

    The underwriting business relies rather heavily on hype and boundless optimism to sell new securities. It's little surprise, then, that IPO investment bankers should be prone to some irrational exuberance when it comes to evaluating their own career prospects. The grimmer reality was always starkly clear. For fundamental reasons visible to all but ignored by many, the flood of quality Chinese IPOs in Hong Kong was always certain to dry up. It has already begun to do so.

    In 2006, the Chinese government closed the legal loophole that allowed many PRC companies to redomicile in Hong Kong, BVI or Cayman Islands. This, in turn, let them pursue IPOs outside China, principally in the US and Hong Kong. Every year, the number of PRC companies with this "offshore structure" and the scale and growth to qualify for an IPO in Hong Kong continues to decline. A domestic Chinese company cannot, in broad terms, have an IPO outside China.

    Some clever lawyers came up with some legal fixes, including a legally-dubious structure called "Variable Interest Entity", or VIE, to allow domestic Chinese companies to list abroad. But, last year, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce began moving to shut these down. The efficient, high-priced IPO machine for listing Chinese companies in Hong Kong is slowly, but surely, being starved of its fuel: good Chinese private companies, attractive to investors.

    Yes, there still are non-Chinese companies like Italy's Prada, Russia's Rusal or Mongolia's Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi still eager to list in Hong Kong. There is still a lot of capital, while listing and compliance costs are well below those in the US. But, the Hong Kong underwriting industry is staffed-up mainly to do Chinese IPOs. These guys don't speak Russian or Mongolian.

    So, the sorry situation today is that Hong Kong underwriters are overstuffed with overhead for a "coming boom" of Chinese IPOs that will almost certainly never arrive. China-focused Hong Kong investment bankers are beginning to show signs of growing desperation. Their jobs depend on winning mandates, as well as closing IPOs. To get business, the underwriters are resorting, at least in some cases, to behaviors that seem not that different from the corrupt world of OTCBB listing. This means making some patently false promises to Chinese companies about valuation levels they could achieve in an Hong Kong IPO.

    The reality now is that valuation levels for most of the Chinese companies legally structured for IPO in Hong Kong are pathetically low. Valuations keep getting slashed to attract investors who still aren't showing much interest. Underwriters are finding it hard to solicit buy offers for good Chinese companies at prices of six to eight times this year's earnings. Some other deals now in the market and nowhere near close are being priced below four times this year's net income. At those kind of prices, a HK IPO becomes some of the most expensive equity capital around.

    In their pursuit of new mandates, however, these Hong Kong underwriters will rarely share this information with Chinese bosses. Instead, they bring with them handsomely-bound bilingual IPO prospectuses for past deals and suggest that valuation levels will go back into double digits in the second half of this year. In other words, the pitch is, "don't look at today's reality, focus instead at yesterday's outcomes and my rosy forecast about tomorrow's".

    This is the same script used by the advisors who peddled the OTCBB listings that damaged or destroyed so many Chinese companies over the last five years. Another similar tactic used both by OTCBB rogues and HK underwriters is to pray on fear. They suggest to Chinese bosses that they should protect their fortune by listing their company offshore, at whatever price possible and using whatever legally dubious method is available. They also play up the fact a Chinese company theoretically can go public in Hong Kong whenever it likes, rather than wait in an IPO queue of uncertain length and duration, as is true in China.

    In other words, the discussion concerns just about everything of importance except the fact that valuation levels in Hong Kong are awful, and there is a decent probability a Chinese company's HK IPO will fail. This is particularly the case for Chinese companies with less than USD$25 million in net income. The cost to a Chinese company of a failed IPO is a lot of wasted time, at least a million dollars in legal and accounting bills as well as a stained reputation.

    There is, increasingly, a negative selection bias. Investors rightly wonder about the quality of Chinese companies, particularly smaller ones, being brought to market by underwriters in Hong Kong.

    "No one has a crystal ball", is how one Hong Kong underwriter, a managing director who spends most of his time in China scouring for mandates, explains the big gap between promises made to Chinese bosses, and the sad reality that many then encounter. In a real sense, this is on par with him saying "I've got to do whatever I've got to do to earn a living". He can hold onto his job for now by bringing in new mandates, then hope markets will turn around at some point, the valuation tide will rise, and these boats will lift. This too is a business strategy used for many years by the OTCBB advisor crowd.

    The OTCBB racket is now basically shut down. Those who profited from it are now looking for work or looking elsewhere for victims, er mandates. Tiny cleantech deals are apparently now hot.

    My prediction is a similar retrenchment is on the way in Hong Kong, only this time those being retrenched won't be fast-buck types from law firms and tiny OTCBB investment banks no one has heard of. Instead, it'll be bankers with big salaries working at well-known brokerage companies. The pool of IPO fees isn't big enough to feed them all now. And, that pool is likely going to evaporate further, as fewer Chinese companies sign on for Hong Kong listings and successfully close deals.

    The world capital of IPOs is entering a rocky phase.


    Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

    Tags: ipo-analysis
    Mar 07 8:57 AM | Link | Comment!
  • CFC’s New Research Report On Capital Allocation And Private Equity Trends In China

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

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

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

    The report is available in Chinese only.

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

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

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

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

    From a Chinese entrepreneur's perspective, the stark reality is "No PE, No IPO".

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


    Feb 29 7:07 PM | Link | Comment!
  • Too Few IPOs Rather Than Too Many -- The Coming Crisis In China Investing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.

    Tags: ipo-analysis
    Feb 23 11:45 AM | Link | Comment!
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