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Peter Fuhrman
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Chairman, Founder and Chief Executive Officer at China First Capital (www.chinafirstcapital.com) , China-based international investment bank and advisory firm for private capital markets and M&A transactions. China First Capital has a disciplined focus on -- and strives for a leadership... More
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China First Capital
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China Private Equity, by China First Capital
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  • New Report On Continued Robust Growth of IPO Activity and Private Equity Investment in China
     2010 is the year China’s private equity industry hit the big time. The amount of new capital raised by PE firms reached an all-time high, exceeding Rmb150 billion (USD $23 billion). In particular, Renminbi PE funds witnessed explosive growth in 2010, both in number of new funds and amount of new capital. China’s National Social Security Fund accelerated the process of investing part of the country’s retirement savings in PE. At the same time, the country’s largest insurance companies received approval to begin investing directly in PE, which could add hundreds of billions of Renminbi in new capital to the pool available for pre-IPO investing in China’s private companies.

    China First Capital has just published its third annual report on private equity in China. It is available in Chinese only by clicking here:  CFC 2011 Report. Or, you can download directly from the Research Reports section of the CFC website.

    The report is illustrated with examples of Shang Dynasty bronze ware. I returned recently fromAnyang, in Henan. Anyone with even a passing interest in these early Chinese bronze wares should visit the city’s splendid Yinxu Museum.

    This strong acceleration of the PE industry in China contrasts with situation in the rest of the world. In the US and Europe, both PE and VC investments remained at levels significantly lower than in 2007. IPO activity in these areas remains subdued, while the number of Chinese companies going public, and the amount of capital raised, both reached new records in 2010. There is every sign 2011 will surpass 2010 and so widen even farther the gap separating IPO activity for Chinese companies and those elsewhere.

    The new CFC report argues that China’s PE industry has three important and sustainable advantages compared to other parts of the world. They are:

    1.    High economic growth – at least five times higher in 2010 than the rate of gdp growth in the US and Europe

    2.    Active IPO market domestically, with high p/e multiples and strong investor demand for shares in newly-listed companies

    3.    A large reservoir of strong private companies that are looking to raise equity capital before an IPO

    CFC expects these three trends to continue during 2011 and beyond. Also important is the fact that the geographic scope of PE investment in China is now extending outside Eastern China into new areas, including Western China, Shandong,  Sichuan. Previously, most of China’s PE investment was concentrated in just four provinces (Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Jiangsu) and its two major cities, Beijing and Shanghai. These areas of China now generally have lower rates of economic growth, higher labor costs and more mature local markets than in regions once thought to be backwaters.

    PE investment is a bet on the future, a prediction on what customers will be buying in three to five years. That is the usual time horizon from investment to exit. China’s domestic market is highly dynamic and fast-changing. A company can go from founding to market leadership in that same 3-5 year period.  At the same time, today’s market leaders can easily fall behind, fail to anticipate either competition or changing consumer tastes.

    This Schumpetrian process of “creative destruction” is particularly prevalent in China. Markets in China are growing so quickly, alongside increases in consumer spending, that companies offering new products and services can grow extraordinary quickly.  At its core, PE investment seeks to identify these “creative destroyers”, then provide them with additional capital to grow more quickly and outmaneuver incumbents. When PE firms are successful doing this, they can earn enormous returns.

    One excellent example: a $5 million investment made by Goldman Sachs PE in Shenzhen pharmaceutical company Hepalink in 2007.  When Hepalink had its IPO in 2010, Goldman Sachs’ investment had appreciated by over 220 times, to a market value of over $1 billion.

    Risk and return are calibrated. Technology investments have higher rates of return (as in example of Goldman Sachs’s investment in Hepalink)  as well as higher rates of failure. China’s PE industry is now shifting away from investing in companies with interesting new technologies but no revenue to PE investment in traditional industries like retail, consumer products, resource extraction.  For PE firms, this lowers the risk of an investment becoming a complete loss. Rates of return in traditional industries are often still quite attractive by international standards.

    For example: A client of CFC in the traditional copper wire industry got PE investment in 2008. This company expects to have its IPO in Hong Kong later this year. When it does, the PE firm’s investment will have risen by over 10-fold.  Our client went from being one of numerous smaller-scale producers to being among China’s largest and most profitable in the industry. In capital intensive industries, private companies’ access to capital is still limited. Those firms that can raise PE money and put it to work expanding output can quickly lower costs and seize large amounts of market share.

    Our view: the risk-adjusted returns in Chinese private equity will continue to outpace most other classes of investing anywhere in the world. China will remain in the vanguard of the world’s alternative investment industry for many long years to come.



    Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
    May 03 6:08 PM | Link | Comment!
  • Entrepreneurship in China-- The High-Octane Fuel in the Economy's Engine

    China’s only abundant and inexhaustible natural resource is the entrepreneurial talent of its people. Nowhere else in the world can match the number of talented businesspeople, both in absolute numbers and as a share of the active population. That’s what I’ve learned in a 25-year career working alongside great entrepreneurs in the US, Europe and Asia. Today’s China is the most entrepreneurially-endowed place in the world. What that means, above all, is that China’s economy, propelled by robust entrepreneurial activity,  will prosper for the next several decades at least.

    Entrepreneurs everywhere seem to share a common gene, and have more in common with one another than they do with the rest of the population in their home countries. They are more tolerant of risk, more compelled to try or invent new things, more able to see opportunities for profit, especially when they are invisible to others.

    But, in China, entrepreneurs have some unique characteristics compared to those in the US and Europe. For one thing, until comparatively recently, China’s economy was a near-perfect socialist vacuum in which entrepreneurship could not survive.  The economy was almost entirely in state hands. Laws giving equal treatment to private companies were only introduced in 2005. Decades of pent-up entrepreneurial energy were unleashed. More great private companies have been started in the last ten years in China than in any other place in history.

    We are still in the early years of the Big Bang of Chinese entrepreneurship. Everyone in the world is feeling the effects. Within China, private entrepreneurs now supply much of what China’s vast consumer market buys. Outside China, much of what’s labeled “Made in China” is produced in factories started and run by these new entrepreneurs.

    There are some other important ways in which China’s entrepreneurs are different than those in US and Europe. A very minor percentage of China’s entrepreneurs are university graduates. They build their companies with almost no capital, and no access to bank credit. They face daunting challenges unknown to entrepreneurs most everywhere else: an absence of clear commercial laws or intellectual property protection, very burdensome tax and labor rules, holdover policies that give state-owned companies significant advantages.

    Despite it all, every year, more of China’s population are going into business for themselves. Not all will build billion-dollar businesses. But, more will do so in China over the next several decades than anywhere else.

    Partly, it’s simple math: China has both a huge domestic market and is the world’s largest manufacturing and exporting nation. But, these factors are themselves the product of China’s earlier entrepreneurial success, not a precondition for it. Earlier entrepreneurs created the fertile environment for today’s new private companies to thrive. The process is cumulative, and very fast-moving.. I see this every day in my work. We are meeting more great entrepreneurs now, on a weekly basis, than we did three, six or twelve months ago.

    Another fact stands out when I compare these Chinese entrepreneurs to others I’ve worked with in the US and Europe. Chinese entrepreneurs do most everything single-handedly. They build companies without relying on a big management team or a circle of advisors. Decision-making is mainly based on hunch and experience, not on market research or focus groups. Even large private companies in China are managed like sole proprietorships. Nothing of importance is delegated. One person controls all the decision-making levers, casting the one and deciding vote on any issue of importance to do with operations, marketing, finance, strategy, sales. They are lone navigators, steering their businesses through very tricky waters, dealing with government officials, suppliers, customers, as well as their own employees.

    Since starting China First Capital three years ago, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet several hundred outstanding Chinese entrepreneurs from dozens of different industries. Most are cut from the same cloth — crisp, confident, charismatic. With few exceptions, most do not have college degrees or much experience working for anyone else. They are born entrepreneurs.

    Take one boss I met recently. He began his working life 30 years ago, after high school, as a trader. He was good at it, and saved enough, eventually, to go into manufacturing one of the products he was selling as a wholesaler to others. He moved up quickly, from producing basic low-margin commodity products to investing in his own R&D. He kept plowing profits back into the R&D work, and then to build new factory lines to produce a range of unique, patent-protected products he invented. These products deliver higher margins and target a larger, richer market than anything he previously manufactured.

    The business is now growing very swiftly. Also typical, his son has joined the business, after getting a college degree abroad.  This boss, like most others I have met, knows how to work the system to his maximum advantage. His new products let him qualify as a high-tech enterprise, and so pay a much lower corporate income tax rate. The local government has shown its further support by selling him a large tract of land to build a new factory on, at a fraction of its market price.

    This boss, somewhat uncommonly, has a very strong management team around him to manage finances, factory production and marketing. He is the force of gravity holding whole business together. It’s hard to imagine anyone else, except perhaps one day his son, could run this business as well. That’s another characteristic shared by most good entrepreneurial companies in China – they are never quite as successful once the founder steps down.

    Another distinguishing trait of entrepreneurship in China – there are far more women bosses here than I ever saw in the US or Europe.  The ones I’ve met, along with being successful entrepreneurs, are also all quite elegant, attractive, even seductive. Those aren’t words usually associated with entrepreneurs anywhere else in the world.

    According to the magazine China Entrepreneur, there are currently more than 29 million female entrepreneurs in China,  or about 20% of the total number of entrepreneurs in the country. Overall, China has more entrepreneurs, male and female, than most countries have citizens.

    China’s economy continues to perform at a level never achieved by a major economy. Can this continue? I believe it can. The most emphatic reason is the entrepreneurial genius of so many of its citizens.



    Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.
    Apr 26 9:17 AM | Link | 2 Comments
  • Taxed At Source: Renminbi Private Equity Firms Confront the Taxman
     The formula for success in private equity is simple the world over: make lots of money investing other people’s money, keep 20% of the profits and pay little or no taxes on your share of the take. This tax avoidance is perfectly legal. PE firms are usually incorporated as offshore holding companies in tax-free domains like the Cayman Islands.

    Depending on their nationality, partners at PE firms may need to pay some tax on the profits distributed to them individually. But, some quick footwork can also keep the taxman at bay. For example, I know PE partners who are Chinese nationals, living in Hong Kong. They plan their lives to be sure not to be in either Hong Kong or China for more than 182 days a year, and so escape most individual taxes as well. Even when they pay, it’s usually at the capital gains rate, which is generally far lower than income tax.

    The tax efficiency is fundamental to private equity, and most other forms of fiduciary investing. If the PE firm’s profits were assessed with income tax ahead of distributions to Limited Partners (“LPs”), it would significantly reduce the overall rate of return, to say nothing about potentially incurring double taxation when those LPs share of profits got dinged again by the tax man.

    China, as everyone in the PE world knows, is very keen to foster growth of its own homegrown private equity firms. It has introduced a raft of new rules to allow PE firms to incorporate, invest Renminbi and exit via IPO in China. So far so good. The Chinese government is also pouring huge sums of its own cash into private equity, either directly through state-owned companies and agencies, or indirectly through the country’s pay-as-you-go social security fund. (See my recent blog post here.)

    Exact figures are hard to come by. But, it’s a safe bet that at least Rmb100 billion (USD$15 billion) in capital was committed to domestic private equity firms last year. This year should see even larger number of new domestic PE firms established, and even larger quadrants of capital poured in.

    It’s going to be a few years yet before the successful Chinese domestic PE firms start returning significant investment profits to their investors. When they do, their investors will likely be in for something of an unpleasant surprise: the PE firms’ profits, almost certainly, will be reduced by as much as 25% because of income tax.

    In other words, along with building a large homegrown PE industry that can rival those of the US and Europe, China is also determined to assess those domestic PE firms with sizable income taxes. These two policy priorities may turn out to be wholly incompatible. PE firms, more than most, have a deep, structural aversion to paying income tax on their profits. For one thing, doing so will cut dramatically into the personal profits earned by PE partners, lowering significantly the after-tax returns for these professionals. If so, the good ones will be tempted to move to Hong Kong to keep more of their share of the profits they earn investing others’ money. If so, then China could get deprived of some experienced and talented PE partners its young industry can ill afford to lose.

    It’s still early days for the PE industry in China. Renminbi PE firms really only got started two years ago. I’ve yet to hear any partners of domestic PE firms complain. But, my guess is that the complaining will begin just as soon as these PE firms begin to have successful exits and begin to write very large checks to the Chinese tax bureau. What then?

    China’s tax code is nothing if not fluid. New tax rules are announced and implemented on a weekly basis. Sometimes taxes go down. Most often lately, they go up.  Compared to developed countries, changing the tax code in China is simpler, speedier. So, if the Chinese government discovers that taxing PE firms is causing problems, it can reverse the policy rather quickly.

    The PE firms will likely argue that taxing their profits will end up hurting hundreds of millions of ordinary Chinese whose pensions will be smaller because the PE firms’ gains are subject to tax. In industry, this is known as the “widows and orphans defense”. Chinese contribute a share of their paycheck to the state pension system, which then invests this amount on their behalf, including about 10% going to PE investment.

    PE firms outside China are structured as offshore companies, with offices in places like London, New York and Hong Kong, but a tax presence in low- and no-tax domains. But, there’s currently no real way to do this in China, to raise, invest and earn Renminbi in an offshore entity. Changing that opens up an even larger can of worms, the current restrictions preventing most companies or individuals outside China from holding or investing Renminbi. This restriction plays a key part in China’s all-important Renminbi exchange rate policy, and management of the country’s nearly $2.8 trillion of foreign reserves.

    The world’s major PE firms are excitedly now raising Renminbi funds. Several have already succeeded, including Carlyle and TPG. They want access to domestic investment opportunities as well as the high exit multiples on China’s stock market. When and if the income tax rules start to bite and the firm’s partners get a look at their diminished take, they may find the appeal of working and investing in China far less alluring.

     

     

    Mar 17 9:03 AM | Link | Comment!
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