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China Private Equity: Paid To Gamble But Reluctant To Do So

Venture Capital Financing in the US (Source; The Wall Street Journal)


They are the best-paid gamblers in the world, the General Partners at private equity and venture capital firms. They are paid to take risks, to make bets, with other people's money. And for this, they usually get a guaranteed high annual retainer, a salary that generally puts them in the top 1% of all wage-earners in their country, and also a share of profits earned from putting others' money at risk. In other words, their life is on the order of "heads I win, tails I win" compensation. They make a handsome salary, have all their expenses covered, are unlikely ever to get fired, and also usually get to claim 20%-25% of the profits from successful deals.

Given those incentives, and the fact the guys with the money (your fund's LPs) are paying you to find great opportunities and bet on them rather than sit on your hands, you would assume that GPs would want to keep the flow of new deals moving along at a reasonable pace. In fact, inactivity is, next to losing all the LPs money on bad investments, the surest way for a PE fund to put itself out of business. And yet this do-nothing strategy is now common across China's private equity industry. For the better part of a year, deal-making has all but dried up.

From a recent high of around 1,200 PE deals closed in a single year in China, in 2012 the total tumbled. My surmise is that the number of new PE deals closed in China last year was down at least 75% from 2011. The activity that took place did so almost entirely during the first half of the year. An industry now holding over $100 billion in capital and employing well over 10,000 people, including some of the most well-educated and well-paid in China, ground to a halt during 2012.

Let me offer up one example. I won't name them, since I know and like the people running this shop: a fund that is among the biggest of all China-focused PEs, with over $4 billion in capital, made a total of three investments in all of 2012. Two of them were in "club deals" where they threw money into a pot along with a bunch of other funds. Though they keep a full-time staff of 100, funded by the management fee drawn from LPs money, this firm closed only one deal that they actually initiated. At a guess, these guys have an annual management fee in excess of $50mn, and during 2012, their headcount more than doubled.

In any other line of work, a company that decreased its output to about zero, while significantly increasing its expenses, would be on the fast-track to insolvency. But, not in the PE industry in China. It's currently the norm. Now, of course, those same PE firms will say they are keeping themselves busy monitoring their previous investments, rather than closing new ones. Yes, that's necessary work. But, still, the radical slow-down in PE activity in PE is without precedent elsewhere in the PE and VC world.

Look, for example, to the VC industry in the US. In good years and bad, with IPOs plentiful and nonexistent, VC firms keep up their dealmaking. These two charts at the top of the page show this quite clearly. Across a six-year cycle of capital markets boom and bust, the number of new VC investments closed stayed relatively constant at between 600-800 per quarter. In other words, VC workloads in the US stayed relatively stable. They kept channeling LP money into new opportunities. The dollar amounts fluctuated, peaking recently during the run-up to the highly-anticipated IPOs of Linkedin, Facebook, Groupon and Zynga. Valuations rose and so did check size. But, deal flow stayed steady, even after Linkedin, Facebook, Groupon and Zynga's share prices nosedived following IPOs.

This is the picture of a mature industry, managed by experienced professionals who've seen their share of stock market up and down cycles, heard thousands of pitches for "sure things" that raised some money only to later crash and burn. Some VC firms crashed and burned with them. But, overall, the industry has kept its wits, its focus and its discipline to invest through bad times as well as stellar ones.

The contrast with China's PE industry is rather stark. There are perhaps as many as 5,000 PE and VC firms in China. No one knows for sure. New ones keep getting formed every week. The more seasoned of the China PE and VC firms have a history of about 10 years. But, the overwhelming majority have been in this game for less than five years. In other words, today there is a large industry, well-financed and with control over a significant amount of the growth capital available in the world's second largest economy, that was basically created out of nothing, over just the last few years.

Obviously, these thousands of new PE firms couldn't point to their long history of identifying and investing in private companies. But, LPs poured money in all the same. They were investing more in China - in the remarkable talents of its entrepreneurs and the continued dynamism of its economy - than in the track record of those doing the investing. That seems a wise idea to me. As I've mentioned more than once, putting money into China's better entrepreneur-led companies is certainly among the better risk-adjusted investment opportunities in the world.

If anything, the opportunities are riper and cheaper than a year ago, as valuations have come down and good companies with significant scale (revenues above $25mn) have kept up a rate of profit growth above 30%. In the US VC industry, this would be a strong buy signal. Not so in China. Not now.

PE firms are collecting tens of millions of dollars from LPs in management fees, but not putting much new LP money to productive use by investing in companies that can generate a return. Nor are they actively exiting from previously-made investments and returning capital to LPs. This situation can't last indefinitely. For people handed chips and paid to gamble, it's unwise to spend too much of the time away from the casino snoozing in your high roller suite.