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Investors Vs. Asset Managers: A Dysfunction At The Heart Of China Private Equity


Assuming the same level of risk, would you rather make $100 from investing $10 or from investing $50? Easy, right? Who wouldn't choose to make ten times your money, rather than just double it? There is one group I know. Private equity firms active in China. At least some of them. They care more about the amount they can invest in a deal than the profits they stand to make.

The illogic at work here is the direct result of some particular, not very appealing characteristics, of the PE industry in China. PE firms lately have more confidence in their ability to raise money than to invest it profitably by achieving a timely exit. To raise money, though, a PE firm needs first to spend most of what it already has. Result: a rush to get money out the door and parked in deals.

In industry parlance, "check size" is often more important than potential risk-adjusted returns.This is one reason for the recent rash of "take private" PtP deals of Chinese companies quoted in the US. (See previous articles, including here, here, here. ) The transactions seem to me ill-considered. PEs have invested billions of dollars in such deals but there is not a single successful example they can point to of such PtP deals done in the US making money for investors. This must be a PE industry first - so much LP money put at risk against an investment idea that is totally unproved.

Who's most harmed from focus on "check size" over deal quality and prospective returns? Of course it's the LPs whose money is put into these deals. They want and need high returns, not bigger deals done using their money to aid PE firms' future fund-raising.

But, Chinese entrepreneurs also suffer in this environment, because many PE firms now simply won't look at deals where they can't invest at least $25mn for around 25% of the company. There are few deals out there in that size range, meaning deserving entrepreneurs can't find investors.

The big picture here: PE in China has become more and more a business dominated by asset managers not investors. How to tell the two apart? An asset manager enjoys the comfort and certainty of making a steady 2% a year managing other people's money. The more money they raise, the more money they keep. Good markets or bad, the money keeps rolling in.

An investor, on the other hand, is a whole different animal. They share some DNA with the entrepreneurs they back. They love the sport of finding and evaluating deals, spotting where big money can be made, putting money at risk. When it works, they make big sums for their investors, and keep a nice chunk themselves.

Needless to say, LPs give money to PE firms in hopes they have chosen investors not asset managers. PE firms know this, of course, and tailor their money-raising pitch accordingly. They stress their deal-making prowess, not the fact that over the life of a typical 10-year fund, an LP will start with a 20% cumulative loss, because of the typical annual management fee deductions.

In China, it used to be fairly easy to make money in PE. But, over the last three years, returns began to head south. More recently, over the last 18 months, the performance has mainly been dismal, with few successful deals exiting with big profits. It's getting harder and harder for LPs to make money in China PE, after those accumulated management fees have been deducted.

But, there's a time lag - as well as an information asymmetry - at work here. While recent performance has been, on the whole, lousy, there's still appetite among LPs to allocate more money to China. A big reason is that China's economy, and capital markets, are both the second-biggest in the world. Most LPs are seriously underweight China and want to change that.

And so we arrive at the current paradoxical situation, where it's still comparatively easier to collect money to invest in China than to make money deploying it. Now, of course, PE firms can only succeed in raising capital if they can point to some successful past deals. Here too there's an information asymmetry at work. Many PE firms did well from 2005-2010, and so their fund-raising documents emphasize deals done during this era. But, the game has changed out of all recognition since then.

Few, if any, PE firms have shown they can continue to earn investors good money when markets become less accommodating. It's no longer possible to play the game of valuation arbitrage, of investing in China deals at single digit p/e multiples, and exiting them soon after at 5-10 times higher multiples through an IPO.

Earning a profit on an investment takes preparation, luck and time. Making money by convincing people to pay you a fee to manage theirs, by contrast, is a much simpler proposition, as well as a no-lose one.

And so the gulf widens between the objectives of PE firms and the fiduciary responsibilities and performance goals of the institutions whose money they manage.

This can be a problem everywhere in the PE and VC industry, as well as more broadly wherever people get paid to manage assets owned by someone else. (See principal-agent dilemma.) But, it's probably especially pernicious in China PE.

The industry is staffed mainly be ex-investment bankers, who by background and temperament understand more about fee-based, than performance-based, compensation. Few have a background of actually managing a company, investing its capital to produce a return. Without this first-hand understanding, it's far harder as an investor to plot how to make an operating business more valuable. The result: PE firms in China will often opt for an easier path: making money by raising money from, and managing for, other financial professionals.