Cornerstone investing is among the latest new investment strategies favored by some in the private equity industry in China. It is still early. But, cornerstone deals may prove to be among the least successful risk-adjusted ways to make money investing in Chinese companies. Cornerstone investing involves putting big money up to buy shares in a company at the time of its IPO. In essence, it's no different than buying any other publicly-traded share through your stockbroker, except a little worse in one respect. The cornerstone investors usually accept restrictive covenants that prevent them from exiting until months after the IPO. The investment strategy, such as it is, amounts to hoping the stock price will go up.
This is obviously quite a departure from the way PE firms typically operate in China: discovering a great private company, putting money in while the company is still illiquid, then nurturing their growth for several years up to and beyond a public offering. Done well, this process will earn a PE investor returns of 500% or more. Generally, PE firms also can indemnify themselves against losing money by exercising a put to sell their shares back to a company that fails to IPO successfully. It's hard to imagine any scenario where cornerstone investing can do as well, and many where it will be significantly worse. One example: the possibility that the overall stock market performs poorly, as it has in Hong Kong for the last year or so.
Cornerstone investing is a well-established practice in Hong Kong IPOs. Previously, it was only rich Hong Kong plutocrats who did these deals, at a time when most IPOs were heavily oversubscribed and likely to record a big first day jump in price. Now, the plutocrats are gone, new IPOs have fallen steeply, valuations are way down, and PE firms have taken their place. What is it they say about fools going where wise men dare not tread?
How popular are these cornerstone deals now in Hong Kong? Hundreds of millions of dollars of PE capital have already been deployed. According to data from Bank of America Merrill Lynch cited by the Wall Street Journal, "private-equity funds… [make] up 41% of cornerstone investors in Hong Kong IPOs in 2012, compared with just 5% last year." The only limiting factor seems to be the big falloff in the number of Chinese companies going public in Hong Kong this year. PE firms appetite to do these deals seems, if anything, to be getting stronger.
Finding a cornerstone investor is usually a great deal for the company staging an IPO, since it means there are fewer shares that need to be sold to the general public, and the lock-in provisions provide comfort to other investors that the company should be worth more later than it is at time of IPO. So, price volatility is reduced.
And the corresponding benefits for the PE firm are? Good question. The PE firms will claim they are buying into a good company at a comparatively good price, that they've done extensive DD and are confident of long-term stock price appreciation, with moderate to low risk. In other words, it's a good place to invest their LPs money. That might be more plausible if cornerstone investing was producing large returns of late. It hasn't. The Hong Kong stock market remains at a very low level. Yes, maybe the Hong Kong stock market will rally, and so lift these shares, conveniently after the lock-in has expired, allowing the PE firms a nice trading profit.
As an investment strategy, this basically amounts to market timing. And as most financial theory teaches us, all market timing is as likely to lose money as earn it. The PE firms will argue otherwise, that they are acting like good "value investors", buying the shares at what they deem to be a low IPO price. As the company grows, its stock price will as well. Could be. But, there is an argument that this is what hedge funds and mutual funds are designed to do. They bet on the earnings momentum and so share price direction of publicly-traded equities. Is PE investing in China so difficult, so profit-constrained that PE firms now need to appropriate someone else's business model? And do so without having much, if any, of a track record in this sort of investing?
That's really the challenge here. Why should PE firms do these deals if there are still many outstanding pre-IPO equity investment opportunities available in China? PE firms can acquire a meaningful ownership stake in a dynamic private Chinese company, at low valuation, enjoy all kinds of special investor rights and privileges, including that guaranteed buy-back, that aren't available to cornerstone investors.
With cornerstone investing, a PE firm is mainly at the mercy of the stock market. Will overall share prices go up or down or stay the same? It's passive. With typical PE investing, the potential rewards, as well as downside protections, are obviously much better. But, so is the work you need to do.
That may explain a lot of the appeal of cornerstone investing. Cornerstone investing is simple. You get the IPO prospectus from a well-known underwriter, parse the audited financials, study other quoted comps, maybe talk to management about their growth prospects and how the IPO proceeds will be spent. You then make a determination about whether the company looks to be a good medium-to-long term bet. You never need to leave the office.
Compare that to PE deals in China. Due diligence is messy, slow, expensive and hazardous. Many deals never close because the PE firm discovers, during DD, that a Chinese firm's financials are not compliant with tax laws, or the founder's main supplier is his cousin's husband or the company has failed to acquire the appropriate licenses. In these cases, the PE firm has to swallow the cost of the DD, which can run to $250,000 or more per deal. Too many examples of this kind of loss-making and a PE firm will start to find its LPs are less willing to commit money in the future.
This kind of "DD risk" is largely absent from cornerstone deals. A company staging an IPO has gone through multiple rounds of vetting, approval and audits. All paid for by parties other than the PE firm. So, cornerstone investing can look, from a certain crooked perspective, like typical PE investing minus all the costs and hassle of "DIY DD". After all, the companies going public are usually similar in scale, business model and growth to purely-private deals the PE firm will look at in China.
Cornerstone investing is suddenly popular with some PE firms because stock market valuations have fallen so far in Hong Kong. Valuations, in p/e terms, are usually lower now in a Hong Kong IPO than for a comparable company raising money in a private placement in China: 4-8X this year's net income for the HK IPOs, and 8-10X for the private placements.
PE firms are given money by investors, and usually paid an annual management fee, to take on this risk and trouble of finding good companies, screening them, negotiating a good deal, and then remaining actively engaged, after investment, on the board, to help the company achieve its targets and an eventual exit. This is where the big money has been made in China PE, not in betting on the direction of publicly-traded share prices.
As a stock picking strategy, it's not unreasonable to suppose that Hong Kong stock prices are now at a cyclical low, and will start to move closer to the valuations on China's domestic stock markets. If so, then some cornerstone deals may end up making decent money.
But, PE firms are not, or should not be, stock-pickers, market-timers, valuation arbitrageurs. This is truest of all for those PE firms that raised money to invest - actively and passionately - in China's outstanding private entrepreneurial companies.