M&A in China is entering a new, more promising phase. At no previous time was the environment as favorable to identify and close, at attractive valuations, the acquisition of a profitable, high growth, well-run, larger private business in China.
This is the conclusion of a recently completed research study by China First Capital, as part of our M&A advisory work. (An abridged copy of the report is available by clicking here.) The report is titled, "A New Strategy for M&A, Buyouts & Corporate Acquisitions in China: Sourcing and executing successful corporate acquisitions and buyouts from unexited PE deals in China".
The industrial logic of doing acquisitions in China has never been in doubt. The scale, high annual growth rate and fragmented nature of China's domestic economy all create a powerful attraction for control investors. The challenge has traditionally been a negative selection bias on the sell-side, that the Chinese companies available for purchase are often troubled, state-owned, inefficient or poorly-managed. China's best corporate assets, its larger private companies, were not previously available to control investors.
As a result, M&A in China, for all the predictions of an impending take-off, has never gotten into gear. The theory behind most deals, if there was one, was to tie two stones together and see if they float.
The reason for the positive change in the environment for control deals in China is the serious degradation in the environment for minority ones. Specifically, China's private equity industry is in a state of deepening crisis. Having financed the growth of many of China's best private companies, the PE firms are now finding it increasingly difficult to engineer a liquidity event before the expiry of their fixed fund life. They are emerging as distress sellers of desirable assets - in this case, strong PE-backed companies that are left without any other viable means for investors to exit.
As elaborated in earlier research reports from China First Capital, (read here, here, here) there is a large overhang of over 7,500 unexited private equity deals in China. Most of these deals were done on the expectation of exiting through an IPO within a few years. That was always statistically improbable. In no year did more than 150 PE-backed Chinese private companies IPO.
An IPO has gone from statistically improbable to virtually unattainable. This is not only impacting the thinking of PE firms, but of the entrepreneurs they back as well. The exit math for private company bosses in China has changed dramatically over the last 12 months. M&A looks more and more like the only viable path to exit.
For business owners, the challenge to getting a deal done are both psychological and practical. First, owners must accept that valuations are way below where they hoped them to be, as well as well below the level two years ago, when they topped out at over 100 times last year's net income. Second, the number of companies looking to sell will quickly begin to outnumber the qualified and capable acquirers. This will put further downward pressure on valuations.
In other words, for private company bosses looking for a liquidity event, the pressure to consider selling the business is mounting. For investors, owners and acquirers, the result is the beginnings of a genuine market for corporate control for private sector businesses in China.
The new China First Capital report is directed towards all three classes of potential acquirers - 1) global businesses seeking China market entry; 2) corporate acquirers seeking market or margin expansion in China through strategic or tuck-in acquisitions; 3) China domestic or global buyout firms seeking quality operating assets that can be built up and sold. Their methods, timetable, metrics and deal targets will often differ. But, all three will find the current situation in China more suitable than at any previous time for executing M&A transactions of USD$100mn and above.
While the number of attractive targets is increasing, the complexities of doing M&A in China remain. The invested PE firms are almost always minority investors. A control transaction will need to be structured and staged to incentivize the owner to sell at least a portion of his holding alongside the PE firm, and then likely remain for at least several years at the helm.
The report offers some possible deal structures and timing mechanisms, included using "blended valuation" to determine price. It also charts the all-important "when does cash enter my pocket" timing from the perspective of a selling majority owner.
PE investment in China, the report concludes, has altered permanently the business landscape in China. It has also prepared the ground for a surge now in M&A activity.
Over $150 billion in PE capital was invested to propel the growth of over 10,000 private businesses. PE finance helped create a more dynamic and powerful private sector in China. In quite a number of cases, the PE-invested businesses have emerged as industry leaders in their sectors in China, highly profitable, innovative, fast-growing, with revenues of $100mn and above.
These companies have the scale and established market presence to permit a strategic acquirer to substantially increase its activity in China, extending product range, customer relationships, distribution channels. For buyout firms or corporate acquirers, taking over a PE-invested company should offer satisfactory financial returns. Buyout ROE can be significantly enhanced in certain cases by using leverage to finance the acquisition.
The supreme irony is that this moment of opportunity in domestic M&A comes at the same time quite a number of PE firms are pursuing highly questionable "take private" deals involving troubled Chinese companies listed on the US stock market. (See earlier blog posts here, here, here, here.) The risks, and prices paid, are far higher than doing well-targeted domestic M&A in China.
When junk is priced like jewels - and vice versa - is there any doubt where the smart money should go?