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International Investors Miss The Boat in China – Because They’re Not Allowed Onboard

Despite my fourteen years living in London,  I needed to fly all the way back to that city this week, from China, to finally get a look at Westminster Central Halla stately stone pile across the street from the even statelier, stonier pile that is Westminster Abbey. Central Hall does double duty, both as a main meeting place for British Methodists, and also as an impressive venue for conferences, including the first meeting of the United Nations in 1946. 

This week, it was site of the annual Boao Forum for Asia International Capital Conference. I flew in to attend, and participate in a panel discussion on private equity in China. The Boao Forum is something like the more renowned Davos Forum, but with a particular focus on Asia and China. This annual meeting focused on finance and capital, and drew a large contingent of about 120 Chinese officials and businesspeople, along with an equal number of Western commercial bankers, lawyers, accountants, investors, politicians, academics and a few other investment bankers besides me. 

Central Hall is crowned by a large domed ceiling, said to be the second-largest in the world. I enjoyed sending back a brief live video feed to my China First Capital colleagues in Shenzhen, whirling my laptop camera up towards the dome, and then down to show the conference. It was also the first time any of my colleagues had seen me in a suit. 

The weather was a perfect encapsulation of British autumn climate, with blustery and frigid winds, occasional radiant sunshine and torrential rain. It was my first trip back to London in over two years, and nothing much had changed. What a contrast to China, where in two years, most major cities seem to undergo a radical facelift. 

“How can a non-Chinese invest in Chinese private company?” It was a straightforward question, by a London-based money manager, for the panel I was on. Straightforward, even obvious, but it was actually one I’d never really considered before, to my embarrassment. In my talk (see Powerpoint here: http://www.chinafirstcapital.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/trends-in-private-equity.pdf) , I made the case about why Chinese SME are among the world’s best investment opportunities for private equity firms.  It’s an argument I’m used to making to conference audiences in China. This is the first time I’ve done so anywhere else. The question, though, made me feel a bit like a guy telling his friends about the new Porsche Carrera for sale for $8,000, but then saying, “unfortunately, you’re not allowed to buy one.” 

The reality is that it’s effectively impossible for a non-Chinese investor, other than the PE firms we regularly work with,  to buy into a great private Chinese SME. For one thing, the investor would need renminbi to do so, and there’s no legal way to obtain it, for purposes like this. Even if you found a way around that problem, you’d face an even steeper one when you wanted to exit the investment and convert your profits back into dollars or sterling. 

The money manager came up to me later, and I could see the vexation in her eyes. I had persuaded her there were great ways for investors to make money investing in SME in China. Disappointingly, her clients aren’t allowed to do so. Cold comfort was all I could offer,  pointing out the same basic problem exists for any non-Chinese seeking to buy shares quoted on the Shenzhen and Shanghai stock markets. 

It’s a reasonable bet that China eventually will liberalize its exchange rate controls and ultimately allow freer convertibility of the renminbi. But, that doesn’t exist now. As a result, financial investment in renminbi in China is, for the most part, reserved exclusively for Chinese. Unfair? It must seem that way to the sophisticated, well-paid money managers in London, who these days have few, if any,  similarly “sure fire” investment options for their clients. 

China is, itself, awash in liquidity, and sitting on a hoard of over $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves. So, there really is no shortage of capital domestically. Allowing foreign investors in, of course, would increase the capital available to finance the growth of great companies. But,  it will also add to the mountain of foreign reserves and put more upward pressure on the renminbi. That’s the last thing Chinese authorities need at the moment. So, most of the best investment opportunities in China are likely to remain, for quite a lot longer, open only to Chinese investors. 

Overall, this is a very good time to be Chinese. By my historical reckoning, it’s the best since at least the Tang Dynasty over 1,000 years ago. China has changed out of all recognition over the last 30 years, creating enormous material and social gains. That beneficial change, if anything, is accelerating. The fact Chinese also have some of the world’s best investment opportunities to themselves is just another dividend from all this positive change. 

If I were a money manager, I’d also be asking myself “how can I get some of this?” But, I’m not a money manager, and I formulate things very differently. I’m so happy and privileged to have a chance to help some of China’s great private entrepreneurs. Me and my team invest all our waking hours and all our collective passion in this. We are rewarded daily, by the trust put in us by these entrepreneurs, and by our very small contribution to their continued success. That’s more than adequate return for me.

I guess I’m not cut out for purely financial investing.