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Private Equity Shifts Its Attention to China

A few weeks ago, Stephen A. Schwarzman, left, the chairman of the Blackstone Group, the world’s biggest private equity firm, came to Shanghai to sign a deal with the municipal government and create the first Blackstone fund denominated entirely in Chinese currency, a $732 million venture fund, The New York Times’s David Barboza reports from Shanghai.

The announcement of the joint venture with the city is the latest sign that global private equity firms are seeking to raise capital from China’s increasingly wealthy individuals and institutions and that the country’s currency, formally known as the renminbi, is gaining in international stature.

Chinese private equity funds are emerging in big cities as China promulgates new regulations aimed at creating a homegrown private equity industry, one that Beijing hopes will strengthen the country’s capital markets and fuel private-sector growth in an economy overly dependent on government investment.

Industry experts say that to compete with China’s burgeoning funds, global firms like Blackstone, the Carlyle Group and even the buyout firm Kohlberg Kravis Roberts are scrambling to form funds denominated in the currency, commonly called the yuan. Analysts say it has suddenly become the currency of choice for private equity firms operating in China.

“Now, more and more deals are being done with local funds,” said Wang Chaoyong, chairman of China Equity, a large private equity firm based in Beijing. “Even internationally invested companies are switching to local currency.”

Blackstone, Carlye and K.K.R. declined to comment.

There are still major obstacles to forming funds in the Chinese currency.

The laws regulating such funds are still vague. China is ostensibly communist, and skeptics say private-equity-style investing is so new in the country that many wealthy Chinese, as well as many government agencies, may be reluctant to commit huge amounts of money.

“It’s the right thing to do strategically, if you take a holistic approach,” says Robert Partridge, a managing director at Ernst & Young in Hong Kong. “But to implement this is still a challenge.”

Indeed, Blackstone’s move comes after the Chinese government bought a $3 billion stake in the firm before its 2007 initial public stock offering.

Blackstone’s shares have tumbled since then, but the firm has accelerated its push into China.

Analysts say global private equity funds like Blackstone are hoping to tap the enormous pool of wealth now being amassed in China. Companies and government agencies are flush with cash, and the number of high-net-worth individuals has soared in recent years.

Regulators have already made it easier for private equity investors to take pre-I.P.O. stakes in private companies that plan to go public in China, which is now the world’s biggest market for such offerings.

C.G. Wu, the China chairman at CLSA Asia Pacific Markets, says that under the new rules, private equity funds can cash out, or exit, using the Chinese stock market rather than going through a more complicated process that involves listing on overseas stock exchanges. Mr. Wu’s firm recently formed a $1.4 billion Chinese currency private equity fund with a state-owned company in Shanghai.

More than 190 funds denominated in the Chinese currency, with more than $30 billion in combined capital, have been established during the last two and a half years, according to Zero2IPO, a Beijing-based research firm.

Among them is a $2.9 billion private equity fund created by the China International Capital Corporation, the country’s biggest investment bank, which is partly owned by Morgan Stanley.

Until now, private equity in China has been dominated by global funds investing dollar-denominated assets.

For at least a decade, when global funds acquired stakes in Chinese start-ups, to get around government restrictions on foreign investments, they helped the Chinese companies create offshore holding companies, putting the deals largely beyond the reach of Chinese regulators.

The complex deals, often done in tax havens like the Cayman Islands, successfully financed some of China’s most dynamic young companies, including Internet start-ups like Baidu and Alibaba.com, consumer brands like Li Ning and real estate giants like Soho China and Country Garden.

But the offshore investments also annoyed Beijing by exploiting tax loopholes and pushing many Chinese companies to seek stock listings outside mainland China on exchanges like Hong Kong or Nasdaq, where global investors could more easily sell their holdings.

Hong Kong’s bourse is considered an offshore exchange, because it is not governed by Beijing regulators.

But now, if Beijing has its way, wealthy Chinese funds would help finance China’s budding entrepreneurs, who Beijing hopes will more often than not list on Chinese stock exchanges like the recently opened ChiNext, a Nasdaq-style exchange that got off to a strong start a few weeks ago. That would provide fund investors with easier access and exits.

“We see more deals being restructured to target the local capital market,” says Lawrence Sussman, a lawyer at O’Melveny & Myers.

Some analysts say the new system could reshape the way capital is allocated in China and serve as another step in the country’s transition to a more market-oriented economic approach.

“The market is becoming more efficient,” said one prominent Beijing-based fund manager, who asked not to be identified because of sensitivity about how the government was reshaping the market. “China’s stock market may finally become a true allocator of capital rather than just a financing tool of the Ministry of Finance.”

Analysts say the changes are occurring because a number of government regulatory agencies, including the powerful National Development and Reform Commission, are pushing the formation of an onshore Chinese private equity industry.

Analysts say increasing the number of listings in China could also have far-reaching effects on the global currency trade. If it were easier to invest in China in its own currency, there would be less need to import dollars — and less need for the Chinese government to buy United States Treasury bills. Though that might be a way off, it is not inconceivable.

In 2006, Beijing began restricting Chinese companies from forming offshore entities that could accept foreign financing.

The government also revised a law covering the formation of limited partnerships, or L.P.’s, which refers to the status of the people or institutions who invest in the private equity funds, opening the door for private equity firms to raise money from wealthy Chinese investors. Soon, state-controlled banks, insurance companies and pension funds could be allowed to invest with private equity firms.

Hoping to cash in on the next private equity boom, Shanghai, Beijing and other big cities are competing to create financial centers that could serve as headquarters for private equity or venture capital funds dealing in Chinese currency.

Blackstone and CLSA, the investment bank, have formed partnerships with the Shanghai government to establish large private equity funds in a new financial center in the city. Beijing is promoting itself as home to other big players, like the Hony Fund, which is controlled by the parent company of the computer maker Lenovo, and CDH Investments, which has $4 billion in assets under management.

Both Hony and CDH operate funds that have won approval to invest money from China’s huge government pension fund, the National Social Security Fund, which is backed partly by the shares of state-owned companies.

“The banking system in China does a really bad job of allocating capital,” said Michael Pettis, a professor of finance at Peking University. “But if you can divert money away from that and give it to companies that can create economic value, it would solve a lot of problems.”

Already, analysts say, the explosion of renminbi funds — or RMB funds, for the Chinese currency code — means Chinese entrepreneurs have more choices about whom to form alliances with.

“Now, many entrepreneurs are starting to turn away foreign currency funds,” Mr. Wang at China Equity said. “They say they can take an RMB investment and not go through a lengthy process to list offshore. And they see the Shanghai or ChiNext exchange as viable listing places.”

Source: Nytimes