Private Equity Prospers in China amid Market Turmoil

Private Equity Prospers in China amid Market Turmoil

By adapting nimbly to the new conditions they face, leading private equity firms the focus on China will capitalize on their increased control by doing what they do best.

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Private Equity Prospers in China amid Market Turmoil

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China’s economic slowdown and the turbulence that has jolted its stock exchanges since mid-2015 have dominated worries about the country’s outlook. The world’s second-largest economy entered 2016 struggling to make a momentous transition from rapid export-led growth to somewhat more sedate and sustainable consumer-led growth. Everyone with a stake in China’s future is pouring over the numbers to divine what it will hold as the economy lurches into this new phase.

The private equity industry is no stranger to the need to adapt to large ambiguous forces that could bring existential threats or point the way to new prosperity for the markets where it operates. As we explain in Bain & Company’s Global Private Equity Report 2016, PE is certainly facing those circumstances in China today, and based on the latest evidence, the industry is showing signs that bode well for its future, as well as for China’s.

Despite the gathering economic clouds, 2015 was a surprisingly strong year for PE in China. Coming off record activity in 2014, reported PE deal value and deal count were remarkably robust last year—up by more than 50% and 25%, respectively. Exit activity, too, held up well, about in line with the average over the previous five years. Despite volatility in public equity markets, the IPO channel was a productive source of exits.

Beneath the bright surface of China’s PE numbers last year, the market is going through a major transformation. Surfing on a digital wave, Internet deals accounted for some 40% of total deal value—more than a sixfold increase from the average over the previous five years. By contrast, deal values in most traditional industries were down, leaving many long-established PE firms floundering. Some firms joined forces, forming consortia of buyers for bigger deals—typically worth more than $500 million—as they sought attractive investment opportunities. Three public-to-private conversions of U.S.-listed Chinese companies topped the year’s roster of the largest deals.

Between today’s old-economy slowdown and China’s brighter new economic future, of course, lies a difficult market transformation, as yet of unknown magnitude and duration. The uncertainty on the path to a new normal will present PE investors in Greater China with challenges that will test them. PE returns will come under pressure as corporate profits shrink and as further depreciation of the renminbi hangs over balance sheets. After two great years of buoyant asset sales, an exit backlog could build up again if the IPO market remains volatile or weakens, and as potential corporate acquirers turn inward to focus on their core businesses.

Last year was a breakout year for deals that gave their PE acquirers effective control over the assets they bought—a promising sign of PE’s new strength in a deal market that had long limited owners to minority stakes in growth companies. The value of buyouts was five times higher than their annual averages from 2010 to 2014, and for the first time, it was on a par with the value of growth deals. Also, more deals in which PE acquirers bought minority stakes paved a path to control by allowing the new owners to share an active role in the target company’s most consequential decisions.

By adapting nimbly to the new conditions they face, leading China-focused PE firms will capitalize on their increased control by doing what they do best. They will focus on promising sectors offering future-oriented investments, finding opportunities in China’s next-generation “Made in China 2025” manufacturing sector, profiting from Chinese consumers’ increasing wealth, and leading the convergence of online and offline sales channels—all while steering clear of bubble risks. They will shift their investment theses from the pursuit of growth to a focus on business renewal and performance improvement. They will hone a differentiated strategy, moving away from a broad sector focus and emphasizing, instead, strong due diligence and portfolio management skills. And they will invest in building their firms’ organizations and capabilities to support their adjustment to China’s unprecedented economic transformation.

Hugh MacArthur, Graham Elton, Dan Haas and Suvir Varma are leaders of Bain & Company’s Private Equity Group.

Carl Evander is a principal in Bain’s Private Equity Group.


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