Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Chinese Overseas Buying Increasingly Shifts to Private From State

Published in WSJ

China has been Asia's top buyer of overseas assets for years, but inside the country, the pendulum of buyers is shifting. Instead of state firms armed with billions of dollars pursuing assets from oil to mining, China's buyers are increasingly companies led by homegrown entrepreneurs on the lookout for Western brands and technology.

One-off acquisitions by China's big state companies remain bigger, but in the last three years, privately owned firms like computer maker Lenovo Group and Chinese conglomerate Fosun International Ltd. have contributed to the ever-larger volumes of buying abroad. Even Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., the Chinese ecommerce giant that just raised US$21.8 billion in a New York initial public offering, has built up stakes in overseas assets, including U.S. mobile messaging service TangoMe Inc. this year.

"The theme of outbound China M&A has changed. State-owned enterprises are no longer the only buyers going overseas, private companies in industries like consumer and technology have started doing high-profile acquisitions on the global stage in recent years," said Stephen Gore, Asian-Pacific head of mergers and acquisitions at Bank of America Merrill Lynch.

At no time in the past has the gap between private and state buying of overseas assets been so small: This year alone, 188 overseas purchases worth $21 billion have been undertaken by non-state-owned Chinese firms, just $2 billion less than their bigger government counterparts, according to Dealogic data. Four years ago, state purchases, such as the $7.1 billion acquisition of Repsol Brasil SA by China Petrochemical Corp., contributed to a $24 billion gap.

By last year, overseas buying by private companies had reached a record high of $23 billion, almost three times the level in 2010. As single deals, state acquisitions remain bigger, but private firms have been busier. This year's top Chinese outbound deal was the $7 billion acquisition of Peruvian copper mine Las Bambas, followed by Lenovo's $2.9 billion bid for Google Inc. Motorola business and its $2.3 billion offer for International Business Machines Corp.'s IBM low-end server operation. Those transactions are expected to close by the end of the year.

Bankers point to three reasons behind the rising comparative heft of private companies: falling resource prices, the small size of their deals, and even Beijing's anti-corruption drive, which has put the focus on overspending by state firms.

"Large SOEs securing natural resources overseas have accounted for a major part of China's outbound acquisitions, but that's been slowing down because of the commodity backdrop and weak prices," said Lian Lian, North Asia co-head of M&A at J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. For instance, oil prices have fallen 9% since the US$15.1 billion acquisition by Cnooc Ltd. of Canadian oil explorer Nexen Inc., still the biggest Chinese acquisition overseas.

"Another reason for the slowdown of state buying is that there's been tighter scrutiny of acquisitions under this new [leadership regime] and people have become more cautious," Ms. Lian said.

Bankers say the many foreign purchases by private firms are often also too small to attract regulatory scrutiny. Under new rules, only overseas purchases worth over $1 billion need a full review by the National Development and Reform Commission, China's top economic planner, though acquisitions in "sensitive" industries like news media and telecommunications will still have to be vetted.

Brett McGonegal, chief executive of Hong Kong-based boutique bank Reorient Group Ltd. ,said he expects Chinese private companies to continue their overseas purchases, with the West as their main target.

"The U.S. market has a big pool of available assets for sale, and Europe has a lot of distressed assets, which are attractive from a price perspective," Mr. McGonegal said.

Earlier this year, Reorient advised House of Fraser Ltd., a U.K. operator of luxury departments stores, on its £480 million ($786 million) sale to Chinese conglomerate Sanpower Group Ltd. The deal was the largest investment by a Chinese company in the retail sector overseas. The 165-year-old British department-store chain posted a loss before tax and exceptional items of £6.9 million for the year to January 26, 2013, its last publicly disclosed financial statements. In April Israeli tele-medicine company Natali Seculife Ltd. was acquired by Sanpower Group Ltd. at a value of $70 million.

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