31 March 2021
China’s domestic M&A is growing fast; Outbound M&A shows signs of recovery
A Q&A with Anthony Siu, Partner, Co-Head of Shanghai and Head of China Financial Sponsor Coverage, at BDA Partners, on the outlook for China M&A, private equity exits and outbound M&A activities
- 2020 was a record year for domestic Chinese M&A. Do you see this continuing in 2021?
Yes, I do see that trend of domestic Chinese M&A continuing, and even accelerating in 2021 and beyond. 2021 year-to-date domestic M&A has been on a record pace, with $80bn of deals announced and the busiest ever start to a year. This period saw three times the level of M&A deal value of the same period in 2020.
Covid-19 impacted the China M&A market heavily in the first half of 2020 but, since then, the market has rebounded significantly. Chinese buyers are focusing their M&A efforts domestically, largely due to geopolitical tensions, travel restrictions, and the severe impact of Covid-19 in Europe and the USA, along with shifting focus to domestic demand.
We see more domestic players speeding up their plan to expand in China. They are using this opportunity to consolidate in the domestic market, to accelerate growth, and to expand beyond their own regions to the whole country. Some national champions are emerging in certain sectors. With China aiming for more self-reliance and the economy still growing, I expect there will be further domestic M&A consolidation.
In terms of sectors, consumer and healthcare are the favorites for domestic buyers. As China is gearing towards consumer upgrade with higher disposable income, the consumer market will continue to grow. The large corporates would like to accelerate their channel network and market share expansion through acquisitions.
Healthcare is another area where we expect more domestic activities. The strategic players are looking at ways to expand their market share in a fast-growing but fragmented market. For example, in the healthcare services areas, we see a lot of M&A activities in hospitals, specialist clinics and rehabilitation centers.
- Do you think we will see Chinese family owner / founder business preferring IPO or trade sale exits in 2021?
I see both happening. The IPO market has been hot over the past year. The STAR Market has enabled smaller, high growth companies to list at attractive valuations. For founders who have no plans to retire or exit soon, or have high growth businesses that are tough to sell at an early stage, they will prefer the IPO route.
But for founders who have established businesses in traditional industries such as industrials and consumer & retail, trade sale can be a very attractive exit route for them. Strategic and private equity buyers are interested in market leaders with strong cash flows, and targets with these characteristics can attract strong interest.
- How do you see Covid-19 impacting PE owners’ timing and planning for exiting their investments?
Last year we saw PE sellers postponing their portfolio company exits due to adverse business environment. Looking ahead, we should see more PEs exiting their investments to clear the backlog. In the first half of this year, some PE firms are waiting to establish a clear path of recovery of the target’s financial and operating performance, and we expect trade sale exits to accelerate in the second half of the year.
- Do you see distressed / restructuring M&A opportunities in 2021? Domestic or overseas Chinese owned assets?
Not so much in China because the Covid-19 impact was short-lived. The over-leveraged situations for some enterprises happened before Covid-19 and they were forced to de-leverage. We saw a lot of these divestiture activities in the past 1-2 years.
Outside China, there may be more distressed and restructuring opportunities for companies that are looking for liquidity. With Chinese buyers being more active in outbound investments, we may see more deals done in overseas asset restructurings.
- China outbound M&A in 2020 was the lowest in the last decade. Do you see it bouncing back in 2021? If so, what sectors and countries will be attractive?
Since the beginning of this year, we have already seen early signs of recovery in outbound M&A. The Chinese players are becoming more active in outbound transactions into Europe and the rest of Asia such as Singapore and fast-growing countries like Vietnam; less so into the US because of the tensions between Washington and Beijing creating significant deal uncertainties. As the pandemic situation eases and borders re-open, we should see outbound deal volume picking up through the rest of the year.
I believe outbound investors will continue to favor sectors such as industrial and healthcare. Another sector that has benefited from the pandemic was transportation and logistics due to the boom of e-commerce.
- How do you see the geo-political relationship between China and the USA playing out under the new Biden Administration?
We have probably hit the lowest point of the China-USA relationship during the Trump Administration. I think the Biden Administration will take a firm but pragmatic approach to China, knowing that this is one of the most important strategic relationships to the US. US companies have significant investments in China, and they need to be protected. China is the biggest market in the world in many respects, and the US cannot afford to ignore that opportunity.
On the other hand, China will continue to open up. The government has already removed a lot of restrictions in foreign direct investments. Going forward, I expect that there will be a revival of US interest in investing in China.
- Will the new EU-China Agreement boost cross-border M&A in 2021?
The EU-China agreement primarily focuses on the China market opening up to the EU. It helps various sectors, for example, new energy, healthcare services, financial services; areas that were traditionally protected by the government. The EU companies will benefit from this agreement by China opening up these sectors more for EU investments. In terms of M&A, we expect to see more EU companies increasing their investments in China, through outright acquisitions or strategic investments. However, the recent sanctions row between the EU and China put the ratification of the agreement in doubt. I believe both sides will lose if the agreement falls through, and hope that they will find a way to avoid escalation and put the agreement back on the right path.
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