Where does Chinese money go?

Anthony Siu, Partner and Co-Head of China at BDA Partners, was interviewed by Wancheng Hu, a reporter at South Reviews. The publication is a political and economics magazine published under the Guangzhou Daily Press Group in Southern China. The following is a translated version of the article published on June 5, 2023.

China’s outbound M&A volume dropped to its lowest point last year. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the total value of M&A transactions in China fell to US$485bn in 2022, representing an 80% decline from the peak in 2016, and is comparable to 2009 when investment activities plummeted in the wake of the global financial crisis.

The Covid-19 pandemic and increasing geopolitical tensions led to varying degrees of restrictions on capital flow. Combined with stringent national security reviews, China’s outbound M&A has suffered a dramatic slowdown in recent years.

As the pandemic came to an end in early 2023, investment activities gradually picked up again. China’s outbound investment policies have not changed significantly, and the central government’s focus remains on encouraging foreign direct investments in healthcare, technology, advanced manufacturing, energy, and resources.

In the first half of 2023, the M&A market is back on a recovery path, with domestic transactions dominating China’s M&A. Cross-border M&A will likely see a pick-up in the second half of 2023, with Asia Pacific and the Middle East becoming the preferred markets for Chinese acquirers.

Amid early signs of an increase in activities, China’s outbound M&A will face challenges as well as opportunities in the near term. The following are key factors to consider for China’s outbound M&A:

1. Impact of increasing regulations on cross-border M&A 

BDA Partners specialises in cross-border M&A advisory and has been the top-ranked investment bank for cross-border M&A (enterprise value up to US$1bn) in Asia since 2016.

Mr. Siu moved to Shanghai from Hong Kong in 2008 and has been engaging in Chinese M&A advisory ever since. Having witnessed a long period of unprecedented growth of Chinese M&A, he was apprehensive about the recent downturn.

Siu said “For M&A practitioners, a lot has changed in recent years. The number of Chinese companies looking to engage in outbound M&A has shrunk significantly. The combined impact of the pandemic and the geopolitical tensions have led to a dramatic decline in M&A volume.”

While he believes that the pandemic impact is temporary, the geopolitical impact on cross-border M&A will be longer-lasting. In particular, the heavy regulatory scrutiny on China’s outbound M&A transactions is likely to stay for some time.

Among the affected regions, the US has been impacted the most. In January 2020, the US Treasury published new regulations based on the Foreign Investment Risk Review Modernization Act that significantly expanded the scope of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS).

“When a non-US company wants to acquire a US company, it needs to go through CFIUS review. The review will take a long time if the target’s industry is considered sensitive and involves national security concerns” said Siu, “although many transactions were not vetoed, they did not receive CFIUS approval and therefore were unable to close.”

In addition, countries that were previously considered to be open to foreign investments are moving toward increasingly stringent FDI reviews.

Germany, for instance, the country with the largest number of Chinese investments in the EU, had promulgated the Foreign Trade and Payments Act, imposing strict review measures for investments by non-EU countries and expanding the scope of mandatory filing obligations involving “critical infrastructure” and “critical technology.” Industry practitioners say that a large number of transactions were abandoned due to a slim chance of passing FDI or anti-monopoly review.

“Obtaining regulatory approval is a common concern for companies involved in cross-border M&A. If a Chinese state-owned enterprise (SOE) decides to conduct a transaction overseas, it requires approval from the State-owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission (SASAC). Moreover, when the transaction amount exceeds US$300m, further approval is required from the China National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC). These approvals will typically take time to go through,” said Siu.

The aforementioned includes only the approval procedures required from the Chinese side, while each country has its own jurisdiction and approval procedures, which further complicates the closing of a transaction. A few high-profile cases involving SOE acquirers over the years include:

  • In 2005, China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) attempted to acquire Unocal Corporation in the US, but the transaction was blocked as it did not pass a national security review
  • In 2009, Aluminum Corporation of China’s planned acquisition of Australia’s Rio Tinto was terminated because stakeholders reckoned that the terms were biased toward the buyer
  • In 2020, Shandong Gold Mining’s acquisition of Canadian gold miner TMAC Resources was blocked by the regulatory authorities due to national security reasons

In addition to national security considerations, Chinese acquirers face increased scrutiny in areas such as information transparency, financing sources, and shareholding structure.

2. Where will the China capital go?

Despite some challenges, outbound M&A activities are showing signs of recovery.

Countries around the world are welcoming investments in industries that are deemed important to the country’s economic development. In addition, industries that have been hit hard by the pandemic, including transportation and logistics, tourism and hospitality, basic materials, and consumer goods, are recovering, giving acquirers renewed confidence in investing in the future upside of these industries.

Siu is bullish on the China outbound M&A market. The resumption of international air travel and the normalization of business activities will allow Chinese acquirers to become more active in engaging in outbound M&A activities. However, he believes that this wave of outbound M&A will be different from the past. Rather than focusing on the U.S. and Europe, Chinese acquirers will be shifting their focus to new markets such as Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

“China today is playing a role similar to the US in the 1990s and early 2000s,” said Siu.

During those periods, US companies, facing a saturating domestic market, expanded their international footprint to high-growth emerging markets via M&A.

China is doing something similar now. In the past, the focus was on acquiring Western technologies and know-how to bring them to the Chinese market. This coming wave will be about investing in opportunities that allow Chinese acquirers to export self-developed technologies and products to the international markets. Instead of facing head-on competition in a crowded domestic market, they go abroad to look for new growth opportunities. Companies in the technology, media and telecom (TMT) space and the electric vehicle (EV) sector are among those industries with growth potential.

Southeast Asia, due to its close geographical proximity to China, has been a favourite destination for China’s outbound investments. Indonesia is one such example.

Indonesia has the world’s fourth-largest population with 274 million people and a young labour force. In 2022, investments made by Chinese companies in Indonesia reached US$8.2bn the second largest source of FDI in Indonesia. Today, Chinese investments are present in e-commerce, ride-hailing services, online food delivery, digital financial services, and online gaming sectors in Indonesia.

“Unlike trading and manufacturing companies that have gone to the West in the early days, Chinese high-tech and smart manufacturing companies looking to expand overseas now select Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa as their priority markets to enter,” said Siu.

However, with benefits also come challenges. Just like many foreign companies find it difficult to adapt to the Chinese market, many Chinese companies that entered new markets have encountered challenges in working with local management, understanding the local culture, and dealing with workers that are not accustomed to long working hours.

The above are all common problems encountered by Chinese acquirers in outbound investments. Essentially, it is the lack of attention and effort paid to post-acquisition integration and understanding of cultural differences that hinder the acquirer’s success. For example, Chinese companies often lack experience in managing employees under a union-led workforce. If appointed Chinese executives attempt to impose a top-down culture, employees are likely to express dissatisfaction. Over time, a growing estrangement will develop between the local employees and the Chinese executives.

3. Focus on building up M&A expertise and acquiring talent

Having worked on M&A for over two decades, Siu has witnessed many successful acquisitions, while others failed and had to go through a difficult period of restructuring.

He observed that the issue faced by Chinese acquirers is usually caused by a breakdown in communication. When a Chinese acquirer becomes the controlling shareholder, the target’s management is often concerned about how the new owner will affect its corporate culture and management style, soft issues that are often overlooked by the Chinese acquirers. If these problems are not handled properly, the target’s management team will ultimately choose to leave.

These kinds of issues can often be mitigated if the acquirer has already established a presence in the target’s region, along with a team that understands the local system and culture. If the acquirer can understand the target company’s pain points, it can address these issues upfront more effectively, and the chance of a successful integration will increase.

Siu pointed out as an example a cross-border transaction that BDA and its strategic partner, William Blair, served as the sell-side advisors for Summa Equity, a Finnish private equity firm, on the sale of its portfolio company, HyTest, to China’s Mindray for €532m in 2021.

HyTest is a leading global supplier of in vitro diagnostic (IVD) raw materials, with in-house R&D and production capabilities for high-quality antigens and antibodies. This acquisition has helped Mindray broaden its international footprint and strengthen its value chain coverage while fulfilling the need for top-graded IVD upstream raw materials in China.

Simeng Zhang, Director at BDA Partners and the project lead for the sale of HyTest, stated “compared to other companies, Mindray has a professional in-house M&A team composed of talent with prior experience at accounting firms, law firms, and investment banks. Having this talent on the team made the due diligence, negotiation management, and decision-making process much smoother.”

She also mentioned that Mindray and HyTest had already established a good level of trust in prior business relationships. “In the past few years, more than half of HyTest’s revenue came from the China market, and with Mindray’s globalization strategy, the acquisition of HyTest became particularly attractive to Mindray.”

Though BDA Partners often takes on the role of a sell-side advisor, when the transaction involves a Chinese buyer, BDA Partners will also take the initiative to coordinate with the buyer to elaborate thoughts from the seller’s side, including management’s concerns on the transaction and key transaction terms.

Siu believes that the days of relying on the China growth story to win over the seller’s and target’s management are gone. Chinese acquirers should have a clear plan for globalising the target’s business beyond just China. “We are actively working with our clients to search for quality investment targets on a global scale to help them expand their international footprint,” said Siu.

The history of globalisation proved that successful M&A transactions can generate higher shareholder returns and help global players strengthen their competencies and maintain their market-leading position.

Being able to survive the pandemic will make a company stronger, while others facing challenges will become more open to being acquired. “For ambitious Chinese companies, now is a good time for M&A,” said Siu.

However, overseas competitors will not just sit back and wait. To grasp the opportunity and secure a meaningful position among global leaders, Chinese acquirers should further enhance their in-house M&A capabilities and attract talent with international experience and M&A expertise.

About BDA Partners

BDA Partners is the global investment banking advisor for Asia. We are a premium provider of Asia-related advice to sophisticated clients globally, with over 25 years’ experience advising on cross-border M&A, capital raising, and financial restructuring. We provide global reach with our teams in New York and London, and true regional depth through our seven Asian offices in Mumbai, Singapore, Ho Chi Minh City, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul, and Tokyo. BDA has deep expertise in the Chemicals, Consumer & Retail, Health, Industrials, Services and Technology sectors. We work relentlessly to earn our clients’ trust by delivering insightful advice and outstanding outcomes.

BDA Partners has strategic partnerships with William Blair, a premier global investment banking business, and with DBJ (Development Bank of Japan), a Japanese Government-owned bank with US$150bn of assets. bdapartners.com

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