The most important event of the first quarter for our team was the Chinese New Year Spring Festival. The year of the Rooster symbolizes fidelity and punctuality, with its early morning crowing perceived as a call to action – urging us to roll up our sleeves and get to work. The holiday also rings in the busy season for us, with new deals commencing in earnest, annual budgeting finalized, and strategic planning meetings.
Macro discussions at this time last year centered on debt in the system, fiscal stimulus, and money flowing offshore. This year the focus remains on debt, asset price inflation, retail sales gains, and the stabilization of the RMB as capital outflows slow. Debt as ever remains the X-factor that weighs on valuations, perceptions and the risk premium many associate with China. The observers we trust the most believe this is not a systemic concern, but for every two in that camp, there is a Cassandra with the opposing view. What all should agree on is that the effects of last year’s stimulus measures are indisputably material. Retail sales running at double-digit gains continue to mirror the underlying trends we see in our portfolio companies, and in the pipeline businesses we are targeting. Chinese New Year sales reached RMB 840bn, up 11.4% year-over-year, with tourism up similarly to 100bn from 90bn last year. Overall, China’s long-term growth trajectory remains on track, namely:
(i) transitioning China from an export and investment-led growth model to one empowered by the domestic consumer, (ii) promoting global trade and commerce through initiatives such as One Belt One Road, and (iii) further liberalization of the capital markets. The recent announcement that the US will soon restart beef imports to China, which were initially halted in 2003, will provide an attractive alternative for Castle Snack’s to source more competitive pricing for raw beef for its beef jerky.
Capital controls have limited our ability to distribute investment gains, but money staying onshore has created demand for investment, including a surge in the number of domestic IPOs. Bloomberg reported that outbound takeovers by Chinese companies buying offshore assets are down 67% this year due to capital controls, the biggest drop since the financial crisis. Regulators continue to place obstacles in the way for getting funds offshore, which has helped the RMB stabilize to a far greater degree than anticipated. It has also made for very high breakup fees, something, to reassure, we very much have in place with exits we are working on.
Our industry is evolving as well. There is a notable uptick in demand for private equity from domestic entrepreneurs and founder/managers, which we believe will continue to serve China’s capital markets and our strategy well. Venture still attracts the most mindshare, and probably the most capital as well. However, in the more mature private equity strategies, we believe control continues to stand out as offering the best risk-reward, and we remain an early mover. Skillset and focus is winning out versus the pure capital, relationship-driven approach, and younger team members and management are at a distinct advantage as opportunities and structures evolve very quickly, especially onshore.
We are seeing a few key reoccurring themes and trends which continue to drive our investment strategy. Firstly, we remain focused on building scale through platforms and believe that rollup strategies work. Secondly, we will keep fighting for control. The more control we have, the better the outcome will be and the easier we find it to make improvements and scale our businesses. Thirdly, move quickly. China is the world’s most dynamic economy, and everything moves faster. Changing management, rationalizing product lines, or implementing change is better done fast and swift. Lastly, be mindful of leaving cash on the table. We were early to exit an investment we held in Hangzhou Kings at well above cost due to concerns over our status as a foreign shareholder. We chose to exit rather than propose creative structures to our LPs that could, perhaps, have retained our involvement despite layering on structuring risk. Hangzhou Kings went public domestically this quarter, and after trading at near its limit nearly every day since, the current valuation of the company would have implied more than 12x our invested cost. As we plan for future exits, we will work to educate our investing partners on where we may be able to take prudent risk to capture upside in situations where often structures require more work to understand.
That leads to the greatest challenges we face in our portfolio: modernizing thinking, continuing to execute, and accelerating the pace of all that we do. China today is about the new taking over from the old, modern outpacing traditional, China’s youth consuming much differently than their parents, and young managers moving faster and more creatively than their 45-year-old-plus peers. We believe that our ability to quickly modernize, whether in Castle Snack’s manufacturing operations, Yao Taitai’s products and packaging, or Yeehoo’s distribution, is truly where we can move the needle for our partners.