China Inc. takes stock after overseas buying spree

By Wei Gu
January 22, 2009

wei_gu_debate– Wei Gu is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own –

Abundant liquidity, government support and a strong yuan fueled Chinese companies’ overseas buying spree.

But since they went out at the peak of the market and did not have a clear strategy for acquisitions, it should come as no surprise that most of those deals have turned sour. Once bitten, twice shy.

Crisis-ridden companies around the world are hoping that cash-rich Chinese buyers will come to their rescue, but the Chinese are not eager after getting their fingers burnt.

Chinese regulators are now giving more scrutiny to foreign deals, forcing interested buyers to lay out the most pessimistic scenario when seeking their approval.

Bankers said Beijing is skeptical about buying everything except resources, which is seen as important to China’s strategic interest and involves few integration challenges.

BUYING THE BRAND

Chinese manufacturers thought they had found a winning strategy by making goods cheaply in China and slapping a prestigious Western brand on it.

But the strategy hit a wall as companies such as TCL struggled for years to turn around businesses it bought in North America and Europe.

Lenovo’s purchase of IBM’s PC unit was widely lauded as a rare success until it announced a broad restructuring and profit shortfall earlier this month.

The acquired unit has a high exposure to large enterprises in developed markets, a segment that was hit hardest by the economic downturn, said Xin Zhao, an analyst at Cazenove.

“Before China caught the globalization wave our teachers in the West ran into problems,” said Yang Mianmian, president of China’s electronic appliance giant Haier, which last year spurned an offer to buy GE’s electronics unit.

“The financial crisis has changed our thinking and now we are looking more at rural demand.”

One of the potential pitfalls has been overpaying. Chinese buyers lack experience in valuation methodology and are at risk of paying too much. Moreover, they often do not have a strong understanding of the target experience, and tend to underestimate culture differences and powerful unions.

Some deals have not only incurred hefty losses but turned into a public relations nightmare as the crisis bites harder.

Take the example of Ssangyong Motor Co, South Korea’s No. 5 automaker, which filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 9 after getting hit by the global slump in car sales.

Analysts reckon SAIC Motor Corp, which owns 51 percent of Ssangyong, would be prepared to let the sport utility vehicle maker fail.

Some South Korean media have accused SAIC of all along planning to strip Ssangyong’s technology and dump it afterwards.

“Chinese companies have now realized there are many pitfalls on the road abroad and are learning from their experience,” said David Yu, partner at Llinks Law Offices, who advised SAIC on the deal.

FINANCIALLY SOUND

Chinese companies are financially sound — three state-owned banks trail only Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway on the global cash-rich groups list. But they’d better not try to bottom fish now.
The temptations are great — many Western brands long seen as out of Beijing’s reach are now fighting for Chinese attention.

Ford, for example, is looking for buyers to take up Volvo and a bank representing it has pitched it to at least three Chinese automakers.

“Chinese automakers need to be extremely cautious about those seemingly once-in-100-years opportunities to avoid failures which will not be recovered in many decades,” said Yankun Hou, an analyst with Nomura Securities.

To avoid more big losses, Chinese companies should cut their teeth on smaller deals in growing industries and markets, mindful that acquiring technology is much easier to manage than buying brands because it doesn’t involve taking over the whole operation.

“It is not clear that all the bad news is yet out, so assessing a target bank’s exposure is still challenging for any investor,” said Holger Michaelis, a partner with The Boston Consulting Group in Beijing.

“The timing however appears good for screening potential targets, but with a focus on smaller deals in less risky segments, like wealth management and asset management.”

– At the time of publication Wei Gu did not own any direct investments in securities mentioned in this article. She may be an owner indirectly as an investor in a fund –

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