Enthusiasm grows for China buyout opportunities

Muted enthusiasm for a VC fund has reflected a changing investor appetite for venture capital in China. Mixed-mandate funds are proving to be a tough sell, but buyout investments are taking off.
Enthusiasm grows for China buyout opportunities

China’s venture capital market has been on a roll in recent years, underpinned by investors’ belief that more Alibaba-type opportunities will arise.

Investors are, however, becoming more enthusiastic about China buyout opportunities. And limited partners (LPs) are spreading their bets across a range of China VC firms.

That desire has been reflected in muted enthusiasm for leading China VC firm TrustBridge Partners’ (TBP) fifth fund, said one well-placed source. Fundraising was launched last September and the initial and second close - in September and December 2014 respectively - came in below market expectations, said the source. Indications are that the final close will be well below market expectations and the firm’s target, said the source. TBP declined to comment.

Another source, a fund-of-fund manager, said that he expected TBP’s fifth fund to close at “more or less the same” level as the firm’s fourth fund, which closed at $700 million, but it “may take a bit more time”.

He observed that China VC funds raising up to $200 million were generally raising capital very quickly, as were large (over $1 billion) PE funds but managers raising mid-sized funds are “not really getting a lot of attention”.

Investing $700 million means expanding beyond small-sized investments in start-ups to also include larger growth capital deals, potentially watering down returns.

TBP’s investments have reflected this trend. In 2010 and 2011, for example, the firm invested $200,000 and $2 million in Qihoo 360 Technology and social network Mogujie respectively.

In the first few months of 2015 alone the firm has invested $130 million in peer-to-peer lender Renrendai, $23 million in mobile food ordering company Meican and $15 million in cloud-based telecoms service provider Rong Lian.

While Asia’s largest PE fund raised so far this year – Baring Private Equity Asia VI – has a mandate to make both minority growth and buyout control investments, these type of mixed mandates – whether funds that combine VC plus minority growth or growth plus buyout – are a tough sell. They require LPs to dip into funds dedicated for investment in minority growth and buyout-focused funds, which LPs typically prefer to keep separate, just as they prefer to keep funds allocated for VC investments separate.

According to figures released last week by the Emerging Markets Private Equity Association, some 46 EM-focused PE funds were raised in the first quarter of 2015, down from 62 in the first quarter of 2014.

That decline was in line with global trends. The first quarter of this year saw 151 PE funds reach final close, the lowest figure in a decade and down from a quarterly average of 288 in 2014 according to data provider Preqin.

The trend is for a bifurcation – with fewer, larger funds reaching final close alongside a large number of small, niche funds. A total of 11 Asia-focused VC funds raised some $1.2 billion in the first quarter of this year, for example, averaging $109 million in size.

Overall, the average size for EM-focused PE funds rose from $139 million in the first quarter of 2014 to $185 million in the first quarter of 2015.

That average is expected to rise, with a number of multi-billion dollar pan-Asia buyout funds being raised, including Bain Capital Asia Fund III and PAG Asia II.

“There clearly is a shift towards the buyout model in the China market which is, in our view, a very important trend” said Partners Group co-CEO Christoph Rubeli.

London Business School finance professor Francesca Cornelli also said that she saw a lot more focus on China buyout opportunities this year than she did in 2014, and less attention paid to VC.

Cornelli said that weak protection of intellectual property rights makes it harder for investors to ascertain whether or not a firm will be able to maintain its leadership in any particular segment of the market, limiting enthusiasm for VC.

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