China's Future Investment Watch series - Do Not Expect the Next Tencent or Alibaba to Come from China
Antitrust, reform in education, real estate and medical care policies, Common Prosperity... all of these show that China is undergoing earth-shaking change. These changes have brought large uncertainty, making many investors afraid to invest in Chinese projects and companies. However, over the next decade, China sure will become the world's largest economy. How to better understand the opportunities and risks of the Chinese market and deal with certainty and uncertainty is a crucial problem. EqualOcean launched a series of research, China's Future Investment Watch, hoping to provide clues for global investors.
It is said that one of the most regrettable decisions of Richard Li, PCCW chairman and son of Li Ka-Shing, was not investing in Tencent in 2000. Indeed, the Tencent-led 2C Internet giants, such as Alibaba, Baidu, DiDi, Meituan, and ByteDance, experienced a golden age from 2000 to 2014 and have an increasing influence in China, resembling FAANG (Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google) in the United States. Some of the companies are now deeply rooted in Chinese life and help their investors make impressive gains. However, we believe that the investment logic of China has changed currently, and investors who plan to invest in China now or in the future should know the new logic behind recent events. We will display the changes in three aspects: political, economic, and people.
New tones in the Chinese political environment
First of all, we think the Chinese political environment has changed, especially in the past four years. Since the advent of 'Modern Times' in China, the Chinese have been adhering to a rising belief in 'Industry Salvation' – or the transformation of the whole country through industrial advances. Therefore, the Chinese government has been focusing on supporting the development of the traditional industrial business in the first decade of the 21st century to raise the country's manufacturing power and quickly improve its international competitiveness. At the same time, the Chinese government has been looking upon the Internet as a relatively inefficient investment environment, and Internet companies receive little support officially. Unable to receive domestic help, Internet companies have to turn to VC/PE in developed countries or even go for cross-border IPOs. Owing to the capital support from VC/PE in the developed market and the neglect of policies, the Internet industry has experienced a long period of 'barbaric' growth. Many companies have begun to stand out during this time, such as the well-known Alibaba, Baidu, and Tencent.
Finally, from about 2013 to 2014, the Chinese government realized the advent of the digital age and the importance of the Internet. However, as the Internet is an emerging industry for China and the development path of other countries is difficult to learn from, Chinese regulators have been paying attention to finding a balance between growth and structural optimization. Between 2013 to 2017, we believe that China paid more attention to the growth side of the Internet instead of setting restrictions to optimize the structure of the Internet industry. Many policies can testify to the point; in November 2014, during the First World Internet Conference, the Chinese premier, Keqiang Li, pointed out that the Internet is a new tool for the Mass Entrepreneurship and Innovation national strategy; in June 2015, the China Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) issued a notice to lift foreign ownership restrictions in the e-commerce sector, while the China State Council issued guidance to encourage the development of cross-border e-commerce companies simultaneously.
However, since late 2017, the Chinese government has changed its focus to acting as the Internet's support in terms of industrial (and technology) and legal compliance for Internet-related companies (the structural optimization side). Since November 2017, the policy document issuance has evolved to combine Internet concepts with general industrial and put forward concepts of 'Internet plus Advanced Manufacturing and Industrial Internet'; these were still being emphasized in official documents up to 2021. At the same time, the 2020 Central Economic Work Conference proposed 'strengthening antitrust and preventing disorderly capital expansion' as one of the key tasks in 2021. In December 2020, Alibaba, Tencent, and Hive Box Technology were punished, and the State Administration of market supervision also investigated Alibaba for creating a suspected monopoly. In March 2021, the State Administration of market supervision made administrative punishment decisions targeting many Internet giants, including Alibaba, Tencent, JD.COM, ByteDance, and Meituan.
In general, the emergence of large Internet companies such as Tencent and Alibaba was largely due to the neglect and laissez-faire of national policies from 2000 to 2013. More importantly, the neglect of policies has led to chaos in the industry, such as unfair competition, 996 culture, and P2P lending scams. With the endless emergence of reform policies, Internet companies have gradually recovered from the 'barbaric' growth stage to arrive at a relatively normal growth stage.
GDP growth driver becoming ineffective in the next decade
Second, the growth pattern of Chinese GDP in the past two decades is also a driver. In economics, GDP is defined as: GDP = Consumption + Investment + Government Spending + Net Exports (GDP = C + I + G + NX). After China joined the WTO in 2001, for a long time, China's economic growth mainly depended on official investment and trade surplus. Relying on the whole industrial chain system and developed light industry, China ushered in seven years of high GDP growth from 2001 to 2007.
However, such a growth mode is criticized by other economies because it relies too much on the I and NX. High net export indicates a high dependence upon foreign trade, and the excessive investment made by governments causes serious overcapacity, resources wasting, and environmental damage. These are the problems currently being solved by China, which proposes to increase the proportion of consumption-driven growth (which is much higher in developed countries). The slowdown of economic growth is one of the consequences. This is also the main reason why China has asked for speed reduction in recent years. Besides, China's economy grew into the world's second-largest economy one decade ago. It is difficult to maintain a high growth rate with such a large GDP base. Then from 2007, the GDP growth showed a downtrend.
We believe that the GDP growth rate change is an important reason for the rapid expansion of Internet companies from a valuation standpoint. As we all know, Discounted cash flow method (DCF) is often used by fund managers as an absolute valuation tool. One of the important parameters is the terminal growth rate, and the countries' GDP growth rate is used as the reference for this rate. The decline in terminal growth rate means an increase in valuation, even if the companies' operating remains consistent. We mentioned that China's GDP growth rate has been declining since 2007, which means that downward GDP boosted Internet companies' valuation, especially overseas-listed companies. We believe that this indirectly accelerates the development of Internet giants.
Nevertheless, we think GDP growth has stabilized within 5% to 6% level since the pandemic 2020, and China also said that it no longer pays attention to growth figures. We believe that in the past, the driving effect of downward GDP growth has gradually disappeared. The valuation of the Internet industry is gradually returning to rationality and it is difficult to reproduce the explosive growth.
From the 2C era to the 2B era
Third, To-Consumer (2C) companies' losing of competitive advantage is also a factor behind the change of the investing logic. In the past two decades, the most well-known players have been all the 2C companies. Such companies mainly gain profit from individual consumers, either directly (self-operated e-commerce and individual services) or indirectly (advertising and commission). Before 2017, the vast majority of Internet companies actually growth along with growing traffic. In other words, part of the company's growth came from the growth of customers and Chinese Internet users.
However, with the number of Chinese Internet users reaching the ceiling (the growth rate of 2C companies' customers is slowed down). The companies that were previously relying on user growth need to change their strategies in order to achieve further development. Therefore, many companies have chosen the road of horizontal development, accelerating financing acquisition and marching other industries. There are many temporary winners, such as Tencent and Alibaba.
Though it seems like the only way they can take when user bases reach the ceiling (The penetration rate has grown to over 70%, as chart shows), we do not think all horizontal development 2C companies will succeed because it is hard for such companies to maintain their existing advantages in such a way. Hainan Airlines (HNA) is a bad example. In 2003, HNA began to implement diversified strategic transformation – that is, a horizontal development strategy. After the crisis in 2008, HNA began to accelerate overseas acquisitions. From a single local air transportation enterprise, it has developed into a giant operating in dozens of industries such as air travel, modern logistics, science, and technology. In its heyday, the company had assets of up to CNY 2.5 trillion, ranking 170 in the world, and owned the equity of many well-known companies, such as Hilton Hotels, Deutsche Bank, and Virgin Australia. However, the company's horizontal development over the years has brought high liabilities and serious liquidity problems, even default problems. Finally, in January 2021, the HNA Group went bankrupt. Except for HNA, many other giants also suffer from the same problems, such as Wanda Group and Anbang Group. Based on all these events, we think 2C companies will find it hard to maintain their previous high growth in the next decade, beginning in 2021.
In contrast, To-Business (2B) companies do not charge from individual customers and do not rely on the traffic-oriented business model. A significant reason why investors did not favor 2B companies before 2017 is that s2Cks prices rose slowly, which was not in line with the rapid capital increase desired by Chinese and foreign VC/PE. However, when the growth of 2C companies slows down, the values of 2B companies may become understood. We believe that 2B companies will become a new direction for China's development in the future. In other words, it is not easy to see such fast-growing 2C companies as Pinduoduo in China in the next decade.
Heading toward a semi-developed market
In conclusion, on the one hand, we believe that the standardization of policies, the decline of economic growth, and Internet users' situations all indicate the development phase of China: the Chinese market is switching from an emerging market to a semi-developed market. Moreover, based on observation of the macro and micro levels, we believe that this trend is happening rapidly and irreversibly.
On the other hand, we believe that China is learning lessons from Germany now rather than the United States. Germany has many hidden world champions in different micro-sectors, such as Hauni Maschinenbau and JF Hillebrand. This is also in line with China's Specialization, Refinement, Differentiation, Innovation of SMB strategy – that is, to support technically advanced small and medium-sized companies who focus on specific markets, rather than diversify giants that cover many different businesses such as Alibaba and Tencent.
For investors, based on the above analysis, we still firmly believe that China is a market worthy of investment. However, the logic of investing in China has changed, and small and medium-sized Chinese companies with core technology (potential invisible world champions) may become high-quality investment targets in the future.
EqualOcean operates offices in Beijing, New York, and Shanghai. We welcome investors interested in the Chinese market to contact us via (contact@EqualOcean.com) or visit our offices. We believe the exchange of views will make you have a clearer prediction of the future.