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Sino-US Trade War: Won in translation?

“The diplomatic cable from Beijing arrived in Washington late on Friday night, with systematic edits to a nearly 150-page draft trade agreement that would blow up months of negotiations between the world’s two largest economies…

…Changing any law in China requires a unique set of processes that can’t be navigated quickly, said a Chinese official familiar with the talks.”  Reuters, 8 May 2019

Trade deals take forever to negotiate and, more often than not, end with little achievement particularly when viewed relative to their original objectives. Discussions are laborious. Months of conferences may result in a comma or an apostrophe being added or removed, lists of thousands upon thousands of products are examined and debated line-by-line and each negotiation session is punctuated by months of recess. The Doha Round of trade negotiations, sponsored by the World Trade Organisation, has been running for 10 years already and achieved nothing.

So it is both amusing and perplexing that one party to the Sino-US trade pact decided to unilaterally take aim at the 150 page document that had been painstakingly negotiated over months and pepper it with ‘systematic edits’.  These edits, Reuters reported, involved reneging on undertakings to change Chinese laws to reflect the trade rules that were agreed to.  How can this happen?

Chinese politics is centralised and secretive, precisely the opposite of the US political system which is multi-faceted and leaks like a sieve.  For the Chinese trade negotiators to be forced to rescind their commitments suggests that they must clearly have stepped on the toes of some very senior Politburo member(s) to the point of exceeding their authority.  Without these senior party officials buy-in to the agreement, everything had to be reversed.

President Trump, correctly, held off from reacting for 2 days, no doubt in order to verify the changes. His response then was to impose broad tariffs on an array of Chinese goods. More importantly, however, the Chinese despatched their Vice Premier to Washington carrying a personal letter from President Xi to President Trump which the latter described as ‘beautiful’. The whole exercise looks like it’s being stage managed in order to appease the senior Chinese leaders who have objected to the translation of any trade deal into legislation.

The key is translation.  Agreeing to change Chinese law to satisfy the US seems to be the bone of contention, not the trading terms themselves. ‘Changing any law in China requires a unique set of processes ‘ is the polite way of saying that the senior Chinese leaders weren’t consulted, or if they were, due process was not followed. The reason for pushback could be administrative (organising a plenary session of the people’s congress is no easy feat), nationalistic (why should we change our laws to satisfy th US?) or just political (my authority was not respected so I am not supporting it). Whatever the reason, the solution in the short term needs to avoid changing laws while at the same time delivering a trade outcome.

For its part the US had demanded that the trade pact be guaranteed in legislation. This is not going to happen now, so the Chinese will have to make greater concessions that are not backed by new laws to bring  the US back to the table. Trump’s card to ensure compliance is the threat of tariffs being imposed quickly should the Chinese transgress, just as he is doing today…

Ironically, the US tariff action gives President Xi the ammunition he needs to show his Politburo that the costs are very real if China does not find a way to commit to more equal trading terms. Vice Premier Liu said yesterday that everybody agrees on the terms, they just ‘disagree on how to phrase it’.

In the absence of legislation, the solution could be as simple as appointing a Sino-US trade czar whose job is to make regulations (not laws!) required to give effect to the agreement.  Alternatively, a market based system that imposes tariffs on goods that contravene the trade deal might have legs.  Certainly, the Americans would be open to any market based suggestions. A system that identifies each tradeable item and offers it for sale broadly to anybody might be a way to surface forced transfers of IP and technology to China at infra-marginal cost.

It will take a few weeks while the enforcement aspects of the trade deal gets sorted out. Overall, however, this looks like a win for the US as China has clearly changed the playing field as it grapples with its internal conflicts.

 

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Private is now the New New-Private not the Newish Public

The recent transition of a slew of high profile tech companies from private to publicly listed corporations has reinstated the valuation premium that public companies hold over private ones. Spotify, Lyft, Pinterest, Zoom and soon to be listed Uber clearly show that public markets still dominate private ones when it comes to valuation.

The Private-is-the-New-Public mantra advanced the view that raising capital had become easier in the private markets than in the public ones, therefore obfuscating the need to list. Since access to capital was previously perceived to be the fundamental advantage of the public markets, listed companies should have traded at a premium. The rise of Venture Capital and Private Equity created the ability for private companies to raise capital on similar or better terms than the public markets.  This should have arbitraged that public-listing premium away. Accordingly, newly listed privates should trade at the same price as before listing, or at least at the IPO price set by the brokers leading the deal…

Apparently not.  Spotify, Lyft, Pinterest and Zoom each listed at 12%, 15%, 30% and 72% premium to their pre-listing prices.  Lyft subsequently declined below its pre-listing price but it still had its first public day in the sun and was welcomed heartily.

Critics of the private markets argued that going public would expose the over-optimistic expectations of the fancy Venture Capital and Private Equity firms to the full scrutiny of institutional investors, in turn marking down their irrational exuberance. That is, the public markets would see through the cult-like blue-sky beliefs and bring valuations back down to earth. Perennially loss-making unicorns would face the reality of the need for profits and dividends; failure to do so would see prices slashed…

Apparently not.  Even in the pre-market roadshows to institutional investors, each of the newly listed companies priced their offers at or above the top of the range suggested by the brokers.

The most interesting result of the recent listings is that being public still commands a premium.  Access to capital cannot be that reason.  Two possible explanations are either (i) access to liquidity accounts for the additional premium or (ii) the VC’s and PE’s expectations were too pessimistic.

Liquidity is precious to investors who cannot influence decision making – the ability to exit a position if the investor doesn’t like what he sees is much easier in the public domain than when there is no secondary market.  Back of the envelope calculations can easily justify a 15 to 30% liquidity premium for a listed corporation with a 0.5% to 1% reduction in the required risk-premium.

Pessimistic VC’s and PE’s?  There is an element of truth in this explanation as well.  We are all taught that the value of a company is the discounted sum of all future cash flows.  Traditional ‘value’ investors like Warren Buffett are more comfortable dealing with positive cash flows today and extrapolating these forward.  ‘Growth’ investors tolerate extended periods of early losses in order to harvest fantastically rich cash flows in the future. Exactly how those riches will be generated and how much they will be is difficult science, so a smart VC/PE investor risking their own cash would surely prefer to underestimate their magnitude rather than overestimate.  Growth investors are only really competing with Value investors for the same deals, so if the likes of Buffett don’t even consider investing in firms that post losses early on, then the VC/PE can effectively buy these companies at a price-point where the competitors drop out.

Irrespective of the reason, the clear message from the unicorn-parade is that being public still commands a premium.  Founders and shareholders in unlisted companies should pay close attention to this fact.  Opting to remain private may appeal to a founder’s romantic notion of non-conformist disruptor but it’s still going to cost everyone money.  Private may have become more sophisticated and Newish, but Private is not the New-Public.

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