In China, The Invisible Hand Wears a Red Glove: What We Can Learn From DiDi and Ant
Jason Hsu, Ph.D.
Chairman & CIO
Much has happened this week in the Chinese tech and ADR space. Below are my thoughts in response to some of the questions I’ve been receiving from investors and others.
Is DiDi Ant Financial redux?
On July 6th, DiDi plunged 20% following the news of (1) a formal investigation by the Chinese Cyber Security Administration and (2) a temporary removal of its app from all app stores in China. Many western investors viewed this the same as Ant Financial’s scuttled IPO last year. Their analysis started and ended with, “What did DiDi say to piss off Beijing?!”
This is far from the correct interpretation; Didi is not Ant Financial Redux. Let me explain why these two are not even close.
An obvious indicator of the difference between these two is that the Chinese regulator halted the Ant Financial IPO in its tracks. By contrast, it politely waited until one week after the DiDi IPO before announcing a formal investigation. If the Chinese regulator believed DiDi’s deficiencies could not be resolved to its satisfaction or would jeopardize DiDi’s operations in mainland China, it would have asked DiDi to pull its U.S. IPO – and DiDi would have complied. The fact that it allowed DiDi’s IPO to proceed is significant.
Some have suggested Beijing has exercised enforcement unevenly against DiDi and Ant Financial, unfairly targeting Jack Ma for harsher treatment. Again, this is not the correct interpretation. For starters, Ant and DiDi are both incredibly plugged-in and aided by the most connected powerbrokers in China. Rounds of informal but deliberate conversations will have occurred and agreements reached in both cases before anything formal is announced in the press. The key difference is that for Ant Financial, the regulatory deficiency was too great to be remedied under the existing model. To the extent there is reasonable dissatisfaction with Beijing’s handling of Ant Financial, it is that the regulator waited too long to act.
Didi’s IPO was allowed to proceed precisely because, unlike Ant Financial, Beijing believed the company’s deficiencies can be remedied. The concerns regarding data privacy are easily addressable and the punishment—temporary removal of the DiDi hailing app from app stores—insignificant in the long-term. DiDi’s hailing app is, after all, already on every smartphone in China through WeChat.
There is no doubt that Beijing intended to make a point with by announcing the formal investigation. Sending a signal to other industry players is often a primary objective when there are public sanctions against the clear industry leader for industry-wide infractions. However, the issue at hand is relatively minor. The regulator was apathetic enough to be willing to agree to a delay in the formal investigation until after the IPO, and that tells you everything you need to know about the difference between DiDi and Ant Financial.
Is Beijing going after Chinese tech firms listed in the U.S.?
Some of the issues the China regulator is investigating regarding DiDi are industry-wide, which means the government action has broader implications. This was on display when major indexes tracking Chinese tech ADRs took a major nosedive on July 6 – even though most of them had not yet added DiDi!
Clearly, the market is reading something much bigger into DiDi’s cyber security investigation. Investors are now concerned about all tech firms who store massive amounts of data and perform analyses on Chinese citizens and businesses. The Chinese government, like the U.S. government, does not want those servers to run on foreign hardware and software, which could make them vulnerable to foreign spyware. Tech firms are squarely in the regulator’s bullseye.
Meanwhile, the government’s claim against many of the same tech giants for anti-competitive business practices also looms large. The Ant Financial action served to signal zero-tolerance for innovations the regulator feels may circumvent financial stability regulations. This has caused tech players to abandon one of their core business strategies—taking a slice of the massive Chinese consumer finance market while avoiding the high compliance cost of distributing financial products. This was a valuable business. So yes, it appears a revaluation might indeed be warranted for all Chinese consumer tech giants. But that is hardly due to Beijing turning anti-tech or even anti-capitalism— it is just Beijing discharging its duty as the steward of China, Inc.
It may appear to some outsiders that China is targeting the firms that have chosen to list in the U.S.. After all, many of the most highly scrutinized firms –like Alibaba, JD.Com, Meitun and now DiDi – are widely held ADRs. But this is far from the truth, and it is a matter of correlation rather than causation. Stated differently, these firms are not being targeted because they are listed in the U.S.
Most of the U.S.-listed consumer-tech firms pursued listing in the U.S. not because they were “defecting” from China in pursuit of a better venue. These Chinese firms listed in the U.S. because they could not receive approval for listing back home. Alibaba, for example, could not gain approval for listing in mainland China or Hong Kong because of its corporate governance deficiencies, where Jack Ma as a small shareholder could always out-vote everyone. DiDi also actively explored listing on the mainland exchanges in addition to HKEX before it decided those paths were nearly impossible due to their various unresolved compliance issues related to China’s labor laws and tax codes (think Uber in the U.S.). The growing concern around DiDi’s ability to generate positive cashflow and reach profitability also made local regulators queasy about approving the company for listing, especially given the recent froth in tech shares. For DiDi, the quickest path to unlock liquidity for its founding core and its PE backers before the global tech euphoria recedes was to dash for the U.S. From filing to listing, DiDi took only 20 days, and priced at the top of the range. Heck, if Lyft can list successfully while stating in its prospectus that it has no business model toward eventual profitability, then surely DiDi can make a fine listed company on the NYSE.
When you consider that many firms listed in the U.S. are tech firms that listed here precisely because there were facing domestic regulatory concerns, it should be no surprise to find that a disproportionate number of the firms facing investigation are those listed in the U.S.
Understanding Chinese Regulators
Those seeking to understand Ant Financial, DiDi, or other regulatory actions in China should start their analysis by understanding the differences between the U.S. and Chinese regulatory approaches.
Chinese regulators are interventionist. They so this, in part, because their financial markets are dominated by unsophisticated retail investors. Appealing to the wise invisible hand of an efficient market is a luxury that Beijing does not have. Thus Chinese regulators have to set P/E caps for IPO pricing to avoid irrational retail investors bidding prices to astronomical ranges during the subscription period. Thus Chinese regulators chose to take time to vet company financials and business model independently before approving listings. There is real personal career risk for the regulator who approves a firm that turns out to be a fraud or that craters in price due to its inability to execute on the promised business plan.
What Is An Investor To Do?
Foreign investors wishing to invest in Chinese firms must also accept a higher frequency of government intervention at the market, industry, and firm level. They should also understand that this intervention is not driven by senseless bureaucracy or a desire to punish success. The China regulator intervenes because it has a foundational (and sensible) lack of trust in its own inefficient capital markets. In China, the invisible hand wears a red glove.
This article was first published to LinkedIn:
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