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Warburg Pincus sees tougher competition in Southeast Asia, as trade war tempers private equity deals in China

Chad Bray chadwick.bray@scmp.com

Private equity firms are facing stiffer competition in Southeast Asia as geopolitical tensions, including the US-China trade war, have prompted peers to look for investment targets outside the mainland and developed markets in Asia, according to Warburg Pincus.

"Investors have kind of woken up to the opportunities in Southeast Asia, in particular Vietnam," Jeffrey Perlman, a Warburg Pincus managing director and head of Southeast Asia, said in an interview. The region has been a "significant beneficiary" of shifting trade policies and there remains "tremendous opportunities" despite rising valuations, he added.

The trade war between the world's two biggest economies for the past year has forced some producers to relocate their plants from China, particularly to Southeast Asia, to avoid higher tariff rates. This in turn has contributed to a slowdown in Chinese manufacturing engine and the slowest economic growth on record last quarter.

Southeast Asia has a 650 million population and a combined economy worth US$2.8 trillion, according to the US-Asean Business Council, and US$3.4 trillion of global trade transits through the region annually. It is also home to some of the largest private equity targets such as ride hailing entity Grab and Gojek and logistics firm GLP.

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New York-based Warburg Pincus, which has more than US$62 billion of private equity assets under management, pulled off one of the biggest exits this year when ESR Cayman raised US$1.6 billion from its initial public offering in Hong Kong last month. The IPO is the second-largest in the city after Budweiser Brewing Company APAC.

Since its formation in 1966, the firm has invested in excess of US$79 billion in more than 880 companies worldwide. The private equity firm, which celebrated its 25th year of investing in China earlier this year, has a long history of investments in India and made its forays into Southeast Asia in the past seven years. While there have been a lot of macro uncertainties, the firm remains a long-term investor in its markets, Perlman said.

The firm has several vehicles investing in Asia, according to its website. They include a US$4.5 billion China-Southeast Asia II Fund raised in 2019, and the US$2.2 billion China Fund in 2016. Its investments include so-called last-mile delivery companies ZTO Express in China and Ecom Express in India.

"If you think about the new economy and the rise of e-commerce, logistics really sits in the central nervous system of all the e-commerce companies," Perlman said. "For the most part today, [e-commerce companies] sell probably 80 per cent to 90 per cent similar items, so the only way they can really differentiate themselves from one another is speed of delivery. And that is where businesses like ESR and ZTO and others play such a critical role in that central nervous system to be able to deliver on that."

Employees work at a sorting centre of ZTO Express ahead of the Singles' Day shopping festival, in Chaoyang district, Beijing, in November 2015. Photo: Reuters alt=Employees work at a sorting centre of ZTO Express ahead of the Singles' Day shopping festival, in Chaoyang district, Beijing, in November 2015. Photo: Reuters

Vietnam also excites the firm, Perlman said, where foreign direct investment (FDI) has risen by 4.3 per cent to US$29.1 billion in the first 10 months of this year, official data shows. In China, FDI climbed by 2.9 per cent to US$100.78 billion in the first nine months, according to the Ministry of Commerce.

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Warburg Pincus is using lessons learned from its bets in China and India to help form its strategy in Southeast Asia, Perlman said, where many entrepreneurs have little experience in interacting with the private equity industry. Part of its investment strategy is to focus on companies connected to the emerging middle class and the rise of domestic consumption in Asia, Perlman said.

"If we can find talented entrepreneurs in investment themes that we have invested behind successfully in other markets and have conviction that it will play out quite similarly in one of those geographies, we want to take that opportunity now versus seed that to someone else and then look to invest in it several years from now," he said. "It is more likely to be more expensive given the competition."

Stiffer competition, however, suggests the growing appetite for deals in Southeast Asia is "a good thing" as it increases the chances for private equity firms to realise their investments. The ability to have financial and strategic investors taking over their stakes over the longer term, without relying solely on IPOs, "is a very big positive for the market", Perlman said.

"You put money in, but you obviously want to take hopefully more money out over time," he added. "To do that, you need to have more than one shot on goal to achieve an exit."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.