Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Interview: Mr Rong Ren, Managing Director & CEO, Harvest Capital

Currently managing about $1.8 billion in five funds and generating returns of over 20% IRR, Harvest Capital Partners brings together an unparalleled cross-border and cross-disciplinary team of property investment professionals. With the backing of its majority owner, it is uniquely positioned to identify and capitalize on prime and off-market transactions in China’s dynamic property development market.
The company was named “Asia Firm of the Year” by PERE magazine in the Global PERE 2010 Awards and "Property Investor of the Year - China" by The Asset magazine in the 2010 Triple-A Investment Awards. These awards are among the most prestigious accolades for the global private equity real estate industry.
Mr Rong Ren, Managing Director & CEO, Harvest Capital, spoke to us about the company’s goals and his perspective on the Chinese property market.
Could you give us a brief background on your company?
Harvest Capital Partners is a boutique investment firm that specializes in real estate investment funds focused on Greater China. We have a solid track record in the full property investment cycle, from raising capital and developing properties to managing these assets, exiting from our investments and returning capital. We are one of the few China real estate investment managers that can say that we’ve delivered 20% IRRs for our investors since 2006.
The approach we take is based on a disciplined investment model, incorporating an absolute return, value-driven strategy, to achieve medium- to long-term capital appreciation for investors. What makes us different is our hybrid-business model, in that we not only invest capital but also get actively involved in developing and managing properties. This allows us to add significant value to our projects, which we would not be able to do if we were simply passive investors.
Our portfolio of real estate funds is focused on selected regional cities, which have a large population base, high economic growth and rapidly increasing per capita disposable income.
Based on these criteria, we invest in the Bohai Gulf Region, Yangtze River Delta, Shandong Peninsula, and the Pearl River Delta, including Hong Kong. We are committed to creating maximum value for all of our investments by providing expertise from land acquisition, project development through to asset and portfolio management.
Our investments cover a focused array of asset classes, covering residential and retail properties, office buildings, hotels and serviced apartments. Specifically, we target assets that are unique either in terms of location or where significant value can be created and enhanced through refurbishment, repositioning, development or redevelopment, thereby capitalizing on the strong demand for asset dispositions in China.
Another strong advantage we have is the full support of China Resources Group, which gives us unparalleled access to a strong network in both first and second tier cities in China, where demand is fuelled by urbanisation and strong fundamentals in a rapidly growing economy.
Our entire team is passionately committed to these principles, and we all take our fiduciary responsibilities to our LPs very seriously. Being a member of ANREV is also important as it helps us pursue best practices in the funds management industry and increase transparency for our LPs. We manage capital on behalf of others, so we understand the need to manage our investment risks carefully in order to achieve the best possible returns.

What is your investment strategy and what asset classes do you think are providing the most promising returns? What cities have the biggest upside potential?
It is sometimes misleading to think of China as one market. Depending on our investors' risk appetite, investment horizon and objectives, we look to tailor specific investment strategies for them.
For example, while there is a lot of media attention on the government’s efforts to cool down the residential market, we feel this is a good time to invest. Various developers are facing liquidity constraints because of the government measures, and we are starting to see good deal flow in the residential sector.
Based on our market read at this point in time, we are looking at:
Mid-market retail in Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities in China, which are benefiting most from the urbanization trends and supported by strong retail consumption
The affordable housing sector, which is currently being supported by governments at all levels
Selected office investments in Tier 1 and Tier 2 cities, which will benefit greatly from the increasing long term capital that is emerging in China's capital markets
Selected mixed use developments on an opportunistic basis, and
Guaranteed yield products backed by high credit quality developers.
So as you can see, the opportunities and deal flow in China remain strong and Harvest Capital is well placed to continue to offer our LPs — both foreign and local — investment opportunities that fit their risk appetite and investment objectives.

There is an on-going debate among industry experts on India versus. China. What are the major differences?
We're not qualified to comment about the opportunities in India, as our mandate and expertise is primarily in China. I'm sure both countries offer excellent opportunities as their overall demographics are quite similar.
However, based on discussions with investors, I see one key difference being the Chinese government's efficiency in planning and encouraging a sustainable investment market through clear regulation, building infrastructure that supports property investments, and establishing a market environment conducive to making a decent return.
The government coordinates its planning very well and makes it easy for investors in China to see its intentions. For example, this year's 12th five-year plan is quite clear about social development, stimulating domestic consumption, reducing the income gap, promoting environmental awareness and increasing the value of China's industries. Hence, as an investor in this market, you can anticipate what strategies are sustainable over the coming years and plan accordingly. I think that's a huge advantage.

There is a stiff competition among foreign and local fund managers try to raise capital for China. What sets you apart from other players?
The Chinese market is full of opportunities, if you know where to look. There is also plenty of room for competition, which we feel is good for the development of the market.
Harvest Capital is different from most private equity real estate players in the market as we are truly local. Being part of the China Resources Group, a State-owned Enterprise, also has its advantages. Our networks and pipeline of opportunities are genuinely deep. All of our investments are sourced off-market, and our key focus is to buy into investments at a reasonably low cost. What’s more, having an extensive footprint in the country gives us access to proprietary research and information not available to others.
As a local player, China's real estate market is not opaque to us and we are able to make informed decisions when we assess investments in different cities. Another key difference is that we have a hybrid business model with significant asset management capabilities. We're not just a financial investor.
The team at Harvest Capital is also very experienced, bringing together both local and foreign expertise within an international best practice framework.
All of these factors resonate with our investors and the industry, which I think accounts for us receiving the award from The Asset magazine and being the first Chinese firm to win Asia Firm of the Year at the Global PERE Awards.

What are the best market entry strategies as a foreign investor?
I think some investors underestimate the partnership risks in China. We advise anyone looking to invest in China to find a suitable local partner. China is still a market that requires significant local expertise, due to the general lack of transparency and the sheer geographical scale.
It remains challenging to invest directly in China but having a good local partner will help smooth over "local" issues. Even more importantly, investors should look at China as a long term investment destination.
At Harvest Capital, we try to build long-term relationships that add value to our partners in numerous ways, such as utilizing our asset management capabilities to increase returns. We can also bring our networks and relationships to the partnership, such as tenant relationships, government relationships or banking relationships. Essentially, we can act as a "bridge" between our investors and China, and our LPs can look to us to manage the local risks as best as we can, leveraging on our expertise to deliver the best possible risk adjusted returns.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Eating Live Octopus in Korea

Check out this video...
I have not had the courage to try it out so far!!!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Foreigners in Korea: Koreapass is giving free 50,000 won shopping cards!

Want to get a free 50,000 won shopping card? If you are a foreigner, living in Korea for less than a year, hurry up and apply to Koreapass.
As this article notes:
One hundred foreign residents here will be selected this month to become monitors of ``Korea Pass,’’ a prepaid card designed for foreign tourists, as part of the Korea Tourism Organization’s (KTO) efforts to promote its use.
If selected, foreigners will be given a 50,000-won ($45) prepaid card from the state-run tourism promoter and be allowed to spend the money at department stores or other hospitality-related businesses of their choice. All they have to do is to fill out a one-page questionnaire later about their shopping experiences.
KTO is accepting email applications from those who are interested in becoming monitors at koreapass@knto.or.kr through March 13. An application form can be downloaded at www.koreapass.or.kr [NOTE: JUST LIKE ALL KOREAN WEBSITES, YOU CAN ACCESS IT ONLY BY USING INTERNET EXPLORER! NO WONDER THE NORTH KOREANS ARE ABLE TO REGULARLY HACK THEM!]
Those selected will receive the card by March 18 and spend the money through March 31. Monitors will then be required to submit a questionnaire by April 8.
Card users can receive up to 30 percent discounts at department stores, tourism spots, museums, theaters and restaurants in Seoul and Busan. They include Chongdong Theater, Lotte Mart, Seven-Eleven, Angel-in-us Coffee, Lotte Duty Free, T.G.I. Friday’s and TomaTillo.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Interview: Mr. Lee Jung-whoon, General Manager, Finance & Investment Dept., Korea Asset Management Corporation

has been making contributions to the national economy by helping overcome crisis and develop the economy through various supporting measures for the financial industry.
Nonperforming loans (NPLs) were at the heart of the financial crisis that engulfed the Korean economy during 1997–98. The recovery has also been characterized by a rapid and drastic reduction in the level of NPLs in the financial system.
The government played a leading role in financial and corporate restructuring, including strengthening the legal and regulatory framework, injecting public funds, and reinforcing the functions of nstitutions for crisis management, such as the Korea Asset Management Corporation (KAMCO).
KAMCO played an important role in facilitating the restructuring process and helping to develop financial markets. First, KAMCO purchased distressed assets from banks and other financial institutions, which allowed lending to resume at a time when liquidity was scarce. This objective was complemented by increased supervision to ensure that banks were operating on sound commercial principles.
Second, KAMCO’s resolution of NPLs contributed to the good progress made in Korea in recovering public funds injected by the government for financial sector restructuring. In addition, KAMCO disposed of many of these distressed assets through a number of innovative methods, including by issuing asset-backed securities (ABS), which launched an important new market in Korea.
Mr. Lee Jung-whoon, General Manager, Finance & Investment Dept., KAMCO, speaks about the crucial rope played by the organization and its role ahead.
Could you give us a brief introduction to KAMCO?
Since its inception in 1962, Korea Asset Management Corporation has been making contributions to the national economy by helping overcome crisis and develop the economy through various supporting measures for the financial industry.
During the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, the national economy was facing the Asian economic crisis. In order to efficiently resolve non-performing loans (NPL) of financial institutions, KAMCO formed the NPL Resolution Fund of 39 trillion dollars, and acquired 111 trillion won of non-performing loans. And since 2009, with a view to proactively coping with global financial crisis, KAMCO has been operating the Restructuring Fund, as a full-time organization for restructuring process.
In addition, KAMCO is in charge of government-commissioned work such as state-owned property management, collection of overdue taxes, and assistance for consumer credit recovery. After the incumbent CEO Young-chul Chang took office, we categorized domestic properties into three: state-owned, financial, and credit properties. KAMCO is trying its utmost in managing all three categories as a comprehensive asset manager of the properties owned by the Korean government.
What is the performance of the NPL Resolution Fund and the Restructuring Fund like?
Using the NPL Resolution Fund, we collected 6.2 trillion won additionally to the amount of public fund invested, by acquiring non-performing loans of the face value of 111 trillion won and resolving 71% of them up to now.
In this process, we also converted some of the non-performing loans into equity, transforming them into blue-chip companies and selling them in the market. Some noticeable examples include Daewoo Heavy Industries & Machinery Co., Dongah Construction Industrial Co. Ltd., and more recently sold Daewoo International.
With lessons learned from the Asian economic crisis, we were able to proactively deal with the recent global financial crisis, by early establishing the Restructuring Fund. Since 2008, we have purchased PF bonds of 8.5 trillion won, swiftly and actively responding to the destabilizing factors of the financial market. In order to support shipping industry in liquidity crisis, KAMCO formed a shipping fund, having purchased 27 ships (worth of 860 billion won) so far.
We understand that your department is responsible for KAMCO’s overseas business. What are the progress and future plans?
KAMCO’s overseas business was launched with the mandate of assisting private sectors in overseas market creation and creating future growth engines of KAMCO, utilizing various domestic and international networks and experiences learned from the post-crisis process of resolving 111 trillion worth of NPL and performing corporate restructuring.
Investment preparedness provided through the revision of law to enable direct investment between 2005 and 2006 triggered full-scale implementation of the overseas business.
In the first round, in 2007, KAMCO acquired properties from a Chinese state-run AMC, followed by the successful investment brokerage in 2008. Afterwards, KAMCO established a local AMC with dispatched staff, and has been in full operation for management and collection.
Our view on the market indicates that, after the global financial crisis, it is high time for us to enter the NPL markets of advanced countries including the US. We are thus currently cooperating with domestic and overseas institutions to screen blue-chip investment grade targets.
This year has goals of exporting KAMCO Model, which is business knowhow accumulated through our on-going training and consulting business for developing countries, and successfully implementing pilot deals of investing in NPL in advanced countries such as the US.
Does it mean that KAMCO is also offering training for overseas institutions?
Yes. Since 2001, we have been providing training courses on our knowhow of NPL resolution and restructuring process, accumulated through overcoming the Asian economic crisis, for many governments such as China, India and Vietnam.
A total of 22 rounds of training courses have been completed, with a purpose of maintaining close relationship with organizations of other countries. In addition, we have concluded MOUs with 17 government organizations from 11 countries, contributing to the heightened international status of KAMCO.
Recently, local pension funds have been showing great interest in US real estate market, with some investment projects already initiated. What is impressive is the speed of the movement by public corporations. Do you have any experiences in the US market? What are they about?
There has been a series of prospects that says the US market shows a sign of recovery starting with the corporate sector, as recently seen in the continuous increase of corporate fixed investment. Both IMF and many IBs are competing in upwardly adjusting future economic growth rate assumptions.
However, a general consensus of the international financial community is that it will not be easy for a huge market like the US to recover in a short period of time. Examples include the increasing non-performance of commercial assets and continued bankruptcies of small-and-medium-sized banks.
KAMCO has also been monitoring the US market for investment ever since the financial crisis, with some cases almost striking the contract. But basically we are still focusing on risk management based on conservatism.
For example, it was in 2008 when we were conducting a preliminary underwriting for the purchase of a 450 million dollar portfolio owned by a global IB, reaching the stage of price negotiation. It was late August. The seller insisted that the asset price was almost bottoming out, but our underwriters said that there would be further dip of about 15% or more. Obviously, the deal was not possible to be closed.
After the failure of negotiation, our underwriting team backed out. And on the 15th of September, Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy, suddenly elevating the financial risks all around the world, ultimately causing steep rise of foreign exchange rates in Korea and aggravating the investment environment.
So, it turned out to be a good thing that you had to break the deal?
Sure. The asset value was plummeting afterwards, as we had anticipated. And the foreign exchange rate increased by almost 50%. Even if the price was successfully negotiated, it must have been difficult to close the contract.
That was a very clear example of risk management. Also in 2009 and 2010, we had some cases of reaching the point of price negotiation, but we had to use our conservative stance again, believing that there was a possibility of further price drop.
Could you explain the nature of the investment business of KAMCO?
Our target focuses not only income generation but also assistance for the private sector in their overseas business. To do the latter, we are informing Korean institutional investors of high-grade investment targets and helping them with asset management.
Of course, to lead the overall deals, we also need to make some investment at the threshold level. We are also planning to establish JV-AMCs with local organizations, through which we can learn the systems of the countries to be invested and accumulate asset management knowhow. In China, where we had two deals closed, we have already established an AMC, gathering information on local investment systems and grasping the knowhow of asset management.
I am not saying that investment yield is not important. What I mean is that it is an important point of consideration that the intangible assets also need to be acquired at the same time. Domestic pension funds are also welcoming the business structure in which KAMCO participates in overall asset management.
The investment business will start from small-scale projects in advanced countries where the cycle is widely believed to be bottoming out. After making successful investment, we will expand the scale by phase.
First, we plan to start with selective high-grade investment targets out of troubled assets such as NPL or REO owned by local financial institutions. Currently, with a view to acquiring assets under bulk sale by FDIC, we are currently under joint consultation with an organization with successful bidding experiences.
There must be some difficulties experienced by a public corporation like KAMCO in dealing with IB business.
KAMCO has amassed a high international credit standing and credibility with fair business treatment, which are great advantages of our actual implementation of projects.
Currently, we have some difficulties in proactively exploring potential high quality projects, because of the limitation posed by the KAMCO Act, which stipulates that investment targets should be confined to the NPL Resolution Fund. However, we are planning to expand the target investments to the Restructuring Fund by amending the act.
And the issue of relatively long decision-making process as a public corporation could be substantially overcome by sharing roles with private counterparts.
Do you have any parting parting comments for our readers?
According to the IMF estimation, the total loss incurred by financial institutions worldwide amounts to 4,000 trillion won, with US and European markets alone at 2,000 trillion won.
When it comes to NPL markets of advanced countries, the barrier of entry used to be too high in the past. But, in a couple of years ahead, it is expected that opportunities will come for us to purchase high-quality assets at lower price. That might be a once-in-a-life-time chance, though.
We will do our best in actively and fully utilizing various experiences and rich networks of KAMCO, rather than neglecting them, so that KAMCO can be leading liquidity in the private sector toward more stable investment targets, thus contributing to the national wealth creation. This, I believe, is the true mission given to a public corporation.