So there’s been an awful lot of speculation and rumours around VIEs of late. Starting with the continued EDU issues that I discussed at some length in my Tradingfloor column earlier, to some new rumours about issues for MNCs. It’s this latest rumour I find most interesting, and I think it’s a very interesting development if we put it in its proper context.
First of all we have to say that we currently have very few details about this crackdown, for instance we don’t know which AICs or MNCs are involved. We could indeed be looking at a situation similar to what we had with Buddha Steel where enforcement appeared to differ depending on where in the country you conducted your business. As we’re talking about local AICs here it’s entirely possible that we’re currently seeing different enforcements in different areas of the country.
But this is not the whole story, of course. What’s really interesting about this is that it seems to follow something of a pattern. It started off with the article discussing the issue of foreign influence in the restricted industries in China, then all was quiet for a good while before we saw some real movement when MOFCOM approved the Walmart takeover of Yihaodian with some reservations, creating what I called the restricted VIE.
This is now the next step in what appears to be a gradual campaign to limit the use of the structure. As Professor Gillis pointed out in his post they’re apparently staying away from the foreign listed companies as they are too high profile. What they do appear to be doing is targeting MNCs in particular. I think this is likely to be an attempt to rein in the most obvious foreign elements in the restricted industries, as they are very obvious examples of the foreign influence the article warned against.
While there are arguments that can be made about the supposed foreign influence many of the foreign listed VIEs are actually subject to (you’ll find most still have a heavy voting majority of Chinese nationals), it’s much harder to argue the same for an actual foreign company.
This is yet another issue with VIEs that will relate particularly to foreign companies. The structures used by the foreign companies are already less stable, in general, than a Chinese VIE due to the difficulties in aligning incentives when the VIE is held by an employee. You create a lot of potential issues with an employee held VIE, as the employee suddenly has an unreasonably strong negotiating position, and with very limited ownership in the foreign parent there are often strong incentives to take the VIE and run.
While the risk of the owners absconding with the VIE can be mitigated by properly structuring the assets etc. it’ll be very hard to deal with this new issue. It’ll be interesting to see how far authorities take these actions, but MNCs will certainly need to keep on top of the situation. Authorities are unlikely to relax the new restrictions against foreign elements anytime soon.