The market frenzy around SPACs may have subsided somewhat, their effects on tech companies are far from over. In fact, their focus has simply shifted away from the US to other regions.

Where? Apparently, Southeast Asia.

I’ve been bullish on Southeast Asia as an emerging region of growth and technology innovation for quite some time. I’ve written about the tech ecosystem there in the past and have worked and lived there as far back as 2009.

Still, the current attention that SPACs are paying to Southeast Asia deserves a deeper look. There are many quality analyses out there, if you are unfamiliar with SPACs, so I won’t provide a “SPAC 101” here. One source I like to point to is a16z’s blog post on the relative tradeoffs between SPACs and the other two methods for a company to go public -- IPO and Direct Listing. Here’s a helpful shorthand from that blog post:

"If you need money, an IPO, for all its flaws, makes the most sense and is probably the best option; if you don’t, a Direct Listing may be preferable; if you need money, speed, and certainty, a SPAC may be best."

The more I think about the strengths and weaknesses of SPACs, the more I believe they are the perfect vehicle for tech giants operating in emerging markets, like Southeast Asia, to attract global capital and exposure.

“Enlightened” Sponsor, Handpicked Audience

Every time a company raises money, it’s a storytelling exercise. If you are raising from the private market, you need to tell stories to VCs, angel investors, and (increasingly) crossover funds. If you are raising from the public market, you need to tell stories to large institutional investors, hedge funds, and retail investors from the public. The audience may change, but the necessity of a good story stays the same.

The basic anatomy of any good story is context plus relatability told through the voice of a persuasive, credible storyteller. The unique feature of a SPAC is its sponsor, or its chief storyteller, who is allowed to tell the SPAC’s target company’s “past” story (historical financial statements) and “future” story (future expectations). In a traditional IPO or Direct Listing, you can only talk about the past.

The toughest hurdle for any emerging market tech company is storytelling to a foreign audience, oftentimes an American audience, who controls the capital it wants. In the US, the overall understanding and appreciation for emerging markets, even among the supposedly sophisticated investor class, is sadly low. As for Southeast Asia in particular, even at the highest level of government -- the Secretary of State level -- the region still gets overlooked, ignored, and unnecessarily snubbed.

By definition of being an emerging market, the past was not that great -- no track record of other iconic companies created, no analogous benchmarks, just a history of poverty, conflicts, and corruption. And if you can’t talk about a bright future -- the sole reason why emerging markets are attractive to begin with -- your story won’t go very far. Merging with a SPAC lets you talk about that bright future, at least to some extent.

There’s another advantage to a SPAC that’s more subtle -- an “enlightened” Sponsor who can handpick a receptive audience.

Let’s assume there’s a SPAC that decides to merge with a Southeast Asian tech company, and the SPAC’s Sponsor is knowledgeable about the region’s potential (one would hope so). Because the SPAC, as a blank check publicly-listed company, already has money in the bank, that’s one audience the target company does not need to sell a story to anymore -- the Sponsor already took care of that. (Technically, the investors in a SPAC can vote against a target merger they don’t like, but that usually does not happen because it defeats the purpose of investing in a SPAC in the first place.)

This “enlightened” Sponsor can then select a small group of investors with longstanding relationships, who already have knowledge or experience in the emerging market, to raise more funds for the target company. It’s a receptive audience that needs little context-building, and the target company’s future prospect will resonate more easily. This selective storytelling stands in contrast to the usual IPO process -- a two-week roadshow that essentially amounts to randomized speed dating, where the audience’s level of knowledge about your region is a crapshoot at best, thus so is their investment and commitment level.

Let’s look at a real example to illustrate these advantages in more concrete ways: Grab’s SPAC merger with Altimeter Capital.

Grab + Altimeter

The Grab-Altimeter marriage is the largest SPAC deal to date, which values Grab at almost $40 billion dollars. (Disclosure: I own shares in the Altimeter SPAC: $AGC.) Besides SEA Group’s listing on the NYSE, there is no precedence of a Southeast Asian tech company going public in the US. As a stock, SEA Group ($SE) has been doing well in the last few years. When Grab was contemplating a traditional IPO in January 2021 and rumored to have picked Morgan Stanely and JPMorgan as its underwriters, surely SEA Group’s success was part of Grab’s story.

In comes Altimeter’s SPAC led by Brad Gerstner -- the perfect Sponsor and storyteller for Grab. Let’s break this down.

As one of the most successful Internet company investors in the field, Gerstner has had early exposures into the SuperApp phenomenon in Asia. He began exploring the Chinese tech ecosystem in the early 2000s. He has invested in Pinduoduo. He invested in ByteDance early, long before the company became a household name in tech, thus got an early peek into the post-search, algorithm-driven trend epitomized by Jinri Toutiao, Douyin, and TikTok.

With deep exposure into the dynamics of tech in Asia (at least for an American investor), it’s not surprising that Gerstner grasps the opportunity in front of Grab -- the leading SuperApp of Southeast Asia. He is a knowledgeable, credible, and “enlightened” Sponsor. What he also brought to the table to seal this deal is a “handpicked audience”, a group of funds that already has contextual knowledge of Southeast Asia’s growth potential. Some of these funds are:

  • Janus Henderson Investors (dual-listed on the NYSE and Australian Securities Exchange, thus exposed to the southern parts of the APAC region.)
  • Permodalan Nasional Berhad (one of the largest fund managers in Malaysia; Grab originally started in Malaysia)
  • Mubadala Investment Company (the UAE sovereign wealth fund with a long history of investments in Malaysia -- some good, some not so good, see the book, “Billion Dollar Whale”)

With the perfect storyteller in front of a receptive audience, the “SPAC way” all of a sudden looks like the better path to go public. In the end, Grab raised $4 billion dollars, much more than the $2 billion it was hoping to raise via an IPO, and became the catalyst of this recent SPAC-mania in Southeast Asia.

But will this newfound attention yield more deals? And more importantly, will it inject the capital, exposure, and global recognition needed to take the Southeast Asian tech ecosystem to the next level?

SPAC-ing Emerging Markets

When I last wrote about SPACs in October 2020, it was in the context of possible delisting of Chinese companies from Wall Street. Back then, I made the following observation:

"The SPAC hype is mostly an American phenomenon, and there are plenty of private companies in the US to target. It will be a long time, if ever, before American SPACs look for foreign companies to take public."

Clearly, I was wrong. I was wrong in thinking there are more than enough quality private US companies to keep the SPACs busy. I was also wrong in thinking that these SPACs won’t be willing to venture beyond America into emerging markets to look for deals.

Capital flow is as global as ever; SPACs are just another stream of that flow. Many of these SPACs were formed last year and have the customary 1.5 to 2-year window to find a target company to merge with, so the clock is ticking.

There is no lack of capital nor lack of urgency. There is also no lack of quality companies to target, as the first generation of tech startups come of age in Southeast Asia. Two Indonesian unicorns, Gojek and Tokopedia, just merged to become GoTo Group -- a $18 billion decacorn. Other unicorns, like Bukalapak (e-commerce), Traveloka (travel), and PropertyGuru (real estate), could all make attractive targets.

The limiting factor for more SPAC-ing in Southeast Asia, however, is a lack of enlightened Sponsors -- a lack of Brad Gerstner’s -- to be the right voice to tell the right story to the right audience.

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SPAC-ing东南亚的故事

市场对SPACs的狂热虽然已经有些降温,但它们对科技公司的影响远未结束。事实上,这些SPACs的注意力已经从美国转移到其他地区。

注意到哪里了呢?东南亚

我一直很看好东南亚未来的潜力,作为一个有技术创新的新兴市场。我也曾写过关于那里的科技生态的文章,并早在2009年就在那里工作和生活过。

不过,当前SPACs对东南亚的关注还是值得深入探讨一下。如果您对SPAC不熟悉,已经有很多高质量的分析可以去读,所以我就不在这篇文章里科普SPAC了。风投资金a16z写过一篇博文,关于SPAC和其他两种上市方法 -- IPO和Direct Listing之间的相对权衡,值得一读。以下是该博文中对这三种方式简单通俗的比较:

"如果你需要钱,IPO,尽管有很多缺陷,但却是最合理的方式也可能是最好的选择;如果你不需要钱,直接挂牌也许是最好的选择;如果你需要钱、很快的交易速度和确定性,SPAC可能是最好的选择。"

对SPAC的优缺点想得越多,我就越觉得它其实是像东南亚这种新兴市场里的科技巨头吸引全球资本和曝光率的最佳工具。

"开明"的保荐人,精心挑选的听众

每次公司融资,都是一个讲故事的过程。如果是从私有市场融资,需要向风投、天使和(越来越多的)交叉基金讲故事。如果是从公共市场融资,就需要向大型机构投资商、对冲基金和广大公众里的散户们讲故事。受众可能会变,但不可缺少的是一个好故事。

任何一个好故事的基本结构都差不多。需要一个有说服力的、可信的讲故事的人在一些已经有基本知识的听众面前产生共鸣。SPAC的独特之处在于它的保荐人(Sponsor),也就是它的“首席讲故事人”,可以讲目标公司以前的故事(历史财报)和以后的故事(未来预期)。在传统的IPO或Direct Listing过程中,只能讲以前的故事。

对于任何一家新兴市场里的科技公司来说,最艰难的障碍就是向外国听众讲故事,通常是美国听众,因为他们控制着公司想要的资本。在美国,对新兴市场的整体了解和认知度,即使在所谓的精英投资阶层中,还是可悲的低。尤其是东南亚,即使在政府的最高层 -- 国务卿那一层 -- 该地区仍然被忽视,被忽略,而且被无情地冷落

一个发展中新兴市场的本质之一就是它的历史故事很差 -- 没有创建标志性公司的记录,没有类似标杆做比较,只有贫穷、战争和腐败的过去。如果还不许讲未来前景 -- 也是新兴市场吸引人的唯一原因 -- 那这故事是讲不下去的。与SPAC合并,起码在某种程度上允许公司讲这个光明未来的故事。

SPAC还有一个更微妙的优势 -- 一个 "开明的" 保荐人,可以精心挑选一群已经想听你的故事的听众。

假设有一个SPAC决定与一家东南亚科技公司合并,而该SPAC的保荐人对该地区的潜力已经很了解(起码希望如此)。因为SPAC作为一家已经上了市的“壳”,账户里已有现金,所以被并购的目标公司不需要对SPAC里的投资人讲故事了-- 保荐人已经把他们搞定了。(严格上说,SPAC里的各个投资人可以投票反对他们不喜欢的合并目标公司,但这通常不会发生,因为这违背了给SPAC投钱的初衷。)

然后,这位 "开明的" 保荐人可以挑选一小群有长期合作关系的投资者,他们已经有对某些新兴市场的知识或经验,为目标公司筹集更多资金。这是一群接受力更强的受众,不需要花太多时间打基础,科普基本知识,所以更容易与目标公司的未来前景引起共鸣。这种有选择性的讲故事方式与通常的IPO过程形成了鲜明的对比 -- IPO为期两周的路演,基本上相当于随机的快速约会,听众对公司的地域了解程度高低不等,因此他们的投资和承诺程度也是如此。

为了把这些SPAC的优点形容的更具体些,我们看看一个真实的例子:Grab与Altimeter资本的合并。

Grab + Altimeter

Grab与Altimeter的联姻是迄今为止最大的SPAC交易,对Grab的估值达到近400亿美元。(声明: 我持有一些Altimeter SPAC的股票: $AGC。) 除了SEA集团在纽交所的上市,还没有东南亚科技公司在美国上市的先例。作为一只股票,SEA集团($SE)在过去几年中表现良好。当Grab考虑在2021年1月启动传统IPO上市时,并传言选择摩根斯坦利和摩根大通作为其underwriters,SEA集团的成功当时一定是Grab自己故事的一部分。

就在此时,由Brad Gerstner领导的Altimeter Capital的SPAC进入了Grab上市的选择之一。Gerstner可以说是最适合讲Grab的故事的保荐人。我们看看这是为什么。

作为互联网领域里最成功的投资人之一,Gerstner很早就开始接触亚洲的科技生态和SuperApp。他在21世纪初就开始探索中国的科技生态。他曾投过拼多多。他也是字节跳动的早起投资人之一,早在字节成为家喻户晓的科技公司之前,从而提前窥见了由头条、抖音和TikTok带领的跳过搜索、以算法驱动的趋势。

凭借对亚洲科技动态的深入了解(至少对一个美国投资人而言),Gerstner意识到了Grab,作为东南亚领先的SuperApp,的长期潜力,这并不令人惊讶。他是位有认知、有信誉、“明知的” 保荐人。他还给这笔交易带来了一批"精心挑选的听众",一群已经对东南亚的增长潜力有了一定了解的基金和投资商。这些基金中的一些是:

  • Janus Henderson Investors(在纽约证券交易所和澳大利亚证券交易所双重上市,因此接触到了亚太的南部地区。)
  • Permodalan Nasional Berhad(马来西亚最大的基金之一;Grab最初在马来西亚起步)
  • 穆巴达拉投资公司(阿联酋主权财富基金,在马来西亚的投资历史悠久 -- 有好的投资,也有很不靠谱的投资,见《十亿美元的鲸鱼》一书)

有这么一位帮你讲故事的人,再配上一群精心挑选的听众,用"SPAC方式" 上市突然看起来是最佳之路。最终,Grab筹集了40亿美元,比它一开始期望通过IPO筹集的20亿美元要多得多,并成为东南亚最近SPAC狂热的催化剂。

但这一股关注会产生更多的交易吗?更重要的是,它是否会注入让东南亚科技生态“更上一层楼” 所需的资金、曝光度和全球的认可?

怎么用SPAC继续带动新兴市场?

我上次在2020年10月写关于SPAC的文章时,是在中国公司可能从华尔街退市的背景下。当时,我提出了以下看法:

"SPAC最近的火爆总体是个美国资本市场的现象,在美国有很多未上市的企业是SPAC的目标。离美国SPAC需要找外国公司上市的那一天还要很久,甚至永远不会发生。"

显而易见,我错了。我错误的认为有足够多的高质量美国公司给众多SPACs作为合并目标。我也错误的认为,美国的这些SPACs不愿意走出国境,去新兴市场寻找目标。

资本流动越来越全球化;SPACs只是这流动的其中一条。许多SPAC都是去年成立的,按照惯例,它们有1.5到2年的时间来寻找目标公司进行合并。

既不缺资金,也不缺紧迫感。随着东南亚第一代科技公司的成熟,那里也不缺优质的目标公司。两家印尼独角兽,Gojek和Tokopedia,刚刚合并成为GoTo集团 -- 一家价值180亿美元的新公司。其他独角兽,如Bukalapak(电商)、Traveloka(旅游)和PropertyGuru(房地产),都可以成为SPAC的好对象。

限制东南亚科技生态有更多SPAC交易的最大因素则是缺乏足够“开明的” 保荐人,缺乏Gerstner这种人,以最佳的声音,向最佳的受众讲述最佳的故事。

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