Yunnan Baiyao: An Oriental Mystery in the Limelight (2/2)

Healthcare Author: Mengyao Zhang Editor: Luke Sheehan May 19, 2020 12:30 PM (GMT+8)

Tagged as ‘China’s Time-honored Brand,’ Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) company Yunnan Baiyao (000538:SZ) has come to an unprecedented crossroads after fulfilling the challenge of pushing TCM to the foreground.

The herb has been used for thousands of years. Image credit: Annie Spratt/Unsplash

► From 2009 to 2019, Yunnan Baiyao started to harvest the brand value.

► With the dividend payout ratio growing to 40% in 2019 and even higher in the future, this time-honored brand seeks diverse business opportunities.

This is the second chapter of EqualOcean’s ‘two-parter’ about Yunnan Baiyao. Before you start reading this article, please check out the first article.

From a fundamental perspective, this time-honored pharmaceutical brand’s history in the 21st century can be divided into four phases, as indicated by the ROE (return on equity) paths and related constituent indicators.

2009-2013: the brand value effect

While the world economy was suffering amid the 2008 global market slump triggered by the financial crisis in the US, this traditional Chinese medicine showed a very resilient quality, with an up-swinging ROE, driven by growing net profitability.

Compared to the other two relatively stable influencers, the equity multiplier and asset turnover ratio, the net margin increased from 8.49% to 14.68%. This was a remarkable achievement, arising directly out of the massive marketing and sales strategy in the previous stage. 

As the public perceived the brand in a better light, a more reliable profile was established. Yunnan Baiyao, after several years of marketing investment and product innovation, reached a new level in the brand qualifying landscape. 

2013-2019: a shock is met with in the health-care reform process

An increase in equity multipliers partly drove a general drop in Yunnan Baiyao’s ROE during this period. It was also partly due to a slowed asset turnover. 

In July 2016, this state-owned pharmaceutical giant initiated a ‘mixed ownership reform,’ with the idea that private investors would further drive both endogenous and extensive growth. This grand project was fueled by debts and was completed in December 2019, showing a slight increase in leverage.

As the pharmaceutical giant gradually moved to a mature phase at a historical crossroads to change growth gears, it also faced an industry-wide shock. The same year saw the inception of the ownership reform, the Chinese government-initiated healthcare reform intending to lower the drug price at the consumer end. The ‘two-invoice policy’ (‘两票制’) came out first in 2016 and nation-wide spread in 2017, followed by ‘procurement of drugs with target quantity policy’ (‘带量采货’) in 2018.

It was good news for the public patients, but a disruptor, or a shock, to the pharmaceuticals – especially those players in the drug distribution (or circulation) businesses. 

The Chinese medicine brand, whose largest revenue source is drug distribution, has experienced a severe impact on assets turnover, reflecting its inventory turnover and its accounts receivable turnover.

Compared to other medicine distributors, the White Drug-maker has been disadvantageous in inventory turnover cycles, due to a comparatively high volume of goods at stock over total assets.

But on the relative weights against downstream distribution channels, the national-protected brand had an overwhelming advantage with a receivable turnover of 22.68x during the last six years, considering other giant drug circulators China National Medicine (600511:SH) and Jointown Pharmaceutical (600998:SH) at an average of 6.9x and 5.15x, respectively.

According to Warren Buffet’s Moat Theory, this Chinese ‘Time-honored Brand’ has an unbeatable advantage, a kind of rarity and exclusivity crowned by the government, and well-established reputation and recognition in the market. Indeed, if considering the life cycle of an authentic brand, ‘Yunnan Baiyao’ has not yet touched the ceiling.

Exploring new ways to drive value in modern times 

An over 150-bagger like Yunnan Baiyao sounds like the stuff of legend. Many world-class research institutions and investment funds see Yunnan Baiyao as one of their heavyweights. As of April 30, 2020, MSCI China All Shares Health Care Index held it at a weight of 2.35%, a top 9 position in the index’s portfolio. Its relevant ETF fund, KURE, kept a 2.51% position in Yunnan Baiyao. See more EqualOcean analysis here about the performance of China healthcare indexes and ETFs.

Now, as the four-year-long mixed-ownership reform comes to an end, this TCM will find itself in the healthcare market in a new position. What moves will it make? Will the market continue buying its brand as always?

Its 2019 financial report, released in March this year, announced a significant update in its dividend payout policy. The newly privately-owned Shenzhen-listed company plans to pay a CNY 3.8 billion cash dividend to its shareholders, and no lower than 40% dividend ratio in the coming three years. More specifically, shareholders will receive CNY 30 as the cash dividend for every ten shares held. Compared to the CNY 4.18 billion net profit in 2019, this plan implies a 91.83% payout ratio. 

There is no doubt this decision has aroused the market to ask more questions. Many cannot help wondering the future path of this China-representative pharmaceutical.

In a financial analysis, a high dividend payout ratio has several implications. First, the cash dividend is a strong sign of the company’s abundant liquidity, which is consistent with Yunnan Baiyao’s net profit in 2019. 

A second supportive justification is about taxation. In China, the personal tax rate for dividends and capital gains is 20%, while the corporate tax rate for net profit is generally 25%. So in this context, the company would like to pay dividends in cash, not only avoiding the 5% more tax rates but also fulfilling the management’s mission to maximize shareholder value. 

Third, consecutive high ratio dividends can help shareholders gain stable cash inflows, reducing volatility. Thus, a possible intention in making this move could be that Yunnan Baiyao wants to attract higher-value investors who mostly like to hold equities for the long term. Doing an unexpected stunt in the form of a nearly 92% payout may quickly filter out those speculators that have been destroying their market value.

Last but not least, the idea to keep value investors or get rid of speculators, through the increase in higher payout ratio, is an extended strategy for its future path after the ownership reform. Transformed into a privately-owned company, it will no longer be backed by state power and will face fiercer competition with domestic and foreign challenges. 

Market expansion and business diversification

Through all these years, it has transformed from a drugmaker into a cosmetic goods provider, from a national brand to a globally recognized and unique name. Where else should it go to explore more possibilities, or open up a new market? It has not touched upon its highest ceiling yet.

One noteworthy thing is that TCM has a logic that is very different from other pharmaceuticals. It is not like typical generic medicine manufacturing, or advanced biotechnology. As clearly pointed out in its 2019 financial report, the most prominent core competency comes from its brand, ‘Yunnan Baiyao.’

Thus it makes sense for a drug maker suddenly to orient to consumer goods business, since the first engagement with the cosmetic goods market found it confronting a market dominated by foreign brands, back then in 2001. It has now become a nationally recognized brand, based on a ‘healthcare +’ cosmetic manufacturing model, providing a diverse product portfolio from pharmaceutical skincare goods in China’s New Retail industry.

Indeed, compared to those biotech pharmaceuticals, its R&D investment is not aimed at the most cutting-edge technologies, nor tackling rare and significant diseases, but at serving up its consumer-focused products. After sluggish investment in its R&D area in 2016 and 2017, it started an acceleration phase, with CNY 110.3 million in 2018 and CNY 173.9 million in 2019. 

As for the near future, it is getting more prepared than ever before with a new profile – a wholly-listed company under mixed ownership. Agility in strategy with flexible tactics is the new growth driver. According to its 2019 report, since the four-year reform, the company has become the only healthcare platform with acquisitions and resource integration.

The last few years saw Yunnan Baiyao make efforts to make breakthroughs. It built a biotech-based healthcare platform, with a heavy anchor in post-development commercialization. The engagement in the industrial hemp segment may well lever its advantages in resource provenance. Even more, this ‘old name’ plans to construct an SaaS cloud platform with interconnections with hospitals, pharmacies, drug makers and B-clients, to escalate the healthcare IT service.

Directing a nationally-honored brand is a privilege. But as time goes by, it can be confining, and something of a burden when one is seeking new growth engines. After stepping out of its comfort zone, this pharmaceutical company may yet try out new businesses, faced with opportunities that show themselves from inside a more uncertain future nowadays.