As Mystery Of China's Multi-Billionaire Default Deepens, A New “Bond Scare” Emerges
Last week, in a largely “under the radar” event, one of China’s wealthiest billionaires (if only on paper), Wu Ruilin, chairman of the Guangdong based telecom company Cosun Group, and whose personal fortune of 98.2 billion yuan ($14 billion) makes him wealthier than Baidu founder Robin Li who is ranked 8th on the Hurun Rich List 2016, shocked Chinese bond market watchers when he defaulted on a paltry 100 million yuan ($14 million) in bonds sold to retail investors through an Alibaba-backed online wealth management platform, citing “tight cash flow.”
Needless to say, many were stunned that a billionaire for whom $14 million is pocket change, blamed “tight cash flow” for defaulting on mom and pop investors. In any case, as South China Morning Post reported, despite the founder’s personal fortune, according to a notice put up by the Guangdong Equity Exchange on Tuesday, two subsidiaries of Cosun Group are each defaulting on seven batches of privately raised bonds they issued in 2014. According to the notice, “the issuer had sent over a notice on December 15, claiming not to be able to make the payments on the bonds on time, due to short-term capital crunch.”
To be sure, yet another default in a Chinese landscape suddenly littered with bankrupting debt dominoes would have been the end of it, however this morning Reuters added to the mystery when it said that the fate of the defaulted $45 million Chinese corporate bond sold through an Alibaba-backed online wealth management platform was thrown into doubt on Monday, after a bank said letters of guarantee for the bonds were counterfeit.
Quoted by Reuters, China Guangfa Bank Co Ltd (CGB) said guarantee documents, official seals and personal seals presented by the insurer of the bonds “are all fake” and that it has reported the matter to the police.
The dispute highlights challenges in China’s loosely regulated online finance industry, where retail investors often buy high-yielding bonds and other assets, expecting them to be “risk-free” due to guarantees provided by various parties.
As first reported last Wednesday, at the center of the latest dispute are up to 312 million yuan ($45 million) worth of high-yielding bonds issued by southern Chinese phone maker Cosun Group that defaulted this month. The bonds were sold through Zhao Cai Bao, an online platform run by Ant Financial Services Group, the payment affiliate of e-commerce firm Alibaba Group Holding Ltd.
Ant Financial has asked Zheshang Property and Casualty Insurance Co Ltd, which wrote insurance on the bonds, to repay investors. On Sunday, Zheshang Insurance published two documents on its website that it said were from CGB carrying the bank’s official seals, and that guaranteed Zheshang Insurance policies for the Consun bonds. The letters were issued at CGB’s Huizhou branch in December 2014, when the Cosun bonds were sold, Zheshang Insurance said.
And yet, suggesting there is a massive landmine hiding just below the surface of China’s bond market, far worse than merely the consequences rising interest rates, on Monday, CGB said the documents were fake and that it had reported the incident to police as “suspected financial fraud.”
While material misrepresentation of facts in Chinese finance is hardly new, the recent alleged violations usher in a whole new breed of fraud, one which is far less nuanced and far more simpllistic and includes outright forgeries of documents that backstop tens if not hundreds of billions in debt. The Cosun dispute follows similar instances of financial fraud this year including forged bond agreements that led to brokerage Sealand Securities sharing potential losses of up to $2.4 billion. In May, the government advised banks to be vigilant after several cases of bill fraud.
Ant Financial on Tuesday said Zheshang Insurance “hasn’t any reason to refuse repayment” which it was obliged to do “within three days” of default.
Making matters worse, the fraud has taken place in the context of a bond default that, according to an Ant Financial spokeswoman cited by Reuters, was a “a one in billions incident” on the platform.
Incidentally, Cosun’s bond issuance totals 1 billion yuan, according to Zheshang Insurance. The insurer’s total registered capital is 1.5 billion yuan.
Should more such “one in billions incidents” emerge, Chinese bond investors – already freaked out by the recent record plunge in Chinese govt bond futures, soaring overnight funding rates, and fears over Fed rate hikes – will rush for the exits just as China’s housing bubble is also popping as reported yesterday, leading to a rerun of the US 2006/2007 dual bursting of the housing/credit bubbles, only this time instead of an $8 trillion financial system, the world will have to backstop China… whose banking system at last check had over $30 trillion in liabilities.
Incidentally, we wonder if now that China’s bond insurers are also under the spotlight, if that means China’s very own MBIA/Ambac moments is imminent, as billions in bond insurance contracts are deemed “fake” by the insurers who would rather not pay up on what is set to be an avalanche of defaults.
* * *
Finally, for those interested in what Bloomberg last week dubbed the “latest China Finance Scare”, namely outright forgeries in various debt products, mostly focusing on Entrusted Bonds, here is a useful primer courtesy of BBG:
There’s another Chinese financial practice that’s prompting high-decibel warnings. So-called entrusted bond holdings are a way for financial institutions to skirt rules on using borrowed money to invest in bonds. How? By getting a third party to buy the bonds and agreeing to purchase them at a later date. What could possibly go wrong? How about the worst rout in China’s bond market in a decade. That’s left regulators concerned about the prospect of investors failing to make good on such arrangements, estimated to involve at least $144 billion of bonds.
1. Why entrust us with this news only now?
Concerns about entrusted bond holdings have worsened the tumble in the debt market. Last week, Caixin cited market rumors when it reported a brokerage called Sealand Securities Co. had refused to take over bonds held by a counterparty. That got investors worried. Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp. then said in a note, citing media reports it didn’t identify, that the entrusted holding agreement may have been tied to alleged fraud by ex-staff. Sealand cleared the air when it said it would in fact fulfill the bond contracts that had been stamped with a forged seal. The whole incident was enough to frighten an already jittery market.
2. So why do investors use entrusted holding agreements?
Brokerages and other institutional investors ask counterparties to buy bonds from them when they need to circumvent internal rules on note holdings and leverage, according to Xu Hanfei, a bond analyst at Guotai Junan Securities Co. Or they can simply have third parties buy the notes directly from the market. The practice boosts leverage by effectively giving the financial institutions loans: As brokerages and institutional investors don’t carry the bonds on their books, they can use the funds freed up on paper to purchase more bonds, which can then be rolled into more such agreements. “Non-bank financial institutions, which emphasize returns, have more motivation to amplify leverage through entrusted holdings,” said Li Liuyang, a market analyst at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in Shanghai.
3. How widespread is the practice?
Outstanding entrusted holdings are “in the trillions of yuan,” according to Guotai Junan’s Xu. That estimate is based on the bond holdings of the brokerages and smaller banks that are major participants in such transactions. That means the amount of money tied up in such deals is at least 5 percent of the 21 trillion yuan ($3 trillion) of outstanding corporate notes in China, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
4. What broader risks does it pose to China’s financial markets?
A default in an entrusted holding could turn what otherwise might have been a problem with one company’s liquidity into a broader credit event, given that multiple parties may be involved, according to Li at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ. Li says “everyone is worried about similar situations in their transactions with non-bank financial institutions.” OCBC said that things had got so bad that banks were reluctant to lend to non-bank institutions amid a breakdown in trust between investors.
5. What are regulators doing about it?
Authorities including the central bank and the China Securities Regulatory Commission are investigating some financial institutions’ entrusted bond holdings after the Sealand incident, people familiar with the matter said Tuesday. The holdings run contrary to the central bank’s push to trim investments made on borrowed money, according to China Merchants Bank Co. “It’s just a question of when Chinese regulators will clean up entrusted bond holdings,” said Liu Dongliang, a senior analyst at the bank. Tommy Xie, an economist in Singapore at OCBC, says China’s market rout may prompt regulators to strengthen rules on entrusted holdings. He describes them as “a common practice in the grey area of the bond market.”