Fu Yanbin, a Chinese real estate tycoon, is being taken to court in Hong Kong by lenders including Goldman Sachs for allegedly transferring assets out of their reach after his company, Rightway Group, earlier failed to repay them a $557 million loan.
The lenders, however, have no idea if Fu will appear for the next hearing in the civil case on July 10 as they are unable to locate him, two sources with direct knowledge of the situation said.
If the allegations are true, they are another example of the fraud emanating from mainland China that has become a huge issue for US stock market investors, who have lost an estimated $34 billion after Chinese firms whose shares traded on US exchanges were either investigated for or admitted to accounting irregularities. American investors poured cash into Chinese firms expecting to grab a slice of the nation’s high economic growth, and instead often ended up holding worthless shares.
According to court papers, Rightway defaulted on the loan in June 2011. Then, in September 2012, the lenders moved to seize Rightway’s mainland Chinese assets. They did so via a technical process of enforcing a mortgage over a company within the group, named Allied Treasure, that holds Rightway’s real estate. They then discovered they could not seize Allied Treasure because Fu had sold it for a token $10,000 to another private company, named Home Fortune, which the lenders say “remains owned and/or controlled by Mr. Fu.”
A report (link in Chinese) in the 21st Century Business Herald dated last November said that, starting in February 2012, Fu was “mysteriously missing” from his home city of Dalian, and had formally resigned from the local chamber of commerce in October of that year.
Rumors have circulated on Chinese citizen journalism website Boxun connecting Fu’s alleged disappearance with the downfall of former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai. Rightway is based in the northeastern Chinese city of Dalian, where Bo was mayor before he was moved to run Chongqing. Bo is awaiting trial on charges including bribe-taking and abuse of power.
Speculation that the backlash against Bo has played a role in Fu’s disappearance probably emerged because another Dalian tycoon, Xu Ming, was reportedly detained by Chinese authorities last April. Xu was a close associate of Bo, though there is no proof in the public domain that Fu was close to the disgraced former Chongqing chief.
If the lenders’ court claims are true, Fu would not be the first Chinese businessman to be accused of transferring ownership of assets from external stakeholders to himself. The Securities and Exchange Commission has charged Ming Zhao and Liping Zhu, chairman and former CEO respectively of Chinese company Puda Coal, of secretly transferring and then selling company assets. In 2011, Hong Kong-traded Real Gold Mining admitted its founder, Wu Ruilin, had pledged companies that owned the mainland Chinese company’s mines to a bank as security for personal loans.
Goldman Sachs declined to comment on Rightway. The US investment bank is one of several lenders to the Dalian-based company. Most of the others are hedge funds, who are actively trading Rightway’s debt among themselves, meaning the identity of these lenders changes often, two Hong Kong debt market sources told Quartz. One hedge fund source said sellers of the loans were claiming that Fu himself may try to buy back the debt at a discount to its face value to regain control of his empire without repaying the full $557 million, and to put an end to the litigation against him. (This, however, is purely debt market chatter.)
Goldman still holds the loans and has not sold out, two sources with direct knowledge of the bank’s operations added.
Fu could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for Home Fortune could not be reached. Victor Jong, a partner at PwC who is representing the lenders in their battle to get their money back, did not return a call seeking comment. A spokesman for Hogan Lovells, the lenders’ solicitors, declined to comment.