Step aside China Huishan Dairy Holdings – a company which cratered last month after a negative Muddy Waters research report brought attention to a company we knew for one year was collateralizing its cows to fund stock buybacks – and make space for what may be the next Chinese megafraud.
While China Hongqiao Group may be best known for being the world’s largest aluminum producer, it has in recent months featured just as prominently among short-seller reports who have accused the company of being a fraud. As the WSJ’s Scott Patterson writes, questions about China Hongqiao’s finances first emerged in November, when an anonymous short seller wrote on a website called Hongqiao Exposed that the company’s profits are “too good to be true.” China Hongqiao in the March 31 statement called the report “untrue and unfounded.”
A subsequent 46-page report on Feb. 28 by Emerson Analytics, a trading firm focused on Chinese stock-market fraud, disclosed more allegations of fraud involving the Chinese commodity giant.
Emerson accused China Hongqiao of “abnormally high” profits generated by underreporting production costs and disclosing electricity expenses—one of the biggest costs for aluminum producers—as much as 40% below their true cost. Emerson said it investigated Chinese electricity costs, spoke to former China Hongqiao employees and compared the company’s costs and profits with other comparable companies.
Additionally, China Hongqiao has been more profitable than some Chinese competitors. For instance, China Hongqiao earned an average operating profit margin of 27% in the past five years, compared with minus-1.7% for state-owned Aluminum Corp. of China , known as Chalco, and 5.9% for Alcoa, according to FactSet. “People were always skeptical about how they managed to be more profitable than their peers,” said Sandra Chow, a credit analyst at CreditSights.
And while China Hongqiao denied the Emerson report’s allegations and said it hired an investigative agency to look into the firm and people behind the claims, things are starting to unravel rapidly for the Chinese megacap.
As Patterson reports, China Hongqiao – the world’s biggest aluminum producer – is in trouble, locked in a feud with its accountant over fraud allegations that have forced it to suspend trading of its shares and seek help from the central government in Beijing.
Just like in the case of its cow dairy peer, the problems emerged to the surface following the bearish 3rd party reports. Just days after the Emerson Analytics note, on March 4 China Hongqiao sought assistance from a trade group, the Chinese Non-Ferrous Metals Industry Association, or CNIA, saying the short sellers’ claims of inflated profits were forcing the company’s accountant, Ernst & Young, “to adopt an extremely conservative and careful attitude.” One wonders just whose books E&Y had been reviewing until that point if it took an outside party to bring attention to potential fraud at one of its biggest Chinese clients.
From that point, it all just spiralled out of control: on March 6, Ernst & Young notified the company it had suspended its audit of its 2016 financial results, according to a March 31 statement by China Hongqiao. Ernst & Young asked the company to commission an independent investigation into the short sellers’ claims, delaying the release of the company’s annual financial results, China Hongqiao said.
With E&Y washing its hands of China Hongqiao, and without audited results, China Hongqiao said in its letter to CNIA, the company risks an investigation from Hong Kong securities regulators and a credit crunch. According to the WSJ, the company has about $10 billion in debt and could be in default on a $700 million loan unless it gets waivers from creditors, says Standard & Poor’s Global Ratings. S&P, citing the move by Ernst & Young, has downgraded China Hongqiao’s bonds a notch deeper into junk territory to B-plus. Once again, one wonders just who both E&Y and S&P were analyzing until the emergence of the short seller’s report.
To be sure, in its March 31 statement, China Hongqiao denied the short sellers’ fraud allegations, calling them “untrue and unfounded.” Ernst & Young declined to comment, but by then the market had largely smelled a rat, prompting China Hongqiao to demand both the CNIA and the Chinese government to come to its aid, warning in its March 4 letter of “serious effects” if nothing is done, including “regional systemic financial risks” and “dramatic social unrest.”
Ah yes, playing the usual assured destruction card if nothing is done card. Only in this case, the megafraud, pardon aluminum producer may have a point. You see, over the past few years, China Hongqiao drew the attention of the global aluminum market and U.S. trade officials as it soared to the pinnacle of the industry leapfrogging the production of giant competitors like Alcoa in the U.S. and United Co. Rusal PLC in Russia.
As Patterson, who has been closely following the aluminum space for years notes, the rise coincided with American allegations that Chinese companies—helped by government subsidies—flooded the world with cheap aluminum, coal and steel, depressed prices and decimated U.S. industries. U.S.-Chinese trade issues were a focus of a two-day summit last week between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping of China.
The problem, now that the Company’s fraud appears to have been exposed, is that China Hongqiao, a Hong Kong-listed company, employs no less than 60,000 people. A sudden collapse may indeed result in “dramatic social unrest”
There is a silver lining: as the WSJ adds, “trouble for Hongqiao could upend the aluminum industry in China and present an opportunity for American producers who say the company has been using unfair tactics to dominate the industry. It could also reinforce the broader concerns over what many view as questionable business practices by China’s big industrial giants, many of which are increasingly active on the global stage.”
* * *
Perhaps the best news from this event, should it indeed result in the insolvency of China Hongqiao, is that one of the biggest commodity zombie companies will soon be wiped out, allow competitors to take its place.
China’s aluminum output reached an estimated 31 million tons in 2016, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, more than half of global output and up 60% since 2011. That is the year China Hongqiao went public, raising $817 million. China Hongqiao’s founder, Zhang Shiping, holds an 81% stake in the company worth $5.3 billion, according to FactSet.
The U.S. government in January launched a formal complaint against the Chinese government with the World Trade Organization, accusing China of funneling artificially cheap loans from state-run banks to aluminum producers including China Hongqiao. China provides China Hongqiao with access to cheap coal, aluminum and electricity, according to the WTO complaint. The dispute shines a light on the underpinning of a Chinese aluminum boom that has roiled trade relations with the U.S.
China Hongqiao’s production capacity has almost quadrupled to 6.7 million metric tons since 2011, according to commodity researcher CRU Group. Rusal can produce 4.1 million tons of aluminum a year, Alcoa up to 3.4 million tons of aluminum a year, CRU says.
For now, it isn’t clear if the government or regulators will step in. According to the WSJ, the CNIA, the Hong Kong Securities and Futures Commission, and China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, which oversees China’s industrial policies, didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The events are “very embarrassing for the Chinese and for Hongqiao,” said Paul Adkins, managing director of AZ China Ltd., a Hong Kong consultancy that tracks the Chinese aluminum industry.
Since this is just the tip of the iceberg for China’s “walking dead” commodity companies, Beijing has an option: proceed with even more bailouts, or prepare for much more embarrassment in the coming months as the veil is lifted and China’s commodity zombies – first profiled here in October 2015 – are exposed for the entire world to see.