Money Matters

Who’s that 39-year-old paying HK$1.4 billion for three office floors?

Mystery surrounds the fortunes of Ye Jianming, his company structure, or why he pays triple the prevailing interest rate for loans to fund his acquisitions

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 February, 2017, 9:21pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 February, 2017, 8:29am

Ye Jianming isn’t a name that rings many bells. But it will, considering what he’s achieved so far in a country where the state firms take all.

He is the sole private entrepreneur to win a stake in an Abu Dhabi onshore oil concession – which has a lifespan of 40 years – with 4 per cent. British Petroleum and China National Petroleum Corp got 10 and 8 per cent respectively.

Why would state giants like CNOOC and Sinopec Group tolerate that?

He holds a “full” licence in China’s financial industry – covering insurance, brokerage, banking, trusts, commodities and asset management, alongside state-owned Citic Group and China Everbright Holdings.

What’s so different here from the hundreds of firms that are queuing up for an insurance licence?

His empire, CEFC China Energy, has seen its revenue double to 263 billion yuan (US$38.3 billion) between 2012 and 2015, becoming the largest oil trader in China. That was before the company won a lucrative permit to import oil.

Most important and puzzling of all, Ye is only 39 years old.

Ye is now venturing into Hong Kong. Last week, he announced the HK$600 million acquisition of listed Runway Global with the intention to make it a financial conglomerate. In October 2016, he paid HK$1.4 billion (US$180 million) for three floors at the Convention & Exhibition Centre in Wanchai.

Before putting a price tag on Ye and Runway, one question needs to be satisfied. How did he manage all this? Or rather, who is he?

It’s a mystery.

He calls himself Ye Jianming (葉簡明). Mainland media found a different name. He said he started as a forest police officer in a tiny town in Fujian. Local journalists said he was a carpenter.

He told Fortune Magazine his business took off in 2006 after buying oil trader Xiamen Huahang at auction, which was once owned by smuggling king Lai Changxing (賴昌星). He was then only 27. He said he was funded by investors in Hong Kong and Fujian.

Domestic newspapers questioned how Xiamen Huahang, which is owned by the Fujian government, was linked to Lai’s circle and ended up in auction.

It’s the same dark cloud surrounding almost every high-flying private player from China. What makes Ye different is the structure of his company; it’s that of a state firm.

The company has a Communist Party Committee, a Disciplinary Committee and a Youth League. It boasts a middle management that largely consists of party members.

It set up two think tanks in Hong Kong – China Energy Fund Committee that sponsors events and research advocating China’s territorial claims, and the China Institute of Culture, that pledges its support for Taiwan’s reunification with mainland China.

Add to this a Czech news report that Ye was a deputy secretary general with close associations to the People’s Liberation Army, and speculation runs wild: CEFC is a shadow state firm set up to win deals in sensitive areas; CEFC is a business of the People’s Liberation Army; or Ye is the grandson of revered Marshall Ye Jianying (葉劍英). Ye denied any army links.

No less puzzling is its financing, that doesn’t quite seem to match its fame and connections.

On December 15, its Hong Kong subsidiary borrowed HK$600 million from state-owned Huarong International Financial Holdings to pay for the Convention Centre office. It’s paying 7.5 per cent interest – triple what other commercial banks charge.

On February 18, Huarong said it loaned US$45 million (HK$349 million) to CEFC to fund its US$880 million investment in the Abu Dubai oil concession. That is conditional on CEFC signing a letter of intent with the Hainan branch of the State Development Bank for a loan to pay off the difference.

Huarong is charging 8 per cent interest – plus 1 per cent transaction fee – rising to 12 per cent in case of extension beyond six months. That’s almost double the prevailing bank rate.

Ye is also borrowing to acquire Runway. Guotai Junan will provide HK$320 million, or 53 per cent of the acquisition cost.

There is no information on whether Ye will pledge his controlling stake in Runway for that loan.

No serious player in the financial market will describe any of the above Big Money. A fairer question is why a company as strong as CEFC has to rely on loans, and why it has chosen to go the expensive route rather than use the cheaper, prevailing market rates at commercial banks. Questions emailed to the company received no reply.

In operation, CEFC hardly looks like a de facto state firm. Ye’s challenge will be turning his connections into cash.