Money Matters

Confessions of a self-made Chinese tycoon who’s too big to fail

Loans beget shares, which beget more loans, and letters of credit, which beget more loans, and cash

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 8:16am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 April, 2017, 8:15am

Imagine I’m one of those private entrepreneurs whose business has gone down in flames with spectacular debt.

I know the Chinese word for risk is fengxian (風險). Only it has a different definition in my dictionary.

I have built from scratch an enterprise that employs tens of thousands of people. Trust me, in China’s corporate jungle, it took more than just luck.

Yet, the success can be easily wiped out by a change in policy or the whims of government officials. I had to diversify before my political connections expire. A public listing was the only way to go.

The A-share market was closed to me. The regulators were savvy and the queue was long. I didn’t have the money and connection for that. Hong Kong was my saviour.

A nosy accountant has blocked my first listing attempt. His surprise visit found nothing in some of my backwater plants. I spent a few years getting the numbers, plants and, most important of all, my advisers right.

Those men in Armani suits found me a Hong Kong tycoon to invest in my business, or to be more accurate, to loan me his money and fame. The old man was a loan shark but he made the initial public offering a hit. No pain, no drama.

I became a different man overnight.

Bankers showered me and my business with loans at half the prevailing interest rate. I needed more than that. I wanted to become a tycoon.

To get the money mill starting, the first step was to pledge my shares. A broker gave me only 40 or 50 per cent of my stock’s market value. That’s OK. In China’s shadow banking world, this cash can easily snowball into a princely sum.

The second step was to boost the stock’s price. I spent part of the borrowed money to buy the stock of my own business from the open market to make sure everyone knows. Confidence and wealth have to be seen to be believed.

Under-the-table buying was made easier by the stock connect scheme, which enabled me to suck up all the free float in the market and send prices sky-high with a tiny purchase.

Once the market capitalisation surpassed some blue chips, bankers no longer came one after another, they came in droves.

Bank A bought multiple billions of yuan of equity-interest swaps, or debt securities issued by Bank B, and vice versa. The bankers are very creative in that. Whatever name it was called, all the money came to me.

I pledged the money with mainland banks to get a letter of credit. By pledging those documents, I got loans in Hong Kong, which were then used to borrow more money in China, and so on and so forth.

My cash flow ballooned, as did the debt. Was I ever concerned?

That’s a question for the bankers, not me. China is for the risk takers. My only task was to turn my empire from a make-believe into a solid business before the tides change.

The reality is I didn’t even have to bribe bankers to get the loan. I was a much safer bet than other debtors on their books.

Why would anyone question a corporate titan valued at more than the Hong Kong stock exchange?

All I had to do was feed them with good news to keep the halo glowing. It could be a big property project in a nearby county. This didn’t cost much because the local officials scrambled to have me as an anchor investor.

Or it could be the purchase of an apartment for a record price at The Peak, or the pursuit of a defunct television station that never materialised. As long as it makes the headlines, it worked.

Fellow entrepreneurs began to invite me as cornerstone investors for their listings. Like the old man, I charged a sum to lend them my fame. I bought banks. I invested in insurers. I was only a step away from becoming a real tycoon.

Had Beijing not tightened the financing between Hong Kong and the mainland, as well as forced the banks to report their shadow loans, I would have made it.

Now that the bubble has burst, you may think I am desperate. Not at all. I didn’t even bother to flee the country because my loans make me too big to fail.

No government official or banker will ever dare to let me go bust. By the way, I have also guaranteed the loans to many businesses in the region. Who wants to see the dominoes fall?

I’m not bluffing. Look at Li Hejun. He owed Bank of Jinzhou nine billion yuan (US$1.3 billion). Was he bankrupted? No. The bank has managed to sell the loan at cost so that it could raise money from a Hong Kong listing.

Now you see how I am a good risk manager.