A woman walks past an electronic board showing Hong Kong share index outside a local bank in Hong Kong, Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. Regulators are looking into a mysterious group of companies known as 'The Enigma Network' after a sudden unexplained stock market crash. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)A woman walks past an electronic board showing Hong Kong share index outside a local bank in Hong Kong, Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. Regulators are looking into a mysterious group of companies known as 'The Enigma Network' after a sudden unexplained stock market crash. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

A mysterious crash within an obscure corner of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange has elicited regulatory scrutiny, fanned rumors of conspiracy, and renewed calls for changes in the city’s financial markets.

Over a period of two days in June—June 27 and June 28—a handful of small-cap stocks fell dramatically, wiping out around $6 billion in market value. The hardest hit stock was down more than 90 percent intra-day, and 13 stocks fell at least 50 percent on June 27.

Although impact from the sudden crash was isolated, the decline has hit hard Hong Kong’s small-cap exchange Growth Enterprise Market (GEM). As of July 7, the S&P/HKEX GEM index is down 21 percent since Jan. 1, and 11 percent since June 26.

The recent crash in Hong Kong small caps underscores the reputation for wild swings at the Hong Kong Stock Exchange (HKEX) and its subsidiary GEM. Although HKEX is producing solid returns this year—the Hang Seng Index is up 15 percent—some individual stocks have experienced high volatility. For instance, China Huishan Dairy Holdings Co., one of China’s biggest diary producers listed in Hong Kong, saw its stock drop more than 85 percent in one day in late March, prompting the exchange to suspend trading of its stock.

‘The Enigma Network’

But there’s something unsettling about the nature of the two-day market crash in late June.

A dozen of the stocks that experienced catastrophic crashes on June 26 and 27 were all part of a group of companies called out by Hong Kong-based independent stock analyst and gadfly investor David Webb.

Webb identified them as part of “The Enigma Network,” the name he gave a web of 50 Hong Kong-listed companies with significant cross-ownership. Webb, a former board member of HKEX, urged investors in May not to purchase stocks on the list due to their opaque structures and balance sheet disclosures.

The Engima Network

The Enigma Network: 50 stocks not to own. (webb-site.com)

Companies within “The Enigma Network” hold stakes in each other from less than 1 percent to more than 50 percent. The companies in the group span multiple industries across real estate, finance, and consumer products, including umbrella maker China Jicheng Holdings Ltd. and GreaterChina Professional Services Ltd., the pending owner of English football club Hull City FC. Both Jicheng and GreaterChina saw their shares sink more than 90 percent during the June crash.

Webb, who has studied Hong Kong stocks extensively, first suspected the correlation and began to connect the dots after noticing balance sheet disclosures of “financial assets” with no additional detail at numerous companies.

The picture came into focus as the companies increased their financial disclosures after Webb “began filing complaints with the Stock Exchange that the for-profit regulator had failed to enforce a listing rule which requires annual and interim reports to disclose ‘significant investments held, their performance during the financial year, and their future prospects.’”

The cross-holding was confirmed after one of the “Enigma” companies, Amco United, a medical device maker, issued a profit warning on June 28 to investors that a “substantial loss” is expected in the first half of 2017 due to its ownership in other listed securities.

This has also caught the attention of regulators. According to Bloomberg, Hong Kong’s Securities & Futures Commission (SFC) said the affected stocks “tended to have characteristics that can be conducive to extreme volatility and to market misconduct: multiple relationships between different companies and listed brokerage firms, high shareholding concentrations, thin turnover, and small public floats.”

The SFC did not confirm or deny whether there’s an investigation into the June crash.

Lerado Financial

A common thread among a few of the biggest decliners appeared to be Lerado Financial Group Co., a Hong Kong-based securities brokerage that’s currently under regulatory investigation. Lerado on June 27 disclosed that it had sold 1.48 billion shares of China Jicheng—no doubt contributing to Jicheng’s crash on the same day.

Lerado itself has been under scrutiny. Its shares were suspended from trading beginning June 6, on allegations that a company circular dated Oct. 26, 2015 included “materially false, incomplete or misleading information,” according to SFC, the Hong Kong securities regulator.

In Lerado’s 2015 document, the company disclosed fundraising plans to expand the margin lending business of its subsidiary Black Marble, which had planned to underwrite a share placement for GreaterChina Professional and an open offer for China Investment & Finance Group Ltd., according to TheStreet.com.

Shares of GreaterChina Professional fell more than 90 percent on June 27. China Investment & Finance shares dropped 52 percent on June 27 and 46 percent on June 28.

An obvious theory for the crash of these stocks is that the owner of Lerado—whose shares have been suspended from trading—needed to raise money to meet a margin call or some other obligation and the only way to do so was to dump the shares of Lerado’s underlying investment holdings.

Other theories abound. One hypothesis—proposed by a South China Morning Post columnist—suggests the crash was orchestrated by a pyramid schemes in mainland China linked to Hong Kong penny stocks.

Chinese Anti-Corruption Links

The HKEX and GEM market turbulence could be linked to ongoing regulatory overhaul within China’s financial sector. The activities of some of China’s biggest overseas acquirers have recently been curtailed, and a few influential financial and regulatory leaders were placed under investigation by anti-corruption watchdogs.

David Chung Wai Yip, chairman of GreaterChina Professional, was arrested on April 20 by Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption according to a statement by the company.

Regulatory clampdowns on mainland Chinese stockbrokers could also have contributed to the Hong Kong volatility. “As capital was tightened up, some stock dealers might demand more money from clients because of limited supply. It ended up that one company didn’t get enough capital, resulting in a domino effect,” Zhiwei Zhang of Prudential Brokerage Ltd. told The Epoch Times.

Zhang also saw a connection between the investigation and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s crackdown on outbound capital flows. “It could be that they want to tidy up the stock market before July 1… and also to crack down on the disloyal and corrupt guys; that’s another possibility.”

Small-Cap Governance

Recent HKEX and GEM volatility have renewed calls for greater regulatory oversight within Hong Kong’s financial markets—the world’s fourth largest.

In particular, small-cap exchanges such as Hong Kong-based GEM, U.S.-based OTC Markets, and London-based AIM have long been criticized for being a haven for unvetted, often fraudulent companies.

For example, HKEX and GEM could use better rules to combat shell companies, whose stock could jump on expectations they will be acquired by Chinese firms for backdoor listing—acquiring an existing Hong Kong-listed entity to circumvent stringent filing and disclosure requirements. Such stock gains are purely speculative and not grounded in economic fundamentals.

There’s evidence authorities are about to take action. HKEX recently proposed a review of GEM and changes to stock listing requirements, according to a notice to seek public comment filed June 16.

The proposals, among other changes, seek to address critical issues related to “quality and performance of applicants to, and listed issuers, on GEM.”

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People walk past an entrance to the Anbang Group's offices in Beijing, June 14. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)People walk past an entrance to the Anbang Group's offices in Beijing, June 14. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein)

In a move that stunned New York dealmakers at the time, the famed Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Park Avenue was sold in 2014 to a little-known Chinese company.

That Chinese company is Beijing-based Anbang Group, an insurance conglomerate known for its aggressive overseas asset purchases, including a failed 2016 bid to acquire Starwood Hotels and Resorts. At the time, Chinese companies were engaged in a global takeover spree, and Anbang appeared to be leader of the pack.

Merely a year later, the once high-flying Anbang is suddenly grounded.

Anbang billionaire chairman Wu Xiaohui has been detained by Beijing authorities. And several Chinese state-owned banks were told to stop their dealings with the company, sources told Bloomberg on June 15. Its more than 30,000 employees and nearly $300 billion of assets are left hanging in the balance.

On June 9, Beijing anti-corruption investigators detained Wu, according to the Financial Times. While it is yet unclear if the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection will announce a formal investigation of Wu, he is certainly the highest-profile business executive reeled in so far by Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s sweeping anti-corruption efforts.

Anbang’s Meteoric Rise

In a short time, Anbang has risen from relative obscurity to become one of China’s largest holders of foreign assets. Before its activities were curtailed recently, Anbang had become well known among Western private equity firms and real estate moguls as a competitive bidder for assets.

Wu and Anbang have cultivated extensive business and political connections abroad. Wu is known to be close to Jonathan Gray, head of real estate at U.S. private equity giant Blackstone Group. A few of Anbang’s recent asset acquisitions have been bought from Blackstone. Wu was also in discussion to acquire a stake in the Manhattan office tower owned by Jared Kushner, son-in-law and senior advisor of President Donald Trump, but the deal was called off in March.

Today, Anbang’s portfolio of well-known foreign assets includes the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, the 717 Fifth Avenue building in New York, the Chicago-based Strategic Hotels & Resorts Inc., Belgian insurer Fidea, Belgian bank Delta Lloyd, and a controlling stake in South Korean insurer Tongyang Life Insurance.

Anbang_holdings

List of major foreign asset holdings of Anbang Group, as of June 1, 2017 (The Epoch Times)

‘White Gloves’

Anbang’s sudden fall seems as startling as its rapid ascent. What caused the disgrace of Wu Xiaohui, who led a conglomerate described by the Financial Times in 2016 as “one of China’s most politically connected companies?”

In China, business is always driven by politics. And Wu’s political network could very well landed him in trouble. 

Wu was in discussion to acquire a stake in the Manhattan office tower owned by Jared Kushner.

Wu’s background, like many other Chinese tycoons, is relatively obscure. Born in Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, Wu founded Anbang as a small insurance company in 2004. His fortunes elevated after marrying Zhuo Ran, a granddaughter of former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Deng Xiaoping.

Overseas Chinese language media and sources of this newspaper note that Wu and Zhou are now divorced, although Wu and Anbang have publicly denied such reports.

Wu, 50, is believed to be a close ally of an influential political faction that is in opposition to the Xi leadership. Jiang Zemin was head of the CCP for over a dozen years (1989–2002) and continued holding sway over the Chinese regime through a network of cronies for another ten years (2002–2012). Since coming to office in 2012, Xi Jinping has waged a battle to uproot the influence of Jiang and his faction. 

Sources close to Zhongnanhai, the central headquarters of the CCP, told The Epoch Times that Anbang and Wu have close ties to the family of Zeng Qinghong, the former Chinese vice premier, member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, and longtime confidant of Jiang.

The source said that both Wu and Xiao Jianhua—the Chinese billionaire and Tomorrow Group owner who was abruptly brought back to Beijing from Hong Kong for investigation earlier this year—are key “white gloves,” or money launders, of the Zeng family and the Jiang faction.

The source added that Wu and Xiao used financial transactions to funnel and launder funds abroad on behalf of the Jiang faction, while at the same time parlaying their roles as business tycoons to spy on and influence foreign dignitaries.

There are questions surrounding the sources of Anbang’s capital. The company was founded in 2004 as a small insurer with a mere 500 million yuan ($73 million) of capital and eventually became a behemoth with assets of almost 1,971 billion yuan ($292 billion).

Anbang’s capital suddenly swelled in 2014, with a number of mysterious investors injecting a total of 50 billion yuan into the company. Research by Caixin, a respected mainland business magazine, found that some of Anbang’s 39 investors are obscure outfits such as auto dealerships, real estate firms, and mine operators that sometimes use shared mailing addresses, many of whom are connected to Wu. There’s also a trend of major state-level investors scaling back their ownership, with SAIC Motor Corp. and Sinopec decreasing their ownership levels from 20 percent each to 1.2 percent and 0.5 percent respectively.

Waldorf_hotel_17

The Waldorf-Astoria hotel is shown January 17, 2005 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The insurer also relies on fundings from selling risky wealth management products called universal life policies. These products offer high interest rates and are a hybrid bond and a life insurance policy, have been extremely popular with consumers dissatisfied with bank deposit rates of around 1 percent.

Crackdown on ‘Barbaric’ Insurance Sector

Xi Jinping has made reforming the financial industry a core focus this year. At a speech on March 21, Premier Li Keqiang urged authorities to take powerful measures to prevent corruption in the financial sector, which is vulnerable to the advent of shadow banking, bad assets, and illegal internet financing, according to state-controlled media Xinhua.

Xi has also shown he’s unafraid to challenge captains of industry with extensive political connections. Wu’s detention is the latest in a string of recent disciplinary actions taken against high ranking officials within the financial industry, and thus far, with the insurance sector as ground zero. In February, chairman of financial conglomerate Baoneng Group Yao Zhenhua was banned from the insurance industry for ten years. In April, the former head of China Insurance Regulatory Commission (CIRC) Xiang Junbo was placed under investigation.

Sources close to Zhongnanhai have told The Epoch Times early this year that the Xi leadership is focusing on tackling corruption in the Chinese financial industry in 2017. 

China’s insurance industry has garnered immense power—and controversy—during the last six years, a period of deregulation overseen by its former chief regulator, Xiang, currently under official investigation.

From 2012 to 2016, China’s insurance sector grew 14.3 percent overall, and non-life insurance grew 16.5 percent in premium volume, according to data from Munich Re. Last year, China overtook Japan to become the world’s second biggest insurance market by premiums.

During this period, the insurance sector has turned into a den of corporate raiders.

Insurers are traditionally bastions of conservatism, holding stable assets such as government securities and corporate bonds. Insurers by nature must consider preservation of their clients’ capital as paramount. These assets are also liquid and can be easily sold to pay back policy-holders.

Flush with cash from universal life policies, Chinese insurers embarked on a spending spree, amassing portfolios of risky assets not typically associated with insurance, such as stocks, real estate, and foreign companies. Such assets are risky and illiquid, and could impede an insurer’s ability to repay holders during times of distress.

The insurers most closely associated with such practices are Evergrande Life, Foresea Life—a unit of Baoneng—and Anbang. These companies’ business model closely resemble a private equity fund, where capital is expensive and investment returns are the main focus.

Last year, Foresea and Evergrande amassed a large stake in residential real estate developer China Vanke. A public and protracted dispute to wrest control of Vanke from founder and CEO Wang Shi—one of China’s most famous entrepreneurs—ensued, creating a market firestorm that was finally dispelled after Beijing intervened in December.

In late 2016, China’s insurance regulator criticized the entire domestic insurance industry, calling its aggressive purchases of Chinese companies “barbaric.” Wang Shi also portrayed Foresea’s stock accumulation as “barbarian,” a reference to the 1989 book “Barbarians at the Gate” about the hostile takeover of RJR Nabisco by private equity giant Kohlberg Kravis Roberts & Co.

In just six months, Xi has replaced China’s top insurance regulator, banned the sale of universal life policies, and for now, seemingly brought a wild industry to its heels.

But years of free-wheeling cannot be corrected overnight.

Foresea, which depends on cash from sales of universal life products, issued a warning last month of financial difficulties leading to potential social unrest from its customers unless regulators lift the ban on such products. In a letter to regulators, Foresea called for a lifting of ban “to avoid mass riots by clients, causing systemic risks and much damage to the wider industry.”

Reference to “mass riots” is anathema to the CCP and a potential challenge to the Xi leadership. The insurance industry, in the end, may not give up without a fight.

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