If you are transporting 50,000 truckloads of timber across China, it can be hard to see the wood for the trees. If you are trying to audit 68 sq km of Chinese orange groves, you can easily find yourself a few fruit short of a still life. But how, exactly, do you lose track of 2,810 shops full of fluorescent trainers and dayglo “leisure wear”, spread across 21 provinces and three municipalities?
That is the question being asked this week in London, after the non-executive directors of Naibu, a Chinese sportswear company quoted on the Alternative Investment Market, admitted they had lost all contact with the company’s chairman and executive director and had no information on its operations, or its “current financial position”.
Shareholders are well aware of theirs, however: from their first trading in 2012 to their suspension last month, Naibu’s shares have lost 90 per cent.
One of the many horror stories from the Financial Times: "China’s intangible assets at home in Aim".
Some more snippets:
In 1995, timber group Sino-Forest floated in Toronto, rose to a market value of $6bn and gained US fund manager John Paulson as lead shareholder before collapsing amid allegations that its logs were illusory.
Fruit producer Asian Citrus came to the London Stock Exchange in 2005 and grew its share price sevenfold in five years — before losing 90 per cent of its value on claims that it had over-counted its oranges.
One Chinese company, shoemaker Ultrasonic, even offers hope to Naibu investors. After listing in Frankfurt in 2011, its shares fell 79 per cent in a day last year, on news that its chief executive, and much of its cash, had vanished. They recovered when he turned up a few weeks later claiming he had simply lost his mobile phone.
The article further looks at three key aspects:
The functioning of the exchanges
What does it say about London’s Aim that it enabled Naibu’s owners to float just 9 per cent of their shares, gain a £68m valuation for the company and — in the case of two of the top three original shareholders — offload entire stakes, amounting to 30 per cent of the group? Little wonder one FT hack suggests the market be renamed ATM. Sino-Forest’s senior executives found Canada’s market as bountiful: listing and offloading $83m of shares before their company collapsed.
The role of non-executive directors
Under the Aim rules, Naibu’s did not have to adopt the UK Corporate Governance Code, but they were required “to aspire to achieve the key elements”. Yet, in spite of claiming 30 years’ experience of the City, they seemed to do little for their £60,000-a-year part-time salaries beyond setting up an Aim compliance committee — and perhaps hanging on the telephone, in vain, to Fujian province.
The integrity of corporate advisers
Naibu’s nominated adviser, before it relinquished its licence, filled the company’s Aim admission document with claims that it was China’s 10th-largest sportswear brand — in a survey commissioned by Naibu itself — in a booming market. For its diligence, it took an initial fee of £30,000, a further fee of £170,000, and commission at the rate of 5 per cent of the aggregate sums raised.
The above is all very relevant for China listed companies on Bursa and SGX ("S-chips"). My concern in all of this is the enforcement across borders, which seems to me very complicated.
However, there might be some hope. I wrote before about China Sky, Singapore's Business Times reported regarding enforcement against its former CEO, some snippets:
Former chief executive of beleaguered China Sky Chemical Fibre, Huang Zhong Xuan, will pay a civil penalty of S$2.5 million and surrender 10 per cent of his shareholding in China Sky under a settlement agreement with the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).
The civil penalty was meted out after he admitted to making misleading public disclosures and failing to make the required disclosures to the market, thereby breaching the Securities and Futures Act (SFA), the MAS said on Thursday.
The S$2.5 million penalty will be paid from the US$3.7 million in his Singapore bank account, which was frozen under a High Court injunction that MAS obtained in 2013. The surrender or cancellation of his shares will raise the net asset value per share for existing China Sky shareholders.
MAS assistant managing director for capital markets Lee Boon Ngiap said: "The offer by Huang to surrender 10 per cent of his shareholdings in China Sky is the first negotiated settlement of its kind, directly benefiting existing shareholders of China Sky.
CAD director Tan Boon Gin said: "Cases like this have jurisdictional issues that make case resolution challenging. This case has come to a successful resolution through close collaboration between MAS, CAD and SGX, as well as assistance rendered by the authorities and regulators in the People's Republic of China.