Monday, July 4, 2011

"Independent Valuation" Problems in Chinese Equity Offerings

One notable scandal this last month was the public accusation that Sino-Forest, a Chinese forestry resources company traded on the Toronto Exchange (TRE.TO), is no more than a Ponzi scheme. The accusation was made by Hong Kong equity research firm Muddy Waters, LLC, in a 40-page research report reminiscent of Harry Markopolos’s expose of the Madoff Ponzi scheme.

I will not comment on the merits of the accusation other than to say that there is enough fraud coming out of China that I don’t see a reason for an analyst to make up false stories. On U.S. exchanges alone, eleven Chinese companies have had their securities registrations revoked by the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) and 24 more have been forced to address accounting irregularities or auditor resignations, and of the 19 most recent filings of class action securities lawsuits in the U.S., at least 5 have been against Chinese companies. The simple observation that Sino-Forest has produced no free cash flow or dividends in 16 years in spite of escalating revenues is cause for suspicion. John Paulson dumped his shares right away after the MW report.

Some of you may wonder about the CFE initials in my by-line. They stand for "Certified Fraud Examiner", a credential awarded by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners. One thing we were taught in our educational program is that fraud is a crime of opportunity. It will move to areas where the controls are weakest, opacity is greatest, and greed and a miraculous story get in the way of due diligence and reason. This makes China an ideal place to commit fraud, just as Florida and Las Vegas were 5 years ago.

Foreign investors are wowed by China's reported 10% annual GDP growth rate and accept Chinese financial reporting with the assumption that auditors and valuers know everything going on within a Chinese company. Many Chinese companies create a labyrinth of offshore entities in the British Virgin Islands and Cayman Islands to hide transactions or owners from view. Sino-Forest and Hui Xian have both done that.

As for Sino-Forest, Muddy Waters specifically addressed the reliability of the "independent valuation" report, as follows:

"TRE provides fraudulent data to Poyry, which
produces reports that do nothing to ensure that TRE is
legitimate."

and

"TRE became more sophisticated – engaging Jakko Poyry to write valuation reports, all the while giving Poyry manipulated data and restricting its scope of work. Thus more and more investors are drawn into TRE’s fraud every year as it falsifies timber investments and manipulates Poyry further."

One common theme of the Muddy Waters analysis and my own blogs about Perennial China Retail Trust and Hui Xian REIT is the use and abuse of so-called “independent valuation reports” from respected firms with valuers possessing respected credentials. In each case, the sponsors that hired the valuers restricted the scope of work or imposed assignment conditions which impaired the reliability of the reports. Each example is explained as follows:

Independent valuation of Sino-Forest (TRE.TO)

As Muddy Waters describes, the independent valuation firm Jaakko Poyry couched its valuation opinion with multiple disclaimers such as follows:

• “Poyry has not viewed any of the contracts relating to forest land-use rights, cutting rights, or forest asset purchases.”

• “It is important to understand that this is not a confirmation of forest ownership, but rather a verification of the mapped and recorded areas of stocker forest
.”

These types of disclaimers naturally arouse suspicion, as in Shakespeare’s famous phrase, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” Why would the valuer feel the need to make such statements unless he knew something was wrong?


Independent valuation of Perennial China Retail Trust (N9LU.SI)

Here’s a situation in which the annual base fee to the Sponsor is established by independent valuation, but the “independent valuer” was asked to assume that all five properties had been acquired and developed and leased to full occupancy, when only one of five properties had been built and two only existed as purchase options. The inflated appraised value of about $1.1 billion SGD is 54% above market capitalization at the close of markets on July 4th. The $1.1 billion SGD appraised value translates to an annual base fee of $3,850,000.

The valuation firm also performed limited due diligence, as they explained as follows in the valuation report that was included in the IPO prospectus:

Whilst CB Richard Ellis has endeavoured to assure the accuracy of the factual information, it has not independently verified all information provided by the Trustee-Manager (primarily copies of leases and financial information with respect to the Properties as well as reports by independent consultants engaged by the Trustee-Manager).

CB Richard Ellis has relied upon property data supplied by the Trustee-Manager which we assume to be true and accurate. CB Richard Ellis takes no responsibility for inaccurate client supplied data and subsequent conclusions related to such data.

This confidential document is for the sole use of persons directly provided with it by CB Richard Ellis (Pte) Ltd. Use by, or reliance upon this document by anyone other than Perennial China Retail Trust Management Pte. Ltd. (as Trustee-Manager of Perennial China Retail Trust) is not authorised by CB Richard Ellis and CB Richard Ellis is not liable for any loss arising from such unauthorised use or reliance. This document should not be reproduced without our prior written authority.”


Independent valuation of Beijing Oriental Plaza (Hui Xian REIT)

The owners had been receiving valuations of its only property, Beijing Oriental Plaza, from DTZ Debenham Tie Leung Limited on an annual basis. The valuation was RMB 11.2 billion at the end of 2009 and RMB 20 billion as of October 31, 2010, based on a decline in market capitalization rates and an increase in rents of 2% for offices and 6.7% for retail tenants.

Nevertheless, for the purposes of the IPO and the estimation of a “revaluation surplus” distribution to the previous owners, a different valuer was chosen – American Appraisal China Limited -- who estimated market value to be RMB31.4 billion as of January 31, 2011, just three months after the DTZ valuation of RMB 20 billion, a further increase in value of 57%. Despite this new valuation, though, the IPO sponsors priced the entire offering at between RMB 26.2 billion and 27.9 billion, 11 to 17% below appraised value. Why would the Sponsors price below appraised value unless they didn’t believe the appraised value of AAC? Why did they switch valuation firms? As of July 5th, market capitalization has dropped to RMB 23.45 billion, which is only 75% of appraised value.

More specific concerns about the valuation report are presented in my Hui Xian blog.

The appraised value of RMB 31.4 billion was used to establish a “revaluation surplus” of RMB 7.775 billion payable to the previous owners, although the market capitalization of the entire REIT was never that high, and current market capitalization suggests that no such surplus value exists. The amount of “revaluation surplus” was based on subtracting net book value of RMB 23.635 billion from the appraised value of RMB 31.41 billion, but current market capitalization of RMB 23.45 billion suggests that no revaluation surplus is warranted, and that the RMB 7.775 billion is money that has been taken from investors through a dishonest scheme.

The new valuers also performed limited due diligence, as they explained as follows:

We have not carried out on-site measurements to verify the areas of the Property and assume the areas contained in the documents provided to us are correct. We have no reason to doubt the truth and accuracy of the information as provided to us by BOP and Commerce and Finance Law Offices on PRC law. We have also been advised by BOP that no material facts have been omitted from the information so supplied. We consider we have been provided with sufficient information to reach an informed view.”


Conclusion

Allowing IPO and subsequent offering sponsors to order “independent valuations” is a blatant conflict of interest, although this is a problem that is not unique to China. Moreover, an "independent valuation" that refuses or is not permitted to perform verification of factual information, such as ownership, financial operations, or property size, is useless and misleading to investors.

Investors should understand that valuers typically put disclaimers and limiting conditions in their valuation reports to prevent liability for passing on fraudulent data. They basically assume that everything the property owner states is true. This does nothing to ensure that valuers rely on accurate data, but deceives investors into thinking that the valuation reports are thorough and accurate.

Disclosure: I do not have any short or long positions in these stocks.

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