• Wang tops Glasenberg as year's worst-performing billionaire
  • 'Turn of fortune' brings pressure after $500 million funding

The Chinese billionaire using his personal fortune to help fund a $50 billion Nicaraguan challenger to the Panama Canal has crashed into the bitter reality of equity markets in the world’s second-largest economy.

Telecommunications entrepreneur Wang Jing, 42, was one of the world’s 200 richest people with $10.2 billion at the peak of the Chinese markets in June, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His net worth has since fallen to $1.1 billion.

Wang Jing
Wang Jing
Photographer: Dieter Depypere/Bloomberg

His 84 percent drop so far in 2015 is the worst recorded by the index, which provides a daily ranking of the world’s 400 richest people. Ivan Glasenberg, chief executive officer of Baar, Switzerland-based Glencore Plc, had the second-biggest percentage decline, falling 66 percent to $1.8 billion.

Wang owns 35 percent of publicly traded Beijing Xinwei Telecom Technology Group Co., which has tumbled along with China’s equity markets. The end of a lockup on 51 percent of its shares on Sept. 10 triggered a further decline that’s pushed Xinwei to a 57 percent drop this year. He pledged Xinwei shares valued at $2.4 billion in July that were removed from his net worth calculation.

Behind Wang and Glasenberg are Hong Kong casino operator Lui Che-Woo and Mexican retailer Ricardo Salinas, who’ve both fallen almost 47 percent. To date, the year’s biggest dollar decliners are the world’s third- and fourth-richest people. Carlos Slim, No. 4, has lost $14.2 billion, or 20 percent of his net worth. Warren Buffett is down $12.5 billion, a 17 percent fall. The 400 billionaires on the index have lost 4.2 percent of their combined net worth this year.

Wang's 2015 Net Worth Decline
Wang's 2015 Net Worth Decline

HKND Group, Wang’s closely held development company, was awarded a 50-year concession for the 170-mile (274 kilometer) canal by the government of President Daniel Ortega in 2013. The billionaire said in a December 2014 televised press conference in Nicaragua that he was committing personal funds to the project, and he’s poured about $500 million of his own money into it so far, Peng Guowei, an executive vice president at HKND, told Chinese state media Xinhua on Sept. 7.

Turn of Fortune

“The turn of fortune in Mr. Wang’s financial resources will impact how and whether the canal can and will be built," said Daniel Wagner, CEO of Country Risk Solutions and a former country risk manager at General Electric Co. “I would expect, given this year’s financial gyrations in China, that the government is also asking itself whether the canal is a viable proposition."

The company said that despite the economic setbacks and local protests against the canal’s construction, the project is moving forward. “I have no doubt that appropriate financial arrangements will be in place before construction commences," Bill Wild, HKND’s chief adviser for the canal, said in an e-mailed response to questions. Company representatives for Xinwei declined to comment on Wang’s personal investments and declined a request for an interview with Wang.

A September e-mail from closely held HKND said the funds raised from the pledged Xinwei shares were used for Wang’s "personal investments" and not for the canal project, without elaborating. Wang is also funding unrelated projects -- in some cases with partners -- including a deep water port in Ukraine.

Government Backing

HKND said in the September e-mail that it’s gathering a group of investors to back the effort with plans to sell shares, possibly even an initial public offering, and that it will shore up financing for the canal by "putting into play our imagination and creativity." Wang hasn’t signaled whether banks might help with the financing.

A home sits near the coast in Rivas, Nicaragua
A home sits near the coast in Rivas, Nicaragua
Photographer: Susana Gonzalez/Bloomberg

Francisco Mayorga, an economist who was Nicaragua’s central bank governor in the 1990s, said that HKND will eventually be able to raise funding once the engineering and impact studies are complete. HKND said in an August e-mail that it would start to seek bids on the canal’s final design after the Nicaraguan government approves the environmental review.

"Mr. Wang will probably be able to find enough venture capitalists to launch the project and resort to the services of one of the leading investment banks of the world to structure an offer that may enable him to raise the rest of the funds in a sound combination of equity and debt," said Mayorga, who is an adviser to the board of the Inter American Development Bank.

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