What do you do when your most senior executive stops answering his phone? It's an experience Chinese companies are getting used to.
Over the past year, senior figures at China Minsheng Banking, China Aircraft Leasing, and the brokerages Founder Securities and Guotai Junan have all disappeared without initial explanation. Similar absences have afflicted the department-store chain Ningbo Zhongbai and the waste manager Dongjiang Environmental. Now it's the turn of China's own mini-Berkshire Hathaway, Fosun International.
Trading in Fosun, owner of investments in Club Med, Cirque de Soleil, and New York's Chase Manhattan Plaza building, was halted Friday after Guo Guangchang, the billionaire who co-founded the company with about $6,000 of capital during the 1990s, was reported as being missing. The company had "lost contact" with Guo, who modeled himself on Berkshire Chairman Warren Buffett, Caixin magazine reported.
Fosun is one of the most acquisitive non-state-owned Chinese companies, so Guo's sudden absence leaves a lot of plates spinning. There's about $2.2 billion of deals still pending, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. They include a $586 million offer for the Chinese film distributor Bona Film; a $476 million controlling stake in an Israeli insurer, Phoenix Holdings; and the $232 million takeover of German private bank Hauck & Aufhaeuser. Plus the tussle for BHF Kleinwort Benson: Fosun has offered $529 million to buy out shareholders in the Belgian wealth manager, but was last month trumped by a higher offer from the French investment bank Oddo.
While missing Chinese executives often end up linked to the wide-ranging clampdown on official corruption launched by President Xi Jinping, there's no evidence in this case about what's happened to Guo. The Chinese portal Sohu.com reported that he's assisting with an investigation of former Shanghai Vice Mayor Ai Baojun, citing a person with knowledge of the matter whom it didn't name. Fosun spokesman Chen Bo told Bloomberg News that operations of the company "remain normal," and didn't respond to a request for comment on the Sohu report.
There's one important difference to that wave of crackdowns: Fosun isn't a state-owned enterprise, but a private business, and no small one: it's got about 34 billion yuan ($5.3 billion) of long-term assets on five continents. Xi's investigations have largely been carried out by the Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection, an internal Communist Party body that sits outside the regular legal system and is responsible for bringing party members to heel.
As those investigations mainly involved state companies that the Chinese government has an interest in preserving, they sometimes left shareholders in the affected companies unruffled. Compare the Brazilian investment bank BTG Pactual with China's state-controlled Citic Securities: BTG shares have fallen 50 percent in the 12 trading days since CEO Andre Esteves was detained. Citic's Shanghai price actually rose 0.4 percent over the same period after Chairman Cheng Boming was named in an insider-trading inquiry.
While shares in Fosun and its associated companies remain halted, its $400 million in 6.875 percent bonds due 2020 slumped 16.1 cents to 88.3 cents, before trading at 92.11 cents on the dollar at 12:15 p.m. in Hong Kong. Until we find out more about Guo's whereabouts, the company is in largely uncharted territory.
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