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In 2006, CITIC Pacific bought the right to mine up to six billion tonnes from the Pilbara deposit in Australia. Once considered a coup for the Chinese firm, the iron ore mine has since been called a potential ‘company killer.’ (STAFF/REUTERS)
In 2006, CITIC Pacific bought the right to mine up to six billion tonnes from the Pilbara deposit in Australia. Once considered a coup for the Chinese firm, the iron ore mine has since been called a potential ‘company killer.’ (STAFF/REUTERS)

China Inc.’s debacle in the outback Add to ...

Larry Yung Chi-kin is a loyal scion of the Chinese Communist upper crust. His late father, Rong Yiren, was the legendary “Red Capitalist,” one of the few industrialists to stay behind in the mainland after the revolution of 1949. Mr. Yung himself went on to found the conglomerate CITIC Pacific and become one of China’s richest men. So, when duty called, Larry Yung answered.

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In 2006, foreign mining giants were jacking up prices of the iron ore needed by China’s voracious steel industry. At the urging of Beijing, Mr. Yung and CITIC Pacific negotiated the rights to exploit a vast deposit of low-grade ore in the red-rock landscape of Australia’s remote northwest Pilbara region.

The multibillion-dollar deal seemed to be a coup for China’s resource-hungry economy. But Mr. Yung and Beijing are now paying a heavy price.

A few kilometres down a dirt track off the North West Coastal Highway, beside a towering pile of red tailings, the company has dug itself into what increasingly looks like a bottomless pit.

The original $2.47-billion (U.S.) budget for the massive open-cut mine and processing complex has blown out to $8-billion and it is more than two years behind schedule. Senior company managers won’t rule out a $10-billion price tag for one of China’s flagship offshore resource investments. “It has the potential to be a company killer, that’s for sure,” says Clinton Dines, a former president of mining giant BHP Billiton in China.

It is a dramatic reversal for Mr. Yung, 70, who emerged from obscurity after the Cultural Revolution to become the first tycoon among China’s “princelings,” the children and grandchildren of the party elite.

To compound its pain, CITIC Pacific in 2008 bungled an attempt to hedge against the overruns – exposing the company to a further $2-billion in losses. Mr. Yung and his long-time deputy, Henry Fan Hung-ling, were forced to resign that year when Hong Kong police and regulators launched investigations into the hedging transactions.

According to people familiar with the investigations, police and regulators in Hong Kong have concluded their probes into suspected fraud, theft and disclosure failings. They have handed their findings to prosecutors in the semi-autonomous city, who are weighing whether to lay charges against some of China’s highest-profile business figures in the politically charged matter.

Mr. Yung’s office did not return calls requesting comment. A spokeswoman for Hong Kong’s Department of Justice did not respond to questions about the investigations. Officials in Beijing have been publicly silent about the probes.

But senior Chinese leaders have privately said they are worried the mine could turn into an embarrassing failure, according to Australian government officials and foreign mining executives. Soaring costs and missed deadlines in the Pilbara mine have delivered a major setback to China’s global drive to secure reliable supplies of key raw materials.

CITIC Pacific’s Australian subsidiary, Sino Iron, is scrambling to begin operations at the mine and release a flow of revenue that is projected to last for 25 years. Shipments were supposed to begin this year, reaching a pace of 27.6 million tonnes a year.

CITIC Pacific chairman Chang Zhenming said at the company’s Aug.16 results briefing in Hong Kong it now expects trial production to begin only in November, the latest in a series of missed deadlines.

“Before the end of the year we should have production ready for export,” said Mr. Chang, a veteran of China’s state-owned finance sector who was drafted in to replace Mr. Yung.

The saga speaks to the broader problems that China’s state-owned giants are having as they venture into the wider world. Resource projects account for most of the $380-billion of total Chinese outbound investment as of the end of 2011, according to China’s Ministry of Commerce. Losses on these investments have reached almost $27-billion, official media reports say.

Most of it has been blamed on failures to undertake proper research before deals are signed. “In many of these cases, my view is that due diligence was either poor, non-existent or there was an element of hubris involved,” says Mike Komesaroff, managing director of Queensland-based Urandaline Investments, a consultancy specializing in China’s minerals and metals industries.

CITIC Pacific declined requests for interviews with senior managers about the Pilbara mine or answer questions about its feasibility study and background research on the project.

The market outlook isn’t good. Iron-ore prices are expected to continue sliding as China’s economy shows signs of slowing. Australia’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics forecasts ore will average about $136 a tonne this year, a drop of about 11 per cent from 2011. Some analysts expect steeper declines, with China on track to record its first annual drop in steel output in more than three decades.

It’s a major shift. Years of seemingly insatiable Chinese demand delivered a bonanza for Australia’s BHP Billiton, the Anglo-Australian Rio Tinto and Vale of Brazil, which together account for almost 70 per cent of world sea-borne iron-ore trade.

Ore, which had traded for less than $13 a tonne in 2000, peaked at almost $200 a tonne last year. In one savage hike in early 2005, the three miners increased prices by 71.5 per cent.

“That really got their attention,” says Shanghai-based Dines, who came under fire from steel makers when he represented BHP in China and now runs hedge fund Caledonia Asia. “From that moment, China really started worrying about securing reliable supplies of raw materials, particularly iron ore, and the cost of those materials.”

That’s when Larry Yung headed into the Outback.

It was the biggest risk he had ever undertaken, and he was doing it without the support of his legendary father. Just five months before CITIC Pacific in March 2006 signed agreements to mine the Pilbara deposit, Rong Yiren died in Beijing, aged 89.

Mr. Rong had become a household name in China after 1949, when he remained in Shanghai and co-operated with Communist efforts to build a socialist economy. As the head of the family’s flour-milling and textile empire, Mr. Rong was then estimated to be one of the 10 richest men in China, according to reports at the time. His only son, Larry Yung (Rong Zhijian in Mandarin) lived his early years at the family mansion on leafy Kanping Road in what had once been the French Concession.

Even under the Communists, Mr. Yung was extravagant. He drove a red open-topped sports car around the city and invited friends and classmates to dine at expensive restaurants, China’s official media reported.

That all changed with the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards ransacked the clan’s homes, smashing and stealing valuable art and antiques. Mr. Rong was spared the brutality meted out to others with similar backgrounds. But he ended up working as a janitor, according to reports later published in the official media. Mr. Yung was forced to spend six years labouring in Sichuan Province after graduating from Tianjin University with a degree in electrical engineering.

With the end of the upheaval and Deng Xiaoping’s rise to power in the late 1970s, Mr. Rong was rehabilitated. Mr. Deng tasked him with a key role in guiding China’s opening to the global economy.

He set up state-owned China International Trust and Investment Corporation, now known as CITIC Group, as a vehicle to co-ordinate the massive foreign investment needed to jump-start a shattered economy. His rehabilitation was complete when, in 1993, he was appointed to the largely ceremonial but prestigious position of vice-president.

As his father returned to influence, Mr. Yung moved to Hong Kong in 1978 and started an electronics engineering company with two cousins. He joined CITIC in 1986 before leading the takeover of an existing listed company and renaming it CITIC Pacific. The deal created one of the first “red chips,” mainland-controlled companies with shares traded in Hong Kong.

CITIC Pacific gobbled up investments in aviation, property, telecoms, tunnels, bridges, power plants and mainland steel mills. The establishment Swire Group, a pillar of colonial Hong Kong, welcomed him onto the board of its airline subsidiary, Cathay Pacific, when CITIC Pacific became a major shareholder.

As the deals rolled in, the Yung family’s links to the CITIC empire deepened. Two of his children, son Carl Yung Ming-jie and daughter Frances Yung Ming-fong, joined the company in senior positions.

The company’s stock peaked at almost HK$50 in October 2007, valuing his 19 per cent stake at HK$20.9-billion ($2.65-billion Cdn) (The stock now trades at about HK$11.)

That year, Mr. Yung took home almost HK$67-million in pay, including a HK$48-million bonus, according to company filings.

The silver-haired Mr. Yung fit seamlessly into the close-knit ranks of Hong Kong’s super rich. He bought Birch Grove in Sussex, the former home of late British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, for a reported £5.5-million in 1989 and spent heavily adding a golf course. The house has since been sold.

Like other tycoons in gambling-mad Hong Kong, Mr. Yung invested in champion thoroughbreds and was elected a steward of the prestigious Hong Kong Jockey Club. Club records show 13 Hong Kong horses listed under his ownership won combined prize money of almost HK$100-million. By the time he began scouting for iron ore, China’s official media was describing him as the country’s richest tycoon.

His connections did him little good in the arid outback. Established players had already scooped up most of the best deposits of hematite, a rich form of iron ore, local miners say.

CITIC had little choice but to invest in plentiful deposits of lower-grade magnetite ore, which then accounted for less than 1 per cent of Australia’s iron ore output.

In 2006, after Mr. Yung had visited Australia to explore potential investments, CITIC Pacific signed a deal for the right to mine up to six billion tonnes from the Pilbara deposit owned by Australian mining entrepreneur Clive Palmer.

Australian officials involved in the discussions say Mr. Yung was a confident and polished host. At a meeting in Hong Kong after the signing, Mr. Yung told his Australian guests he was flying to South America the following day on his private jet to hunt wild boar.

The Australian government approved the deal in June 2006. Within months, it became clear CITIC Pacific had underestimated the costs of establishing Australia’s biggest magnetite mine. There were also unexpected management challenges.

By Chinese standards, Australian labour is expensive, unruly and in short supply. Government and unions quickly dashed expectations that an army of low-paid Chinese workers could be imported to build the facility.

That irritated CITIC Pacific managers, who went public with critical views on local working conditions and habits. Then, in the midst of an Australia-wide mining boom, the price of energy, materials and engineering services soared. Complex projects in China had been completed much faster and at lower cost than similar projects in Australia.

“For a Chinese company coming to operate in Australia, this is a big issue,” says metallurgical engineer Darryl Harris, a director of Perth-based Indo Mines who has also worked extensively in China. “The trouble is they can’t transfer that know-how here.”

With costs ballooning at Sino Iron, the Australian dollar began to rise on the back of soaring commodity exports. By July 2008, it had risen 25 per cent since work started at the mine, effectively boosting labour and other costs by one-fourth for the company, which had borrowed from Chinese banks.

Facing the prospect of further currency losses, CITIC Pacific entered into a series of leveraged derivative contracts in June and July 2008 to hedge against the rising currency.

They struck deals with a range of banks, including Citibank, Rabobank, Standard Chartered, Natixis, Credit Suisse, Bank of America, Barclays Capital, BNP Paribas, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, China Development Bank, Calyon and Deutsche Bank, according to copies of contracts the company later disclosed.

Just as the contracts were signed, the global financial crisis hammered the Australian dollar in August of 2008, leaving the company holding wrong-way bets.

It wasn’t until Sunday, Sept. 7, 2008, five days before Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, that Mr. Yung and his senior managers learned about the exposure, according to disclosures made later to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. At the time, the Australian dollar was trading at about 81 cents to the U.S. dollar.

CITIC Pacific finally announced six weeks later, on Oct. 20, that it faced losses of up to $2-billion on its hedging. By then, the Australian currency had sunk to 69 cents.

“Needless to say, this is a very unhappy event,” Mr. Yung told a news conference that day.

Mr. Yung blamed finance director Leslie Chang and financial controller Chi Yin-chau for failing to seek his approval for the trades and informing him of the potential risk. Both men had resigned, he added. Hong Kong newspapers later reported Mr. Yung’s daughter, Frances, was demoted with a pay cut from her position in the finance department.

CITIC Pacific also announced its major shareholder, Beijing-based CITIC Group, had bailed it out with a $1.5-billion loan and would double its stake to 58 per cent in return for absorbing most of its liabilities.

Two days after the company came clean, the Securities and Futures Commission announced it had launched a probe into the delay in informing the market.

After examining documents handed to the market regulator, Hong Kong police mounted a separate probe. On April 3, 2009, detectives raided the CITIC Pacific office. Five days later, Mr. Yung and Mr. Fan resigned.

In the years since, CITIC Pacific has sparred with investigators. After first saying it would co-operate with the probe, the company began a legal effort to reclaim material handed to the SFC and seized in the police raid.

In two rulings last year, Hong Kong’s High Court rejected the company’s bid to claim legal privilege over the documents. The court found a prima facie case of conspiracy to defraud and of theft, and ruled the documents, including legal advice, had been produced to facilitate those alleged offences.

From stock exchange filings and court evidence, it is clear that between learning of the scale of its hedging losses on Sept. 7 and informing the market in late October, managers made determined efforts behind the scenes to shore up company finances. Shareholders, however, were not warned.

On Sept. 16, 2008, CITIC Pacific informed the exchange about two unrelated mainland investments, but did not disclose the hedging losses senior management had learned about more than a week earlier. The board met on Sept. 23 to discuss the crisis and directed its audit committee to begin investigating the hedging contracts, according to the two rulings.

In the following three weeks, the company borrowed HK$250-million from the bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi, HK$1-billion from the Bank of China and HK$500-million from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China.

Resolutions authorizing the borrowing were signed by the board’s finance committee, including Larry Yung, Henry Fan, Peter Lee and Leslie Chang, according to evidence police gave the court.

Prosecutors said while securing the loans, CITIC Pacific’s board sought legal advice on how long it could delay announcing the losses.

“They wanted to raise money without telling what their true financial position was,” prosecutor Charlotte Draycott told the court. “This is a conspiracy to defraud.”

In March, CITIC Pacific won a more favourable assessment from the Court of Appeal. It upheld the company’s claim that some of the documents were privileged and thus unavailable to the prosecution. The court also disagreed with earlier findings of suspected criminal conduct.

Although police would have preferred to use the documents, the ruling does not undermine the case, people familiar with the investigation told Reuters.

As prosecutors ponder the evidence in Hong Kong, CITIC Pacific is intensifying efforts to end its suffering in the Pilbara.

On a recent day, the 4,000-strong work force raced to bring the mine into production. Plumes of dust whipped away in a hot dry wind as giant bulldozers sent slate-grey ore cascading down a stockpile behind a new power station and processing plant.

A 30-kilometre pipeline that will carry the ore snakes away from the processing complex through low scrub towards the coast at Cape Preston, where the company has built a port.

But even once shipments begin, it may take years for CITIC Pacific to dig itself out of trouble.

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