Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Helping Charles Li find the weeds in his Hong Kong garden

Charles Li, the CEO of the Hong Kong stock exchange, has been on CNBC and again at home telling the world that the scandals happening with Chinese stocks on the American stock exchanges won't happen in Hong Kong.

Compared to the Reverse Mergers on the American Stock exchanges the Hong Kong exchange is indeed a beautiful garden with many flowers and some fruit trees.

But there are some weeds there - indeed many weeds there. Some have grown so high they are strangling the light.

And a diligent gardener does not ignore the weeds lest they starve the flowers and fruit-bearing plants.

So I hope to help Charles Li a little. He is blinded by the bright and beautiful flowers of China that litter his garden (ahem exchange). He can't see the weeds no matter how tall, how prominent.

Somebody has to help him so he can continue to tend his garden and so that it might continue to flower into the future.

So I am going to focus a little on Hong Kong in the future: a service to Mr Charles Li and thus a service to Hong Kong.

But hey - I figure there are far more weeds in Hong Kong than the ones I have found (though these weeds are very tall - they almost grow to the sky).

If readers want to help me find the weeds in Mr Li's garden please contact me through the blog.


Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Paulson Sino Forest loss

Much has been made of the John Paulson's Sino Forest loss. Many snide remarks have been made parsing John Paulson's letter.

I am more sympathetic than the non-practitioners though I think Paulson's excuses sound lame.

Here is my sympathetic view:

There are two approaches to running a funds management firm. One approach is to have analyst teams covering every sector and to have depth of coverage. The other approach is a small and more flexible team.  Each of these approaches has its problems.

I got a good idea of the problems of the broad coverage approach when PMI (the mortgage insurance company) double-booked an investor relations meeting. I sat in on a meeting between PMI and the Fidelity analyst who covered the sector and watched the incredibly nuanced discussion the Fidelity guy had about mortgage insurance. The Fidelity guy could make detailed distinctions between mortgage insurers and could tell you which ones he would prefer owning.

This was 2005.

Of course the right investment decision for mortgage insurers in 2005 was to own none of them. A year later the right answer was to short all of them.

But because Fidelity had a guy who knew lots about mortgage insurers they owned mortgage insurers (probably at near market weighting) and they duly lost money.

A small team would either decide hey - they want to be part of this high growth mortgage market and own them - or decide the did not want to be part and not own them. If they were aggressive they might short them. There was a reasonable chance that the small team was going to do better than the big team because it was not the nuances between mortgage insurers that determined the outcome.

Generally I think the small-team works better. I came from a shop with a great record and eighteen investment staff. Most the good ideas came from nine of those staff. They were better than large teams - and every time we increased the size of the team we diluted those staff. The main reason for increasing the size of the team was that the new staff - whilst they did not contribute much - were being trained. And after a four or five years one in say five of them might join the anointed ones.  And as we had a good name the others might find worthwhile jobs elsewhere...

But there are problems with the small teams. First small teams have blind spots. The world is a big place (too big to paint anyway) and there is no way that the senior fund manager can cover everything. There are large specialized stock areas about which I know nothing (eg most German industrial companies, US Health Care, South American resource companies). Things just pass me by. A really good nine person team has less blind spots than Bronte (three people) but blind spots are a part of life.

Secondly we use shortcuts. In the pre-internet days I used to "know" for instance that monopoly town newspapers earned 35 percent EBIT margins and trade at 3.5-4 times sales. The dominant competitive newspaper in a duopoly town earned 20 percent EBIT margins and traded at 2-2.5 times sales. When someone came to me with a newspaper stock (a sector about which I knew plenty) I used to ask about the competitive position of the papers (which towns were monopolies, which duopolies etc) and the margins, do the sums quickly in my head and decide whether it was good value. Beyond aggregate numbers I probably did not open the accounts. A portfolio manager with a diversified portfolio makes a lot of decisions and they take shortcuts. The shortcuts are a necessary part of life - and they are how you apportion and guard your time.

I am an expert on fraud - but it is entirely possible that I would miss a well executed fraud at a newspaper company because my starting assumption was that I could take the numbers as gospel.

The shortcuts we use as portfolio managers (and these are often sophisticated shortcuts born from some deep understanding of the industry) can make even the best portfolio manager susceptible to fraud.

Moreover a portfolio manager needs to work out how to ration their time. They can't do in-depth analysis of every stock in a 20 stock portfolio. (Well they can - but most the in-depth analysis you do are of stocks not in the portfolio as you need to decide what to invest in rather than becoming more expert on the things you own.) So you tend to spend your time on things that you perceive pose the most risk or the best returns.

Timberland is famously low risk. There is a German charitable trust that has been around since the 16th Century living off a 500 year old bequest. It owns timberland. Timberland - along with unlevered land below large buildings in major cities - is one of the few assets that seems to hold its value and earn returns for centuries. (Gold may hold value but earns no returns.)

I can understand how a deeply bearish investor (and Paulson was a deeply bearish investor) got suckered into Sino Forest. They saw it as timberland. They did not do the due diligence that was required to spot the fraud. It had a respectable board and reputable auditors and a long history. It did not feel like a fraud.

Chinese stocks present massive fraud risk but trees are low risk.

Paulson didn't see China for the trees.

And guess what - it happens to all of us. Fraud is pervasive in financial markets - its just that nobody talks about it. When they are had they are more-than-likely going to blame it on bad investment decisions than fraud. Moreover it is embarrasing - even business threatening - for professional investors to admit they were victims of fraud - so they don't talk about it even when they know they were had.

Fraudsters themselves are rarely prosecuted because it is hard to distinguish business misadventure from fraud. Sure the business failed. Sure the CEO sold $20 million worth of stock before it failed - but the business failed for honest reasons - or so he tells the jury. It doesn't matter that the business involved mass fraud - unless the fraud is huge the CEO is going to get away with it. And even if it is huge he will probably get away with it. (In the crisis it is hard to tell the deluded promoter of bad paper from the fraudulent promoter of bad paper. In my view most were deluded, not fraudulent, but fraud was still common enough.)

Paulson's mistake on Sino Forest then wasn't "amateur hour". Rather it was a mistake a competent fund manager might make because he is blindsided. Because he uses his shortcuts (trees are safe for instance) rather than does detailed analysis of every stock.

Every fund manager makes mistakes. Its part of the game. I try to minimize them - but I have made some real beauties. I purchased Washington Mutual preference shares for instance - and I blogged about it.

Paulson's excuses

Whilst I am sympathetic to Paulson's mistake I am more concerned about his excuses.

The first Pauslon excuse is the one I have most sympathy for - which is that he estimates the loss based on the cost base of the position rather than its valuation before Muddy Waters comes along. We have a few positions like that.

Take our well-publicized position long the preference shares of Freddie Mac. I blogged about them in a ten part series (see here for Part 1). The preference shares are highly speculative - the money owed to the government needs to be repaid before the preference shares will realize anything. But they were trading at below two cents in the dollar and I thought there was a reasonable chance they would pay and hence were worth a bet.

I think there is an improved chance they will repay now (note falling delinquency for example). They are trading about 10c in the dollar. They are still however a wildly speculative bet which I think is worth making.

If they were to go to zero how much have we lost? Is it the original amount or the high water mark? Should I trim the position just because it it has appreciated? Does it matter that the position is being diluted by new clients anyway? Do the losses feel worse for a new client (who is implicitly buying in at 10c in the dollar rather than 2c in the dollar)?

I do not have a consistent answer to these questions. I am somewhat sympathetic to Paulson's answer because I do not think there is a consistently good answer anyway.

Where I am less sympathetic is to Paulson's statements that staff went to see the operations (and hence they judged they were real) and also to the line that they did a thorough review of the financial statements.

If you go see Sino Forest's operations you will see what Sino Forest wants to show you. They will show you trees. You can't tell whether that is 5 thousand hectares or 500 thousand hectares. Seeing trees does not answer the question. There is no point looking at things that are not going to tell you anything anyway - and so Paulson's staff member wasted his time looking. That is an amateur-hour mistake.

If you are going to look at the operations (and it is often worthwhile) then do the work properly and look through the eyes of a competitor or a customer or a supplier. And find them yourself rather than talk to sympathetic ones supplied by the management.

When management say good things about themselves that provides no actionable investment information. When management say good things about a competitor that is golden. When suppliers you have found yourself say good things about a company that is useful. When management say bad things about their business that is useful.

Speaking to management and hearing good things about them said by them does not help in investment and hence does not constitute actionable analysis. Using that sort of analysis as an excuse is pathetic and Paulson (a man who made his fortune betting against the conventional wisdom) knows that perfectly well.

As for analysis of the accounts - the Sino Forest accounts contain enough red-flags to make any eagle-eyed observer cautious. I am sympathetic to making an investment without looking at the accounts at all because limited time and shortcuts often make that an efficient way of behaving. What for instance would I learn about Microsoft by looking at the accounts that I do not already know? Microsoft will be a fabulous investment if it maintains its strong position for the next decade. It won't be otherwise. The answer is not in the accounts (but it might be in understanding the technology and the way people interact with the technology).

I would be sympathetic to a statement that Paulson did not even look at the accounts for Sino Forest beyond a cursory look because he may have had detailed short-cuts in his head for a forestry company. But if some analyst really did a detailed look at the accounts and did not spot the red-flags then they are incompetent. For that I have no sympathy at all.

For comment


PS. I will add one thing though. Sino-Forest accounts have become more plausible over time so the job of detecting problems is harder with (say) the 2009 accounts than the 1997 accounts.

In 1997 accounts the company was outright strange. It claims to have shipped 1.165 million bone dry metric tonnes of wood chips including exporting to Japan. (It did not claim to sell standing forest until many years later.)

However timber sales were only $23 million. This is not very much per tonne. You can find real prices at this link.

Sino Forest claims 603 thousand hectares of forest which it was phasing in (of which quite large numbers were in operation and quite a lot more was being planted).

But the balance sheet was thin. There was $9.3 million in machinery and equipment that was not being depreciated because it was "under construction". The only equipment being depreciated was $211 thousand in vehicles.

You can't move a million tonnes of woodchips with $211 thousand in vehicles.

Indeed Sino Forest had no equipment of any kind being depreciated except vehicles. This was a logging company with no chainsaws!

Those accounts were silly. The later ones are full of red-flags - but they are not so obviously silly.

I am more sympathetic to Paulson buying the stock in 2009 than I am to anyone who purchased the stock in 1999.

The person that purchased in 1999 probably sold some and made money. Indeed if they sold today they are probably still up fairly well.

Which reminds me of the saying among professional investors: "I would rather be lucky than smart". Someone who purchased Sino Forest in 1999 was not smart. But they sure were lucky.


Friday, June 24, 2011

Sino Forest: some ancient history

Sino Forest uses intermediaries to market all its timber (or so it says). It will not reveal the identity of those intermediaries for commercial reasons but says that it has revealed the identity to its auditors and to Price Waterhouse Coopers who are doing an independent review of the accounts.

By using intermediaries Sino Forest do not need to own all the equipment to harvest and transport the timber which explains away at least some of the problems Muddy Waters details. Intermediaries also explain why nobody can find the pulp and paper mills they sell to. (They do not see to pulp and paper mills, just to intermediaries.)

They also buy standing timber from "authorized intermediaries". Again they do not tell us who these intermediaries are.

This makes the company opaque. Sino Forest's response to both Muddy Waters and the Globe and Mail articles comes down to:

(a). This process is required in China.
(b). It is opaque, we need it to be opaque for commercial reasons, but
(c). It is legitimate and we can document it as required to our auditors and PWC.

The process is so opaque from the outside that the Globe and Mail (not a shortseller - just a newspaper) could - in Sino Forest's view - be honestly mistaken when they try to verify the facts on the ground in China. Sino Forest is too complicated and too opaque for investigative journalists.

The bear case against Sino Forest argues the intermediaries are fiction and the transactions are round-robins involving related parties. There is little timber. The sales are "fake" and generate fake receiveables. Over time the fake revenue (which would otherwise show as fake cash) is used to buy more fake forests (the only forests you can buy with fake cash are fake forests).

In the bear case the size of the fake forest estate grows over time just because the fake profits need to be deployed somewhere. Ultimately - in the bear case - Sino Forest becomes a fake giant and someone (in this case Muddy Waters) asks if you own so much timber how come we can't see it? It becomes "See No Forest".

In the extreme the only way to solve this problem is to somehow forget you own all those fake profits and start again with a lower land-ownership claim.

Bluntly the bear case is that if the intermediaries are fiction its likely the profits are fake and the forests are fake too. You can audit Sino Forest one of two ways: you can prove or disprove the story about the intermediaries or you can prove or disprove the rights Sino Forest have to harvest trees. They are the flip sides of the same coin. Fake intermediaries (or intermediaries who are undisclosed related parties) almost certainly means fake profits. And the only forests you can purchase with fake profits are fake forests.

Of course if the intermediaries are real non-related parties then the profits are real and the forests are probably real too.

If you decide the intermediaries are real non-related parties with real transactions then Sino Forest is a screaming buy. If not then Muddy Waters is right: the stock is going to zero as there are few forests and much debt.

There is a direct analogy in other Chinese frauds. Longtop claimed it had businesses that generated huge profits. Those profits became huge cash balances. Deloittes resigned when they thought the company (with their banks) were faking the cash balances. Whilst Deloittes never said so the conclusion is that if the cash was not there the profits that generated that cash were not there either.

Sino Forest argues the whole system is opaque for good Chinese commercial reasons. I have my doubts - but if you accept that there are good reasons for the opacity then you would need to check Sino's claims on the ground in China.

The first simple check

I suggested that if there really is 17.9 million cubic meters per annum of timber sales then someone needs to be pulping it and the first due diligence test is to find the chip mills - all of them - and sit there with a clicker counting trucks.  You need a lot of truck loads.

Its not a perfect test because you will not know whether the timber in the mill is actually coming from Sino Forest (directly or indirectly) but at least you will find out the aggregate harvest in the area. If the aggregates are below 17.9 million cubic meters per annum then "Toronto - we have a problem".

Short of going to China and having access to the intermediaries there are a few things we can do. One is just compare Sino's statements over time to the response to Muddy Waters allegations. That is not conclusive but a changing story detracts from Sino's credibility and increases Muddy Waters credibility. Conversely a story that is consistent about the nature of the business detracts from Muddy Waters credibility and increases Sino Forest's credibility.

For maximum contrast I have done this with ancient history - press releases from the very early days of Sino Forest.


Sino Forest has been listed a long time - and in the Muddy Waters account it was just a reverse-merger fraud that was a fraud from inception and just went on a lot longer and got a lot bigger than the perpetrators expected. In the process it purchased some forest for show - but the main purpose of the listing was not to raise money for forestry activities in China but to fleece Western investors.

If Muddy Waters is right then we might be able to tell by going back to the early press releases (say 1995-1999) and seeing what the company said then. The small China frauds are not very sophisticated (they do not have sophisticated stories) and a careful reading of the promotional material often gives the game away. I have successfully identified fraud in many without doing anything more than reading the promotional material. When Sino Forest was a small fraud (if it was a small fraud) it would not have required the complex intermediary structure - after all nobody much checks small companies. As it got bigger the story would have had to get more complex.

For this reason I want to repeat old press releases from Sino Forest. I keep my comments to a minimum.

I just want to return to the day of a simpler Sino Forest.

Hong Kong & Toronto: September 28, 1995 
Sino-Forest Corporation ("Sino-Forest" or the "Company" today announces the completion of a Private Placement of 2 million Class A Subordinate-Voting Shares at a price of Cdn$0.60 per share. The proceeds will be used for general working capital requirements. 
Sino-Forest's forestry plantation business has been expanded to cover over 600,000 hectares in three provinces of southern China during 1995. Through its majority control of joint ventures with local provincial and municipal forestry bureaus, Sino-Forest processes and exports hardwood chips to pulp producers in Japan, Taiwan and Korea. Chip shipments are expected to total about 250,000 metric tones in 1995, compared to 156,000 tones in 1994. 
In recent months, the Company has had discussions with several North American forestry companies relating to the establishment of further joint ventures in China for the manufacture of "value added" products such as OSB and MDF. The fiber feedstock for the plants would be supplied from Sino-Forest's plantations, which have the potential to increase the Company's annual fiber supply to 9 million tones over the next 10 years. This volume represents approximately 14% of the Province of British Columbia's current annual cut. 
Sino-Forest has recently negotiated trade finance arrangements with three major banks in Hong Kong, which will support the projected sales expansion over the next two years. The Toronto Stock Exchange has conditionally approved the listing of the Company's Class A Subordinate-Voting Shares.
Interestingly back then Sino Forest claimed to export to pulp producers in Japan, Taiwan and Korea. They used bank-provided trade finance to facilitate this. There was no mention of intermediaries. They also claimed 600 thousand hectares. This compares to this graph in the last annual report:

In 2007 Sino Forest only claimed 300 thousand hectares with almost $1.5 billion in acquisition cost. Sino's (trivially small) 1995 balance sheet allowed them to claim 600 thousand hectares at almost no cost.

They did however think that their 600 thousand hectares might yield 9 million tonnes ten years later (in 2005). That is consistent with - but lower than - the yields they are claiming now.

On 22 October 1998 Sino Forest released a long press release with this opening paragraph:
Sino-Forest Corporation announces that it has entered into an Agency Agreement with Shanghai Jin  Xiang Timber Ltd. ("SJXT"), a company in which Sino-Forest holds a 20% equity interest, to supply various wood products to the National Timber Sub-Markets in the PRC. Under the agreement, Sino-Forest will act as agent on behalf of SJXT to purchase 130,000m3 of various wood products over an 18 month period. Based upon current market prices, it is expected that this volume of wood products will have a sales value of approximately U.S.$40 million. Sino-Forest will earn commission income in respect of the purchases for SJXT.

What is interesting is that they were quite happy to name their business partners then. (This is in contrast to their current stated position.) Secondly Sino Forest were buying timber for Shanghai Jin Xiang (and earning commissions), not the reverse. This is a reversal of the current intermediary business model.

Obviously this made me want to look for Shanghai Jin Xiang Timber Ltd. This was also revealing.

This was a reference in the 1999 annual report:
There are also promising growth opportunities as Sino-Forest’s investment in Shanghai Jin Xiang Timber Ltd. (SJXT or the Shanghai Timber Market), develops. The Company also continues to explore opportunities to establish and reinforce ties with other international forestry companies and to bring our e-commerce technology into operation. 

Sino-Forest’s investment in the Shanghai Timber Market — the first national forest products submarket in eastern China — has provided a strong foundation for the Company’s lumber and wood products trading business.

They were developing a business in the Shanghai Timber Market but they were using SJXT as an intermediary. They also had e-commerce technology (though it is not explained what that does).

By the 2000 annual report the investment in Shangahi Jin Xiang Timber had expanded to a 34.4 percent equity interest.
The Company has a 34.4% equity interest in Shanghai Jin Xiang Timber Ltd. (“SJXT”), an equity joint venture (“EJV”) that was formed by the Ministry of Forestry in China. The purpose of the investment is to establish strategic partnerships with key local wood product suppliers and to build a strong distribution network for the lumber and wood products trading and wood-based panel businesses. The total capital investment of SJXT was $1,509,000 [Chinese renminbi 12.5 million] of which the Company’s required capital contribution was $519,000. As at December 31, 2000, the Company’s required capital contribution of $519,000 was fully made. 
The operation of SJXT is to organize and manage the first and only national sub-market for timber and log trading in eastern China. The investment in SJXT will provide the Company good accessibility to a large base of potential customers and companies in the timber and log businesses in eastern China.
Moreover the purpose had changed. Originally Sino Forest purchased timber for SJXT. Now SXJT gives Sino Forest access to a large base of potential customers and companies in the timber and log business in eastern China.

Finally there is one new detail about SJXT. It was an equity joint venture formed by the Ministry of Forestry in China. Strangely the government involvement did not warrant a mention in the original press release. It is also strange because it seems to me unlikely that the Ministry of Forestry needed Sino Forest to buy timber for them.

Given that Shanghai Jin Xiang Timber was majority owned by the Ministry of Forestry I wondered where it might be now. The only modern reference to it on the internet is here (click link). It gives two phone numbers. I have rung them in business hours and both ring out. The link also gives an internet address. No surprises for guessing that it is www.sinoforest.com. I guess it must be a majority owned subsidiary now (in which case they purchased it from the Ministry of Forestry and they no longer have a marketing business in Shanghai.)

I could go on and on. The old press releases of Sino Forest are intriguing. They are not particularly consistent with the current story. However time has elapsed and business conditions change over time just as surely as the waist-lines of us gray-haired stock pickers. I will let you (dear readers) decide how much weight you put on those inconsistencies.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

I got yesterday's post wrong

Yesterday's post was as error-ridden as anything I have ever published.

On the most important matter: I thought the Globe and Mail story on Sino Forest would drive the stock down at least 50 percent.

The last time I saw a major paper of record come right out and agree with a shortseller that a major company was a fraud was...  well... never.

I thought that would be significant. I thought it would be game-over.

The stock was down less that 15%.

I have a word for my preconception: wrong.

On the size of the theft in global history - well obviously I was not broad enough. I have to exclude all thefts in the nature of war or invasion (dispossession of the American Indians, Australian Aborigines etc). I have to exclude thefts in the nature of revolution (eg the end of Communism in Russia). I have to exclude thefts by Government (Yukos). I have to exclude thefts from Government in quasi war (eg theft of the reconstruction funds in Iraq).  I could go on.

However $2 billion neat stolen (still not proven but in my view looking likely) is a larger net theft than Madoff and about as large as they get in financial markets. But then I am likely to be shown to be wrong on that too.


Monday, June 20, 2011

Sino Forests and a puzzle for media analysts

The Globe and Mail (a mainstream Canadian newspaper) has published a piece confirming the core allegations of Muddy Waters research re Sino Forest. The deals that Sino did in one area are it seems - grotesquely overstated. By implication Sino is not to be trusted and the Muddy Waters allegations are likely to be substantially correct.

This does not surprise me. I was convinced by the Muddy Waters report after reading it and cross-checking just with the annual accounts. (The business model described was bizarre and major fraud was the simplest explanation consistent with the facts.)

However my view of this was hardly important. When the Globe and Mail prints it is important. I got several emails that pointed to the article and said "game over". And they are right. Despite collapsing revenue and declining importance the "Mainstream Media" still matters. They are to some extent trustworthy - have a reputation for telling the truth about major matters - and they are selling that trust.

Blogs may be right more often than not. (So far - touch wood - this blog has made very few mistakes...) Blogs may be more adventurous (and there are plenty more adventurous than this blog and I express stronger opinions than much of the mainstream media).

But the mainstream media matters. They do have more authority and the reaction to the Sino Forest article in the Globe and Mail is about to prove it.

So here is a puzzle for the media analysts: how do you continue to monetize trust and truthful media? How does alternative media get that trust and monetize it? Or is there no way of monetizing media trust and hence is all media likely to become (more) untrustworthy?

I really do not know the answer. But if there is no way of monetizing the truth in the media then the world is becoming an altogether more dangerous place because there are plenty of ways of monetizing lies...


PS. The Globe and Mail was only last week squibbing on Sino Forest. They published a bizarre editorial which suggested that Muddy Waters inflammatory rhetoric reduced their credibility. I thought that Muddy Waters rhetoric (if they were right) was if anything understated. I wrote this letter to the editor which they did not publish:

Dear Sirs 
In your editorial dated 14 June you suggest that Muddy Waters Research's relentless comparisons of Sino Forest to Bernie Madoff reduces their credibility. 
Au contraire. 
Muddy Waters allegations are far from proven but if true they suggest that in excess of a billion dollars has been raised from Canadian markets to buy forest and forests were not purchased. In other words the money has been stolen. 
Further insiders and related parties have probably sold a further billion dollars in Sino Forest shares. 
This alleged theft is probably in excess of $2 billion. 
Bernie Madoff took money from Peter to pay Paul. The amount of money stolen for Bernie Madoff's personal use was probably less than $300 million. Sino Forest is six times bigger and if the Muddy Waters allegations are correct is probably the largest straight theft in human history. 
The Globe and Mail's suggestion that comparisons to Bernie Madoff are credibility reducing is just an extension of the jelly-backed tradition of apologizing for Canada's inept and faithless investment banking and stock promotion community. 
John Hempton
Sydney, Australia

And that is right. Sino Forest raised the better part of $2 billion in bonds and related parties probably sold huge amounts of stock. All that money was - if the Globe and Mail and Muddy Waters are right - stolen. That is (if the allegations are correct) the biggest theft in human history.

Comparisons with Madoff are unfair as Madoff only lifted a few hundred million for personal use. This is maybe six times bigger.


Later addendum: I figure that if the allegations are true then this theft was over $2 billion. That is money that went from the victims to the perpetrators net. Madoff had bigger money but Madoff got much much less than that net.

Some people have objected to me characterizing this as the largest theft in human history. I understand but can they please suggest one that is larger? I have yet to find one but the best candidates are things like the Albanian Ponzi and the Spanish Stamp Ponzi. Both were organized crime and in both cases the victims were a substantial portion of the population.

The recognized loss number from the Albanian Ponzi is about $1.2 billion... Some numbers for the Spanish Stamp Ponzi are in the 5 billion euro range - but I think the net losses are less than half that and the net-gain by the perpetrators is thus smaller than Sino Forest.

The dispossession of the American Indians or the Australian Aborigines are bigger thefts... I should limit myself to modern financial market thefts. Thefts in war (including things like Iraqi reconstruction funds) are likely bigger.



Saturday, June 18, 2011

Lessons in my Desire

Ok - the title is somewhat misleading: I just purchased an HTC Desire HD Android phone via Ebay and by doing so I learned a few lessons - some of them investment related - others just about the way the world works.

This phone is (on specification and in third party reviews) an iPhone 4 equivalent - more powerful and does a few things that Apple restricts its users from but alas not quite as user friendly. But the phone I purchased was truly awful.

The Ebay advert said it was "unlocked" but did not reveal the shortcomings. This phone was from the Middle East (possibly Saudi Arabia) and it came with a restrictive set of applications and no Android Market. A smart-phone without an app-store is useless. I was limited to the thirty apps the phone came with. Ugly. I was missing some apps I consider very important (eg VOIP apps).

The solution was to "root" the phone (ie hack the system) and install a decent operating system (HTC Android 2.3). For someone only mildly geeky this was a little harder than it looked. There was a fine YouTube video series here but it did not cover the nuances of using the Android Developer Kit and nothing seemed to work in my virtual-box Windows so I had to hijack my son's computer.

Two and a bit hours later I have a fine phone - one I would prefer to an iPhone 4 (although probably not to an iPhone 5). It was however much harder than it should be and this process would not appeal to a mass audience.

A few lessons:

(a). Whilst phone companies and governments will fiddle around with phones and their operating systems the attraction of walking down to the Apple Shop and buying an iPhone remains. iPhones all work the same way and its hard to imagine an iPhone without the App Store. The Apple slogan is "it just works". My phone worked in a narrow sense - but Apple's worked better out of the box even though my phone beats the iPhone 4 in many surveys.

(b). The whole experience cheapens the Ebay brand. I thought the Radioshack and other shops selling mobile phones and contracts were not long for this world because phones would come without contracts and be purchased online. I figure that will be right in the end but risk aversion sends me to something explicitly local to my jurisdiction for a little longer.

(c). The modifications made by countries and phone companies to Android phones cheapen the product. Non geeky people - say 99 percent of the population - could not be expected to hack their phone. So they are left with the crappy phone they are sold in the first place. If it is full of bloatware so be it. Android is as sleek as IOS. The things done to Android are not...

(d). Big corporations (especially it seems tech firms) are prepared to play ball with oppressive governments. My phone was hobbled to please the Saudi Government. Google may have said no to participating in Chinese oppression but their partners (such as HTC) happily participate in oppression when they sell Android phones. And as they do it they continue to cheapen the Google/Android brand.

(e). For a small proportion of the population - those that can hack a phone install themselves as super-user and get around government communication restrictions modern technology beats oppressive governments - but we are kidding ourselves if we believe this will be a widespread skill.

For thought and comments...


PS. For those that want to know I installed T.B. Fusion 1.1.9 - an Android 2.3.3 system. The complaint on the web about this install is battery life - though I have not (yet) decided that is problematic.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sino Forest quote of the week

Muddy Waters commenting on Sino Forest's conference call:

TRE [Sino Forest] had some notable blocks / drops of other awkward questions. TRE cut off the Nomura analyst Anissa Lee rather than answering her question asking for more details on where the cash balances are kept. 
Management also failed to attempt to answer a question about whether its banks are uncomfortable with extending credit. Instead of answering, there was a death ray type of sound toward the end of the question, and the questioner was no longer there. In true memory hole fashion, management moved onto the next questioner without making any statement in response to the question.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Sino Forests – some thoughts

A bit over twenty years ago I spent a pleasant afternoon in the lock-up at Eden Police Station on the South Coast of New South Wales.

I was arrested at a protest into logging of native forests, cuffed, put into the paddy-wagon and left in a cell for about six hours, fingerprinted and released. The charges (obstruction) were later dropped. I was not obstructing anything...

What made this pleasant was the company. I was arrested as bystander at an “artists for forests” protest and in the lock-up with me were some of Australia's most famous artists.

The lock-up itself was a brick courtyard open to the sky except for bars that blocked an unlikely escape up the walls. Attached were two austere cells only one of which had a door. There was a toilet (no privacy) and a vinyl mattress and a total absence of hanging points. The other cell was firmly locked but if you peered through the feeding-slot there were a couple of tonnes of marijuana being kept as evidence after a huge local drug bust.

Supporters threw two dozen boxes of coloured chalk through the bars in the roof and for the next four hours I watched artists at work. Given the heady prices of Australian modern art these days the walls of this cell were probably worth seven figures by the end of the day – until the police hosed the work off.

I tell this story only to relate that during my early twenties I was an organiser for several anti-logging protests and I developed amongst other things a reasonable perception of the scale of a million tonne per annum fibre operation.

I never thought I would use that – and then along comes Sino Forests. Oh how I am enjoying this.

You see below – as a blast-from-my-past - an aerial photo of the woodchip mill in Eden. This was and remains a controversial beast. It is also pretty darn large. The docking station is so the bulk-carriers can dock and transport Australia's native forests away. [No doubting which side of the controversy I am on...]

This chip-mill processes almost precisely a million tonnes per annum in wood-chips. Given wood and water are roughly the same density it is roughly a million cubic meters per annum.

I say that so you get a picture of scale.

According to Sino Forest they sold – get this – 17 million cubic meters of wood last year and they expect that number to grow in the foreseeable future. Some of this they processed themselves – other wood they sold as standing timber. Obviously however when you sell it as standing timber someone else has to process it.

So lurking around Sino Forest's land are 17 mills this size (or one mill 17 times this size of some variant thereon).  And that is presuming there are no other producers in the area other than Sino Forests. Sino has promised to take analysts and investors to see their operations. I make a suggestion: get them to take you to all the chip-mills that process their timber and stand there with a clicker counting the trucks in. [E&Y - the auditors - should do this pronto. The longer they delay the more their potential liability.]

I have my doubts. I had a number in my head for the size of the global pulp (for paper) industry: something just under 200 million tonnes per annum. 17 million tonnes per annum of fibre seemed large.

Wikipedia cites the global pulp market in 2006 as 160 million cubic meters. Paper is not much of a growth industry these days as anyone looking at newspaper circulation can attest – so I figure that is not far from the current number. There are other uses of fibre (cement form-work being the big one in China) but one bullish article is hoping for growth in total usage to 223 million tonnes per annum by 2015. Whatever – Sino Forest was claiming to be a high-single-digit percentage of global supply – and they were (implausibly) claiming it from 787,700 managed hectares.

When I read the Muddy Waters report something else jarred. Muddy Waters you see was using a different measure of the scale of the industry in China. They were quoting numbers like 420 million cubic meters of wood per annum in 2010 of which 240 million cubic meters was for industrial use (namely paper, cement formwork and packaging etc).  China is a big place – but these numbers seemed a bit big to me especially as the majority of feedstock for industrial uses of wood-fibre is recycled material.

So I went looking for the source of the numbers. Here are some graphs from Sino Forest's annual report and they reveal the source of all the Chinese numbers:

The source is listed at the bottom of each graph as BOABC.

BOABC turns out to be an agricultural consultancy in China. They have a website. It offers reports on various industries but put your email in the box and try and get the grains report. It bounced me.

So what is this funny consultancy whose web-site does not do what it is meant to? According to its website is China's leading agriculture and food business consulting company. Also according to its website it is a subsidiary of Xinhua Finance. That is a name that should ring bells. The principal of Xinhua was indicted recently for fraud (and plead not-guilty) and lots of famous investors lost money. Xinhua collapsed. The stories about Loretta Freddy Bush are colourful.

Xinhua may be dead. Its subsidiary (probably not the most reputable source) is alive though and pumping out numbers which do not match generally accepted industry numbers and which are used to bolster Sino Forestry's stock. And Bay Street analysts are blindly using them. Even Carson Block – who is more than passingly cynical about numbers, accounts and Chinese companies used these numbers without question in his report.

The analysts I suspect went to good schools, Harvard, Yale and the like. I wasted my youth organising environmental protests in remote locations and learned that it was stupid to take at face value official statistics about rape-and-pillage forestry operations. The stats were as often as not lies. Learning about how people lie with numbers was – at least for a stock analyst – a darn good education.

To the Wall Street analysts who take these numbers at face value I got a song for you:


Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Who owns ashwoodresources.com? Light and mystery...

Northern Oil and Gas (NOG:AMEX) has divested small interests in ninety wells to Ashwood Resources. Ashwood is a company controlled by a realtor and founded by a hairdresser and its entire business is - as far as I can tell - to acquire and manage interests in wells sold by Northern Oil and Gas.

Brittany Reger - the wife Michael Reger - was an employee and the contact officer for Ashwood. 

Michael Reger is the CEO of Northern Oil.

So Northern Oil sold leases to a company where the contact officer was the CEO's wife.

The story was originally told in a blockbuster blog post by The Street Sweeper.

The appearance is not great.

However in Northern Oil's defense the interests sold to Ashwood were tiny (typically 0.5 percent interest in any individual well bore). 

Moreover Northern Oil has announced via SEC filing that "our management has concluded, and has confirmed with our outside legal counsel, that our agreement with this private company is not material to us and does not involve any related-party transaction".

Testing Northern Oil's claim that these are not related party transactions

I am a great fan of Ronald Reagan. His slogan when dealing with the Bolshys was "trust but verify". Channeling my inner Ronald Reagan I went about verifying.

I found the domain name ashwoodresources.com. The website is dead - but it was (a) first registered about the time Ashwood Resources (the company) was formed and (b) was originally registered to Tyler Cross of Billings Montana. 

Billings is the home town of the Regers and 840 miles from the hairdresser or estate agent.

The domain name was later re-registered to "domains by proxy" a standard way of hiding domain ownership. The change in domain name registration happened about the time The StreetSweeper started looking at Ashwood Resources.

I told the story in this blog post.

I tried contacting Tyler Cross to find out who really owned the site ashwoodresources.com. No luck. Several readers tried the same thing with the same "no comment" answer.

But my readers are resourceful. For instance one reader found that Tyler Cross's parents and Michael Reger's parents made donations to the same church in the name of the same person. The Reger and Cross families go to the same church and donate at the same funerals.

But that still does not prove that Ashwood Resources (the company) is associated with the Regers.

One reader went better. Using Domain Tools he found every website ever registered by Tyler Cross (tcash11@gmail.com).  There were 58 of them - mostly local businesses like yellowstonedrifterboats.com. But a few stood out, notably voyager-oil.com, voyageroil.info, voyageroil.mobi, voyageroil.net.

These are web domains for Voyager Oil - a company controlled by Michael Reger's brother JR Reger. 

Also all of these domain names for Voyager Oil have been re-registered. They are now registered to Domains by Proxy.

Again this does not prove that Ashwood Resources is related to the Regers but that hypothesis is looking pretty good. Brittany Reger was Ashwood's contact officer. Ashwood's web services (domain registration at least) was provided by the same person as Voyager Oil's web service (Tyler Cross). Cross's family probably knows the Reger family through their church and through attendance at the same funerals.

Tyler Cross can provide the definitive answer as to whether Ashwood and the Regers are related parties. Alas his answer is a firm "no comment". He has done nothing obviously wrong. All he did was register domain ownership and then shift those registrations to Domains by Proxy. 

Tyler Cross has the definitive answer.

I have again asked for Tyler's help. But really it is not my business any more. The SEC has the power to subpoena him and find the truth. 

They should use that power.


Monday, June 6, 2011

Reminding Peter Johnston what he once thought about Astarra

Some people are just too precious.

Longtime followers of this blog will remember that I was instrumental in the exposure the biggest funds management theft in Australian history - Trio/Astarra.

Most of the victims of Astarra were clients of financial planners where the planner was a member of the Association of Independently Owned Financial Planners (the AIOFP). Astarra and its principals were regular attendees at AIOFP conferences and AIOFP members received kick-backs from Astarra - some disclosed, some not disclosed.

Peter Johnston is the executive director of the AIOFP and a regular apologist for AIOFP members. He is quoted today in Investor Daily - an Australian industry newsletter:
Association of Independently Owned Financial Planners (AIOFP) executive director Peter Johnston said it was a comfort that Trio and Astarra Asset Management were deemed "a blatant fraud". 
"The advisers are tired of being blamed for product failure, these products should not have been in the market in the first place and the ultimate responsibility lays with the successive politicians over the years who have failed to understand the industry," Johnston said.

Well Peter, I differ. Financial Planners market themselves as having expertise and are required under law to understand the products they sell. Moreover Peter clearly thinks he has this expertise. I have an email he sent to two financial planners who put their clients into Astarra. It says:
Peter/Steve, met with Shawn [the guy who ran Astarra] today. I am still of the opinion that he is innocent of any fraudulent behaviour with Astarra, I will back my 30 years of being in business and dealing with all sorts of characters with my assessment. He no doubt can be accused of sloppy paperwork but that is a far cry from the hell he has been through.
It is funny how Peter conveniently forgets that he vouched for Shawn Richard. He did so repeatedly (although not publicly since Shawn admitted guilt).

Peter Johnston agreed to a $100 thousand bet with me on the innocence/guilt of Shawn Richard and whether the money would be found where Peter thought it was. He later backed out which is a pity because I would otherwise be $100k richer. (You can read the story here.)

Peter accused me in the press of being motivated by "professional jealousy" re Astarra. I told him that was defamatory: I am a hedge fund manager - I am motivated by money.

Finally Peter thought that I would get sued over Astarra. To quote an email to me:
I suggest you read below and start amending your views or check your sources as you ‘can never believe what you read in the paper.’ I checked with the asset consultant then Shawn himself, this is now been confirmed by the Administrator, ALL of the non hedge fund monies are exactly where they were supposed to be. You will also now find that the ASF cash and 3 of the 5 Hedge Funds are now accounted for. We are awaiting the final 2 which is going to put the spot light and legal proceedings in a different direction, you can be assured of that.

Peter Johnston
Executive Director
Bluntly, Peter Johnston threatened to sue me. He defamed me in the press.

And now he revises history to absolve himself and his members.

But that is not my problem with Peter Johnston. Peter Johnston is a coward who does not have the courage of his convictions. He bet 100 thousand dollars on the Astarra outcome. And then - when he realized that I was serious - he backed down.



Friday, June 3, 2011

Muddy Waters: the finest take on a Chinese fraud yet

Carson Block and his team at Muddy Waters Research have just released a report on Sino Forest - a huge Canadian listed company - or is that a huge Canadian listed fraud?

There is a cottage industry in doing forensic analysis of Chinese frauds. I have analysed many and put only a smattering on the blog.

But I have never seen anything this big or this amazing.

Read the report. I am in awe.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Who is Ashwood Resources? And who owns ashwoodresources.com?

Northern Oil and Gas (NOG:AMEX) and its sister company Voyager Oil and Gas (VOG) are a minor obsession of mine.

Not only are the management straight from central casting but Northern Oil sold interests in approximately 90 wells (a quarter of the wells they were ever involved in) to a mysterious company called Ashwood Resources.

Ashwood it appears has no other function that to buy properties from Northern Oil and to manage those properties.

So it was a surprise to me and to others when Brittany Reger - wife of Northern Oil CEO Michael Reger - was the contact officer for Ashwood Resources.

Can you say conflict of interest?

Anyway Michael Reger offered two defenses. First whilst the lease interests sold to Ashwood were numerous they were tiny - sometimes as small as half a percent interest in individual wells. The second defense was that Ashwood was not a related party and his wife's job was appropriate. He even said the company sought the advice of outside counsel on that matter.

Ashwood may have been founded by a hairdresser - but was - it seems - controlled by Jacob Schaffer - a realtor in Minneapolis. It was not - according to Michael Reger - related in any way (other than by his wife's employment) to Northern Oil or the Reger family.

Which leads me to the website www.ashwoodresources.com. The site is dead - but the registration lives on.

When I first started looking at Northern Oil here were the registration details for Ashwood:

Registered through: GoDaddy.com, Inc. (http://www.godaddy.com)
Created on: 01-Mar-10
Expires on: 01-Mar-12
Last Updated on: 02-Mar-11

Administrative Contact:
Cross, Tyler tcash11@gmail.com
1821 Poly Dr.
Billings, Montana 59102
United States
(406) 749-1911

Technical Contact:
Cross, Tyler tcash11@gmail.com
1821 Poly Dr.
Billings, Montana 59102
United States
(406) 749-1911

Billings Montana is 840 miles from Minneapolis and from the Realtor who owns Ashwood. But strangely enough it is the Reger's home town.

Coincidence? Maybe.

Then a few weeks ago the registration for the domain name changed. 

   Domains by Proxy, Inc.
   15111 N. Hayden Rd., Ste 160, PMB 353
   Scottsdale, Arizona 85260
   United States

      Created on: 01-Mar-10
      Expires on: 01-Mar-12
      Last Updated on: 02-Mar-11

   Administrative Contact:
      Private, Registration  http://source.domaintools.com/email.pgif?md5=3da045286e26ae5d4aab728e9adeb4e1&face=arial&size=9&color=000000&bgcolor=FFFFFF&face=arial&size=9&color=0000FF&bgcolor=FFFFFF&format%5b%5d=underline&format%5b%5d=transparent&format%5b%5d=transparent
      Domains by Proxy, Inc.
      15111 N. Hayden Rd., Ste 160, PMB 353
      Scottsdale, Arizona 85260
      United States
      (480) 624-2599      Fax -- (480) 624-2598

   Technical Contact:
      Private, Registration  http://source.domaintools.com/email.pgif?md5=3da045286e26ae5d4aab728e9adeb4e1&face=arial&size=9&color=000000&bgcolor=FFFFFF&face=arial&size=9&color=0000FF&bgcolor=FFFFFF&format%5b%5d=underline&format%5b%5d=transparent&format%5b%5d=transparent
      Domains by Proxy, Inc.
      15111 N. Hayden Rd., Ste 160, PMB 353
      Scottsdale, Arizona 85260
      United States
      (480) 624-2599      Fax -- (480) 624-2598

Tyler Cross - the original contact on the registration for Ashwood Resources almost certainly knows who the underlying owner of Ashwood is. I have tried contacting him. 

I got no response.

Anyone got any other ideas for getting to the bottom of this? 

Help requested.


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The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Hempton. You should assume Mr. Hempton and his affiliates have positions in the securities discussed in this blog, and such beneficial ownership can create a conflict of interest regarding the objectivity of this blog. Statements in the blog are not guarantees of future performance and are subject to certain risks, uncertainties and other factors. Certain information in this blog concerning economic trends and performance is based on or derived from information provided by third-party sources. Mr. Hempton does not guarantee the accuracy of such information and has not independently verified the accuracy or completeness of such information or the assumptions on which such information is based. Such information may change after it is posted and Mr. Hempton is not obligated to, and may not, update it. The commentary in this blog in no way constitutes a solicitation of business, an offer of a security or a solicitation to purchase a security, or investment advice. In fact, it should not be relied upon in making investment decisions, ever. It is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author. In particular this blog is not directed for investment purposes at US Persons.