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 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.



forest investor said...

" Secondly Sino Forest were buying timber for Shanghai Jin Xiang (and earning commissions), not the reverse"

... if you do the math, you get $307/m3 which is consistent with wood products such as lumber.

from 1999 release "has provided a strong foundation for the Company’s lumber and wood products trading business"

... TRE is discussing its involvement with wood products (the markets for its trees) not its primary business of flipping plantations and growing trees.

Anonymous said...

John your comments on Sino-Forest are becoming a joke. You have ZERO facts to back up your claims. Have you been on the ground in China? Do you know how business is conducted there? It is pretty obvious Sino-Forest is a legit company when you take in to account that Ernest and Young is standing behind their audit and PWC has agreed to audit those reports.

btek8 said...

Has anyone done the math to see how the selling price of wood chips that Sinoforest claims it realizes compares to pulp prices? I seem to recall during a meeting with Sinoforest's investor relations proceeding a bond issue that not only would they not provide customer details but that also the prices of their wood chips were generally higher than the prices of the pulp they were supposed to be processed into. This was explained away by the added value the intermediaries provided. - Disclosure, no investment in Sinoforest, but always a skeptic.

sinoforestanalyst said...

Dear mr 'anonymous'

i think (and I believe the market thinks) you are the joke.

Ernst and Young is standing behind their audit? Source please? Lack of comment during this does not imply they're standing by anything.

PWC has agreed to conduct a special investigation because it's free money for them.

I think I know who you are (twitter handle 'ValuePlaysX' as you've been spreading misinformation and outright lies. Please stop.

Anonymous said...

One theory for all the secrecy around intermediaries is that perhaps there is significant CCP/Govt involvement. This could be legitimate or not, but I can think of many scenarios that might make such involvement sensitive, and hence, secretive. The People's Army, for example, is heavily involved in a wide variety of business dealings. If this is the case it could still be extremely hard to know if it is bullish (i.e. the dealings are legit, not illegal, etc) or bearish (laws have been broken, improper deals have been cut, etc.)

Edward Goodie said...

Does McDonalds reveal who it gets its beef from? NO.

Does coke tell us the "secret" formula used to make its product? NO.

Sino is not doing anything different...yet they are being crucified for adhering to strong and profitable business practices.

I get the impression from the bias of your article that you are shorting the stock too.

Anonymous said...

So, if you can't acertain whether the company is a fraud or not at this point, should you be buying the stock. It would be speculation, not investing. Anyone that believes SinoForest is telling the truth and is a legit company doesn't have to say anything to try to convince others. They just need to put their money where their mouth is and buy the stock. The stock is down 90% and if they are right, it's a screaming buy. Talk is cheap.

Anonymous said...

How is it that a person with no analyst or accounting certification can issue a report on the processes of a business. He was wrong in the case of Orient Paper and Carson Block is wrong here as well.

He clearly does not understand the business model and because of this he believes it is suspect.

The very fact that he stands to gain by any depreciation in stock value should be enough for intelligent minds to figure out what's really going on here

sinoforestanalyst said...

The same guy who said your comments are becoming a 'joke' tweeted the following (I saved a screenshot of his tweets in case he deletes them):

"Paulson did not sell $SNOFF. If he sold why would he have personally hired PWC to investigate?"

Anonymous said...

Just because someone is a shortseller and will gain from the drop in stock price doesn't neccessarily mean that he is wrong. It would be interesting to know for those who are voicing their opinions whether they are long, short or don't own the stock because it would put your position in context. If you are claiming the company is legit but you don't go long, then you are simply a commentator. I myself don't own the stock because being in the U.S., I don't have the capability of checking the truth of either the company's or Muddy Water's position. If I want to gamble on a hunch, I go to Las Vegas.

sinoforestanalyst said...

How many billionaire investors are 'accredited' analysts or 'accountants?' How many famous short sellers and fraud detectors are 'accredited' analysts or 'accountants'? David Einhorn? Bill Ackman? Jim Chanos? Rocker Partners? Asensio? Soros? Paulson? Burry?

You suckers. The 'accredited' people are empty suits who are good at sounding smart (some are).

The above take money from you fools of randomness who hide behind empty designations.

sinoforestanalyst said...

Oh and what accreditations did Joseph in the Bible possess? Slave? Prisoner?

You fools of randomness.

Jacob said...

hi John,

how long do you think it is going to take before we have any clarity?

Anonymous said...

I don't remember all the details, but last decade China consolidated its ministries, going from dozens to about ten mega-ministries today. I'm pretty sure there has not been a Ministry of Forestry for some time. Wikipedia says it was renamed in 1998, so its odd that SFE would refer to it in a press release in 2000.

salishsea said...

Hi, always enjoy your blog. I always learn something :)
You should check this out on Sino
It is a well done neutralish case for the stock I expect you would enjoy.

Tom said...

John, Keep it up, the more information the better. But details matter too. For example, the forest deals in the 1990s were for state-owned forests, no? And they were JVs for plantation operations, not timber rights? If so, we can't really compare the hectares then and now. On the other hand, it would be more than fair to point out that the JV model did not work in the long term for whatever reason, just like the purchased plantation model didn't work, just like the master agreement model ...?

Also, by now you should know that Sino-Forest is probably not selling cut timber but standing trees, part of which has no harvest term (flipping) while part is 18 months (so a 2010 sale can theoretically be cut and sent to the mill in 2012), some is not pulpwood but logs for sawn lumber, and finally the sales are spread out over several provinces. So you'd have to be standing with a clicker at several chip mills and saw mills across southern China for a couple of years to check the reasonableness of the figures. Mind you, their volumes are still huge and highly questionable, just maybe not quite as shocking as you present it.

Bottom line. In light of what the company is being accused, it would be nice if those of us seriously trying to analyze the situation could avoid unnecessary hyperbole. The truth is going to be bad enough.

Anonymous said...

I don't see anything wrong with Sino Forest based on your analysis and my understanding of the market.

Anonymous said...

Because Sino is operating in an ever-changing market, their success can only be measured by how they serve their clients. That's for the future.

It is a situation of 'their hands are on the plough and do not look back'.

The past, because of the ever-changing market, may not be comparable.

I would trust in the professionals and not Muddy. Sino's rebuttal of Globe and Mail makes sense to me. Following people is a communist custom. It doesn’t imply any special relationships. You may be in a shopping mall and get ear dived.

Muddy is a one-man bank who acts like a foturne teller, i.e. teller of your fortune if you allow him. Sometimes he is right. Sometimes he is wrong. Right or wrong, he stands to gain. And he told you so.

Why should those who trust in him have any problems now? I don't understand. It would be unfair to Muddy.

Muddy has been wrong before and caused a lot of problems with another company, Orient Paper. Life goes on at Orient Paper. Shareholders lost.

Bronte Capital does not have any problem with that? Surf the web. Try Wall St. Journal website.

Anonymous said...

Hey John you retard. Why don't you go ask Coca Cola for the ingredients to Coke and where they get them. Have you ever heard of corporate secrets?

Your reporting makes me sick.

Michael R said...

As my momma always used to tell me:

"Son, never call a short-seller a retard. Just buy shares from him."

True story.

Anonymous said...

has anyone stopped to consider that all of china is a fraud? that all the numbers in china are fraudulent? a bunch of skyscrapers can be just as misleading as artificial intermediaries...but the problem is, we'll never no because there's no transparency, that is until the chinese themselves panic. they are a people--hope this doesnt sound racist--that are prone to mass hysteria, for recent example see the run on salt after japan, and for an example from the last century, see killing 47 million of their own people. anyway, i think china is a total and complete fraud. chanos is right.

James Cai said...

Shanghai jin Xiang Timber (SJXT) was founded in 1997, Sino-forest was indeed a shareholder of it. In 1998, SJXT opened Shanghai Jin Xinag Timber Market, which was approved by China Forest Bureau.

In China, Sino-forest did build wood product factories and seedleing nurseries, did buy forests and did plant trees.

However, I have no doubt about Sino-forest is a fraud, because its core business, standing timber transactions since 2004, was mainly fabricated.

Hester said...

"As my momma always used to tell me:

"Son, never call a short-seller a retard. Just buy shares from him."

True story."

Actually, most studies done on the subject show that stocks with the highest percentages of short interest drastically underperform over the long term.

sinoforestanalyst said...

Other than metalaugmentor, anyone know of any intelligent or intelligent-sounding Sino Forest longs or long writeup?

My initial thoughts on Metalaugmentor:

(1) They seem to confuse plausibility with probability.

(2) Sounds like the well intended folks back in 2005-2008 that were long CDOs. Their explanation is as confusing if not more confusing than that which they're seeking to describe

(3) Their opinions are prefaced with so much fine print and hedging, I would not be surprised if they go short.

(4) Not clear what their timber/forest credibility is... they point out Muddy Waters' limited experience yet their experience w metal commodities doesn't seem any better.

Hester said...

@Sino Forest Analyst

I guess it depends on your definition of intelligent, but this article is probably one many haven't seen.

Anonymous said...

FYI - Not related to Sino - the institutions that allowed NOG shares to be borrowed and then sold short noticed some US brokerages that by COB today, 6/27, those short positions needed to be closed. Retial brokerages rarely seem to have the access to short companies worth shorting and often, like Friday, announce the positions must be covered ASAP.

Anonymous said...

When did we start comparing a timber company to Coca-Cola. I may be no expert, but do they have a special way of growing the trees? I though the edge was the land. is it not basically a commodity?

Anonymous said...

A month on we have still not had any resignations (either executive staff or auditors), no suicides or mysterious deaths/disappearences and Carson block has not come out with any smoking guns after his chief claim was laughed at by analysts because of his inability to distinguish between the sale of standing timber and actual logging.

With frauds there are usually very few parties involved; Enron was a couple of excutives; BreX was a geologist and one or two executives and Madoff was him and a small accounting operation.

It would have been far more logical to stick to one province, a small accounting firm (earnst aand young has probably had 10 guys pass through the lead on this account whereas you could be assured of one guy at a small outfit sticking through it), one bank to underwrite bond issuances, one bank to bank with.

The Chinese needed to start managing their forests. To do that they had to take it out of the hands of the common farmer because they were over logging and incapable of managing. If Sino Forest was not part of that plan then:

a) the bureaau would not have come out out and openly denied the link between Sino and Yuda

b) The $1.5Billion line with the Bank of China would have been pulled

c) The business development Bank of China would have seized any accounts for the $50 million they just gave Sino

d) Sino on the analyst call would have given fake intermidiary names, watched the stock go up and the Chairman would have pulled and flown off to anywhere but China where they don't get to have trials but his head would have ended up in another room then his body.

Another interesting thing is that a single trade went through for 22 Million shares the day before Paulson had to legally announce that he was out completely. I can only guess it was him selling. Would you be the buyer knowing what the announcement would tank the stock? Isn't it neat that the amount of shares is just shy of making the buyer an insider?

I have no doubt that there have been 'inconsistencies' with this company. The rest of the world works on bribes and strange government involvement but this will come out so squeeky clean that PWC will think that they have entered auditor heaven.

You can't be a Fruad (China) and come up with $3trillion cash...They just do things a lot differently and the western world better get used to it.

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