May 27, 2014 06:27 PM

How State-Backed Shipping Firm Ran into Ice Berg of Debt

(Beijing) — Debt ridden crude carrier Nanjing Tanker Corp. is poised to become the first central government-backed enterprise to be forced off a domestic stock exchange. But that is that just the beginning of its problems. The company has been found failing to disclose information about a massive amount of debts that for long stayed off its balance sheets.

After reporting losses for four straight years, Nanjing Tanker Corp., the oil and bulk chemicals marine freight subsidiary of state-owned Sinotrans & CSC Holdings Co., is poised to become the first central government-backed enterprise to be forced off a domestic stock exchange.

It reported losses from 2010 to 2013, triggering an automatic delisting process. The Shanghai Stock Exchange said in mid-April the company will be formally delisted on June 4 after a 30-trading-day transition period.

In 2013, Nanjing Tanker reported a 5.9 billion yuan loss, with total debt reaching 15.7 billion yuan and debt outpacing equity by more than 2 billion yuan.

But the problem for Nanjing Tanker goes deeper. The company has withheld information about more than US$ 1.28 billion in loans taken out between 2005 and 2008 from overseas and domestic banks, research jointly conducted by Caixin and the British shipping industry journal Lloyd's List has found.

Such debts, which helped Nanjing Tanker to expand its fleet size during a boom in the shipping market, have been kept off the company's balance sheet. Altogether, the loans financed 20 new vessels, including 10 very large crude carriers (VLCC).

Documents from Marine Department and Companies Registry in Hong Kong show that between 2005 and 2008, Nanjing Tanker and its subsidiaries signed leasing contracts for 20 new crude carriers with 18 overseas shipowners. The vessels were used as collateral with eight banking syndicates and four facility agents for a total of US$ 1.28 billion yuan in loans. Some 15 foreign banks and four domestic banks were involved in the loan contracts, including Crédit Agricole Corporate and Investment Bank, Societe Generale, BNP Paribas and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

Nanjing Tanker facilitated the financing through special purpose vehicles that are registered in offshore tax havens. They functioned as the registered owner of the ships and the borrowers of the bank loans. Nanjing Tanker and its subsidiaries, then, signed time-charter and management contracts with the SPVs.

Information from shipping industry database Lloyd's List Intelligence show that Nanjing Tanker is the beneficial owner of the 10 VLCCs. The company confirmed in a February 22 statement that it accrued liabilities totaling 2.1 billion yuan for the rental of the 10 vessels. The vessels were priced during a market boom and subject to fixed payment obligations that cannot be cancelled.

Industry experts say such arrangements are designed to blur the identity of the real shipowners and get around China's regulatory oversight on shipping company's finance leasing activities with overseas banks.

The rapid expansion of Nanjing Tanker, previously the country's major river carrier, came as its controlling company, China Changjiang National Shipping Group (CSC), was ordered to merge with Sinotrans Group to form Sinotrans & CSC in 2009. It also coincided with a state initiative to encourage domestic shipping companies to engage in more maritime crude shipping. However, the following slump in the global shipping market squeezed its business.

An executive from Sinotrans & CSC said the group had no idea about Nanjing Tanker's debt position.

"Many (debts) didn't get the parent's approval," the executive said. "Nanjing Tanker hid many things. We had no idea how many ships it contracted."

By the end of March, nearly 150,000 investors held Nanjing Tanker's shares, mainly individual shareholders.

The full investigative report into Nanjing Tanker's debt trouble will be published on Caixin Online on Wednesday. Yang Jing is a reporter at Lloyd's List. Staff reporter Wuhong Yuran and intern reporter Bao Zhiming also contributed to the story.

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