November 24, 2020

China to Wall Street: The Side-Door Shuffle

IT was the hot new thing on Wall Street — one of those exotic investments that seem to promise untold riches for the lucky few.

And, like so many hot new things, it went cold fast.

Such was the fabulous stock-market flameout of a company called Rino International, an untested enterprise that, until recently, would have raised nary an eyebrow in the United States.

But over the last few years, Rino International and scores of other young Chinese companies slipped into the United States stock market through the back door. Rino’s American stockholders later lost hundreds of millions of dollars when accusations surfaced that the company had fudged its books. All told, investors’ losses on these Chinese ventures have stretched into the billions.

How companies like Rino wormed their way into the temples of American capitalism is a story for these financial times. Even amid the wreckage of the 2007-8 financial collapse, an ecosystem of Wall Street enablers — bankers, lawyers, entrepreneurs, auditors — spirited Chinese companies to the United States. With some deft financial maneuvers, these businesses essentially went public while sidestepping the usual rules. Before long, many were trading on the Nasdaq stock market, alongside the likes of Google.

It was all perfectly legal. With bankers’ help, the Chinese companies executed what are known as reverse mergers. They bought American companies that were merely shells and assumed those companies’ stock tickers — sort of the Wall Street equivalent of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” The strategy let them avoid reviews with state and federal regulators that are normally required for initial public stock offerings.

At issue now is who should bear responsibility for the bursting of yet another Wall Street bubble. Should it be the Chinese executives and their bankers, who engineered the deals and celebrated these companies? Or should it be the investors, who bought these stocks when, in hindsight, the risks seemed clear enough? The lawsuits are flying.

Next to Bernard L. Madoff and the sins of the subprime era, the supposed shenanigans of a few Chinese companies might seem like small beer. But the developments underscore fundamental questions that came to the fore in the financial crisis: What do the people who create and sell investments owe to those who buy the investments? And where, if anywhere, are the regulators?

Dozens of Chinese companies that, like Rino, entered the United States market via reverse mergers have since been accused of fraud or shoddy accounting. The shares of at least 19 of them have been suspended or delisted by Nasdaq, wiping out billions of dollars in stock market value. Shares of Rino, which were flying high at $35 in 2009, have been removed from the exchange.

Laurence M. Rosen, whose law firm has filed a class-action suit against Rino International, says Rino’s bankers failed investors. Wall Street didn’t do its homework, he says.

“This is egregious,” Mr. Rosen says. “They said they did due diligence but were fooled — but they weren’t doing any solid due diligence.”

Rino has been accused of creating phony business contracts and wildly inflating its sales, among other things. Executives at Rino International, which is based here in Dalian and makes industrial pollution control systems, declined to comment, beyond saying that it is conducting business as usual.

THERE is not much to see outside the headquarters of Rino International here. The company resides in a bland corporate park that is home to a number of other Chinese businesses. A guard stands watch at the gated entrance. Inside, workers load steel beams onto trucks. The bang and hum of factory work rises from workshops.

Dalian, a seaport city in northeastern China with a population of about six million, in recent years has developed into a fast-growing hub of machine manufacturing, petrochemicals, oil refining and electronics. Driving this growth have been companies like Rino, whose name means “green promise” in Chinese.

David Barboza reported from Dalian, China, and Azam Ahmed from New York. Xu Yan contributed research in Shanghai.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/24/business/global/reverse-mergers-give-chinese-firms-a-side-door-to-wall-st.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

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