Wirecard CEO quits as search for missing billions hits dead end in Asia

Two Asian banks that were supposed to be holding the missing cash denied any business relationship with Wirecard. PHOTO: REUTERS

FRANKFURT (REUTERS, BLOOMBERG) - The chief executive of German payments company Wirecard resigned on Friday (June 19) after €1.9 billion (S$3 billion) went missing from its accounts, sending its shares into a tailspin and putting a question mark over the company's future.

Markus Braun, who built the German company into one of the hottest investments in Europe, leaves Wirecard facing a looming cash crunch amid allegations of fraud over the missing money, which has hit a dead end in the Philippines.

In a statement, the company said James Freis, a former compliance officer at Germany's stock exchange, had been appointed as interim CEO.

Wirecard is holding emergency talks with banks to secure a financial lifeline, three people with knowledge of the matter said, after its auditor, EY, refused to sign off on its accounts.

The company warned on Thursday that loans of roughly 2 billion euros (S$3.12 billion) could be terminated if its annual report is not published on Friday.

It has until this evening to strike a deal with banks, the people said.

Earlier this week, Wirecard's auditor refused to sign off its 2019 accounts over the missing money, a setback that could trigger billions in loans being called in as soon as Friday.

"It cannot be ruled out that Wirecard AG has become the aggrieved party in a case of fraud of considerable proportions," chief executive Markus Braun said in a sombre video posted online. He did not identify those he suspected of fraud.

The crisis deepened on Friday with the two Asian banks that were supposed to be holding the missing cash denying any business relationship with the company.

BDO Unibank, the Philippines' largest bank by assets, and The Bank of the Philippine Islands said in separate statements that Wirecard is not a client.

"It was a rogue employee who falsified documents and forged the signatures of our officers," BDO Unibank chief executive officer Nestor Tan said in a mobile phone message. "Wirecard is not even a depositor - we have no relationship with them."

The Bank of the Philippine Islands said in a statement that Wirecard is not a client and it continues to investigate the issue.

The episode marks a dramatic turn in the fortunes of a home-grown tech firm that attracted some of the globe's biggest investors when it was propelled into Germany's prestigious Dax blue-chip index more than a year ago. Wirecard was a welcome technology success story in a country that made its name in heavy industry. But its fortunes unravelled after a whistleblower alleged that it owed its success in part to a web of sham transactions.

The company dismissed the claims but its failure to win a clean bill of health this week from auditors for its accounts shattered investor confidence, sending its stock into a spiral.

Wirecard shares plunged 24 per cent at 9.11am in Frankfurt on Friday, taking the stock's losses to 71 per cent since Wednesday's close.

BDO has reported the Wirecard issue to Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, the Philippines central bank, Mr Tan said.

Mr Braun said the trustee involved is in "constant contact" with EY and the company has promised to clear up the issue quickly with two Asian banks.

The company temporarily suspended its outgoing chief operating officer Jan Marsalek, it said in a statement late on Thursday.

Mr Marsalek - who has been suspended on a revocable basis until June 30 - had tried to get in touch with the two Asian banks and trustees over the past two days to recover the missing money, but was not successful, a person familiar with the matter said Thursday. It is unclear if the funds can be recovered, the person added.

EY had regularly approved Wirecard's accounts in recent years, and its refusal to sign off for 2019 confirms failings found in an external probe by KPMG in April.

The CEO said on Thursday the company was urgently seeking to work out what had happened.

The episode is also embarrassing for Germany's financial regulator Bafin. "Bafin looked on for far too long," said Mr Fabio De Masi, a lawmaker in the German Parliament, calling for a"radical" change in its approach to supervision.

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