Li Ka Shing's firm may be hiding $10b debt: Researcher

GMT Research says that by deeming a portion of its assets as held for sale, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka Shing's CK Hutchison Holdings (flags of which are seen above, outside the company's headquarters in Hong Kong) may be hiding HK$57.7 billion (S$10
GMT Research says that by deeming a portion of its assets as held for sale, Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka Shing's CK Hutchison Holdings (flags of which are seen above, outside the company's headquarters in Hong Kong) may be hiding HK$57.7 billion (S$10 billion) of debt. CK Hutchison has denied the allegations.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HONG KONG • Billionaire Li Ka Shing's CK Hutchison Holdings may be concealing HK$57.7 billion (S$10 billion) of debt as a result of aggressive accounting, a Hong Kong-based research firm said on its website, allegations CK Hutchison has denied.

GMT Research, which uses its own proprietary accounting and corporate governance analysis system, posted the research related to accounting treatment of debt by the company and recommended avoiding the stock.

CK Hutchison "rejects any innuendo or suggestion of accounting irregularity", the company said in a statement on Tuesday, adding that the lead of the GMT report "appears selective, biased and materially misleading".

The latest annual earnings of CK Hutchison were the first reported under the watch of Mr Victor Li, who took over the empire following last year's retirement of the senior Li, the city's richest man.

Shares of CK Hutchison were little changed as of 10.21am in Hong Kong yesterday, after having risen 4.8 per cent this year versus a 9.4 per cent gain for the benchmark Hang Seng Index.

GMT Research analyses balance sheets to screen companies for possible red flags, with the goal to judge if a company is overstating - or understating - its profits by exploiting accounting standards.

Its clients are mostly long-only investors, and GMT does not take investment positions nor does it write reports at the behest of short-sellers, traders who profit when a stock falls, according to founder Gillem Tulloch.

In its earnings report for the year ended December, CK Hutchison reported HK$120.5 billion in assets classified as held for sale, and liabilities directly associated with them at HK$77.6 billion. For the previous year, both the categories were nil. By deeming a portion of its assets as held for sale, CK Hutchison may be hiding HK$57.7 billion of debt, GMT Research said.

The aggressive accounting is being used to give CK Hutchison a "higher market rating and access to cheaper credit", GMT said in the report. The company may be masking its rising debt levels with this practice, it added.

"But CK didn't make any false statement," said Mr Francis Lun, chief executive of Geo Securities in Hong Kong.

"It is sharp accounting practice to understate assets in poor condition. This isn't the first time they have applied such treatment," Mr Lun said.

GMT said the accounting adjustments linked to CK Hutchison's purchase of mobile operator Wind Tre and the "residual impact" from its 2015 reorganisation boosted the firm's annual pre-tax profit by about HK$13.2 billion, or 38 per cent.

"The group's audited financial statements are strictly in compliance with applicable Hong Kong Financial Reporting Standards," and have been reviewed with credit agencies, CK Hutchison said in its statement.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2019, with the headline 'Li Ka Shing's firm may be hiding $10b debt: Researcher'. Print Edition | Subscribe