Another agarwood investment scheme under scrutiny

Over 400 people have invested $9.5m with OPC, even as clients ofTFV file police reports

Another firm offering agarwood investment schemes with lucrative returns has come under scrutiny.

Over the past two years, home-grown firm One Plantation Capital (OPC) has attracted $9.5 million of investments from some 425 customers in a scheme to grow aquilaria trees - prized for the valuable agarwood or oud oil that is harvested from them and then used in perfumes and by spas.

Last month, The Straits Times reported that 70 investors here have cried foul over another firm - Tropical Forestry Venture (TFV) - offering an agarwood investment scheme. TFV has closed its office with no compensation in sight for its investors, who put in sums ranging from $5,000 to $60,000.

Several investors have filed police reports against TFV.

Experts have raised concerns about OPC's scheme, noting, for example, that the seller is effectively an overseas entity.

The aquilaria tree is prized for the valuable agarwood or oud oil, which is used in perfumes and by spas. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

They also say it appears to be an investment product with guaranteed returns over a fixed period of time, but is a type of investment product not regulated by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS).

One OPC investor, who declined to be named, appealed to The Straits Times for help. "Can you help to check on this scheme, please? I had joined the scheme because of a friend. I'm just hoping for the best."

Under the OPC scheme, investors are offered a low entry level of a minimum investable sum of $10,000 to buy 10 semi-mature aquilaria trees ($1,000 per tree), due for harvesting in 31/2 years.

The sale and purchase, and management agreement obtained by The Straits Times after attending a sales presentation stated that there would be "yearly gains/profit distribution" of 5 per cent of the purchase amount for three years.

In addition, after 31/2 years, the firm pays investors $1,550, or 155 per cent, return for the sale of each tree. This works out to total investment returns of 170 per cent, or 20 per cent a year on an annualised basis - a high rate of return. This translates to total gains of $7,000 for an investment sum of $10,000.

OPC claimed that as the trees are growing, before they are harvested, it is able to offer annual returns to customers from the sales of its line of oud tea which is sold in China.

Besides buying the trees, OPC customers pay a one-time $500 administrative fee which is purportedly the premium payment for an insurance cover from a performance bond, purchased from Indonesian insurer PT Asuransi Asei. The insurance cover - 130 per cent of the purchase price - is meant to protect the customer in case OPC defaults.

The Straits Times notes that the "applicant" stated in the performance bond document is not OPC but a third party, Malaysia-based Gold Assurance Asset Management Company. The sum insured is stated as US$5 million (S$6.9 million).

Clause 6 of the bond states that any dispute concerning the bond falls under the Arbitration Act of Indonesia.

OPC managing director Benjamin Song said the bond covers the agreement between OPC and the purchaser and, in the event of default by OPC, the insurer will pay the clients. Mr Song added that in the sales agreement, OPC is not the seller. Rather it is OPC's overseas entity - for example, One Plantation (Cambodia) Venture - that holds the lease (minimum five years) that is the seller. Its role is to assist the buyer to sell the trees upon maturity in 31/2 years.

OPC has a paid-up capital of $100,000, Acra records show. The tree plantations are in Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, said Mr Song.

Mr Seah Seng Choon, executive director of the Consumers Association of Singapore, warned that as such investment schemes are not regulated by MAS, investors will not be afforded MAS' regulatory framework protection.

"In this instance, we note that the seller and the issuer of the performance bond are foreign entities, which are not subject to Singapore's regulatory framework. Seeking redress from a foreign entity is always cumbersome and uncertain as their laws are different from ours," he added. "Moreover, the cost of seeking redress could also be high."

He added that, in general, investors should always exercise caution and do their own thorough research on any investment schemes that promise high returns with seemingly low risks. Investors who are not prepared to stomach such high-risk ventures should not get involved.

A lawyer noted that as the agreement seems to involve entities in different jurisdictions, it makes it practically impossible to use one jurisdiction to enforce the agreement.

Mr Patrick Lim, associate director at financial advisory PromiseLand Independent, highlighted that clause 3.4 of the sales agreement states that "the purchase amount shall not be refunded (whether in whole or in part) under any circumstances whatsoever".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2016, with the headline Another agarwood investment scheme under scrutiny. Subscribe