Judge notes 'unbridled greed' behind DBS private-wealth dispute

DBS Group Holdings has lost part of a case over losses on millions of dollars of investments for the family trust of a wealthy Chinese banker and his wife during the global financial crisis.

The plaintiffs were Industrial & Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) executive Zhang Hongli, his wife Ji Zhengrong, the trustees of their family trust, and the trust's investment company.

In a ruling in Hong Kong's High Court on April 13, Justice Mohan Bharwaney ordered the bank to pay compensation to the trustees and the investment company, with the amount to be determined at a later date, saying two DBS entities were negligent in approving investment decisions by Mr Zhang's wife on behalf of the family trust.

"Unbridled greed" played a role in the case, when the unfolding crisis in 2008 should have deterred some of the risky investment decisions which led to the losses, the judge said.

Ms Linda Liu, a Zhang family trust account manager at DBS, "was clearly driven by the wish to enjoy bigger and bigger bonuses", while "Ji was no less greedy," Justice Bharwaney said. "The evidence shows clearly that Ji was demanding, proactively and oftentimes aggressively, larger and larger credit lines."

The judge dismissed claims against Ms Liu, or Liu Hiu Hong, and other DBS staff and entities.

He also criticised the "carpet bombing" litigation style of the plaintiffs, resulting in what he described as complex, costly and prolonged litigation and some spurious allegations.

Mr Zhang, who is also known as Lee Zhang, is a former China head of Deutsche Bank who joined ICBC in 2010 and serves as a senior executive vice-president. He also sits on the board of ICBC, China's largest bank. He left it to his wife to deal with DBS, the judge said.

The ruling stated that two DBS entities, DHJ Management and DBS Trustee HK (Jersey) - now Nautilus Trustees Asia - should between them pay "equitable compensation", after the Zhang family trust's investment company made losses on purchases of US$83 million of Australian dollars and of three foreign-currency products called "decumulators".

The two DBS entities had the power to override Ms Ji's investment decisions, the judge said.

A DBS spokesman said "we have carefully considered the judgment and are obtaining independent legal advice".

Ms Liu and other individuals named as defendants in the case are no longer DBS employees, and the two related trust companies are no longer part of DBS Group, the spokesman added.

Mr Zhang did not respond to a request for comment. Mr Nathan Dentice, a lawyer acting for Mr Zhang and his wife, did not respond to a request for comment. Ms Liu could not be reached for comment.

The court proceedings, dating back to 2011, featured lengthy transcripts of client-banker phone calls and thousands of pages of documents.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2017, with the headline 'Judge notes 'unbridled greed' behind DBS private-wealth dispute'. Print Edition | Subscribe