Ex-chairman of China’s Huarong Asset Management sentenced to death

The former head of one of China’s biggest asset management companies has been sentenced to death for corruption, in a relatively rare instance of the country meting out the death penalty for financial crimes.

Lai Xiaomin was chairman of Huarong Asset Management at the time of his arrest in 2018. He was found guilty of taking bribes totalling Rmb1.8bn ($279m) over a 10-year period, other acts of corruption and bigamy.

The court in the northern city of Tianjin, where Lai was sentenced on Tuesday, said his crimes “caused serious losses to the interests of the country”.

According to state media accounts, Lai deposited Rmb300m in a bank account nominally belonging to his mother and stashed tonnes of cash at his home in Beijing.

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Chen Long at Plenum, a Beijing-based consultancy, said death sentences for corruption without a reprieve, after which they are usually commuted to life sentences, were now “extremely rare”. “The corruption amount was probably a record and Huarong’s losses possibly larger,” Mr Chen said.

In 2018 the deputy mayor of a city in northern Shanxi province was sentenced to death for taking bribes exceeding Rmb1bn.

Huarong was one of four asset management companies originally established in 1999 to take bad debts off China’s largest state-owned banks, in order to help them lower their non-performing loan ratios and prepare for stock market listings. The four AMCs absorbed bad loans with a total face value of $800bn, although their market value was a fraction of that amount.

Huarong was paired with Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the country’s largest lender, and absorbed bad loans valued at Rmb408bn.

But instead of winding down after selling off the bad loans, the AMCs evolved into giant financial conglomerates in their own right.

Under Lai’s leadership, Huarong raised vast amounts of capital and expanded aggressively into investment banking services. In the five years through 2018, China’s four largest AMCs raised more than $100bn from debt markets, with Huarong accounting for about half of their total issuance.

Huarong, which listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange five years ago, also developed its own brokerage, insurance and leasing arms, as well as non-financial businesses including property development. Caixin, a leading finance magazine, reported that 100 properties developed by a Huarong subsidiary in south China were distributed to Lai’s ex-wife and mistresses.

Huarong’s rapid expansion, as well as the high-yield loans its investment bank clients sometimes struggled to repay, eventually attracted scrutiny from regulators as President Xi Jinping’s top economic adviser, vice- premier Liu He, ramped up a series of campaigns against risky financial practices.

Following Lai’s arrest, Huarong made an unprecedented offer to swap share certificates bearing his signature with new ones signed by his successor.

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