April 20, 2018 / 12:35 PM / 3 months ago

CEFC senior staff banned from overseas travel amid chairman probe: sources

BEIJING/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Chinese authorities have barred senior staff at embattled Chinese conglomerate CEFC China Energy from traveling overseas amid a government investigation of the firm’s chairman, three sources briefed on the matter have told Reuters.

The ban affects dozens of CEFC staff at the vice president-level and above, the people said. The exact timing of the ban is unclear. One of the sources said it has been in place since mid-February and another said it started last month.

The three sources said they were briefed by company executives that attempted to travel overseas and were denied exit from China.

The Shanghai-based conglomerate, which grew from a niche oil trader to a $25 billion company, has faced increasing scrutiny after its chairman, Ye Jianming, was put under investigation for suspected economic crimes earlier this year.

CEFC did not respond to multiple calls for requests for comment.

The sources could not indicate which government agency imposed the ban.

The Ministry of Public Safety did not respond to a request from Reuters for a comment on whether a travel ban has been imposed on the CEFC executives.

Chinese authorities sometimes put travel bans on top corporate executives without stating a reason, but it is unusual to impose a blanket ban on a number of company executives.

The travel ban is another measure that Chinese authorities are taking amid a crackdown on companies that have engaged in highly-leveraged financial deals and that hold large amounts of corporate debt.

In February, the Chinese government seized control of Anbang Insurance Group Co Ltd and said its chairman had been prosecuted.

Late on Thursday, Huarong Asset Management Co Ltd said Lai Xiaomin, the company chairman, had stepped down following a Reuters report earlier this week that he was being investigated for suspected “serious discipline violations”, a euphemism for graft. Huarong’s shares fell more than 10 percent on Friday.

CEFC made a splash last year agreeing to buy a 14.16 percent stake in Russia’s Rosneft for $9.1 billion. CEFC was financing the deal through China Development bank and Russian bank VTB, who was set to provide a loan of 5 billion euros ($6.15 billion).

The deal has not closed and remains uncertain after Ye’s investigation has highlighted financial difficulties at CEFC, mainly centered around large holdings of short-term debt.

Shanghai-based CEFC has around 44 billion yuan ($6.94 billion) of short-term borrowing due by the first half of 2018, according to its 2017 half-year financial report disclosed to onshore bondholders.

Ahead of Ye’s investigation, CEFC was in talks with Chinese shadow lenders for short-tem loans with annual rates of as much as 36 percent to make up its cash shortfall, Reuters reported in March.

In March, Guosheng Group, an investment firm owned by the Shanghai government, was tasked with evaluating CEFC’s financial position as part of a restructuring and takeover process, two sources told Reuters at the time.

Reuters reported earlier this month that a creditor had taken legal action against CEFC, even as China Development Bank tried to dissuade lenders from taking action.

Reporting Chen Aizhu in BEIJING and Kane Wu in HONG KONG; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Christian Schmollinger

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