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  • Ren Zheping was paid 15 million yuan per annum when he headed the Evergrande Research Institute from December 2017 to March 2021
  • The economist, now working at Soochow Securities, made his name for accurately calling the peak and crash of China’s stock market in 2015

Pearl Liu

Published: 6:00pm, 11 Oct, 2021

An undated photo of Ren Zeping, the former director of the Evergrande Research Institute from December 2017 through March 2021. Photo: WEIBIO
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Ren Zeping, China Evergrande Group’s ex-chief economist and the country’s highest paid strategist, has disowned the leveraged diversification and debt-fuelled acquisitions of his former employer, as the world’s most indebted developer faces another string of bond payments this week.

The former head of the Evergrande Research Institute – with an annual salary of 15 million yuan (US$2.3 million) – said he had admonished the parent company’s top executives to focus on cutting debt instead of diversifying away from its core property business, according to a post on the WeChat account of Ren, who joined Soochow Securities as chief economist in March.

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“I was criticised publicly, for a rather long time, at a top management meeting,” Ren wrote. “I was told that I am not looking at the situation from a broader view and not getting a thorough understanding of the company’s major strategy. Many of the employees know about this. It was such a huge frustration and heavy blow for me, [as someone] who was new to the company and [who had] planned to help the company better develop.”

Evergrande’s spokespeople did not respond to Ren’s WeChat post. Still, the account of events by the developer’s brains trust from late 2017 until March 2021 offers a glimpse into Evergrande’s journey from a developer of mass-market homes into a conglomerate teetering on the brink of collapse with US$300 billion in liabilities and businesses from electric cars to a professional football team.

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To be sure, Evergrande’s debt-fuelled growth preceded Ren’s appointment. Founded by the magnate Hui Ka-yan in 1996, Evergrande expanded into the food and drinks business in December 2013 to produce spring water, infant formula milk, grain and cooking oil, only to sell what it called the “fast products” business in 2016. Evergrande lost some 4 billion yuan by May 2015, according to an auditing report by PwC in 2015 when the unit sought for listing on The National Equities Exchange And Quotations, also known as The New Third Board

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The developer paid HK$12.5 billion (US$1.56 billion) – a substantial premium to prevailing market prices – in November 2015 for a 26-storey office tower in Hong Kong offered by Chinese Estates Holdings, in a transaction that JPMorgan’s analysts described as “another example of immature capital management” by Evergrande, in a note to investors.

Sources: SCMP, Ke.com
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The straw that would break Evergrande’s back is probably its foray into capital-intensive business of making electric cars, partly to fulfil Hui’s ambition of beating Elon Musk in the world’s largest vehicle market. Evergrande New Energy Vehicle raised US$3.35 billion in January through a top-up stock sale to strategic investors and the public to finance its production of as many as five models. Nine months later, with US$75 billion of market value wiped out from Evergrande NEV, the unit is yet to produce a single car.

Ren worked as a researcher at the State Council’s Development Research Center before joining Guotai Junan Securities and Founder Securities as an economist. He made his name as one of the few outspoken voices among China watchers who accurately called the boom-and-bust cycle in the stock market in 2015.

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In August 2014, Ren predicted that the Shanghai Composite Index could reach 5,000 points after being in a bear market for years. Then in April 2015 he warned that the ensuing rally in China’s stock market might have gone too far, culminating with a call a month later that “the market has gone crazy,” all before the benchmark’s peak.

China Evergrande Group’s headquarters building in Shenzhen. Photo: EPA-EPE.

Subsequently, China’s stock market crashed, in a rout that wiped out US$5 trillion in capitalisation, whose aftermath are still being felt in the nation’s financial circles.

“I did not expect many Chinese developers to take a sharp turn for the worse this year when I left [Evergrande] in March, even though I have said many times that the prime time of China property has gone,” said Ren. “I still hope Evergrande can walk out of the current difficulty and have a happy ending because [the whole saga] involves too many families.”

Ren has come under criticism as Evergrande struggles with its debt woes, copping the blame for pushing Evergrande into its debt-fuelled growth.

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But the economist said that even after being named openly for not understanding the company’s culture and strategy, he constantly submitted his analysis on the macroeconomic environment and China’s housing market, all the while flagging the risk of the country’s tightening credit market.

“I have said whatever I can but it did not take any effect and I have done whatever I should,” Ren added. “After all, everyone has different views and researchers only come to support, but not to make the final call.”