Chinese court punishes ratings agency after bond default
Dagong ordered to pay a portion of bondholders’ debt claims amid Beijing’s drive to toughen up on due diligence
A Chinese court has ruled that a local ratings firm should help compensate some creditors for a construction firm’s 1.4-billion yuan ($216m) bond defaults three years ago, a first in the country as Beijing raises pressure on agencies to improve their due diligence.
Dagong Global Credit Rating is responsible for repaying up to 10% of at least 494-million yuan of combined debt claims to more than 400 individual bondholders of Wuyang Construction Group, according to a ruling by Hangzhou Intermediate People’s Court dated Thursday and seen by Bloomberg News.
Wuyang Construction’s legal representative and actual controller, Chen Zhizhang; underwriter Tebon Securities; and an accounting company and a law firm are also collectively responsible, the court said, citing their failures to conduct due diligence properly.
Beijing has tightened oversight of the country’s bond market after a surge of defaults since November, imposing short-term bans on new business on two other ratings agencies and launching probes into several banks, accounting firms and a large brokerage for alleged irregularities related to bond sales.
The Hangzhou court’s ruling also sets the precedent for bond underwriters and accounting and law firms to be financially responsible for bondholders’ losses, potentially offering a new road map for handling such cases in the future.
“This verdict should be the first of its kind in China. It substantially raises the cost of fraudulence and inadequate due diligence in the bond market,” said Yang Hao, a fixed-income analyst at Nanjing Securities. “Financial intermediaries will become more prudent in the future and investors may also actively explore this approach to seeking compensation.”
Wuyang Construction defaulted on two onshore bonds totalling nearly 1.4-billion yuan in 2017 and was later accused by China’s securities regulator of falsifying financial documents to win regulatory approval to sell bonds.
In November 2019, the securities regulator fined Tebon Securities for violating rules when it was an underwriter in Wuyang Construction’s 2015 bond sale.
The latest court ruling didn’t specify the amount of compensation that Chen, Tebon Securities and accounting firm Wuyige need to pay. It capped the ratio at 5% and 10%, respectively, for AllBright Law Offices and Dagong Global.
Calls to Wuyang Construction, Tebon Securities and AllBright went unanswered, while Wuyige and Dagong Global officials couldn’t immediately comment when reached by Bloomberg.
The verdict came after China’s interbank bond market watchdog last month imposed a three-month ban on new debt grading business for both China Chengxin International Credit Rating, in which Moody’s Investors Service holds a 30% stake, and Golden Credit Rating International as a result of irregularities such as insufficient risk analysis and improper rating models.
China’s domestic rating firms have long been criticised for issuing inflated grades and being slow to detect risk in borrowers, one of the key factors that have capped global investors’ demand for the nation’s local corporate bonds. The authorities have sought to address such concerns in the past two years by allowing S&P Global and Fitch Ratings to operate independently in China, but with limited success so far.
In a more serious case, regulators in 2018 banned Dagong Global from assessing bonds for a year, saying it gave officials fake information and charged high fees for consulting services, violating its independence as a ratings firm.
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