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何金碧的銅業帝國搖搖欲墜

何金碧的銅業帝國搖搖欲墜

Alfred Cang, Jack Farchy, 彭博社 2022-09-20
或許全世界都將感受到這場危機所引發的連鎖反應。

銅金屬在中國是一個龐大的市場。圖片來源:ZHOU GUANGXUE/VCG VIA GETTY IMAGES

何金碧從在寒冷的冬夜守衛裝滿金屬的車廂,防止小偷開始,逐步打造了一家強大的銅貿易公司,中國四分之一的銅通過這家公司進口,其實力可見一斑。

57歲的何金碧是天生的商人,他的幽默感極具感染力。他帶領邁科金屬國際集團有限公司在2000年代初混亂的大宗商品熱潮中發展壯大,成為中國核心工業與嘉能可(Glencore Plc.)等跨國企業之間的重要橋梁。

但如今,邁科卻面臨一場流動性危機,何金碧的商業帝國受到沖擊?;蛟S全世界都將感受到這場危機所引發的連鎖反應:邁科每年的成交量高達100萬噸,占中國精煉銅進口量的四分之一,這讓它成為全球最重要的銅貿易路線中規模最大的企業,也是倫敦金屬交易所(London Metal Exchange)的主要貿易商。

憑借廣泛的人脈,何金碧總是可以深刻洞悉中國工廠和工地的動向,他是中國過去20年大宗商品推動經濟繁榮過程中的典型,經濟對原材料的無盡需求讓他積攢了大量財富,然后他又將這些財富投入到火爆的房地產市場。

但今年,受新冠疫情影響,房地產市場和銅價格雙雙遭遇重創。在各種謠言流傳幾個月之后,何金碧在今年8月公開承認,邁科已經向外界求助,以解決流動性問題。

他表示,問題是暫時的,只影響了公司的部分業務,但他的交易對手和債權人卻非常謹慎。一些中國國內貿易商已經暫停新交易,而與邁科合作時間最長的貸款機構之一工銀標準銀行(ICBC Standard Bank Plc)非常擔憂,甚至將邁科作為貸款抵押的部分銅運出中國。

即使邁科能夠獲得政府和國有銀行的支持,行業高管認為,邁科可能無法繼續維持在中國銅業市場的主導地位。

何金碧的崛起可以說是中國經濟繁榮的一個縮影,而他目前的困境可能意味著大宗商品將迎來拐點:中國需求持續上漲的時代結束。

戴維·利利從20世紀90年代就開始與邁科交易。他曾經在MG公司(MG Plc)擔任交易員,后來成為貿易商行和對沖基金Red Kite的聯合創始人。他說:“在某種程度上,邁科的發展歷程體現了中國的現代化進程。何金碧總是能夠非常巧妙地抓住中國經濟的動態,但疫情封鎖讓所有人措手不及?!?/p>

何金碧躋身中國大宗商品行業巔峰的說法,來自行業協會、競爭對手和銀行家的評價,由于情況較為敏感,許多人要求匿名。

邁科的發言人拒絕就此事發表評價,但在9月7日回復彭博社(Bloomberg)的問題時表示:“近30年來,公司一直在深度參與大宗商品行業的發展。邁科一直保持穩步發展,所有人都是見證者。它將很快恢復正常運營,繼續為大宗商品行業和地方經濟的發展做出貢獻?!?/p>

銅業繁榮

何金碧1964年出生于中國陜西省,在為一家地方企業采購工業原材料時,他第一次接觸到銅這種金屬。作為一個年輕人,他被安排在寒冷的冬夜,守衛裝滿銅的火車,這些火車將往返于全國各地。

1993年,何金碧和幾個朋友在西安市創建了邁科。西安是秦朝的國都所在地,這里有著名的秦始皇兵馬俑。他們貸款50,000元(約7,200美元)開始買賣機械電子產品。但何金碧早期與銅的接觸對他產生了影響。他們很快將業務重心轉向廢金屬、銅線和精煉銅。

何金碧風度翩翩,面帶笑容,富有幽默感,是一位天生的商人。他的感召力幫助自己結交了許多朋友,建立了廣泛的商業人脈。

隨著中國經濟日益開放,何金碧利用這些人脈將邁科打造成為大型國際貿易商與中國大批新興的銅消費者的中間人。

在15年里,中國消費的全球銅供應量從十分之一提高到50%,引發了一輪銅價暴漲的超級周期。銅這種金屬被用于生產電線,從電纜到空調都不可或缺。

大宗商品賭場

對許多人而言,中國大宗商品市場幾乎就像是一座賭場,那是一個瘋狂的時代。交易商們聯手押注,與其他交易對手展開廝殺。最勇敢的企業會被冠以流行小說中的功夫大師的綽號。

在那個動蕩的年代里,許多交易商浮浮沉沉,而何金碧卻穩如泰山。

利利稱:“過去20年,我們合作開展了大量業務。中國金屬貿易市場真的如同蠻荒西部,但他一直可以守住自己的地位。他總是言出必行?!?/p>

何金碧身上還具有成功的大宗商品貿易商必備的一種性格特征,那就是敢于承擔風險。

在超級周期的早期,他的事業迎來了一個重要的機會。2005年5月,中國金屬行業齊聚上海,參加上海期貨交易所的年會。當時銅價暴漲,與會的大多數生產商、加工商和貿易商都認為價格會很快下跌。即便是權威的國家物資儲備局也不認為銅價會繼續上漲。

當聽到巴克萊(Barclays)的分析師英格麗德·斯特恩貝預測隨著中國供不應求銅價會再創新高時,他們都震驚不已。但很快事實證明她是對的,在之后的12個月里,銅價翻了一番以上。國家物資儲備局的損失慘重。大多數中國貿易商并沒有抓住機會從中獲利。

但何金碧除外。他一直通過自己的中國消費者人脈密切關注需求情況,并建立了看漲頭寸,因此在全球價格上漲中獲利豐厚。

多年來,他曾經多次重復這種做法。他偏好于使用賣出期權策略,當價格下行時,在中國客戶認為是買入機會的價位賣出,當價格上行時,則在中國客戶認為過于昂貴的價位賣出。

雖然他也喜歡一些成功的標志,但與他相識多年的人表示,即使在凈身家暴漲的時候他依舊腳踏實地。他的個人財富在最高峰時讓他足以成為按照美元計算的億萬富翁。

在上海,他經常去的一家餐廳提供西安美食,他喜歡吃涼皮和韭菜餡兒煎餃,價格只有50元(7美元)。

資金流動

何金碧的事業發展過程,體現了中國商界所經歷的變革。雖然他最初只是一名實物銅經銷商,但隨著大宗商品企業與中國金融市場之間的相互聯系日益密切,很快,他率先采取了行動。

隨著邁科發展成為中國最大的銅進口商,何金碧開始利用持續流動的金屬融資。他可能要求最終客戶預付款,還會以運輸以及在倉庫存放的大量銅作為抵押申請借款。多年來,銅與現金之間早已形成了互動,而中國信貸周期的起伏成為全球市場的主要驅動力。

何金碧利用通過銅貿易業務募集的資金,在交易所進行投機交易,或者越來越多地投入到中國繁榮的房地產市場。從2011年左右開始,他大量建設酒店和商鋪,甚至在上海保稅區自建了倉庫。

“在某種程度上,邁科的發展歷程體現了中國的現代化進程?!?/p>

隨著國有企業在中國商界擁有更大的主導地位,何金碧開始將重心轉移到投資家鄉西安,例如參與一帶一路倡議發起的項目。

但今年,他的商業帝國開始搖搖欲墜。

去年12月和今年1月,西安市進行了長達一個月的封城,隨著疫情反復,4月和7月再次采取類似的防疫措施,導致何金碧的房地產投資嚴重受創。他的酒店幾乎歇業幾個月,有些商業租戶已經停止支付租金。

混沌天成研究院(Chaos Ternary Research Institute)的院長董浩表示,在繁榮時期,有許多公司把資金投入到房地產市場,邁科就是其中之一。他說:“去年房地產市場突然轉向之后,這些公司都遭遇了各種各樣的問題?!?/p>

鎳逼空事件

中國經濟的回調也導致銅價下跌,與此同時,銀行對中國大宗商品行業變得日益謹慎,這也對邁科造成了影響。今年3月歷史性的“鎳逼空事件”以及鋁礦和銅礦損失等丑聞,影響了外界對大宗商品行業的信心。

最近幾周,邁科支付采購銅的價格出現了困難,包括必和必拓(BHP Group)和智利國營銅業公司(Codelco)等多家跨國公司暫停向邁科出售,并轉移了商品。

未來充滿了不確定性。8月底,在陜西省政府召開的一次緊急會議上,何金碧與多家國內銀行進行了會談。邁科事后表示,銀行已經同意為公司提供支持,包括延長現有貸款期限等。

但由于其他貿易商對與其交易變得越來越緊張,導致公司的貿易業務基本陷入了停滯。在邁科陷入困境之后,該行業一些規模最大的銀行普遍開始停止在中國支持金屬投資。

何金碧的遭遇在中國讓人們產生了不同感受。許多人哀嘆他的處境是中國大宗商品市場的悲劇,也是中國經濟日益被國有企業主導的象征。

但有人對這種經營模式的結束并不感到傷心,因為邁科的做法是將銅變成一種金融資產,有時候會導致進口利潤率與這種實物商品的基本面相背離。

托克集團(Trafigura Group)的前金屬貿易負責人、數字交易平臺TradeCloud的首席執行官西蒙·柯林斯說:“多年來,邁科等貿易商對中國的銅進口發揮著非常重要的作用,它們不斷采購以維持資金流動。而面對當前房地產市場的現狀,我認為好日子已經結束了?!保ㄘ敻恢形木W)

——Winnie Zhu對本文亦有貢獻。

譯者:劉進龍

審校:汪皓

何金碧從在寒冷的冬夜守衛裝滿金屬的車廂,防止小偷開始,逐步打造了一家強大的銅貿易公司,中國四分之一的銅通過這家公司進口,其實力可見一斑。

57歲的何金碧是天生的商人,他的幽默感極具感染力。他帶領邁科金屬國際集團有限公司在2000年代初混亂的大宗商品熱潮中發展壯大,成為中國核心工業與嘉能可(Glencore Plc.)等跨國企業之間的重要橋梁。

但如今,邁科卻面臨一場流動性危機,何金碧的商業帝國受到沖擊?;蛟S全世界都將感受到這場危機所引發的連鎖反應:邁科每年的成交量高達100萬噸,占中國精煉銅進口量的四分之一,這讓它成為全球最重要的銅貿易路線中規模最大的企業,也是倫敦金屬交易所(London Metal Exchange)的主要貿易商。

憑借廣泛的人脈,何金碧總是可以深刻洞悉中國工廠和工地的動向,他是中國過去20年大宗商品推動經濟繁榮過程中的典型,經濟對原材料的無盡需求讓他積攢了大量財富,然后他又將這些財富投入到火爆的房地產市場。

但今年,受新冠疫情影響,房地產市場和銅價格雙雙遭遇重創。在各種謠言流傳幾個月之后,何金碧在今年8月公開承認,邁科已經向外界求助,以解決流動性問題。

他表示,問題是暫時的,只影響了公司的部分業務,但他的交易對手和債權人卻非常謹慎。一些中國國內貿易商已經暫停新交易,而與邁科合作時間最長的貸款機構之一工銀標準銀行(ICBC Standard Bank Plc)非常擔憂,甚至將邁科作為貸款抵押的部分銅運出中國。

即使邁科能夠獲得政府和國有銀行的支持,行業高管認為,邁科可能無法繼續維持在中國銅業市場的主導地位。

何金碧的崛起可以說是中國經濟繁榮的一個縮影,而他目前的困境可能意味著大宗商品將迎來拐點:中國需求持續上漲的時代結束。

戴維·利利從20世紀90年代就開始與邁科交易。他曾經在MG公司(MG Plc)擔任交易員,后來成為貿易商行和對沖基金Red Kite的聯合創始人。他說:“在某種程度上,邁科的發展歷程體現了中國的現代化進程。何金碧總是能夠非常巧妙地抓住中國經濟的動態,但疫情封鎖讓所有人措手不及?!?/p>

何金碧躋身中國大宗商品行業巔峰的說法,來自行業協會、競爭對手和銀行家的評價,由于情況較為敏感,許多人要求匿名。

邁科的發言人拒絕就此事發表評價,但在9月7日回復彭博社(Bloomberg)的問題時表示:“近30年來,公司一直在深度參與大宗商品行業的發展。邁科一直保持穩步發展,所有人都是見證者。它將很快恢復正常運營,繼續為大宗商品行業和地方經濟的發展做出貢獻?!?/p>

銅業繁榮

何金碧1964年出生于中國陜西省,在為一家地方企業采購工業原材料時,他第一次接觸到銅這種金屬。作為一個年輕人,他被安排在寒冷的冬夜,守衛裝滿銅的火車,這些火車將往返于全國各地。

1993年,何金碧和幾個朋友在西安市創建了邁科。西安是秦朝的國都所在地,這里有著名的秦始皇兵馬俑。他們貸款50,000元(約7,200美元)開始買賣機械電子產品。但何金碧早期與銅的接觸對他產生了影響。他們很快將業務重心轉向廢金屬、銅線和精煉銅。

何金碧風度翩翩,面帶笑容,富有幽默感,是一位天生的商人。他的感召力幫助自己結交了許多朋友,建立了廣泛的商業人脈。

隨著中國經濟日益開放,何金碧利用這些人脈將邁科打造成為大型國際貿易商與中國大批新興的銅消費者的中間人。

在15年里,中國消費的全球銅供應量從十分之一提高到50%,引發了一輪銅價暴漲的超級周期。銅這種金屬被用于生產電線,從電纜到空調都不可或缺。

大宗商品賭場

對許多人而言,中國大宗商品市場幾乎就像是一座賭場,那是一個瘋狂的時代。交易商們聯手押注,與其他交易對手展開廝殺。最勇敢的企業會被冠以流行小說中的功夫大師的綽號。

在那個動蕩的年代里,許多交易商浮浮沉沉,而何金碧卻穩如泰山。

利利稱:“過去20年,我們合作開展了大量業務。中國金屬貿易市場真的如同蠻荒西部,但他一直可以守住自己的地位。他總是言出必行?!?/p>

何金碧身上還具有成功的大宗商品貿易商必備的一種性格特征,那就是敢于承擔風險。

在超級周期的早期,他的事業迎來了一個重要的機會。2005年5月,中國金屬行業齊聚上海,參加上海期貨交易所的年會。當時銅價暴漲,與會的大多數生產商、加工商和貿易商都認為價格會很快下跌。即便是權威的國家物資儲備局也不認為銅價會繼續上漲。

當聽到巴克萊(Barclays)的分析師英格麗德·斯特恩貝預測隨著中國供不應求銅價會再創新高時,他們都震驚不已。但很快事實證明她是對的,在之后的12個月里,銅價翻了一番以上。國家物資儲備局的損失慘重。大多數中國貿易商并沒有抓住機會從中獲利。

但何金碧除外。他一直通過自己的中國消費者人脈密切關注需求情況,并建立了看漲頭寸,因此在全球價格上漲中獲利豐厚。

多年來,他曾經多次重復這種做法。他偏好于使用賣出期權策略,當價格下行時,在中國客戶認為是買入機會的價位賣出,當價格上行時,則在中國客戶認為過于昂貴的價位賣出。

雖然他也喜歡一些成功的標志,但與他相識多年的人表示,即使在凈身家暴漲的時候他依舊腳踏實地。他的個人財富在最高峰時讓他足以成為按照美元計算的億萬富翁。

在上海,他經常去的一家餐廳提供西安美食,他喜歡吃涼皮和韭菜餡兒煎餃,價格只有50元(7美元)。

資金流動

何金碧的事業發展過程,體現了中國商界所經歷的變革。雖然他最初只是一名實物銅經銷商,但隨著大宗商品企業與中國金融市場之間的相互聯系日益密切,很快,他率先采取了行動。

隨著邁科發展成為中國最大的銅進口商,何金碧開始利用持續流動的金屬融資。他可能要求最終客戶預付款,還會以運輸以及在倉庫存放的大量銅作為抵押申請借款。多年來,銅與現金之間早已形成了互動,而中國信貸周期的起伏成為全球市場的主要驅動力。

何金碧利用通過銅貿易業務募集的資金,在交易所進行投機交易,或者越來越多地投入到中國繁榮的房地產市場。從2011年左右開始,他大量建設酒店和商鋪,甚至在上海保稅區自建了倉庫。

“在某種程度上,邁科的發展歷程體現了中國的現代化進程?!?/p>

隨著國有企業在中國商界擁有更大的主導地位,何金碧開始將重心轉移到投資家鄉西安,例如參與一帶一路倡議發起的項目。

但今年,他的商業帝國開始搖搖欲墜。

去年12月和今年1月,西安市進行了長達一個月的封城,隨著疫情反復,4月和7月再次采取類似的防疫措施,導致何金碧的房地產投資嚴重受創。他的酒店幾乎歇業幾個月,有些商業租戶已經停止支付租金。

混沌天成研究院(Chaos Ternary Research Institute)的院長董浩表示,在繁榮時期,有許多公司把資金投入到房地產市場,邁科就是其中之一。他說:“去年房地產市場突然轉向之后,這些公司都遭遇了各種各樣的問題?!?/p>

鎳逼空事件

中國經濟的回調也導致銅價下跌,與此同時,銀行對中國大宗商品行業變得日益謹慎,這也對邁科造成了影響。今年3月歷史性的“鎳逼空事件”以及鋁礦和銅礦損失等丑聞,影響了外界對大宗商品行業的信心。

最近幾周,邁科支付采購銅的價格出現了困難,包括必和必拓(BHP Group)和智利國營銅業公司(Codelco)等多家跨國公司暫停向邁科出售,并轉移了商品。

未來充滿了不確定性。8月底,在陜西省政府召開的一次緊急會議上,何金碧與多家國內銀行進行了會談。邁科事后表示,銀行已經同意為公司提供支持,包括延長現有貸款期限等。

但由于其他貿易商對與其交易變得越來越緊張,導致公司的貿易業務基本陷入了停滯。在邁科陷入困境之后,該行業一些規模最大的銀行普遍開始停止在中國支持金屬投資。

何金碧的遭遇在中國讓人們產生了不同感受。許多人哀嘆他的處境是中國大宗商品市場的悲劇,也是中國經濟日益被國有企業主導的象征。

但有人對這種經營模式的結束并不感到傷心,因為邁科的做法是將銅變成一種金融資產,有時候會導致進口利潤率與這種實物商品的基本面相背離。

托克集團(Trafigura Group)的前金屬貿易負責人、數字交易平臺TradeCloud的首席執行官西蒙·柯林斯說:“多年來,邁科等貿易商對中國的銅進口發揮著非常重要的作用,它們不斷采購以維持資金流動。而面對當前房地產市場的現狀,我認為好日子已經結束了?!保ㄘ敻恢形木W)

——Winnie Zhu對本文亦有貢獻。

譯者:劉進龍

審校:汪皓

From a start guarding trains full of metal from thieves on freezing winter nights, He Jinbi built a copper trading house so powerful that it handles one of every four tons imported into China.

A born trader with an infectious sense of humor, the 57-year-old grew Maike Metals International Ltd. through the rough-and-tumble rush for commodities in the early 2000s, to become a key conduit between China’s industrial heartlands and global merchants like Glencore Plc.

Now Maike is suffering a liquidity crisis, and He’s empire is under threat. The ripple effects could be felt across the world: the company handles a million tons a year — a quarter of China’s refined copper imports — making it the largest player in the most important global trade route for the metal, and a major trader on the London Metal Exchange.

With his wide network of contacts giving enviable insight into China’s factories and building sites, He has been a poster child for China’s commodity-fueled boom over two decades — making a fortune from its ravenous demand for raw materials and then plunging it into the red-hot property market.

But this year, Beijing’s restrictive Covid Zero policies have hit both the property market and the copper price hard. After months of rumors, He admitted publicly in August that Maike had asked for help to resolve liquidity issues.

He said the problems are temporary and affected only a small part of his business, but his trading counterparties and creditors are being cautious. Some Chinese domestic traders have suspended new deals, while one of the company’s longest-standing lenders, ICBC Standard Bank Plc, was concerned enough that it moved some copper out of China that had been backing its lending to Maike.

Even if it can secure support from the government and state banks, industry executives say Maike may struggle to maintain its dominant role in the Chinese copper market.

Much as He’s rise was a microcosm of China’s economic boom, his current woes may mark a turning point for commodity markets: the end of an era in which Chinese demand could only go up.

“In some ways Maike’s story is the story of modern China,” said David Lilley, who started dealing with Maike in the 1990s, first as a trader at MG Plc and later as co-founder of trading house and hedge fund Red Kite. “He has skillfully ridden the dynamics of the Chinese economy, but no one was prepared for the Covid lockdowns.”

This account of He’s rise to the pinnacle of China’s commodities industry is based on interviews with business associates, rivals and bankers, many of whom asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the situation.

A spokesperson for Maike declined to comment on this story, but said in response to earlier questions from Bloomberg on Sept. 7: “Our company has been deeply involved in the development of the commodity industry for nearly 30 years. It had maintained a steady development as witnessed by everyone. It will soon resume normal operations and continue to contribute to the development of the industry and the local economy.”

Copper Boom

Born in 1964 in the Chinese province of Shaanxi, He’s first encounter with copper came when he got a job procuring industrial materials for a local firm. As a young man, he was paid to guard cargoes of copper in trains crisscrossing China — which could be a cold job on freezing winter nights.

In 1993, He and several friends established Maike in the western city of Xi’an, known as the capital of China’s first emperor and the location of the iconic Terracotta Army statues. The group took out a loan of 50,000 yuan (about $7,200) to buy and sell mechanical and electrical products. But He’s early encounter with copper had made an impact, and they quickly moved their focus to scrap metal, copper wire and refined copper.

With a personable nature, a broad grin and a light-hearted sense of humor, He was a natural commodity trader whose charisma would help him build a wide network of friends and business contacts.

As China’s economy liberalized, He used his connections to make Maike a middleman between big international traders and China’s burgeoning throng of copper consumers.

In the space of 15 years, China would go from consuming a tenth of the world’s copper supply to 50%, triggering a supercycle of skyrocketing prices for the metal which is used in electrical wires in everything from power cables to air-conditioning units.

Commodities Casino

This was a wild era when, for many, China’s commodity markets were little more than a casino. Groups of traders would team up to bet together, launching ambushes against their opponents on the other side of the market. The bravest players would be nicknamed after the martial art masters of popular novels.

While many traders came and went in these go-go years, He persisted.

“We did a huge amount of business together over twenty years,” said Lilley. “There were times when the Chinese metals trade was a real wild west and he stood out for his honorableness. He would always make good on his word.”

He also had another characteristic essential for a successful commodity trader: an appetite for risk.

His big break came in the early days of the supercycle. In May 2005, China’s metals industry gathered in Shanghai for the Shanghai Futures Exchange’s annual conference. Copper prices had risen sharply, and most of the producers, fabricators and traders in the audience thought they would soon fall. Even China’s mighty State Reserve Bureau had made bearish bets.

They were shocked to hear Barclays analyst Ingrid Sternby predict that copper would hit new highs as Chinese demand exceeded supply. But she was soon proved right, as prices more than doubled in the next 12 months. The SRB’s losses became a national scandal, and most Chinese traders missed the opportunity to cash in on the gains.

He was not among them. Paying close attention to demand from his network of Chinese consumers, he had built up a bullish position and profited handsomely from the global price surge.

It was a pattern he would successfully repeat many times over the years. His preferred strategy involved selling options — on the downside, at the price his Chinese customers were likely to see as a buying opportunity, and on the upside, at a price they were likely to consider too dear.

While he enjoyed some of the trappings of success, people who have known He for many years say he remained down-to-earth even as his net worth swelled to levels that probably made him, at his peak, a dollar billionaire.

In Shanghai, he would regularly have lunch at a restaurant serving cuisine from Xi’an, where he’d eat his favorite steamed cold noodles and fried leek dumplings for 50 yuan ($7).

Financial Flows

The evolution of He’s business mirrored the changes taking place in the Chinese business world. Although he had started simply as a distributor of physical copper, he soon pioneered the growing interconnections between the commodities business and financial markets in China.

As Maike grew to become the country’s top copper importer, He began to utilize the constant flow of metal to raise financing. He could ask for prepayments from his end customers, and also borrow against the increasingly large volumes of copper he was shipping and holding in warehouses. Over the years, the connection between copper and cash became well established, and the ebbs and flows of China’s credit cycle became a key driver of the global market.

He would use money raised from his copper business to speculate on the exchange or, increasingly, invest in China’s booming real estate sector. Starting in around 2011, He built hotels and business centers, and even his own warehouses in Shanghai’s bonded zone.

“In some ways Maike’s story is the story of modern China”

As the state became an ever more dominant force in China’s business world, He turned his focus to investing in his hometown, Xi’an, backing projects under Belt and Road Initiative.

This year, however, He’s empire started to wobble.

The city of Xi’an faced a month-long lockdown in December and January, and further restrictions in April and July as Covid re-emerged, hurting He’s property investments. His hotels sat almost empty for months, and some commercial tenants simply stopped paying rent.

Maike was one of a number of companies that plunged their fortunes into the property market in the boom years, said Dong Hao, head of the Chaos Ternary Research Institute. “After the sharp turnaround in real estate last year, such companies have encountered various difficulties,” he said.

Nickel Squeeze

The Chinese economy’s wider malaise has also caused the copper price to slump, while at the same time Maike suffered the result of growing caution among banks toward the commodity sector in China. Trust in the industry was hurt by the historic nickel squeeze in March, as well as several scandals involving missing aluminum and copper ores.

In recent weeks, Maike began experiencing difficulties paying for its copper purchases, and several international companies — including BHP Group and Chile’s Codelco — paused sales to Maike and diverted cargoes.

The future is uncertain. He met a group of Chinese banks in late August at a crunch meeting organized by the local Shaanxi government. Maike later said that the banks had agreed to support it, including by offering extensions on existing loans.

But its trading activity has largely ground to a halt as other traders grow increasingly nervous about dealing with the company. And, in the wake of Maike’s troubles, some of the biggest banks in the sector are pulling back from financing metals in China more generally.

Within China, He’s woes elicit mixed emotions. Many mourn his situation as tragic for the Chinese commodities industry and emblematic of an economy increasingly dominated by state companies.

Others would be less sad to see the end of a business model that elevated copper to a financial asset and sometimes caused import margins to diverge from physical fundamentals.

“For many years, traders like Maike have been quite important in the importation of copper into China — they’ve bought very consistently to keep the flow of financing going,” said Simon Collins, the former head of metals trading at Trafigura Group and the CEO of digital trading platform TradeCloud. “With the property market like it is, I think the music could be stopping.”

–With assistance from Winnie Zhu.

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