Singaporean oil trader hid $800m in losses

Amount revealed as firm seeks moratorium on $3.85bn worth of debts

(FILES) This file photo taken on April 20, 2016 shows oil storage tanks on Jurong island off Singapore. Global oil demand will fall by a record amount this year as lockdown measures imposed to curb the coronavirus outbreak bring the economy to a virtual halt, the International Energy Agency (IEA) said on April 15, 2020.
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The founder and director of top Singapore oil-trading company Hin Leong Trading directed the firm not to disclose hundreds of millions of dollars in losses over several years, he said in a court filing.

The affidavit signed by Lim Oon Kuin, a Chinese immigrant in his 70s widely known as OK Lim, is part of a Friday filing to the Singapore High Court by HLT and subsidiary Ocean Tankers, seeking a six-month moratorium on debts of $3.85 billion (Dh14.1bn) to 23 banks.

The filing cites a collapse in the oil price and the coronavirus pandemic, which has hammered energy demand and pushed up costs for HLT, one of Asia's largest oil traders.

Despite reporting net profit of $78.2 million for the business year ended in October, "HLT has not been making profits in the last few years", Mr Lim said in the filing, which has not been made public.

The company "suffered about $800m in futures losses over the years but these were not reflected in the financial statements", he said.

"In this regard, I had given instructions to the finance department to prepare the accounts without showing the losses and told them that I would be responsible if anything went wrong."

Reuters was the first to disclose the existence of Mr Lim’s affidavit spelling out the losses and his acknowledgement of personal responsibility for not reporting the losses. Bloomberg cited the $800m in losses in a report late on Sunday.

Mr Lim, reached by phone, declined to comment, as did his lawyer Patrick Ang, managing partner at Rajah & Tann Singapore, who was reached by e-mail.

Mr Lim's son, Evan Lim Chee Meng, a director at HLT and Ocean Tankers, did not respond to an email requesting comment. HLT and Ocean Tankers could not be reached for comment over the weekend.

The 23 banks named in the filing declined or did not respond to emailed requests in recent days for comment.

The affidavit, which said Mr Lim was resigning immediately as director of the family-held company he founded half a century ago from a single delivery truck, did not specify over how many years the losses were incurred or why he was blaming HLT's difficulties on problems that arose largely in the past few months.

Under Singapore law, Friday's filing automatically protects HLT from legal action by creditors for 30 days while the court decides whether to grant the six-month debt repayment extension.

Mr Lim said in the filing that HLT had held a video conference on Tuesday with creditors and advisers "to inform bank lenders of HLT's financial position", which it said included liabilities of $4.05bn against assets of $714m as of April 9.

A drop of two-thirds in the oil price in the first three months of this year, a tightening of bank credit lines and margin calls at HLT caused a "severe depletion" of the company's cash reserves, Mr Lim said in the filing.

HLT recorded payments to meet the margin calls as accounts receivable, the company sold "a substantial part of inventory" being financed by banks to raise cash and it did not sufficiently hedge its exposure to a fall in oil prices, Mr Lim said.

PetroChina International, the trading arm of Chinese state-owned energy giant PetroChina, has terminated petroleum sales contracts with HLT and demanded an immediate payment of $23.87m, Mr Lim said. PetroChina did not immediately respond to email and phone requests for comment.

HLT may file more affidavits with further information, including a list of 20 largest unsecured and unrelated creditors, Mr Lim said.

HLT could also potentially owe Oil Tankers $2.67bn for cargoes that the shipping company is unable to deliver as HLT's lenders have already sold the oil, Mr Lim said.