Updated Sept. 8, 2016 1:46 p.m. ET
Two years ago, a California aluminum executive commissioned a pilot to fly over the Mexican town of San José Iturbide, at the foot of the Sierra Gorda mountains, and snap aerial photos of a remote desert factory.
He made a startling discovery. Nearly one million metric tons of aluminum sat neatly stacked behind a fortress of barbed-wire fences. The stockpile, worth some $2 billion and representing roughly 6% of the world’s total inventory—enough to churn out 2.2 million Ford F-150s or 77 billion beer cans—quickly became an obsession for the U.S. aluminum industry.
Now it is a new source of tension in U.S.-Chinese trade relations. U.S. executives contend that the mysterious cache was part of a brazen scheme by one of China’s richest men to game the global trade system.
Aluminum-industry representative Jeff Henderson says he is convinced that China Zhongwang Holdings Ltd., a Chinese aluminum giant controlled by billionaire Liu Zhongtian, tried to evade U.S. tariffs by routing aluminum through Mexico to disguise its origins, a tactic known as transshipping.
“My Moby-Dick has been Zhongwang,” says Mr. Henderson, president of the Aluminum Extruders Council, a U.S. trade group.
Mr. Liu, a member of China’s ruling Communist Party, denies any connection to the Mexican aluminum or transshipping. “These things have nothing to do with me,” he said in a June interview at his company’s Liaoning, China, plant, where he lives in an apartment inside the factory. He said he wouldn’t know how to establish a business in Mexico, joking that “in that sort of place, there are a lot of killers with guns.”
Company records, trade documents and legal filings reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, along with interviews of people who have done business with Mr. Liu, raise doubts about his account. They show that hundreds of thousands of tons of aluminum were shipped to Mexico from China through a series of companies, including one owned by Mr. Liu’s son and one by someone who describes himself as a longtime business associate of the Chinese billionaire.
The U.S. Commerce Department says it is investigating the Mexican aluminum’s origin as part of a slew of trade complaints by the U.S. metals industry against China, many of which include allegations of transshipping.
China’s booming industrial production has reordered global markets, few more dramatically than aluminum. Fueled by access to inexpensive electricity and tax breaks, Chinese aluminum output doubled between 2010 and 2015. With local demand slowing, more of it was sent to the U.S., which was importing 40% of its aluminum by 2015—up from only 14% in 2010.
By the end of 2016, only five aluminum smelters will be operating in the U.S., down from 23 in 2000.
Alcoa Inc., the largest American aluminum maker, is splitting in two, isolating its profitable parts-making units from its troubled raw-aluminum operations. Alcoa Chief Executive Klaus Kleinfeld last year said illegitimate Chinese exports were “the major driver” of lower aluminum prices.
Some of the vast aluminum inventory at Aluminicaste Fundición winds up melted in a furnace.PHOTOS: JANET JARMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Mr. Liu’s ascent as an aluminum mogul began in 1993, when he started building his company from a small domestic player in northeast China into one of the world’s top producers. China Zhongwang’s main business is making aluminum “extrusions”—pipes, rods and panels used in finished products such as window frames, refrigerators and automobiles. Extrusions are formed by forcing heat-treated aluminum through a die, like dough through a cookie cutter.
He took China Zhongwang public in Hong Kong in May 2009, retaining a 74% stake while he raised $1.26 billion in one of the world’s biggest initial public offerings of the year. While a nearly 50% decline in China Zhongwang’s stock since the IPO has cut into Mr. Liu’s fortune, he remains among China’s wealthiest businessmen, with a net worth estimated by Forbes magazine at around $3 billion.
The same year, Chinese aluminum-extrusion exports to the U.S. more than doubled from 2008 to 192,000 tons. U.S. prices for imported extrusions plunged 30% from the previous year, according to Global Trade Information Services, or GTIS, which tracks world-wide trade.
The burst of exports led to a finding by the Commerce Department that several companies, including affiliates of China Zhongwang, were selling cut-rate aluminum while receiving subsidies back home. In 2010, it slapped punishing tariffs on certain aluminum imports, including those from what it dubbed the “Zhongwang Group Companies.”
Exports of aluminum from China more than doubled in the past decade.
Total value of China’s exports of aluminum bars, rods and profiles
The amount going to the U.S. fell sharply after several Chinese producers were hit with punitive tariffs.
Value of those exports to the U.S. …
Meanwhile shipment to Mexico surged, accounting for nearly half of all Chinese aluminum-extrusion exports.
Lately, the export flow from China has shifted toward Vietnam.
Source: Global Trade Information Services
China Zhongwang’s U.S. shipments ground to a halt, and its 2010 profits fell 26% from the previous year. The company never responded to the U.S. government’s questions about its trade practices, the Commerce Department said. It also didn’t respond to several requests for comment about the matter for this article.
Around this time, an ambitious young businessman, Po-Chi “Eric” Shen, a native of Singapore who had attended the University of California at Berkeley, began shopping for real estate in Mexico. He settled on a plot near San José Iturbide, about 160 miles northwest of Mexico City and about 500 miles from the U.S. border at Brownsville, Texas. There, a company Mr. Shen helped establish, Aluminicaste Fundición de México, developed plans to construct a $200 million factory to melt aluminum into raw metal.
Mr. Shen had a history with the Liu clan. He was friends with Mr. Liu’s son, Liu Zuopeng, known as ZP, who lived in Southern California, where the Liu family owns several houses. Mr. Liu’s wife became a board member of one of his companies, Scuderia Development, corporate records show. Another of Mr. Shen’s companies, Scuderia Capital, in 2008 had lent China Zhongwang $200 million, according to China Zhongwang’s prospectus.
In Mexico, Mr. Shen was implementing an audacious plan, according to people familiar with the matter: A network of trading companies could route hundreds of thousands of tons of aluminum from China to Mexico, where a plant would melt it for shipment to the U.S., evading trade restrictions and claiming North American Free Trade Agreement benefits.
In an interview, Mr. Liu said he wasn’t involved in Aluminicaste and didn’t help Mr. Shen finance the plant. “I don’t even know him very well, why would I give him money?” he said.
Mr. Shen, in several interviews with the Journal, described extensive and longstanding business ties with Mr. Liu and his family. “Mr. Liu and I had a very complicated business relationship that was neither employer or employee, nor investor or investee,” he said.
On paper, China Zhongwang’s days of relying on overseas sales were over. Its 2011 annual report said 96% of its revenue derived from sales inside China, up from 56% in 2010.
In fact, Chinese trading firms that bought aluminum from China Zhongwang resold much of the product to a commodity trader in Singapore called GT88 Capital, according to shipping records and people familiar with the matter. The owner of GT88: Aluminicaste’s Mr. Shen.
In 2011 and 2012, Mexico’s aluminum-extrusion imports surged. Most of the metal was delivered by Mr. Shen’s Singapore trading firm to Aluminicaste’s logistics company, according to shipping records tracked by Panjiva Inc., a New York trade-data company.
Last year, much of the disputed aluminum was moved to a guarded field beside the Aluminicaste factory, where it was covered with tarps and bales of hay.PHOTOS: JANET JARMAN FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Rumors of the facility, and the giant stockpile, began circulating among U.S. producers. “No one really knew what was going on,” said the executive who commissioned the aerial photos of the plant, Mike Rapport, who runs an aluminum-extrusion company in southern California.
In 2013, Aluminicaste ownership transferred to Mr. Liu’s son, who became CEO of the facility, Mexican corporate records show.
Mr. Liu says he wasn’t a party to any of this. He says he “scolded” his son when he found out he had taken over Aluminicaste. “In this matter, I have not helped him,” he said in an interview. “I was very dissatisfied. I told him, if you want to do this line of work, you come back home.” The younger Mr. Liu didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.
Mr. Shen set up shop in an upscale Dallas office employees dubbed the “Sugar Building,” after a film studio that formerly owned it. It sported a pair of executive suites, one of which had a $100,000 bed, according to a former employee.
He also snapped up expensive houses, rare cars and a Gulfstream private jet worth $10 million, records in a Dallas county court case show. He purchased a 1963 Ferrari valued at $32 million—one of the highest prices ever paid for a car at the time—and more than $70 million of rare red diamonds, according to the court records. Many of the purchases were for business use or investments, according to Mr. Shen.
But there was still a missing piece. People familiar with the matter say Aluminicaste needed a buyer in the U.S. to remelt its product and prepare it for sale there. To solve the problem, Mr. Shen began laying the groundwork for a $1.5 billion plant in Barstow, Calif., a struggling city in the Mojave Desert about 100 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
Mr. Shen told city officials he was backed by the billionaire founder of China Zhongwang, Mr. Liu, and that he had just built a large aluminum factory in Mexico, says Oliver Chi, then-assistant Barstow city manager.
In late 2013, Mr. Shen convened a meeting between local officials and Mr. Liu in Irvine, Calif., according to Mr. Chi. Over dim sum, Mr. Liu said he harbored reservations about the project, explaining that Chinese companies receive substantial financial assistance from the government, which he doubted he would get in the U.S., said Mr. Chi, who attended the meeting.
In an interview, Mr. Liu said he attended the meeting to discuss “environmental issues, not to discuss investing in it.”
Meanwhile, setbacks were piling up. Trucks and metal were stolen from the Mexico facility, slowing deliveries, former Aluminicaste employees say. The company failed to obtain Nafta benefits after U.S. authorities concluded that the metal came from China.
Amid mounting financial troubles at Aluminicaste, associates of Mr. Liu accused Mr. Shen of mismanaging company funds, according to people familiar with the allegations and court documents.
They moved to seize Mr. Shen’s assets, including his private jet, expensive cars and a luxurious home in Newport Beach, Calif. Management of the company that owned the Sugar Building in Dallas, DFW Maple Leaf Partners, transferred to Mr. Liu’s wife, corporate records show.
Mr. Shen denies wrongdoing. His attorney, Dean Kajioka of Kajioka & Associates, a Las Vegas law firm, said Mr. Shen agreed to hand over his assets after he was “threatened physically” by Mr. Liu’s associates. A China Zhongwang spokeswoman said Mr. Liu declined to comment on the allegation.
The drama has sometimes veered into slapstick. In 2014, Mr. Shen wrecked a rare McLaren F1 sports car while on a driving tour in the Italian countryside. The crash made the news after fellow McLaren enthusiast Rowan Atkinson, the British comedic actor who plays “Mr. Bean,” came to his aid.
Mr. Liu has claimed the car belongs to him. In February, the law firm Latham & Watkins LLP wrote a letter to McLaren, reviewed by the Journal, stating that it is acting on behalf of Mr. Liu and that the vehicle was transferred to him in partial repayment of $400 million of his own funds he claims Mr. Shen misappropriated. Mr. Shen disagrees, saying it is still his car.
Latham & Watkins declined to comment. Mr. Liu didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The clash over Mr. Shen’s finances helped dash the Barstow project, as the Mexican aluminum continued to accumulate.
For Mr. Henderson, proving China Zhongwang and Mr. Liu stood behind the Mexican aluminum stockpile became an obsession. Last October, his trade group, which counts Alcoa and Rio Tinto PLC as board members, filed a 600-page petition with the Commerce Department alleging that Mr. Liu and his family are using a network of affiliated companies to evade U.S. antidumping prohibitions.
The petition cites a report by a little-known short seller calling itself Dupre Analytics, which drew connections between China Zhongwang, Mr. Liu’s family and Aluminicaste. Dupre, which hoped to profit from a decline in the Chinese company’s share price, was aided by the results of a separate U.S. aluminum industry-funded investigation into China Zhongwang’s activities in Mexico and China, according to people familiar with the probe.
Trading in China Zhongwang’s shares was suspended in Hong Kong for several days after the report’s release. At the time the company said the allegations were “factually incorrect.”
Despite his setbacks, Mr. Liu is still thinking big. Last month, a company controlled by him and affiliated with China Zhongwang agreed to acquire Cleveland aluminum producer Aleris Corp. for $1.1 billion, which would mark the highest price ever paid by a Chinese company for a U.S. metals outfit.
These days, Aluminicaste is under new management and Mr. Liu’s son is no longer listed as an owner. California attorney Charles Pok, who says he now helps run the company, denies any connection between the Mexican plant, the elder Mr. Liu and China Zhongwang. “I do not have a business relationship with Mr. Liu,” he said.
But Mr. Liu said in an interview that Mr. Pok has worked for him in the U.S. and Mexico since at least 2004. “Mr. Pok charges me several hundred dollars an hour,” he said. “Even when he just sits on the plane, he takes the money.”
Mr. Pok later conceded that Mr. Liu is his client but that he was unable to discuss the matter due to attorney-client privilege.
Mr. Pok has also taken over a number of jobs handled by Mr. Shen. In January 2015, he was named president of Eighty Eight Investments AG, the Swiss holding company for GT88, the Singapore trading company that shipped aluminum to Mexico.
As for the giant pile of aluminum, it isn’t so big anymore. Last year it was moved to a field beside the factory, covered with a tarp and bales of hay, according to city officials, neighbors and former Aluminicaste employees. Now, plans are afoot to ship the metal stash to a Vietnam site owned by Global Vietnam Aluminum Co., according to people familiar with the matter. A Global Vietnam director, Jacky Cheung, is the new CEO of Aluminicaste. Thousands of tons of aluminum have gotten trucked out of Aluminicaste’s facility destined for Vietnam, according to observers and people familiar with the matter. As of June, more than $400 million worth of aluminum had been shipped from Mexico to Vietnam, according to the Mexican Secretariat of Economy. Mr. Cheung declined to comment.
Vietnam has already seen a surge of aluminum imports from China. Shipments of Chinese aluminum extrusions to Vietnam jumped more than 1,000% in 2015 to $1.9 billion, according to GTIS. Another $1 billion worth was shipped to Vietnam from China through July this year. Mr. Henderson says he expects much of the Vietnamese aluminum to land in U.S. markets.
Some already has. Since late 2014, Global Vietnam has shipped some 2,000 tons of aluminum to the U.S., according to Panjiva. One of its buyers: Perfectus Aluminum Inc., a California company started by Mr. Liu’s son.
—Justin Scheck in London and Brian Spegele in Beijing contributed to this article.
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