Trafigura: the 10-day unravelling of an alleged $500mn fraud

A coronary heart assault, a handwritten be aware and 1,000 transport containers stuffed with unknown materials — the small print of one in every of London’s largest commodity fraud circumstances learn like a thriller.

Singapore-based buying and selling home Trafigura has accused metals tycoon Prateek Gupta and his corporations of promoting it faux nickel cargoes value a whole lot of thousands and thousands of {dollars}, in a high-profile lawsuit that has despatched shockwaves by the sector.

Courtroom paperwork present how the state of affairs got here to a head throughout a tense 10-day interval in November as the connection between the 2 sides soured, in addition to how Trafigura confronted mounting buyer complaints together with threats of authorized motion earlier than it determined to pursue Gupta within the courts.

The filings, obtained by the Monetary Occasions, present recent insights into how the alleged fraud towards one of many world’s largest commodity buying and selling homes lastly unravelled.

Trafigura alleges that 43-year-old Gupta was the “controlling thoughts” behind an array of linked corporations together with TMT Metals, UIL Malaysia and UIL Singapore, all of that are defendants within the case.

The buying and selling relationship began in round 2014 with home zinc transactions in India and grew to international trades in nickel and aluminium.

By 2022, a lot of the offers between Trafigura and Gupta’s teams have been “buyback transactions”. Trafigura would buy a cargo from the group, personal it throughout its journey — offering essential commerce financing — then promote it again to one in every of Gupta’s linked corporations, or to a 3rd get together organized by him or his colleagues, charging an curiosity fee.

Nonetheless, in spring 2022 as nickel costs surged, Citibank — which was offering an $850mn line of credit score to Trafigura to finance these transactions — began to develop into involved in regards to the dimension of the nickel offers and the size of time it was taking for the buybacks to happen.

By final summer time Trafigura’s head nickel dealer, Sokratis Oikonomou, had additionally develop into nervous. “It got here to my consideration that the UIL entities had stopped coming into any buyback transaction and stopped making any funds to Trafigura,” he wrote in court docket testimony.

At Citi’s request, Oikonomou organized for a bodily inspection of cargoes to happen on November 9.

However even earlier than that would happen, Citi terminated its credit score line, apparently alarmed by the “purple flags” its due diligence had turned up, and Trafigura began to fund the cargoes from its personal stability sheet.

Because the date of the inspection in Rotterdam neared, Gupta mentioned he was having medical hassle. Then on November 7, two days earlier than the inspection, Gupta mentioned in a WhatsApp message to his counterpart at Trafigura that he had suffered a coronary heart assault.

Nickel costs surged within the spring of 2022 © Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Citing his well being, he resorted to bargaining. “I’m simply closing phrases for a big discount,” he wrote, referring to a lower within the dimension of Trafigura’s nickel publicity along with his corporations. “Nonetheless, I would want you to stall inspection,” he added, so as “to keep away from any points between us”.

Trafigura pushed forward anyway. “My precedence on the time was guaranteeing that the inspection . . . went forward,” Oikonomou recalled in his written testimony.

When the containers in Rotterdam have been opened, none was discovered to include nickel. Inspectors as an alternative discovered carbon metal, usually lower than a twentieth of the worth of nickel.

Whereas Gupta mentioned he was nonetheless in hospital, managers at Trafigura learnt by information articles that he was additionally dealing with critical authorized points in India. The Indian Central Bureau of Investigation was probing Gupta and his firm, Ushdev Worldwide, for allegedly inflicting a $174mn loss on the State Financial institution of India by illicit commodity buying and selling, based on a cost sheet revealed in July (Gupta mentioned in December that the costs had been settled, based on the court docket paperwork).

Upon his discharge from hospital in November, Gupta tried to strike a take care of Trafigura. He acknowledged the cargoes weren’t as anticipated and implied that he would purchase them again as quickly as he had the funds to take action.

As a part of these discussions, Gupta offered Trafigura with a spreadsheet of 93 cargoes that have been associated to the dispute, and allegedly acknowledged that none of them contained high-purity nickel as specified by the contracts.

At numerous factors, he and his enterprise companion Arvind Prasad offered Trafigura with lists of property that they proposed might function collateral whereas a phased reimbursement plan was put in place. These included a wind farm and a metal mill in India, a Singaporean power firm referred to as Ultravolt, and an engineering group, Hangji World.

Prasad didn’t instantly reply to a request for remark.

Gupta additionally supplied up letters of credit score from Silver Financial institution, a small lender in Mauritius that has just lately come beneath scrutiny for its ties to the metals dealer.

Throughout this era Gupta additionally tried to boost cash by issuing bonds from TMT Metals Group. In a WhatsApp message to Oikonomou, he claimed to have one Swiss household workplace ready to speculate €100mn and one other sovereign wealth fund from “a really respectable nation” prepared to speculate $100mn.

In the meantime, Trafigura was dealing with a brand new drawback as prospects to which it had bought a number of the purported nickel shipments began to find the cargoes contained the mistaken materials. Trafigura mentioned in court docket paperwork that Gupta and his community had organized the offers to the third-party shoppers.

Whereas Gupta initially claimed TMT had raised €50mn by a bond sale, he later mentioned know-your-customer “points” have been holding up the cash from clearing. On Christmas Eve, Gupta hosted a video name between the bond investor — whose identification just isn’t revealed within the affidavit — and Oikonomou to clarify the “causes for the delay”.

In a gathering close to London’s Heathrow airport in early January, Gupta offered Oikonomou with a handwritten be aware outlining a reimbursement plan. He proposed paying $200mn by the top of March, with the rest to come back over the next two years. However Trafigura didn’t consider the proposal may very well be relied upon.

On November 17, Chinese language consumer Xiamen C&D Aluminum Co alerted Trafigura to discrepancies within the customs codes and the certificates of research for the 286-tonne cargo it had acquired.

Two weeks later Xiamen threatened authorized motion. By early December, Trafigura had agreed to purchase again the problematic cargoes it had bought to Xiamen’s subsidiaries.

Quickly, one other consumer, US-based Argentem, raised related issues. By early January a 3rd, Singapore-based Thoughts ID, had opened supposed nickel containers and located not one of the steel inside. A fourth buyer, Hong Kong-based Axiom, organized an inspection in Rotterdam on January 9, which revealed the identical factor.

Because the outcry from prospects mounted, Trafigura’s administration staff met on January 10. Members of the buying and selling, operations, insurance coverage and authorized groups all offered numerous choices. Administration determined that the time for bargaining was over — it was time to pursue a fraud declare and search a worldwide freezing order of the defendants’ property.

By the point that authorized declare was filed in London courts 4 weeks later, much more proof had piled up. Xiamen discovered extra suspect shipments and wrote to Trafigura in early February saying that “the products are utterly mistaken” and that “it’s a fraud, not a easy high quality drawback”.

Xiamen, Argentem, Thoughts ID and Axiom didn’t reply to a number of requests for remark.

A spokesperson for Prateek Gupta mentioned his staff was “getting ready a sturdy response to the allegations from Trafigura and intend to share that quickly”.

In the meantime, Gupta was stalling for time, paying Trafigura $5mn in late January as he continued to attempt to elevate more cash.

Whereas Trafigura’s court docket case has but to run its course, it has taken a big monetary hit. The commodities dealer has introduced a $577mn writedown and is negotiating with the shoppers that acquired the purported nickel shipments to discover a answer.

The extent to which anybody at Trafigura was conscious of what Gupta was as much as stays unclear. The principle dealer on the Gupta account was Mumbai-based Harshdeep Bhatia, who additionally might have launched the 2 events, based on Oikonomou’s testimony.

Bhatia had an “obvious cosiness” with Gupta, based on a witness assertion by Trafigura’s counsel Reza Ispahani that was primarily based on their WhatsApp exchanges, though he mentioned that there was “no direct proof” that Bhatia was implicated within the fraud.

Ispahani’s witness assertion added that “we’ve got been unable to plug what we see as sure gaps within the WhatsApp exchanges” between Gupta and Bhatia. Bhatia didn’t reply to requests for remark.

There are additionally questions over Trafigura’s compliance procedures after the court docket paperwork revealed a number of missteps, together with a failure to require evaluation certificates and ignoring incorrect customs codes.

Trafigura has mentioned it has “seen no proof to recommend that anybody at Trafigura was concerned or complicit on this criminality”, and that “the fraud is remoted to at least one particular line of enterprise”.

Even the worth of the fabric that’s within the containers stays a thriller, based on the court docket paperwork.

Greater than 156 containers had been inspected by February 6, out of an estimated 1,100 containers concerned. Some contained carbon metal, another kinds of metal and iron merchandise — however none to date has contained nickel or nickel alloy.

“The fact is Trafigura doesn’t know what’s within the containers,” mentioned Oikonomou in his written testimony.

Whereas any authorized settlement might take months and even years, some cargoes are nonetheless at sea, with the newest as a consequence of arrive by Might of this 12 months.

Because the court docket battle takes off, extra clues are more likely to be revealed.

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