Wirecard’s missing $2.1B forces out CEO, panics lenders

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Markus Braun’s almost two decades as Wirecard AG’s chief executive officer ended after accusations about the company’s accounting culminated in a shock disclosure that it was unable to locate 1.9 billion euros ($2.1 billion).

James Freis has been appointed interim CEO, Wirecard said in a short statement Friday. A recent hire and former compliance executive at Deutsche Boerse AG, Freis was only named as a member of the management board on Thursday.

Braun’s exit comes after a catastrophic few days for Wirecard, which suffered a share price collapse after the two Asian banks that were alleged to be holding the missing cash denied any business relationship with the company.

Wirecard is now facing a potential cash crunch. The company warned Thursday that loans as much as 2 billion euros could be terminated if its audited annual report is not published on Friday. Analysts at Morgan Stanley estimated that Wirecard has available cash of around 220 million euros if it cannot locate the missing $2.1 billion.

Wirecard’s lenders are considering hiring outside help as they seek to navigate the risk of a potentially massive default, a person familiar with the matter said.

Named CEO in 2002, Braun has put tens of millions of euros of his own funds into the firm. The value of his stake, which once made him a paper billionaire, has dwindled in the course of the rout.

His replacement is stepping into an almost unprecedented situation. Freis wasn’t supposed to join until July, when he was going to be responsible for a newly created department called “Integrity, Legal and Compliance.”

Freis was previously head of compliance at Deutsche Boerse AG, and held the position of Director of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, where he was responsible for the regulation of financial institutions.

Missing cash

Wirecard claimed on Thursday that auditor Ernst & Young couldn’t confirm the location of the missing cash that was supposed to be held at two Asian banks and reported that “spurious balance confirmations” had been provided.

The confusion deepened on Friday when BDO Unibank Inc., the Philippines’ largest bank by assets, and the Bank of the Philippine Islands, said on Friday that Wirecard isn’t a client.

“It was a rogue employee who falsified documents and forged the signatures of our officers,” BDO Unibank CEO Nestor Tan said in a mobile phone message. “Wirecard is not even a depositor — we have no relationship with them.”

The Bank of the Philippine Islands said in a separate statement that Wirecard isn’t a client and it continues to investigate the issue.

Wirecard shares plunged as much as 52% in Frankfurt on Friday. The selloff in Wirecard’s bonds also intensified, with the company’s 500 million-euro bonds maturing in 2024 falling a further 14 cents to trade at 24 cents. Its 900 million euros of convertible bonds are now indicated at less than 10 cents on the euro.

Wirecard was worth 24.6 billion euros in September 2018 when it entered Germany’s Dax index, and widely considered as one of Germany’s few successful fintech stories. It was valued at about 2.4 billion euros on Friday morning.

Wirecard spokespeople did not return calls and emails for comment.

Historic slump

Wirecard’s reversal of fortune has caught its supporters off guard. Some of the company’s most loyal shareholders are now dumping their stakes as allegations of accounting impropriety engulf the German payments company. Analysts are also quickly changing their recommendations, despite continued concerns about the company’s accounting.

As of Wednesday, 10 out of 25 analysts tracked by Bloomberg recommended buying the stock. Since then, at least nine analysts have removed their recommendations and three have downgraded the stock to sell.

German financial markets regulator BaFin said it is also examining Wirecard’s disclosure on Thursday as part of its investigation into whether the company violated rules against market manipulation, according to a spokeswoman.

BaFin has three investigations of Wirecard running: whether the company manipulated markets with its disclosures, whether Braun’s stock purchase ahead of the planned publication of the company’s annual report violated market abuse roles and whether the company and its management are fit to be the owners of a bank.

Fraud Claims

Braun has previously painted the company as a potential victim, resisting calls to resign and aggressively defending Wirecard against accusations of accounting fraud, led by a series of articles in the Financial Times.

“It cannot be ruled out that Wirecard has been the victim in a substantial case of fraud,” Braun said in a statement published overnight.

The company temporarily suspended its outgoing Chief Operating Officer Jan Marsalek, it said in a statement late Thursday. Marsalek — who has been suspended on a revocable basis until June 30 — had tried to get in touch with the two Asian banks and trustees over the past two days to recover the missing money, but wasn’t successful, a person familiar with the matter said Thursday. It’s unclear if the funds can be recovered, the person added.

German politicians are now asking how such a rapid collapse could happen to a fintech company that was once worth more than Deutsche Bank, and previously supported by local regulators. Early last year BaFin took the unprecedented step of temporarily banning short sales of Wirecard shares following reports of suspicious accounting practices.

“Markus Braun’s resignation was overdue,” said Danyal Bayaz, a lawmaker with Germany’s Greens. “Wirecard is not a small fintech, but a DAX member.”

— Clarissa Batino, Sarah Syed and Jan-Patrick Barnert, with assistance from Cecilia Yap, Steven Arons, Jacqueline Poh, Tasos Vossos, Nicholas Comfort and Lisa Pham

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