The Hurun Research Institute became a household name in China by compiling a list that ranked local tycoons by their estimated net worth. It devised other rankings too. However, its “2018 Hurun Cash-Out Rich List” has backfired badly.
Published late last month, Hurun’s latest offering put Alibaba’s Jack Ma atop a ranking of bosses by the amount of money they have cashed out of their listed companies. Also China’s richest man according to Hurun’s own projection, Ma is said to have cashed out Rmb11 billion ($1.6 billion) in 2018.
Gong Hongjia, a major shareholder of surveillance camera maker Hikvision, came second having cashed out Rmb7.9 billion, and Yang Huiyan, main stakeholder of developer Country Garden, ranked third with Rmb6.3 billion. Altogether, Hurun believes the 30 entrepreneurs on its list have sold down nearly Rmb84 billion in the past year.
Alibaba is certainly unhappy to see its boss getting the dubious honour of top spot. “Hurun didn’t contact us for any data exchange and verification, so we wonder what sources and references they used for the list, as well as their intentions for releasing it at this very moment,” the company riposted. “China doesn’t need any distorted, flimsy or misleading lists, especially those which mislead the public and stir up any conflicts.”
Defending its methodology, Hurun said its researchers went through recent annual reports from Alibaba and the group’s listed units. Its projection on Ma’s shareholdings also included two million shares relating to Ma’s charity fund. (In early 2014 ahead of Alibaba’s initial public offering, Ma announced he would donate his share options, accounting for 2% of his overall holdings, to charities.)
Appearing on the “Cash-Out Rich List” doesn’t reflect the tycoons’ confidence in hanging onto their companies’ shares, Hurun then pointed out. “After the entrepreneurs cashed out, some people used the money to buy buildings… some set up family offices, and some people did charity,” Hurun said, adding that the publisher’s raison d’être was to let people learn more about the Chinese entrepreneurial spirit.
“I believe that after another five years, the world’s number one philanthropist is likely to be Chinese, this is my prediction,” Rupert Hoogewerf, chairman and chief researcher of Hurun, explained.
Yet critics believe that the growing number of Hurun’s lists detract from its credibility. According to Rednet.cn, a China-based news site, Hurun released six lists ranking Chinese entrepreneurs and one ranking Indian tycoons in October alone. The state-backed site added that showing entrepreneurs cashing out billions could mislead the public into believing that they were exiting the stock market altogether, causing shares to plummet and hurting China’s capital markets.
Separately, Forbes (which gave a big push to the ‘rich list’ phenomenon in 1987 by publishing The World’s Billionaires’ List) also released its annual China Rich List last month, which saw Jack Ma return to the number one spot, despite having $4 billion less of net worth than a year ago.
Forbes said that plunging stocks and a tumbling yuan have knocked the net worths of three-quarters of China’s wealthiest 400 individuals.
All the same, Forbes’ projections have not always proved correct. Last year the US magazine announced that Wilbur Ross, who had spent 13 years on its Forbes 400 billionaires list, had probably never been a billionaire at all. The publication was forced to revise its view after Ross filed a financial disclosure ahead of joining the Trump administration – putting his assets at less than $700 million.
Nevertheless, rich lists like those published by Forbes, Bloomberg and Hurun still hold great sway. Earlier this year it emerged that the US Treasury used the Forbes billionaire ranking in compiling a “name and shame” list of Kremlin-linked oligarchs, which in some cases led to sanctions, visa bans and asset freezes.
Love them or loathe them, rich lists are not going anywhere anytime soon – though Hurun might have a rethink on repeating its ‘Cash-Out’ survey after this month’s controversy.
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