​Sharemax chronicles continue: ‘Old people die, the fat cats laugh’

Every few months 70-year-old Glynnis Morris receives a letter from Frontier Asset Management. In broad strokes the letter tells her how well everything is going with Frontier’s sibling company, Nova Property, into which her entire R300 000 pension was forcibly invested. She no longer reads the letters. She goes straight back to figuring out how to get by on her R1 500-a-month government old-age grant. “It’s always the same letter, only the dates change,” she says.

She has not seen a single cent from her investment for many years now, Morris says, no hint of the R3 125 monthly income — plus maybe some capital growth if the property market did well — she thought she was buying when she invested in the ill-fated Sharemax property syndication scheme in 2009.

Instead she has seen many promises from the directors of Nova, which stepped in as the rescuers when Sharemax collapsed and took over Sharemax’s assets. In return for delivering that service to Morris and others, the directors of Nova each paid themselves an average of R4.9‑million in the past financial year.

Morris has it better than most. She lives in a granny flat attached to the home of one of her daughters, and her two other daughters help her out with food “when I run out, which is often”. When the Mail & Guardian this week traced two other former Sharemax and now Nova investors, we found that one had died in March and the other had recently slipped into a coma.

“This is what happens all the time,” said a relative of the latter. “These old people had their money taken. Now they don’t eat properly, then they get ill and they die, while the fat cats are laughing all the way.”

The Nova directors — Dominique Haese, Rudi Badenhorst, Dirk Koekemoer and Connie Myburgh — deny they are anything other than businesspeople who work hard to manage the assets in which Sharemax participants had invested. But the difference between their rewards and those of the original investors is stark.

This week, specialist financial website Moneyweb calculated that the four Nova directors’ combined R15.1‑million cash salaries in the past financial year were more than double the average earned by executives at most property management companies. Those cash salaries, Moneyweb said, represented 17% of Nova’s total cash receipts for the financial year.

The four directors have near total control over how the company spends its money.

After a legal battle stretching over several years to obtain the technically public register of Nova shareholders, Moneyweb last week revealed that the directors own 87.1% of the company, and have even greater voting rights thanks to a structure that reduces debenture holders to recipients of money and information as and when the four directors see fit.

The directors value their shareholding, which in effect they received for free, at more than R1‑billion.

Nova chief executive Haese played a pivotal role at Sharemax before it collapsed, and fellow director Koekemoer was also a director of Sharemax for several years.

It is clear that directors pay themselves first from the company’s proceeds before any payments to the debenture holders they are responsible for, Moneyweb said. As a result, averaged over the past two financial years, Nova directors paid themselves out R3.6‑million each a year. The 31 000 debenture holders whose money they manage were paid an average of just less than R400 each.

Average payments to debenture holders are a poor metric, because often the Nova directors do not see fit to provide. In the last communication Morris received, Nova was self-congratulatory about a 2013 decision “to reduce and/or cease projected monthly return payments” to debenture holders in favour of using the cash to refurbish shopping centres.

Morris did not get any real say in the decision to pay her no interest, just as she was never really consulted when Sharemax morphed into Nova, or even on how her pension would be invested in the first place. In fact, she did not understand the mechanism of the investment. But then, nor did her investment adviser.

Morris thought she was putting her money into The Villa, a large shopping centre to be built east of Pretoria. That sort of bricks-and-mortar investment suited her risk appetite — extremely low — as it did many pensioners, which seems to be the main reason Sharemax drew so many of their ilk.

What her savings were actually buying, later perusal of a prospectus would reveal, was “an unsecured subordinated interest rate acknowledgment of debt linked to a share”. In the rush to get her money invested, that went over Morris’s head. Her investment adviser had been “hounding” her about when she would receive her pension lump sum, she recalls.

The very morning it landed in her bank account he accompanied her to the bank, explained to the teller what she wanted, took the resulting cheque from the teller and had Morris sign some forms. Interrogation of the mechanism of the investment was limited.

“I said to him: ‘Are you absolutely positive that I’m not being conned here?’ and he said: ‘No,’” she recounts of the 20-minute transaction.

Investment advisers were notoriously keen on Sharemax, which paid very large upfront commissions: like the current Nova directors, advisers got paid regardless of whether the risk their clients were taking paid off.

And some, like Morris’s adviser, had no understanding of that risk, the office of the ombud for financial services providers, known as the FAIS ombud, has consistently ruled.

“It is apparent from [Morris’s advisor’s] version that he had no idea just what the investment was about and, as such, could not appreciate that the complainant was lending money to an entity, which entity would in turn lend the funds to a developer, leaving investors with no form of security whatsoever,” ombud Noluntu Bam ruled in Morris’s case this August.

There was also the small detail that the shopping centre Morris was supposedly investing in had not yet been built and could therefore not generate rental income to pay her 12.5% interest — the promised payments could only come from the investments of other people. Although Sharemax has never been found by a court to have been one, that is the common structure of all Ponzi schemes.

The FAIS ombud ordered Morris’s adviser to repay her investment in full, under rules that make advisers liable for losses incurred because of their negligence. For a short while it looked as if she would get back her savings. Then she was notified that her adviser had appealed against the ruling.

That leaves only the chance that the four well-paid directors of Nova will see fit to direct some money her way. But she is not overly optimistic, and she is not alone.

“The investors who complain to this office have received no credible information as to the steps that are being taken to repay their investment,” Bam wrote in May about another Sharemax-related complaint.

“Most investors see incomplete and ghost buildings all around, with no suggestion that they will ever recover their money.”

But in a June letter the Nova board told Morris that the various hurdles to cashing in on her partially built shopping centre were “constantly being addressed by the board” — just as it has been telling her since at least 2014.

Nova did not answer detailed questions. Earlier this week, chief executive Haese told Moneyweb she would no longer provide information because it “will be twisted and used out of context for the purpose of further negative reporting”.

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Phillip De Wet
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