Jia Yueting, the CEO and a co-founder of troubled EV startup Faraday Future, has a notorious history with money. While his rise to fame and fortune in China was built partly around his vision — he started a streaming company in 2004 called LeTV, well before Netflix shifted away from DVDs — it was also built on financial debt. For years, he followed a relatively simple formula. He found success with LeTV, borrowed against that success to try new things under the umbrella of “LeEco,” then borrowed against those ventures to do even more, stacking up debt along the way. With China’s economy booming at the time, and a large shadow banking system emerging that made borrowing easy, he was off to the races.
More than a decade later, Jia finds himself living in a mansion — one of a few that he owns, in fact — on the coastal cliffs of Rancho Palos Verdes, California. While that might sound like the dream life, Jia isn’t there out of choice. He’s been living there since last summer in self-exile, because that long trail of debt that he built up in China is finally catching up to him. That seems especially true this week, as the LeTV family of companies continued down the path of financial ruin, and a new court case (in the Caribbean, of all places) introduced a potential new threat to his status as the controlling figure of Faraday Future.
Jia left China last summer as the walls began to close in at LeTV and LeEco. On billions of borrowed money, he had built a conglomerate around the core streaming service that involved an ambitious constellation of products ranging from phones, to film studios, to electric cars. It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, unsustainable. Following a failed expansion into the US, a botched attempt to acquire TV maker Vizio, and lots of overextension in China, creditors came calling for their money.
When Jia did not pay up, the ground shifted quickly. Some of the creditors camped out in the lobby of one of LeEco’s offices. Major Chinese property developer Sunac China Holdings eventually came in with $2.2 billion and tried to steer LeEco out of the skid by paying back some of that debt. Jia stepped down as CEO of the main listed unit of parent company LeTV. A court froze nearly $200 million worth of his assets — shares he had pledged to receive loans to fuel other ventures. Basically everyone who had started to work for LeEco’s fledgling US arm was laid off.
Jia swiftly moved to the US to fully take over operations at Faraday Future, which he had helped start with $500 million of the money he had generated in China. He spent at least another $21 million on homes and property in California, but was named to a national debtor black list back home. At the end of 2017, amidst a crackdown on the shadow banking system, the government demanded he come back to China to repay his debts, which he now also owed to Sunac, but he instead sent his wife and brother to try to settle the matter.
Since then, things have only continued to escalate. The Chinese government continued to pressure Jia throughout 2018, with his wife and sister being added to the list of defaulters. All three have had restrictions put in place on things like booking travel and hotels.
Meanwhile, Sunac has slowly subsumed more and more of the broader LeEco corporate structure as it tries to recoup some of the losses on the billions of dollars it spent to save the company. LeTV’s publicly listed arm reported a nearly $2 billion loss for 2017, and is on pace for another major loss in 2018 that could see the stock get de-listed from the Shenzen Exchange, or send the company into bankruptcy. A court froze more of Jia’s LeTV shares. The US office that LeEco opened up is now empty and up for sale. And Jia recently settled a lawsuit filed by Vizio over the botched acquisition, though the amount paid out was not disclosed.
At least three Chinese companies, to which Jia still owes money by way of LeEco and LeTV, have sued him in US court, with one accusing him of setting up “hundreds” of shell companies for the purpose of escaping his debt problems.
This week, two new developments turned up the heat even more. LeTV announced in a press release on the Shenzen Stock Exchange that it’s asked Jia to plug some of the company’s remaining debt with assets and / or equity from Faraday Future.
A similar, but potentially more crippling blow, may have been dealt Friday. Chinese news outlet Yicai Global reported that another one of the companies Jia still allegedly owes money to has taken action against him in Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court (ECSC). While that venue may sound random, the company — Taoyun Capital — is going after Jia’s remaining 33 percent stake in Faraday Future. Because of the byzantine corporate structure that Jia built around Faraday Future, he technically holds controlling shares in FF Peak Holding, a British Virgin Islands corporation that sits above all the other shell companies, LLCs, and other entities associated with the EV startup. The ECSC has jurisdiction over the British Virgin Islands, among other territories.
Yicai reports that the ECSC has frozen Jia’s 33 percent stake pending the outcome of the legal action taking place there. And while Evergrande — the Chinese real estate giant that bailed out Faraday Future at the end of 2017 — owns 45 percent of the EV startup, Jia’s stake carries more voting rights. In the months-long fight he has recently pitted against the investor, his 33 percent stake in Faraday Future is the only thing keeping Evergrande from taking control. It’s now under attack from two new vectors, both of which are direct results of his habit of over-borrowing.
Jia has an undeniable competency in convincing others to give him money, to the point that it earned him the moniker of “Powerpoint CEO.” But he now finds himself in somewhat uncharted waters, as it’s not clear who or where else Jia might turn to for money. China has scaled back overseas investments, and is taking an axe to the booming lending system that he took advantage of for years. Even if Jia is able to reverse his status as an “untrustworthy” debtor in his home country, the fire he used to fuel his ascent to billionaire status is turning to embers.
In the US, property records show Jia has already borrowed — multiple times — against the mansions he owns. The only other obvious asset of his, Faraday Future, is in dire straits. The startup recently laid off and furloughed hundreds of employees as a result of the ongoing fight with Evergrande. If the company goes under, or if Evergrande seizes control, Jia will be on a proverbial island in his oceanside homes. He spent years getting to this point by racking up what The New York Times once called “debt bombs.” It’s only now that we’re finally getting a sense of how big the blast radius is.