Li Ka-shing is known as Superman here in Hong Kong for a reason. His prowess as a trader and dealmaker is legendary. Like most of Hong Kong's tycoons, he is a self-made man.
With a net worth of $31.3 billion, Li is the richest person in this rich city and No. 20 in the world, according to Forbes, where I am also a contributor.
Not bad for a kid who at the age of 12 had to drop out of school and get a job in a watch factory after his dad died of tuberculosis.
Now, even at 88, he is at it again. He has sold an office-and-shop complex in Shanghai for $2.95 billion, as this filing to the Hong Kong Stock Exchange explains, by law.
Technically, his real-estate half of his empire, Cheung Kong Property Holdings (CHEUY) , and one of his charities, the Li Ka Shing (Overseas) Foundation are the sellers.
Guess who is the buyer?
I'll give you a clue. I spoke on Tuesday about how Chinese insurers in particular have coffers full of cash from policies sold to millions. They don't know where to put it.
Well, to be fair, they are trying to find places. Last week China Life Insurance (LFC) headed a consortium that bought a portfolio of 280 budget hotels in the United States from the Greenwich, Conn.-based private-equity group Starwood Capital for $2 billion.
China Life leads the team that put up the $2.95 billion. If you have a building, or a lot of buildings, that you want to sell, they might be worth a call. Hell, I'm trying to sell my house. I'm going to give them a call.
The bottom line: Li is turning a very nice profit of HK$6.22 billion ($800 million) on the deal. China Life's shares fell a little after the deal was announced. So you see who won.
The reason we know all this about the deal is because of the stock-exchange filing. It's a "disclosable transaction." A poker player when it comes to money, Li Ka-shing wouldn't reveal anything he doesn't have to. Believe me. I know from experience.
Try wading through the filing. It's like a Tolstoy novel with too many characters to track -- and that's the point.
It starts out talking about Mapleleaf Developments, which sounds a lot like Mapletree Investments -- a Singapore property company with ties to the Singapore government. But it turns out Mapleleaf is a British Virgin Islands company, which are notoriously opaque.
Then there's some gibberish about the owners of Mapleleaf, who are HPL and Chinex, "subsidiaries of the company," and Champ, subsidiary of LKSOF. That alphabet soup turns out to be Li's charity.
Then there's the purchaser. That is called Mapleleaf Century, "a company incorporated in the British Virgin Islands with limited liability."
Then there's the property. Mapleleaf Developments indirectly owns HWPSLL, which owns the property.
Then a whole load of money moves around between those various units, like a shell game. Later on, in the footnotes defining the parties, on p. 11, the property turns out to be Century Link in Pudong, Shanghai's gleaming business district.
That is actually the name of the development. And the price turns out, in the footnotes, to be 20 billion yuan ($2.95 billion).
By the end of the story, there's the dénouement. Eirene Yeung signed the filing. Who, you may ask, is she? I have no earthly idea. She is a company secretary. But she is the secretary -- I picture her carrying around mounds of paperwork -- of a company called Cheung Kong Property Holdings. Ah. The butler did it!
Signed Mr. Li Ka Shing (Chairman), Mr. Li Tzar Kuoi, Victor (Managing Director and Deputy Chairman) etc. etc. etc.
I had to laugh several times while going through all that.
I've tried since I got here 15 years ago to get an interview with Li Ka-shing. The only time reporters get to ask him anything is at his obligatory appearances at earnings announcements. You might walk past his fleet of bodyguards shielding him on his way to the top of the Cheung Kong Centre here in Central, our Wall Street. But you won't get anywhere near him.
I wrote my best story for Reuters about his elder son, Victor Li, nominated as heir of his corporate empire. (His Cantonese name, as above, is Li Tzar-kuoi).
I interviewed more than 20 people for that piece. He wouldn't even pick up the phone. His public relations people took me to a nice lunch, and then gave me a DVD of a TV documentary about him that was in Chinese, and told me to go away.
Victor is stiff and wears ties, and had a fax by his bedtime growing up so his dad could give him orders any time of day or night, which he did. Victor begged board members to ask his dad to give him a break before he entered the room. He wasn't joking, either.
Younger son Richard Li shares his dad's tolerance for risk and entrepreneurial endeavor. He was named as heir to the non-public parts of the empire.
Richard heads Hong Kong's leading Internet service and cable provider, PCCW (PCCWY) . His production of twin heirs to his side of the empire, sired with a Hong Kong actress and model, was on the cover of every tabloid in town, with a nice shot of the happy family in the maternity ward, clearly with the consent of all involved. They have since divorced.
How revered is the elder Li, who at 88 still plays nine holes of golf every morning, in this wheeler-dealer city? Well, one of his companies, infrastructure and property developer CK Hutchison Holdings (CKHUY) , has the ticker HK:0001.
Li, still idolized here, has got a bad name in mainland China for selling properties there. The mainland press, mainly state-owned and therefore with government backing, views that as unpatriotic. It's not.
Li is a trader.
The price paid is 20 billion yuan, which Beijing is gradually letting slide lower. And the price earned is in Hong Kong dollars, which are effectively U.S. dollars because the currencies are pegged. And the dollar has been appreciating.
Nice little currency play on top of the original profit.
He is selling assets in a country where the currency is on the slide and growth is flagging. He is buying assets mainly in Europe, where the economy is already on its knees and the currency collapse is shooting it in the head.
They tell you in journalism to follow the money. That led me to Victor.
In investing, I would suggest you follow his dad, however complicated he makes it. He knows what he's doing.