Anfield demands answers after China denies link to Huang's bid

Liverpool hope leading offer for club is credible despite sovereign fund's claim
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The Independent Online

Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson is left with little choice but to plan his summer spending without factoring in a penny of the £150m transfer fund promised within the Chinese bid to take ownership of the club.

The Anfield board yesterday sought categoric confirmation of the finances behind the proposed buy-out headed by Kenny Huang – which the club's investment bankers maintain is a credible offer – after the sovereign wealth fund linked to the deal was reported to have denied any link to or knowledge of Huang and the bid for Liverpool.

A spokesman for the state-owned Chinese Investment Corporation (CIC) was reported to say there was "no way" the fund would be involved in such a risky deal, adding, "Next they'll say CIC is going to buy Playboy." Barclays Capital (BarCap), however, which is overseeing the sale of the club, does believe Huang's bid is credible. Both BarCap and Liverpool are still awaiting definitive proof from Huang that he has CIC's backing.

The Chinese government, which does not like a high-public profile, may be unsettled by the enormous profile afforded them already by the story and may be seeking to take a step back while negotiations continue. It is worth noting that no regulatory bodies would be able to take action against the CIC in this instance if the statement from China later turns out to be misleading.

Huang – who has now transferred his public relations office on the subject from London back to Hong Kong – has been put forward as the public face of the bid.

The picture is rendered more complicated by a message, sent from Huang's own mobile telephone on Tuesday to a journalist at the respected Chinese publication Titan Sport, stating that "Mr Huang would also like to deny that there is any involvement of mainland China state-owned enterprises in his business dealings" and that "if there is any related development, he will make a further announcement".

As of last night this statement, circulating in the Chinese media, had not yet been released by Huang's PR agents, Hill and Knowlton, who claimed no knowledge of it and could not confirm CIC's support for Huang's bid. Huang was said to be travelling by air yesterday, preventing further inquiries.

Whatever the answer to such developments, Liverpool supporters certainly face a tense period as the club's board await definitive proof of Huang's bid. Hodgson, who last night oversaw his first game at Anfield, was continuing his £8m pursuit of Juventus midfielder Christian Poulsen.

It is unclear, meanwhile, whether CIC, the $300bn sovereign wealth fund whose name has been firmly attached to Huang's bid, would take well to the high-profile nature of football club ownership. CIC does have a record of investing in enterprises which have interests in China – and Liverpool certainly has its eye on the huge Chinese enthusiasm for football. The club's desire to become a major name in China is also illustrated by its new £80m sponsorship deal with Standard Chartered, whose business interests are heavily concentrated in Asia and China.

CIC has been keen to diversify away from the dollar and out of US bonds. It is heavily profit-driven – recording only six days ago an 11.7 per cent profit on $58bn (£36.5bn) invested overseas last year – but operates in line with the Chinese culture of long-term finance thinking, where profit is not expected immediately. That would fit with Anfield. As would the Chinese taste for buying into premium Western brands.

But a number of sports finance analysts in China view the idea of investment in Liverpool as highly implausible – most of all because the turbulent ride experienced by the Abu Dhabis at Manchester City is something the Chinese would find even more distasteful.

The secretive nature of CIC, whose disclosures on their own investments do not go beyond the minimum statutory requirement, also seems like an odd fit with a very public club like Liverpool. In 2009, the CIC fund held shares worth a total of $9.6bn (£6bn) in dozens of US-listed companies including Coca-Cola, Citigroup and Morgan Stanley. Liverpool would be something completely different.

Analysts in China are not reading any significance into CIC's decision to divest $558m (£351m) of its Morgan Stanley holdings over the last few weeks – a figure equal to Liverpool's worth. CIC's vast funds under management do not demand the same sell-to-buy culture which has characterised the football club's transfer market policy.

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