Singaporean police are investigating a company controlled by Pilbara businesswoman Veronica Macpherson — the 37-year-old mastermind of a collapsed suspected Ponzi scheme in which mostly Singaporean and Malaysian investors handed over $110 million.
What is a Ponzi scheme?
- Ponzi schemes often have little or no real investments or assets
- Investor returns are paid from money generated from later investors in the scheme
- Warning signs include a rate of return on an investment that’s too good to be true
- Eventually the scheme falls apart
The investigation of Macro Realty Developments Pte Ltd by the Singapore Police Force’s commercial affairs branch was revealed in documents tabled in the Federal Court by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).
ASIC is still investigating Ms Macpherson over potential offences of stealing, fraud and forgery.
There are hundreds of angry investors who were promised annual returns of up to 18 per cent if they gave their money to Macro to invest in Pilbara property developments around Newman and Port Hedland.
Instead the investment scheme collapsed last year with creditors owed more than $200 million, according to a liquidator.
Some of these overseas investors believed a corporate video filmed in the WA Parliament and featuring a senior politician encouraged them to think it had government support.
A source with a close understanding of the company told the ABC many Malaysian and Singaporean investors interpreted the video of Ms Macpherson with former WA Nationals leader Brendon Grylls as meaning the scheme promoted by her company had the WA government seal of approval.
The source said many of the Malaysian investors were not wealthy or highly educated and had lost their life savings in the investment scheme.
“It was an issue with these overseas investors,” the source said.
“They thought it was a credible scheme because Brendon Grylls was involved.”
The video was filmed in the prestigious Aboriginal People’s Room in late 2014, at least a year before her scheme collapsed, and after Mr Grylls had resigned from Cabinet for family reasons.
In it, Mr Grylls outlined the Government’s plans to boost the population of key Pilbara centres like Newman.
He also added that he could “hopefully talk to some of the potential investors … about where I see the next level of opportunity”.
Photographs and video within the WA Parliament building can only be taken with the permission of the Speaker or the President of the Legislative Council, but Mr Grylls has not confirmed whether he sought and received this.
Since the problems with Macro became public last year, he requested the video be taken down from the company website, but this has not been done.
Mr Grylls, who lost his seat of the Pilbara earlier this year, declined to comment but has previously told the WA Parliament he was disappointed in how the video was used.
He was not the only high-flyer to become caught up with Macro, with Ernst and Young nominating Ms Macpherson as a finalist in its 2015 Entrepreneur of the Year awards.
“I think to be fair to Mr Grylls they might have overplayed his involvement or his support and he might have been a little bit naïve but it was certainly a factor,” the source said.
Campaign painted ‘colourful picture’ of Pilbara economy
The investment scheme was heavily promoted with a slick marketing campaign in Singapore and Malaysia from 2014 until its collapse in early 2016.
Peter Ling, a Malaysian real estate agent who attended a macro seminar in Kuching on the island of Borneo in 2015 said the event “painted a very colourful picture” of a strong Pilbara economy and its demand for housing.
“They say you can be part of this development. You invest with Macro and you don’t have to build a house because owning a house is too expensive up there so you can just invest with them,” he said.
Brendon Grylls asked for the video he appears in with Ms Macpherson to be taken down. (ABC News: Andrew O’Connor)
“Then they say you can invest X amount of money and you get annual return of 17 to 18 per cent.”
Mr Ling, who has a house in Perth and promotes Australian property in Malaysia, said the well-educated young Malaysians running the event had prepared answers to rebuff his concerns and denied that people were being asked to give the company a loan.
“We ask them, what are you promoting? You ask us to come to a property seminar and yet we can’t buy the property? You ask us to pay money but what kind of assurance can you give for me to get my money back?” he said.
Last year, the Singapore-registered Macro Realty Developments Pte Ltd was the subject of an investor alert by the Monetary Authority of Singapore.
Investor material ‘likely to mislead’
In the ASIC documents, investigator Gary Bertram alleges that material presented to investors by the Singapore company was likely to mislead or deceive.
For example, it is claimed that promotional material from September 2014 told investors the business had other sources of revenue when it didn’t, and that guarantors owned land assets when they did not.
According to court documents the alleged Ponzi scheme raised almost $110 million from its 1,700-plus investors who were told their funds were being used for Pilbara property developments but were allegedly instead paying the expenses of the company, including the interest payments to early investors.
One of the liquidators appointed to 78 Macro companies, Hayden White of KPMG, said creditors were owed more than $200 million, a figure which would continue to rise because interest will continue to accumulate on certain loans.
The collapse of the investment scheme was followed by the cancellation of Ms Macpherson’s financial services licence and passport last year, as well as the winding up of the last of her active Australian companies by the Federal Court this week.
The Singapore Police Force and Ms Macpherson, who previously denied she ran a Ponzi scheme, have both been contacted for comment.
What is ASIC alleging?
ASIC alleges Macro Realty Developments ran a Ponzi scheme, in which investors were encouraged to provide money to fund property developments in the Pilbara, including the Newman Estate but these either never happened or were only partially developed.
Investors were promised returns as high as 18 per cent.
ASIC also alleges that between July 2014 and March 2016, more than 1,700 investors lent Macro Group companies almost $110 million and received interest payments of which almost all were made using the funds paid by new investors joining the scheme.
Court documents say the scheme collapsed when Macro did not have enough new business to meet its expenses, including crippling interest bills, so it stopped making payments to investors.
There were 981 Singapore investors, 651 from Malaysia, 58 from the UK, 17 from continental Europe and 31 from Australia.
If you are concerned about a potential Ponzi scheme or want to report one, visit ASIC’s Moneysmart website.