‘Brazen red flag’: Fraud accusation triggers share plunge for Afterpay owner Block
By Colin Kruger
ASX-listed shares of Afterpay-owner Block plunged more than 16 per cent this morning after the fintech said it will explore legal action against Hindenburg Research following the short seller issuing a report alleging the payments company facilitated fraudsters.
Shares of Block slumped 15 per cent to $US61.88 at the close of New York trading, after earlier sliding as much as 22 per cent, the company’s biggest intraday decline in three years.
Locally listed shares plunged more than 16 per cent in early trade to a low of $91.40 this morning.
Hindenburg, the firm run by Nathan Anderson that bolstered its profile with a scathing report on billionaire Gautam Adani’s business empire earlier this year, conducted a two-year investigation into Block, it said in a report published on its website and distributed via Twitter. The chairman of Block is Jack Dorsey, also a co-founder of Twitter.
In its investigation, Hindenburg alleged it found that Block’s wildly popular Cash App was likely facilitating scammers taking advantage of government-stimulus programs during the pandemic. In response to a public-records request, the state of Massachusetts told the short seller that it sought to claw back over 69,000 unemployment payments from the bank behind Cash App accounts, an amount that exceeded those it sought to reverse from major banks like JPMorgan and Wells Fargo, which have far more customers.
“Block ignored both internal and external warnings that multiple individuals using the same bank account number to receive government funds was a brazen red flag of fraud,” Hindenburg said in the report. “Multiple key lapses in Cash App’s compliance processes facilitated billions in government payment fraud.”
In the wide-ranging report, the short seller also took aim at Block’s $US29 billion purchase of Afterpay.
“Afterpay was designed in a way that avoided responsible lending rules in its native Australia, extending a form of credit to users without income verification or credit checks. The service doesn’t technically charge ‘interest’, but late fees can reach APR (annual percentage rate) equivalents as high as 289 per cent,” the report said.
Investors broadly have become more critical of the deal as losses tied to those loans have soared in recent quarters and regulators have taken aim at the underlying business of buy now, pay later.
“The acquisition is flopping. In 2022, the year Afterpay was acquired, it lost $US357 million, accelerating from 2021 losses of $US184 million.”
Hindenburg cited a Fitch Ratings report that Afterpay delinquencies through March 2022 had more than doubled to 4.1 per cent, from 1.7 per cent in June 2021. Total processing volumes also declined 4.8 per cent from the previous year.
The issue of alleged fraud has been talked about across the US industry for some time says payments veteran Grant Halverson, who heads consultancy McLean Roche.
He said the allegations might be a shock to Australian investors who exchanged $US29 billion worth of Afterpay shares for Block stock.
“I bet most don’t even know what Block does?” he said.
Block, formerly known as Square, said it intends to work with the Securities and Exchange Commission “and explore legal action against Hindenburg Research for the factually inaccurate and misleading report they shared about our Cash App business today,” the company said in a statement.
“We have reviewed the full report in the context of our own data and believe it’s designed to deceive and confuse investors. We are a highly regulated public company with regular disclosures, and are confident in our products, reporting, compliance programs and controls.”
Hindenburg has targeted about 30 companies since 2020 and their shares lost about 15 per cent on average the next day, according to calculations by Bloomberg News. Six months later, the shares were down 26 per cent on average. Short sellers borrow shares, sell them, buy them back at a lower price and profit from the difference.
Hindenburg gained more prominence after its Adani report in January, which roiled stocks and bonds from all 10 Adani-related companies.
Adani owns and operates the controversial Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.
The conglomerate’s flagship Adani Enterprises has dropped 48 per cent since the report, even as the group denied Hindenburg’s allegations of accounting fraud and stock manipulation. Hindenburg’s Twitter following has doubled to surpass 500,000.
Hindenburg’s report on electric-vehicle maker Nikola Corp. in September 2020 sent the stock plunging and led to criminal charges against the company’s founder, Trevor Milton. He was convicted in October of defrauding investors.
Block’s status as a stockmarket darling had already somewhat faded. The firm’s market value peaked at almost $US130 billion in 2021, and its shares are down more than 75 per cent since August of that year. Dorsey and co-founder James McKelvey collectively sold more than $US1 billion of stock during the pandemic, Hindenburg said in the report.
Investors have long worried about Cash App as well as many of its mobile-money rivals such as PayPal’s Venmo, which have faced scrutiny in recent months as fraudsters have seized the technology to fool consumers into sending them payments. But in its research, Hindenburg alleges Cash App’s problems go deeper and can be traced back to shortcomings in compliance protocols.
Hindenburg alleged that Block was overstating the number of users of Cash App, citing an acknowledgment from the company that “certain of these accounts may share an alias identifier with one or more other transacting active accounts.”
Hindenburg demonstrated the laxness of Block’s controls by setting up accounts, and conducting transactions, in the name of Donald Trump and Elon Musk.
Investors have been on high alert for such activity ever since PayPal last year announced it closed 4.5 million accounts and lowered its forecast for new customers after finding “bad actors” were taking advantage of its incentives and rewards programs. The company abandoned a long-term goal for increasing the number of new users on its platform and now focuses on enticing existing customers to use it more.
The short seller also took aim at Block’s collection of so-called interchange fees, which banks collect from merchants each time a consumer swipes a debit card at checkout. That’s one of the key revenue drivers for Cash App, which has an accompanying debit card provided by Sutton Bank.
But big banks have taken aim at large tech companies partnering up with tiny regional lenders for such a business. That’s because Congress has capped what banks such as JPMorgan and Bank of America Corp. can charge for those swipes, while smaller banks aren’t subject to the same rules.
Hindenburg noted that PayPal has disclosed that it’s under investigation by the SEC for the practice, though it has no proof that Block faces a similar query.
“We view the stock as good value, but are concerned with the prevalence of any criminal activity and how this could impact investor sentiment,” Robert W. Baird & Co. analysts David Koning and Robert Bamberger said in a note to clients about the Hindenburg report. “It’s hard to know exactly what impact this could have, though in a pretty dire case, if they shed 20 per cent of accounts, it could be about 8 per cent of total gross profit impact.”
Cathie Wood’s ARK Investment Management holds 1.66 per cent in Block, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, with the exchange-traded fund buying shares as recently as yesterday. The stock is also the flagship ARK Innovation ETF’s fifth-biggest holding on a weighting basis.
This is not the first time Block has been accused of misleading investors. Last year, a Block shareholder filed a complaint against the company, accusing it of waiting several months to disclose that an ex-employee took customers’ names and brokerage information. The disclosure sent share prices plunging.
Stock owner Donna Esposito specifically accused both Dorsey and chief financial officer Amrita Ahuja of participating in issuing misleading press releases and SEC filings.
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