沈淳一的悲劇

大約五年前,三藩市灣區華人社會有一件哄動的新聞,就是有名的商人沈淳一先生在家中先槍殺女友,然後吞槍自殺。沈先生只有五十七歲,是著名汽車分銷商,白手起家,從低層做起,最後擠身全美最大汽車分銷商的大老板行列,社交活躍,家住豪宅。曾經有一段時間,他擁有五個不同分銷點,每年營業額高達數百萬美元,是一個典型的成功故事。

我並不認識沈先生,故對他個人的成敗無從置評;但由於他的死與銀行業有些關係,對我這個從事銀行業的旁觀者來說,自然對這宗慘劇特別關注,發覺裡面有些值得深思的內情。

沈淳一的悲劇表面上源於生意發展過速,致現金流轉出了問題。他知道要與其他大分銷商競爭,必須不斷擴充自己生意。他的生意地點在101公路旁邊,招牌寫著個「沈」字,天天報紙上賣廣告。

奈何在風光背後,醞釀著很多中小型公司失敗的主要原因﹕資本不足。沈先生從商日子不淺,自知資本不足是致命傷,但是他不肯收縮生意,也不引進新股東與資金。他決定赤手空拳應付困難。兩年前他失去了一項由汽車製造商提供的特別財務安排,從此現金流轉更形惡化。他向銀行要求增加借貸失敗,這是噩運之始。

當然我們大可「事後孔明」,說他當時應及早收縮經營,削減開支。可是談何容易,也許他關懷他的僱員,選擇繼續奮鬥。這時,他卻犯了一個嚴重錯誤,利用「放風箏」(開空頭支票)的非法行為遮掩現金不足問題。所謂「放風箏」(kiting),就是將自己甲戶口的支票存入乙戶口;再由乙戶口開出支票存入甲戶口,而事實上兩個戶口都沒有錢,只利用支票結算時間的空隙製造戶口平衡假象。「放風箏」的人,第一要像時鐘那樣準時不斷把支票存入各戶口;第二必須將銀行蒙在鼓裡,因為一被銀行察覺,「放風箏」活動馬上無法繼續。

這種做法令沈先生天天站在斷崖邊緣,隨時會掉下去,心靈的重擔可以想象。果然,銀行發覺他在「放風箏」,除了封鎖帳戶外,還告入官府。沈淳一被判六項詐騙罪名成立,要歸還銀行二千萬元,還要在幾個月後判刑,最高罰款一百萬元和監禁三十年。

沈先生至此事業盡毀,極可能還要鋃鐺入獄,一生的努力就這樣付諸流水,不難想像,他心裡何等絕望無助。但沈先生最大的悲劇,是他選擇以殺人和自殺去解決問題。

另外我也想到,無論我們從事什麼行業,都不能放棄道德操守。沈先生去世後,他有一個朋友向報界說,差不多每個生意人都利用支票兌換時差解決現金流動問題,沈淳一的憾事只是被人抓到及『空頭支票』的銀碼十分大而已。那人還公開說:「這不是什麼大事!」

我非常不同意這個觀點。首先,不是每個生意人都利用『放風箏』的手法製造流動資金;其次,存入空頭支票是犯法行為,無論銀碼大小。我們千萬不能小覷『空頭支票』的非法勾當。當『放風箏』的行為被揭發時,通常有一間銀行會蒙受金錢損失——多數是最後揭發此事的銀行。這是抵觸聯邦保險業法的行為,屬於聯邦罪行。

沈先生另一朋友還向記者抱怨說是銀行把沈淳一推向絕境,說銀行不應向政府舉報,應與沈商量解決問題。這說法並不公平,銀行法例規定必須及時向有關當局舉報一切非法行為,否則會受銀行監理局制裁。

讓沈淳一先生的悲劇給我們一些啟示,做人要腳踏實地,切勿以身試法。另一方面,人人都可能會遭遇逆境,即使是天大難事,也絕對不應浪費寶貴生命。有報章提及沈先生是基督徒,我不知是否事實;可是,如果他真是基督徒,他當記得:人的盡頭是上帝的開始。不論處境有多壞,我們都可以到上帝跟前求恩惠求憐憫。主耶穌曾說:「凡勞苦擔重擔的人,可以到我這?來,我就使你們得安息」(馬太福音十一28)。

I originally wrote this article for ProMinistry in English:

THE TRAGEDY OF MICHAEL SHEN

Recently much attention among the Chinese communities has been focused on the tragic suicide death of prominent automobile dealer Michael Shen. A self-made man, he started from the bottom to eventually become one of the largest Chinese car dealers in the country. At one time he owned 5 different car dealerships, and sales each year were in the millions of dollars. His name is still prominently displayed at his dealerships, and he was active socially. I do not know Michael Shen personally, so I am not qualified to comment on his personal success or failure. But I would like to comment about what he did from the viewpoint of a former banker.

It appears Michael Shen’s woes originated from rapid expansion of his business and cash flow problems. He saw the difficulties in competing with large dealerships, so he wanted to expand. But his capital base was not sufficient to fund such rapid expansion. The lack of sufficient capital is the number one cause of failure among small and medium size businesses.

An experienced entrepreneur, Michael Shen must have known that he did not have sufficient capital. However, rather than contracting his business or bringing in new partners with new capital, he decided to tough it out on his own. Somehow during 1997 he lost a “special financing deal" from the car manufacturers, and this exacerbated his cash flow problems. His efforts to obtain additional bank financing failed. This was the beginning of the end.

It is easy from hindsight to say at that time he should have shrunk his business and cut his overheads. After all, it is painful to downsize the business and lay off people. Apparently he cared a lot about his employees, so he saw no choice but to fight on. At this time, he made a terrible mistake by resorting to the use of “kiting" to cover up his cash flow problems. “Kiting" is the technique of using checks from account A to fund account B, and then use checks from account B to fund account A. Neither account had the actual funds in the account, so this “smoke and mirror" approach merely creates the illusion of account balances when there was none. Due to the timing gap in clearing checks, one could do this for a while and be able to “create" an illusion of account balance. But a couple of things must happen, or else this scheme would fail. First, this chain of checks being deposited into the accounts had to continue indefinitely like clockwork. Second, the banks involved must stay ignorant of what is going on, or else they would naturally put an end to it. As history shows, a kiting scheme always come to an end at some point. A lucky perpetrator would put in real money to cover the checks before the banks find out, so the kiting scheme might end quietly. But more often than not, the kite had to go on and it only ended when it was discovered, and the schemer had to bear the serious consequences.

What one of Michael Shen’s friends told the newspaper was particularly troubling to me, a former banker. This person said something to the effect that every business owner generates cash flow by using the “check clearing time gaps", and Michael Shen’s only fault was that he was caught and the amount of his kite was relatively large. “It was not that big of a deal", this person concluded. I strongly disagree with this view. First of all, not every business owner kites to generate cash flow. Second, depositing a check when you know that the checking account has insufficient funds is a crime. One must not overlook the fact that kiting is illegal, whatever the amount involved is. When a kite is stopped, usually at least one of the banks (usually the one that discovered the scheme last) would suffer financial losses. So kiting is definitely a scam, and such an act against a federally-insured institution is considered a federal crime.

Another friend of Michael Shen told the newspaper that Citibank should not have notified the authorities, but should have worked it out with him. This person blamed the bank for pushing Michael Shen to ruins. Again, I don’t think this is a fair comment. Banks are bound by banking regulations to report all criminal activities to the authorities at once. Apparently this was what triggered his criminal prosecution by the federal government, not by the bank. The bank did bring a civil suit against him and his family members to recover its losses. The bank had no choice but to act the way it did. Otherwise, the bank would face regulatory sanctions.

A couple of puzzling things that I am unable to explain. First, kiting usually involve more than one banks because in order to take advantage of check clearing time gaps, the checks need to be drawn on another bank (the farther the better). Checks drawn on different accounts at the same bank would create little or no clearing time gaps. Apparently only one bank was involved in this case. Second, despite computerized and sophisticated kite detection systems that every bank has, this kiting scheme went on for quite a while before it was caught by the bank. The S.F. Examiner reported that the civil suit mentioned internal collaboration, so perhaps human factors were involved.

It is difficult to imagine the feeling of hopelessness and desperation Michael Shen felt before he took his girlfriend’s life and his own life. A lifetime of efforts was in ruins. The only realistic prospect seemed to be a long prison term and personal bankruptcy. The paper reported that he was a Christian. If he was, then he should have remembered that the end of a man’s way is the beginning of God’s way. There is always hope, peace and joy in Him no matter how bad our personal situation is. God promised to give peace to those who are tired and heavy laden, only if they would seek refuge in Him (Matthew 11:28). And in business, as in anything else, we need wisdom to make the right decisions, and “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom". ( Proverbs 1:7)