Kia was a big winner in the 2017 JD Power awards. Image: Kia

J.D. Power, a market research company that has managed to make car manufacturers grovel for their awards for many years now, was sold in 2016 to a Chinese firm for $1.1 billion. Which was all fine except, according to The Wall Street Journal, no one at J.D. Power seems to know who funded the sale.

J.D. Power was bought by the Hong Kong-based company XIO Group in September 2016, at a time when cash-rich Chinese firms were buying a lot of foreign companies for hundreds of millions of dollars. But executives within J.D. Power told XIO then that they had no idea who funded XIO. People at XIO also seemed to have no idea.

From the WSJ:

“I wanted to raise a point with you that is causing our team here some concern,” S&P Global executive Jason Gibson wrote on May 19, 2016, to the purchaser, a firm called XIO Group that had been set up in Hong Kong and was planning to do the deal through an offshore private-equity fund. Mr. Gibson emailed that he hadn’t received information he expected about who owned XIO and where it was getting the money for the purchase.

Later, amid a byzantine legal dispute, it was revealed that Chinese tycoon Xie Zhikun may—or may not!—be some of the money behind XIO.

A New York investment banker who had advised XIO on the acquisition met later that year with a Chinese businesswoman named Carol Xie, who shocked the banker by saying her father’s investment group had bought J.D. Power—a notion the banker hadn’t heard before—according to a person familiar with the meeting. Her father is Xie Zhikun, a prominent Beijing tycoon.

Within months, Mr. Xie was in full warfare with XIO. As the Journal reported in March 2017, Mr. Xie insisted he had given the firm almost $1 billion to do deals. XIO said he had not, and demanded he stop telling people he was affiliated with the firm.

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The Journal also included this tidbit, which doesn’t raise any eyebrows at all.

In July, XIO had J.D. Power borrow $180 million more, in part to fund the acquisition. This made J.D. Power’s debt “very high,” Moody’s said. In July it downgraded J.D. Power’s credit deeper into non-investment-grade territory, to B3 from B2.

Another purpose of the borrowing was to enable J.D. Power to pay dividends of about $100 million, according to Moody’s. XIO declined to name the investors who would receive these dividends.

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Brilliant.