Mexican homebuilder settles SEC ‘fake homes’ fraud charges

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Forget “smile, you’re on candid camera”.

Mexican homebuilder Desarrolladora Homex has agreed to settle charges after the US Securities and Exchange Commission used eye-in-the-sky satellite images to allege it faked more than 100,000 home sales in a $3.3bn fraud.

The commission said in a statement Homex – at one time one of Mexico’s top homebuilders – had reported revenues for the homes in its financial statements from 2009-11 but “the SEC used satellite imagery to help uncover the accounting scheme and illustrate its allegation that Homex had not even broken ground on many of the homes for which it reported revenues”, writes Jude Webber in Mexico City.

The SEC alleges that Homex inflated the number of homes sold in those years by approximately 317 per cent and overstated its revenue by 355 per cent – or $3.3bn – and says the results Homex reported contained figures that were “almost completely made up”.

Melissa Hodgman, associate director of the SEC’s enforcement division, said in the statement:

We used high-resolution satellite imagery and other innovative investigative techniques to unearth that tens of thousands of purportedly built-and-sold homes were, in fact, nothing but bare soil.

Mexico’s homebuilding sector fell apart in mid-2013 after the government of Enrique Peña Nieto changed tack on the official housing policy, replacing a focus on home construction outside cities with a shift to urban developments. The ensuing halt to projects wiped out millions of dollars in value for the companies and plunged hombuilders Homex, Geo and Urbi into bankruptcy.

Homex filed for Mexico’s equivalent of bankruptcy protection in 2014 and emerged under new equity ownership in October 2015. But it emerged into scandal. The company’s then CEO and then CFO have both been put on unpaid leave since May last year. Homex “has since undertaken significant remedial efforts” and cooperated with the investigation, the SEC said.

The SEC settlement did not involve payment by the company. No one at Homex, or its lawyer, were immediately available for comment.

“Without admitting or denying the allegations in the SEC’s complaint filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of California, Homex consented to the entry of a final judgment permanently enjoining the company from violating the antifraud, reporting, and books and records provisions of the federal securities laws, and the company agreed to be prohibited from offering securities in the U.S. markets for at least five years,” the commission said.

The settlement is subject to court approval.

Homex shares in Mexico City continued their recent rollercoaster ride. They were suspended on Wednesday after falling nearly 15 per cent and were trading 2.8 per cent lower on Friday mid-morning.

The SEC separately suspended trading in Homex shares in the US until March 17.

Homex last month reported a 2016 consolidated net loss of 7bn pesos ($357m) after a 16bn peso profit in 2015, reflecting low volume and tax charges last year and debt adjustments in 2015, the company said.

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