HONG KONG — Just before payday, an email went out to employees from top executives: Give us your money, and we’ll make it worth your while.
It was one of many pitches by HNA Group, a Chinese conglomerate struggling under an estimated $90 billion in debt accumulated during a global shopping spree that included buying stakes in multinationals like Hilton Hotels and Deutsche Bank.
The company, in an email, advertised an “employee treasure” product with an 8.5 percent return if workers handed over $1,500. A similar one dangled 9 percent. A third mentioned a return as high as 40 percent if employees ponied up $15,000.
These pitches, more than a dozen of which were reviewed by The New York Times, were not part of an employee stock program. Instead, they appear to be high interest loans, with the company as borrower and its workers as lenders.
HNA’s overtures to its employees come at a difficult time for many of China’s biggest dealmakers. The company is among a group of large Chinese firms chastened by the government for making splashy overseas purchases of hotels, movie theaters and film production companies. The resulting debt among the aggressive buyers got so big that Beijing saw it as a threat to the broader economy.
HNA is facing its own financial pressures. The conglomerate has seen its borrowing costs rise sharply on the global bond market in recent months, an indication that some investors are increasingly worried about the company’s ability to pay its debts. Seven public companies under the umbrella of HNA have suspended trading of their stock, suggesting that big announcements that could affect key businesses are in the works. The company is also starting to sell assets.
In a recent interview with Reuters, its chairman, Chen Feng, acknowledged financial troubles and vowed to overcome them.
It is unclear how much money HNA has raised from employees. The company has long offered such investments to its employees as a way to incentivize them and to share in the company’s success, Thomas A. Clare, an attorney for HNA, said in an email.
“HNA has never approached the offering of these products and opportunities as a financing mechanism, as the amounts contributed by HNA employees to these opportunities are a very small percentage of the funds raised,” he said.
Companies around the world allow employees to buy stock or provide other ways for workers to invest in the business. But the HNA pitches do not offer direct ownership stakes in the business.
The offers reviewed by The Times had similar hallmarks, namely high returns for funding certain operations.
In an email dated Jan. 4, one HNA unit told employees that it needed nearly $8 million to fund a duty free business. It advertised a 9.8 percent annualized interest rate. One week later, HNA’s media and entertainment arm said it was looking to raise nearly $80 million from employees, pledging strong returns and a plan to build up the business.
Some emails have asked for big investments, while others emphasized how little employees have to invest to be eligible for hefty returns. One email, dated Jan. 17, offered commissions to employees who referred friends and family.
“If you successfully invite someone else to invest in fixed-term wealth management products,” the email told employees, “you can get a high commission.” The email did not elaborate.
In one seven-day period in January, an HNA employee received seven separate pitches. Mr. Clare said any increase would be the result of trying to incentivize more employees.
Chinese companies have often turned to individual investors or their own workers to raise money. But such moves, according to some China finance experts, can signal problems.
“It’s a desperation measure when companies really have no other source of financing and they are stuck,” said Anne Stevenson-Yang, co-founder of J Capital Research, a corporate research firm.
A small company in the southeastern Chinese city of Wenzhou called Wenzhou Liren Educational Group made national news in 2011 after it went bankrupt and was unable to pay nearly $790 million it borrowed from employees and local residents. In 2015, an online peer-to-peer platform called Great Group pressured employees to buy investments in order to raise funds when it found itself in a financial bind, the Chinese news media widely reported. The two companies did not respond to requests for comment.
“Internal funding is a common way for companies to raise funds,” said Sun Lijian, an associate professor at the China Center for Economic Study at Fudan University in Shanghai.
“But employees shouldn’t be forced to contribute and they should be informed of all the details of the project including the risks,” he added.
Raising money from workers is legal in China if an employer clears regulatory hurdles, experts say, particularly permission from the country’s central bank. The People’s Bank of China did not respond to a request for comment.
Companies raising money directly from Chinese investors must obtain licenses from securities, insurance or banking regulators. The HNA pitches reviewed by The Times did not say whether they were reviewed by regulators.
Mr. Clare, HNA’s attorney, said that the offerings comply with all laws and referred questions to the various Chinese regulatory agencies, which did not respond to requests for comment.
HNA sometimes directed employees to Jubaohui, its online investment portal, which is generally open to Chinese investors. The portal also has an employees-only area. Publicly, HNA often positions itself as a major player on the move, with talented leadership and vast resources at its disposal.
Jubaohui has had trouble paying back some investors, according to an email sent to an investor and reviewed by The Times. It promised to pay later at a higher interest rate, after it was unable to make the final payments of two investments at the end of last year.
The payments were eventually made, said the employee who received the email. The Wall Street Journal earlier reported on a similar problem with a different HNA investment.
Mr. Clare, the attorney for HNA, said, “Absent specific evidence that Jubaohui was actually late in making a required payment, there is no basis for any such statement or speculation.”
As HNA has faced more questions about its operations by both the local and foreign media, the company has issued groupwide emails urging employees to not speak to reporters. In January, HNA’s human resources department told employees they would be required to take a test on how to deal with the news media, according to an internal document reviewed by The Times.
Meanwhile, the emails kept flooding employee inboxes.
“Your year-end bonus is here,” said one sent on Jan. 15, for an investment tied to HNA’s Qianhai Air and Shipping Exchange arm. In one corner of the email was the animated image of a smiling barrel overflowing with gold coins.
The next day, another one backed by Qianhai Air and Shipping was sent out. It cited the rising cost of school and property in major Chinese cities, then contrasted it with the $16 minimum investment for the product, called Ladle Full of Gold.
“The cost of living is high?” it said. “Ladle Full of Gold won’t give in!”
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