BEIJING â€” China moved on Friday to curb investment overseas by its companies and conglomerates, issuing its strongest signal yet that it wants to rein in runaway debt that could pose a threat to the countryâ€™s slowing economy.
Beijing has stepped up its efforts in recent months to restrict some of its most acquisitive companies from buying overseas assets, worried that a series of purchases by Chinaâ€™s conglomerates around the world has been driven by excessive borrowing.
In the latest move, a statement published by Chinaâ€™s cabinet, the State Council, said the authorities would punish companies for violating foreign investment rules, and establish a blacklist of businesses that did so. The statement was attributed to the National Development and Reform Commission, the commerce ministry, the foreign ministry and the central bank.
The statement pointed to acquisitions in sectors ranging from entertainment and sports clubs to hotels, but it was unclear whether or how the government would block deals.
It reiterated a warning issued in December that restrictions on overseas investments were being imposed because of â€œirrationalâ€ investment trends.
That statement said that the kinds of investments overseas it described were â€œnot in accordance with macro-control policies.â€ The government wants to â€œeffectively guard against all sorts of risks,â€ it said. The State Council document said the government nevertheless supported overseas investments in sectors such as oil and gas and in Chinaâ€™s â€œOne Belt, One Roadâ€ program, which aims to promote infrastructure projects along the historic Silk Road trading route.
â€œItâ€™s the loudest yet of wake-up calls that the government holds the keys to the lockbox of the countryâ€™s wealth, public and private,â€ Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank, said in an emailed response to questions. â€œBad M&A is all but criminalized.â€
A surge in overseas acquisitions by Chinese investors in recent years has ignited fears that soaring corporate debt levels could destabilize the countryâ€™s economy, the worldâ€™s second largest, and further weaken its currency.
Companies like Anbang Insurance Group, Fosun International, the HNA Group and Dalian Wanda Group have capitalized on cheap loans provided by state banks to snap up trophy assets such as the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York and AMC Theaters.
Beijingâ€™s clampdown on overseas investments shows how the interests of private business can collide with those of the Communist Party government. Beijing has made financial stability a priority this year, with the partyâ€™s congress scheduled in the fall. Among the partyâ€™s top concerns: controlling debt, stemming the flow of capital leaving the country, and Chinaâ€™s opaque â€œshadow bankingâ€ system.
But while the latest statement from the State Council is likely to have an impact on mergers and deals, a lot of Chinese money is already offshore and thus not easily restricted by the government in Beijing, said Alexander Jarvis, chairman of Blackbridge Cross Borders, which has advised Chinese companies on several soccer acquisitions.
â€œDeals are still going to happen,â€ Mr. Jarvis said. â€œThere is plenty of Chinese capital overseas in offshore tax havens, in the U.S., across Europe, Hong Kong. Iâ€™m not sure they can fully control that capital.â€
In a sign of that deal making, a Chinese businessman, Gao Jisheng, struck a deal to buy an 80 percent stake in Southampton Football Club, a soccer team in the English Premier League, for about $271 million. Mr. Gao obtained the loan from a bank in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China that is administered under separate laws, Bloomberg reported on Thursday.
Geoffrey Sant, a partner at New York-based law firm Dorsey and Whitney, said it is likely that the latest announcement from Beijing will result in a â€œtemporary pauseâ€ in overseas acquisitions.
â€œI think they are thinking thereâ€™s a bit of irrational exuberance in the market right now and they just want to cool that off,â€ said Mr. Sant, who represents Chinese companies. â€œIt doesnâ€™t make sense to permanently ban some of these areas.â€
The State Council statement comes amid increased scrutiny of Chinaâ€™s â€œgray rhinosâ€ â€” threats that are large and obvious but often neglected even so.
In recent months, the government has said it would increase scrutiny of companiesâ€™ balance sheets, warning that some of the largest companies could pose a systemic risk to the economy.
Encouraged by the slew of acquisitions made by some of the countryâ€™s most powerful tycoons, many smaller Chinese companies started looking overseas, spurred by Chinaâ€™s slowing economic growth to look for new markets.
Many, however, had no experience running the businesses they were targeting. In one such example, Anhui Xinke New Materials, a copper processing company in central China, made a deal to buy Voltage Pictures, an American film financing and production firm, for $350 million. A month later, Anhui Xinke pulled out of the transaction.
In other cases, it was not clear whether many of the big trophy acquisitions were actually good deals.
In 2015, Legendary chalked up a net loss of $540 million, according to a regulatory filing that Wanda Film filed on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange. Fosun International, meanwhile, paid a premium to buy French resort operator Club Med, which was until then an unprofitable company, eventually agreeing to a $1.1 billion price tag in 2015 after a long takeover battle. The firm made a small profit last year, according to Fosunâ€™s filings. And last year, AC Milan, the Italian soccer club that was acquired by a Chinese consortium for about $870 million, made a net loss of about $88 million.
â€œI agree with the Chinese government. A lot of these deals are bad,â€ said Mr. Jarvis.
Companies have already started feeling the pinch of Beijingâ€™s clampdown on overseas investments, which started in earnest in December.
The number of newly announced outbound mergers and acquisitions by Chinese firms fell by 20 percent in the first six months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016, though it picked up in May and June, according to Rhodium Group, a New York-based research firm.
In March, Dalian Wanda, the Chinese conglomerate that owns AMC Theaters and Legendary Entertainment, was forced to abandon its $1 billion deal to buy Dick Clark Productions, the firm behind the Golden Globes and Miss Universe telecast after Beijing tightened its controls on capital outflows. Months later, Wanda sold a majority stake in 13 theme parks to property firm Sunac China Holdings and handed 77 hotels to R&F Properties, another real estate company based in the southern city of Guangzhou, for $9.5 billion.