Wanda

China Steps Up Warnings Over Debt-Fueled Overseas Acquisitions — The New York Times

BEIJING — 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 country’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 China’s conglomerates around the world has been driven by excessive borrowing.

In the latest move, a statement published by China’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 “irrational” investment trends.

That statement said that the kinds of investments overseas it described were “not in accordance with macro-control policies.” The government wants to “effectively guard against all sorts of risks,” it said. The State Council document said the government nevertheless supported overseas investments in sectors such as oil and gas and in China’s “One Belt, One Road” program, which aims to promote infrastructure projects along the historic Silk Road trading route.

“It’s the loudest yet of wake-up calls that the government holds the keys to the lockbox of the country’s wealth, public and private,” Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank, said in an emailed response to questions. “Bad M&A is all but criminalized.”

A surge in overseas acquisitions by Chinese investors in recent years has ignited fears that soaring corporate debt levels could destabilize the country’s economy, the world’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.

Beijing’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 party’s congress scheduled in the fall. Among the party’s top concerns: controlling debt, stemming the flow of capital leaving the country, and China’s opaque “shadow banking” 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.

“Deals are still going to happen,” Mr. Jarvis said. “There is plenty of Chinese capital overseas in offshore tax havens, in the U.S., across Europe, Hong Kong. I’m not sure they can fully control that capital.”

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 “temporary pause” in overseas acquisitions.

“I think they are thinking there’s a bit of irrational exuberance in the market right now and they just want to cool that off,” said Mr. Sant, who represents Chinese companies. “It doesn’t make sense to permanently ban some of these areas.”

The State Council statement comes amid increased scrutiny of China’s “gray rhinos” — threats that are large and obvious but often neglected even so.

In recent months, the government has said it would increase scrutiny of companies’ 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 country’s most powerful tycoons, many smaller Chinese companies started looking overseas, spurred by China’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 Fosun’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.

“I agree with the Chinese government. A lot of these deals are bad,” said Mr. Jarvis.

Companies have already started feeling the pinch of Beijing’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.

As published in The New York Times.

The New York Times Interview Transcript

China Probe of Big Companies Could Redefine Their Role Overseas — VOA News

China is probing the loan practices of a group of big private sector conglomerates who have been on a high-profile global spending spree over the past few years.And although the review targets only a few of the country’s most politically-connected companies, some analysts see an attempt to increase government control over the role played by the private sector in foreign markets.

“I think this is an attempt to change the direction (of) the role these Chinese companies play in the Chinese economy,” says Paul Gillis, a professor at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management. “To align them more closely with the policies of the government and to reduce the risks that actions of these private companies could end up having a shock effect on the economy as a whole.”

Chinese authorities say they launched the probe because of worries that highly leveraged overseas deals pose risks to China’s financial system. Officials have already expressed worries over mounting debt among Chinese lenders, some of which may remain hidden by China’s opaque lending networks.

Notable companies targeted

According to media reports, the list of companies under review is a relative who’s who of Chinese enterprises.

Among those reportedly targeted are Dalian Wanda, which owns the AMC Theaters chain in the United States and has been actively courting deals in Hollywood. High-flying insurance company Anbang, which owns New York’s Waldorf Astoria and Essex House hotels. Also on the list is Hainan Airlines, which bought a 25 percent stake in Hilton Hotels last year and another insurance company Fosun, which owns Cirque de Soleil and Club Med.

Over the past few years, China has seen massive amounts of capital moving overseas with companies and wealthy individuals buying assets abroad. Authorities began taking steps late last year to tighten controls. But many big conglomerates view foreign investment as a golden opportunity – given the low global interest rate environment – and worth the risk of highly-leveraged investments.

Peking University’s Gillis says it appears the Chinese government is coming to terms with how to effectively regulate private enterprises, companies that behave more aggressively than their state-owned counterparts. But he also sees the move as a further consolidation of power by President Xi Jinping, bringing companies more under the control of the central government.

“I think many of the companies had a pretty favorable treatment from prior administrations, and I think Xi Jinping is less enamored of these large private companies than some of his predecessors were.”

Expensive acquisitions by companies like Wanda and Anbang have thrust China into the global spotlight. But the news and commentary that followed the companies’ mega-deals has not always been positive.

FILE - People walk past an entrance to the Anbang Insurance Group's offices in Beijing, June 14, 2017.

People walk past an entrance to the Anbang Insurance Group’s offices in Beijing, June 14, 2017.

In some cases, the deals have given China a black eye, says Fraser Howie, author of the Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise. Anbang’s attempt last year to purchase Starwood Hotels is one example, he says.

“This is high profile, global Bloomberg headline, Chinese company buys Starwood Group, next week it’s all off because the funding was never there, the due diligence could never be completed there, it made all Chinese bidders look horrible,” said Howie. “It looks dreadful for the party and for the leadership that these private entrepreneurs are running out there and yet China as a country is being impacted by it.”

Earlier this month, the head of Anbang was the latest to be swept up in the ongoing financial crackdown.

Regulating private spending?

Authorities so far have not said specifically what the targeted companies may have done wrong, if anything. Some analysts argue that the probe is just a part of a process that began six month ago to curtail the flight of capital from China.

“If cross-border M&A deals make sense, if they deliver strong returns, then there should be no problem either for bankers or those doing the buying. But, if Chinese groups overpay and get the money to do so from Chinese banks providing risky or underpriced loans, then Chinese regulators have an obligation to step in,” Peter Fuhrman, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of China First Capital tells VOA in an emailed response.

Others see a deeper message about Xi Jinping’s view on the role that private companies should serve broader national goals.

Howie says the probe challenges assumptions about the role of private enterprises in China.

“If anyone ever thought these companies were truly private in the sense of being independent or beyond government reach. Clearly that was never true,” he says. “Everyone operates at the discretion of the Communist Party, even if you’ve done nothing wrong and clearly even if you are wealthy.”

 

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