Home / Others / The acquisition of Anbang sends a strong message: China wants to solve its debt problem

The acquisition of Anbang sends a strong message: China wants to solve its debt problem

"All animals have witnessed Wu's pyre," said Brock Silvers, executive director of Kaiyuan Capital, an investment advisory firm in Shanghai, "and everyone at the zoo now understands the message."

Moving aggressively and publicly, the Chinese government can give regulators in other countries new reasons to question the political connections and financial backing of Chinese companies that hope to do business overseas, so that Beijing does not become a new unwanted owner. The authorities of the United States, Europe and other countries have already increased their scrutiny of the Chinese agreements.

Any decrease in the pace of purchase could cool the creation of deals and disappoint investors who reaped unexpected profits thanks to the Chinese spendthrifts.

In recent years, Chinese money has helped raise the prices of real estate, oil fields, hotels and almost any other asset that large companies buy and sell. Purchases have included strategic companies (agribusiness and global energy companies) and prosaics (cinemas and videogames). The Anbang corporate empire includes major financial firms in South Korea and the Netherlands, as well as multi-billion dollar properties.

The binge shopping could not last. Many of China's businesses in recent years have depended on cheap money, and Chinese officials have become increasingly nervous about the debt. China borrowed heavily to fuel a decade of growth, accumulating trillions of dollars of debt that placed it at a level comparable to that of the United States, relative to the total size of the economies of the two countries.

Chinese officials seemed reluctant to step back at the risk of slowing growth and causing riots, at least until now. Since Mr. Xi consolidated his power at a major Communist Party meeting in October, Chinese officials have spoken out more about addressing the issue of debt and have threatened to crack down on the worst offenders.

In a statement, Anbang said he supported the takeover and would remain private, despite government oversight.

"Our business and operations are stable," the company said. "We trust that this stable operation will continue under the working group of interim management and in the long term."

Chinese state media and other official channels offered little guidance on Friday about why Beijing had seized Anbang or what government ownership might average. Experts said such a drastic step would have required approval at the highest levels of government.

Anbang is in some ways an appropriate example of what might be called China Inc. It started as a modest auto insurance company in 2004, used cheap debt and financial engineering, sometimes borrowing directly from individuals with large promises profits, to build a monster in a few years. The risk may have built Mr Wu's empire, but it also led to the company's downfall.

Anbang personified a type of Chinese businessman, a group that included Dalian Wanda Group, Fosun International and HNA Group. The momentum initially seemed to enjoy official approval. Mr. Xi stayed at the Waldorf Astoria during a stopover in New York three years ago.

Now, under official pressure, many of the companies are downloading assets. Dalian Wanda last year dumped billions in real estate investments. HNA is combining the properties in the midst of analysts' questions about how it will meet its strong debt obligations.

As Anbang's official skepticism grew, so did public skepticism.

A month ago, a heartrending comment entitled "Goodbye Anbang" was widely spread on Chinese financial news websites and on social media platforms. "The biggest problem here is not the search for capital gains, but the way you could grow overnight," the comment said. "This is not playing according to the rules of the market." They are the scams of privileged wealth. "

But many Chinese regulators had hesitated to act aggressively, and the pace of application of the discipline had been slow.With Anbang, the Chinese government may have hoped to lead by example, by taking the control instead of designing a silent injection of cash from a docile state company

"Xi's concern about financial risk has had a great impact on the behavior of a lot of banks, regulators and companies," said Victor Shih, an associate professor at the University of California at San Diego, who studies Chinese politics and finance: "They have seen regulators being very cautious, and perhaps more proactive than they would have been without this political pressure from the highest levels." [19659018] Despite government pressure, the Chinese agreement is unlikely to end completely, given the country's huge sums of money and global ambitions. it has continued to support acquisitions in strategic areas such as energy and technology. Fosun, widely considered a "gray rhinoceros", or a large and visible problem that is ignored until it starts moving fast, said this week that it had acquired a majority stake in Lanvin, the French fashion house.

However, it is likely that China's ambitions will attract new scrutiny. Regulators in the United States and elsewhere have been asking tough questions about the ownership and stability of Chinese acquisitive companies. Some legislators and White House officials support broadening the authority of regulators reviewing takeover bids.

"Anyone who knows anything about China knows the nature of the party and the state and the opacity of the company's property," said Fraser Howie, a former banker in Asia and co-writer of three books on the Chinese financial system. . "There was never an excuse for not asking the hard questions," many foreign regulators simply jumped on them and relaxed too much in their approach.

Dalian Wanda, HNA and Fosun, including some in China, expect more than $ 4 billion in deals, according to Dealogic, a data provider.

It is unclear what will happen to Anbang's overseas properties, including the Waldorf Astoria, which is undergoing a costly renovation. Anbang spent $ 15 billion on high-profile agreements abroad from 2009 to 2017, according to Dealogic. Acquisitions included well-known hotels in London, Manhattan, Mexico and Paris; insurance companies in South Korea and the Netherlands; and even a stake in Woori Bank, once among the leading lenders in South Korea. Woori could not be reached for comment.

One of the companies that was unleashed was Vivat, a Dutch insurer that Anbang bought from the Dutch government for 150 million euros in 2015. As part of the deal, Anbang promised to make purchases. up to 1 billion euros in Vivat and to assume 552 million euros of debt, a measure acclaimed by the Chinese media at that time as a heroic step to take the insurer off the edge of bankruptcy. The fate of that effort is now uncertain.

A spokeswoman for Vivat said that "for now", the takeover of the Anbang government "would not affect Vivat or its clients". He added that the insurer was subject to Dutch laws and regulations. and supervised by the Dutch supervisory authorities.

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