When Anbang Insurance Group Co. agreed to buy New York’s iconic Waldorf Astoria hotel for $1.95 billion in 2014, the world took notice. It was a defining moment in the global rise of China Inc., a deal that would help kick off one of the greatest acquisition sprees in history.
But now the Waldorf, along with more than $10 billion of Anbang’s other deals, could become symbols of corporate China’s rapidly shrinking global ambitions. Chinese authorities have asked the embattled insurer to sell its offshore assets and bring the proceeds back home, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because details are private.
The unprecedented request marks an escalation of China’s clampdown on its biggest overseas dealmakers, which until now has focused on slowing the pace of new takeovers and prodding domestic lenders to pay more attention to their exposure. While there’s no indication that the four other active acquirers singled out by China’s banking regulator in June face similar pressure, the Anbang request underscores President Xi Jinping’s determination to rein in debt-fueled investments and restrict capital outflows before a key leadership reshuffle later this year.
For Anbang, it’s another setback in what has been a remarkable fall from grace. The company rose from obscurity to global prominence in just over a decade until its chairman, Wu Xiaohui, was detained by investigators in June, becoming the most high-profile target of an industrywide crackdown on risky investment practices.
It’s not clear yet how Anbang will respond to the government’s request on overseas asset sales, said the people, who didn’t mention the Waldorf Astoria or any other specific foreign holdings. Anbang “at present has no plans to sell its overseas assets,” the company said in a WeChat message.
Anbang’s acquisition of the Waldorf in October 2014, which set a price record in the American hotel industry, catapulted the once-obscure insurer onto the global stage. Over the next two years, Anbang bought real estate and financial services companies in Asia, Europe and North America, including Strategic Hotels & Resorts and an office building in midtown Manhattan to house Anbang’s U.S. headquarters.
The insurer’s rise was fueled by sales of lucrative investment products that offered among the highest yields in the industry. But Anbang’s buying binge fizzled as Chinese authorities cracked down on such products this year, part of a wider campaign to rein in financial risks before the Communist Party’s twice-a-decade leadership reorganization.
“Authorities clearly do not want other insurance companies to copy Anbang’s growth model, which relies on short-term products,” said Steven Lam, a Hong Kong-based analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence. “The signal from the government is very strong on proper asset-liability management and being responsible to policyholders.”
In June, Chinese regulators stepped up scrutiny of other serial dealmakers such as HNA Group Co., Fosun International Ltd. and Dalian Wanda Group Co., asking banks to report their exposures to the companies. At a conference on financial regulation convened by President Xi in July, policy makers pledged to rein in corporate borrowing and said that preventing systemic risk was an “eternal theme.”
Chinese acquisitions, even by firms under regulatory scrutiny, haven’t completely come to a standstill. On Friday, Shanghai-based Fosun, whose businesses range from insurance to pharmaceuticals, said it agreed to team up with a state-backed dairy producer to buy French margarine maker St Hubert for 625 million euros ($733 million). HNA, which has taken on least $73 billion of debt as it transformed from a small regional carrier into a global conglomerate, recently announced it will buy the operator of one of Brazil’s busiest airports.
Still, the pace of deals has fallen dramatically. After a record $246 billion of announced outbound takeovers in 2016, cross-border purchases plunged during the first half of this year. Announced Chinese acquisitions of overseas assets fell 37 percent to $99.9 billion, from $157.9 billion in the same period last year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
As the government’s tolerance for debt-funded deals wanes, some firms have already begun selling assets. Wanda, led by billionaire Wang Jianlin, agreed in July to sell most of its Chinese theme parks and hotels for $9.4 billion.
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