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From Steel To Insurance

Baosteel, China’s largest steel maker, is making a measured diversification into financial services in general and insurance in particular. The moves are worth following as a case study in the shaping of a national champion.

This month the company has upped its stake in New China Life, the country’s fourth largest life insurer, to 17.3% from 9.7%, making it the third largest shareholder, reports the People’s Daily. That puts it behind Zurich Insurance (20%, the maximum permitted) and the state insurance protection fund (30.6%), which stepped in last year to bail out the insurance company after financial scandal.

Through its Huabao Investment subsidiary, Baosteel is already the largest shareholder in China Pacific Insurance Co. with a 21.4% stake. It has a small stake in Huatai Property & Casualty, and there are reports from Japan of a joint venture in the offing with Dai-Ichi Mutual Life, Japan’s second largest life company.

Japan’s largest life company, Nippon Life, has had a similar joint venture with Shanghai’s SVA Group since 2003. An earlier proposal for a Baosteel-Nippon Life tie up went nowhere because of Baosteel’s competitive stake in China Pacific, which may get sold if the Dai-Ichi joint venture is approved by regulators as expected. The U.S. private equity firm, Carlyle Group, holds a position in China Pacific, so there is ample scope for deal making.

There are a lot of Japanese firms operating in the Yangtze River Delta while Baosteel is based in Shanghai. The model, though, would appear to be Generali China Life, a joint venture between Italy’s Generali and state-owned energy giant China National Petroleum, that is successfully selling group life insurance policies. Baosteel brings cash flow from its steel-making business and a large customer base for potential group policies should it be tempted to go beyond taking passive investment stakes into more active involvement in the insurance business.

Tempting, too, to see the hand of Beijing at work in the background here, moving a large state-owned firm into an industry that is not only strategically important for China’s economic development, and set to be expanded over the next few years, but that also can play a role as a stabilizing institutional investor in Shanghai’s wild-west stock market, or as a conduit for foreign investment. In the first 11 months this year, Chinese insurers’ investments reached 1.83 trillion yuan ($250 billion), according to the state regulator, China Insurance Regulatory Commission (CIRC).

Baosteel has invested a reported 5.3 billion yuan in financial services firms, even as it works with Beijing to shut down steel mills — only outdated and heavily polluting ones; it is not getting out of the steel business. As well as its insurance investments, it holds stakes in Shanghai Pudong Development Bank, Bank of Communications and Industrial Bank.

Developing Japan put financial firms at the heart of its keiretsu; South Korea, heavy and light manufacturing at the heart of its chaebol. China’s version looks to be being built around giant state owned national champions.

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