WU XIAOHUI, THE politically well-connected chairman of the giant insurance group Anbang (his wife is Deng Xiaoping’s grand-daughter), has been in detention by authorities since last June. Now he is to stand trial for economic crimes, code for fraud and embezzlement, and the company run by personnel from the China Insurance Regulatory Commission for a year or two, an extraordinary move. The state assuming control of a private-sector business, and particularly one of this size and prominence, is unusual.
Anbang has been on an aggressive international acquisitions drive, buying such foreign trophy investments as the Waldorf Astoria in New York and a string of other luxury US hotels. Chinese firms, with official encouragement, have ‘gone global’ in recent years, rapidly expanding their international mergers and acquisitions activity.
In 2016, China overtook Japan to become the world’s second-largest overseas investor. Non-financial outward direct investment that year exceeded $170 billion, a 44% increase from the previous year, according to the Ministry of Commerce. However, such activity entails tremendous financial risk from the leverage taken on, a risk exacerbated by Chinese firms’ lack of experience with the integration and management challenges that M&A brings, especial in deals that cross national and cultural borders.
Anbang appears to fall squarely in this camp. On some estimates (its finances are notoriously opaque), it has encumbered itself with debt to the point that it is fast approaching technical bankruptcy despite having more than $300 billion of assets.
That also makes it ‘too big to fail’. State administration will provide the funding to keep its core life and non-life insurance business operationally solvent. The insurance regulator says the company’s current operations remain stable but that its solvency is seriously endangered by its ‘illegal operations’ unspecified but which presumably include its investments in prestige prime US real estate.
Last August, authorities announced a list of sectors hat should be off-limits for Chinese firms as the foreign investment spree into things like European football clubs and Hollywood entertainment businesses was exacerbating debt concerns.
More broadly, in the drive for financial stability and to forestall any systemic financial shocks, President Xi Jinping has been asserting greater control over state enterprises and reining in sprawling private conglomerates, notably the ‘big four’ — Angbang plus Dalian Wanda, Fosun International and HNA Group — that have expanded rapidly via debt-fuelled foreign acquisitions.
That quartet that accounted for 20% of Chinese foreign acquisitions in 2016. Also, there has always been a nagging suspicion that, given the quartet’s political connections, some of this M&A acted as a conduit for senior officials to get their money out of the country.
All have been ‘urged’ to sell assets and pay down their debt while state banks were told to rein in their lending to them. In January, the chairman of the Banking Regulatory Commission, Guo Shuqing, warned that ‘massive, illegal financial groups’ posed a grave threat to financial reforms and the stability of the banking system and that China would address the issue ‘ in line with the law’.
Taking Anbang into state control may be the prelude to a series of moves against the layer of private conglomerates below the ‘big four’, a group of some 25-30 companies said to be in the regulators’ sights. Despite or perhaps because of his connections, Wu’s treatment, in particular, is intended to show that no tycoon is immune from being ‘deterred’ from risky borrowing and investment overseas, or from being reminded that private M&A strategies should be integrated with national investment priorities.