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China tames 'grey rhinos' after foreign shopping sprees

© AFP/File / by Julien GIRAULT | HNA is among the massive companies seen as the crown jewels of China's private sector but now viewed as a threat to financial stability following their voracious acquisitions

BEIJING (AFP) - 

"Grey rhinos" have become a hunted species in China, where government regulators are clamping down on powerful private conglomerates amid fears they are racking up dangerous debt levels.

Coined by an American policy analyst, the rhino reference points to long-visible threats that can charge suddenly and wreak havoc, as opposed to unforeseen "black swans".

In China, it refers in particular to four huge companies with diverse global empires: HNA (aviation, tourism, finance), Fosun (tourism, entertainment), Wanda (real estate, cinema, amusement parks) and Anbang (insurance, luxury hotels).

These are the crown jewels of China's private sector but are now viewed as a threat to financial stability.

Their voracious acquisitions include Fosun's takeover of Club Med, HNA's stakes in Deutsche Bank and Hilton hotels, Anbang's purchase of New York's historic Waldorf Astoria, and Wanda's control of Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment and 20 percent of the Atletico Madrid football club.

According to data provided to AFP by analytic firm Dealogic, they spent a combined $83.3 billion on overseas mergers and acquisitions since 2013.

China had long encouraged the buying frenzies but has reversed course, and it emerged in June that regulators were investigating potentially risky loans to these companies.

"It was absolutely predictable. The debt level was growing way too rapidly," Christopher Balding, an economics professor at Peking University, told AFP.

"We expected these problems to pop up even if we didn't know the specific companies they were going to pop up with."

He adds that the investments were "putting a lot of pressure on the currency," even if the debts remain difficult to evaluate.

Other analysts concur that the change of tack can be attributed to currency trends.

"When they were encouraging outward investment, the renminbi (yuan) was appreciating at that time," Anne Stevenson-Yang, the head of J Capital Research, told AFP.

"Now there is depreciation pressure, and that changes things."

- Political connections -

As the pioneers of Chinese soft power overseas, HNA, Fosun, Wanda and Anbang were considered untouchable because of their political connections.

For example, Wanda CEO Wang Jianlin, one of the country's wealthiest men, is a past delegate to the Communist Party congress, China's most important political event, while Anbang president Wu Xiaohui married a granddaughter of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.

But the winds have shifted. Authorities now appear to be concerned about the influence of these conglomerates, their mazes of subsidiaries and debt, and their capacity to trip up the Chinese economy.

Grey rhinos are "creatures of the 2009 expansion" fed by government stimulus measures in response to the 2008 financial crisis, Stevenson-Yang said.

"They didn't really have core competencies. They fed off the stimulus and connections with all-important political figures to make that happen," she said.

"In other words, these companies are seen as diverting the nation's hard currency money supply and threatening to impair the nation's global prestige, the currency's value sustainability and monetary policy flexibility."

There have been indications since July of mounting government pressure.

Wanda has announced the sale of 77 of its hotels and 13 tourism projects to Chinese real estate developers Sunac and R&F properties for a whopping $9.3 billion.

Beijing has also ordered Anbang to sell all of its overseas assets, according to Bloomberg.

- Falling investments -

Late last year, Beijing warned of "irrational" acquisitions abroad, particularly in sports, entertainment and real estate.

The entire private sector has suffered the consequences. The only companies still permitted to make overseas investments are firms "supporting the real economy" or working with new technologies.

"How do you define irrational? No one knows," Ivan Han, a Shanghai-based analyst for the financial information provider Morning Whistle, told AFP.

"The government is basically approving the deals one by one. It is like we are back in the period of planned economy."

Accordingly, Chinese non-financial sector overseas investment plummeted 46 percent in the first half of 2017.

"This is going to be a long-term turnaround," especially because "few companies have demonstrated their ability to effectively manage these international acquisitions by creating synergies," said ACAPITAL founder Andre Loesekrug-Pietri.

Private companies have "become more cautious and conservative and most of them are taking a watch-and-see attitude," Han said.

"It's a period of chaos."

Against this backdrop, state-run groups may fare better, Balding said.

Yet these companies may suffer from the same vices -- illusions of grandeur and colossal debt -- as "even Chinese regulators don't know what debt level most companies have."

by Julien GIRAULT

© 2017 AFP