Don’t expect China’s overseas sales to be a distressed deal windfall

The orderly restructuring of HNA’s and Anbang’s overseas assets means buying opportunities for the private real estate industry may not be as big as anticipated.

The last two weeks brought some good news and relief to embattled Chinese conglomerates HNA Group and Anbang Insurance. That same news will deflate the aspirations of some of the world’s opportunistic real estate investment managers hoping to gain from the selling pressure expected to be faced by these firms.

In early April, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission revealed its bailout plan for Anbang Insurance, which entails a cash injection of 60.8 billion yuan ($9.6 billion; 7.8 billion).

And in an announcement last week, Hainan Airlines, a subsidiary of HNA Group, said it would purchase some of the overseas and domestic assets owned by its heavily indebted parent company as part of an asset restructuring agreement. Hainan Airlines intends to use cash and capital raised from stock issuances to acquire controlling stakes in seven assets, which includes an unnamed overseas hotel business. The financial details of these transactions are still being negotiated.

While the name of the hotel business was not stated specifically, on the same day as this announcement, HNA Tourism Group agreed to sell via a secondary offering roughly 63 million shares in Hilton Worldwide, a bulk of HNA’s 26 percent stake in the US hotel chain it acquired for $6.5 billion from Blackstone in 2016.

Ever since some of China’s most aggressive cross-border investors came in the regulatory crosshairs – for reasons including high gearing ratios, alleged financial impropriety and speculative investments – the future ownership of their trophy purchases has been a hotly debated topic. Will the Chinese government order a fire sale of the Waldorf Astoria, Strategic Hotels & Resorts or the Hilton portfolio, for instance? And, if so, will it prompt the owners to offload these assets at discounted, perhaps even distressed, prices?

If recent developments are any signal, it appears that a more orderly restructuring process is being done instead. As one US-based manager told PERE, regulators are being more thoughtful and prudent about how some of the holdings are being monetized and are definitely not creating any windfall of distressed real estate opportunities. The only exception, he noted, could be development sites that have a higher execution risk. They might end up with revised underwriting.

With some of HNA’s major holdings, the solution just appears to be transferring the assets from one subsidiary to the other. In fact, if the Chinese firm ends up exiting its entire quarter stake in Hilton, it will end up making around $2 billion in profits, according to The Wall Street Journal. In Anbang’s case, CBIRC has stated it wants to guard the insurer against insolvency and instability. Furthermore, since the Waldorf Astoria is in a long-term development play, there should not be any rush to exit such an iconic and strategic asset. According to a Real Deal report, development work continues at the property, including a recent offering plan for over 300 luxury condominiums.

There have certainly been a few successful examples of private managers bidding and acquiring assets from China’s embattled corporate giants, but such sales are not devoid of challenges. One pan-Asia manager, understood to be under offer to acquire an office building on America’s west coast owned by a scrutinized Chinese firm, told PERE he will not hold his breath the deal will be completed. In some cases, he explained, there are multiple subsidiaries of a single Chinese company that collectively own the asset and each might be independently negotiating the asset sale with a third-party, without the other subsidiaries’ knowledge.

The fate of some of these assets continues to be uncertain. But by the looks of it the private real estate industry has a limited role to play in the outcome.