Penalty time for overstepping Chinese insurers

Local regulators have taken harsh action against Chinese investors that have failed to toe the line on cross-border investments. There could be repercussions for their real estate holdings

The Year of the Dog did not start on a prosperous note for China’s insurance investor community.

Within just 48 hours at the end of last week the China Insurance Regulatory Commission took stringent action against four major local insurers, its harshest public strike on Chinese cross-border investors to date.

First came the takeover of Anbang Insurance Group for one year by a special committee comprising five financial regulatory bodies, and the prosecution of its former chairman Wu Xiaohui for “alleged economic crimes.” Anbang says it fully supports the decision and remains committed to the development of its overseas subsidiaries.

The next day, CIRC sent separate notices to Ping An Insurance, New China Life Insurance and China Re Asset Management, part of the state-owned China Reinsurance. The regulator called out the firms’ overseas investment businesses for breaking provisional rules regarding cross-border deals issued in 2012, directing them to rectify the violations within one month.

CIRC did not specify which transactions flouted the rules, but the global private real estate industry will nevertheless pay attention. After all, these investors are behind some of the biggest outlays in recent years.

Last June, mega state fund China Investment Corporation paid €12.25 billion to acquire Blackstone’s pan-European logistics platform, Logicor. Receiving less press was the fact CIC later brought other investors into the deal. According to a November stock exchange announcement, a subsidiary of China Reinsurance agreed with a CIC subsidiary, New China Life Insurance and others to back a holding company investing in the platform. China Reinsurance paid an aggregate €5.79 billion in cash for a 10 percent ownership of the portfolio.

The overseas exploits of Anbang and Ping An Insurance are better known. According to property deals research house Real Capital Analytics, the two groups have invested $14.5 billion in real estate outside of China. Highlights for Anbang include Waldorf Astoria and Strategic Hotels & Resorts, acquired from Blackstone, and a stake in Vancouver’s Bentall Centre from the Canadian investor Ivanhoé Cambridge. Meanwhile, Ping An Insurance, one of earliest Chinese insurers to invest abroad, teamed up with Mitsubishi Estate to finance the $1 billion Circular Quay Tower project of Sydney-based property group Lendlease. It also invested over $300 million in a logistics development partnership with e-Shang Redwood in Japan in 2016. All these deals were completed before the capital controls were intensified.

The number of Chinese groups to come under fire has increased amid Beijing’s attempts to rein in financial risk arising from over-indebted conglomerates and speculative investments. Last year, regulators reportedly began probing Anbang, Fosun, HNA and Dalian Wanda.

The rationale behind why each of these groups is being scrutinized is different, but the scale of holdings and China’s deepening controls on cross-border deals in restrictive sectors, including real estate, hotels and hospitality, has made several executives in the industry question the limits of Chinese investors’ overseas binge.

It would not be unreasonable to go a step further and anticipate that some of these once-acquisitive investors will become net sellers this year. After all, is not selling the quickest way to rectify a non-compliant investment? We are already collecting anecdotal evidence of vultures circling: one North American group that sold an asset to a penalized insurer told PERE it would be natural to consider buying the property back, if offered at an attractive price of course.

There are others who still believe that not all doors have been shut and groups that toe the official line –in terms of the chosen investment sectors and getting the right approvals – will still be allowed to invest overseas. As things stand, however, this seems more rooted in hope than actual reality.

To contact the author, email