As the largely unknown Chinese real estate developer Sunac is gobbling up assets of China’s failing tourism and hospitality conglomerates, moves are now underway that indicate that the very same conglomerates are beginning to withdraw from the international arena. In other words, the big-ticket overseas acquisitions and investments that happened in the past five years are now being reversed.
The now household names for aggressive Chinese expansion such as Anbang, Dalian Wanda, and HNA used to be largely unknown outside China. Anbang was a “boring” insurer, Dalian Wanda a run-of-the-mill big Chinese property developer, and HNA was just the shorthand of a growing Chinese airline based on Hainan island.
Just a few years later, they would be known around the world for their aggressive and sudden expansion into overseas tourism and hospitality assets. Right in the middle of the Chinese outbound tourism boom years (with double-digit growth), the investments and acquisitions also came to underline the growing importance of China’s tourism market. Not only were Chinese tourists traveling everywhere and spending big, but so were the Chinese conglomerates.
The conglomerates were at one point a symbol of China’s growing tourism muscle
However, things would come to an end sooner than most had expected. While the growth of Chinese outbound tourists had started to slow down in 2017, it was (and still is) a growing market widely believed to still have significant room to grow. That didn’t stop Anbang, Dalian Wanda, and HNA from suddenly suffering substantial setbacks in their respective ambitious expansion plans.
The sudden setback came from an equally sudden move by the Chinese government to curb Chinese acquisitions and investments overseas in the name of limiting capital flight. It’s believed that Chinese president Xi Jinping personally approved the efforts—which were essentially designed with these Chinese conglomerates in mind.
And now, acquisitions and investments are believed to be put in reverse, either because of regulators’ control of the company (Anbang), because of crushing debt obligations (HNA), or the state-mandated drying up of new loans (Dalian Wanda). The end result is the same: the Chinese conglomerates that came to symbolize the growing importance of Chinese tourism and hospitality are beginning to withdraw from the international market.
HNA has $20 billion, or three hilton stakes, worth of debts to repay
Most notable of all, perhaps, is that HNA is looking at selling its $6.5 billion worth of shares (26.1 percent) in Hilton Worldwide, one of its most publicized investments from its spending spree. Earlier this year, HNA sold its shares in Park Hotels and Hilton Grand Vacations—stakes that came with its original Hilton investment.
While far from the only asset HNA is divesting, it is perhaps the most obvious withdrawal from the international tourism and hospitality sphere to date. Most of its other divested assets so far have been individual properties.
Meanwhile, in Europe, HNA suddenly scrapped its plans to float up to 65 percent of Gategroup on the Swiss stock exchange after investors turned out unimpressed by the terms. The failed IPO also puts the proposed IPO of HNA’s Swissport into question, and investor concerns have only gotten worse since the Sino-US trade conflict started heating up. For HNA, there might simply not be any time to wait. According to the Financial Times, “HNA has an estimated $20bn in debt maturing this year or next.“ In the great scheme of HNA’s debt, $6.5 billion worth of Hilton is far from enough to keep the ship afloat, and a full withdrawal from the international sphere may turn out to be a necessity.
Anbang may simply sell everything back to Blackstone
Meanwhile, now state regulator-run Anbang is looking at doing very much the same thing; getting rid of everything it acquired during its overseas spending spree. According to a Bloomberg report, U.S. private equity firm Blackstone may be looking at buying back all the assets it sold to Anbang. This would include the “crown jewel” of Anbang’s overseas acquisitions, the Waldorf Astoria in New York, as well as Strategic Hotels & Resorts. Similar to HNA’s situation, this might just not be enough as recently indicated by a $10 billion bailout of Anbang.
How permanent the Chinese withdrawal from overseas tourism and hospitality assets will be remains to be seen. However, with the champion of these curbs, Xi Jinping, now unhindered by term limits or any notable checks and balances, it may very well turn out more permanent than some would have hoped.