You might think the trophy real-estate assets of distressed Chinese conglomerates would go at fire-sale prices. The latest deals show that’s not the case.
The U.S. luxury hotel collection of Anbang Insurance Group Co. is a prime example. The once-sprawling Chinese company, which Beijing rescued early last year, is close to selling a suite of properties it bought for $5.5 billion three years ago. The insurer has received bids of up to $5.8 billion, including from Blackstone Group LP, which initially sold those hotels to Anbang in 2016, according to the Financial Times. The properties, formerly known as Strategic Hotels & Resorts Inc., were among Anbang’s biggest splurges. They include JW Marriott Essex House in Manhattan and the Westin St. Francis in San Francisco.
Anbang isn’t the only lucky seller. HNA Group Co., once a high-flying conglomerate that’s now saddled with $80 billion in debt, has had its own string of successes. It sold stakes in Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc. and related companies for around a $2 billion profit; chalked up gains of around $300 million on three pieces of land in Hong Kong; was apparently in the black when it unloaded a 30% stake in aircraft lessor Avolon Holdings Ltd.; and, thanks to hedges, avoided major damage when it backed out of its investment in Deutsche Bank AG. That takes the sting out of creditors’ seizure of its golf courses and a $70 million loss on the sale of a Hong Kong plot.(2)
This healthy bidding is curious for two reasons. First, it was the tide of Chinese buyers – flush with cheap money – who helped drive the luxury real-estate market to stratospheric levels after the financial crisis. That changed two years ago when Beijing put overseas property on a “restricted list” of acquisition targets to stem capital outflows. Anbang’s buying spree, funded by the sale of high-risk, high-yielding investment products back home, thus came screeching to a halt; and along with HNA and Dalian Wanda Group Co., the company was forced to unwind its purchases of flashy assets. This crackdown removed a major source of demand for U.S. real-estate treasures. Meanwhile, a downturn in U.S. hotel occupancies is afoot. With the trade war deepening, it’s worth asking whether the Federal Reserve’s pause in interest-rate rises is enough to keep the sector aloft.
Anbang is now exploring the sale of the Manhattan office building that houses its U.S. headquarters, 717 Fifth Avenue, Bloomberg reported earlier this year, as well as its Dutch and Belgian insurers. Meanwhile, HNA has put 245 Park Ave., a skyscraper bought for a near-record $2.21 billion, on the block. The fate of the Waldorf Astoria, which Anbang acquired for $1.95 billion in 2015 – the biggest amount ever paid for a single existing U.S. hotel – isn’t clear.
What is clear is that those bargain-basement prices everyone expected haven’t materialized – perhaps because Beijing, reluctant to handicap domestic companies, isn’t clamoring for quick debt repayments. Or maybe these spendthift conglomerates weren’t such terrible investors after all.
(1) Reports that HNA had to sell its Manhattan skyscraper at a lossaren’t necessarily surprising: Tenants include a police precinct tasked with protecting Trump Tower. The Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. reportedlyinformed the Chinese company it had to sell.
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Nisha Gopalan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering deals and banking. She previously worked for the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones as an editor and a reporter.
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