Anbang: The random Chinese buyer’s figurehead runs out of steam

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It’s hard not to see, in the detention of Anbang chairman Wu Xiaohui, the final nail in the coffin of a certain kind of exuberant Chinese dealmaking.


Wu-Xiaohui-R-600
Anbang chairman Wu Xiaohui


Anbang, which on the face of it is a Chinese insurer, became the flag-bearer of daring-borderline-weird outbound M&A through a series of mighty acquisitions in 2015 and 2016.

This was a theme that probably reached its zenith with Anbang’s out-of-nowhere $14 billion bid for Starwood, the operator of the Sheraton and Westin hotels, which the Chinese group promptly withdrew again shortly afterwards having triggered a bidding war.

Lazard and Citi, advising Starwood, and Deutsche, advising eventual winner Marriott, emerged from the fray baffled but enriched. Anbang is the epitome of the totally random Chinese buyer, a trope of modern global M&A.

Investigators

Wu was reported on Tuesday to have been detained by investigators, which in turn followed reports that he could no longer leave the country. On Tuesday night, Anbang said in a statement that Wu is “unable to perform his duties for personal reasons”, which appears to confirm his detention.

Under his tenure, Anbang successfully bought the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York for $2 billion.

However, it’s likely it’s not the outlandish acquisitions that are the problem, more Anbang’s habit of using life insurance policies to raise funds and selling risky insurance products: Anbang was banned from issuing new products for three months by the CIRC, the insurance regulator, in May.

Or it might be because of Anbang’s baffling ownership structures. Last year, the New York Times valiantly pored over thousands of pages of Anbang filings trying to figure out who on earth owned it, concluding that it appeared to be dozens of villagers in Pingyang County – but not, officially speaking, Wu himself.