China’s regulator bars HNA’s Bohai and four insurers from funding parents’ war chests

China’s insurance regulator bars HNA’s life insurance arm from financing the group’s global acquisition spree.

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2017, 10:01pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 October, 2017, 10:01pm

China’s regulator has barred five insurers, including the HNA Group’s Bohai Life Insurance unit, from providing “financial aid in any form” to their parents, in the latest move to cut off funding for some of the country’s most active asset buyers.

Bohai Life Insurance, controlled by HNA’s Shenzhen-listed Bohai Capital, must terminate or unwind any ongoing financial transactions with its ultimate parent, according to a letter to the insurer, posted on the China Insurance Regulatory Commission’s website.

“Based on the on-site check and assessment from March 24 to April 15, we found your company had problems in managing shareholders, internal control, and related party transactions,” the regulator said. “Within six months from the date of issuance of this regulatory letter, your company is prohibited from direct or indirect transactions with the HNA Group and its related parties.”

The move adds to the crackdown since June by the government on four companies that are China’s most aggressive overseas acquirers, out of concern that their leverage-fuelled shopping spree is building up risks, particularly to the domestic market that has been used as source of financing. HNA, which grew out of a regional airline based in southern China’s Hainan province, has spent an estimated US$50 billion over two years, acquiring assets from Hilton hotels to Hong Kong’s most expensive residential land parcels to a stake in Deutsche Bank AG.

“Beijing is tightening the screw s for HNA once more,” said Brock Silvers, managing director at Kaiyuan Capital in Shanghai. “This mean one avenue HNA used for financing is blocked, which will add difficulty to its financing and ongoing acquisition projects.”

Much of HNA’s acquisition was funded by debt, underscored by HNA’s disclosure that its total debt had doubled to almost 718 billion yuan (US$109 billion) in the 18 months ended June, compared with the end of 2015.

At least some of the funding for the shopping spree may have come from insurance units, which redirect premium payments from policy holders into war chests for acquisitions.

The debt-to-asset ratio at Bohai Capital, which controls Bohai Life Insurance, reached 87.6 per cent, with short-term borrowing of about 34 billion yuan, according to its latest filing.

Rating agency Moody’s in September had warned that “Bohai’s high leverage, reliance on short-term financing and high debt-funded growth represent a risk.”

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HNA officials declined to comment, while Bohai Life Insurance officials could not be reached.

The CIRC will monitor Bohai Life Insurance for another three months after the six-month ban expires, and will take appropriate follow-up actions based on a review of Bohai’s work of improvement, the letter said.

“It’s not a death sentence yet -- we may find more after the 19th Party Congress,” Kaiyuan Capital’s Silver said, referring to the ruling Communist Party’s conclave next week, which picks the country’s leadership ranks for the next fie years.

The remaining four life insurers that had also been reprimanded and barred from providing financing to their parents are Zhujiang Life Insurance, Shanghai Life Insurance, Sunshine Life Insurance, and June Life Insurance, according to the CIRC.