Purchase of foreign properties by Chinese is investment, not invasion

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 October, 2014, 5:06am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 October, 2014, 7:28am

When a New York landmark is sold to a Chinese company for a record price, it's a clear sign that economic power is shifting away from the West. The Anbang Insurance Group's purchase of Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria Hotel for US$1.95 billion has made waves as much for the cost as the iconic stature of the building. World leaders stay there when in the city, the presidents of China and the US among them; legendary entertainers like Marilyn Monroe and Frank Sinatra made it their home. But the buy is more about yields and safe investment than snapping up a slice of Americana.

China's slowing economy, crowded investment market and the government's encouragement of diversification have prompted a global surge by investors over the past two years. Insurance companies are conservative by nature and while US Treasury bonds are a safe investment, they offer low returns and even less should interest rates rise, as has been long forecast. Anbang's snapping up from Hilton Worldwide of the Waldorf Astoria is, in such circumstances, not surprising.

It was the third recent prominent real estate deal by a Chinese company in New York. Last year, Fosun International bought another city landmark, One Chase Manhattan Plaza, and Zhang Xin, the billionaire co-founder of Soho China, took a stake in the General Motors Building. The latter two purchases, for a combined US$1.4 billion, made Chinese the biggest buyers of New York City office property. With Chinese investors in 2013 purchasing an estimated US$13.9 billion in foreign commercial real estate , more than four times the total of the previous four years, what is taking place seems more like a flood than a wave.

The trend recalls the 1980s, when Japanese firms went on a global spending spree. But while some people fret about foreign ownership of landmarks, China's purchases are grounded in investment. That is especially good for the Waldorf Astoria: Badly in need of renovation, its new owners have promised to restore it to its luxury roots.