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2017-05-09 06:07:02
Buying Spree Brings Attention to Opaque Chinese Company

During his first state visit to Britain, President Xi Jinping of China heralded the great economic opportunities between the two countries, in energy, infrastructure and finance. He finished off the late 2015 trip at Manchester Airport, unveiling a new direct flight to Beijing on the Chinese carrier Hainan Airlines.

The political spotlight was a global coup for Chen Feng, chairman of the carrier’s parent, the HNA Group, who was on hand to greet Mr. Xi and David Cameron, then British prime minister.

In just over two decades, Mr. Chen, 63, has helped transform a small airline in southern China into one of the country’s few global powerhouses, with big stakes in Hilton Hotels, Swissport and Ingram Micro. This week, HNA said it was the largest investor in Germany’s Deutsche Bank, part of a broader push by Chinese players into global finance.

As China’s financial might has grown, companies like HNA have embarked on ambitious expansions, spreading money around the world and reshaping markets. But the opaque nature of some big Chinese players is prompting scrutiny from policy makers and politicians in the United States and elsewhere who are trying to understand the forces behind the aggressive deal-making and the role that the Chinese government plays.

Mr. Chen has propelled the privately held HNA onto the world stage through a dizzying array of acquisitions, a spending spree supported by Chinese state banks and hidden behind a holding company with a complex ownership structure. According to corporate filings, state-backed banks have given HNA a $60 billion line of credit, a level of lending usually reserved for state-owned enterprises charged with carrying out the government’s policies.

In a statement, the company insisted that it was “supported by strong operational cash flow and a wide range of domestic and international sources of financing.”

“HNA Group is focused on continuing to build a leading global platform in tourism, logistics and financial services supported by strong operational cash flow and a wide range of domestic and international sources of financing,” the company said in a statement.

Another acquisitive Chinese behemoth, Anbang Insurance Group is facing scrutiny for its aggressive deal-making in the United States, after it held talks earlier this year to buy a Manhattan office tower owned by the family of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and a senior White House aide. Chinese regulators are taking aim at Anbang for its sales practices.

The White House declined to comment.

HNA’s deals are increasingly putting the company in the political cross hairs, at home and abroad.

This year, one of HNA’s subsidiaries agreed to buy a major stake in SkyBridge Capital, an investment firm founded by Anthony Scaramucci, a former Trump campaign fund-raiser who was eyeing a role in the White House. The move was seen by some as a way to influence the Trump administration.

Mr. Scaramucci, in a telephone interview, disputed any suggestion HNA was trying to curry favor with the Trump administration. “I’m very glad to have sold my business to them. They’re world-class,” he said. “And if I were to serve in government, I’d sign a full recusal, so I wouldn’t be dealing with them.”

Last week, HNA was the subject of wild online speculation after a fugitive Chinese billionaire said in a television interview that relatives of a senior Chinese leader, Wang Qishan, had a stake in the company. No proof was provided.

The allegations leveled by the billionaire, Guo Wengui, who has ties to China’s former spy chief, is part of his broader war on the Chinese government. From his New York apartment, Mr. Guo, using his Twitter account and Google’s YouTube, has been making claims of widespread government corruption. China has requested his arrest, on separate corruption charges.

As speculation swirled that HNA could be drawn into a political firestorm, shares of one of the company’s Hong Kong affiliates tumbled late last month. Soon after, critical news articles on the group began disappearing from Chinese websites, prompting concerns that government censors had handed down orders to delete unfavorable news about HNA.

HNA declined to comment on the allegations by Mr. Guo.

The birth of HNA traces back to the creation of China’s brand of capitalism.

When the company was founded in 1993, China had just begun experimenting with private ownership, opening new economic zones and allowing companies to sell shares to the public. The Hainan provincial government asked Mr. Chen, a former pilot with the People’s Liberation Army, to help develop a regional carrier, one that would be partly owned by the state and partly owned by private investors.

As the company gained momentum, Mr. Chen brought in overseas investors, including the billionaire George Soros, who in 1995 invested $25 million, for a 25 percent stake. (Mr. Soros has since sold his stake.) With deeper pockets, it began diversifying into other, more stable businesses like hotels, finance, advertising and property development, creating a holding company called the HNA Group.

The strategy and structure allowed Mr. Chen and his top executives to parlay their small stake in a state-backed airline into a controlling stake in its parent company. In doing so, a group of six longtime HNA executives — led by Mr. Chen — effectively took the group private.

Along the way, he nurtured government ties. Mr. Chen has been a delegate to the national congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which meets every five years to help determine party leadership. In 2008, HNA formed a venture with a firm connected to a son of He Guoqiang, the Communist Party’s powerful discipline chief at the time.

It all played to Mr. Chen’s goals. A Buddhist and an expert calligrapher, Mr. Chen has tried to use his force of personality to create a corporate culture based in part on Confucian values of ethical living. But he is also an executive who talks not so much about creating a profitable enterprise as a really big one.

In 1993, the company had just $17 million in revenue. Today, it has about $90 billion in annual revenue, most coming from companies acquired outside China.

“His fundamental goal is to be in the top 10 of the Fortune 500 by 2025,” says William Kirby, who teaches at Harvard and has known Mr. Chen for nearly a decade. “This is an incredibly ambitious company.”

HNA, of late, has embraced the government’s push to “go global” and invest overseas, focusing on shipping, hotels, logistics and retail, amassing a $145 billion portfolio. Over the past three years, it has spent more than $30 billion, according to Dealogic.

In a span of three months in 2016, HNA bought a construction and property development company; a flight catering and airport servicing group in Switzerland with 40,000 employees; a St. Regis hotel in Bora Bora, in French Polynesia; a global network of 1,400 hotels, among them the Radisson and Park Plaza brands; and a 28-story office tower in San Francisco.

Last year, the company spent $6 billion to buy Ingram Micro, a technology wholesaler, and $10.4 billion for the aircraft leasing business of CIT Group. It has snapped up American hotel chains, golf courses and signature buildings, including paying $2.2 billion for 245 Park Avenue in Manhattan.

And two of the company’s top executives — Mr. Chen and his brother, Chen Guoqing — seem determined to make a home in New York. Each has purchased an entire floor at One57, the ultra-luxurious, 75-story residential tower, with commanding views of Central Park.

The company also outbid the Ukrainian-born billionaire Len Blavatnik for the Upper East Side limestone mansion owned by the art dealer Wildenstein & Company, buying it for $79.5 million. For its American headquarters, HNA paid $450 million for 850 Third Avenue, which includes tenants like the City of New York.

“If there’s any strategy, it’s to go out and buy up as much as possible,” says Edward Tse, a longtime consultant who has advised HNA and now runs Gao Feng Advisory.

While other big Chinese deals have been delayed or canceled in recent months, after the country imposed tighter controls on money flowing out of the country, HNA so far has managed to keep borrowing and making more purchases. It has racked up a debt pile of a size that some analysts wonder is sustainable.

Its biggest lenders are state-owned banks like the China Development Bank and the Export and Import Bank of China, institutions that generally support state enterprises and the country’s industrial policies. In 2016, another state giant, China Construction Bank, announced it was giving HNA a $4.5 billion credit line, and said that it would partner with the company to set up a $2.9 billion “industry fund.”

In tapping Wall Street and the global bond market for even more money, HNA has relied on a network of affiliates and subsidiaries to increase its borrowing power. Eighteen companies now listed on the Chinese stock market fall under the HNA Group, and several more trade on a smaller stock exchange in Beijing.

Understanding how these companies work together, and who controls the HNA Group, is a challenge. Its shareholders are masked behind multiple layers of shell companies, subsidiaries and offshore affiliates.

One of the group’s biggest shareholders is the Hainan Traffic Administration Holding Company, which is in turn owned by four other entities. Those entities are owned by yet other entities.

Corporate filings show that 45 percent of the HNA Groups’s shares are owned by Mr. Chen and five longtime company executives. Another 22 percent is owned by the Cihang Foundation, run by Zeng Haorong, a former government official who once served as mayor of Haikou, where HNA is based.

There are also a few mystery investors, like Guan Jun, who does not appear in filings as a top executive. Mr. Guan’s residence, in the records, is a rundown apartment building in Beijing.