Deals

David Fickling is a Bloomberg Gadfly columnist covering commodities, as well as industrial and consumer companies. He has been a reporter for Bloomberg News, Dow Jones, the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times and the Guardian.

What do you buy for the giant acquisitive Chinese conglomerate that has everything? A foot in the door of the Trump White House, perhaps.

That's what HNA Group Co. looks to have got by investing in SkyBridge Capital, the fund-of-hedge funds set up by incoming presidential adviser Anthony Scaramucci. An HNA unit and RON Transatlantic will pay $200 million to $230 million for a majority stake in the business as Scaramucci sells his interest and steps down, people familiar with the matter told Bloomberg News Tuesday.

The deal is "an important step in HNA Capital’s strategy to build a global asset management business," Guang Yang, chief executive officer of HNA Capital U.S., said in a statement announcing the deal. The question then becomes: If this is the first step, what's next?

As Gadfly has chronicled, the former Hainan Airlines isn't exactly short of assets -- or liabilities, for that matter. By gross assets, it's larger than Boeing Co., Walt Disney Co. or Coca-Cola Co. Its units include the world's biggest airline catering and airport cargo handling businesses; the third-biggest aircraft lessor; the biggest electronics distributor; stakes in Brazilian and Australian airlines; and hotels in more than 100 countries.

Flight to Quality
Air transport only made up about a fifth of HNA's revenue in 2015
Source: HNA Group 2016 bond prospectus

HNA's core operations are in air transport, hotels and financial services. The first two each accounted for at least 20 percent of revenue in HNA's 2015 fiscal year, and the third won't be far off that level once it incorporates last week's multimillion-dollar acquisition, the purchase of Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd.'s asset finance unit UDC.

One area where it's notably underweight is a business close to the president-elect's heart: real estate. Just 12 percent of revenue in 2015 came from property, making HNA something of an outlier among acquisition-hungry Chinese companies such as Anbang Insurance Group Co., Dalian Wanda Group Co. and Fosun International Ltd.

What could HNA buy? Say Chairman Chen Feng wants to leverage his new Washington connections to buy a U.S. REIT with a dividend yield of more than 3 percent and a price tag below $20 billion (no sense in being too splashy), and doesn't want to pay more than two times net asset value. Let's exclude the hotel sector -- where HNA is already well represented -- and telecommunications, where Chinese players may risk a foreign-investment backlash in this era of concerns about bugging and cybersecurity.

Ones to Watch
If HNA Group is looking for U.S. real estate investments with good dividend yields and cheap valuations, these would all be worth looking at
Source: Bloomberg

There are more than a dozen interesting candidates that match those criteria. Most of them tend to fly under the radar, too, so would be well suited to a canny investor like Chen with an eye to avoid too many ruffled feathers.

Then again, if you're going to start building guanxi in the West Wing, you may as well spend your newfound political capital on something spectacular.

Big Deal
HNA and its associates announced or completed more than $34 billion in acquisitions in 2016
Source: Bloomberg
Note: Price of Carlson Hotel Group deal was undisclosed; figure based on valuation of the business according to person familiar. Price of Rezidor Hotel Group based on current market capitalization and HNA's existing 51.3% stake. Price of Servair business is enterprise value, equity value wasn't separately disclosed.

If Chen wanted to do something dazzling, he would need a one-of-a-kind asset. Say, a piece of prime lower Manhattan property whose majority owner was in need of a few extra billion to fund its capital spending plans. A place currently earning the sort of meager returns with which HNA has long shown itself to be comfortable. A site so prominent that a foreign buyer would be certain to be controversial and in need of the enthusiastic backing of the tweeter-in-chief. One, too, where a sale might tweak the subject of one of the president-elect's long-running New York real estate feuds.

HNA has never lacked ambition. Would there be a better way to announce its arrival as a global player than buying One World Trade Center?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
David Fickling in Sydney at dfickling@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Matthew Brooker at mbrooker1@bloomberg.net