China's Crackdown Hasn't Ended Its Giant Foreign Buying Spree

  • Overseas investment has slumped amid a government crackdown
  • But investment that bolsters the economy is winning approval

Victors are emerging from Beijing's continued efforts to crackdown on overseas acquisitions by Chinese corporates. Sovereign and state-owned companies are on top accounting for almost 60% of outbound investment in the first half of this year. Bloomberg's Malcolm Scott reports on 'Bloomberg Markets: Asia.' (Source: Bloomberg)

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China’s government has sent shudders through investors and executives this year by cracking down on the nation’s biggest corporates and their record foreign shopping spree.

Regulators worried the acquisitions would destabilize China’s financial system, weaken the currency and create yet more debt, repeating Japan’s mistakes of its go-go years.

But even as Beijing pulls the shutters down, foreign investment that bolsters the potential of the economy continue to win approval. One example: China Merchants Port Holdings Co. plans to invest as much as $1.12 billion to develop and operate port facilities in Sri Lanka.  

Whereas the 2016 record deal spree was ruled by private sector companies, this year government-owned firms are dominating, according to analysis by Rhodium Group. They estimate that the state accounted for almost 60 percent of total deal value from January to June, putting sovereign and state-owned companies "back in the driver’s seat."

"China is still going global -- but selectively," said Ann Lee, author of “What the U.S. Can Learn From China” and an adjunct professor of economics and finance at New York University.

Infrastructure assets are among the top priorities. The Belt and Road Initiative, President Xi Jinping’s signature policy to revive the ancient Silk Road trading route, will entail massive investment in ports, road and rail projects across Asia and into Europe. In return, China expands its influence, export markets, and gains an outlet for spare capacity in its steel and construction sectors.

Investment along the Belt and Road path totaled $6.6 billion in the first half of this year or 13.7 percent of total outbound investment -- a 6 percentage point gain from a year ago, according to the Ministry of Commerce.

"Belt and Road Initiative related activities are clearly flavor of the year," said Keith Pogson, a Hong Kong-based managing partner at Ernst & Young.

The crackdown on big conglomerates including Dalian Wanda Group Co., Anbang Insurance Group Co., HNA Group Co. and Fosun International Ltd. has come with little by way of official explanation. Along with shoring up the currency, the government may be motivated by a desire to keep a firm grip on the economy.

That has slowed the process of deal approval. And it’s unlikely that a wholesale relaxation of rigid capital controls or scrutiny of big conglomerates will be eased any time soon. Observers point to the looming 19th Party Congress as a key hurdle that needs to be cleared before any shift in attitudes.

Read more: why is China scrutinizing its biggest dealmakers

Outbound investment slumped in the first half of the year as the restrictions were implemented. Outward direct investment dropped to $48.19 billion in the six-month period, down 45.8 percent from a year ago. Real estate, hotel, cinema, entertainment and sports club investments saw substantial declines. Vice Commerce Minister Qian Keming said in July that "irrational" outbound investment had been curbed.

Still, big deals are still getting approved as a need for raw materials and commodities has been joined by the urge to acquire high end know-how. In April, regulators gave the go-ahead for China National Chemical Corp.’s planned $43 billion takeover of Syngenta AG, a Swiss herbicide and seed producer.

"Acquiring foreign manufacturers could facilitate Chinese firms to strengthen their competitiveness and climb up along the value chain," said Xia Le, Hong Kong-based economist at Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA.

Deals in basic materials, energy and utilities continue to flow, while high technology and modern service sectors also remain resilient as an old industry-led economy gives way to a new version led by tech, consumption and innovation.

"The train is not derailed," said Ernst & Young’s Pogson. "It is just going at a more measured speed and along the mainline and not finding new branch lines to explore."

— With assistance by Jonathan Browning

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