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Business Insight

Anbang's ex-chairman's troubles were long time in the making

Chinese authorities have yet to work out final resolution of company's fate

Long before Wu Xiaohui, the former chairman of Anbang Insurance Group, was charged with fraud and embezzlement, company staff said Chinese officials were already speaking about him as if he were a criminal.

Now, Wu could be facing a life behind bars.

On Friday, Chinese authorities said they are taking over Anbang between one and two years and prosecuting Wu. The China Insurance Regulatory Commission, or CIRC, said in a statement on its website that it had discovered illegal operations at the company and warned of a "serious solvency risk."

But the fact that the takeover is only for that period signals that regulators still have not worked out any long-term resolution of Anbang's fate.

"Nobody knows the final plan," one senior Anbang official said. "They are just making official what has been in effect since June" when Wu was first detained by authorities.

Since that time, working-level officials at the CIRC have been meeting regularly with Anbang staff as they sort out the mess.

In a separate statement on Friday, a branch of the Shanghai People's Procuratorate said on its website that it had recently begun prosecution against Wu for fraudulent fund raising and embezzlement.

Wu Xiaohui attends the China Development Forum in Beijing on March 18, 2017.   © Reuters

Prior to Friday's developments, a senior Anbang executive had said he did not expect Wu to ever be released from detention.

Many people, including Anbang staff, claim that Wu never built a real business and that beyond the acquisitions he made at home and abroad, there is no real value to the company.

Those holdings include the iconic Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, a $5 billion property portfolio in Japan and Strategic Hotels & Resorts, a U.S. hotel chain acquired for $6.5 billion.

Domestically, Anbang has stakes in China Minsheng Bank and real-estate holdings that include a stake in developer China Vanke.

Before he was detained last year, Wu unsuccessfully tried to obtain an investment grade rating for Anbang from Standard & Poor's, which would have allowed him to raise debt cheaply offshore.

The rating agency told Wu that it could only give the company a junk bond rating, citing the same lack of transparency that had discouraged investment bankers from supporting his efforts to take Anbang public outside China.

Chinese regulators last year barred Anbang from issuing wealth management products disguised as insurance policies. They reversed that decision, however, when they realized that Anbang would collapse if it were not able to fund itself, in turn creating a bigger set of problems.

Regulators have yet to decide what to do about Wu's own equity in Anbang, although staff have said they believe it is worthless without official government support. "Anbang has illegal business operations which may seriously endanger the company's solvency," the CIRC statement said.

Anbang has largely funded itself through the sale of wealth management products, unlike other troubled conglomerates that relied on bank funding and could therefore count on support from the banks. "The takeover will not change Anbang's inbound and outbound debts and creditor's rights," the statement added.

Henny Sender is the Financial Times' chief correspondent for international finance, based in Hong Kong, and a regular contributor to the Nikkei Asian Review.

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