Trump, Beijing won't ground US deals: HNA chief

Adam Tan, CEO of the Chinese airlines-to-property conglomerate, says a grim regulatory environment and questions over its ownership and finances won't stop dealmaking.

It's faced regulatory hurdles at home, seen its ownership structure brought into question and must contend with a White House populist determined to keep American businesses out of Chinese hands.

Yet the CEO of China's ultra-acquisitive HNA Group had nothing but optimism to offer when he attended a Hong Kong conference on Tuesday, stressing that he still believed HNA could push through acquisitions in the US.

“We still have a strong belief that the US and China will have a very good relationship, and we will keep on investing in our related business despite some policy issues,” Adrian Tan, the CEO, said. “The outbound investments are still doable and they will still gather a lot of attention."

Tan's remarks are in stark contrast to the recent flow of news from the US. President Donald Trump earlier this month finally killed off the purchase of Lattice Semiconductor by a private equity fund backed by Beijing. 

Like that deal, HNA has fallen foul of the Committee on Foreign Investmen of the United States (Cfius); it scrapped a $416 million investment in Global Eagle Entertainment, a Los Angeles-based in-flight entertainment provider, after failing to win Cfius approval the company said in a regulatory filing in July.

“We still have some investments in the US pending for regulatory approvals, and we are confident they will go through,” Tan added, in apparent reference to two deals in the financial sector.

HNA is awaiting approval for the purchase of a 25% stake in Old Mutual’s US fund management business. And in a deal sure to get attention, for better or worse, it is waiting for regulators to approve the purchase of Skybridge Capital, the hedge fund set up by former White House communications chief Anthony Scaramucci. The deal was announced in July, just before Scaramucci's drama-packed 10-day stint working for Trump.

But whatever the picture in the United States, HNA is facing scrutiny at home as regulators seek to stem “irrational investment trends” and deals in sectors such as sport, entertainment and property.

HNA itself has been under the microscope over its ownership structure and is one of a number of acquisitive Chinese companies to which bank lending has come under scrutiny.

In an unusual move, the privately-held company unveiled its ownership structure in July, when more than half of HNA's shares were handed over to its domestic and international charities, according to the disclosure.

“The press has been giving us a lot of free coverage in the past few months,” Tan joked about the mysteries surrounding HNA and its affiliates.

Founded by billionaire tycoon Chen Feng in 1993, HNA, which has transformed itself from a small airline in the southernmost province of China into an aviation-finance conglomerate, has announced more than $40 billion of acquisitions globally since the beginning of 2016, scooping up stakes in companies including Deutsche Bank and Hilton Hotels.

HNA aims to build a tourism chain from duty-free shops to hotel accommodations as Chinese citizens travel aboard at a record pace. It owns 19 airlines globally including Virgin Australia and Hong Kong Airlines.

"We see synergies from both of our organic and inorganic growth plans from acqusitions to partnerships with local players in different regions," Tan told the conference, organised by Forbes.

In the first six months of 2017, its overall revenue expanded by 190% year on year, while its profit surged 45% for the same period, according to Tan, who joined the group in 1991. Last year, the group reported Rmb 172.5 billion ($25 billion) of cash and cash equivalents, while having Rmb493.7 billion of debt and another Rmb 611 billion of committed credit lines from banks.

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