Wu Xiaohui’s detention is the highest-profile development in a sweep of China’s financial industry by corruption investigators that began in earnest in January
Anbang Insurance, China’s hyperacquisitive insurance rollup, which was responsible for a sizable portion of China’s merger spree between 2014 and 2016, and which has since been accused of being a money laundering vehicle, of wreaking “havoc” with the Chinese insurance market, and was a potential investor in Jared Kushner’s 666 Fifth Avenue building until the deal fell apart in March, announced that its billionaire Chairman Wu Xiaohui, is “unable to perform his duties” due to personal reasons, confirming Chinese media reports that the tycoon had recently been detained by authorities.
On Tuesday, China’s Caijing reported that Wu – whose net worth was recently estimated at over $1 billion – was taken away by Chinese authorities, citing unidentified people. The report said that officials from the China Insurance Regulatory Commission met with a small group of Anbang staff on June 10 and didn’t provide specific reasons for Wu being taken. Curiously the report, which did not explain if Wu was assisting with a government investigation or was himself the target of a price, was later deleted from the magazine’s website.
A person familiar with the matter told the South China Morning Post that Wu had been “assisting relevant investigations” and previously had always returned to his office or home after a few hours of questioning. Wu hasn’t returned since he was taken away at the end of last week, the person said.
Last week, the FT reported that Wu was barred by Chinese authorities from leaving the country, however Anbang denied the report.
Xiaohui led Anbang’s rapid rise and abrupt emergence in the international business arena, where the company became known for its ambitious takeover bids. In October of 2014, Anbang bought the Waldorf Astoria in New York for $1.95 billion, a record for a single American hotel, and later closed the property while it converts most of the rooms to luxury condominiums. In early 2016, Anbang agreed to buy Strategic Hotels & Resorts, owner of 16 high-end hotels in the U.S., from Blackstone for about $6.5 billion. One hotel next to a major naval base later dropped out of the purchase amid national security concerns. About the same time as Anbang agreed to the Strategic purchase, it made a surprise $14 billion offer for Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, starting a bidding war with Marriott International Inc. A few weeks later, Anbang unexpectedly walked away from the bid, having forced Marriott to increase its offer by about $1 billion. Anbang also had an agreement to buy Fidelity & Guaranty Life, however the deal was canceled in April after the Chinese company failed to meet transaction deadlines.
Most notably, Anbang had been in talks to invest in the proposed redevelopment of 666 Fifth Ave. in New York, the marquee building of Kushner Cos., the family company of President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Talks broke off in March.
However, once Beijing cooled on offshore M&A amid a crackdown on shady financial dealings encouraging capital flight, the company quickly became a target for domestic anger, suffering the wrath of local regulators over his company’s risky reliance on life insurance policies to raise funds, as well as an opaque corporate structure, profiled extenisvely by the NYT.
In a statement posted on its website, Anbang announced that other senior managers have been authorized to carry out Wu’s responsibilities and operations are normal.
As Bloomberg notes, the news adds to the intrigue surrounding one of the country’s most aggressive overseas deal makers, which only came into being in 2004. Since it embarked on a global takeover spree three years ago, Anbang has drawn attention for making preemptive offers and disrupting transactions already in place. Wu has personally negotiated deals without using traditional investment banks.
Wu, who is married to the granddaughter of Chinese revolutionary and statesman, Deng Xiaoping, doesn’t speak English and often travels with translators. The vast majority of Anbang is collectively owned by relatives of Wu or his wife, Zhuo Ran, the New York Times has reported, although its corporate structure is so opaque it is difficult to trace ownership.
As the FT reported earlier, Xiaohui’s detention is the highest-profile development in a sweep of China’s financial industry by corruption investigators that began in earnest in January, when a well-known financier was escorted from a luxury hotel in Hong Kong by Chinese police and taken across the border. Xiao Jianhua has not been heard from since, and there has been no official confirmation that he is under arrest.