Wu plight rooted in political fight

Editorial | 16 Jun 2017

Reports that Anbang Insurance chairman Wu Xiaohui is in trouble are earth- shaking.

It's not only due to his special background as the grandson-in-law of late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, but also his stunning ascent in the mainland's business world. Wu may help investigators understand how his network had enabled Anbang to expand to become one of China's largest insurance companies.

Information published by the company states it has two trillion yuan (HK$2.29 trillion) worth of assets and 30,000 employees.

Although the insurer isn't the biggest in China, it's perceived to be formidable in view of Wu's influential network.

Unfortunately, it's typical of the mainland that official information is always sketchy. The only confirmation is an Anbang statement that Wu is no longer able to perform his duties due to personal reasons - a remark certainly not helping clients gain a better understanding of what's happening.

By the same reasoning, it would be too early to draw any conclusions about Wu's fate.

Anbang isn't publicly listed, but its annual report revealed it sold 115 billion yuan worth of policies through retail banks in 2016, accounting for about 88 percent of total premiums.

Naturally, policyholders would be troubled by the uncertainty, and it would be proper for the authorities to clarify the situation as much as possible, so as to reassure the large number of clients whose interests are at stake.

Bear in mind that a lack of information only fuels rumors that will feed on each other, snowballing to cause greater damage.

Judging from information, the incident could well be a continuation of Beijing's crackdown on big crocs who are deemed to pose a threat to the country's financial stability, which is being regarded as the top priority for policymakers.

If the acquisition of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York for US$1.95 billion (HK$15.21 billion) in 2014 made Wu famous, it was just the beginning of a spree that, in subsequent months, saw Anbang snap up a further US$12 billion of assets outside China. The question is: how did it finance the deals?

Anbang's quick expansion was made possible by selling through bank branches insurance products featuring single-premiums, high-yields and short- term redemption. They were popular and generated cash flow to support the acquisitions. But the practice can be risky at the same time.

It remains to be seen how the development would affect acquisitions already agreed to, as the outward dash appeared to have stopped by the end of 2016.

That the incident happened before the 19th national congress of the Communist Party of China could be relevant, making politics a probable factor.

In China, it would have been unimaginable, if not impossible, for a company to expand so quickly from an auto, property and casualty insurer in 2004, into a giant controlling two trillion yuan of wealth - if it hadn't been for political protection.

While the Anbang statement hasn't cleared the murky waters, it's fairly certain the political protection is no longer as airtight as before.

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