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Fosun defiant over its firepower after share price fall

Malcolm Moore and Martin Arnold
Guo Guangchang, Fosun Group chief executive officer and chairman, is interviewed at Bloomberg L.P. Global Headquarters in New York, U.S., on Thursday, April 23, 2015.
Michael Nagle | Bloomberg | Getty Images

After Fosun's share price dropped on July 8 by almost 30 per cent in a single week, Guo Guangchang posted a public message to rally his employees.

"Amid a sheer panic in the market, we should be brave and act opposite to the crowd," the billionaire co-founder of China's largest private conglomerate declared.

Mr Guo insisted Fosun would continue the eye-catching streak of acquisitions which has seen it spend $6.5 billion on stakes in 18 overseas companies in just 23 weeks between February and July, according to Dealogic.

"There is always an abandoned pearl in any market with bubbles," said the 48-year-old Mr Guo. "In a market full of panic sentiment, even more such opportunities are hidden."

But the Hong Kong-listed group, which is one of the few Chinese companies aggressively targeting acquisitions overseas, may now have to switch its focus, says one investment banker who has worked with it on a recent sales process. With Fosun's shares trading at a 40 per cent discount to their price in mid-June, the company may be losing its dealmaking firepower.

"I know there are some people who would like to paint them as unwelcome in Europe, but I think it is more that they are coming under political pressure back home to invest more in China to support the markets there," the banker says.

Other bankers says Fosun, which is bidding for Novo Banco, the Portuguese bank, and has signalled that it will launch a hostile bid for BHF Kleinwort Benson, the German private bank, needs to refocus after a summer of dealmaking.

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"They have bought a lot of things. I would like them to execute and consolidate a little before they deploy more cash," says one investment bank analyst in Hong Kong, who asked not to be named because his bank does business with the Chinese group. "With the mergers and acquisitions, the shape of the company keeps changing," he adds.

So far, Fosun's deals have fallen into two broad categories. It has bought insurance companies, such as Portugal's Fidelidade and the US' Ironshore and Meadowbrook, for access to their floats: the pools of premiums which it sees as a cheap source of investment capital.

Following these acquisitions, the group would have Rmb239.8 billion ($37.7 billion) of investable assets from its insurance arm. It has invested 1.1 billion euros of assets held by Fidelidade in Fosun debt and another 337 million euros in its property developments in Australia and Japan, but denied it had increased the risk profile of the insurer.

"In fact, we have been a bit biased towards the conservative end," said Mr Guo in the company's annual report. "For instance, 81.3 per cent of (the Portuguese insurer) Fidelidade's assets were allocated to fixed income investments and cash last year."

The company is buying property in the US and Europe, as well as boosting its fixed income arm, in order to meet the demands of European and US insurance regulators.

"Insurance floats of insurance subsidiaries of Fosun International are mainly used for bond investment, equity investment (mainly secondary shares), real estate investment, etc," a spokesman for the company says.

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Other acquisitions, such as Club Med, Cirque du Soleil and the German private bank Hauck & Aufhaeser, are part of a strategy to grow the businesses in China, where the growing middle class are in search of more fun, better healthcare as well as a place to invest their cash.

Some observers, however, view Fosun's overseas strategy as scattergun and even risky.

"These are not blue-chip companies," says one rival outbid by Fosun on a deal this year. "Club Med is a turnaround buy. Tour operators like Thomas Cook are going to be jumped by the internet quite rapidly."

Even advisers who have worked with Fosun on some of its deals are unsure what the Chinese company wants. "We have a meeting arranged to try to understand their acquisition strategy because it is very broad brush," says one banker who has worked with Fosun several times.

Fosun says it has clear plans for investments in insurance, health and lifestyle. A spokesman says the company "only invests in those [assets] we are sure are worthy of our investment. This is Fosun's investment discipline, which must be strictly adhered to." The group also has teams in London, US, Lisbon, and Frankfurt to understand local cultures.

Until now, the company has used high levels of debt to finance its expansion. Last year, total debt ballooned to Rmb96 billion ($15.1 billlion), 49 per cent of which was short-term bank borrowing, due for repayment within a year, but likely to be rolled over by Chinese lenders.

"You could not build a holding company like this in Europe," says the person outbid by Fosun. "Holding companies should not be so highly leveraged and there is a mismatch between long-term investments and short-term loans."

However, Fosun says it "increases cash reserves accordingly to cope with potential funding needs and ensure the security of company funds."

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Despite its overseas acquisition spree, almost 84 per cent of the group's revenues came from China last year, with more than 44 per of those deriving from its stake in Nanjing Nangang, the partly state-owned Chinese steelmaker.

Fosun's Chinese pharmaceutical businesses generated a further 19 per cent of its revenues, while just under 20 per cent came from its Chinese property development arm.

Fosun is banking on its insurance assets as a way to continue its expansion. "Insurance subsidiaries of Fosun International will . . . make decisions on respective acquisition projects under the corporate governance rules and regulations," the company spokesman adds.

But analysts say it is not clear how many more deals the company can do.

"There are limits to its ability to leverage its insurance companies, given the strict regulatory oversight in the sector," says Kai Hu, a credit analyst at Moody's. "We also note there is likely execution risk for Fosun to integrate the newly acquired insurance businesses given they are in multiple countries and sub-industry sectors," he adds.