Chinese investments in the United States reached a new record in 2016, more than tripling the previous year’s. However, the pace of investments has begun to cool in 2017, following a crackdown in China on capital outflows.

In reaction to massive capital outflows and the resulting downward pressure on the Chinese currency, Beijing tightened its controls on many outbound mergers and acquisitions (M&A) deals, writes research firm Rhodium Group in a recent report.

In particular, outbound investments in real estate, entertainment, and deals outside investors’ core businesses are now under much more scrutiny, and Chinese investors, wary of having their deals struck down by Beijing, have been more reluctant to bid.

With these recent changes, the pace of newly announced investments in the United States has already begun to slow.

“In the first quarter of 2017, the volume of announced acquisitions fell by 20 percent compared to the fourth quarter of 2016. The combined value of announced deals decreased by about half,” stated the Rhodium report.

Chinese Buying Spree

The investment activity that peaked last year started in 2010, when China relaxed rules on outbound investment for institutional investors in order to expand its political and economic influence abroad.

Since 2010, Chinese companies have invested more than $100 billion in the United States across a wide range of industries, with the real estate and hospitality industries attracting nearly 30 percent of the total.

Capital flight from China skyrocketed in 2016 in particular, with mounting economic problems at home and a devaluation of the yuan.

Last year alone, Chinese firms invested a record $46 billion in the United States. The huge jump in investment was driven by a significant number of mega deals, including aviation and shipping giant HNA’s acquisition of U.S. technology and supply chain company Ingram Micro for $6 billion.

The HNA logo is seen on a building in Beijing on Feb. 18, 2016. (GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

The HNA logo is seen on a building in Beijing on Feb. 18, 2016. (GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images)

And U.S. real estate, which is considered a safe haven, was the biggest beneficiary of Chinese investments. The top deals included Anbang’s purchase of 15 properties from Strategic Hotels & Resorts for $5.5 billion and HNA’s $2 billion acquisition of Carlson hotels.

Foreign direct investment by U.S. firms in China, by contrast, stayed flat compared to previous years, at $13.8 billion. Hence, the gap between Chinese investment in the United States and U.S. investment in China widened dramatically last year, stated the Rhodium report.

U.S. Real Estate as Safe Haven

The easing of restrictions over the past few years allowed insurance companies based in China to invest up to 15 percent of their total assets in offshore real estate.

As a result, U.S. real estate, particularly hotels and office spaces, has become attractive for Chinese insurers seeking high returns and portfolio diversification.

Investment in the U.S. real estate market soared after the stock market crash in China in June 2015. The sharp decline in returns at home led investors like Anbang Insurance, China Life Insurance, and Fosun Group to look for safe havens.

However, since the tightening of capital controls in late 2016, “the pace of real estate investment has slowed markedly,” stated the Rhodium report, “but activity has not collapsed.”

There are few pending real estate deals, including HNA’s acquisition of a stake in Hilton for $6.5 billion. HNA also bought 245 Park Ave. in New York for $2.2 billion, one of the highest prices ever paid for a Manhattan office tower.

Uncertainties Ahead

While Chinese investment in the United States continues, it is unlikely to reach the levels seen in 2016, as Chinese investors are now more cautious, according to experts.

“Up until six months ago, corporate investors from China were aggressively outbidding their rivals in cross-border M&A deals,” said a senior executive at a U.S. private equity firm, who wished to remain anonymous.

But for the last six months, investors have been less active, he said. Transaction volume fell by 12 percent in the United States in the first quarter of 2017, according to the real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle.

“For the first time in two years, New York has lost its spot as the world’s most traded city. Leading the pack is London, regaining the spot it lost in 2015,” said an Jones Lang LaSalle report released in April.

According to another report by real estate brokers Cushman & Wakefield, Beijing is blocking all deals involving investments of more than $10 billion until September 2017, in an effort to regulate international investments.

In 2016, 62 percent of the investments abroad were over $1 billion. Now, M&A transactions valued at more than $1 billion that are outside Chinese investors’ core businesses, and foreign real estate deals by state-owned companies, are being restricted, leading to the investment lag in recent months.

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A sign hangs on One Chase Plaza in lower Manhattan on Oct. 14, 2014 in New York City. The iconic building is owned by a Chinese private equity firm as part of its overseas investment strategy.  (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)A sign hangs on One Chase Plaza in lower Manhattan on Oct. 14, 2014 in New York City. The iconic building is owned by a Chinese private equity firm as part of its overseas investment strategy.  (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Chinese investments in the United States reached a new record level of $18.4 billion in the first half of 2016, up three times compared to the same period last year, and even higher than all of last year ($15.3 billion).

Strong mergers and acquisitions activity accounted for the majority of the incoming Chinese capital, said research firm Rhodium Group.

With the stock market crash in China that began in June 2015, the flow of outbound investment from China to the rest of the world soared. With growing uncertainty about exchange rates and the economic and political outlook, investors are seeking to stash away capital in safe havens like the United States.

“The rapid growth of Chinese outbound (Foreign Direct Investment) FDI in the first half of 2016 has triggered political reactions both in China and host economies,” Rhodium stated.

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This capital flight has led to a further deepening of FDI deficit in China’s balance of payments. So Chinese regulators are increasing their scrutiny of outbound investment transactions.

“China’s leadership continues to pledge its commitment to further external liberalization, but concerns about capital outflows have clearly grown and the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) and other regulators have taken informal steps in recent months to ‘manage’ the outflow of foreign exchange,” the research firm said.

The appetite of private Chinese companies for U.S. investments remains high.

—  Rhodium Group

This has increased concerns about the ability of Chinese companies to close deals, driving up risk premiums and reverse break fees for Chinese buyers.

A sharp uptick in the Chinese deal-making activity in the United States is also keeping U.S. regulators busy.

The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), reviews foreign acquisitions for national security threats and China for the last few years has been in the top spot for covered transactions (transactions that result or could result in control of a U.S. business by a foreign person).

A number of transactions have run into delays because of CFIUS and other regulatory reviews including Syngenta, Ironshore, Fidelity & Guaranty Life, according to the Rhodium report.

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Strategic Versus Financial Investments

The Chinese investments in the United States in 2016 were spread across a wide range of sectors including entertainment, consumer products and services, technology, and automotive.

Besides M&A activity, Greenfield projects, where companies start building their operations from scratch, were also strong, driven by capital-intensive projects in real estate and manufacturing.

More than 80 percent of all Chinese FDI transactions in the United States in 2016 are considered as strategic investments (firms investing in their core areas of business). The largest strategic investment was Haier’s acquisition of GE’s home appliances business for $5.6 billion, in consumer products sector. And the second largest was Wanda’s purchase of Legendary Entertainment for $3.5 billion, in the entertainment sector.

Other sectors attracting large investments include information and communication technologies (acquisition of Omnivision Technologies by a Chinese consortium for $1.9 billion) and automotive (Ningbo Joyson’s acquisition of Key Safety Systems for $920 million).

Financial investments (investments for financial returns) amounted to $3.5 billion, or 20 percent of total investment in 2016, according to Rhodium. Most of them were driven by private investors buying commercial real estate assets in major coastal cities.

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The value of announced but not yet completed Chinese investments was still close to an all-time high of $33 billion at the end of June 2016, according to the report. Major M&A transactions include HNA Group’s $6 billion bid for technology distributor Ingram Micro, Anbang’s $6.5 billion acquisition of Strategic Hotels & Resorts, and Apex Technology’s acquisition of Lexmark for $3.6 billion.

There are also pending investment in real estate development projects in New York and California.

“The appetite of private Chinese companies for U.S. investments remains high. … It is reasonable to assume that recent geopolitical shocks (Brexit) and related USD strength will aggravate capital outflows in coming months,” Rhodium said.

“This makes it likely that regulators will continue or even increase scrutiny of outbound FDI transactions, particularly for deals involving large amounts of foreign exchange and those with a financial nature.”

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