China struck $225 billion in deals to acquire companies abroad last year, a record-breaking number that signaled to the world that Chinese business leaders were hot to haggle.
Now, China — with a worried eye on the money leaving its borders — is telling some of its companies to cool it down.
On Saturday, in the strongest public signal yet that Beijing was changing course, China’s commerce minister castigated what he called “blind and irrational investment.” At a news briefing during the annual meeting of China’s congress, Zhong Shan, the minister, said officials planned to intensify supervision of what he called a small number of companies.
“Some enterprises have already paid the price,” said Mr. Zhong, a protégé of President Xi Jinping. “Some even have had a negative impact on our national image.”
Just a day earlier, Zhou Xiaochuan, the country’s top central banker, also questioned the wisdom of some recent Chinese overseas deals. “Some are not in line with our requirements and policies for overseas investment, such as in sports, entertainment and clubs,” he said. “This didn’t bring much benefit to China and caused some complaints overseas.”
The comments are the clearest confirmation that the government here is hitting the brakes on the sometimes chaotic rush overseas by deep-pocketed Chinese companies with a reputation for having more money than deal-making aptitude.
“Are these guys in over their heads?” said Brock Silvers, a longtime investment banker in Shanghai. “The answer to me is, in some cases, they seem to be.”
A series of Chinese deals have come apart this winter — though it is not always clear whether Beijing has stepped in, or whether buyers themselves suddenly decided they were making a big mistake.
On Friday, the owners of Dick Clark Productions, which produces the Golden Globe Awards, said that a $1 billion agreement to sell the company to China’s Dalian Wanda conglomerate collapsed. Dalian Wanda, a real estate giant that has branched out into film-making and cinemas, had no immediate comment.
Chinese families and companies have been rushing to move money out of the country for more than a year amid worries over a slowing national economy, a weakening currency and numerous other problems. The outflow has been expensive — China has spent $1 trillion over the past two and a half years to shore up the value of its currency — and threatens to damage the country’s efforts to help its rising middle class.
China in recent months has increased its efforts to stanch the flow, considerably tightening enforcement of its strict limits on how much money can move across its borders. The effort appears to be showing success: The most recent data, for February, showed a slight increase in the size of China’s huge holdings of foreign money managed by its currency administrator, one of the rough proxies for the sum of money moving out.
Among the moves, Beijing secretly told banks in late November that any movement of $5 million or more out of the country required special approval. Since then, regulators have also told each bank to not move more money out of the country for clients than they take in. Some banks had been moving up to six times as much money out of the country.
That rule has complicated not only mergers and acquisitions but also the way many global companies move their China-made profits overseas, in the form of dividends. That could put in question whether China is complying with its commitments to the International Monetary Fund, which are part of a broader Chinese effort to increase the profile of the country’s currency.
Foreign executives describe broad difficulties moving money out of China. “On dividend payments, European Union companies experience more tedious paperwork, extended times of processing and the issue of breaking up the dividends over several months if it is a sizable amount,” said Jörg Wuttke, the president of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.
Mr. Zhou, China’s central banker, said on Friday that dividends should not be subject to restrictions, but he did not go into details.
China’s $225.4 billion in announced deals for overseas properties last year amounted to more than double 2015’s total, according to Dealogic, a data firm that tracks deals.
Deal makers say China is likely to be still active on overseas acquisitions this year, especially as it moves to add technical know-how to its portfolio. The country’s biggest deal announced last year, for the Swiss agricultural giant Syngenta, is widely expected to close this year, though it faces regulatory hurdles.
Chinese officials appear eager to portray China’s tougher stance on deals abroad as an effort to prompt more responsible investing instead of an effort to shore up the country’s financial system. Mr. Zhong, the commerce minister, said that the country had not changed its long-term policy of encouraging Chinese companies to become more global.
But Chinese officials have a strong incentive not to acknowledge the administrative limits they have put on large movements of money out of the country. Such limits may make foreign investors more wary of putting money into China, at a time when Chinese leadership is trying to encourage more bond purchases by foreigners and other investments into the country to offset the money moving out.
Some Chinese deals have already come apart this winter, though the full reasons are not always clear. In one of the biggest, Anbang Insurance, a politically connected company with a murky ownership structure, abruptly pulled out of a $14 billion deal to buy Starwood Hotels and Resorts.
Some of the deals involved real estate firms or gritty industrial companies that have tried to buy their way into Hollywood — a trend that has also dismayed some in Washington, who worry that China may be acquiring too much influence over American entertainment.
Anhui Xinke New Materials, a copper processing company in central China, made a deal in November to buy Voltage Pictures, an American film financing and production company, for $350 million. A month later, Anhui Xinke pulled out of the transaction before its completion.
Many Chinese companies already have a lot of money overseas. More than $500 billion sluiced out of the country in the few months after the stock market plummeted in summer 2015 and before China began gradually enforcing previously dormant rules on money transfers in February 2016. Much of that money is still being allocated to longer-term investments, along with another $50 billion or more that is leaving the country each month, and the accumulated earnings on previous investments made overseas.
Qiang Li, a managing partner for China at DLA Piper law firm, said that only a quarter of the many deals in which he was involved relied on transferring money out of China and might face obstacles. The rest are proceeding without difficulty because they use Chinese-owned dollars that are already overseas, he said.
“There is no question,” he said, “that investors will continue to invest overseas, by getting the proper approvals.”
–CNBC (Ailin Tang contributed research)