Anbang's fall ends unruly era in China's insurance industry

The headquarters building of Anbang Insurance Group's headquarters in Beijing, China. The company's fate offers insight into how eager officials are trying to do away with an era of unchecked financial innovation and reckless spending and instead pro
The headquarters building of Anbang Insurance Group's headquarters in Beijing, China. The company's fate offers insight into how eager officials are trying to do away with an era of unchecked financial innovation and reckless spending and instead promote stability.PHOTO: REUTERS

The revolution in China's insurance industry that helped unleash about US$80 billion (S$110 billion) of acquisitions started with a whimper and ended with a bang.

With little fanfare, China's top insurance official Xiang Junbo in 2012 rolled out rules giving insurers greater freedom to pursue higher returns and invest their income in overseas assets.  Within a year, insurers had seized on the opportunity to peddle lucrative investment-type products and use the proceeds to fund an unprecedented buying binge spanning the globe. 

The most flamboyant among them was Anbang Insurance Group, whose 2014 acquisition of New York's Waldorf Astoria hotel catapulted it into the public eye and made it an emblem of the industry's spectacular rise. 

Not anymore: Anbang's chairman Wu Xiaohui has been detained for questioning since the middle of last month, while policies fuelling its growth have been all but banned. Meanwhile, Mr Xiang - the former head of the China Insurance Regulatory Commission (CIRC) - is under investigation for undisclosed violations.

This week, as top Chinese leaders gather for a financial work conference held every five years, Anbang's fate offers insight into how eager officials are trying to do away with an era of unchecked financial innovation and reckless spending and instead promote stability.

Against that backdrop, the authorities have discussed the possibility of pushing Anbang to sell assets.

"Anbang was arguably the first, the most aggressive and the most willing to test the regulator's 'bottom line'," said Mr Christopher Beddor, an associate at Eurasia Group. "If there is a lesson here, it's that China's leadership appears fundamentally uncomfortable with headline-grabbing volatility or perceived disorder of nearly any kind."

The five-year period since Mr Xiang's April 2012 speech and the last financial work conference illustrates the challenges China faces trying to contain risks while adopting a more market-based economy.

Anbang's rise in recent years was remarkable, even by the standards of a reinvigorated industry that was eager to push the boundaries.

By early last year, regulators had grown uneasy with the flurry of activity. The CIRC started clamping down on what it termed "improper innovation" and tightened rules on high-yield, short-term investment policies. Both Anbang and Foresea Life, another aggressive seller of such products, got caught up in the crackdown.

"Anbang is a typical reflection of what happened in this regulatory cycle," said Ms Grace Zhou, a Hong Kong-based analyst at ICBC International. "They certainly did a good job seizing the time window a few years ago, but now they're facing a very painful shift in their business model."

CIRC vice chairman Chen Wenhui said: "The insurance industry, as a special one that manages risks, must enhance controls of its own risks. Insurers should "never transmogrify from 'risk managers' into 'risk makers' ."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 15, 2017, with the headline 'Anbang's fall ends unruly era in China's insurance industry'. Print Edition | Subscribe