Anbang chairman's 'removal' sparks talk

An exterior view showing building offices of Anbang Insurance Group in Beijing, China, on March 19, 2016.
An exterior view showing building offices of Anbang Insurance Group in Beijing, China, on March 19, 2016.PHOTO: EPA

Abrupt move by China insurer follows report that billionaire was aiding government probe

BEIJING • Only a year ago, he was hailed as one of the boldest dealmakers in China.

But yesterday, with scant explanation given, Mr Wu Xiaohui was said to be unable to perform his duties as the chairman of Anbang Insurance Group.

In a terse statement sent to reporters at about 2am Beijing time, Anbang said only that Mr Wu - who had spent more than a decade transforming a provincial auto insurer into a global juggernaut - was no longer able to serve in his post because of personal reasons.

Other senior executives will carry out his responsibilities, said the Beijing-based company.

The development added another layer of intrigue to the story of Anbang, whose overseas acquisition spree has slowed in recent months amid increased scrutiny at home and abroad.

China's central bank was said to be looking into suspected breaches of anti-money laundering rules at the insurer late last year, while the authorities temporarily banned Anbang's life insurance unit from selling new products last month.

Some of the headwinds facing Anbang are not unique to the company. China's insurance regulators have embarked on an industry- wide crackdown this year, seeking to curtail sales of risky products and restrict acquisitions of listed firms.

Anbang is one of the biggest issuers of speculative wealth management products in China.

In April, the country's chief insurance regulator Xiang Junbo, who had overseen a doubling of the size of the industry in three years, was removed from his post after being placed under investigation.

The exact nature of Mr Wu's role in any government investigation has become the subject of widespread speculation. Before the statement by Anbang, Caijing Magazine, citing unidentified sources, reported that Mr Wu had been taken away by the Chinese authorities last Friday.

The article, which said it was unclear whether the 51-year-old was assisting with a government investigation, was later deleted from the magazine's website.

Mr Wu and his company first turned heads outside China with a US$2 billion (S$2.8 billion) bid for New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel in 2014.

Many of Anbang's more recent deals, though, have faltered.

The firm offered US$14 billion last year for US hotel operator Starwood but pulled out from what would have been the largest Chinese takeover of an American company.

A year later, it held talks with Mr Jared Kushner, son-in-law of US President Donald Trump, to develop a New York office tower. That deal foundered amid controversy over the extended family of the US President selling to a politically connected Chinese tycoon.

Anbang's US$1.6 billion offer for US annuities and life insurer Fidelity & Guaranty Life then fell through in April.

"It looks very unlikely that Anbang will be able to continue its overseas buying spree," said Ms Grace Zhou, a Hong Kong-based analyst at ICBC International.

Mr Wu, who married the grand- daughter of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, has been the driving force at Anbang since founding the company in 2004.

Anbang now has almost two trillion yuan (S$410 billion) in assets and more than 30,000 employees, according to its website.

Mr Wu has said that he worked at least 12 hours a day, while those working with him said calls from him at all hours of the day or night were not uncommon. Occasionally, he would also sleep in his office.

BLOOMBERG, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2017, with the headline 'Anbang chairman's 'removal' sparks talk'. Print Edition | Subscribe