China has moved to curb investment overseas by its companies and conglomerates, issuing its strongest signal yet that it wants to rein in runaway debt that could pose a threat to the country's slowing economy.
Beijing has stepped up its efforts in recent months to restrict some of its most acquisitive companies from buying overseas assets, worried that a series of purchases by China's conglomerates around the world has been driven by excessive borrowing.
In the latest move, a statement published by China's Cabinet, the State Council, said authorities would punish companies for violating foreign investment rules, and establish a blacklist of businesses that did so. The statement was attributed to the National Development and Reform Commission, the commerce ministry, the foreign ministry and the central bank.
The statement pointed to acquisitions in sectors ranging from entertainment and sports clubs to hotels, but it was unclear whether or how the government would block deals.
It reiterated a warning issued in December that restrictions on overseas investments were being imposed because of"irrational" investment trends.
That statement said that the kinds of investments overseas it described were"not in accordance with macro-control policies." The government wants to"effectively guard against all sorts of risks," it said. The State Council document said the government nevertheless supported overseas investments in sectors such as oil and gas and in China's"One Belt, One Road" program, which aims to promote infrastructure projects along the historic Silk Road trading route.
"It's the loudest yet of wake-up calls that the government holds the keys to the lockbox of the country's wealth, public and private," Peter Fuhrman, chairman of China First Capital, an investment bank, said in an emailed response to questions."Bad M&A is all but criminalized."
A surge in overseas acquisitions by Chinese investors in recent years has ignited fears that soaring corporate debt levels could destabilize the country's economy, the world's second largest, and further weaken its currency.
Companies like Anbang Insurance Group, Fosun International, the HNA Group and Dalian Wanda Group have capitalized on cheap loans provided by state banks to snap up trophy assets such as the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York and AMC Theaters.
Beijing's clampdown on overseas investments shows how the interests of private business can collide with those of the Communist Party government. Beijing has made financial stability a priority this year, with the party's congress scheduled in the fall. Among the party's top concerns: controlling debt, stemming the flow of capital leaving the country, and China's opaque"shadow banking" system.
But while the latest statement from the State Council is likely to have an impact on mergers and deals, a lot of Chinese money is already offshore and thus not easily restricted by the government in Beijing, said Alexander Jarvis, chairman of Blackbridge Cross Borders, which has advised Chinese companies on several soccer acquisitions.
"Deals are still going to happen," Jarvis said."There is plenty of Chinese capital overseas in offshore tax havens, in the U.S., across Europe, Hong Kong. I'm not sure they can fully control that capital."
In a sign of that deal making, a Chinese businessman, Gao Jisheng, struck a deal to buy an 80 percent stake in Southampton Football Club, a soccer team in the English Premier League, for about $271 million. Gao obtained the loan from a bank in Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China that is administered under separate laws, Bloomberg reported Thursday.
Geoffrey Sant, a partner at New York-based law firm Dorsey and Whitney, said it is likely that the latest announcement from Beijing will result in a"temporary pause" in overseas acquisitions.
"I think they are thinking there's a bit of irrational exuberance in the market right now and they just want to cool that off," said Sant, who represents Chinese companies."It doesn't make sense to permanently ban some of these areas."
The State Council statement comes amid increased scrutiny of China's"gray rhinos" ” threats that are large and obvious but often neglected even so.
In recent months, the government has said it would increase scrutiny of companies' balance sheets, warning that some of the largest companies could pose a systemic risk to the economy.
Encouraged by the slew of acquisitions made by some of the country's most powerful tycoons, many smaller Chinese companies started looking overseas, spurred by China's slowing economic growth to look for new markets.
Companies have started feeling the pinch of Beijing's clampdown on overseas investments, which started in earnest in December.
The number of newly announced outbound mergers and acquisitions by Chinese firms fell by 20 percent in the first six months of 2017 compared to the same period in 2016, though it picked up in May and June, according to Rhodium Group, a New York-based research firm.