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Chinese reversing big US real estate buying spree that helped boost prices

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 7/24/2018 Esther Fung

Chinese investors have become net sellers of U.S. commercial real estate for the first time in a decade, reversing a yearslong trend when these buyers spent tens of billions of dollars and helped boost the market for hotels and other properties.

Chinese insurers, conglomerates, and other investors sold $1.29 billion worth of U.S. commercial real estate in the second quarter, while purchasing only $126.2 million of property, according to data firm Real Capital Analytics. This marked the first time that Chinese investors were net sellers for a quarter since 2008.

The more than $1 billion in net sales reflects how much the Chinese government’s attitude toward investing overseas has changed in recent months.

Chinese companies began scooping up U.S. real estate a few years ago after Beijing officials loosened restrictions on foreign investment. They quickly made their mark in U.S. cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago with high-profile acquisitions—including the $1.95 billion purchase of the Waldorf Astoria in New York, the highest price ever paid for a U.S. hotel.

Now, the Chinese government has changed course again, cracking down on certain types of outbound investment that include real estate in part to help stabilize the currency. Chinese companies like HNA Group and Greenland Holding Group are unloading prize properties to repay debt and to comply with regulatory and market pressures from home, analysts said.

“I was shocked,” said Jim Costello, senior vice president at Real Capital Analytics. “They really curtailed their buying and stepped up sales.”

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Analysts say that increasing tensions over trade and national security between China and the U.S. also have contributed to the pullback.

“The China-US outbound cross-border real-estate climate has been negatively impacted by the geopolitical climate,” said David Blumenfeld, a Hong Kong-based partner at Paul Hastings LLP.

Sellers include Anbang Insurance Group, which was taken over by Chinese regulators in February and whose chairman, Wu Xiaohui, was convicted of fraud and abuse of power. Anbang is considering selling some of its U.S. hotels. But it has yet to strike any deals, and has been renovating its most prized purchase, the Waldorf in New York.

“The company is still in the process of reviewing overseas assets,” said Shen Gang, an Anbang spokesman. “We currently do not have specific asset optimization plan, nor a specific timetable.”

The retreat by Chinese investors could slow growth further in the U.S. commercial real-estate market. Property values have plateaued on average in the last 18 months after rising sharply in the early years of the post-2008 financial crisis recovery.

While Chinese buyers never represented more than a fraction of the buying power in any U.S. market, these companies often made headlines with the steep prices they were willing to pay, which helped push values higher in certain segments of the market.

In 2015, China’s Sunshine Insurance Group bought the Baccarat Hotel in midtown Manhattan for around $230 million, a price that valued the luxury property at about $2 million a room. That was one of the highest valuations ever for a hotel by the popular industry metric.

Chinese investors had their own reasons for paying top dollar. Some of the executives running these firms felt that controlling trophy properties conferred prestige on their owners and built their brand recognition for future expansion, analysts say. A number of Chinese investors also planned to hold these properties for several decades, so they were not worried about prices falling in major markets like New York, the analysts add.

For many Chinese firms, that long-term timetable has been scraped after the government began pressuring companies to reduce their debt levels and to reduce credit risk in the banking sector.

Even though a number of Chinese companies are now under pressure to sell, most of their sales in recent months have been profitable. The government has allowed investors to start by selling properties that have increased in value to avoid losing face, according to Chinese investors.

For example, earlier this year HNA Group and a partner sold 1180 Sixth Avenue in Manhattan to Northwood Investors for around $305 million, according to data from CoStar Group. The conglomerate, which is headquarters in Haikou, a city in southern China’s Hainan province, bought a 90% stake in the office tower for $259 million in 2011.

HNA Group also has recently sold a stake in 245 Park Avenue to SL Green Realty Corp, and SL Green will have operating control of the building. HNA bought the tower for $2.2 billion last year.

“HNA Group has long said it will be disciplined and thoughtful about its asset dispositions as it realigns its strategy,” said a HNA spokesman.

Chinese lenders also want to avoid the painful repercussions that losses would cause.

“If there is a fire sale, the banks also lose,” said Edward Tse, chief executive of Gao Feng Advisory Co., a Shanghai-based consulting firm.

Write to Esther Fung at esther.fung@wsj.com

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