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Fosun plans asset sales in reversal of US$15b M&A spree

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Fosun Group, one of China's most acquisitive conglomerates, is preparing to sell as much as 40 billion yuan (S$8.07 billion) in assets as it turns its focus towards raising its credit rating to above junk.

[HONG KONG] Fosun Group, one of China's most acquisitive conglomerates, is preparing to sell as much as 40 billion yuan (S$8.07 billion) in assets as it turns its focus towards raising its credit rating to above junk.

As it steps back from the more than US$15 billion in overseas purchases made or announced since 2010, the group plans to disclose the disposals between now and the end of 2017, Liang Xinjun, chief executive officer of flagship unit Fosun International Ltd, said in an interview aired on Bloomberg Television on Monday.

"We will sell assets to repay debts," Mr Liang, 47, said in Shanghai. "We have ample capability to get investment grade ratings. So either strategically, or tactically, Fosun is crystal clear that this has become our strategy."

Fosun's dwindling appetite for foreign trophies - it owns Club Med, Wall Street's 28 Liberty building and Cirque du Soleil - makes it an outlier at a time when the likes of China National Chemical Corp and Dalian Wanda Group Co are pushing Chinese companies to their biggest-ever year of overseas acquisitions.

Rather than joining the fray, Fosun is focusing on getting leaner before its next phase of growth.

Fosun's dollar bonds due in 2020 had their biggest increase since January, according to prices compiled by Bloomberg. Shares of Fosun International and Shanghai Fosun Pharmaceutical Group Co rose in early trading in Hong Kong before turning lower.

Mr Liang is one of the three founders running the insurance- to-mining conglomerate - the other two being chairman Guo Guangchang and president Wang Qunbin - who spoke on July 24 with Bloomberg in a wide-ranging interview on topics ranging from their ambitions of turning the company into a US$100 billion behemoth to the impacts of a possible Donald Trump presidency and Brexit.

Mr Guo, whose brief disappearance in December triggered a rout of Fosun shares, signaled the group will move away from centralised leadership.

As to the disposals, Mr Liang pointed to about 30 billion yuan to 40 billion yuan in assets such as properties, bonds, and stock holdings that could be sold off.

Fosun could part with more than that if it chose to because the company had 118 billion yuan of assets available for sale at the end of 2015, of which 102 billion yuan were parked in listed shares and bonds.

So what will they sell? The executives declined to say but Fosun's focus is shifting toward health care, finance and leisure. That means businesses such as steel and mining - which accounted for 73 per cent of profit when the company went public in 2007 - are ripe for consideration to be sold.

Last year, Fosun sold stakes in Nanjing Iron & Steel Co and cashed out of Shenzhen-listed Focus Media Information Technology Co. The group is also pushing for initial public offerings of its units, including the tourism business that operates Club Med, Cirque du Soleil and UK travel group Thomas Cook, according to Mr Liang.

Behind the motivation to sell are debt ratings. Fosun International is rated three levels below investment grade at Moody's Investors Service and two notches under the threshold at S&P Global Ratings. Emerging from the junk stigma, which would benefit its key insurance business, has become such a priority for Fosun that the group elevated it last year as one of its top five strategies, according to Mr Liang.

"It's still too early to say whether Fosun's asset-sales plan will be positive for its rating," said Lawrence Lu, an analyst in Hong Kong at S&P.

"It will depend on how much it ends up selling and how much the company uses to pay down debt." Moody's and S&P have reason to voice concerns. As Fosun snapped up assets such as resort operator Club Mediterranee, Cirque du Soleil and US insurer Ironshore Inc from 2013 to 2015, the Chinese conglomerate's debts bloated.

At Fosun International, they expanded 67 per cent to 115 billion yuan in 2015, 43 per cent of which is due by the end of December.

That's high enough for Fosun International to have more debt than equity. Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway Inc, which Fosun often compares itself to, had a debt-to-equity ratio of 33 per cent last year.

Also, Fosun International's net debt was more than 20 times its earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation last year.

That's more than double the average multiple for Chinese issuers with the minimum investment grade at Moody's and S&P, according to a sample of 27 companies compiled by Bloomberg.

As to acquisitions, Fosun isn't giving up on them, just limiting them to industries it defines as "health, wealth and happiness," according to Mr Liang. Recently, it agreed to buy Indian drugmaker Gland Pharma Ltd through its pharmaceutical unit (health), offered to invest in Banco Comercial Portugues SA (wealth) and purchased the Wolverhampton Wanderers Football Club (happiness).

Based on announced purchases in 2016, Fosun is headed for its lowest year for mergers and acquisitions since 2013, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

That's a contrast to the record US$152 billion in overseas purchases completed or announced by Chinese companies this year.

Beyond asset sales, the executives commented on the following. Chairman Guo said that despite Fosun embracing Buffett's example of using the insurance business's money to invest, the Chinese group considers itself different from Mr Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway. Fosun gets more involved in making strategic decisions in the companies it invests in, Mr Guo said.

President Wang said Fosun is targeting to grow into an empire with a market value of US$100 billion, though he didn't specify when that would occur. As of now, the total market capitalisation of Fosun-controlled companies is about US$27.5 billion, based on their last closing prices.

Mr Guo said the group will move away from centralised leadership to rely more heavily on its pool of internal partners. He also played down his role, saying: "I'm still important to Fosun, but not that important."

After the UK's vote to leave the European Union, Fosun sees much opportunity in the country's "wealth" industry - Fosun parlance for finance and some property - because people in the sector may want to exit to other nations after Brexit, Mr Liang said.

Regardless of who becomes the next US president, Fosun will be well placed, Mr Liang said.

Fosun has been refinancing its debt by increasing the proportion of longer-term liabilities after China cut interest rates, lowering the group's borrowing costs, Mr Liang said.

He singled out India and Russia as emerging markets with promising investment opportunities.

Fosun's first-half financials were "very good," Mr Liang said.

Fosun isn't satisfied with its current share price and plans to improve its credit rating, meet investors more frequently and push forward the listing of assets, Mr Liang said.

BLOOMBERG