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China's HNA repurchases some bonds in fresh move to reassure investors

[HONG KONG] Chinese conglomerate HNA Group said on Friday it had repurchased some of its bonds and planned to buy back more - its latest move to counter concerns that it is facing a liquidity crunch.

HNA's US$50 billion worth of deal-making in the past two years has sparked intense scrutiny of its opaque ownership and use of leverage. In June, the Chinese government told major banks to review their credit exposure to HNA and a handful of other non-state companies, putting pressure on its finances.

The airlines-to-financial services conglomerate said in a statement it had repurchased the bonds due to the "impact of recent market fluctuations" on prices but did not provide further details about the repurchases.

But HNA said it believed its finances were "stronger than ever" and that its debt-to-equity ratio now stands at 59.5 per cent, compared with 82 per cent seven years ago.

It also said that it has cooperative relationships with Chinese and foreign banks including UBS, Barclays and JPMorgan.

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HNA subsidiaries have issued five billion yuan (S$1.02 billion) in domestic commercial paper over the last month, all yielding around seven per cent - a level considered high by analysts.

Last month, HNA Group International Company Limited (HNAI), its Hong Kong-based international arm, agreed to a coupon of 8.875 per cent on a US$300 million one-year bond - a rate one investor advisor described as "scary high".

HNA executives, speaking in an interview with Reuters last week, attributed the more expensive notes to tightening domestic markets, especially as the government moves to deleverage the economy as well as to a challenging global macroeconomic environment.

The executives also said that while HNA would not sell assets blindly, it has been disposing of non-core businesses in line with the group's strategy. The company says it already has"cleaned up" more than 100 non-core units this year.

In other moves to boost investor confidence, senior HNA executives have also agreed to purchase US$13 million shares in HNA leasing subsidiary Bohai Capital Holdings, Bohai said on Wednesday.

HNA also said in a separate statement on Wednesday that it had met with officials from the branches of eight major Chinese banks to discuss lending to the group in 2018. It did not disclose further details of the meeting.

The conglomerate has found itself facing additional scrutiny and due diligence checks from financial regulators and some global banks following its July announcement that indicated two named shareholders were actually acting as proxies for company founding executives.

Reuters reported in September that Goldman Sachs had suspended its preliminary work on a planned US listing for HNA's IT outsourcing unit Pactera, after the deal failed to meet the bank's internal due diligence requirements, or"know-your-customer" checks.

HNA is moving forward to clear know-your-customer checks with some Wall Street banks, its executives told Reuters last week.


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