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HSBC is said to step up scrutiny of China's indebted HNA Group

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HSBC Holdings, Europe's biggest bank by assets, has told its dealmakers to avoid pursuing business for now with embattled Chinese conglomerate HNA Group, people with knowledge of the matter said.

[HONG KONG] HSBC Holdings, Europe's biggest bank by assets, has told its dealmakers to avoid pursuing business for now with embattled Chinese conglomerate HNA Group, people with knowledge of the matter said.

Senior HSBC officials told bankers in recent months not to pitch HNA for new merger advisory work or lend additional money to the conglomerate, according to the people.

 The bank stepped up its scrutiny of HNA this autumn, one of the people said, asking not to be identified because the information is private.

The London-based lender's concerns center on HNA's heavy debt load and the potential reputational risk from working with them, according to the person.

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While HSBC had largely steered clear of advising HNA in the past, particularly at the group level, its bankers were still able to pitch deals to the Chinese conglomerate earlier this year, another person said. 

The move comes after Chinese regulators asked some local banks in June to report overseas loan exposure to acquisitive companies including HNA. HSBC joins other firms like Bank of America Corp, Citigroup Inc and Morgan Stanley, which are avoiding advisory and financing work for HNA because they are unable to get internal approvals, people with knowledge of the matter said in July. 

HNA said at the time that cooperation between its acquired units and Bank of America Merrill Lynch is proceeding normally.  Increasing Difficulties Banks regularly reassess their comfort with potential clients, and HSBC's stance toward HNA could change, the people said. A spokesman for HSBC declined to comment, while a representative for HNA said he couldn't immediately comment.

The Chinese conglomerate is facing increasing difficulties raising funds as scrutiny mounts over the acquisitive conglomerate's surging borrowing costs.

In recent weeks, S&P Global Ratings and Fitch Ratings have voiced concerns about at least four companies because of their ties with HNA. Separately, group flagship Hainan Airlines Holding canceled a bond sale, another unit scrapped a stock offering and HNA subsidiaries have been paying some of their highest borrowing costs ever.

HNA is considering selling assets, suggesting the company is reversing a shopping spree that's strained its finances.

The group has announced more than US$40 billion (S$54 billion) of asset purchases since the beginning of 2016, including stakes in hotel operator Hilton Worldwide Holdings and Deutsche Bank AG, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

HNA has a "healthy and stable debt structure" and doesn't see any default risk in the coming years, board director Zhao Quan said in an interview Friday. The conglomerate has used over 500 billion yuan (S$103.3 billion) of credit lines totaling about 800 billion yuan, and it has smooth cooperation with financial institutions, according to Zhao.

Interest expenses at HNA more than doubled to a record 15.6 billion yuan in the first half from a year earlier, data compiled by Bloomberg show. Its short-term debt expanded to 185.2 billion yuan, exceeding its cash pile.

BLOOMBERG