SHANGHAI/LONDON For years, cash-rich Chinese investors have been highly sought after the world over. Now, their cash is losing its cachet.
China's increasing efforts to prevent capital from leaving the country are eroding the confidence of domestic and foreign investors about getting deals done inside and outside of the world's second-biggest economy.
Chinese bidders had become ubiquitous in deals in the past two years and were welcomed, said Severin Brizay, head of Europe, the Middle East and Africa mergers and acquisitions for the investment bank UBS.
"Clients were asking if it would be possible to make sure they are involved. Now, we are seeing the reverse: some clients are asking if we can do it without Chinese bidders because of the domestic challenges they face," he said.
Dealmakers said many Chinese firms are unable to close deals because they can not secure official permission to transfer yuan into foreign exchange.
This follows a series of measures by authorities since late last year to tighten restrictions on capital outflows and rein in what officials have called "irrational" outbound investment. The Institute of International Finance estimated capital outflows surged to a record $725 billion last year and it expects even higher outflows this year.
The yuan fell more than 6.5 percent last year against the dollar, its steepest decline since 1994, prompting the central bank to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in reserves to prevent the slide from turning into a slump.
China's foreign exchange regulator, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, said there were no restrictions on "genuine and compliant" international payments or transfers, and that it supported "healthy and orderly" overseas investment.
"We have all along supported foreign investment by companies with the ability and the conditions to do so," it said in response to Reuters' questions.
Still, the measures have had a dramatic impact, lawyers, bankers and analysts said.
Overseas direct investment (ODI) by Chinese in December fell almost 40 percent from a year earlier to $8.41 billion, the lowest monthly level in 2016. In January, overseas property purchases by Chinese corporations plunged.
Global stock index provider MSCI expressed concern about the capital outflow measures and China shelved plans for a new crude futures contract because potential foreign participants were worried they would not be able to take yuan profits out of the country.
Chinese conglomerate and cinema chain operator Dalian Wanda's proposed $1 billion purchase of U.S. entertainment group Dick Clark Productions Inc collapsed over problems getting currency out of China and regulatory approval, online website The Wrap said on Monday.
In another case, a Chinese investor was unable to get permission from authorities to exchange yuan into $30 million to close a U.S. deal, a consultant involved in the project said. The planned $100 million investment in a U.S. residential property portfolio fell through.
"Sellers nowadays will request certain proof," said Jeffrey Sun, a Shanghai-based partner at the legal practice of Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe. “From the sellers’ side, the worry is justified.”
Still, while Chinese regulators are putting proposed deals under greater scrutiny, it does not mean they are shutting the door on outbound investment, lawyers said.
Regulators will approve deals if they make economic sense, Sun said. For example, a steel manufacturer buying a soccer club "is unlikely" to be approved, he said.
Fund managers that help Chinese invest abroad, such as China Orient Summit Capital, are changing tack. The firm had been raising money in China for funds to target U.S. and European real estate. It is now looking to raise money in offshore markets, an executive at the company said.
China Orient Summit Capital declined a request for a formal interview.
Companies are also looking to avoid the approval process for buying foreign exchange if they have access to funds outside of China, lawyers and bankers said.
"Every deal at this point is looking for some way to identify offshore funds rather than deal with the capital controls," said an M&A lawyer in Shanghai, who declined to be identified.
Chinese companies raised a record $111 billion in offshore dollar bonds in 2016, according to data from Dealogic, up from $88 billion in 2015. Some of those funds would have been earmarked for overseas investments, said Ivan Chung, associate managing director at Moody’s ratings service.
Chinese conglomerate HNA Group announced about $20 billion in outbound deals last year. Thomson Reuters data shows it raised at least $17.05 billion in loans abroad in 2016.
Overall, China's outbound investment hit a record last year but could have been much higher, said the Rhodium Group, a consultancy that tracks direct investment from China. It said a record 30 deals worth $74 billion and involving Chinese companies were cancelled in the United States and Europe in 2016.
"Right now everybody is thoroughly freaked out by capital controls," Daniel Rosen, a Rhodium partner and adjunct professor at Columbia University, said.
Still, on Vancouver's upscale West Side, a neighborhood popular with foreign buyers where the price of homes runs in the millions of dollars, realtor Tom Gradecak was less worried about Chinese demand.
In the past, Chinese investors have tended to find ways around capital controls, he said.
"It won't take them long," he said. "The people that really want to come here, I don't think it's going to stop them."
(Reporting by John Ruwitch and Samuel Shen in SHANGHAI, Matt Miller in BEIJING, Dasha Afanasieva in LONDON, and Nicole Mordant in VANCOUVER; Editing by Neil Fullick)