By Julie Zhu and Shu Zhang
REUTERS - China's HNA Group said it had repurchased some of its bonds and planned to buy back more as one of the country's biggest banks stated the acquisitive conglomerate was experiencing repayment troubles.
In a statement issued late on Friday, China Citic Bank Corp said that HNA Group was "experiencing temporary liquidity difficulties", including difficulty repaying a commercial acceptance bill pledged by Hainan Airlines Holding Co, the conglomerate's flagship carrier.
Citic Bank had "expressed concern" and was working with HNA Group "to resolve the issue," it said in a statement.
When contacted by Reuters late on Friday, HNA denied that the group was facing any temporary liquidity difficulties or there was any repayment delays. It said its cooperation with Citic Bank was "fully normal".
HNA's $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 percent, compared with 82 percent seven years ago.
It also said that it has cooperative relationships with Chinese and foreign banks including UBS, Barclays and JPMorgan.
NON-CORE ASSETS SOLD
HNA subsidiaries have issued 5 billion yuan ($755 million) in domestic commercial paper over the last month, all yielding around 7 percent - 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 percent on a $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 $13 million worth of 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 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 U.S. 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.
(Reporting by Julie Zhu, Shu Zhang; and Matthew Miller; Editing by Anne Marie Roantree, Edwina Gibbs and Keith Weir)