Why China's economy is threatened by property giant Evergrande's debt problems

The China Evergrande Centre in Hong Kong on Aug 25, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (NYTIMES) - Every once in a while, a company grows so big and messy that governments fear what would happen to the broader economy if it were to fail. In China, Evergrande, a sprawling real estate developer, is that company.

China Evergrande Group has the distinction of being the world's most debt-saddled property developer and has been on life support for months. A steady drumbeat of bad news in the recent weeks has accelerated what many experts warn is inevitable: failure.

Ratings agency Fitch said this week that default "appears probable". Moody's, another ratings agency, said Evergrande is out of cash and time.

Evergrande is faced with more than US$300 billion (S$402 billion) in debt, hundreds of unfinished residential buildings and angry suppliers who have shut down construction sites. The company has even started to pay overdue bills by handing over unfinished properties.

Observers are watching to see if Chinese regulators make good on their pledge to clean up the country's corporate sector by letting "debt bombs" like Evergrande collapse.

How did Evergrande become such a problem?

In its glory days a decade ago, Evergrande sold bottled water, owned China's best professional soccer team and even briefly dabbled in pig farming. It became so big and sprawling that it even has a unit that makes electric cars, though it has delayed mass production.

Today, Evergrande is seen as a rickety threat to China's biggest banks.

The company, which was founded in 1996, rode China's epic property boom that urbanised large swathes of the country and resulted in nearly three-quarters of household wealth being tied up in housing. This put Evergrande at the centre of power in an economy that came to lean on the property market for supercharged economic growth.

Its billionaire founder, Mr Xu Jiayin, is a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, an elite group of politically well-connected advisers. Mr Xu's connections probably gave creditors more confidence to keep lending money to Evergrande as it grew and expanded into new businesses. Eventually, though, Evergrande ended up with more debt than it could pay off.

In recent years, it has faced lawsuits from home buyers who are still waiting for the completion of apartments they partially paid for. Suppliers and creditors have claimed hundreds of billions of dollars in outstanding bills. Some have suspended construction on Evergrande projects.

Why is the company in so much trouble now?

Evergrande might have been able to keep going if it were not for two problems.

First, Chinese regulators are cracking down on the reckless borrowing habits of property developers. This has forced Evergrande to start selling off some of its sprawling business empire. That is not going so well. It has yet to sell its electric vehicle business, despite talks with prospective buyers. Some experts say buyers are waiting for a fire sale.

Second, China's property market is slowing and there is less demand for new apartments. This week, the National Institution for Finance and Development, a prominent Beijing think-tank, declared that the property market boom "has shown signs of a turning point", citing weak demand and slowing sales data.

Much of the cash that Evergrande has been able to drum up has come from presold apartments that are not yet completed. Evergrande has nearly 800 projects across China that are unfinished, and as many as 1.2 million people who are still waiting to move into their new homes, according to research from REDD Intelligence.

Evergrande has slashed prices on new apartments but even that has failed to entice new buyers. In August, it made one-quarter fewer sales than it did a year ago.

Will Chinese regulators step in to save it?

Beijing will be tempted to say "no", but a collapse could cause serious damage, leaving home owners, suppliers and domestic investors - potentially numbering in the millions - unhappy. And Beijing has ultimately moved to shore up other large companies with big problems in the past.

For years, many investors gave money to companies like Evergrande because they believed that, at the end of the day, Beijing would always step in to rescue it if things got too shaky. And for decades, the investors have been right. But over the past several years, the authorities have shown greater willingness to let companies fail in order to rein in China's unsustainable debt problem.

The authorities hauled Evergrande executives into a meeting last month and told them to get its debt in order. They have also continued to tell its banks to scale back their lending to the developer.

How would Evergrande's failure affect China's economy?

A campaign by the central bank to tame property debt and reduce the banking sector's exposure to troubled developers should mean that an Evergrande failure would have less of an impact on China's financial system.

The reality may be more complicated.

Panic from investors and home buyers could spill over into the property market and hit prices, affecting household wealth and confidence. It could also shake global financial markets and make it harder for other Chinese companies to continue to finance their businesses with foreign investment.

Writing in The Financial Times last week, billionaire investor George Soros warned that an Evergrande default could cause China's economy to crash.

Finance professor Chen Zhiwu of the University of Hong Kong said a failure could result in a credit crunch for the entire economy as financial institutions become more risk-averse. An Evergrande failure, he added, was "not good news to the financial system or the overall economy".

Not everyone is as pessimistic. Mr Bruce Pang, an economist at China Renaissance Securities, said a default could lay the groundwork for a healthier economy in future. "If Evergrande were to fail with the fading belief of 'too big to fail', it will prove Beijing's more tolerance for defaults despite pains and disruption in the short term," said Mr Pang.

Should foreign investors be concerned?

Foreign investors are owed US$7.4 billion in bond payments from Evergrande next year alone. At various points this year, they have panicked, sending trading of the bonds in the secondary market to new depths. Over the past week, Evergrande bond notes were going for 50 cents on the dollar. Trading in its debt was so frenzied at one point that regulators briefly put a stop to trading.

The company's main share listing in Hong Kong has lost more than three-quarters of its value over the past year.

Foreign investors are worried that if Evergrande fails, all the money they are owed will vanish into thin air. The authorities in Beijing have indicated that they are no longer willing to bail out foreign and domestic bond holders. In any bankruptcy proceeding, they would be low on the list of creditors to get any of the Chinese company's assets.

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