As China's property crisis spreads, Beijing says there's nothing to see

Evergrande's financial woes have already set off a broader panic that has contributed to a wave of defaults among other developers. PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - When times were flush for the property developer China Fortune Land, it bought a trophy soccer club and recruited star athletes from Argentina. These days, the players with the club, Hebei F.C., are on indefinite leave because it cannot afford to keep the lights on.

The developer is one of a growing number facing financial strain in China, challenging the narrative from Beijing that it can keep the country's corporate debt crisis under control while avoiding the disorderly collapse of its property giants.

Global markets just weeks ago were fretting over the possible failure of China Evergrande Group, the world's most indebted property developer. Central bankers and financial figures considered the impact that its more than US$300 billion (S$404 billion) of unpaid debts would have on China's economy if Beijing stuck to its commitment not to provide a bailout.

The tumult at Evergrande appeared to die down more recently after the company made payments on multimillion-dollar bonds. But its financial woes have already set off a broader panic that has contributed to a wave of defaults among other developers. And their troubles are mounting.

Money is becoming harder to find because the cost of borrowing has soared, fewer people are buying apartments and the value of property is falling. Property companies have US$40 billion of payments to make to foreign investors alone over the next two months, according to one estimate.

Kaisa Group, China's first developer to default on overseas debt six years ago, told investors last week that it was facing "unprecedented pressure." The stress to Chinese developers is so intense that the US Federal Reserve flagged it as a potential risk to the U.S. economy in a report this week.

As Chinese real estate developers fail to meet their most basic financial obligations, experts are warning that Evergrande's problems have already started to have a dangerous spillover effect. Evergrande and Beijing are managing the company's struggles under a veil of secrecy, allowing it to meet some payment deadlines without explaining how.

The approach may stem panic, but it papers over broader pressures on the sector and an economy that has long turned to the property market to help power its growth.

"The fundamental situation for Evergrande hasn't really changed," said Matthew Chow, a China property analyst and director at S&P Global Ratings. "We remain sure that default is almost a certainty."

Another potentially devastating deadline for Evergrande approaches on Wednesday (Nov 10), when the grace period on US$150 million worth of bond payments will end. It is unclear how Evergrande has been able to secure the money needed to make its recent payments when the company has no cash, no one is buying its apartments and a very long line of creditors stands outside its doors.

More than 1 million homebuyers are waiting for unfinished apartments, and the company may owe money to just as many construction workers and painters, landscapers and employees. Michael Yang, an Evergrande salesperson in the southern city of Chongqing, is one of them.

His monthly salary at Evergrande, including commission, used to be US$3,900. But Yang said he received a notice last month informing him that, beginning in November, he would be suspended for a year with a minimum pay of US$280 a month.

An idle construction site for an Evergrande residential project in Taiyuan, China, on Oct 20, 2201. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"It's not enough for me in Chongqing, for sure," he said.

Mr Yang said Evergrande told him and other colleagues that the money the company saved by not paying regular salaries would be used to finish construction on apartments that it had sold but not yet completed. The news was so discouraging, Mr Yang said, that he has already started interviewing for new jobs, even though he and his new wife are planning to start a family.

In the absence of information from Evergrande about how it will find the money to keep its operations going, China's Internet was briefly alight last month with reports that authorities planned to force Evergrande's billionaire founder, Xu Jiayin, to help pay some of the millions of people to whom the company owes money.

Evergrande would not confirm the reports, which were repeated in state media. Instead, it published photographs of a dozen development projects that it said had just been completed.

"All employees of the group swear to ensure the construction of the project with the greatest determination and strength, and complete the delivery of the real estate with the highest quality and quantity," Evergrande posted on one of its accounts on the social media app WeChat.

Authorities planned to force Evergrande's billionaire founder, Xu Jiayin, to help pay some of the millions of people to whom the company owes money. PHOTO: AFP

Chinese households do not seem to be buying it. Across the country, property developers have warned of plummeting sales. Evergrande reported a 97 per cent drop during its most recent sales period compared with a year ago. The fall in reported sales at Kaisa prompted Fitch to downgrade its rating of the company onTuesday.

Chinese authorities have tried to instill confidence and reassure investors by calling Evergrande's risks manageable and pledging to ease China's capital controls on the movement of money in and out of the country, which would help Evergrande and other property developers make payments to foreign creditors.

The National Development and Reform Commission summoned some of the country's biggest developers to a meeting in Beijing last month and called on them to make "active preparations" to meet payments to foreign investors. The regulator emphasized the importance of following "financial discipline and market rules."

While Beijing had previously indicated that it would not intervene to save Evergrande - part of a wider strategy to clean up the sector's debt problem - Chinese authorities have a history of quietly rescuing the country's corporate giants.

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