Evergrande dream may become nightmare for property buyers

Debt woes, slow sales mean China developer does not have enough cash to finish projects

SHENZHEN • Sleepless nights are now the routine for Ms Ji Wenchen, six months after she put up a US$100,000 (S$134,000) deposit on a new apartment that has yet to be completed by rattled property giant China Evergrande Group.

"I can barely eat or sleep these days," said the 30-year-old, who has yet to receive documents showing she owns the apartment.

"My name has not been written on the apartment - that means Evergrande has not handed over my money to the local government.

"As a rule, it should be filed within one month."

Ms Ji is one of tens of thousands of ordinary investors whose financial fortunes are pegged to promised windfalls from China's largest developer, whose expansion into 280 cities was driven by the same US$300 billion debt binge that has now left it teetering.

Analyst Capital Economics estimates Evergrande has some 1.4 million properties that it has committed to complete - around 1.3 trillion yuan (S$271 billion) in pre-sale liabilities as at the end of June.

But those developments and debt repayments have been thrown into doubt as the company has struggled to sell properties, meaning it does not have the cash to complete other projects.

It has also failed to offload assets, such as its Hong Kong headquarters as well as units including China Evergrande New Energy Vehicle Group.

Yesterday, the company filed a statement to the Hong Kong exchange, warning of the "tremendous pressure" it faces. "There is no guarantee that the group will be able to meet its financial obligations," it said.

The housing group, which rode the investment wave of the 1990s to capitalise on the country's wealth boom, is now struggling to meet metrics imposed by Beijing last year.

The "three red lines" set limits on borrowing and forced property developers to reduce their liabilities, following years when China let companies borrow heavily in order to expand.

Many offered attractive incentives to home buyers to shift new-build properties.

But now complaints pepper Chinese social media from frustrated Evergrande customers, whose investments seem to have stalled.

One wrote that he had bought an apartment in a block in south-western Kunming that was supposed to have been completed last month, but the building is still not finished and the construction site is empty.

Several hundred buyers marched on the Evergrande offices in southern Shenzhen last month, according to pictures posted on Twitter-like Weibo, demanding money back from the embattled developer. Protesters returned on Monday.

"I'm worried about my apartment. It was supposed to be delivered before Oct 31, according to the contract," said Mr Kevin, a buyer in Jiaozuo in Henan province.

"But I asked Evergrande a few days ago, and they said it may be delayed because they don't have enough workers. I don't have any other choice but to wait."

Owning property has become an important social marker of wealth in China, and it is often considered a requirement for a man before getting married.

But stabilising the market has become a key aim of Chinese President Xi Jinping, under the motto: "Housing is for living, not for speculation".

With the sector making up more than a quarter of the economy, and with millions of families tying up their wealth in property ownership, experts have warned of potentially dire consequences if house prices drop below the cost of mortgages.

But the credit squeeze in the sector is "unnecessarily aggressive" and may weigh on industrial demand and consumption, experts at the Bank of America told Bloomberg.

Evergrande's woes come amid a state crackdown on a range of corporate giants, including many listed home-grown conglomerates, sending shivers through stock markets as investors lose confidence in China's private sector.

Meanwhile, some analysts warned that the government has little incentive to rescue Evergrande, particularly as Beijing tightens up on what it sees as excessive wealth and runaway spending.

Capital Economics predicted that, in the event the group implodes, Beijing would prioritise buyers like Ms Ji to prevent the economic blow from morphing into social anger.

But it means anxious days ahead for buyers who have piled life savings into new apartments.

Ms Ji just hopes to get back the down payment, which was a gift from her parents to help her onto the property ladder, but fears it will be difficult.

"When I bought this apartment, I believed Evergrande," she said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 15, 2021, with the headline 'Evergrande dream may become nightmare for property buyers'. Subscribe