China’s Evergrande, facing collapse under debt mountain, decides silence is golden

4 weeks ago 19

Facing collapse under a mountain of debt, giant Chinese property developer Evergrande kept silent on Friday after missing a key interest payment, as the group struggles to restart home building in China and the government warned it against causing instability.

By Friday afternoon in Asia, the group had not released any statements about a $83.5 million interest payment on an offshore bond that was due on Thursday. Bondholders confirmed to Bloomberg News that they had not received the transfers on time. The terms grant a 30-day grace period before a missed payment counts as a default.

Evergrande’s model of rapid, debt-fueled expansion during the boom years of China’s urbanization made the group one of the country’s largest developers and briefly turned Xu Jiayin, its founder, into China’s wealthiest business person. Chinese cities are dotted with Evergrande’s high-rise apartments, many of them snapped up as investments by newly minted members of the country’s burgeoning middle class in recent years.

But a slowdown in property markets and a government campaign to halt lending to overleveraged developers is threatening to sink the group, which has debts of $305 billion, or about 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Despite uncertainty over Evergrande’s fate, financial markets remained broadly stable on Friday and avoided a return to frantic trading seen earlier in the week, when fears spiked that the group’s imminent collapse would infect the global financial system.

The lack of a second panic in markets on Friday probably reflected that international creditors were resigned to a missed payment, said Travis Lundy, an independent analyst based in Hong Kong.

At the same time, Evergrande has been called out by Chinese authorities for failing to ensure stability and avert protests by homeowners, employees and suppliers, who swarmed the company’s headquarters last week.

In a late-night meeting with 4,000 managers on Wednesday, Xu laid out a hierarchy of concerns for Evergrande, starting with an obligation to “smoothly deliver a good number of quality buildings.” Only when construction was fully restarted would the company be able to pay its debts, he said.

In a sign of the authorities’ efforts to forestall further social unrest, the housing bureau in Nansha district of Guangzhou in southern China has said that income from the Evergrande Sunny Peninsula project — a seaside development spanning 1,300 acres — will be paid into the government’s account for “stability maintenance,” according to a notice shared by a local property news account on China’s Twitter-like Weibo platform.

The focus on unfinished homes and disgruntled buyers means that other parts of the conglomerate’s sprawling operations, including an electric vehicle company that is building multiple factories but has yet to sell a single car, may be left behind.

Reports that the Hong Kong-listed automaker had stopped paying employees sunk its share price by 18 percent on Friday. Lei Xun, legal representative for a Xi’an-based construction company that holds short-term debt in the company, said its operations in the central Chinese city had come to a halt and he has no expectation of being repaid when the commercial paper is due.

Evergrande’s efforts to quietly wait out the crisis come as the ruling Chinese Communist Party has signaled it is running out of patience with real estate companies that gamble with China’s economic health and social cohesion.

The Economic Daily, an official party newspaper, on Wednesday laid out its concerns over mismanaged property development in an article that highlighted the deep influence of real estate on employment and the overall health of the world’s second-largest economy.

The current problems may have been caused by individual companies’ debt, but the whole sector needed to heed the warning and get its affairs in order quickly to avoid future financial risks, the newspaper said.

The use of over-indebtedness as a way to grow a business is fundamentally a kind of speculation and greed that the authorities want to end, Lundy said. “The government is finally taking people to task for exploiting others in the name of getting rich.”

Pei Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

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