Personal Wealth Management / Market Analysis

Putting China’s Evergrande Saga in Perspective

Weighing the potential of a large, heavily indebted Chinese property developer’s possible default.

Editors’ Note: The following discussion covers developments involving individual companies and, as such, please note that MarketMinder doesn’t make individual security recommendations. Specific securities are solely discussed herein to help illustrate and explain our view of the potential broader impact of developments.

A holiday kept China’s equity markets closed on Monday, but that didn’t stop fears of a Chinese real estate developer potentially failing to pay interest on its debt (i.e., defaulting) from roiling sentiment globally, driving global equity markets to drop -1.1% on the day.[i] Many financial commentators we follow globally warned that China Evergrande Group, with its roughly $300 billion (£219.9 billion) in debt, faces default.[ii] Some argue this could be China’s version of Lehman Brothers’ collapse in 2008, triggering a financial crisis that would be a most unwelcome Chinese export. Whilst a default is looking likely, in our view, there are many reasons to question the theory the outcome would be so bad: Our research and study of history show China has the means, motive and opportunity to prevent big fallout; markets are likely well aware of the situation; and we doubt it presents a material global risk.

Evergrande, China’s largest property developer, began life in 1996 as the Hengda Group, headquartered in Guangzhou. The company’s chief business is residential real estate development—it claims to have nearly 2,800 projects in 310 Chinese cities (chiefly, apartments).[iii] But it isn’t limited to this. The company also has businesses engaged in electric vehicle (EV) production, healthcare and a theme park, among others. All in all, Evergrande has roughly 200,000 employees, and many more Chinese investors are likely exposed to Evergrande through its corporate debt securities and other debt investments called wealth management products (WMPs).

Over the past two decades, Evergrande has used its ample access to credit via WMPs, onshore and offshore corporate debt issuance to finance a rapid expansion. It would pre-sell apartments to Chinese citizens, using the revenue to stay current on debt. One research outfit quoted by The Wall Street Journal estimated it currently has 1.4 million unfinished apartments presold, valued at roughly $200 billion (£146.6 billion).[iv] But in the last few years, China has been tightening regulation and credit for the property market, an effort to cool fast-rising prices. Official reports show regulators have capped banks’ real estate lending—to both developers and mortgage borrowers—overhauled property auctions and even implemented price controls on home sales in select cities. Furthermore, last year Chinese regulators drew up a policy dubbed “three red lines” that restricted real estate developers’ leverage. In our view, it is therefore unsurprising that real estate investment has cooled dramatically after an early-year spike.[v]

Last September, Evergrande started encountering issues servicing its debt, warning Chinese officials in a letter that it may miss interest payments due to investors in January 2021. However, before defaulting, the company reached an agreement with investors holding some $13 billion (£9.5 billion) in debt to convert their holdings into equity.[vi] Since then, Evergrande has been trying to sell some of its stakes in underlying businesses like EV production to investors. It is also attempting to liquidate property rather swiftly. Yet debt service troubles remain, according to most reports we have seen. At this point, Evergrande is paying some suppliers and WMP holders in kind—with unfinished apartments.[vii] Construction has largely halted. It faces $84 million (£61.6 million) in interest payments this week and another $48 million (£35.2 million) on 29 September, and we think default is looking increasingly likely.[viii]

Still, we see many reasons to think a financial crisis won’t follow. For one, China could easily step in. The government, which has increasingly allowed corporate defaults to proceed (a long-term positive, in our view), doesn’t seem likely to actually bail out Evergrande, considering it is a highly leveraged company in an industry the government is attempting to rein in. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t let the company fail and then make onshore investors, suppliers and workers whole (or somewhere near whole) thereafter. They have done it before (e.g., when Chaori Solar defaulted in 2014), and we think they have many reasons to do it again.[ix] We think China’s single-party government places a high value on social stability to ensure it retains power—especially now, given the celebration of the country’s founding—China’s Golden Week—starts 1 October. Allowing retail investors to take big losses on Evergrande securities—or property they pre-purchased—could foment instability. In some ways, it already has: People exposed to Evergrande are protesting nationwide. Some are workers, whom management “asked” to invest in the company (or lose their bonus).[x] Others are reportedly would-be apartment owners.

Regardless of how that plays out, we think it is critical to note: None of this is sneaking up on markets. Issues involving Evergrande have made headlines for months now. Its debt securities presently trade at 70% – 80% under face value at issuance—a level suggesting markets know default looks imminent.[xi] On the equity side, Hong Kong-listed shares of China Evergrande Group entered this week down -83% in 2021.[xii] With declines of that magnitude, it is difficult to argue the current scenario isn’t pre-priced into efficient markets, in our view. Absent surprise power, it is a bit hard to see how this would trigger a financial crisis.

Even if China’s government takes no action at all, we doubt the impact outside the country would be very big. Despite incremental reforms over the years, China’s markets are still walled off from the world to a very large extent. International banks, largely prevented from operating in mainland China by government rule, don’t have material exposure to Evergrande or Chinese real estate in general. According to research from UBS, Chinese banks have limited exposure, too: Higher-risk property developers account for 4.5% of large banks’ outstanding loans and 6.3% of regional banks’. WMP exposure is unclear, as the market is opaque. But those broadly aren’t owned outside the country, restricting the global reach. The chief aspect of potential international exposure is roughly $20 billion (£14.7 billion) in offshore debt securities, but again, those are already trading as if the company defaulted (a default doesn’t mean a debt security has zero value), and we think that scope is too small to create big ripples globally.

In our view, the chief way a Chinese financial crisis could impact the world economy is if the country entered a recession and sapped demand. But a property market downturn doesn’t look sizable enough to us to generate that. Could it slow growth? Sure. Construction, real estate, renting and leasing activities accounted for more than 17% of Chinese GDP in 2019 (used to avoid lockdown skew, although this may overstate the impact, considering construction includes many projects unrelated to residential real estate).[xiii] (GDP is a government-produced measure of economic output.) But a recession? Less likely, in our view. When China’s property market hit the skids in 2015, China still grew nicely and generated a chunk of global demand.[xiv]

Evergrande isn’t the first example of a troubled Chinese company stirring too big to fail fears. In 2017, it was HNA Group. In 2019, Baoshang Bank. Just a couple of months ago several financial commentators we follow were convinced bad-debt-investing group Huarong was set to send China reeling. These repeat issues suggest to us that China still has a long way to go in its financial reforms and liberalisations. They could present headwinds to aspects of the Chinese economy. They could even roil sentiment globally long enough for equity markets in the developed world to reach correction territory (a correction is a short, sharp, sentiment-driven move of -10% to -20%). But in our view, they likely lack the power and reach to trigger a global bear market.

[i] Source: FactSet, as of 21/9/2021. MSCI World Index price return in GBP on 20/9/2021.

[ii] “China’s Embattled Developer Evergrande Is on the Brink of Default. Here’s Why It Matters,” Weizhen Tan, CNBC, 16/9/2021.

[iii] Source: Evergrande Group company website, as of 20/9/2021.

[iv] “How Beijing’s Debt Clampdown Shook the Foundation of a Real-Estate Colossus,” Xie Yu and Elaine Yu, The Wall Street Journal, 18/9/2021. Accessed via

[v] Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China, as of 20/9/2021.

[vi] “Why Evergrande’s Investors Can’t Afford to Force a Default,” Staff, Bloomberg, 27/10/2020. Accessed via MSN Money.

[vii] “Evergrande Begins Repaying Wealth Product Investors With Property,” Staff, Reuters, 19/9/2021. Accessed via Yahoo! Finance.

[viii] “China Tells Banks Evergrande Won’t Pay Interest Next Week,” Staff, Bloomberg, 15/9/2021. Accessed via Yahoo! Finance.

[ix] “Chaori Bailout Shows Beijing’s Desire to Protect Bond Market,” Charlie Zhu and Umesh Desai, Reuters, 9/10/2014.

[x] “Evergrande Gave Workers a Choice: Lend Us Cash or Lose Your Bonus,” Alexandra Stevenson and Cao Li, The New York Times, 19/9/2021. Accessed via The Seattle Times.

[xi] “Evergrande Moment of Truth Arrives With Bond Payment Deadlines,” Rebecca Choong Wilkins, Bloomberg, 18/9/2021. Accessed via Yahoo! Finance.

[xii] Source: FactSet, as of 20/9/2021. Evergrande price return in GBP, 31/12/2020 – 17/9/2021.

[xiii] See Note v.

[xiv] Ibid.

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