Personal Wealth Management / Market Analysis

Neverpaide: An Update on Evergrande’s Apparent Offshore Debt Default

Evergrande defaults. World keeps turning.

For all intents and purposes, it appears the world’s most widely expected slow-motion corporate bond default finally happened yesterday. Yet markets basically shrugged and went up both Monday and Tuesday, in our view illustrating that developed-world markets have long since priced this and moved on.

That default belonged to Chinese property developer Evergrande, which failed to make an $82.5 million overdue bond interest payment by the time a 30-day grace period expired Monday, according to the always trusty “people familiar with the matter.” It won’t officially be a default until the bonds’ trustees or investors send Evergrande a formal letter, but paperwork aside, the d-word is a foregone conclusion. A second developer, Kaisa, is reportedly on the verge of following suit later today after failing to get creditors to agree to restructure its debt, likely leaving it unable to repay a maturing $400 million bond. Pundits continue warning of contagion and a property market collapse sparking China’s long-feared economic hard landing, but we still see precious little evidence of this. More likely: Evergrande’s collapse remains orderly and officials continue propping up property markets as needed to ensure social and economic stability ahead of the Communist Party’s 20th National Congress next year, where Xi Jinping is maneuvering for an unprecedented third term as party leader and Chinese President.

As the world learned (again) during the eurozone debt crisis a decade ago, there is an ocean of difference between a sudden, shocking default that happens when no backstops are in place—and an orderly, widely expected default that happens after officials prepared for it. The former is what everyone feared in 2010 and 2012, as Greece sought multiple bailouts and kept the world on a knife edge every time a payment came due. The latter is what we got in early 2012, as Greece compromised with creditors after the eurozone’s stability mechanisms were in place (and after investors had dealt with the likelihood of default for two years). Now, we always thought Greece’s issues were unlikely to cause major global ripples regardless. But it is worth remembering there was no contagion, no bank panic, no global bear market. Instead, Greece’s default arrived toward the end of the eurozone’s regional bear market. A strong recovery took hold weeks later, and the nascent bull market continued through two additional defaults. In short, markets worked as they always do, pre-pricing the widely expected credit event and moving on long before the dust was settled.

Evergrande, from our vantage point, is shaping up as an orderly default. It is certainly widely expected and well-telegraphed, considering the company disclosed its difficulty servicing debt well over a year ago. It has been missing bond payments since September and just barely making them before the grace periods expired. It has been selling assets for months. Last Friday, it announced plans to restructure offshore debt. Meanwhile, regulators have put backstops in place. The People’s Bank of China (PBOC) cut banks’ reserve requirements again on Monday, freeing up more capital for lending. Regulators have also directed banks to extend funding to solvent property developers, and a statement from the central Politburo’s latest meeting set economic stability as its top priority—specifically noting support for the property sector. That support should keep credit flowing while Evergrande slowly unwinds, a process officials have signaled is now underway. The state-run People’s Daily reports that a team from the provincial government of Guangdong is now helping “Evergrande resolve its risks, enhance its internal risk management and maintain normal business operation.” We wouldn’t read that as a bailout, considering the same article blasted Evergrande for its “mismanagement and break-neck expansion,” but it does indicate that construction on Evergrande’s reported 1.4 million sold-but-unfinished apartments will continue.[i] Making homebuyers whole while selling Evergrande’s business units to more stable companies seems consistent with maintaining economic and social stability.

Don’t underestimate that as a goal. Chinese officials have long been willing to tolerate weaker economic growth in the year before the National Party Congress (NPC), where party members select the next Politburo Standing Committee—which then elects a president. In some years, like 2011, we have seen evidence that they deliberately guided growth slower through tighter loan quotas. So late-2021’s weakening economic growth seems right on schedule. But, normally, that weakening is a prelude to stimulus in the year of the NPC, with the apparent aim of juicing growth to make the populace happy during the “election.” We aren’t clairvoyant and haven’t bugged anyone’s office in Beijing, but it wouldn’t shock us if officials are especially keen to deliver solid growth in 2022, as this is when Xi will be trying to lock down his unusual third term—paving the way to be president for life. Doing whatever it takes to prevent contagion and keep property markets humming seems like sound political strategy. Technocrats aren’t perfect, but China’s leaders have practice at containing property market troubles. They did so in 2015, when Kaisa defaulted for the first time, and they have plenty of firepower to do so again.

As for stocks, we think the gap between mainland Chinese and global developed markets is instructive. Chinese stocks remain in a bear market, which we think stems mostly from a sentiment overreaction toward large Internet firms with offshore stock listings tied to regulatory shifts. Perhaps real estate jitters have contributed to investors’ darkening mood, but we don’t view them as the proximate cause. But in the developed world, it is overwhelmingly clear that investors have sized up the Evergrande situation and moved on. It triggered some very short-term volatility in late September, but that was it. Today, as the world realized Evergrande was in de-facto default, the S&P 500 jumped more than 2% and closed a whisker below all-time highs—not what you would expect if Evergrande’s collapse were some global systemic risk or a big negative for the world’s second-largest economy.[ii]

So while headlines may dwell on Evergrande’s latest pronouncements, we think investors can tune them down. Despite the developer’s woes, China continues growing and adding to global GDP, which is more than enough to satisfy global stocks.

[i] “Chinese Regulators Say Evergrande Default an Individual Case, Impact Controllable,” Staff, Xinhua, 12/4/2021.

[ii] Source: FactSet, as of 12/7/2021. S&P 500 price return on 12/7/2021.

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.

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