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Chinese regulators meet with developer Evergrande as scrutiny on real estate grows

Chinese regulators meet with developer Evergrande as scrutiny on real estate grows

20 Aug 2021

A banner promoting the Emerald Bay residential project outside the China Evergrande Centre in the Wan Chai area of Hong Kong, China, on Friday, July 23, 2021.

Lam Yik | Bloomberg | Getty Images

BEIJING — Chinese authorities called for indebted property giant Evergrande to resolve its debt risks during a rare meeting with executives Thursday.

Shares of Hong Kong-listed China Evergrande Group have tumbled more than 60% this year to near four-year lows as investors worried about the developer’s ability to repay its debt. The stock closed 1.6% lower Friday, giving up initial gains.

The People’s Bank of China said Thursday in an online statement that it, along with the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, told Evergrande executives they need to implement the central government’s strategy for stable and healthy development of the real estate market.

The statement added Evergrande needs to “actively resolve” debt risks, support financial stability and disclose true information in accordance with regulations, according to a CNBC translation of the Chinese text.

The comments come a few days after Chinese President Xi Jinping said at a high-level economic policy meeting that the country needs to prevent major financial risks.

Evergrande confirmed the meeting with regulators in an online statement Friday and said it would comply with those specific requests.

As one of China’s largest privately run real estate conglomerates, Evergrande sits at the intersection of major concerns for Beijing: speculation in the property market, high debt levels and the sustainability of an industry that fuels more than a quarter of GDP.

Evergrande has more than 240 billion yuan ($37 billion) in bills and trade payables — such as materials — to settle with contractors over the next 12 months, S&P Global Ratings said earlier this month. About 100 billion yuan, or just over 40%, is due by the end of December, S&P said.

The ratings agency downgraded Evergrande and its subsidiaries to “CCC” from “B-” on Aug. 5 on expectations the conglomerate’s “nonpayment risk is escalating because of increased asset freezes from various commercial parties, indicating strained liquidity.”

“The negative outlook reflects Evergrande’s increasing strained liquidity and nonpayment risk. It also reflects our view that its asset disposal plan, though potentially substantial, lacks visibility or certainty,” S&P said in a note.

An analyst was not available Friday to comment on the meeting with regulators.

Chinese authorities have been trying to limit speculative activity in the property market, which, together with related industries such as construction, accounts for more than a quarter of China’s GDP, according to Moody’s estimates published in a late July report.

Beijing is particularly concerned about a buildup in debt used to fuel property development. In the last year, three “red lines” have emerged for limiting the amount of debt real estate companies can hold relative to their assets.

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The latest developments around Evergrande reflect authorities’ focus on limiting risks in the real estate market with greater regulation for the rest of this year, said Bruce Pang, head of macro and strategy research at China Renaissance.

“A favorable regulatory environment and fine-tuning policy curb are crucial to decide whether Evergrande could ride out its crisis smoothly,” Pang said. “Investors will closely follow the potential deals for signs on how much leniency Evergrande has won from Beijing, [regarding] the property sector’s liquidity issues amid a campaign to balance between curbing financial risks and securing social stability.”

The Chinese regulators’ meeting with Evergrande comes as Beijing has accelerated its regulation of different fast-growing industries — primarily tech-related — in the last year.

In early November, the central bank, banking and insurance regulator and other departments met with Alibaba founder Jack Ma and executives of financial technology giant Ant Group. A few days later, Ant had to suspend its massive IPO, and began a series of meetings with regulators that has forced the company to restructure as a financial holding company.

Previously, in the last few years, Chinese authorities have stepped in to limit the debt-fueled expansion of conglomerates such as airline operator HNA and insurance company Anbang.

Rising household debt

Reducing property market risks is even more critical for China since the majority of household wealth is tied up in real estate, at about 70% to 80%, according to Moody’s estimates. The report added about 10% of total household income is related to property.

While authorities have repeatedly stressed that “houses are for living in, not speculation,” Chinese households’ greater preference for investing in property than stocks or other assets has contributed to rising real estate prices.

That, in turn, has caused Chinese household debt to rise.

The balance of consumer housing loans has only climbed over the last several years, to reach 36.6 trillion yuan as of the end of June, according to official data. The 13% year-on-year growth rate was slower than the 14.5% rate of 2020.

The inability of the property market to serve individual housing needs has contributed to a rapid rise in household debt, said Liu Xiangdong, deputy director of the economic research department at the China Center for International Economic Exchanges based in Beijing.

He noted China’s property issues are tied to the education system’s problems. Parents anxious to send their children to top schools have bid up nearby housing prices — which local authorities such as those in Beijing have tried to push back on.

For Evergrande, residential real estate development remains one of its major businesses, but the company has climbed into the ranks of Fortune’s Global 500 list and expanded into industries such as film and entertainment, life insurance and spring water. Evergrande backs Guangzhou’s soccer team and has an electric car unit.