It’s crunch time for China’s Evergrande

It’s crunch time for China’s heavily-indebted Evergrande Group.

The sprawling Chinese real estate conglomerate faces a critical test on Thursday: can it meet its obligations to bondholders, or will it slip closer to default?

Evergrande is due to pay $83.5 million worth of interest on a dollar-denominated bond on Thursday, according to data from Refinitiv. It’s not clear yet whether the company will make that payment. Investors have already been rattled by the risk that one of China’s biggest developers could collapse, sending shockwaves through the world’s second biggest economy.

The company is also scheduled to pay interest on a yuan bond due the same day, though it has already reached an agreement with bondholders on that payment, according to a stock exchange filing from Evergrande on Wednesday.

Following the announcement, Evergrande’s stock rebounded as much as 32% on Thursday, as the Hong Kong market reopened following a holiday. The broader Hang Seng Index advanced nearly 2%, boosted by property and financial shares.

“The focus is now shifted to its dollar bond interest payment due today after it resolves its domestic bond payment, ” said Yeap Jun Rong, market strategist for IG Group, in a research report on Thursday.

Markets will be awaiting further resolution on its subsequent bond payments in order to have “a greater conviction on easing contagion risks,” he said.

Chinese Estates, the second largest shareholder of Evergrande and a long-time business ally of the company, said Thursday in a stock exchange filing that it has already sold HK$246.5 million worth of Evergrande shares in the past few weeks. The company may also sell the remaining shares, it added. Chinese Estates surged nearly 7% in Hong Kong.

Even if Evergrande doesn’t make the $83.5 million payment immediately, it may still have some time. The company has a 30-day grace period before “officially defaulting,” wrote Jeffrey Halley, senior market analyst for Asia Pacific at Oanda, in a research note this week.

But any missed deadline will fuel investor anxiety over the viability of the company.

Evergrande is stumbling under $300 billion worth of debt, which is widely held by Chinese financial institutions, retail investors, home buyers and its suppliers in construction, materials and design industries. Foreign investors also hold some of its debt. Over the last few weeks, the company warned investors twice that it could default if it’s unable to raise money quickly.

It’s not yet clear whether the company will actually default, or whether Beijing will intervene and orchestrate some type of restructuring to contain the fallout on the financial system and the broader Chinese economy.

Will Beijing bail Evergrande out?

Real estate accounts for more than 7% of the Chinese economy, and many analysts believe the Chinese government will eventually intervene in some capacity, even if a full bailout is unlikely.

“We don’t expect government actions to help Evergrande unless systemic stability is at risk,” said S&P Global Ratings analysts in a research report earlier this week. “A government bailout would undermine the campaign to instill greater financial discipline in the property sector.”

Instead of a bailout, the analysts expected the government’s focus to be on guiding Evergrande through an orderly debt restructuring or bankruptcy process, while facilitating negotiations and funding to ensure small investors and home buyers are protected “as much as possible.”

Only if contagion from Evergrande were to cause other large developers to fail, would the government step in directly, they added. But they believe the hit to the financial system from Evergrande alone will still be “manageable.”

Macquarie Group’s economists, meanwhile, also don’t think a “wholesale bailout” of Evergrande is likely.

“The government would make sure that the pre-sold apartments get done and delivered to homebuyers,” they said, though they added that shareholders and lenders could “take a big loss.”

However, Beijing will be keen to avoid any escalation in protests mounted recently by investors and apartment owners, who gathered outside Evergrande’s headquarters in Shenzhen to demand their money back.

Longstanding concerns

Evergrande’s troubles have been brewing for a while. In recent years, debts ballooned as it borrowed to finance its various businesses, from housing and electric vehicles to sports and theme parks. Then, in August 2020, Beijing started reining in the property sector’s excessive borrowing in an attempt to prevent the housing market from overheating and to curb debt growth.

In the past few weeks, Evergrande’s liquidity crisis has intensified, triggering a further plunge in the company’s stocks and bonds.

The need to “soften the blow” for small investors will likely be the focus of any restructuring of Evergrande, according to Robert Carnell, head of research for Asia-Pacific at ING Economics.

He cited Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent emphasis on “common prosperity” and a need to redistribute wealth in the interest of “social fairness.” That pledge has influenced Beijing’s sweeping crackdown on tech, finance, education and other sectors, as it blames the private sector for causing financial risks and exacerbating corruption and inequality.

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