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The Evergrande Crisis Explained: Should Investors Worry?

Fears are mounting that the collapse of one of China's real estate juggernauts could infect global markets.

Like Lehman Brothers, which filed for bankruptcy with $619 billion in debt and whose collapse was the tipping point of the 2008 global financial crisis, markets are worried that Evergrande’s demise could send shock waves through the Chinese economy and global markets.

The indebted developer says it owns thousands of projects across hundreds of cities in China. It also has interests in football teams, theme parks, bottled water, and electric cars.

Will this issue be contained within China, or are we about to witness a global downturn? For those first hearing about Evergrande, Morningstar has put together a primer. 

What Is Evergrande?

Evergrande is one of the three largest property developers in China. According to its website, it owns over 1,300 projects in more than 280 cities.

For years, it pursued a high growth strategy of piling on massive debts to build property for China’s urbanizing middle classes.

It was a strategy possible in a country with tens of millions migrating to cities. China’s urban population rose more than 10% between 2010 and 2020, according to the World Bank.

“Chinese developers have been engaged in the indiscriminate pursuit of growth and scale,” says Cheng Wee Tan, a Morningstar senior equity analyst.

Evergrande's share price soared 410% between 2017 and 2020. The developer built a soccer stadium and bought a national team to fill it. It launched a line of bottled water, promoted by none other than Jackie Chan. It started an electric-car subsidiary.

Meanwhile, liabilities ballooned to roughly $300 billion, turning it into the world’s most indebted company.

Regulators have been watching the situation with concern. In August 2020, the government announced the “three red lines” policy, which banned overly indebted developers like Evergrande from borrowing.

At the same time, the government has been trying to reduce soaring house prices. Measured by price to income, Chinese capital city real estate is among the most expensive in the world.

The effect has been to make it harder for Evergrande to get the cash it needs to service its mountain of debt. It only has enough cash on hand to meet 54% of its short-term debt, according to Pitchbook.

Why Is It Blowing Up Now?

If lots of debt slowly strangles a company, then a liquidity crisis is more like a heart attack.

Evergrande has staved off the coronary thanks to customers and capital markets. Its customers make sizable prepayments on unfinished homes, often funded by mortgages. Evergrande has also tapped banks and bond markets, at home and overseas.

But banks and bond investors are now running for the exit, says Tan.

Ratings agency Fitch downgraded its debt earlier this month, saying a default was "probable." Markets are pricing-in default. Evergrande’s bonds are trading around 30 cents to the dollar. The share price has fallen 48% in September.

“What is certain is that Evergrande will be shut out of the capital markets,” Tan says.

Then, in a Sept. 13 statement to the Hong Kong stock exchange, Evergrande said that property sales vital for keeping it afloat had halved. It also announced it was calling in restructuring advisors. The next day, angry investors swarmed its headquarters.

Last week, Bloomberg reported Chinese regulators had notified major banks that Evergrande would not be making upcoming loan payments.

All eyes are on Sept. 23, when interest payments on bonds sold to foreign investors come due.

It's not just foreign bondholders or those who sold Evergrande cement who are in trouble. There are the buyers of Evergrande’s potentially 1.6 million unfinished apartments. There are the investors who sold the firm’s wealth management products that promised double-digit returns. Then there are Evergrande’s 200,000 employees, tens of thousands of whom were asked to make short-term loans to the company.

Less Than Lehman Brothers Is Still Bad

Markets are gripped by fears about how Evergrande’s debt problems will ripple through the Chinese financial system, into its economy, and out into the world.

The “doomsday” scenario is a Lehman Brothers-style implosion, where fleeing lenders cause credit markets to freeze for the entire sector. Defaults could then spread to other developers and the banks that have lent to them.

These fears have crushed the share prices for similarly indebted Chinese property companies like Guangzhou R&F Properties and Kaisa Group. The former is down 32% this month, the latter 13%. The cost of borrowing for many developers has skyrocketed in recent weeks.

But Morningstar's Tan says a chaotic default is unlikely. He says regulators learned hard lessons from the collapse of Lehman Brothers and will step in to keep credit flowing, especially in China, where many banks are state-owned.

“We don’t think the government will let it happen. Previous examples show the government has done organized restructuring,” says Tan.

“Evergrande is very important so would expect the government to step in, perhaps bringing private investors for its assets.”

In a note published last Tuesday, ratings agency Fitch said it expects authorities to work to avoid a disorderly default.

On Friday, China’s central bank injected CNY 100 billion, or $15.5 billion, into the banking system to keep cash flowing.

A test by the Chinese central bank earlier this month showed that 27 of the country’s 30 large banks had enough cash to handle a “severe economic slowdown.”

But there will be pain. An organized default could see bondholders, especially foreign ones, take big losses.

Equity investors are also in for a world of pain. After staging recoveries in early September, Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index and the Shanghai Composite Index have fallen 5% and 2.3%, respectively, in the last five days.

The turmoil is coming at a time when many markets are falling from all-time highs and central banks are considering withdrawing stimulus, says Stephen Miller, an advisor at GSFM funds management.

“These things never happen at a good time. But Evergrande is happening when central banks are withdrawing liquidity and U.S. fiscal policy may temporarily have run out of room to maneuver,” he says. The Evergrande crisis has sparked fears of a sharp slowdown in Chinese construction, which has triggered a sell-off in iron ore prices and mining stocks, which had been riding high this year.