China’s Evergrande dodges default, for now, with 11th-hour payment

Investors can breathe a sigh of relief.

The world’s most indebted real estate developer, China Evergrande Group, has avoided default — at least for now — after making a key interest payment at the 11th hour. Fears of a global financial collapse have been raised by the cash crisis facing China’s property developer.

State-backed newspaper Securities Times reported Friday that Evergrande had wired a $83.5 million payment to bondholders, a day before a 30-day grace period would have expired, pulling it back from the brink of one of the largest defaults in history.

The news was received with cautious optimism by the market, with Evergrande’s longer-term prospects unclear. The company is still staggering under $300 billion in debt, about 2 percent of China’s gross domestic product. Evergrande stock was 4.3 percent lower in Hong Kong.

“While it is obviously a positive step, people want to see a viable plan for the next payment,” said Scott Mollen, a partner at Herrick Feinstein, a New York-based law firm that represents some Chinese real estate companies. “The fundamental issues remain and need to be addressed.”

Beijing has been seeking to reassure the public this week, with senior officials stepping forward to say the risk of contagion was controllable. Evergrande was a rare instance of Chinese vice premier Liu He, and Yi Gang (the central bank governor), speaking out about the situation.

“I think, overall, the Evergrande risk is an isolated case,” Yi said on Wednesday at the annual G30 International Banking Seminar. We’ll prevent the spread of contagion among other real-estate companies. Second, we’ll prevent contagion to other parts of the financial sector.”

Evergrande, founded in 1996, rode its way to the top of China’s housing boom while building up a mountain of debt. Its founder, Xu Jiayin, briefly became China’s wealthiest businessperson in 2017, and Evergrande the world’s most valuable real estate company in 2018.

The Securities Times report on Friday didn’t say how Evergrande financed the interest payment or if there was government intervention. Evergrande didn’t respond to inquiries for comment. Analysts previously dismissed the possibility that Beijing might bail out Evergrande, stating that Evergrande’s demise would be a wake-up call to companies who have been spending too freely.

Evergrande had missed an interest payment on a bond on Sept. 23. It had 30 days to make the payment before formally entering default.

A default had looked all but assured after Evergrande’s attempts to sell assets to raise cash fell through Wednesday. Evergrande told the Hong Kong Stock Exchange that it would not be able to sell a majority stake of its property services unit to another Chinese developer, Hopson, because the two had failed to agree to terms.

“In view of the difficulties, challenges and uncertainties in improving its liquidity, there is no guarantee that the Group will be able to meet its financial obligations,” Evergrande had said in a filing on Wednesday.

Financial contagion has begun in China’s property sector as cash-strapped developers find themselves unable to secure new loans. Several smaller developers have defaulted this month, including Fantasia Holdings and Sinic Holdings, which defaulted on $250 million in bonds due for repayment Monday.

Fitch Ratings said in a research note Thursday that there could be “substantial consolidation in the sector” and impact on housing sales, long a driver of China’s economy.

“Rising uncertainty among prospective home buyers will hurt sales in the near-term,” Fitch said.

Investors had feared a worst-case scenario in which Evergrande’s collapse could snowball across the global financial sector like Lehman Brothers did in 2008. This scenario is unlikely according to economists partly due to Beijing’s signal that it will not allow for further fallout.

Mollen said that Evergrande’s plight has caused increased due diligence for loans and deals with other Chinese real estate companies, even as they argue that they aren’t at risk.

“Our significant Chinese clients say, ‘We are not Evergrande, we have liquidity, we have not violated deleveraging rules,’ ” he said.

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