The Endless Cleanup at China’s Most Indebted Property Developer
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The Endless Cleanup at China’s Most Indebted Property Developer

China Evergrande Group feels the heat again as plans to reduce leverage rapidly.

By Mike Bird
Tue, Jun 8, 2021 10:48amGrey Clock 2 min

Dogs bark, horses neigh, and investors worry about the financial health of China’s most leveraged property developer. The pattern is almost uncannily routine, but the latest drama at China Evergrande Group still bears watching.

The most recent wobble relates to the company’s relationship with Shengjing Bank, a regional lender in which it began buying a stake five years ago. Mainland Chinese media reports suggested that regulators are examining the bank’s transactions with Evergrande. Last week Chinese regulators warned that some small and midsize banks had exploited restrained property lending by their larger peers to expand their own exposure.

The company said on Monday that its financial links with Shengjing Bank were legally sound. Last week, Evergrande Chairman Hui Ka Yan promised to get on the good side of one of the government’s three red lines for property-developer leverage by the end of the month, doubling down on plans in the company’s last annual report.

Markets don’t seem entirely convinced that all is fine. On Friday, the yield on Evergrande’s dollar bonds maturing in March next year reached 19.8%. That is not anything like the near-30% levels of September last year, during the last panic about the company’s financial future, but it is up by more than 10 percentage points in the past two weeks.

For investors, Evergrande has been both a dream and a nightmare. The company’s stock is borderline uninvestable for bulls and bears alike, swayed regularly by buybacks and highly concentrated ownership. But its bonds, perpetually priced as if the company is at serious risk of collapse, have been enormously profitable for iron-stomached believers in the company’s political nous.

That doesn’t mean its frenetic business model won’t catch up with it eventually. Paying down some of its mountain of debt sounds like a good idea. So why hasn’t Evergrande done it before? The simple answer is that the company’s business model requires relentless growth and constant financing. Its compound revenue growth rate over the past decade is around 35% a year, outstripping that of U.S. tech giants like Apple and Amazon.

Paying off its debts is not a matter of simply trying harder; it needs to find money to do so. The most obvious route is to lean on less organized creditors instead of banks and bond investors. At the end of 2020, the company had over 1 trillion yuan (A$201 billion) in trade payables and contract liabilities, owed to suppliers and home buyers respectively, up almost 20% from a year earlier. The contract liabilities figure is one to watch in particular.

Unless bearish investors think they have some specific political insight that has escaped even the sector’s insiders, there is no point trying to guess which minor crisis might finally deal the company a more serious blow. But just because it can’t be timed, doesn’t mean that the day won’t eventually come.

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House values continued to fall last month, but the pace of decline has slowed, CoreLogic reports.

In signs that the RBA’s aggressive approach to monetary policy is making an impact, CoreLogic’s Home Value Index reveals national dwelling values fell -1.0 percent in November, marking the smallest monthly decline since June.

The drop represents a -7.0 percent decline – or about $53,400 –  since the peak value recorded in April 2022. Research director at CoreLogic, Tim Lawless, said the Sydney and Melbourne markets are leading the way, with the capital cities experiencing the most significant falls. But it’s not all bad news for homeowners.

“Three months ago, Sydney housing values were falling at the monthly rate of -2.3 percent,” he said. “That has now reduced by a full percentage point to a decline of -1.3 percent in November.  In July, Melbourne home values were down -1.5 percent over the month, with the monthly decline almost halving last month to -0.8%.”

The rate of decline has also slowed in the smaller capitals, he said.  

“Potentially we are seeing the initial uncertainty around buying in a higher interest rate environment wearing off, while persistently low advertised stock levels have likely contributed to this trend towards smaller value falls,” Mr Lawless said. “However, it’s fair to say housing risk remains skewed to the downside while interest rates are still rising and household balance sheets become more thinly stretched.” 

The RBA has raised the cash rate from 0.10 in April  to 2.85 in November. The board is due to meet again next week, with most experts still predicting a further increase in the cash rate of 25 basis points despite the fall in house values.

Mr Lawless said if interest rates continue to increase, there is potential for declines to ‘reaccelerate’.

“Next year will be a particular test of serviceability and housing market stability, as the record-low fixed rate terms secured in 2021 start to expire,” Mr Lawless said.

Statistics released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics this week also reveal a slowdown in the rate of inflation last month, as higher mortgage repayments and cost of living pressures bite into household budgets.

However, ABS data reveals ongoing labour shortages and high levels of construction continues to fuel higher prices for new housing, although the rate of price growth eased in September and October. 

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