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Short changed: Can China pay the bills?

Amid reports and rumors of starving zoo animals and retirees not being paid their pensions, the chair of financially distressed China Evergrande Group, the world’s most indebted property developer, is now under “residential surveillance.”

Call it house arrest – and as the Chinese property sector loses its mojo some 42,000 local governments are looking for money to pay off creditors.

Evergrande chairman Hui Ka Yan, or Xu Jiayin, is under 24-hour police supervision and can neither leave his home nor receive guests without permission. He was once the richest man in China.

In 2017, Hui Ka Yan had a net worth of US$42.5 billion, surpassing Alibaba founder Jack Ma and Tencent founder Pony Ma.

Much of China’s prosperity – like Hui’s – probably now begs a question mark, and it’s not just the private property giants like Evergrande; it’s the tens of thousands of local governments that have built out and “modernized” China on what may be the speculative property bubble of all time.

The court is out on the extent to which real estate accounts for China’s GDP – 25% to 30% by most reckonings – but the issue, in a new era of massive oversupply and low demand, is where the new equilibrium will settle.  

Says Andrew Collier, managing director of Orient Capital Research, “China has to reduce the size of the property industry by about one-third, which is going to cause a lot of pain for homeowners, local governments and some banks.”

Some analysts might describe that as an optimistic assessment.

‘Too big to resolve’

George Magnus, Research Associate at the China Center, Oxford University says that debt is everywhere in the Chinese system, and the extent of it is difficult, if not impossible to evaluate.

“Debts are lurking in public-private partnership projects – [there are] loans that are off balance sheet or off the books completely, and other local government fund raising schemes.”

Anne Stevenson-Yang, founder and research director of J Capital Research describes it as “a very inexact science,” referring to the problem of ascertaining the depth of China’s countrywide debt.

“A government may write a contract with a company to get a loan of, say, 100 million yuan,” Stevenson-Yang says, adding that it might be presented “as a land sale.”

“There’s an understanding that the land will be turned back once the money is repaid, but that understanding may not be written down.”

Adds Stevenson-Yang, “I think the problem is just too big to resolve.”

An accurate measure of off-the-books debt would be a tall order, says Dexter Roberts, director of China affairs at the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“What we do know is that it is very large and growing,” Roberts says.  

“Beijing does seem determined to avoid the moral hazard of bailing out local governments. The trouble with that is the indebtedness of local governments has become so severe that it is spilling over and affecting many regular Chinese as well, as is true with elderly who are seeing their pension payments delayed or civil servants who aren’t getting paid on time.”

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Elderly women sit at a park in downtown Shanghai March 16, 2012. Credit: Reuters

 

In short, the debt that’s weighing down the former Chinese growth juggernaut has to settle somewhere and it will be likely to fall on the heads of those least likely to be able to afford it.

“The people of China,” says Stevenson-Yang.

She adds, speaking on the question of how Beijing might approach the problem: “I have no idea what their plan is other than to hide head in sand. I actually think they are bureaucratically stuck.”

Economist Michael Pettis commented in a tweet thread, on the social media platform now known as X, that it would probably be best if Beijing provides only temporary relief while forcing local governments to resolve the debt themselves.”

The “extremely difficult bind” local governments found themselves in, with dwindling revenue that crimps ability to repay debts, was due to a confluence of factors, says Roberts. 

“The pandemic lockdowns plus crackdown on the overleveraged property sector which was probably necessary but has been so damaging to the overall economy, plus the drop in incomes and the ability to spend brought on by the overall economic hard times.”

Oxford’s Magnus says, “The central government has seemingly started sending inspectors in to get a proper picture of local government debt, and there is talk from finance pros and some policy people about debt swaps, under which expensive local government debt would be swapped for cheaper central government bonds.

“This would, at best, buy a bit of time, but it’s just replacing debt with debt and doesn’t really solve the problem.”

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The Country Garden One World City project under construction is seen on the outskirts of Beijing, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2023. Credit: AP

In the meantime, China’s private property giants – Evergrande, Country Garden and Vanke, among others, continue to reel in a market with no takers. Local governments that have indebted themselves on the basis of property assets that are now overvalued and will not be bailed out from on high are in a bind.

“Emigrate,” said J Capital Research’s Stevenson-Yang when asked what she might do if she was running an indebted local government in China.

Edited by Mike Firn and Elaine Chan.

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