Financial and Monetary Systems

What is the Evergrande debt crisis and why does it matter for the global economy?


The Evergrande debt crisis: building a house of cards. Image: REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Alice Charles
Lead, Urban Transformation, World Economic Forum Geneva
Kalin Bracken
Manager, Real Estate Industry, World Economic Forum
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  • Evergrande is China’s second-largest real estate company.
  • As the company struggled to repay creditors, global markets responded with selloffs.
  • After missing four payments, the company made a key payment to bond holders, staving off default.
  • Questions loom about a government bailout and whether Evergrande is in fact too big to fail.

This article was updated on 26 October 2021.

The news that Evergrande, the world’s most indebted real estate company, was on the brink of collapse sent global markets tumbling last month. The company had warned investors that it could default on its debts and ratings agency Fitch had said that default ‘appears probable’ while Moody’s, had said ‘Evergrande is out of cash and time’.

An unexpected green shoot appeared last week in the otherwise barren outlook for Evergrande’s debt crisis, as the real estate developer managed to remit $83 million for a key offshore bond payment. The company has also posted photos of construction resuming on some of its projects in Guangdong province, which had been halted due to the developer’s financial woes. This positive turn of events came just on the heels of the foiled deal with Hopson Development Holdings for the rival to buy half of Evergrande’s service unit.

What happened with Evergrande?

Evergrande (previously Hengda Group), founded by Xu Jiayin in 1996 and headquartered in Shenzhen, China, rapidly expanded during China’s housing boom, buying land and delivering over 1300 market-rate and luxury apartment developments in more than 280 cities across China.

As residential sales began to slow in recent years, Evergrande debt increased and the company diversified into other sectors such as electric vehicles, football and even bottled water. Evergrande employs 200,000 people directly and indirectly is responsible for an estimated 3.8 million jobs annually.

So what went wrong?

While it is still not clear what will happen to Evergrande in the coming days... what is clear is that the world needs to closely monitor asset prices and debt levels to preserve the health of an already fragile global economy.

Alice Charles Project Lead, Cities, Infrastructure and Urban Services Platform and Kalin Bracken Lead, Real Estate, World Economic Forum

A regulatory storm brewing

Government regulation in China’s property sector has been increasing as the government has been working to control surging home prices and excessive borrowing.

In 2020, the government imposed the ‘three red lines’ on certain developers to help curb debt levels, forcing them to deleverage. The three red lines policies require:

1. 70% ceiling on liabilities to assets (excluding advance proceeds from projects sold on contract)

2. 100% cap on net debt to equity

3. Cash to short-term borrowing ratio of at least one

This resulted in Evergrande unsuccessfully trying to sell off some of its business, evidenced by a leaked letter from Evergrande to the government in September 2020 asking for assistance as they faced a cash crisis, which sparked increased investor concern. An estimated two thirds of Evergrande’s obligations are to homeowners who pre-paid for close to 1.4 million residential properties that remain undeveloped.

The government has also worked to control housing prices, which could further impact developers’ returns and the ability to pay their debt service. Housing is a key source of household wealth in China and if the government succeeds in curbing residential property prices, existing mortgage holders could lose equity in their homes. Household debt now stands at 62% of GDP in China, which has largely been acquired through residential mortgages. This is one reason for such a large amount of Evergrande debt.

The increasing regulatory environment in China could also be a deterrent to continued foreign investment as seen recently when Blackstone abandoned plans to acquire SOHO China due to prolonged regulatory reviews of the deal.

Chinese housing market slowdown is also a reason for Evergrande debt. Image: Statista

Evergrande debt - A domino effect

As early as 2018 the Chinese Central Bank highlighted in its financial instability report that companies like Evergrande could pose a systemic risk to the nation’s financial system. Evergrande has an enormous web of contractors and other businesses in the region that are owed money from the developer.

In recent weeks contagion fears have intensified as 128 banking institutions and 121 non-banking institutions are exposed to Evergrande.

The S&P 500 fell 2.24%, its worst day since May and the VIX, an index which measures S&P volatility, hit 26.7%, its highest jump since May. There are also concerns around the impact on commodities if demand wanes due to slowing construction, with metal prices taking a hit during trading on Monday.

Despite Evergrande’s efforts to lift confidence, with its chairman promising to fulfil responsibilities, the markets are now looking to Beijing to stem the contagion.

The real estate situation in China

Evergrande is not the only Chinese developer in trouble. China Properties Group recently defaulted on $226 worth of notes, while Modern Land asked investors for extra time to pay a $250 million bond due on October 25, Sinic Holdings advised that it likely would default on some of its $250 million bond payments and Fitch downgraded Sinic Holdings rating to a C and Fantasia failed to pay $315 million owed to lenders, comprising $206 bond repayment and a $109 million from Country Garden, China’s second largest property developer. In late October, Moody’s downgraded seven major Chinese real estate companies due to dismal sales and financial projections. A recent prediction from Nomura Holdings, suggests China’s real estate sector is more than $5 trillion in debt.

China’s real estate market accounts for a whopping 30% of the country’s GDP, 41% of the Chinese banking system’s assets are either directly or indirectly associated with the property sector and 78% of the invested wealth of urban Chinese is in residential property. To quell fears of contagion across China’s real estate market, Beijing has pledged to prevent downstream impacts on other real estate companies in the region. There remains, however, great uncertainty as to whether the Government will step in to support Evergrande itself in the event of a default.

Chinese policymakers have continued their efforts to reign in speculatory behavior and over-leverage, recently introducing a proposal to levy taxes on both commercial and residential property. The move, which would be transformative to the economy, would help provide the government with an alternative revenue stream to land sales, which have contributed to the overheating.

The situation in China is a potential canary in the coal mine as housing prices have been surging across major global markets. According to UBS’s Global Real Estate Bubble Index, which ranks cities based on their residential property prices as either “bubble risk”, “overvalued”, “fair-valued” or “undervalued”. Of the 25 cities included, 21 are either a bubble risk or overvalued. Frankfurt, Toronto, and Hong Kong top the list as having the highest bubble risk, followed by Munich, Zurich, Vancouver, Stockholm, Amsterdam and Paris. All US Cities on the list were also ranked as “overvalued”.

Investors are keeping a close eye on Evergrande and Beijing as the future remains uncertain for China’s property market. Globally, as markets contend with rising inflation and potential rate hikes as a result, prices may begin to cool off.

What can we learn from Evergrande debt story?

As housing prices surge in other regions, the world can learn from China and past housing bubbles to prevent future crises. The World Economic Forum’s Emerging Horizons in Real Estate: An Industry Initiative on Asset Price Dynamic report suggests the following to help avoid future real estate asset bubbles:

  • Market data: Regulatory authorities need to work with the real estate industry to deliver robust and timely market data, analysis and information, including data related to the financing of real estate investment and development, noting the global and national initiatives already under way.
  • Transparency and understanding: National and international authorities should adopt targets for delivering enhanced transparency and understanding, broadly defined, across real estate markets and related markets for securities and derivatives.
  • External policy impacts: The real estate industry should engage with governments and policy-makers at global, national and local levels about the impacts of public policies on the real estate sector.
  • Information clearing house (“hub”): A platform should be established for tracking and communicating significant new policies and recent research to senior decision-makers in the real estate, banking and finance sectors, and to public-sector policy-makers to address areas like developments in the derivatives market and global and national banking sector reform.
  • Emerging markets: Specific policy options are required by emerging market economies (EMEs); the World Economic Forum should provide its convening platform for addressing specific issues arising from asset price volatility in EMEs.

While it is still not clear what will happen to Evergrande, the possible outcomes include bankruptcy, breakup, buy-out, or a bailout by the government. What is clear is that the world needs to closely monitor asset prices and debt levels to preserve the health of an already fragile global economy.

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