March 1st, 2024

Hong Kong court orders property firm China Evergrande to liquidate after plan for $300B debt fails

By Kanis Leung And Zen Soo, The Associated Press on January 28, 2024.

FILE- A woman walks past a map showing Evergrande development projects in China, at an Evergrande city plaza in Beijing on Sept. 21, 2021. Chinese property developer China Evergrande Group on Monday, Jan. 29, 2024 was ordered to liquidate by a Hong Kong court, after the firm was unable to reach a restructuring deal with creditors. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)

HONG KONG (AP) – A Hong Kong court ordered China Evergrande, the world’s most heavily indebted real estate developer, to undergo liquidation following a failed effort to restructure $300 billion owed to banks and bondholders that fueled fears about China’s rising debt burden.

China Evergrande Group is one of the biggest of a series of Chinese developers that have collapsed since 2020 under official pressure to rein in surging debt the ruling Communist Party views as a threat to China’s slowing economic growth.

But a crackdown on excess borrowing has tipped the property industry into crisis, making it a drag on the economy, as scores of other developers ran into trouble, their predicaments rippling through financial systems in and outside China.

Global financial markets were rattled earlier by fears an Evergrande could cause global shockwaves. But Chinese regulators said risks could be contained. Only a few billion dollars of Evergrande’s debt was owed to foreign creditors.

Judge Linda Chan said it was appropriate for the court to order Evergrande to wind up its business given a “lack of progress on the part of the company putting forward a viable restructuring proposal” as well as Evergrande’s insolvency.

It’s unclear how the liquidation order will affect China’s financial system. Evergrande’s Hong Kong-traded shares plunged nearly 21% early Monday before they were suspended from trading. But Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng index was up 0.9% and other property developers saw gains in their share prices.

China’s largest real estate developer, Country Garden, gained 2.9% and Sunac China Holdings jumped 4%.

Evergrande gained a reprieve in December after it said it was attempting to “refine” a new debt restructuring plan of more than $300 billion in liabilities. It could appeal the ruling.

Fergus Saurin, a lawyer representing an ad hoc group of creditors, said Monday he was not surprised by the outcome.

“The company has failed to engage with us. There has been a history of last-minute engagement which has gone nowhere,” he said.

Saurin said that his team worked in good faith during the negotiations. Evergrande “only has itself to blame for being wound up,” he said.

The judge was expected to provide more reasons for the liquidation order during a separate court session Monday afternoon.

Evergrande CEO Shawn Siu told Chinese news outlet 21Jingji that the company feels “utmost regret” at the liquidation order. He emphasized that the order affects only the Hong Kong-listed China Evergrande unit.

The group’s domestic and overseas units are independent legal entities, he said. Siu said that Evergrande will strive to continue smooth operations and deliver properties to buyers.

“If affected, we will still make every effort to ensure the smooth advancement of risk resolution and asset disposal, and we will still make every effort to advance all work fairly and in accordance with the law,” he said.

Evergrande first defaulted on its financial obligations in 2021, just over a year after Beijing clamped down on lending to property developers in an effort to cool a property bubble.

It’s also unclear how the liquidation order will affect Evergrande’s vast operations in the Chinese mainland. As a former British colony, Hong Kong operates under a legal system that is separate, though increasingly influenced by, communist-ruled China’s.

In some cases, mainland courts have recognized bankruptcy rulings in Hong Kong but analysts say Evergrande’s is something of a test case.

Real estate drove China’s economic boom, but developers borrowed heavily as they turned cities into forests of apartment and office towers. That has helped to push total corporate, government and household debt to the equivalent of more than 300% of annual economic output, unusually high for a middle-income country.

The fallout from the property crisis has also affected China’s shadow banking industry – institutions that provide financial services similar to banks but operate outside of banking regulations, such as Zhongzhi Enterprise Group. Zhongzhi, which lent heavily to developers, said it was insolvent.

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