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The financial disaster alert is on! A catastrophic bank meltdown seems to be looming in China: The country’s entire financial sector is getting extremely alarmed with the possibility of a major default crisis, given that one of its biggest property developers, Evergrande, recently announced that it became unable to pay its gigantic debt. That debacle has exposed the perilous state of China’s vast property sector and its consequences could have a ripple effect across global markets and lead to billions in losses.
Last week, Evergrande, the world’s most indebted property developer, warned that it would likely fail to meet its financial obligations, triggering widespread panic among investors, dealing a severe blow to its bonds, and resulting in trading suspensions in the markets of Shenzhen and Shanghai.The crisis led two credit rating agencies to downgrade Evergrande last week, and it sparked a shocking 80% collapse on its Hong Kong-listed shares since the beginning of the year. And at the beginning of this week, the Shanghai Stock Exchange stopped trading in Evergrande’s May 2023 bond after it dropped more than 30%.
Right now, the Chinese developer is sitting under a colossal pile of liabilities that total more than $300 billion, after decades of borrowing to finance its rapid growth. Over the past few weeks, Evergrande has been rushing to sell assets to generate cash but several companies are refusing to accept the firm’s commercial paper. According to S&P analysts, the developer might be paying suppliers through transfers of its properties instead of cash.
In essence, the company has become exposed to a vicious debt cycle, and it doesn’t have enough cash to finish its projects and generate further proceeds from sales. Only in August, sales declined by a staggering 26 percent compared to the same time last year despite the steep discounts. And, of course, the developer is in desperate need of that cash not only to service but also to reduce, its enormous debts.
Beyond financial markets, the most significant problems that could be triggered by the Evergrande downfall are a residential and commercial real estate collapse all across China, as well as a brutal crisis on the broader property sector. Other worries include the growing possibility of a bank meltdown, as at least 128 banks are highly exposed to Evergrande’s liabilities, according to a 2020 leaked document. On top of that, 121 non-banking institutions are also exposed, and all of them are at risk of facing billions in losses.
Analysts have been comparing the imminent bank meltdown in China to the 2008 collapse of U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers, which sparked crises at counterparties and ended up collapsing global markets. Bloomberg reported that Chinese authorities warned major lenders to China Evergrande Group “not to expect interest payments due next week on bank loans, which takes the cash-strapped developer a step closer the nation’s largest modern-day restructurings,” and signals that China’s “Lehman Moment” is right around the corner.
Authorities have been silent on whether they will allow Evergrande creditors to face major losses. Bondholders are speculating that a buyout, break-up, or bailout are the only possible scenarios, which has infuriated countless investors and creditors. The company’s intricate web of obligations to bondholders, investors, banks, suppliers, and homeowners has essentially turned into one of the biggest sources of financial risk in the world’s second-largest economy.
It is now threatening to trigger a crisis that goes beyond a residential and commercial real estate collapse — or even a widespread bank meltdown — but it could result in a financial catastrophe that would impact the entire world. Analysts argue that now that investors started to sell off their holdings of the company, the broader credit market may be dragged further down if the property developer fails to buy time with banks to pay off its debt. The consequences are also threatening to spill over the Chinese economy.
Considering that real estate is the central engine of China’s growth, which accounts for 29% of economic output, a residential and commercial real estate collapse in addition to the bankruptcy of such a large company would have severe repercussions on the economy. Investors are growing increasingly nervous that the Evergrande collapse could spread to other property developers and result in dangerous systemic risks for the country’s banking system.
As the financial expert Mark Twain noted, companies go bankrupt in two ways. “Gradually, then suddenly.” Until last week, Evergrande was in the “gradually” phase. Now, it just got to the “suddenly” phase. From now on, the collapse is likely to accelerate and generate a cascade of systemic failures, bankruptcies and push China to the verge of a default crisis never before seen in world history.