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China property market roiled by default fears, Country Garden spooks investors

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Pictured here are residential buildings developed by Country Garden Holdings Co. in Baoding, Hebei province, China, on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023.

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

BEIJING — Two years after Evergrande’s debt troubles, worries about China’s real estate sector are coming to the forefront again.

Country Garden, one of the largest non-state-owned developers by sales, has reportedly missed two coupon payments on dollar bonds that were due Sunday. Citing the firm, Reuters said the bonds in question are notes due in February 2026 and August 2030.

Country Garden did not immediately respond to CNBC’s request for comment on the reports.

Meanwhile, Dalian Wanda saw its senior vice president Liu Haibo taken away by police after the company’s internal anti-corruption probe, Reuters reported Tuesday, citing a source familiar with the matter. Dalian Wanda did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment.

Hong Kong-listed shares of Country Garden closed more than 1.7% lower on Wednesday, after sharp declines earlier in the week.

“With China’s total home sales in 1H23 down year-on-year, falling home prices month-on-month across the past few months and faltering economic growth, another developer default (and an extremely large one, at that) is perhaps the last thing the Chinese authorities need right now,” according to Sandra Chow, co-head of Asia Pacific Research for CreditSights, which is owned by Fitch Ratings.

We are concerned that as big cities lift local property restrictions, it will drain up demand in low tier cities, which account for 70% of national new home sales volume…

An investor relations representative for Country Garden didn’t deny media reports on the missed payments and didn’t clarify the company’s payment plans, Chow and a team said in a note late Tuesday.

The report noted negative market sentiment spillover to other non-state-owned developers such as Longfor. Shares of Longfor closed about 0.8% higher Wednesday in Hong Kong after trading more than 1% lower during the day.

“Overall homebuyer sentiment is likely to also suffer as a result,” the analysts said.

Home prices in focus

China’s massive real estate market has remained sluggish despite recent policy signals. In late July, its top leaders indicated a shift toward greater support for the real estate sector, paving the way for local governments to implement specific policies.

Uncertainties remain around the sensitive topic of home prices.

“We are concerned that as big cities lift local property restrictions, it will drain up demand in low tier cities, which account for 70% of national new home sales volume and are the real drivers of commodity demand and construction activity,” Nomura analysts said in an Aug. 4 report.

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“We are also concerned that merely easing restrictions on existing home sales without lifting restrictions on home purchase may add supply and depress home prices,” the report said.

For the last several years, Chinese authorities have attempted to curb debt-fueled speculation in the country’s massive — and hot — real estate market. In 2020, Beijing cracked down on developers’ high reliance on debt for growth.

Highly indebted Evergrande defaulted in late 2021, followed by a few others.

With that faltering confidence, the private property sector will likely remain a drag on the country’s growth for the rest of the year.

Last year, many people halted mortgage payments after a delay in receiving the homes they had bought. Most apartments in China are sold before they are completed.

“After watching developers default and fail to complete housing for other families, few Chinese families are willing to shell out in advance for new housing,” Rhodium Group analysts said in a note this week. “With that faltering confidence, the private property sector will likely remain a drag on the country’s growth for the rest of the year.”

The analysts pointed out that new starts in residential construction have fallen for 28 months straight.

Real estate and related industries have accounted for about a quarter of China’s economy.

Redmond Wong, market strategist at Saxo Markets Hong Kong said Country Garden will find it “very difficult, if not impossible” to refinance — and other Chinese developers would face difficulties raising money as a result, especially offshore.

He pointed out that since China started its deleveraging campaign in 2016, it is very unlikely the state would step in to bail out real estate developers. “The most likely way for Country Garden or Chinese developers in similar situation to avoid defaults will be asset sales,” Wong added.

State-owned developers stand out

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Vanke was the only other one of the 10 developers to post a year-on-year sales decline for January to July period, down 9%, the research showed.

The other names were mostly state-owned, such as Poly Development, which ranked first with a 10% sales increase during that time, according to the analysis.

But that’s had little impact on home prices overall.

Nomura pointed out in a separate report that average existing home prices dropped by 2% in July from the prior month, worse than the 1.4% decline in June, based on a Beike Research Institute data sample of 25 large cities.

The July level is 13.4% below a historical high two years ago, the Nomura report said.

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The seven-day moving average of new home sales as of Aug. 6 was down by 49% versus 2019, according to Nomura. That’s worse than the 34.4% decline for the prior week.

Far more Chinese household wealth has been locked up in property than is the case in many other countries.

Tight capital controls also make it difficult for people in China to invest outside the country, while the local financial markets are less mature than those of developed countries.

“Right now people are reassessing what in the future will be a good investment,” Liqian Ren, leader of quantitative investment at WisdomTree, said in an interview last week.

“Since the beginning of last year, people are starting to realize real estate prices are not going up,” Ren said. “I don’t think it’s the lack of confidence. For many people they still have money in the bank.”

CNBC’s Hui Jie Lim contributed to this report.

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