Evergrande Went From China’s Biggest Developer to One of Its Worst Debtors

The company owes hundreds of billions of dollars. Its creditors are circling. Its shares have taken a beating. But if anything forces a reckoning for Evergrande, a vast real estate empire in China, it might be the nervousness of ordinary home buyers like Chen Cheng.

Ms. Chen, 30, and her husband thought they had found the perfect apartment. It was part of an 18-building complex in the southern city of Guangzhou, near a good school for their daughter and a new subway station.

Evergrande was asking for a deposit worth nearly one-third of the price before the property was completed. After reading headlines about the company’s financial difficulties and complaints about construction delays from recent buyers, Ms. Chen walked away.

“We don’t have a lot of money,” she said. “We were really afraid this money would evaporate.”

China has a special term for companies like Evergrande: “gray rhinos,” so large and so entangled in the country’s financial system that the government has an interest in their survival. A failure on the scale of Evergrande would ripple across the economy, and spell financial ruin for ordinary households.

During the boom years, Evergrande was China’s biggest developer, creating economic activity that officials came to depend on while the country opened up. As more people were lifted out of poverty, home buyers put their money into property. Feeling flush and eager to expand, Evergrande borrowed money to dabble in new businesses like a soccer club, bottled water and, most recently, electric vehicles.

Now Evergrande epitomizes the vulnerability of the world’s No. 2 economy. It owes more money than it can pay off, and officials in Beijing want it to slow down. Its stock price has lost three-quarters of its value in the past year, and creditors are panicking. The company has started selling off parts of its corporate empire, but to survive Evergrande needs to keep selling its apartments.

The problem is that some Chinese home buyers, once attracted to Evergrande’s developments, have grown increasingly anxious about the company.

On China’s internet, buyers describe waiting months or even years for their Evergrande apartments. Some have accused the company of using the pandemic as an excuse for further construction delays.

Evergrande declined to comment, citing a “quiet period” ahead of a company earnings announcement.

The company’s problems have been building for years, but lenders, big investors and home buyers alike are treating it as though it is about to fail. By one estimate, Evergrande owes more than $300 billion. Creditors are not sure it can pay the bills. Business partners have filed lawsuits.

Property in China is prone to big swings. Speculative buying propels prices to soar. Local governments then step in to cool things down, sometimes with a heavy hand. Despite the ups and downs, the residential real estate market is still the largest store of Chinese household wealth.

For Xu Jiayin, Evergrande’s billionaire founder, the wild ride has mostly followed one trajectory: up.

A former steel factory technician, he founded Evergrande in 1996 just as China was embarking on the gargantuan task of moving hundreds of millions of people from the countryside to cities. As property prices climbed with this urbanization, so did Mr. Xu’s wealth.

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After publicly listing his company in 2009, he began to expand the business into new areas. Evergrande took control of Guangzhou’s soccer club in 2010 and spent billions of dollars on foreign players. It then moved into the dairy, grain and oil businesses. At one point, it even tried pig farming.

As the business grew, Mr. Xu was able to attract tens of billions of dollars in funding from foreign and domestic investors and cheap loans from Chinese banks. The success came with strong political connections. A member of China’s People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body to the central government, Mr. Xu is a presence at the most important political gatherings in Beijing every year.

His proximity to power also gave investors and banks the confidence they needed to keep lending to the company. Over the years when regulators have stepped in to try to curtail Evergrande’s business, they have usually eased off soon after. By 2019, Mr. Xu was one of the richest property developers in the world.

Today his wealth is a little more modest, much of it tied to the company’s stock price, around $18 billion, according China’s Hurun wealth report.

“In my opinion, Xi Jiayin is someone who can walk the tightrope really well,” said Rupert Hoogewerf, the founder of the Hurun Report. “He has been able to balance his debt with his growth.”

The question for many observers is whether Mr. Xu can continue his careful balancing act as regulators try to shrink the sector’s spiraling debt. When China’s economy began to slow more drastically several years ago, developers like Evergrande found themselves overextended and strapped. To gin up business, they discounted apartments, undercutting the value of properties that earlier buyers paid, prompting street protests.

The model of selling apartments before they were completed gave companies the cash they needed to keep operating. That was, until regulators took note of the property sector’s unruly debt, making it harder for developers like Evergrande to finish the apartments they have already sold to buyers.

Fearing a housing bust that would ricochet through China’s financial system, the central bank created “three red lines,” rules forcing property companies to get their debt levels down before they could borrow more money. The aim was to limit the banking sector’s exposure to the property market. But it also took away funds they could use to finish projects.

To comply, Evergrande has started to sell off some of its businesses. Last week it sold stakes in its internet business. In public comments, Mr. Xu has pointed to the company’s success in paying off some foreign and domestic investors, reducing debt that incurs interest to $88 billion from $130 billion late last year.

But it still has unpaid bills from acquisitions, land-use rights and contract liabilities that add up to hundreds of billions of dollars. Some lenders and business partners have taken it to court to try to freeze assets to get their money back.

“On paper it doesn’t make any sense for a company like this to have so much debt. This is not normal,” said Jennifer James, an investment manager at Janus Henderson Investors who estimates that Evergrande has more than $300 billion in debt. Then there are the properties that it took payment for and still has not completed.

Wesley Zhang has been waiting four years for an apartment he bought for his parents. Mr. Zhang, 33, paid a $93,000 deposit and has made 41 monthly mortgage payments of nearly $1,100. Local officials suspended the development project in 2018 but later reversed the decision, giving Evergrande the green light to start building.

There are no signs of any progress or communication from Evergrande on the apartment he bought. The company is now trying to sell apartments in the complex that promise to be ready to move into by 2023.

“It has a huge impact on my life,” Mr. Zhang said. To get his money back, he would have to file a lawsuit against the company to break his contract. “We also need to consider buying another apartment, but the property prices are much higher now.”

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