Retiree Mr. Zhou, who would not give his first name for fear it could lead to government harassment, invests the bulk of his money in real estate.
In 2016, he bought two condos from the developer Evergrande, which according to Zhou have already doubled in price.
This summer, the same Evergrande agent who sold him the properties approached him about another investment.
“It was just after July 1, the Chinese Communist party’s 100th birthday, and the Evergrande agent said the firm released a wealth management product to celebrate this event,” he said. “It has annual returns of up to 11.8%, which the agent said are normally reserved for senior executives, but are now available to good clients like me.”
Zhou and his wife put in 1.7 million yuan, or $266,000, in July.
Last month, Evergrande missed an $83.5 million coupon payment on dollar bonds, triggering a 30-day grace period that ended on Oct. 23. The Chinese property giant reportedly staved off an official default by making an overdue interest payment to overseas bondholders just two days before the deadline, according to the government-owned Securities Times. The Chinese property developer has missed other key repayments to investors abroad and at home. Overall, the company has unpaid bills totaling more than $300 billion.
While there is very little directly tied to American financial markets, there are fears that Evergrande’s situation could have a ripple effect through China’s economy, and then the rest of the world. An official at China’s central bank said the Evergrande’s risk is “controllable.”
Still, overseas investors are worried. They have not heard much from the company and neither have people in China.
Evergrande’s problems were flagged at least three years ago, according to Wang Dan, Hang Seng Bank’s chief economist for China.
“[Many of China’s largest banks and foreign banks operating in China saw] Evergrande as one of those developers that have very opaque balance sheets. People don’t understand how its debt is structured,” she said.
This information didn’t trickle down to ordinary investors or were perhaps ignored. Zhou said he was not experienced in wealth management products, but he had faith in Evergrande.
Like most Chinese citizens, he trusts Evergrande’s core business in property. At one point, he said he had more than 10 but less than 20 condos. For two decades, home prices in China have only gone up.
“We invested mainly because I believed in the shiny image of Evergrande’s founder, Xu Jiayin,” Zhou said.
Xu helped his company become one of the top three developers in China. He is a member of China’s top advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. During the Chinese communist party’s 100th birthday celebrations in Beijing, Xu was at the podium overlooking Tiananmen square.
A photo of Xu taken at the event was widely published in business media circles. To investors like Zhou, this was a sign that Evergrande has the support of China’s top leaders.
However, Chinese officials were worried.
Evergrande borrowed a lot and spent it lavishly. It paid top dollar for land, a soccer team, a bottled water company and an electric vehicle firm that has yet to sell a car. The property giant also built a flower-shaped island, which, in a promotional video, boasts a massive conference center, an 8,000-person banquet hall, an amusement and animal park, four types of spas, 28 museums, 58 hotels and countless condo buildings — of which Zhou bought two units.
Evergrande’s model of borrowing to grow is replicated across the property sector. Earlier this year, China’s regulators made it much harder for real estate firms to borrow. That, coupled with a housing sales slump in smaller areas, meant that Evergrande ran out of cash to pay its suppliers, lenders and construction workers. Economist Wang said there are roughly 600,00 pre-sold condos that Evergrande needs to finish.
The firm’s employees said they have been pressured by company executives to keep Evergrande afloat and forced to invest in wealth management products. If they couldn’t buy it, they could sell to their family, friends and former clients, like Zhou.
At a protest in southern Guangzhou city last month, about a dozen people stood outside Evergrande’s office holding up signs that read: “Evergrande defrauded its employees of money they earned with their blood and sweat.”
Similar small-scale protests have been held across China. Many, like Zhou, want their principals paid back. He said Evergrande has offered wealth management product investors like him three solutions. The first is a 10% repayment every three months.
“In my case, it will take 30 months from next September. That will be 2025 before I can recover my principal and interest. What will Evergrande be like in 2025? We don’t know,” Zhou said.
Solution two involves repaying investors in apartments, parking spots and office spaces. Lastly, Evergrande investors who bought property from the company can have what they’re owed deducted from any remaining payments.
So far, the Chinese central government has shown no signs of offering a bailout to Evergrande. However, Yan Yuejin, director of the Shanghai-based E-house China Research and Development Institute, believes that in areas where Evergrande is a big taxpayer and employer, local governments might step in.
“They might not rescue Evergrande with cash. Instead, might find some government firm or city construction investment companies to cooperate with Evergrande, purchase some of their projects or give support,” Yan said.
Having the situation handled on a local level has been confusing and frustrating for investors like Zhou. “There is nobody in charge of this. When you go to an Evergrande office they will call the police and 30 to 40 fully armed officers show up,” he said.
Zhou said he will not stop trying to recover his money. If he cannot, he said he has faith that China’s central government will step in to help.
Additional research by Charles Zhang.
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