China's Debts Are Coming Due

The name “Evergrande” was chosen by one of China’s foremost property developers to reflect its lofty aspirations. The company’s performance, however, has been anything but grand; its stock is nearly worthless, and its bonds are trading at twenty cents on the dollar. The situation has become a challenge for China, emblematic of a difficult balancing act between promoting growth and controlling leverage.

China’s construction boom is longstanding, founded on expectations of urban migration and lots of capital from investors. There have been periodic concerns about excess in this sector: reports of vacant properties, price bubbles, and mounting debt issues have been common.

Evergrande has been at the center of the Chinese real estate sector, developing apartment blocks in multiple locations. Three years ago, it became the world’s most valuable real estate company. Today, by contrast, the firm is struggling to generate cash flow sufficient to pay its obligations. Ratings on the company have been serially reduced, with Fitch stating that default “appears probable.”

Chinese property bond prices and China: Composition of financial debt

China is a heavily leveraged country. Debt at the individual, corporate, and governmental level totals almost 300% of China’s gross domestic product (GDP), almost double the level of a decade ago. Moreover, debt has been accumulating further over the past year, as China recovered from the COVID-19 pandemic.