China Investors Brace for Record Defaults in Risky End to 2020

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China’s fragile economicrecovery is ushering in a dangerous new phase for the nation’s $4.1 trillion corporate bond market.

With the economy now strong enough for policy makers to dial back financial support but still too weak to save the most distressed borrowers, some fund managers are bracing fordefaults on domestic Chinese debt to hit record highs this year. Delinquencies have alreadystarted rising after a remarkably quiet second quarter, and pressure on borrowers is set to grow as 3.65 trillion yuan ($529 billion) of notes mature by year-end.

While few see a crisis in the offing, debt specialists at SC Lowy and Adamas Asset Management are becoming more selective in China, arguing that the government-induced calm in local credit markets is unlikely to last. Analysts say non-state companies, lower-rated developers and some local government financing vehicles are particularly vulnerable as borrowing costs climb andrefinancing becomes more difficult.

“The government has neither the firepower nor the will to backstop it all,” said Brock Silvers, chief investment officer at Adamas Asset Management in Hong Kong, adding that he expects onshore defaults in China to reach a new annual record. That would mean another 72.2 billion yuan of delinquencies by the end of December, according to data compiled Bloomberg.

Local defaults so far this year have been strikingly rare, considering that the Covid-19 pandemic plunged China’s economy into its worstcontraction in decades during the first quarter. Onshore delinquencies fell 17% in the first half to 49 billion yuan, in part because the government encouraged lenders to refinance debt, accept payment delays, or find other solutions such as swapping bonds for fresh notes with longer maturities.

Read more: China Makes Bad Loans Disappear as Virus Pummels Banks

Authorities’ outsized focus on avoiding defaults now appears to be easing as the economybottoms out and the threat of market contagion wanes, a policy stance that aligns with the government’s long-term goal of improving the financial system’s pricing of risk. Chinese companies reneged on 10.4 billion yuan of notes in July and about the same amount so far in August, with luxury home developer Tahoe Group Co. among the latest tomiss payments.

“We have seen a somewhat illusory improvement in ‘defaults’ this year, but drilling deeper the picture is less comforting,” said Owen Gallimore, head of credit strategy at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. in Singapore.

Gallimore predicts China’s onshore bond market will catch up with the trend offshore, where defaults on dollar debt tracked by Bloomberg have already exceeded last year’s total by 55%. He said funding stress will likely be concentrated in non-state borrowers and may impact more property firms, which account for the bulk of China’s high-yield bond issuance.

The nation’s developers need to refinance or repay 199.3 billion yuan of onshore debt and $12.3 billion of offshore notes before year-end, data compiled by Bloomberg show. And they’ll have to come up with the cash while also adhering to issuanceguidelines introduced this month that restrict the size of bond offerings by property companies in China’s interbank market to 85% of outstanding debt coming due.

Even as authorities grow more tolerant of defaults, they’re unlikely to turn off the credit taps entirely. On Aug. 17, the People’s Bank of China added 700 billion yuan of one-year funding via its medium-term lending facility, more than offsetting upcoming maturities in a move that Citic Securities Co. described as more accommodative than expected.

Read more: PBOC Adds Cash to Ease Liquidity Stress

The upshot for bond investors is that security selection now matters far more than it did earlier this year, according to Soo Cheon Lee, chief investment officer at SC Lowy, a global banking and asset management group in Hong Kong. Smaller companies and borrowers experiencing commodity-driven or industry-related stress — such as airlines and hotels — will likely remain under pressure, Lee said.

In just the past week, companies includingHaikou Meilan International Airport Co., cruise ship operatorGenting Hong Kong Ltd. and transportation leasing firmBohai Leasing Co. have issued fresh warnings that they may struggle to repay creditors.

At least ten Chinese companies that won investor approval to delay servicing their debt after the virus outbreak will face payment deadlines in the next eight months; and at least83 firms with $46.3 billion of bonds outstanding face uncertainty over meeting their obligations, according to company statements and rating firms, the highest number of borrowers since Bloomberg begantracking the figures in January 2019.

China’s ratio of interest-bearing corporate debt to gross domestic product has climbed by 13 percentage points this year to 164.4% at the end of June, according to the National Institution for Finance & Development, a think tank.

China’s local government financing vehicles have also been piling debt, selling the equivalent of $361.1 billion in local and offshore bonds so far this year. Questions over whether they’ll be able to repay it all intensified this month after an LGFV from northeastern Jilin provincewired funds to bondholders later than usual — a sign of potential difficulties in securing the cash.

Jilin is just one of several Chinese provinces that face higher LGFV repayment risks, according to Li Yuze, an analyst at China Merchants Securities. Others include Heilongjiang, Liaoning, Yunnan, Guizhou and Sichuan, Li said.

Whether investors have adequately priced the risk of rising defaults is debatable. Corporate yields onshore have edged up from the lowest levels in more than a decade in May, but they’re still well below long-term averages, according to ChinaBond indexes. Spreads between lower- and higher-rated credits are also near the tight end of their historical range.

“We think liquidity in the credit market will continue, but we need to be mindful that the underlying cash flow and fundamentals of companies are still very weak,” SC Lowy’s Lee said. “We see a lot of landmines out there.”

— With assistance by Rebecca Choong Wilkins, Jing Zhao, Heng Xie, Molly Dai, Shuqin Ding, and Tongjian Dong

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