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Flight to safety for lenders amid China property woes

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Lenders are expected to stay cautious towards China’s cash-strapped property sector as Shenzhen-based developer Kaisa’s debt woes continue to rattle the market. But they will continue to lend to larger mainland companies.

“Companies from China will remain a major source of business for loan markets this year,” said Sonia Li, head of syndicated loans for Asia at JP Morgan. “But you will see a flight to quality for Chinese borrowers, particularly in light of what is happening in the real estate sector. Lenders will be very cautious to the real estate sector,” she added.

China has become a bigger part of Asia’s loan markets. According to Thomson Reuters data, China was the largest driver for loan growth in the Asia-Pacific region last year, accounting for $141.3 billion in loan volume or about 27% of the total in the region. Infrastructure, project and real estate deals accounted for slightly more than two-thirds of that volume.

Given the increasing exposure banks have to Chinese property, a protracted downturn could have a knock-on effect on the banks. “A lot of mid-sized and big Chinese banks as well as foreign banks have exposure to the China property sector. A big downturn in China real estate market would affect everyone but the mainland banks have the most exposure to the property market,” said Christine Kuo, senior credit officer at Moody’s.

For now, however, the rating agency views Kaisa’s problems as being unique to the company and, at a briefing in Hong Kong on Tuesday, Simon Wong, Moody’s senior credit officer, told reporters that he didn’t think the Shenzhen’s developer’s problems would pose a systemic risk to the sector.

“If the Kaisa case is resolved satisfactorily, such as another developer coming in and potentially buying Kaisa’s assets at fair market value, I think that would also help to ease investors’ concerns,” Wong told reporters.

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For now though, investors and lenders are giving the sector a wide berth.

Kaisa had been subject to unexplained bans imposed by the Shenzhen government on the sale of its property projects in Shenzhen. Reports had been circulating that other developers including Fantasia and China Overseas Land & Investment have faced similar bans but the companies have since clarified that the blocked sales are due to administrative procedures by the authorities, and not violations by the companies.

Lenders could also turn wary towards small-cap companies. “China is an important market but we expect more large-cap and higher grade companies this year compared to last year given the concerns over the mid-cap sector,” said Amit Khattar, head of syndicated loans for Asia at Deutsche Bank.

Subordination risk

Kaisa’s problems expose the risks that offshore lenders face. It had initially defaulted on a $51 million loan with HSBC. While it subsequently got a waiver from the British lender, other creditors have frozen some of its onshore bank accounts, and if it came down to a default, onshore lenders would get first dibs on the assets.

Offshore lenders are often subordinated to mainland lenders as the loans are typically issued through offshore holding companies, using the so-called red chip structure.

China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (Safe) has made moves to take away some of that subordination risk and, in July last year, relaxed the rules to allow mainland companies to use onshore assets as collateral when raising funds offshore. However, there are restrictions, and Safe has made it clear that the proceeds have to be kept offshore.

“The change in Safe rules means that offshore lenders can get senior secured access to Chinese companies rather than just a red chip structure,” said Khattar. “It is a meaningful development but the number of companies using this has been limited by restrictions over the use of proceeds,” he added.

Lenders have been comfortable lending to offshore holding companies, provided they are perceived to be a strong credit. For example, smartphone company Xiaomi last year tested the market with a debut $1 billion loan, which attracted 29 lenders. Xiaomi is cash rich, with no onshore borrowings.

However, weaker companies are expected to come under more scrutiny now. “Lenders have become more comfortable with loans using offshore holding company structures,” said Deutsche Bank’s Khattar. “But they will be more wary about certain credits,” he added.

This year could be a more challenging one for mainland companies as Taiwanese lenders are keen to keep their exposure to mainland companies down, and could look to diversify to Indian or Southeast Asian companies. “Taiwanese banks were big investors for China loans in the past but they have pretty tight China limits at the moment,” said JP Morgan’s Li.

But amid ongoing market volatility, more companies could start tapping the loan markets as bond yields have risen. “Bond market volatility specially in the high yield market could see more high yield issuers trying to access the loan markets in 2015,” said Khattar.

¬ Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.

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