China’s property sector woes could spell trouble for prestige mega-projects in London, New York, Sydney and other top cities, as the developers behind them scramble for cash.
While China Evergrande Group's struggles have dominated the crisis, the risk to multitrillion-dollar global property markets stems from some of its rivals that have spent the last decade competing to build ever taller and grander skyscrapers.
Shanghai-based Greenland Holdings, which breaches as many of China’s debt “red lines” as Evergrande, has just built Sydney’s tallest residential tower, has plans to do the same in London, and has billions of dollars worth of projects in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, Paris and Toronto. The developer says it remains committed to its flagship builds, including its long-delayed, 235m-high Spire London tower, but it put part of another major London site on the market earlier in the year, and other firms are hoisting for sale signs too.
Evergrande and Kaisa Group, which was the first Chinese property firm to default back in 2015, are both trying to sell Hong Kong buildings to drum up desperately needed cash, while Oceanwide Holdings has just had what was supposed to be San Francisco's tallest tower seized by disgruntled creditors.
“I suspect, as with anything, if you’re running into liquidity issues you start to look to sell your investment properties,” said Omotunde Lawal, head of emerging markets corporate debt at asset manager Barings, which holds some Chinese property firms’ bonds.
As many Chinese firms overpaid for prime overseas sites in the scramble to secure them, the question is who will buy them, Lawal added. “Probably they are unlikely to get cost, so I think it depends on just how desperate they get.”
Sizable asset sales
Guangzhou R&F Properties is another major firm in focus after it required an emergency cash injection this month. It has two giant, unfinished developments in London, including one with a dozen skyscrapers next to the Thames, as well as numerous builds in Australia, Canada and the United States. An R&F spokesperson in London said it remained “fully committed” to all its British projects.
But with nearly $8 billion (€6.9 billion) of debt to repay in the next 12 months, only $2 billion of freely available cash and sales down nearly 30 per cent year-on-year last month, major credit rating agencies say it will need to cash in some chips.
"R&F's capacity to handle its near-term debt maturities will hinge on the execution of sizable asset sales," S&P said, predicting that buildings, hotels and various stakes in projects could all be sold. Fitch meanwhile estimates R&F has 836 billion yuan (€112.58 billion) of assets that could potentially be sold.
R&F, Greenland, Evergrande and Kaisa have all declined to comment further on their finances.
Oceanwide said last week it was “actively discussing” the situation with its San Francisco project with the creditors involved.
Chinese developers went on a major international spending spree between 2013 and 2018, but the splurge has slowed abruptly since as Beijing has moved to curb firms’ excessive debts. After pouring more than £28 billion into London projects in 2018, they have spent £1.5 billion in the first half of 2021, the lowest amount since 2012, data from Real Capital Analytics shows.
Figures from estate agents Knight Frank paint a similar picture in Australia, New York and other top North American cities, where Greenland, R&F and others big firms including Country Garden, Poly Property and China Vanke also spent tens of billions of dollars a year.
Stephanie Hyde, UK chief executive of real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle, which markets for R&F in London and another firm called Xinyuan, which has just narrowly avoided default, told Reuters she wasn't aware of any Chinese firms looking to sell up due to strains back in China. If they did decide to sell though, they were likely to find buyers relatively quickly, she added, due to the flood of international investment money current circling global property markets like London where prices are now at a record high.
Chris Gore, a central London principal at real estate firm Avison Young, said he wasn't aware of any sudden selling plans either, but that the pressure would grow on Chinese firms if the crisis at home continued. "If they needed to sell and could sell for a profit, then I think they would just sell," Gore said. "There wouldn't be a problem if a few wanted to sell, but if they all suddenly wanted to exit at the same time, they couldn't."