Will Evergrande Spark a Global Financial Crisis?

A massive Chinese property developer is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, roiling markets worldwide today:

Worries about spreading contagion from troubles in China’s property market sent U.S. stocks toward their steepest declines in months on Monday.

The retreat came amid concerns over property developer China Evergrande Group. Market participants increasingly believe that Beijing will let Evergrande fail and inflict losses on its shareholders and bondholders. The company’s debt burden is the biggest for any publicly traded real estate management or development company in the world.

What Is Evergrande?

Evergrande is an odd company. It is one of China’s largest property developers but also has its hands in electric cars, soccer and bottled water. It has more debt than any other real estate company on the planet.

Sales have slowed in recent years, along with China’s economy. Rather than devising a new strategy or pulling back on growth, Evergrande has continued to build at a breakneck pace, earning lower and lower margins.

It’s the old “We lose money on every one, but we make it up in volume!” mistake. And as if to make things even worse, they’ve expanded to businesses they know nothing about. What unique insights does a property developer have on the bottled water market?

Risks in China

If Evergrande goes down, who’s going down with them? Probably mostly Chinese banks, as they’re the major holder of the embattled conglomerate’s debt. JP Morgan estimates that China Minsheng Bank has the largest exposure.

China Minsheng bank is an interesting company. In a banking sector dominated by state owned banks, China Minsheng was the first bank mostly owned by the private sector.

In a moment when Xi is trying to centralize the economy and promote state owned business, he could let it fail. The state owned banks could pick up the pieces, cementing their position.

But if a massive property developer like Evergrande fails, perhaps taking some major banks along with them, the Chinese financial system could be badly shaken.

Add this to crackdowns on numerous tech companies and even seemingly random targets like celebrities, and I could see a crisis in confidence in Chinese markets.

They’re already weak:

What About the US?

I think US markets are overreacting today. The institutions with heavy exposure to Evergrande appear to be mostly Chinese, not American. Moreover, trade with China is just 6% of US exports.

In all, I could see China’s economy and markets taking a significant hit, but I think the damage will be contained.

Investors in China, good luck.

More on China:

How China’s Tech Industry Dies

China’s Real Goal in Tech Crackdown: A Regimented, Obedient Society

China’s Tech Crackdown Means Economic Decline

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