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Default by China Evergrande unlikely to spark malaise that threatens China's financial system, analysts say

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A highly anticipated default by China Evergrande Group as soon as this week is unlikely to spark a broader malaise that threatens the overall stability of China's financial system in the same way the collapse of investment bank Lehman Brothers did during the global financial crisis in 2008, according to research analysts.

The world's most indebted property developer is supposed to make a series of interest payments on its debt beginning on Thursday, but S&P Global Ratings and other credit rating agencies said a default is "likely".

The Shenzhen-based company had some US$300 billion in liabilities at the end of the first half of this year, and concerns about a potential contagion have sent borrowing costs soaring for other property developers and sparked a sell-off in stocks from Hong Kong to New York on Monday.

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"We don't expect government actions to help Evergrande unless systemic stability is at risk. A government bailout would undermine the campaign to instil greater financial discipline in the property sector," S&P Global Ratings analysts Matthew Chow and Christopher Yip said in a research note. "Government support to prevent a default is only likely if contagion risks cause other large developers to fail. This could threaten the stability of the financial system and economy. We think the hit to the financial system from Evergrande alone will be manageable."

The worries about cash-strapped Evergrande's ability to repay its massive debt load comes as Beijing has been trying to cut borrowing levels in China's property sector and after warnings by foreign investors about rising debt levels in the mainland.

In August 2020, the People's Bank of China, the country's central bank, introduced its "three red lines" measures - financial requirements that limit the ability of developers to borrow - as part of efforts to take some air out of speculative bubbles that have driven up residential property prices in recent years.

Despite the headline figure, Evergrande's liabilities, including 227 billion yuan (US$35 billion) in bank loans, is "not large enough to tip the scale", according to Barclays. China's banking system as a whole has as much as US$45 trillion in assets and US$30 trillion in loans, the bank said.

"Evergrande's balance sheet doesn't seem a good indicator of the entire real estate sector; its liabilities have grown far more rapidly than those of the entire Chinese property sector. And Evergrande's profit margins have collapsed over many years - which is also at odds with the overall property complex," Barclays analysts Ajay Rajadhyaksha and Jian Chang said in a research note. "We don't believe the business model of Chinese property firms is on the whole broken; Evergrande is in worse shape than most, both in terms of leverage and its business model."

The comparison of Evergrande to the global crisis sparked by the collapse of the US housing market and subsequent bankruptcy of Lehman 13 years ago is "far-fetched", according to Alexandre Bon, a market risk expert at financial software provider Murex.

While Evergrande's liquidity crunch and its impact on the property sector presents a potential systemic risk to China's financial system, it is not expected to be a "Lehman moment" for China, according to Citigroup. Any dip in banking stock prices could be an "enhanced opportunity" to buy quality names in the sector, the bank said.

"Policymakers will likely uphold the bottom line of preventing systematic risk to buy time for resolving the debt risk, and push forward marginal easing for the overall credit environment," Citigroup analyst Judy Zhang said in a research note.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.