Chinese regulators summon Evergrande execs, warn on debt risks

China’s central bank said it summoned executives of the country’s most indebted property developer, China Evergrande Group, to talks on Thursday and issued a rare warning that the company needs to reduce its debt risks and prioritise stability.

The unusual summons comes amid fragile confidence in China’s credit markets and concern that any financial crisis at Evergrande could pose a systemic risk as the company struggles to find the cash it needs to pay its lenders.

It also comes days after President Xi Jinping highlighted efforts to forestall major financial risks and as a flurry of regulatory crackdowns roil China’s equity markets.

Evergrande had no immediate response, although it has been pursing asset sales.

“The meeting shows Evergrande poses systemic risks. Its massive debt threatens financial stability,” said Rocky Fan, economist at Sealand Securities.

“On the other hand, it shows Evergrande has the means to solve its problem, and regulators are pressing it to do more,” he added.

The move did not appear to flag a bailout of the kind announced hours earlier by another troubled borrower, China Huarong Asset Management Co Ltd (2799.HK).

Evergrande must “actively diffuse debt risk and maintain real estate and financial markets stability,” said the People’s Bank of China and China’s banking regulator, the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, in a joint statement.

“Evergrande, as a top real estate company, must earnestly implement strategic arrangements made by the central government to ensure the stable and healthy development of the real estate market, and strive to keep operations stable,” they said.

DEBTS PILE UP

Evergrande has more than 240 billion yuan ($37 billion) of bills and trade payables from contractors to settle over the next 12 months, according to ratings agency S&P Global.

Concern over the developer’s financial health intensified in June when it failed to pay some commercial paper on time.

Its bonds carry junk ratings from S&P, Moody’s and Fitch, all of whom recently issued downgrades, and its troubles have sent jitters through China’s entire junk-debt market at a time when corporate credit is rallying in the rest of the world.

The regulators’ statement said senior Evergrande executives were summoned for talks and urged the company to abide by disclosure rules and clarify market rumours promptly.

Such summons’ are unusual, though were recently issued to Ant Financial both before and after its ultimately scuppered stock market listing in November.

At least one bond investor said the move could mean Evergrande is on the verge of a default that would reverberate through the banking system.

“This is what worries regulators the most,” said the fund manager, who declined to be named as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

The regulators’ statement was published after market hours. Evergrande stocks and bonds have been heavily sold for months amid fears it may not be able to meet repayments, with its share price hitting an almost five-year low in Hong Kong on Thursday.

($1 = 6.4893 Chinese yuan renminbi)