Research Update: Evergrande and China’s Property Sector

September 28, 2021

Investors have become increasingly concerned about excessive borrowing in China’s property sector and within Evergrande Group, one of the country’s largest property developers, particularly as the Chinese government has taken steps to tighten credit conditions. Moreover, the latest news about the property sector has come amidst other regulatory crackdowns in China (such as in the for-profit education industry).

We have followed these events closely as part of our ongoing research work on China and emerging markets. Thus far we are of the view that these risks will be contained, and therefore we are not currently contemplating any changes to our portfolio positioning. Further, once through some of the short-term pain that we are seeing currently, new opportunities could emerge for investors in China.

Evergrande and the Outlook for Emerging Markets

Our research process takes risk into account when assessing the relative attractiveness of emerging markets by requiring a significantly higher extra return (return premium) than we would for a less volatile asset class. Risks particular to China are explicitly factored into our return requirement. The other side of the coin is growth assumptions, and while there are strong long-term positives, we have chosen to remain conservative in our view of the relative attractiveness until there is more clarity on the rules of engagement for regulation and on credit conditions in China.

We remain comfortable with our current portfolio positioning considering the risks and opportunities we see in China and emerging markets and appreciate the diversification benefits and long-term return potential it brings. Ultimately the reality in investing is that information like the problems facing Evergrande is quickly priced in (and more often over-priced in) and so the question is whether this is just louder-than-usual short-term noise or whether it is revealing a more fundamental long-term change that deserves to impact our long-term risk and return assumptions. This question is the focus of our analysis, and we’ll share a few highlights here and expect to share more in our quarter-end commentary that will be available in early October.

A catalyst for the Evergrande-related turmoil is the Chinese government’s steps to rein in speculation that they believe is leading housing to become increasingly unaffordable, which is contrary to their long-term sustainability goals, such as reducing inequality. In turn, these sustainability goals are surfacing issues related to excessive leverage in the property sector that have built over many years. As investors, we are focused on understanding how large the problem is and whether China will manage this adjustment well—two unknowns that become clearer with time.

At present, we share the widely held view that it is not likely we will see a Lehman-like disruption locally in China or globally. (The 2008 collapse of Lehman Brothers set off a negative chain reaction in the financial sector). For one, we don’t see the same feedback loop between China’s property sector and the global economy. In addition, Chinese citizens have a lot of wealth tied up in property, so it is in the government’s interest to avoid a chaotic wave of defaults and the government has the means to stabilize the financial system since it is the majority owner. A more orderly restructuring still seems the more likely scenario coupled with government monetary and fiscal stimulus.

It is also the case that a lot of bearish sentiment has been priced into emerging markets stocks; in fact, some of our managers are selectively seeking opportunities in China with a view toward long-term return potential. That said, we will continue with our analysis and if we conclude the impact is likely to be long term versus temporary, we will factor that into our portfolio positioning.

Litman Gregory Investment Team