Chinese developers seek alternative financing as investors grow wary


China's property developers are turning to commercial mortgage-backed securities and looking at other alternative financing as creditors grow more discriminating in the face of rising concerns about the country's real estate and debt markets.

Bond buyers are shying away from second-tier developers because property sales have cooled as the economy slows. The expected bankruptcy of a local developer and the country's first domestic bond default this month have heightened scrutiny of borrowers.

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The property companies have a renewed sense of urgency to raise capital after U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen indicated the central bank, which sets the tone globally for borrowing costs, may raise interest rates as early as the spring of 2015, sooner than many investors had anticipated. Higher rates mean higher borrowing costs, both for the companies and for their home-buying customers.

Highlighting the search for alternative funding avenues, property fund MWREF earlier this month issued the first cross-border offering of commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBS) since 2006. The offer was priced at a yield lower than two dollar bonds issued last week, IFR, a Thomson Reuters publication, said.

Cityscape of Shanghai, China.
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"The market will see more of these products," said Kim Eng Securities analyst Philip Tse in Hong Kong. "It's getting harder to borrow with liquidity so tight in the bond market. It's getting harder for smaller companies to issue high-yield bonds."

The notes, issued through a MWREF subsidiary, Dynasty Property Investment, were ultimately backed by rental income from nine MWREF shopping malls in China and were structured to give offshore investors higher creditor status than is normally the case with foreign investors. MWREF is managed by Australian investment bank Macquarie Group, which declined to comment.

The head of investor relations for Beijing Capital Land , which is mainly focused on middle- to high-end residential development and high-end commercial property, said the company would look at new ways to fund its business.

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Beijing Capital was the first Hong Kong-listed developer to issue dollar senior perpetual capital securities last year, an equity-like security that does not dilute existing shareholders.

"As market liquidity is changing constantly, we have to keep adapting and exploring different funding channels," said Bryan Feng, the head of investor relations.

Chinese regulators last week allowed developers Tianjin Tianbao Infrastructure and Join.In Holding to offer a private placement of shares, opening up a fund raising avenue that had been closed for nearly four years.

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New rules were also unveiled last week allowing certain companies to issue preferred shares, including companies that use proceeds to acquire rivals.

"As liquidity tightens and developers see more pressure...they may consider M&A via preferred shares," said Macquarie analyst David Ng.

Financing risks

Heightened fears over the outlook for China's property developers were triggered by news this month that home price inflation is cooling and that Zhejiang Xingrun Real Estate Co, based in eastern Zhejiang province, was on the brink of bankruptcy.

China also recorded its first domestic bond default when loss-making Shanghai Chaori Solar Energy Science and Technology Co failed to make an interest payment, raising doubts about the assumption high-yield debt carried a government guarantee.

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The market jitters have slowed the pace of new debt issuance and prompted investors to demand bigger premiums to risk their capital.

As of March 15, Chinese developers had issued 15 U.S. dollar bonds raising $7.1 billion so far this year, compared with 23 issues that raised $8.1 billion in the year-earlier period.

"That said, quite a number of developers have demonstrated the ability to access alternative markets, such as the offshore syndicated loan markets as another means of raising capital," said Swee Ching Lim, Singapore-based credit analyst with Western Asset Management.

Offshore syndicated loans for Chinese developers have reached $1.17 billion so far in 2014, compared with $9.8 billion for all of last year, Thomson Reuters data shows.

Demonstrating the change in investor sentiment, bonds issued by Kaisa Group in January with a yield of 8.58 percent are now yielding 9.5 percent. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Times Property issued a 5-year bond this month, not callable for 3 years, to yield 12.825 percent. A similar instrument from China Aoyuan Property in January was priced at 11.45 percent. Both Kaisa and Times are in the B-rating "junk" category, which is four notches above a default rating.

Property prices on the whole are still rising, but there are signs of stress in second and third tier cities.

Early indications of property sales in March, traditionally a high season, were not promising, although final figures for the month would not be available until April, said Agnes Wong, property analyst with Nomura in Hong Kong. That may mean developers have to cut prices and investor sentiment may worsen.

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"This is hurting the cash flows of the smaller players," she said.

The market stresses ultimately could lead to the reshaping of the property development sector, said Kenneth Hoi, chief executive of Powerlong Real Estate Holdings, a mid-sized commercial developer.

"In the future, only the top 50 will be able to survive," he said during a briefing on the company's earnings on March 13. "Many small ones will exit from the market."