World Markets

Debt problems are sinking three major Chinese companies

Key Points
  • Dalian Wanda, Sunac and LeEco are all facing major headwinds as questions arise about them

A complicated drama is unfolding among three major Chinese firms that have invested in each other, highlighting wider concerns over the country's growing debt problem.

The recent events, which also loop together longstanding financial system issues like accounting trickery and overspending, are continuing to weigh on investor sentiment — even though China's second-quarter economic growth beat analyst expectations on Monday.

"The Chinese market fell [Monday] despite the solid second quarter growth because of policy signaling from the central government that the efforts to mitigate financial sector risk through regulatory crackdown and deleveraging will continue," said Todd Lee, senior director of economics at IHS Markit.

Here's a breakdown of the soap opera drama and how the complicated relationship between Dalian Wanda, Sunac and LeEco means woes at one firm could ripple to the others.

Dalian Wanda

Wang Jianlin, who founded private Chinese conglomerate Dalian Wanda, had big dreams of building a global entertainment and property company. He'd splashed out at a time when the Chinese government was implicitly a fan of overseas mergers and acquisitions — seen as a way to increase China's clout — buying up Hollywood studio Legendary Entertainment and movie theater chain AMC Entertainment. Those names boosted an already robust portfolio of theme parks and hotels in China.

Wang Jianlin, Chairman of the Dalian Wanda Group, speaks during a session at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting of the New Champions on September 11, 2013.
ChinaFotoPress | Getty Images

But massive capital outflows prompted the government to crack down on the shopping spree abroad, and scuttled deals like Wanda's $1 billion move to buy Dick Clark. The latest reports indicate that Beijing is now scrutinizing loans to Wanda in efforts to assess debt risk, something that has also impacted other major firms that splashed out overseas.

Last week, perhaps in hopes of preventing greater scrutiny, Wanda sold off a spate of its hotel and theme park assets to Chinese property developer Sunac for $9.3 billion. But an unusual quirk of the deal is that Wanda is lending nearly half of the total sale figure to Sunac in order to close the deal. Sunac is also meant to take on all loans associated with those assets, but neither company has clarified how much leverage was involved.

On Monday, S&P Global Ratings put two Wanda subsidiaries — Wanda Commercial and Wanda HK — on watch negative as a result of its unexpected asset disposal to Sunac.

Wanda-owned tanked 10 percent in New York on Monday.


is now taking on a bunch of those Wanda assets, a move that continues the company's trend of extending lifelines to troubled companies. It's happened so much there's a circulating market joke in China: After all the typical company financing rounds, there's a final "Sun Hongbin funding round" named for the founder of Sunac. As such, questions are swirling over just how much risk the company has taken on.

Sun Hongbin, chairman and chief executive officer of Sunac China Holdings, listens during a news conference in Hong Kong, China, on March 24, 2015.
Jerome Favre | Bloomberg | Getty Images

After the Wanda deal was announced last week, both Fitch and S&P sounded alarm bells over Sunac. Fitch said it would downgrade Sunac to BB- and put the company on rating watch negative because the deal "will put pressure on Sunac's leverage over the next 12 months." S&P also flagged Sunac's $2.2 billion investment into cash-crunched tech company LeEco earlier this year.

Sunac shares were down more than 9 percent in Hong Kong.


LeEco, which started with online video streaming and was once a China tech darling, has been struggling to recover from blow after blow. The cash-crunched company's fast ascent didn't appear to be fueled by basic business sense with LeEco spending far beyond its means and failing to replenish its coffers.

The fallout has continued to widen: Last week, nearly $180 million in assets owned by LeEco and its founder Jia Yueting were frozen. Local media reports have said some employees had wages withheld, which CNBC confirmed with one employee. Jia also resigned as the chairman of LeEco's Shenzhen-listed unit, LeShi Internet Information and Technology.

Jia Yueting, LeEco founder, poses for a photo in front of a logo of his company in Beijing.
Jason Lee | Reuters

On Monday, the company convened an extraordinary shareholder meeting, and was expected to name the new chairman — rumored to be Sunac founder Sun. While Sun was in attendance and was elected to the board, LeShi didn't end up naming someone to take the helm.

Creditors have continually protested at LeEco, which in the last year or so has also seen its $2 billion deal to buy U.S. television maker Vizio hit the rocks while suffering through massive cost-cutting and layoffs. Things got so bad last year that Jia cut his salary to 15 cents.

LeShi shares dropped 14 percent in Shenzhen this year through mid-April when the stock was suspended from trading

And to close the loop on the complicated web, back in 2015, a unit of LeEco, LeSports, inked a $130 million funding round led by Wanda Group.