Country Garden Billionaire Bags Big Payouts While Default Looms

The billionaire behind Country Garden Holdings Co. is facing a brewing debt crisis that could be her biggest test yet.

(Bloomberg) — The billionaire behind Country Garden Holdings Co. is facing a brewing debt crisis that could be her biggest test yet.

Yang Huiyan, chair of the embattled Chinese property firm, will get about $28 million in dividends Friday for her personal stake in the firm’s services unit, according to Bloomberg calculations. That’s enough to cover the $22.5 million bond payments Country Garden missed this week. A foundation owned by her family could bag another $35 million in cash payouts.

Bondholders are now setting their sights on Yang to see if she will use these dividends  — or the rest of her $5 billion fortune — to support the struggling firm. That would follow the lead of Hui Ka Yan, founder of defaulted developer China Evergrande Group, who was pressured by creditors to dip into his pocket to back his firm.

Once the nation’s largest builder and seen by investors as a “model enterprise,” Country Garden will join a slew of defaulters such as Evergrande if it doesn’t make the payments within a 30-day grace period. On Thursday, Chinese junk dollar bonds extended their slump as the saga darkened the outlook for the real estate sector. The company was downgraded three notches by Moody’s Investors Service to Caa1 from B1.

Yang has collected almost $5 billion in dividends over time from two of the listed companies controlled by her — Country Garden, which started trading in Hong Kong in 2007, and property management firm Country Garden Services Holdings Co., trading since 2018, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. It’s unknown how she has dealt with the proceeds to date. Still, it could be a sizable pool as the company faces a 7.8 billion yuan ($1.1 billion) payment wall this month.

Read more: Country Garden Chair Loses More Wealth Than Any Billionaire 

“Over the past 12 months, Country Garden has shown higher willingness to pay compared to other privately-owned developers such as CIFI and Evergrande,” said Zerlina Zeng, senior credit analyst at Creditsights Singapore. “However, with contracted sales continuing to tumble, it is hard to say whether they will continue to use their own funds to keep the bondholders afloat.”

In a move that spooked the market, Yang last month transferred a substantial part of her personal stake in Country Garden Services, which she also chairs, to a charity foundation controlled by her sister. UBS Group AG analysts said the timing was “unusual.” Days later, the property manager brought forward the payment date of its 2022 dividends and special dividends.

Country Garden Services, the unit paying the dividends, said the payout plan, approved in May, doesn’t relate to any “third-party factor,” in a statement to Bloomberg News. The services company said it brought forward the dividend payment date to Friday — from Aug. 30 —  because it has ample cash, and it hopes to alleviate concerns about its stability.

Fortune Slumps

While the billionaire keeps getting dividends, her fortune has slumped 84% since its peak as Country Garden falls deeper into a debt crisis. She now has a net worth of $5.5 billion, down $28.6 billion from June 2021, according to Bloomberg’s wealth index. 

If the fortunes of Evergrande’s Hui are any guide, she may soon have to begin dipping into her assets. Earlier this year, a group of creditors asked Hui to inject at least $2 billion of his personal wealth into Evergrande as a condition for agreeing to any proposal from the company, after he injected some $1 billion into the firm in 2021.

Selling shares may help Country Garden raise cash in the short-term, said Ruiying He, a credit analyst at Lucror Analytics. The company doesn’t have a large amount of investment properties to sell and its assets likely won’t be attractive for fellow developers or other investors, He said. 

Other than the billions of dollars from dividends, the family still controls a $2 billion stake in Country Garden, a $1.2 billion stake in Country Garden Services and a $20 million stake in US-listed Bright Scholar Education Holdings Ltd. through a family trust.

Rapid Rise

Yang’s father Yeung Kwok Keung co-founded Country Garden in 1992 in the southern Chinese city of Foshan, and transferred a controlling stake to her in 2005 after she joined the company as his personal assistant to learn the ropes and eventually succeed him. 

The developer grew rapidly over several decades as the nation’s housing market boomed, making a name for itself in the Guangdong province bordering Hong Kong with a catchy slogan to “get yourself a five-star home.” 

By age 25, the Ohio State University alum Yang was China’s richest woman. She became Country Garden’s vice chair in 2012 and its co-chair in 2018. In March, she took over as the sole chair after her father resigned.

–With assistance from Emma Dong.

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