Chinese asset manager signals debt overhaul, stokes contagion fears

By Jason Xue and Clare Jim

SHANGHAI/HONG KONG (Reuters) -A major Chinese asset manager has told its investors it needs to restructure its debt, stoking fears that a chain of defaults could spread through the financial sector and deliver a destabilising shock to the country’s weakened economy.

    Zhongzhi Enterprise Group, which raises money from companies and the wider public and is reported to manage 1 trillion yuan ($137 billion) in assets, spoke of the restructuring in an investor meeting on Wednesday, a video seen by Reuters showed.

    The Beijing-based firm, which has sizeable exposure to the country’s cash-squeezed real estate sector, has already stopped payment to investors in all investment products.

Zhongzhi operates in China’s $3 trillion shadow finance sector, selling high-yielding investment products via its trust and wealth management units, and has strong links with banks and other financial institutions.

    Anxious retail investors are bombarding listed companies with questions about their exposure to Zhongrong, a subsidiary of Zhongzhi, after missed payments by the trust company triggered fears of wider contagion.

    Citigroup said in a note that it expected more trust-fund defaults due to their exposure to the property sector downturn in China, but this was unlikely to lead to a “Lehman moment”.

    “As the problems in the property development sector are not new and have already been unfolding for several years, we think investors would have already psychologically prepared for the potential of defaults.”

Zhongzhi’s financial trouble is the latest challenge forChinese authorities as they battle to contain a worseningproperty sector crisis and revive a faltering recovery in the world’s second-largest economy.

Morgan Stanley has become the latest among some of the major brokerages to cut China’s growth forecast for this year. It now sees China’s gross domestic product (GDP) growing 4.7% this year, down from an earlier forecast of 5%.

Zhongzhi has hired one of the Big Four accounting firms toconduct a comprehensive audit of the company, and is seekingstrategic investors, its management told investors inWednesday’s meeting. The plan is for “self-rescue” through restructuring, with afocus on debt collection and asset liquidation, but bankruptcyis also an option, they added, without disclosing the amount ofdebt that needed to be restructured. It was not possible to determine whether the company isinsolvent before the completion of auditing work, which began inJuly, the executives told its investors, according to the videoseen by Reuters. Zhongzhi did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Wednesday’s meeting was held after Zhongrong International Trust Co, a leading trust company controlled by Zhongzhi, missed payments on dozens of investment products since the end of July, Reuters reported on Wednesday, citing sources.

PROPERTY CRISIS The liquidity stress facing Zhongzhi highlights the rippleeffect of an unprecedented debt crisis in China’s propertysector, which accounts for roughly a quarter of the economy that has rapidly lost momentum in recent months.

The central bank said on Thursday it would keep liquidity reasonably ample and keep its policy “precise and forceful” to support the country’s economic recovery, amid rising headwinds.

Zhongzhi runs a shadow banking empire, holding stakes in five asset management companies, four wealth management firms, and Zhongrong International Trust, a major trust company thatmanages more than 700 billion yuan ($95.69 billion) of assets.

The group has been selling stakes in some listed companiesit controlled over the past few years, and reducing the size ofit business, which came under increased pressure after China’scrackdown on shadow banking, and the property market downturn.

China’s property market has lurched from one crisis toanother in the last couple of years with a string of leadingdevelopers including China Evergrande Group and SunacChina defaulting on their debt repayment obligations.

Country Garden, the country’s largest privatedeveloper, has become the latest to flag a stifling liquiditycrunch at a time when property investment, home sales and new construction have contracted for more than a year.

Evergrande said late on Wednesday it would delay the votingdate and scheme meetings with creditors for its offshore debtrestructuring plan to Aug 23 and Aug 28, respectively, to givecreditors more time to consider the terms. The delay comes after the deal this week to sell a 27.5%stake in its unit China Evergrande New Energy Vehicle Group, and swap part of the debt in the NEV unit owed to theparent company and current controlling shareholder into shares. Evergrande is the first defaulted developer to hold schememeetings and its years-long restructuring practice highlights the challenges facing its peers to put their operations to back on track. ($1 = 7.3155 Chinese yuan renminbi)

(Reporting by Jason Xue in Shanghai, Clare Jim in Hong Kong; additional reporting by Shanghai newsroom; Writing by Sumeet Chatterjee; Editing by Jacqueline Wong, Jamie Freed and Shri Navaratnam)