When struggling Chinese real estate giant Evergrande ran out of cash earlier this year, it turned to its own employees with a strong case: Those who wanted to keep their bonuses should give Evergrande a short loan. term.
Some workers have asked friends and family for money to lend to the company. Others borrowed from the bank. Then, this month, Evergrande suddenly stopped repaying the loans, which had been billed as high-interest investments.
Now, hundreds of employees have joined panicked homebuyers to demand reimbursement from Evergrande, rallying outside the company’s offices across China to protest last week.
Once China’s most prolific real estate developer, Evergrande has grown into the country’s most indebted company. It owes money to lenders, suppliers and foreign investors. He owes unfinished apartments to homebuyers and has racked up over $ 300 billion in unpaid bills. Evergrande faces lawsuits from creditors and has seen its shares lose more than 80% of their value this year.
Regulators fear that the collapse of a company the size of Evergrande will cause upheavals throughout China’s financial system. Yet, so far, Beijing has not intervened with a bailout, having promised to teach the indebted corporate giants a lesson.
Angry protests by homebuyers – and now the company’s own employees – could change that calculation.
Evergrande is at the mercy of buyers of nearly 1.6 million apartments, according to one estimate, and could owe tens of thousands of its employees money. While Beijing remains relatively silent on the future of the company, those who owe money say they are getting impatient.
“We’re running out of time,” said Jin Cheng, a 28-year-old employee from the eastern city of Hefei, who said he invested $ 62,000 of his own money in Evergrande Wealth, the investment arm of the company, on demand. senior management.
As rumors circulated on the Chinese internet that Evergrande could go bankrupt this month, Mr. Jin and some of his colleagues gathered outside provincial government offices to pressure authorities to intervene.
In the southern city of Shenzhen, homebuyers and workers crowded into the lobby of Evergrande’s headquarters last week and shouted for their money back. “Evergrande, give back my money that I earned with blood and sweat!” some could be heard screaming in video footage.
Mr. Jin said employees at Fangchebao, Evergrande’s online platform for real estate and auto sales, have been told that each department should invest in Evergrande Wealth on a monthly basis.
Evergrande did not respond to a request for comment, but the company recently warned it was under “enormous” financial pressure and said it had hired restructuring experts to help determine its future.
It hasn’t always been that way.
For more than two decades, Evergrande has been China’s largest developer, making money out of a real estate boom on a scale the world has never seen. With each success, Evergrande has expanded into new areas: bottled water, professional sports, electric vehicles.
Banks and investors cheerfully invested the money, betting on China’s growing middle class and its appetite for homes and other properties. More recently, real estate has come under intense scrutiny from Chinese regulators who want to end the boom years and have forced the industry to start paying down debt.
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The idea was to reduce the exposure of Chinese banks to the real estate sector. But in the process, regulators withdrew the money developers like Evergrande needed to finish building homes, leaving families without the homes they had already paid for.
“The Chinese financial system is really complex and when you see cracks like this you realize the impact it could possibly have on society,” said Jennifer James, investment manager at Janus Henderson Investors. “If Evergrande were to disappear tomorrow, it could be a socially systemic problem. “
Ms James and other investors said they only heard about Evergrande’s wealth management strategy involving its employees this month, when the company revealed it owed $ 145 million in funds. refunds.
Evergrande has attempted to sell parts of his vast empire to raise new funds, but said last week he was “not sure the group would be able to close such a sale”. He accused the media of triggering panic among homebuyers with negative coverage.
But Evergrande’s funding channels started to dry up long before last week. According to employee interviews, state media reports and corporate documents seen by The New York Times, the company began forcing staff members to help bail it out as early as April, when she started selling short term loans.
About 70 to 80 percent of Evergrande employees across China were asked to donate money that would then be used to help fund Evergrande’s operations, Liu Yunting, consultant for Evergrande Wealth, recently told Anhui. Online Broadcasting Corporation, a public news group.
A version of this interview went offline on Friday. Anhui Online Broadcasting did not respond to a request for comment.
The scope of the campaign and the amount of money it could have raised was unclear. Employees were told to each invest a certain amount of money in Evergrande Wealth products, and if they didn’t, their performance pay and bonuses would be suspended, the employees told Anhui.
Company management said the investments were part of “supply chain finance” and would allow Evergrande to make payments to its suppliers, Liu said in his interview with Anhui. “Because we, the employees, had to fill a quota, we asked our friends and families to put in some money,” he said.
Mr. Liu said his parents and in-laws invested $ 200,000 and that he invested around $ 75,000 of his own money in Evergrande Wealth.
Even before the protests last week, Evergrande was on the wrong side of Beijing. At the end of last month, its executives were called to a meeting with regulators. Officials from major banking and insurance supervisors in China have called on the rulers to pay off their huge debt in order to keep the Chinese financial market stable.
The authorities’ biggest concern is the unfinished apartments at Evergrande. The company has nearly 800 developments underway in more than 200 cities across China.
Evergrande, which has often pre-sold apartments to raise funds before their completion, may still have to deliver up to 1.6 million properties to homebuyers, according to a Barclays estimate.
Under close scrutiny, Evergrande convened its top executives earlier this month and asked them to publicly sign what he called a “military order” – a pledge to complete unfinished real estate developments.
Wesley Zhang and his family are among the hundreds of thousands of families still waiting for their apartments, and they are hopeful that the company will be able to deliver. Mr. Zhang, 33, joined other homebuyers who protested in Hefei last week after learning that Evergrande also owed its employees money.
“Everyone is anxious, we are like ants on a hot pan, not knowing what to do,” Zhang said, using a Chinese expression to describe the distress of seeing a $ 124,000 investment potentially go missing. He said he hoped the protests would spur the government to act before it was too late.
“We hope this will prompt the central government to pay enough attention,” Zhang said. “Then someone would come out to intervene. “