Millions of Chinese Firms Face Collapse If Banks Don’t Act Fast

Brigita, a director at one of China’s largest car dealers, is running out of options. Her firm’s 100 outlets have been closed for about a month because of the coronavirus, cash reserves are dwindling and banks are reluctant to extend deadlines on billions of yuan in debt coming due over the next few months. There are also other creditors to think about.

“If we can’t pay back the bonds, it will be very, very bad,” said Brigita, whose company has 10,000 employees and sells mid- to high-end car brands such as BMWs. She asked that only her first name be used and that her firm not be identified because she isn’t authorized to speak to the press.

With much of China’s economy still idled as authorities try to contain an epidemic that has infected more than 75,000 people, millions of companies across the country are in a race against the clock to stay afloat.

A survey of small- and medium-sized Chinese companies conducted this month showed that a third of respondents only had enough cash to cover fixed expenses for a month, with another third running out within two months.

While China’s government has cut interest rates, ordered banks to boost lending and loosened criteria for companies to restart operations, many of the nation’s private businesses say they’ve been unable to access the funding they need to meet upcoming deadlines for debt and salary payments. Without more financial support or a sudden rebound in China’s economy, some may have to shut for good.

“If China fails to contain the virus in the first quarter, I expect a vast number of small businesses would go under,” said Lv Changshun, an analyst at Beijing Zhonghe Yingtai Management Consultant Co.

Despite accounting for 60% of the economy and 80% of jobs in China, private businesses have long struggled to tap funding to help them expand during booms and survive crises.

Support from China’s banking giants in response to the outbreak has so far been piecemeal, mostly earmarked for directly combating the virus. Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd., the nation’s largest lender, has offered relief to about 5% of its small business clients.

In an emailed response to questions from Bloomberg News, ICBC said it has allocated 5.4 billion yuan ($770 million) to help companies fight the virus. “We approve qualified small businesses’ loan applications as soon as they arrive,” the bank said.

As a group, Chinese banks had offered about 254 billion yuan in loans related to the containment effort as of Feb. 9, according to the banking industry association, with foreign lenders such as Citigroup Inc. also lowering rates. To put that into perspective, China’s small businesses typically face interest payments on about 36.9 trillion yuan of loans every quarter.

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Stringent requirements and shortlists restrict who can access special loans earmarked by the central bank for virus-related businesses, while local governments and banks have imposed caps on the amounts, according to people familiar with the matter. A debt banker at one of China’s largest brokerages said his firm opened a fast lane to ease debt sales by businesses involved in the containment effort, with borrowers required to prove they will use at least 10% of the proceeds to fight the disease.

That’s of little help to a car dealership. Brigita, whose firm owes money to dozens of banks, said she has so far only reached an agreement with a handful to extend payment deadlines by two months. For now, the company is still paying salaries.

Many of China’s businesses were already grasping for lifelines before the virus hit, pummeled by a trade war and lending crackdown that sent economic growth to a three-decade low last year.

At most risk are the labor-intensive catering and restaurant industries, travel agencies, airlines, hotels and shopping malls, according to Lianhe Rating.

Yang, a property manager of a seven-story mall in Shanghai, says a tenant who runs a 150-room hotel that’s usually busy has called asking for a month’s rent waiver after business dried up. She expects the massage parlor that rents space in the mall is also struggling and is open to extending some help.

A deputy financing director at a small developer in central Anhui province said his firm is even being denied loans under existing credit lines. A drop in sales has hurt the company’s credit profile and a dearth of new projects means there’s no collateral to put up. Without access to credit, the business can survive for about four months, or maybe longer if some payments can be delayed, he said.

Banks are hardly any better off themselves. Many are under-capitalized and on the ropes after two years of record debt defaults. Rating firm S&P Global has estimated that a prolonged emergency could cause the banking system’s bad loan ratio to more than triple to about 6.3%, amounting to an increase of 5.6 trillion yuan.

Wu Hai, owner of Mei KTV, a chain of 100 Karaoke bars across China, took to the nation’s premier outlet of discontent, social media platform WeChat, to voice his despair.

KTV’s bars have been closed by the government because of the virus, choking off its cash flow. The special loans from the authorities will be of little help and no bank will provide a loan without enough collateral and cash flow, he said on his official WeChat account earlier this month.

Wu couldn’t be reached for a direct comment, but on WeChat he gave himself two months before he has to shutter his business.

— With assistance by Evelyn Yu, Ken Wang, Zheng Li, Xize Kang, Jun Luo, Emma Dong, and Yinan Zhao

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