ChemChina $50bn loans flag new chapter in debt binge

epa05141053 Ren Jianxin (L), Chairman of ChemChina (China National Chemical Corporation) and Michel Demare, Chairman of the Board shake hands after the annual press conference of agrochemical company Syngenta in Basel, Switzerland, 03 February 2016. The state-owned China National Chemical Corporation (ChemChina) has agreed to buy Swiss pesticide and seeds giant Syngenta for 43 billion dollars, which would be the biggest ever foreign acquisition by a Chinese firm.  EPA/GEORGIOS KEFALAS


Just as Moody’s Investors Service warns of the strain on China’s finances of debt among state-owned enterprises, the companies are loading up on record overseas loans to buy assets around the world.
China National Chemical Corp., or ChemChina, got $50 billion in such financing for its $43 billion purchase of Swiss pesticides producer Syngenta AG, including $35 billion that’s being or will be syndicated offshore, people familiar with the matter have said. That brings loans syndicated offshore for Chinese firms undertaking acquisitions, including those in the pipeline, to at least $36.3 billion this year, compared with the record $23.3 billion completed in 2015.
Moody’s cut China’s rating outlook to negative from stable last week, saying state-sector leverage raises risks of a worse slowdown in economic growth as funds are diverted to service debt. Among the 38 SOEs with lowered outlooks were conglomerate CITIC Ltd., plagued by overruns in an Australian mining project, and Bright Food Group Co., which bought British cereal maker Weetabix Ltd. in 2012 and whose total debt was 137 percent of equity at end-2014.
“Some of the SOEs only focus on growth right now without paying close attention to their balance sheet,” said Xia Le, chief economist for Asia at Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA in Hong Kong. “There will be risks for debt investors down the road. The huge amount of offshore loans the SOEs are taking on right now will make them vulnerable to changes in macro conditions and their own operations.”
Chinese companies have announced $72.6 billion of offshore acquisitions valued at $1 billion or more this year, compared with $73.6 billion in all of 2015, according to Bloomberg-compiled data. SOEs have seen debt jump to 62 percent of assets from 55 percent in 2007, according to estimates from Shi Kang, an associate economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Chinese companies are “horrendously over-levered” and “not all of them are starting from a balance sheet that, under normal circumstances, would allow them to make such large acquisitions,” said Kalai Pillay, head of North Asia industrial ratings at Fitch Ratings in Singapore.

Zombie Companies
“The SOE outlook change could serve to focus investors’ attention on the standalone credit profiles of the SOEs,” Nicholas Yap, a credit analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Securities HK Ltd. in Hong Kong, wrote in a Friday report.
The National People’s Congress is meeting to lay out economic development targets, after authorities said in September they would reform “zombie enterprises.”
“We will address the issue of ‘zombie enterprises’ proactively yet prudently by using measures such as mergers, reorganizations, debt restructurings and bankruptcy liquidations,” Premier Li Keqiang said in a work report delivered Saturday at the start of the annual NPC in Beijing.
China’s Baoding Tianwei Group Co., which last year became the first SOE to renege on onshore bonds, failed to repay 1.06 billion yuan ($162.7 million) in bond payments due last month.
Defaults by Chinese companies abroad have been limited. Guangdong International Trust and Investment Corp., the finance arm of Guangdong province, was shuttered in 1998 after being unable to pay nearly $2 billion in overseas debt. Kaisa Group Holdings Ltd., a private-sector firm, last year became the first Chinese developer to renege on dollar bonds.

Debt Burden
China’s overall external debt burden has been declining. Companies are unwinding dollar liabilities as the yuan weakens, with total foreign-currency debt dropping by about $140 billion in the second half of 2015 to $1.69 trillion, including corporate borrowing from onshore banks, Goldman Sachs Group Inc. wrote in a Jan. 26 note. The yuan has weakened 3.8 percent in the past year.
ChemChina had total debt of 156.5 billion yuan as of Sept. 30, exceeding cash and cash equivalents of 29.8 billion yuan, Bloomberg-compiled data show.

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