US federal debt crisis uglier than Evergrande trouble
Published: Sep 26, 2021 07:23 PM
Illustration: Chen Xia/GT

Illustration: Chen Xia/GT


There is much buzz amongst global investors recently about two possible debt defaults, though they are of different proportions in their would-be impact on global equity markets. One is the US federal government's rivers of borrowed money running dry and in urgent need of replenishing. The other is a major Chinese property developer which has run into financial trouble, because the company veered off the road by squandering too much on making electric cars and sponsoring a football club.

As US federal debt default looms, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is facing her biggest test in her eight-month tenure to convince reluctant Republican lawmakers to agree to raise the US' national debt limit, which is currently set at $28.5 trillion. The stakes are high, because if Yellen's effort fails, the US financial system will collapse. 

Yellen has called Republican leaders to convey the economic danger which lays ahead, bluntly warning that the Treasury Department's ability to stave off default is limited, and the failure to lift the debt cap by late October would be "catastrophic" for the country and the world.

Six former US treasury secretaries last week sent a letter to top US lawmakers, warning them a default would roil financial markets and blunt economic growth. According to US media reports, Yellen last week also warned the nation's largest banks and financial institutions about the very real risk of a default. She has spoken to chief executives of JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, BlackRock and Goldman Sachs, briefing them the likely disastrous impact a federal default will produce. 

To make things worse, both Democrats and Republicans in the US are at each other's throats now over US President Joe Biden's new $3.5 trillion spending bill, which proposes heavy tax raises on rich families and corporations, and has met fierce opposition from Republican lawmakers. Whether they will compromise on the debt limit, by making a last-minute deal with the White House to reduce Biden's giant spending plan remains to be seen.  

Market analysts say if the US government defaults on its colossal debt, a financial system crisis of a magnitude larger than the 2008-09 debacle could occur, which is estimated to lead to an evaporation of $15 trillion in wealth and loss of 6 million jobs in the US. The capital market is now on tenterhooks facing a potential financial time bomb.  

Last week, the US' major media outlets also focused their reportage on a possible default of a leading real estate developer in South China, but by all metrics, it is a risk of much smaller scale. The case is being closely watched by China's financial authorities and will never be allowed to develop into a systemic risk.  

With regard to the privately-run property developer Evergrande, many fear the knock-on effects of the company's imminent difficulty to pay back principals and interests of borrowed money, including corporate bonds and bank loans. But, even if the city of Shenzhen with its deep pockets, where the company is headquartered, refuses to bail out Evergrande, one bankrupt company can hardly impact the stability of China's financial system, and the risks linked to this possibility have been widely overblown by a hyperventilating media. 

Executives at Evergrande are launching a last-ditch rescue effort, trying to sell the company's electric car subsidiary and other assets in China and abroad, including the Guangzhou Evergrande Football Club. It is also selling its housing projects scattered in dozens of Chinese cities at a discount to speed up its cash flow. Whether the company is able to stave off a debt default remains unknown.

Evergrande said on Wednesday that it would make an interest payment on an onshore bonds due Thursday, but the company didn't say whether it had plans to make a $83 million coupon payment due on its US dollar bonds within a month. 

The city government of Shenzhen, or the central government in Beijing, has not rushed to bail out Evergande most likely in the belief that the company itself is to blame for the predicament - too much leverage and squandering of borrowed funds ploughed into auto making and other fringe businesses and budgeting largesse. Authorities probably want the case to serve notice to investors at home and abroad, that they need to do their due diligence and enforce accountability on debtors. 

However, the central government is almost certain not to tolerate a possible bankruptcy of Evergrande to spill over to draw down the broader Chinese economy, as the central bank has done numerous pressure tests since the 2008 global financial crisis, which was caused by the sub-prime housing debts in the US. Last year, the central bank required property developers to bring down their debt levels below certain thresholds before they are able to borrow more money from financial institutions. And, many Chinese commercial banks have ascertained their exposure to Evergrande is restricted.

So, debt-beleaguered Evergrande is unlikely to produce a firestorm and disrupt China's financial system. In addition, both the government and the central bank have plenty of policy tools, including easing overall monetary policy, to tide over Evergande if it goes under. But of course, the last resort is to bail it out and restructure the company, as China has done with other troubled corporations like HNA, Huarong and Baoshang Bank. 

The author is an editor with the Global Times.