WEIFANG, China (Reuters) - The Chinese official was adamant the city of Weifang would keep its rayon factory open, noting that local authorities had just stepped in to help the plant’s owner repay $60 million in commercial paper.
The bailout averted what would have been China’s first ever bond default and was good news for domestic bond investors, who were reassured that in China even mid-sized state-owned firms can count on “too-big-to-fail” treatment.
But for the long term, the opaque, politically driven rescue of Shandong Helon Co 000677.SZ bodes ill for a country that must rely heavily on small, private-sector firms for future growth, as investments in infrastructure and basic industry yield diminishing returns.
Private firms, already crowded out of funding markets, will struggle even more to get credit after the bailout sent a clear message to investors that state companies are the safest bet.
“We strongly support the company,” said the Weifang official, who gave only his surname Wei, as he discussed the Helon case over a lunch of chicken’s feet soup, sweet green radishes and copious amounts of Chinese white liquor.
“The government definitely won’t let them go bankrupt.”
Officials at the Weifang propaganda office, which handles publicity for the city, confirmed that the local government had ensured Helon could pay off 400 million yuan ($63.3 million) in commercial paper on schedule last month, although they declined to give details.
The rescue notwithstanding, the synthetic fiber maker’s ordeal resembled a bankruptcy in everything but name. The hallmarks were all there: a sea of unpaid debts, a contest between creditors over who gets paid, and a potential takeover by stronger rivals.
But there were no bankruptcy court judges or rules on credit seniority at work - just politicians making backroom deals with banks and others to ensure the company remained in operation and their own reputations remained intact.
“I especially object to the way the Helong case was handled,” Wu Xiaoling, a former central bank vice-president, told a forum in Shanghai earlier this month.
“In my opinion, they should have let the bondholders shoulder the risk.”
The Helon case flouted the principle of credit seniority, turning the usual order for creditors’ claims on its head.
After a nail-biting process fraught with rumors and media speculation of an imminent default, creditors holding Helon’s unsecured commercial paper - which carried a coupon of 5.8 percent but was yielding close to 400 percent in early April - were paid off in full when it matured on April 15.
But company filings show 919 million yuan in overdue bank loans to the company were still outstanding as of April 11.
“It seems odd if the company is only repaying the CP but not the other debt,” said Shi Lei, vice-director of fixed-income at Ping An Securities.
Such bailouts reinforce the preferential access to credit enjoyed by state firms, which analysts say makes it harder for China to channel credit to the more efficient private-sector companies that could secure future economic growth.
“It has a bit of crowding out effect,” said Zhang Zhiming, head of China research for HSBC in Hong Kong.
“Anything related to government - particularly local government - they were under stress prior to this. Now, people are betting they’re not going to go under, at least this year. At the same time, anything pure private, without government affiliation, people will be more skeptical,” Zhang said.
Bond investors have begun noticeably to look beyond credit ratings, favoring debt from state companies compared to similarly rated paper from private firms, he said.
This staunches the flow of capital to the private sector, which analysts say can put the funds to better use.
“You’ve got basically 10 times the amount of credit going to the state sector as to the private sector to produce the same amount of output,” said Fraser Howie, chief executive of brokerage CLSA in Singapore.
Known in China for its annual kite festival and green radishes that can reach the size of a human forearm, Weifang - like many newly prosperous Chinese cities - boasts wide tree-lined highways and a new stadium and convention centre.
For the local government in this city of 4.3 million, also home to diesel engine maker Weichai Power (2338.HK) and Weifang Yaxing Chemical (600319.SS), the spectacle of a very public bond default by Helon would have opened a Pandora’s box.
They ended up diverting considerable resources to a company that, having overextended itself by moving into property and cargo port development during high-growth periods, fell into distress when high resource prices pressured its core business making rayon and other fibers for clothing and industrial uses.
In May, the chairman of the board, the board secretary, and several company directors resigned as reports emerged of huge losses at the company. The Shenzhen Stock Exchange warned on April 23 it may de-list Helon, since the company had reported net losses for two consecutive years.
The Weifang government, which owns 16 percent of Helon via its investment arm and is its biggest shareholder, has committed 1.7 billion yuan in loan guarantees, payments to contracted management companies and other forms of aid, the official China Securities Journal said in late March, citing an unnamed source.
The bailout also further put off a badly needed, if painful, wake-up call for China’s bond investors to start taking credit risk seriously - which would help to develop the sort of credit risk culture needed for a bond market that could efficiently provide financing to small and mid-sized private sector firms.
And while a formal bankruptcy could have shut down the factory and threatened the livelihood of Helon’s 8,700 employees, analysts say the company still produces high-quality, globally competitive products and a bankruptcy may have left it stronger in the end, by easing its debt burden.
But officials had little incentive to take the long view.
With a once-in-a-decade political transition scheduled for this October, stability is the dominant theme of official pronouncements on almost every topic.
Lenders and suppliers, shunted to the back of the queue for repayment, could not have been pleased with the special treatment given to unsecured bondholders, however, and 14 have sued Helon since January seeking repayment of loans or unpaid receivables.
Although several creditors won court judgments ordering the company to pay its debts, lawyers said they have little recourse to actually collect without forcing the company into bankruptcy. And even if they were willing to go that route, they would be unlikely to succeed without the support of the local government.
“Even if a Chinese bank wanted to try to petition for bankruptcy on a creditor claim, my strong suspicion - especially if it’s a high-profile situation - is that the court is unlikely to accept the petition unless the relevant local government is prepared to let this happen,” said Neil McDonald, a Hong Kong-based partner at law firm Hogan Lovells, who is currently working on the bankruptcy of Sino-Forest Corp.
In such cases, McDonald says, the government prefers to negotiate outside of court, creating an opaque and potentially arbitrary process.
The treatment of individual banks’ claims in the Helon case has often been less than clear.
China Merchants Bank (600036.SS) and China Everbright Bank Co Ltd (601818.SS) late last month abruptly withdrew lawsuits filed against Helon earlier this year seeking repayment of more than 300 million yuan in overdue loans, a company filing showed.
The announcement gave no details about whether the banks had been repaid.
Shenzhen Development Bank Co Ltd 000001.SZ is still pressing its claim in court.
In early March, the bank won a court judgment freezing 70 million shares of Helon stock that was mortgaged to the bank to secure a loan of around 100 million yuan.
“We don’t think they will have money to pay for the loans, but just hope the company that eventually takes control of Helon will buy the shares once we have them in hand,” said a source at Shenzhen Development Bank.
Helon refused repeated requests for an interview to discuss its circumstances. China Merchants and China Everbright declined to comment on the law suits.
It would have been difficult for Helon or the Weifang authorities to negotiate any arrangements with Helon’s bondholders, who unlike the locally based bank creditors were a diffuse group of investors from around China whom city officials would find difficult to persuade to accept a delay in payment on the commercial paper.
A better solution, from the government’s perspective, was to take care of the bondholders immediately, while pressuring local banks to be patient, analysts say.
But a long-term solution to Helon’s troubles - a takeover by a stronger state-owned firm - has eluded Weifang officials.
They have been using short-term management agreements with would-be rescuers and ad hoc cash injections in the meantime to maintain production and keep workers employed.
The unlisted parent company of Shenzhen- and Hong Kong-listed Chenming Paper (000488.SZ)(1812.HK) signed a one-year management agreement with the city in May of last year, but then backed out three months later.
The same day that Chenming withdrew, Helon announced that it had launched negotiations with China Hi-Tech Group SASAEQ.UL, a central government-owned textiles conglomerate, over a possible restructuring.
But in November, Helon said those negotiations had made no substantial progress and announced plans for a contract management agreement with a special-purpose vehicle to be established by the Weifang government.
The World Bank says more than one in four of China’s state firms lose money. It also cites studies showing that average return on equity - even for state firms that do turn a profit - is lower than for the non-state sector.
As China’s economy slows and the cost of capital rises, the inefficiency of many state firms may again become a burden on the state, pulling investment away from areas of the economy where it could be more productive.
But life at the Helon factory goes on as before. The plant operates around the clock. Workers trickle out of the factory gate looking worn out from a day’s work but showing little sign of worry over the company’s future.
“They’ve been talking about bankruptcy for years,” says a worker clad in a standard-issue blue uniform as she heads towards a company dormitory.
“But the factory is still here. And I’ve been paid on time every month.”
($1 = 6.3182 Chinese yuan)
Additional reporting by Pete Sweeney; Editing by Jason Subler and Edmund Klamann