Hounded by loan sharks, the once-highflying real-estate king of Baotou, a boom city of about two million people in Inner Mongolia, finally reached his breaking point. Last month, Wei Gang checked into a hotel and hanged himself, according to local police.
Mr. Wei's suicide comes as China's smaller property developers face mounting financial distress after two years of tightening credit, an effort by the government to squeeze out speculators and make homes more affordable.
Standard & Poor's Ratings Services says China's more than 80,000 developers could face a battle for survival as a wave of short-term property loans fall due this year. The risk is that these businesses could become so desperate they will either default, leaving behind half-finished projects at a time economic growth already is slowing, or start offering steep discounts, triggering a price war.
Some developers, like Mr. Wei, turned to loan sharks who illegally charge interest rates of up to 5% a month.
But the greater problem lies with developers who rely for funding on trust companies, a type of wealth-management firm that took over as the main source of legal new lending to the property sector after Beijing reined in banks last year. In recent months, China's banking regulator has all but stopped trust companies from rolling over loans to developers.
Securities brokerage China International Capital Corp. estimates that about 223 billion yuan ($35 billion) of trust loans are due to mature this year, almost half of which reach maturity between July and September, with a further 282 billion yuan due next year. Combined, that represents almost 75% of all outstanding trust financing to the property sector at the end of 2011.
Traditionally, Chinese banks have been reluctant to force anyone into bankruptcy. But China's trust companies are different, demanding that developers back loans with big amounts of collateral, sometimes up to three times the actual value of the loan, as insurance against default. Still, trusts prefer the developers to make repayments on time, despite the potential windfall default would bring, as they need to deliver a return to investors promptly at the maturity of the loans.
In recent months, some of China's better-financed developers, those with better access to bank loans and bond markets, have waded back into the land market to replenish low inventories and take advantage of prices that are well off their 2010 peaks. But with property sales between January and May down 9% from a year earlier, many developers don't have the income to repay maturing trust loans and are looking for cash elsewhere.
Developers are seeking financing from a crop of newly formed real-estate investment funds, as well as the asset-management corporations, also known as 'bad banks,' that originally were set up more than a decade ago to dispose of nonperforming loans at China's banks.
'We're drinking from a fire hose. We can't handle the volume,' said Greg Peng, president of property investment fund AT Investment Management, about the number of developers that have approached him for capital.
Mr. Peng, who used to run Merrill Lynch's property investments in China, closed the first part of his fund in the third quarter of last year, raising one billion yuan from domestic investors, and plans to have invested three billion yuan by the middle of next year. His fund expects to return investors at least 25% annually, significantly higher than trusts, which typically range between 10% and 20%. The fund targets projects near completion and demands developers put up large amounts of collateral to ensure the fund a hefty return even if property values fall sharply.
Mr. Peng says that last year developers 'were still somewhat resistant to our rates.' He adds: 'Now they don't see a light at the end of the tunnel.'
Trust-company managers, fund executives and analysts say China's four asset-management corporations have emerged as by far the biggest players in the distressed property market, and without their involvement trusts would be short the cash they need to repay investors by a lot. China's trust companies are mainly controlled by banks, other major state-owned firms or local governments, although some foreign financial institutions hold minority stakes. At the end of March they had 5.3 trillion yuan of assets under management, more than double the amount two years ago.
The 'bad banks'─China Cinda Asset Management Co., China Huarong Asset Management Corp., China Orient Asset Management Corp. and China Great Wall Asset Management Corp.─were set up at the turn of the century, but where similar institutions overseas have been shut down after disposing of bad loans, China's 'bad banks' have evolved into some of the biggest, most diversified financial institutions in the economy. One of the ways the bad banks get involved is by stepping in before a developer defaults, effectively taking over the trust loan, albeit with higher returns and a longer life. They also can step in and buy a developer's other outstanding debts─such as accounts payable─while demanding collateral in return, which similarly frees up the developer to repay its trust loan.
Still, the asset-management firms are unlikely to have the appetite to bail out every trust loan. 'Our aim is not to help develop property, but to resolve the short-term liquidity squeeze,' said Li Xin, a vice president at China Orient.
Mr. Wei's story highlights the desperation of smaller property developers. The chairman of what domestic real-estate agents said was the biggest developer in the northern Chinese city of Baotou, he struck it rich in 1996 by helping rebuild the city following an earthquake. His flagship development was a five-phase mid- to high-end residential project that was slated for completion next year.
But he borrowed heavily from loan sharks, and started to run into repayment difficulties this year, according to a friend of Mr. Wei's and people in Baotou's real-estate industry. One beating from the loans sharks left him in the hospital for a month, according to the friend.
On June 6, Mr. Wei's body was found hanging in his room at the Jintuo Hotel in Donghe, according to police. 'I was astonished to learn about Wei's death,' the friend said. 'I could never imagine he would choose to kill himself.'
In a recent report, Standard & Poor's said it expects developers with large trust loans to meet their debts by aggressively cutting prices or selling assets, tipping average prices down 10%.
But 'when the pinch starts to bite, benign price discounting could turn into a price war,' it said.
标准普尔评级服务公司(Standard & Poor's Ratings Services)说，由于一批短期房地产贷款将在今年到期，中国超过8万家房地产开发商可能面临一场生死存亡的考验。这些企业有可能会孤注一掷地违约，在中国经济已经开始放缓的情况下留下一堆烂尾楼，或是开始大幅降价，引发价格战。
证券经纪商中国国际金融有限公司(China International Capital Corp.)估计，今年将有人民币2,230亿元的信托贷款到期，其中大约一半将在7月到9月之间到期，另外有2,820亿元的信托贷款将在明年到期。加在一起，这相当于房地产行业2011年末所有未偿信托贷款的75%。
房地产投资基金安泰盘实股权投资管理有限公司(AT Investment Management)董事长蓬钢说，希望从他那里获得融资的开发商数量太多了，我们根本无力提供这么多资金。
中国的四家“坏账银行”设立于世纪之交，分别是信达资产管理股份有限公司(China Cinda Asset Management Co.)、中国华融资产管理公司(China Huarong Asset Management Corp.)、中国东方资产管理公司(China Orient Asset Management Corp.)和中国长城资产管理公司(China Great Wall Asset Management Corp.)。在其他国家，类似机构在处理完坏账之后就会关闭，但中国的“坏账银行”已经演变成整个经济体中几家规模最大、最多元化的金融机构。坏账银行的参与方式之一是在开发商破产之前进入，事实上接管信托贷款，但要求的回报更高、期限更长。它们同样也可以收购开发商的应付账款等其他债务，同时要求开发商提供抵押，这样做同样也可以让开发商腾出手来偿还信托贷款。
渣打银行(Standard & Poor)前不久发表报告说，预计借了大量信托贷款的开发商将会通过大幅降价或出售资产来偿债，估计房价将会平均下降10%。