Shares of distressed developer China Evergrande and its profitable property management unit were suspended from trade in Hong Kong on Monday, sparking speculation about a possible asset divestment at the cash-strapped company.
Once China's top-selling developer, Evergrande is facing what could be one of the country's largest-ever restructurings as a crackdown on debt leaves it unable to refinance $305 billion in liabilities.
The Hong Kong stock exchange gave no reason for the suspension of Evergrande or of shares in its unit Evergrande Property Services Group and it was unclear who initiated the suspension. Evergrande did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But speculation soon turned to an asset sale and the move also seemed to rekindle broader market concerns about the risk of contagion or of a hit to China's property sector and the broader economy if Evergrande collapses or is liquidated at rock-bottom prices.
"Looks like the property management unit is the easiest to dispose in the grand scheme of things, indicative of the company trying to generate near term cash," said OCBC analyst Ezien Hoo.
"I'm not sure this necessarily means that the company has given up on surviving, especially as selling an asset means they are still trying to raise cash to pay the bills."
Beijing has prodded government-owned firms and state-backed property developers to purchase some of Evergrande's assets, people with knowledge of the matter told Reuters last week.
Chinese property group Hopson Development said in a statement on Monday it had suspended trading in its shares, pending an announcement related to a major acquisition of a Hong Kong-listed firm and a possible mandatory offer.
It was unclear whether the deal was related to Evergrande Group, and Hopson did not respond to a request for further comment. However, Hopson stands in good stead compared with other property developers, owning more assets than liabilities, improving profit in the first half and paying a dividend.
Shares of Hopson, which has a market value of HK$60.4 billion ($7.8 billion), have jumped 40% so far this year and it was rated B+ by Fitch in June.
Evergrande's property development unit was also profitable in the first half of 2021 and revenue rose compared with a year earlier.
With liabilities equal to 2% of China's gross domestic product, Evergrande has sparked concerns its woes could spread through the financial system and reverberate around the world.
Initial worries have eased somewhat after China's central bank vowed to protect homebuyers' interests, but ramifications for China's economy kept investors on edge.
Monday's share trading suspension sent a shiver through the offshore yuan , which fell about 0.3% against the dollar, and weighed on the Hang Seng benchmark index, especially financials and other developers.
"(The) consensus is expecting a restructuring, but authorities to limit systemic risk from Evergrande," said Bank of Singapore analyst Moh Siong Sim. But there is "a bit of nervousness," he added.
Guangzhou R&F Properties Co Ltd fell 6%, while Sunac China Holdings and Country Garden stocks came under pressure before paring losses. Shares in Evergrande's electric vehicle unit rose more than 10%.
Shares in Evergrande have plunged 80% so far this year, while its bonds trade at distressed levels. Shares in its property services unit have dropped 43% as the group scrambles to pay its many lenders and suppliers. read more
The cash-strapped group said last month that it had negotiated a settlement with some domestic bondholders and that it had made a repayment on some wealth management products, largely held by Chinese retail investors.
Holders of the company's $20 billion in offshore debt appear further back in the queue and bondholders have said interest payments due on bonds in recent weeks have failed to arrive.
Evergrande faces deadlines on dollar bond coupon payments totalling $162.38 million in the next month.