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China Evergrande lines up funds to pay interest, avert default -source

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October 22, 2021

By Clare Jim and Andrew Galbraith

HONG KONG/SHANGHAI (Reuters) -China Evergrande Group has supplied funds to pay interest on a U.S. dollar bond, a person with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters on Friday, days before a deadline that would have seen the developer plunge into formal default.

The person said Evergrande remitted $83.5 million to a trustee account at Citibank on Thursday – as earlier reported on Friday by state-backed Securities Times – allowing it to pay all bondholders before the payment grace period ends on Oct. 23.

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News of the remittance will likely bring relief to investors and regulators worried about a default’s wider fallout in global financial markets, adding to reassurance from Chinese officials who have said creditors’ interests would be protected.

Still, the developer, saddled with $300 billion in liabilities, will need to make payments on a string of other bonds, with the next major deadline to avoid default on Oct. 29 and little known about whether it is in a position to pay.

“I expect it means they also plan to pay the offshore bond coupons due by the 29th,” said analyst Travis Lundy at Quiddity Advisors in Hong Kong.

“There’s no point in paying this one if you fully plan on not paying the next one six days later, but given the company’s self-reported cash flow difficulties, it is not clear how long they can keep that up.”

It was not immediately clear how cash-strapped Evergrande was able to raise funds for paying the bondholders or whether any bondholders have already received the money.

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Evergrande did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment. Citibank declined to comment. The person with knowledge of the matter was not authorised to speak with media and so declined to be identified.

News of the funds comes a day after financial information provider REDD said Evergrande had secured more time to pay a defaulted bond it guaranteed, issued by Jumbo Fortune Enterprises.

“They seem to be avoiding short-term default and it’s a bit of a relief that they have managed to find liquidity,” said a Hong Kong-based debt restructuring lawyer representing some bondholders, who did not want to be identified.

“But still, Evergrande does need to restructure its debt. This payment might be a way for them to get some sort of buy-in with stakeholders before the heavy work needed on the restructuring.”

Evergrande, which has nearly $20 billion in offshore debt, missed coupon payments totalling nearly $280 million on its dollar bonds on Sept. 23, Sept. 29 and Oct. 11, beginning 30-day grace periods for each.

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Subsequent non-payment would result in formal default and trigger cross-default provisions for its other dollar bonds.

Evergrande’s next payment deadline is Oct. 29 with the expiration of the 30-day grace period on its Sept. 29 coupon.

TEMPORARY RELIEF

Evergrande’s dollar bond prices surged on Friday, with its April 2022 and 2023 notes jumping more than 10%, data from Duration Finance showed, though they still traded at deeply distressed levels of around a quarter of their face value.

Its shares rose as much as 7.8%, a day after trade resumed following a more than two-week halt pending the announcement of a stake sale in its property management unit, which was scrapped this week.

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Evergrande’s woes have reverberated across the $5 trillion Chinese property sector, which accounts for a quarter of the economy by some metrics, with a string of default announcements, rating downgrades and slumping corporate bonds.

In the latest such move, Fitch Ratings on Thursday cut Sinic Holdings (Group) Co Ltd’s long-term foreign currency issuer default rating to “restricted default” from “C” as the developer failed to repay its $250 million notes due Oct. 18.

Still, the Evergrande news helped the Hang Seng mainland properties index surge more than 4% versus a gain of 0.25% in the broader Hang Seng index.

It also helped Evergrande’s smaller peer Kaisa Group Holdings Ltd, whose dollar bonds surged in price.

Kaisa was the first Chinese developer to default back in 2015 and the Evergrande crisis has put it back in the spotlight.

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In mainland markets, the CSI300 Real Estate index jumped as much as 6.5%, and an index tracking the broader property sector was eyeing its biggest gain in nearly two months.

When asked whether it will step in to help its rival to ease its liquidity crisis, Chairman Yu Liang of the nation’s third-biggest developer, China Vanke Co Ltd, said developers needed to ensure their own safety first.

“Everyone feels the chill as ‘winter’ arrives for the sector… Whether we can pass this winter safely is still unknown,” Yu told a company forum on Friday.

FREEWHEELING

Evergrande’s woes had been snowballing for months. Dwindling resources set against more than $300 billion of liabilities had wiped out 80% of its value.

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Founded in Guangzhou in 1996, the developer epitomised a freewheeling era of borrowing and building. But that business model has been scuttled by hundreds of new rules designed to curb developers’ debt frenzy and promote affordable housing.

Analysts said any prospect of demise would raise questions over what would happen to the more than 1,300 real estate projects Evergrande has ongoing in over 280 cities, and any impact the wider property sector.

Bank exposure to developers is also extensive. A leaked 2020 document, branded a fake by Evergrande but taken seriously by analysts, showed the company’s liabilities extending to more than 128 banks and over 121 non-banking institutions.

“Given that we have little clarity on how bank financing is going for stalled real estate projects, but we know that project pre-sales are down a lot, the onshore business is unlikely to be supplying cash to Evergrande near-term,” said Quiddity’s Lundy.

(Reporting by Clare Jim and Scott Murdoch in Hong Kong, Samuel Shen and Andrew Galbraith in Shanghai, Anshuman Daga and Tom Westbrook in Singapore and Marc Jones in London; Writing by Sam Holmes; Editing by Christopher Cushing)

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Amazon asks India antitrust body to revoke Reliance-Future deal approval

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November 28, 2021

By Aditya Kalra and Abhirup Roy

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Amazon has asked India’s antitrust regulator to revoke its approval for Future Retail’s $3.4 billion sale of retail assets to Reliance, saying it was “illegally obtained”, violating an order suspending the deal, a letter seen by Reuters shows.

The approval for the deal was a “nullity in the eyes of law” as an arbitrator’s order was still in force, according to the letter sent by Amazon.com Inc to the Competition Commission of India (CCI) last week.

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The battle between two of the world’s richest men, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos and Reliance Industries Ltd boss Mukesh Ambani, marks a contest for preeminence in India’s booming, nearly trillion-dollar retail market.

The winner in the fight for Future Retail Ltd, India’s second-largest retailer and Amazon’s estranged local partner, will get pole position in the race to meet the daily needs of more than a billion people.

The CCI, Amazon, Future Group and Reliance did not respond to requests for comment.

Future has said the arbitrator’s suspension order was invalid but Indian courts have declined to overturn it.

If the regulator agrees with the previously unreported letter, it would be a major setback for oil-to-telecom conglomerate Reliance.

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Amazon won an injunction against the deal from a Singapore arbitrator last year, alleging Future had violated contracts that prevented it from selling the assets to entities including Reliance.

But the CCI later cleared the deal.

Future misled the CCI and continued to seek approval for the deal, Amazon said in the letter dated Wednesday, calling the injunction a “brazen attempt to subvert the rule of law”.

Amazon asked for a personal hearing from the CCI to make its case.

The letter comes as Amazon is also battling allegations that it misrepresented facts and concealed information while seeking antitrust clearance for a 2019 deal with Future Group.

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Amazon has so far successfully used this deal’s contracts to block Future’s deal with Reliance.

(Reporting by Aditya Kalra and Abhirup Roy in New Delhi; Additional reporting by Zeba Siddiqui; Editing by William Mallard)

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Exclusive-Visa complains to U.S. govt about India backing for local rival RuPay

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November 28, 2021

By Aditya Kalra

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Visa Inc has complained to the U.S. government that India’s “informal and formal” promotion of domestic payments rival RuPay hurts the U.S. giant in a key market, memos seen by Reuters show.

In public Visa has downplayed concerns about the rise of RuPay, which has been supported by public lobbying from Prime Minister Narendra Modi that has included likening the use of local cards to national service.

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But U.S. government memos show Visa raised concerns about a “level playing field” in India during an Aug. 9 meeting between U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Katherine Tai and company executives, including CEO Alfred Kelly.

Mastercard Inc has raised similar concerns privately with the USTR. Reuters reported in 2018 that the company had lodged a protest https://reut.rs/3cQA2La with the USTR that Modi was using nationalism to promote the local network.

“Visa remains concerned about India’s informal and formal policies that appear to favour the business of National Payments Corporation of India” (NPCI), the non-profit that runs RuPay, “over other domestic and foreign electronic payments companies,” said a USTR memo prepared for Tai ahead of the meeting.

Visa, USTR, Modi’s office and the NPCI did not respond to requests for comment.

Modi has promoted homegrown RuPay for years, posing a challenge to Visa and Mastercard in the fast-growing payments market. RuPay accounted for 63% of India’s 952 million debit and credit cards as of November 2020, according to the most recent regulatory data on the company, up from just 15% in 2017.

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Publicly, Kelly said in May that for years there was “a lot of concern” that the likes of RuPay could be “potentially problematic” for Visa, but he stressed that his company remained India’s market leader.

“That’s going to be something we’re going to continually deal with and have dealt with for years. So there’s nothing new there,” he told an industry event.

‘NOT SO SUBTLE PRESSURE’

Modi, in a 2018 speech, portrayed the use of RuPay as patriotic, saying that since “everyone cannot go to the border to protect the country, we can use RuPay card to serve the nation.”

When Visa raised its concerns during the USTR gathering on Aug. 9, it cited the Indian leader’s “speech where he basically called on India to use RuPay as a show of service to the country,” according to an email U.S. officials exchanged on the meeting’s readout.

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Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said last year that “RuPay is the only card” banks should promote. The government has also promoted a RuPay-based card for public transportation payments.

While RuPay dominates the number of cards in India, most transactions still go through Visa and Mastercard as most RuPay cards were simply issued by banks under Modi’s financial inclusion programme, industry sources say.

Visa told the U.S. government it was concerned India’s “push to use transit cards linked to RuPay” and “the not so subtle pressure on banks to issue” RuPay cards, the USTR email showed.

Mastercard and Visa count India as a key growth market, but have been jolted by a 2018 central bank directive for them to store payments data “only in India” for “unfettered supervisory access”.

Mastercard faces an indefinite ban on issuing new cards in India after the central bank said it was not complying with the 2018 rules. A USTR official privately called the Mastercard ban “draconian”, Reuters reported in September.

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(Reporting by Aditya Kalra in New Delhi; Editing by William Mallard)

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‘Flash mob’ thieves target U.S. retail stores on Black Friday

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November 28, 2021

By Steve Gorman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) – Black Friday shoppers weren’t the only ones out hunting for bargains on the day after Thanksgiving. Thieves were busy as well.

Police in Los Angeles and cities elsewhere across the country spent much of their holiday weekend patrols looking for suspects in a spate of “flash mob” robberies on Friday, part of a surging U.S. crime trend in which groups of thieves swarm a store, ransack the shelves and flee.

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Authorities also have used the term “smash-and-grab” to describe the trend.

At least two such robberies were reported on Saturday by the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. A local television station, KCAL-TV, counted a total of six smash-and-grab heists on the city’s west side alone on Friday.

In one incident, a group of eight men entered a Home Depot outlet at a shopping mall in Lakewood, south of downtown Los Angeles, walked directly to the tool aisle and snatched a bunch of hammers, sledgehammers and crowbars valued at about $400 before making their getaway, the sheriff’s office said.

According to L.A. television station KTTV, the Home Depot robbery on Friday night involved up to 20 suspects who pulled up to the store in as many as 10 cars and donned ski masks before raiding the tool aisle.

“We tried to stop them,” store employee Luis Romo told KTTV. “We closed the front entrance, and they put their sledgehammers up and whoever got in the way, they were going to hurt them.”

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The Los Angeles City News Service said four suspects in that robbery were arrested on Saturday by Beverly Hills police.

In a similar incident Friday afternoon, a group of 10 men or more invaded a store in the city’s Fairfax district and started grabbing merchandise without paying for it, pushing employees out of the way before fleeing the scene, according to LAPD.

Police are investigating possible ties between that incident and a flurry of other robberies and retail thefts on Friday and earlier in the week, including two smash-and-grabs reported on Wednesday, an LAPD spokesperson said.

The rash of retail crime prompted the LAPD to place its officers on a citywide tactical alert on Friday afternoon.

Mass robberies also were reported on Friday at two Best Buy electronics stores in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, one of them involving as many as 30 suspects, while a spree of pre-dawn retail burglaries were under investigation in Chicago.

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In one of the biggest flash-mob robberies reported on the West Coast in recent days, police in the San Francisco suburb of Walnut Creek were seeking about 80 suspects who swarmed and ransacked a department store last Saturday.

(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Paul Simao)

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