In early November 2017, we returned to one of our favourite subjects, systemic risk in China related to its big four highly-indebted conglomerates, HNA, Anbang, Evergrande and Dalian Wanda. In particular, we asked whether the extortionately high coupon of 9% on an HNA dollar bond issue, with less than one year to maturity, marked the beginning of China’s Minsky moment? As we noted at the time, HNA has $28 billion of short-term debt maturing before the end of June 2018, much of it accumulated during an acquisition binge over the last two years, which has seen it become a major shareholder in companies such as Deutsche Bank AG and Hilton Worldwide Holdings.

Speaking to Bloomberg at the time, Warut Promboon, managing partner at credit research firm, Bondcritic, noted...

“Nine percent is really high for one year. Basically, it tells you that the worry is real."

In a sign that HNA is under pressure, both from the Chinese government and its creditors, CEO Adam Tan announced last week that the company was reversing its previous strategy. From Reuters.

HNA Group CEO Adam Tan said the acquisitive company is making adjustments to conform with national policies, and has sold some investments and real estate projects to improve its liquidity, domestic media reported on Tuesday.

 

Tan said the company would not invest in those areas not backed by the government, while supporting Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, the 21st Century Herald reported. “Companies cannot invest chaotically overseas, because chaotic investment creates trouble,” Tan was quoted in a separate article by the media portal Sina.com.

HNA is already in trouble, the question is how much? The group is planning an IPO of Gategroup Holding AG, an airline catering company it only purchased in 2016 for $1.5 billion, next year. However, its interest expenses have been rising rapidly and paying 9% coupons is only going to make it worse.

Meanwhile, it continues to tap bond markets at high rates, this time paying 8.2% for an issue by a subsidiary of Hainan Airlines, the core business from which HNA developed. According to Bloomberg, units of HNA Group Co. are stepping up fundraising in the local bond market even as borrowing costs soar, adding to concerns about the Chinese conglomerate’s debt burden. Yunnan Lucky Air Co., a unit of Hainan Airlines Holding Co. -- HNA’s flag carrier -- sold a 270-day yuan bond to yield 8.2 percent last week, the highest coupon rate ever for the Yunnan airline. Tianjin Airlines Co., another subsidiary of Hainan Airlines, issued similar-maturity notes at the highest coupon rate in five years in November.

As Bloomberg notes, while other Chinese companies have cancelled bond issues, HNA doesn’t have that luxury.

While surging onshore bond yields last month forced Chinese companies to cancel the most bond offerings since April, HNA’s units didn’t slow their pace of financing. They revived debt sales from November, following a lull after news emerged in June about a crackdown by China’s banking regulator. The accelerated fundraising suggests a need for money and may hurt the conglomerate’s credit profile, according to credit research firm Bondcritic Ltd.

“They just keep piling on debt,” said Warut Promboon, managing partner at Bondcritic. “It’s not going to work.”

 

Two calls to Hainan Airlines’ public relations officers weren’t answered. There were no replies to questions sent via text messages.

The flood of issues from constituents of the HNA group is expected to continue, assuming that bond markets are amenable.

Hainan Airlines said last week that it is planning to sell 1 billion yuan of perpetual bonds on Dec. 6. That would be its third note sale in the local Chinese market in a month, according to Bloomberg-compiled data. In the carrier’s most recent sale of onshore securities last month, the company, which has top ratings from local credit assessors, issued local bonds at yields equivalent to junk notes in the nation.

 

Another HNA unit, Sanya Phoenix International Airport Co., is planning its third bond sale in three weeks on Monday, according to a statement on Nov. 29.

During his presentation last week, CEO Adam Tan commented that “Each of our business groups has its own cash flow management”. However, if Hainan Airlines is paying junk rates despite its “top” local ratings, it suggests that creditors are assessing risk from a group perspective…and unfavourably. Last week, Bloomberg noted that S&P cuts the HNA Group’s credit rating to five times below junk, citing its significant debt maturities, rising borrowing costs and proposed acquisition of New Zealand’s UDC Finance (will it ever learn).

S&P said on Wednesday it lowered HNA’s credit profile by one notch to b, or five levels below investment grade, from b+. The change was disclosed in a report by S&P on New Zealand’s UDC Finance Ltd., which HNA is seeking to buy.

 

“HNA Group has significant debt maturities over the next several years and its funding costs are meaningfully higher than that of a year ago," Andrew Mayes and Sharad Jain, analysts at S&P, wrote in their report. "We will closely monitor HNA Group’s access to capital markets and funding costs to determine whether additional actions are necessary.”

 

As to Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd.’s UDC Finance, S&P said it may cut the company’s long-term debt rating by four notches to a junk level of BB- from BBB if its sale to HNA is completed. The deal, announced in January, has yet to be completed pending approval from New Zealand’s overseas investment approvals board.

It’s possible that HNA is approaching the “catastrophic margin call”, from its practice of pledging its own shares and those of its investments, which we first postulated in July 2017 in “A Reverse Rollup From Hell’: China's ‘Boldest Dealmaker’ Faces Margin Call Disintegration”. From our post.

…while most Chinese companies pledged "only" their own shares to get loans, a handful of companies also used shares of the acquired companies as pledged collateral. This is precisely what HNA Group did, which now faces not only growing regulatory scrutiny from Beijing that threatens to spook bond investors and raise HNA’s financing costs, but also send its shares plunging as holders are forced to liquidate even as most of the shares pledged to fund its buying spree are already declining, accelerating its demise. And, in a scenario that can only be dubbed as a "reverse rollup from hell" - on steroids and margin - one that would make even Valeant blush and snicker, if the value of its collateral, i.e. stock price, falls enough, HNA will soon be forced to sell its holdings to repay debt, thereby resulting in the disintegration of the company.

HNA is a private company, hence a detailed breakdown of its borrowing position and its share pledges is not available. However, the circumstantial evidence remains highly negative and the systemic risk it poses for China is likely rising not falling.