Chinese tech giants and IPO hopefuls woo banks for loans as coronavirus shuts access to equity markets

Alison Tudor-Ackroyd alison.t-a@scmp.com

Some of China's fastest-growing companies are rushing to credit markets for billions of dollars in loans after the global stock rout caused all-in borrowing costs to tumble and shut companies out of the equity markets.

Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi Corp and travel specialist Trip.com Group are among the largest new-economy firms talking to banks for fresh loans, according to people familiar with their plans. Chinese online wealth management platform Lufax told the Post it was in the final stages of sealing a US$1.29 billion loan from eight banks.

The market rout stoked by the coronavirus pandemic and oil-price collapse is pushing corporate treasurers to replenish funds for different reasons. Chinese start-ups that were preparing for an initial public offering are now locked out of the market as risk appetite and valuations collapsed.

Some are seeking to alleviate a liquidity crunch to keep their business going or to repay maturing debt, bankers said, while the stronger ones are seizing the opportunity to grab market share or buy their competitors. Lufax said its loan would help "fuel business growth".

Chinese online wealth management platform Lufax is seeking a loan of US$1.29 billion from eight banks. Photo: Reuters alt=Chinese online wealth management platform Lufax is seeking a loan of US$1.29 billion from eight banks. Photo: Reuters

For borrowers, a syndicated loan is a compelling option. For some issuers, credit spreads have widened over base interest rates but all-in borrowing costs are still attractive. The 10 and 30-year Treasury bond yields dropped below 1 per cent for the first time in early March. Borrowing benchmark, the three-month dollar Libor has fallen to its lowest level since 2016 at 0.77250 per cent with most of the drop happening in February.

"This is an investment and M&A opportunity for some clients as the current equity valuations are attractive, allowing them a window to win market share at this price point," said Farhan Faruqui, ANZ's head of institutional business outside of Australia. ANZ is talking to clients across Asia to help them find and fund investment opportunities, he said.

Only the largest and strongest companies are likely to secure big loans from a syndicate of international banks for long enough to let them ride out the current slump.

A sign for Ctrip, now known an Trip.com, is displayed outside the Sky Soho building, which hosts the company's headquarters in Shanghai. Photo: Bloomberg alt=A sign for Ctrip, now known an Trip.com, is displayed outside the Sky Soho building, which hosts the company's headquarters in Shanghai. Photo: Bloomberg

Nasdaq-listed Trip.com is in talks with banks about a US$1.2 billion syndicated loan, according to people familiar with the matter. The firm may ask state-owned Chinese banks to participate in the loan if commercially driven lenders are reluctant as the business suffers from a slump in air travel, the people said. A Trip.com spokeswoman declined to comment.

Xiaomi has also been talking to bankers about taking out a syndicated loan and a US dollar-denominated bond this year, people said. However, it may have to wait for a window of calm in markets, they added. Xiaomi spokespeople did not respond to a request for comment.

Lufax, a company backed by China's Ping An Insurance, priced its three-year bullet loan at US$1.29 billion with an all-in borrowing cost of around 148 basis points, people familiar with the matter said. Lufax said banks in the syndicate included HSBC, Citibank, Bank of China, JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, UBS and Bank of America.

More than half of 480 Chinese corporate bosses said they were grappling with a cash crunch, while two-thirds of them expected to report a drop in annual sales this year, according to a survey by Hurun Report.

Chinese businesses are facing a liquidity squeeze as coronavirus outbreak ravages economy with Premier Li Keqiang calling for monetary easing 'soon'

The syndicated loan market for Asian companies has shrunk to US$16.8 billion year to date, from US$78.8 billion a year earlier according to data tracker Dealogic, as lenders become more cautious. These loans are too big for one bank so lenders form a syndicate and spread the risk of the borrower defaulting.

"Most clients do have a sufficient liquidity buffer for the rest of the first quarter but if the situation is prolonged then companies will need to have an additional liquidity buffer," said John Lee, head of Greater China at UBS Global Banking.

"Smaller names will find it harder than before to secure loans as banks will want to deploy their balance sheet to the largest companies," said UBS's Lee. The Swiss bank was one of the lenders to extend a US$1.3 billion loan to Beijing-based ByteDance in April 2019.

Bankers feel safer lending to companies with well-established backers such as Ping An. Lending to a Chinese unicorn deepens the relationship for investment bankers ahead of a potential IPO. Profitable Lufax was valued at a post-money valuation of US$39.4 billion during its third financing round in 2018.

To be clear though, bankers are not rubber-stamping these loans. Bankers are parsing financial statements to check if operating and financial leverage is flexible enough for companies to survive the coronavirus pandemic while keeping business models intact. Companies in the tourism, travel and consumer retail industries are under extra scrutiny.

When casinos in Macau closed for two weeks in February because of the coronavirus epidemic, MGM China Holdings reached out to its lenders to ease a loan covenant on its HK$9.75 billion (US$1.3 billion) credit facility maturing on May 15, 2024, relating to its net debt to Ebitda leverage ratio, a person familiar with the matter said. The bankers agreed, the person said.

"Banks are likely to be accommodating as Covid-19 spreads as this is viewed as a six to nine months issue," said ANZ's Faruqui. "But equally they will make hard decisions around some customers who will be structurally challenged."

In Hong Kong, the Fintech Association of Hong Kong, which represents 350 start-ups, is lobbying the government for emergency financial aid.

"In Hong Kong, there are additional pressures brought by the protest movement," said Faruqui.

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This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2020 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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