Fitch Ratings cuts China Huarong to lowest investment grade, outlook negative

Business | 27 Apr 2021 9:40 am

China Huarong Asset Management had its credit rating cut to the lowest investment grade by Fitch Ratings, which said further downgrades are possible if Chinese authorities continue to withhold indications of government support for the embattled distressed-debt manager, Bloomberg reports.

Fitch dropped Huarong by three notches to BBB from A, becoming the first of the big three international ratings firms to downgrade Huarong after the state-owned company missed a deadline to release 2020 results by March 31. Speculation that Huarong may restructure its debt has jolted credit markets across Asia, with Chinese officials and Huarong itself offering little guidance about the company’s fate.

The lack of transparency may hamper Huarong’s ability to refinance its debt in offshore markets, Fitch said. The firm lowered its rating on Huarong’s senior unsecured perpetual notes by four notches, to BB+ from A-, and retained a negative outlook on both the perpetual notes and Huarong as a whole.

The cut to junk territory for the perpetuals underscores how quickly perceptions of Huarong have changed. After trading near par for much of the past few years, the company’s dollar bonds have plunged this month as investors questioned assumptions about Chinese government backing that have underpinned the creditworthiness of state-owned borrowers for decades. Huarong, which is controlled by China’s finance ministry, is among the nation’s most systemically important companies outside its state-owned banks.

“The government may continue to have a high incentive to provide extraordinary support, considering China Huarong’s policy role and the potential contagion risk for the refinancing of similar policy-driven GREs, but Fitch believes timely indication of support has not yet materialized,” the ratings firm said in a statement on Monday. There is “increasing uncertainty over the company’s liquidity, particularly its offshore funding,” Fitch added.

Huarong has some US$23.3 billion in outstanding offshore debt, US$4.2 billion of which matures through the end of this year, Bloomberg-compiled data show. The drama surrounding the company has effectively shut it out from overseas public debt markets and prompted scrutiny over the issuer’s maturity schedule as investors search for any possible signs of tightening liquidity at the firm.

On Sunday, Huarong announced it wouldn’t publish its 2020 results by the end of this month – missing another deadline from Hong Kong’s stock exchange and prompting a fresh selloff in the company’s bonds. The firm released a brief statement in Chinese, mostly reiterating previous statements. There was no indication of when results would be published or if anything has changed since its April 1 filing to the stock exchange, where Huarong shares had been trading before their start-of-month suspension.

Huarong is also under review for a potential downgrade at Moody’s Investors Service and S&P Global Ratings.

Fitch’s downgrade is expected to further pressure Huarong’s bonds. The company’s 3.75 percent dollar bond due 2022 is indicated at about 81.1 US cents on the dollar while its 4.5 percent perpetual bond is at 66.1 US cents, according to Bloomberg-compiled prices.


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