By Clare Jim and Xie Yu
HONG KONG (Reuters) - China's real estate crisis is casting a darkening cloud over governance and financial prospects of once highly valued property management companies, triggering a rout in their shares and making investors cautious.
Already battered share prices have fallen a further 7% this month as investors have reacted to the latest instances of such companies lending support to cash-strapped developer parents.
"The capital market has lost confidence in some of the property management companies, even in those companies that have not seen misuse of funds by their parents," said UBS's head of China and Hong Kong property research, John Lam.
In one of the latest two cases that have unnerved investors, China Evergrande Group said on July 22 an internal probe had found that $2 billion of funds held by subsidiary Evergrande Property Services had been pledged to guarantee financing by the group for debt repayment.
In the end, banks seized the money, cleaning out much of the unit's cash. China Evergrande Group, the world's most indebted property developer, has been at the centre of China's property crisis, in which many such companies have defaulted as a result of government moves to deleverage the sector.
Then on Aug. 1 shares in property manager Jinke Smart Services Group dropped 37% after it said it would lend up to $222.3 million to parent Jinke Property.
As the crisis developed last year, some property management units issued and sold shares to raise funds that were passed back to parents.
Also, property manager Shimao Services Holdings bought a business from developer parent Shimao Group at an unusually high price.
Such doings have not pleased investors. Since mid-2021, valuations for management subsidiaries of distressed developers have plunged from a peak of 25 times earnings to just five to six times, according to Lam, who added that those still above this level could come under downward pressure.
Falls continue. Since the announcement by Jinke Smart Services, the Hang Seng sub-index that tracks major mainland property management companies has lost 7%, while the broader Hang Seng Index is down less than 1%%.
RELIANCE ON PARENTS
William Shek, the chief distribution officer of Zeal Asset Management Ltd, a Hong Kong-based hedge-fund manager, said his firm had turned cautious on this sector since the beginning of the property crisis.
"Subsidiaries are unlikely to be shielded from risks if their parent companies get into trouble," Shek said.
Another concern is the dependability of property managers' profits. Since so much of their business was providing management services to parents, revenue was limited by how much parents would or could pay, senior executives of two developers told Reuters.
Analysts noted property management companies had posted a surge in impairment provisions for receivables in the second half of last year. The trend is expected to worsen in results for the first half of 2022, when more developers were running out of cash.
Analysts are less concerned about units of state-owned developers, which have good liquidity positions and are subject to strict governance requirements.
But state-owned China Resources Mixc Lifestyle Services was targeted late last month by GMT Research, which estimated at least 55% of the firm's profits came from related parties, including parent China Resource Land.
GMT said the property services unit was trading at 31 times estimated earnings for 2022 but China Resources Land would have little incentive to support its profitability.
China Resources Mixc Lifestyle Services said in an emailed response to Reuters that its service pricing was transparent and reasonable. Its market-leading valuation was driven by its market development capability, among other things, it added.
($1 = 134.7300 yen)
(Editing by Sumeet Chatterjee and Bradley Perrett)