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China’s real estate uncertainties persist, fueling market anxiety

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Listings of apartments for sale displayed at a real estate office in Shanghai, China, on Monday, Aug. 30, 2021.

Qilai Shen | Bloomberg | Getty Images

BEIJING — Wild swings in Chinese real estate stocks and bonds are keeping investors on edge — these news headlines could cause troubles in the sector to spill into the rest of the economy, says S&P Global Ratings.

While the plunge in Evergrande’s shares has abated, the volatility in other Chinese real estate companies has continued this month.

On Thursday, Kaisa shares briefly popped 20% after news it could stave off default. On the same day, a Shanghai-traded bond from developer Shimao plunged 30%, reminiscent of a sharp sell-off in the company’s bonds earlier this month.

“Headlines can hit sentiment and drive contagion,” Charles Chang, senior director and Greater China country lead for corporate ratings at S&P Global Ratings, said in a report earlier this month.

The risk Chang laid out is that news reports about defaults, or even the potential for default, could scare away Chinese homebuyers. And that drying up of demand would put developers out of business, along with the construction companies and other suppliers that work with them.

The consensus among economists is that the real estate slump is contained, since it’s driven by a top-down government decision to limit reliance on debt in the property industry. The People’s Bank of China summed up this view in mid-October, calling Evergrande a unique case, and affirming the overall health of the property sector.

But investors have grown increasingly worried about how Beijing’s crackdown would actually play out. News of the default of a far smaller developer, Fantasia, and growing financing troubles among other developers, began to exacerbate a sharp sell-off.

I’m not quite certain the regulators and authorities understand the damage this does to the offshore market, because a lot of investors won’t return.

Jennifer James

Janus Henderson Investors

The Markit iBoxx index for China high yield real estate bonds is clinging to monthly gains after a volatile few weeks — including a drop of nearly 18% in October and an almost 11% fall in September.

“It’s a really trying time for investors right now, probably more for bond investors than equity investors, because what we’re really watching is a policy transition unfolding in real time,” Jennifer James, portfolio manager and lead emerging markets analyst of Janus Henderson Investors, told CNBC earlier this month.

Even worse for foreign institutional investors, typically more comfortable with detailed messaging from companies and policymakers, China’s system tends to rely more on broad government statements and cautious corporate disclosures.

This lack of clarity has been a longstanding issue with investing in China-related assets.

Investors left in the dark

Rather than companies making announcements during the worst of the sell-off earlier this month, James said she often learned about how they were doing through news reports, days or weeks later. These include meetings with the government.

“I’m not quite certain the regulators and authorities understand the damage this does to the offshore market, because a lot of investors won’t return,” said James.

The lack of clarity exacerbated the situation, research institute Rhodium Group pointed out in a note on Tuesday.

“The most significant policy signal was a non-signal: the absence of a clear decision on what concrete action to take to resolve Evergrande’s situation and stem contagion in the property sector,” said analysts at Rhodium Group.

“Officials underestimated the severity of contagion and systemic concern, made confusing pledges to prevent a full reckoning, and ultimately claimed that the initial policy disciplines that precipitated the property stress had been misinterpreted,” it said.

“If the government intended to build confidence in the direction of financial reform, the outcome has been the exact opposite,” they said.

Developers struggle to get financing

In contrast with other industries, Chinese developers relied far more on the offshore bond market that gave them access to foreign investors.

But that channel of financing began to dry up as negative sentiment around the real estate companies increased on the back of concerns that Evergrande — which owes more than $300 billion — might default.

The number of Chinese real estate high-yield bond deals plummeted in October to just two deals, worth a total of $352 million, according to Dealogic. That’s down from $1.62 billion for 9 deals in September, and a high of 29 deals worth $8.5 billion in January, the data showed.

Those tight financing conditions reflect a relatively challenging environment for property developers to get capital on the mainland as well.

Read more about China from CNBC Pro

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Australia stocks slip ahead of October retail sales data release

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SINGAPORE — Shares in Australia slipped in Friday morning trade, with the country’s October retail sales data expected later in the day.

The S&P/ASX 200 fell 0.24% in morning trade, with shares of major miner BHP declining about 0.5%.

Australia’s retail sales data for October is set to be released at 8:30 a.m. HK/SIN.

Meanwhile, the Nikkei futures contract in Chicago was at 29,435 while its counterpart in Osaka was at 29,510. That compared against the Nikkei 225’s last close at 29,499.28.

In Covid developments, World Health Organization officials said Thursday they are monitoring a new variant with “a large number of mutations.” A special meeting is scheduled for Friday to discuss its implications for vaccines and treatments.

Stock picks and investing trends from CNBC Pro:

Markets in the U.S. were closed on Thursday for the Thanksgiving holiday.

Currencies

The U.S. dollar index, which tracks the greenback against a basket of its peers, was at 96.789 — still above levels below 96.5 seen earlier in the trading week.

The Japanese yen traded at 115.18 per dollar, still weaker than levels below 114.5 seen earlier this week. The Australian dollar was at $0.7183 following yesterday’s drop from levels above $0.72.

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UK suspends flights to six African countries as new Covid variant raises alarms

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Britain’s Health Secretary Sajid Javid speaks during a press conference at Downing Street on October 20, 2021 in London, England.

Toby Melville | WPA Pool | Getty Images News

The United Kingdom is temporarily suspending flights from six countries as a new Covid variant with more than 30 mutations spreads in South Africa.

Sajid Javid, the U.K.’s secretary of state for health and social care, made the announcement hours after the World Health Organization gave a briefing on the new variant. The organization called for a special meeting on Friday to further study the variant, which has been detected in small numbers in South Africa.

“More data is needed but we’re taking precautions now. From noon tomorrow six African countries will be added to the red list, flights will be temporarily banned, and UK travellers must quarantine,” Javid wrote on Twitter.

In addition to South Africa, the countries of Namibia, Lesotho, Eswatini, Zimbabwe and Botswana are included in the new restrictions, according to The Guardian.

The World Health Organization is holding a special meeting Friday to discuss what the new variant may mean for vaccines and treatments, officials said Thursday.

The variant, called B.1.1.529, has been detected in South Africa in small numbers, according to the WHO. The variant has spread rapidly through the Gauteng province, which contains the country’s largest city of Johannesburg.

The variant has also been detected in Botswana and Hong Kong, South Africa Minister of Health Joe Phaahla said during the briefing.

“We don’t know very much about this yet. What we do know is that this variant has a large number of mutations. And the concern is that when you have so many mutations, it can have an impact on how the virus behaves,” Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead on Covid-19, said in a Q&A that was livestreamed on the organization’s social media channels.

The newly detected variant arrives as infection levels remain high in countries across the world. In Europe, Austria and Italy announced new restrictions in recent days aimed at slowing the spread of the virus.

South African scientists have detected more than 30 mutations in the new variant, raising concern that it could possibly better evade the antibody protection created by vaccines and prior infections.

Countries have used restrictions on flights or total travel as a tool to slow the spread of Covid since the early days of the pandemic. The U.S. just lifted its travel ban from 33 countries, including the U.K., earlier this month.

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Why this former Starbucks exec quit a CEO job to launch a startup

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As a teenager, former Starbucks executive Adam Brotman found inspiration in an unlikely place: a Costco parking lot. In 1982, his uncle, Jeff Brotman, co-founded the chain of big-box retail stores with James Sinegal — and when Brotman turned 16, he was recruited to organize shopping carts at the store’s first location in Seattle. 

Brotman, who would later serve in top leadership roles at Starbucks and J. Crew, credits that first job with sparking the entrepreneurial spirit that landed him in business.

“Even when I was pushing carts outside in the rain, watching my uncle and Jim build this iconic company up close set the bar high for success,” the 52-year-old tells CNBC Make It. “It created the aperture for how I would view success.” 

The Seattle native started his career as a lawyer but quit his practice at 27 to launch in-store entertainment services company PlayNetwork. After several stints at other companies, Brotman joined Starbucks in 2009. 

What he learned from working at Starbucks

If you’ve ever used Starbucks points to snag a free latte or ordered on the app, you can thank Brotman. He spent nearly a decade as Starbucks’s chief digital officer and EVP of global retail operations building its rewards program and digital platforms. 

The Starbucks app is considered a gold standard for franchises. As of April, mobile transactions make up more than 25% of all Starbucks orders in the United States. But Brotman didn’t launch the app as a final, completed project. First, Starbucks launched the loyalty and payment features, then later added the functionalities for ordering and marketing. “The app wasn’t an overnight success,” he notes. “We were constantly improving and changing things based on customer feedback.” 

Building the mobile order feature was the “most complicated” part of creating the app, according to Brotman, and involved several large teams including marketing, payment strategy and operations. That process taught Brotman the importance of aligning on a common goal, to make collaboration run smoother, and a creative tactic to problem solve.

“There was a windowless conference room behind my office at Starbucks, and I asked our maintenance staff if we could paint all the walls with whiteboard material,” he recalls. “Each week all the teams would meet together in that war room and we would cover every single inch of that room with ideas to improve the app.” 

‘I decided it was time to stretch myself’

One would expect Brotman to build on his successes at Starbucks, either by staying in his role there or pursuing a similar job at another Fortune 500 company. Instead, he left Starbucks in 2018 to join J.Crew, where he was president and co-CEO, a leap not motivated by a love for fashion but for New York, where the company is based. 

“My wife and I always wanted to live in New York, ‘the center of the universe,'” he says. “I decided it was time to stretch myself a bit by putting myself in an uncomfortable, new situation, and I was excited to apply some of the lessons I learned at Starbucks to a different iconic, American brand.” 

Brotman only stayed at J.Crew for a year, which he spent launching the brand’s loyalty program in hopes of replicating some of the digital innovation he brought to Starbucks. He wanted to create a mobile app for the brand and improve its personalized marketing, but he says those projects “weren’t prioritized” by the team. Then, Brotman had a revelation: a lot of businesses were not taking advantage of data in the way that Starbucks had to personalize their marketing and user experience, in turn strengthening their relationship with customers. 

Returning to Seattle and start-ups

Homesick for Seattle and itching to be entrepreneurial again, Brotman moved back to Washington. It was there that Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson introduced him to Jon Shulkin, the chairman of Eatsa, a fully automated fast-food chain in California. The pair wanted to transform the struggling start-up into a software platform that helps other consumer brands, restaurant and retail chains digitize their businesses. 

Johnson and some of the venture capital sponsors recruited Brotman to lead the company’s relaunch as Brightloom. In 2019 Brotman became the CEO of the Seattle-based (and Starbucks-backed) start-up, where he and his team are building software that helps smaller businesses use tools like digital ordering and personalized marketing. Starbucks also licensed its mobile and loyalty program technology to Brightloom so its customers can use it for their own businesses. 

The challenge of running a start-up was compounded by the coronavirus pandemic. When Brightloom’s office lease expired at the start of the crisis, Brotman decided he and his 51 employees should switch to permanent remote work, a process he calls “odd and scary, but also wonderful.” 

Brightloom’s business also received a boost from the pandemic as most businesses had to go online to connect with customers. “It’s caused businesses to have a heightened sense of urgency to figure out how to have a better digital relationship with their customers,” Brotman adds. According to Crunchbase, Brightloom has raised more than $45 million in funding.

To go from working in the C-Suite of some of the world’s most recognizable brands to leading a small, relatively unknown start-up is surprising, to say the least. But as he was climbing the corporate ladder, Brotman realized that for him, happiness and career fulfillment didn’t match up with traditional definitions of success. 

“Even back when I was a teenager, I’ve always gotten so much energy out of trying to solve a problem and build something new, which is what start-ups are all about,” he says. “That energizes me so much that sometimes I even forget the existential angst of working at a start-up.”

Of course, taking a risk and switching careers can be a lot more intimidating when you’re not in Brotman’s position, and don’t have millions of dollars in financial backing, or the leaders of Starbucks and Costco as mentors. But the CEO hopes he can encourage others to be a little bolder in their careers. 

“Think about professional tennis players — they must master their serve, backhand, forehand, and net play before they can be the best,” he says. “Start with an end goal in mind, then break down the craft into its component parts … and make sure you have the intellectual curiosity and commitment to each step of the learning process.”

Check out:

This 31-year-old’s start-up went from having $200 to being valued at over $6 billion in just 6 years

You’re drinking your coffee wrong—these 3 tricks can boost your productivity, experts say

This 26-year-old negotiated his $120,000 salary by finding out how much his coworkers make—here’s how

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