By Adam Jourdan and Keith Wallis
RUGAO, China/SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Deserted flats and boarded-up shops in the Yangtze river town of Changqingcun serve as a blunt reminder of the area's reliance on China Rongsheng Heavy Industries Group <1101.HK>, the country's biggest private shipbuilder.
Like Rongsheng's shipyards, the area is struggling to survive.
The shipbuilder this week predicted a substantial annual loss, just months after appealing to the government for financial help as it reeled from industry overcapacity and shrinking orders. Rongsheng lost an annual record 572.6 million yuan ($92 million) last year, and lost 1.3 billion yuan in the first half of this year.
The company has become a test of China's market reforms.
While Beijing seems intent to promote a shift away from an investment-heavy model, with companies reliant on government cash injections, some analysts say Rongsheng is too big for China to let fail.
As ship orders and funding have dried up, the firm has delayed deliveries and now faces legal disputes, shipping and legal sources said. The company - whose market value has slumped more than 90 percent to around $1 billion since its Hong Kong listing in late 2010 - is in talks with bankers to restructure its debt.
Local media reported in July that Rongsheng had laid off as many as 8,000 workers as demand slowed. Three years ago, the company had about 20,000 staff and contract employees. This week, the shipbuilder said an unspecified number of workers had been made redundant this year.
The local community, on the outskirts of the eastern Chinese city of Nantong, has mirrored Rongsheng's fall.
A purpose-built town near the shipyard's main gate, with thousands of flats, supermarkets and restaurants, is largely deserted. Nine of every 10 shops are boarded up; the police station and hospital are locked.
"In this area we're only really selling to workers from the shipyard. If they're not here who do we sell to?" said one of the few remaining shopkeepers, surnamed Sui, playing a videogame at his work-wear store. "I know people with salaries held back and they can't pay for things. I can't continue if things stay the same."
In the shadow of the shipyard gate, workers told Reuters the facility was still operating but morale was low, activity was slowing with the lack of new orders and some payments to workers had been delayed.
"Without new orders it's hard to see how operations can continue," said one worker wearing oil-spattered overalls and a Rongsheng hardhat, adding he was still waiting to be paid for September. He didn't want to give his name as he feared he could lose his job.
The uncertainty isn't only at the yard.
"Morale in the office is quite low, since we don't know what is the plan," said a Rongsheng executive, who declined to be named as he is not authorized to speak to the media. "We have been getting orders but can't seem to get construction loans from banks to build these projects."
A company spokesman said the shipyard had no confirmed new orders in the second half of the year.
RIVALS DOING BETTER
While Rongsheng has won just two orders this year, state-backed rival Shanghai Waigaoqiao Shipbuilding <600648.SS> has secured 50, according to shipbroker data. Singapore-listed Yangzijiang Shipbuilding
Some Rongsheng customers say the company is behind schedule in delivering ships.
Frontline, a shipping company controlled by Norwegian business tycoon John Fredriksen, ordered two oil tankers from Rongsheng in 2010 for delivery earlier this year. It now expects to receive both of them in 2014, Frontline CEO Jens Martin Jensen told Reuters.
Greek shipowner DryShips Inc
Speaking at a quarterly results briefing last month, DryShips Chief Financial Officer Ziad Nakhleh said Rongsheng was "a yard that, as we stated before, is facing difficulties and, as such, we believe there is a high probability they will not be delivered." DryShips has four dry cargo vessels on order at the Chinese firm.
Rongsheng declined to comment on the Dryships order, citing client confidentiality. "For other orders on hand, our delivery plan is still ongoing," a spokesman said.
At least two law firms in Shanghai and Singapore are acting for shipowners seeking compensation from Rongsheng for late or cancelled orders. "I'm now dealing with several cases against Rongsheng," said Lawrence Chen, senior partner at law firm Wintell & Co in Shanghai.
Billionaire Zhang Zhirong, who founded Rongsheng in 2005 and is the shipyard's biggest shareholder, last month announced plans to privatize Hong Kong-listed Glorious Property Holdings <0845.HK> in a HK$4.57 billion ($589.45 million) deal - a move analysts said could raise money to plug Rongsheng's debts.
The shipbuilder's net debt to equity, a measure of indebtedness, climbed to 134 percent in January-June from 119 percent in 2012 and 85 percent in 2011. Talks with its banking syndicate are ongoing, with no indication when a deal could be struck, a person at one of the banks told Reuters this week.
Meanwhile, Rongsheng's shipyard woes have already pushed many people away from nearby centers, and others said they would have to go if things don't pick up. Some said they hoped the local government might step in with financial support.
The Rugao government did not respond to requests for comment on whether it would lend financial or other support to Rongsheng. Annual reports show Rongsheng has received state subsidies in the past three years.
"We have no further elaboration on government assistance and bank negotiations," a Rongsheng spokesman said on Friday.
The exodus has left row upon row of deserted apartments, with just a few old garments strewn on the floor and empty name tags to show for what was a bustling community before China's economic growth began to slow and credit tightened at a time when global shipping, too, turned down.
In a local lottery shop, workers sat around smoking as they waited to see if their luck was in.
"The lottery has become increasingly popular," said a girl working the till. "I'm not sure why really, but perhaps people are hoping they can win something here."
($1 = 7.7529 Hong Kong dollars)
(Editing by Emily Kaiser and Ian Geoghegan)