The year 2017 was marked by four distinct money events. One, it was the year in which systematic investment plans (SIPs) in mutual funds became a household name, leading to a fat pipeline of over Rs5,000 crore a month (that’s Rs60,000 crore a year) flowing from households to equity funds. Two, 2017 was the year in which investors finally gave up waiting for real estate to recover. Despite the bravado of the builder, broker and banker on the future of real estate, the math just did not add up to support prices that are still very high. Why would you invest in something that yields less than a bank deposit after taxes? Renting clearly was the winner over buying. Three, gold and bank deposits lost their sheen as prices dipped and rates fell. Four, risk-averse investors, who feared mutual funds because of their risk, went all out on crypto-money—not just bitcoin, other cryptocurrencies were also on the investment radar, as were non-regulated initial coin offerings (ICOs). What lies ahead in 2018 for your money? The answer in one line is: a continuation of the 2017 trends.
Should you rent or buy a house? Many young families face this decision when they move out of the joint family to be on their own or when they shift to a new city for work. Notice that this is not an invest-or-not question, to which the answer will be very different. This is a should-I-rent-a-house-that-I-will-live-in or should-I-buy-now question. For others already on rent, the family conversation about ‘rent or buy’ comes up each time the math is done on how much rent flows out of the family budget each month. “If we had bought our own house, we’d be owning it soon rather than all this money getting wasted in rent” is something most renting families stress over. I’ve had this conversation at home many years ago; especially when money is tight and the growing family’s needs are many, the rent vs buy decision seems even more crucial. Why not put money down for something you will own rather than down the drain in rent?
If real estate markets were efficient, there should be almost no arbitrage between the decision to rent a house or buy it. The rent and the equated monthly instalment (EMI) would be not all that far away and you would be able to stretch just a bit to compensate for the mortgage cost to turn the rent into an EMI. But real estate markets in India are far from this utopia and follow no rational rules for valuations for residential real estate. At current market prices where the rental yields (annual rent divided by value of property, or the return you get from the asset if you were to rent it out in percentage terms) are just 1-2%, renting is clearly better than buying. Look at it this way— what you can rent for Rs25,000 a month will cost you at least Rs1.2 lakh in EMI in Delhi and Mumbai.
Why Indian households remain in financial behaviour that is ‘regressive’ is a question that has wrinkled the brows of many a policy maker. ‘Regressive’ behaviour is the over-exposure of Indian households to cash, gold and real estate instead of financial assets. This behaviour includes a reliance on the moneylender for debt, rather than the formal financial system, and the use of ex-post borrowings to deal with medical and other emergencies rather than purchasing an insurance contract. With the mandate of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the Tarun Ramadorai committee set out to find answers to some of these questions in 2016. While other committees have looked at the same issue of the strange behaviour of Indian households from the supply side and found serious problems in the way formal markets have been set up, the Ramadorai Committee was asked to look at the problem from the demand side and provide solutions to it. In short, the committee found (read the report here: bit.ly/2iC3GKU) that Indian households are indeed globally unique in their financial behaviour. Not only do they rely heavily on gold and real estate, they are under-insured, have very little pension corpus build-up, take home mortgages much later in life than their mature-market counterparts, and walk into retirement still carrying the burden of debt on their heads.
Getting those real estate itchy fingers? Stock markets have been on a roll and the upswing in markets is usually a precursor of a jump in real estate prices as investors book profits and sink their money in land. The breathless expectations from a new real estate regulator, combined with an overall upswing in the mood of the economy, is making people begin sniffing the air for real estate deals one more time. One more time I write to caution real estate aspirants, specially those who cannot deal with the clunkyness of the asset, against jumping in. Of course, it still remains a really bad investment at current prices when you compare it to alternatives.
Some of us in India have paid, what I call, the ‘honesty tax’ for decades. Our money is salaried, there is nothing on top, we pay our taxes, keep our accounts clean, pay for large spends by card, do real estate deals in white and become the guys who obey traffic signals while others in bigger cars zoom away with a smirk. We pull out our cards and carry home our small shopping bag. The guy in the next aisle pulls out a brick of cash and thumbs out a lakh in notes to take home the high-value gadget. We drive our Maruti home with the EMI (equated monthly instalment) sitting in the backseat, the luxury SUV guy comes with a sack of cash and scrapes our car out of his way. We wait to buy a house with white money, don’t get the choice set, pay more and end up feeling like losers for being honest.
When I began this column in March 2009, I remember writing my first piece on the macro mess India was in and how a spendthrift government, which took an 8% growth rate and a 26% rise in tax revenues in the previous years as the new normal, messed up big time. You can read that column here: http://bit.ly/2bynE0d . With elections around the corner, money was splurged on massive loan waivers and many other let’s-give-them-money-and get-their-votes schemes. It worked and the government came back to power. The next five years got the country closer to disaster, with bank books getting stuffed with questionable loans, policy paralysis and big corruption in the central government and bureaucracy.
The excited real estate multi-bagger story exchange in the investing classes heard over the past few years in Delhi and Mumbai has given way to a grimace and a despondent shrug. I know from anecdotal evidence that people are down as much as 50% on their properties in select locations in Gurgaon and Noida. The volume of conversation is only growing—I’m increasingly accosted in public places to give my views on the future of real estate. Kuchh hoga kya? I’ll come to that in a minute (and will try very hard to take the I-told-you-so tone out of the column, but…) but first, a look at how deep the bleed has been. I looked at the Residex, a real estate price index across 23 Indian cities constructed by the Reserve Bank of India-owned National Housing Bank (www.nhb.org.in/Residex/Data&Graphs.php ).