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.
This year will be remembered for the contradictions of the post-war world order manifesting in many ways. If 2008 was when the crack became visible, 2016 was when the fissure became too big to ignore. A series of global events point to the rising voice of those left hurting by rising inequality in the world economic order, where the benefits of globalization have gone to capital rather than labour. Labour as one of the factors of production—land and capital being the other two—has suffered. Real wages have been stagnant in the developed world and restrictive labour mobility rules have hurt labour in the emerging world. The rules set by the owners of capital make for a world without borders for capital, but not for labour.
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 ).
Ask any group of people what gives the highest return and nine out of 10 will say: real estate. The 10th will name gold as the next best investment. Mention stocks or equity and the response is either hostile due to the stock market related scams (including the unpunished scam of unit-linked insurance plans) or fearful. Every time I’ve spoken to a group, I get the same response: a sure-thing with real estate and gold, and an overall feeling of mistrust with equity. Let’s unpack this a bit. Let’s look at return rates. I will do this in two parts. One, historical returns. If we begin with the Sensex at 100 in 1979 as a starting point for a meaningful comparison and look at returns across the market, real estate and gold, we get a positive return for all three. Investment in gold from 1980 to 2014 (I got gold prices in Indian rupees off gold.org) returned 11%. Investment in the Sensex returned 17% over the same period. Tracking real estate is tougher due to lack of data series and due to location issues. So I picked the village where buffaloes bathed turned boomtown of Gurgaon to see what the price change has been. Speaking to original inhabitants from the 1980s of what is now DLF City, I get rough rates of Rs.2 lakh investment turning into Rs.2 crore over 34 years, or an average annual rate of growth of 15%. Just to put it in context, I looked at Reserve Bank of India data and got an average annual return of 9% on a five-year fixed deposit (FD) across the same time period.
The hoardings are in your face—you can’t miss them. Real estate projects in and around the National Capital Region promise returns of 12% if you invest in the upcoming buildings. These are “guaranteed”, says the ad pitch and deliver better than bank deposits through the kicker of capital appreciation. You begin to think: equity markets are down with the annual return at a negative 11.46%, deposit rates for a term of five years and above are about 9% but there is no room for growing your principal over time. The real estate deal looks solid. The builder is giving post-dated cheques to show his commitment to the guarantee. It looks too good to miss and you find yourself dialling the number you’re being asked to call.
Almost at the time I was risking my neck, pushing it to the limit, trying to get the entire 508m of Taipei 101, the world’s second tallest building, into the camera frame, my home city (New Delhi) got its tallest building. The 112m, 28-storey Dr Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Civic Centre, headquarters of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, is now the tallest building that the 73m Qutub Minar-benchmarked Delhiites can now look up to. Built at a cost of Rs650 crore, the centre was inaugurated on 22 April. Of course, Mumbai has the 249m Imperial Towers I and II, near completion, and with scores of buildings that top out well over 112m, this is nothing to write columns about.
Tall buildings, as I discovered in Taipei, are just as important for nations and cities as the next cellphone model or the sports utility vehicle is for their upwardly mobile citizens. And having the tallest building or a tall building in the top 10 is another way that a nation makes a statement. Taking over where victory towers left off and in a world that was awed by the American statement of conquering nature with its skyscrapers, to construct the world’s tallest building has become a way of declaring “I am” for a nation—the most perceptible way of showcasing the domestic growth story. Much better than what the dull per capita income number will ever mean to somebody who lives across the world.
The ads have begun again. Real estate sales pitches that promise a return of more than 15% a year on “investment” in a new development. And insurance plans that promise 25% returns over the next 15 years. The financial crises is over and we’re back to the world as it was before Lehman. To see why this is incorrect and we are bang in the middle of the next bubble (also called echo bubble—or one that follows a large burst bubble) we need to see the face of those blowing.