The math does not add up. The real estate refugees from the builder excesses of the past are now stuck between a rock and a hard place. These are the people lucky enough to actually have a finished flat with possession and not a legal case with absconding builders. These are the people who bought the Delhi suburban dream thinking they were getting in on the ground floor to the next Gurgaon. These are the people who live in Delhi, on rent or in own homes, and bought for investment in the greater NCR region, particularly in Greater Noida. These are the people who don’t know if they should sell and take a loss on their investment or keep funding it and hope prices recover.
A typical story goes like this: you bought a 3-BHK flat with a fancy foreign sounding name with a pool, community center, Italian tiles and more bells and whistles for Rs 60 lakh. Took a loan of Rs 40 lakh that costs about Rs 35,000 a month in EMI. Rent where you live in Delhi is Rs 30,000 a month. Rent from your Noida flat is Rs 8,000 a month. Amount of loan left is Rs 30 lakh. Current market price of flat if you can find a buyer—Rs 50 lakh.
It always happens. An introduction to mutual funds results in a feeding frenzy. I’d introduced a childhood friend to mutual funds two years ago. At age 45, she had left money and its management too late, but once she on-boarded mutual funds, she really went all the way. And beyond. Two years later, I’m horrified to see her portfolio. From the three-scheme portfolio she had started out with two years ago, she now sits on some 10 mutual fund schemes without a thought on what problem they solved. From an FD Hugger, she turned into a Feeding Frenzy Funder. I find that investors I meet fall into some stereotypes. Here are eight investor types—who are you?
The Ostrich: You have no plan, your money lies in your savings deposit and you are known to proudly say that you have no money to invest. You push away all help that comes your way because you are convinced that the world is full of cheats and you are just safer not doing anything rather than making an error. Beneath the don’t care mask, you are actually quite petrified about the state of your finance. And maybe for that reason believe that “something” will happen to make that pot of gold that you are convinced will come your way. Dream on.
It is difficult to run into somebody in Delhi you know and not have them confess that they too are caught with their money stuck in stalled real estate projects in the suburbs of Noida and Gurugram. The bankruptcy process in the Jaypee Infratech Ltd case got the headlines, but the number of large developers in jail is not small. It includes companies such as Unitech, SRS Group and DB Reality, showing how deep the rot in real estate goes because rich people in India seldom go to jail for breaking the law.
Stuck in the still-to-be-Italian-marbled buildings are the savings of the urban mass affluent Indian who thought she was investing smartly in the property boom. Investors bought into the good deals offered by builders who offered to pay their first few EMIs (equated monthly instalments), who offered post dated cheques for those EMIs, who offered a free car if you booked a flat above a certain value. Real estate investors who bit the bait allowed themselves to believe deals too good to be true, to be true. They refused to listen to sane counsel of friends and newspaper articles that warned them against such deals.
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.
How do we know when a market is overvalued? The equity market looks at price: earning (P-E) ratios, book value, price earning to growth (PEG) ratios and valuations to see if stocks, or entire markets, are overpriced or underpriced. Is there a similar metric for real estate, a rule of thumb that tells you when a property, or the whole real estate market, is overpriced or underpriced? Mature markets use some rough rules of thumb to decide over- or under-pricing in real estate. The first is the ‘gross rent ratio’. Divide the sale price of a property with the gross annual rent it will get. Gross rent does not account for costs of the loan, maintenance or society fees. If a flat sells for Rs1 crore and can be rented for Rs50,000 a month, or Rs6 lakh a year, the gross rent ratio is 16.6. Real estate investors use a rough rule of thumb that says: buy at 10 and sell at 20. Buy when the rent ratio is 10 and sell when it touches 20 because the property is overvalued. The second metric is the yield which just switches the two numbers. Divide the gross annual rent by the sale value of the property. The annual rent of Rs6 lakh divided by a capital value of Rs1 crore gives a yield of 6%. Mature market thumb rules say buy at a yield of 5% and sell at 10%.
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.