Will the Great Indian Real Estate Bubble Finally Burst? It’s for the Modi Govt to Decide


In a surprise late evening move yesterday, prime minister Narendra Modi told the nation in a TV address, that come midnight, Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes will no longer be legal tender.

As I explained in a column published earlier today, one reason for doing this is to tackle the menace of fake notes. The second reason for doing this is to tackle black money.

As I mentioned in the earlier column, the move seems to be inspired from the American dollar as well as the British pound. In the United States, the highest denomination bank note is $100. When it comes to the United Kingdom, the highest denomination bank note issued by the Bank of England is £ 50. In the United States as well as the United Kingdom, the highest denomination note is essentially 50 times the smallest denomination note of one dollar or one pound.

In India, up until now the highest denomination note was Rs. 1,000 and this was 1,000 times the smallest denomination note of Re 1, issued by the ministry of finance. When a currency has notes of higher denomination, it is easier to launder money i.e. store black money, as it takes less space and weighs less as well.

As Ritika Mankar Mukherjee and Sumit Shekhar of Ambit Capital wrote in a recent research note: “For instance, the weight of Rs 1 crore in the form of hard cash rises from 12kgs to 100kgs if the denomination of the sum is changed from 1,000-Rupee notes to 100-Rupee notes.”

Also, Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 form the bulk of the total amount currency notes in the Indian financial system. As per the Reserve Bank of India, the total amount of paper notes in circulation in 2015-2016 amounted to Rs 16.4 lakh crore. Of this, the high denomination notes of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 amounted to Rs 14.2 lakh crore or a little over 86 per cent. The Rs 500 notes amounted to Rs 7.9 lakh crore whereas Rs 1,000 notes amounted to Rs 6.3 lakh crore.

This basically means that anyone who has black money stored in the form of currency notes is more than likely to have it in the form of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes. Black money is basically money which has been earned and on which taxes have not been paid. As Mukherjee and Shekhar write: “Given that 48% and 39% of the total value of currency in India is in the form of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes respectively, discontinuing usage of either of these notes can increase the physical costs and risks of holding black money significantly.”

Given this, anyone who has these notes, must go deposit this money in a bank account or in a post office account. And if the money being deposited is black money then questions are likely to be asked by the income tax department. Hence, that is unlikely to happen, at least not in a direct way.

One repercussion of this move that is being widely talked about is that it will lead to a fall in real estate prices. Typically, real estate throughout the length and breadth of India is bought using black money. A significant part of the payment is made in cash. Either this is black money being used or it is white money being converted into black. Experts are of the view, that the Modi government’s crackdown on black money is likely to lead to real estate prices coming down significantly.

The logic is that with Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 no longer being legal tender, it will become difficult to make the black component of the payment using currency notes. With the cash component becoming difficult to pay, it is expected that the real estate companies and builders will have to cut prices.

Further, the government plans to launch new Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 notes. It will not be so straightforward to exchange the old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes with these new notes, at least that is the feeling that currently prevails.

This is the logic being offered by experts who are forecasting a fall in real estate prices. As Yashwant Dalal, president of the Estate Agents Association of India told The Economic Times: “Property markets will see around 30% correction in prices…Apart from big property markets, tier II and III cities will be worst affected.” Property prices in tier II and tier III cities will fall more because the black component while buying a home is higher in these cities.

Further, as Anuj Puri, chairman and country head, JLL India, told Mint: “We have just witnessed a tremendous step towards increased transparency in the Indian real estate industry…The effects will be far-reaching and immediate, and shake up the sector in no uncertain way.” Rajiv Talwar, CEO of DLF, was a little more direct than Puri when he told The Economic Times: “There is bound to be a downward pressure on prices of everything including real estate.”

How do I see the situation? Given that I have been bearish on real estate for as long as I have been, it would be easy for me to say that prices will crash. But the past data (whatever limited data we have on real estate) doesn’t suggest the same.

So, my feeling is that real estate prices will fall, but whether they will crash or not, depends on how the government reacts to the situation. Allow me to explain.

This is something I had written in the last edition of The Vivek Kaul Letter, but it is worth repeating here. The current financial crisis that the world is dealing with, essentially started once the investment bank Lehman Brothers declared bankruptcy in mid-September 2008. Real estate prices fell across large parts of the world. But India beat the trend.

The question is why did this happen. Why did real estate prices in India not crash? How did India manage to beat a global trend? The answer lies in Figure 1.

                                Figure 1: Bank lending to commercial real estate (in Rs. Crore) Bank lending to commercial real estate (in Rs. Crore)

The Figure 1, plots the total loans given by banks to commercial real estate, essentially, builders or real estate companies, which make and sell homes, in the period following the start of the financial crisis in late 2008 and early 2009. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, real estate companies in India were also under a lot of pressure. Loans had to be repaid. At the same time the buyers had simply disappeared from the market.

To attract buyers, builders did start to cut prices. Nevertheless, that soon came to a stop. Look at Figure 1. There is a huge jump in lending between January 2009 and February 2009. In January 2009, the total bank lending to commercial real estate stood at Rs. 78,401 crore. At the end of February 2009, the total bank lending to commercial real estate stood at Rs. 90,765 crore. During the period of just one month, lending to real estate went up by Rs. 12,364 crore or 15.8 per cent.

This, when the total lending by banks (non-food credit) between January 2009 and February 2009 went up by Rs. 26,380 crore. Hence, lending to commercial real estate by banks, formed close to 47 per cent of the total lending carried out by banks during the month.

This was a huge anomaly. It is safe to say that this was a bank-sponsored bailout of the real estate sector. If this bailout had not been carried out real estate companies would have had to cut prices majorly to sell homes, to be able to earn enough money to repay the bank loans that they had taken on. Chances are they would have defaulted on some of these loans as well.

The Indian banks managed to avoid this scenario by lending fresh money to real estate companies. The fresh loans were used by the real estate companies to repay their old loans. If these fresh loans hadn’t come through then the real estate companies would have had to cut home prices, so as to be able to sell homes and earn enough money to repay those loans. And India’s real estate bubble would have ended in 2009.

Look at Figure 2. It basically plots the growth in bank lending to commercial real estate over the years. So, in June 2011, the growth rate was at 23.2 per cent. This means that the growth in bank lending to real estate companies between June 2010 and June 2011, stood at 23.2 per cent. All other data points have been plotted in a similar way.

                              Figure 2: Growth in lending to commercial real estate (in %)Growth in lending to commercial real estate (in %)

It is clear from Figure 2 that the growth in bank lending to real estate companies simply exploded in the aftermath of the financial crisis. In fact, it just went up vertically. Zoom!

And this explains, why the real estate prices in India did not fall in the aftermath of the financial crisis. Further, this also tells us why India beat the global trend of falling real estate prices. Of course, perpetual reasons like black money finding its way into real estate, were also there.

Further, the law of demand does not work in the real estate market. In a normal market, when prices go up, people buy less of that thing. In the real estate market, as prices go up, more and more people enter the market (as is the case with the stock market as well). This is what happened post 2009 in India. Rising real estate prices brought the buyers back into the market and the real estate bubble got a new lease of life.

In fact, it is clear from Figure 2, that the growth in bank lending to real estate companies goes through some sort of a cycle. Are these lending cycles linked to the rate of increase of real estate prices? The trouble is that there is very little data available on real estate prices in India. One of the real estate indices that one can look at is the Reserve Bank of India (RBI)House Price Index. Look at Figure 3. It shows one- year returns in real estate per the RBI House Price Index, since June 2011.

                                                      Figure 3: Real estate returns (in %)Real estate returns (in %)

What is clear from Figure 3 is that the annual real estate returns have come down over the years. Now what happens when we plot Figure 2 and Figure 3 together. Look at Figure 4.

                                                                   Figure 4: Comparison Comparisonn

The Figure 4 shows that every time the real estate prices start to correct (i.e. the rate of growth in real estate prices starts to fall), lending from banks to real estate companies starts to pick up. Of course, the mapping isn’t exactly one to one. But there is a clear correlation.

There are two possible reasons for this. One is that banks do not want real estate prices to fall. This is because they feel that if real estate prices fall, the real estate companies won’t be able to repay their loans. Given this banks give fresh loans to real estate companies, so that they don’t have to cut their prices. This keeps the real estate bubble going.

The second possible reason is that the government (I don’t mean just the current government here but any government) does not want real estate prices to fall. This stems from the fact that the ill-gotten wealth of politicians is largely invested in real estate and they work towards protecting its value. Also, real estate builders are major financiers of political parties at local and state levels.

How is all this relevant in the current context? Real estate prices will start falling for sure. The trouble is that this is also likely to lead to default of bank loans from real estate companies. As of August 2016, the total lending carried out by banks to real estate companies stood at Rs 1,81,700 crore. If home loan borrowers also start to default, then there will be a bigger problem.

In this scenario, will banks come to the rescue of real estate companies again? Will public sector banks be forced to give fresh loans to real estate companies? On these questions, your guess is as good as mine. I don’t have clear cut answers to these questions. If banks do give fresh loans to real estate companies, as they have done in the past, then the real estate prices may not fall by as much as they are currently expected to. Nevertheless, it is safe to say, that whether real estate prices will crash, is actually in the hands of the Modi government.

Also, it is worth pointing out here that public sector banks are currently in a mess because of corporates defaulting on loans. Will they be able to take on real estate companies defaulting on their loans as well? What will the government do in this situation?

To conclude, I must say this that if the Modi government does allow real estate prices to come down dramatically, it will improve the affordability of homes. This will allow many people who cannot currently buy homes to buy homes. Also, lower prices will spur demand, which is currently more or less dead. Higher demand will lead to the creation of many low-skilled and unskilled jobs, which the country badly needs, with one million individuals entering the workforce every month. It will also lead to a multiplier effect in industries which directly depend on real estate for their demand.

All I can say with confidence right now is: Watch this space.

The column originally appeared in Vivek Kaul’s Diary on November 9, 2016.