Busting a few more real estate myths

India-Real-Estate-MarketVivek Kaul

The last column on real estate which appeared on January 19, 2015, stuck a chord with a lot of readers. Given that, I thought it made sense to dwell a little more on this topic and the “spin” that real estate wallahs try to give it.
One logic that I have heard being given over and over again is that India has too little land and too many people. Given this, real estate prices can never fall. They will only keep going up ad infinitum and hence, you need to invest in real estate and earn a perpetual return. This is the most widely used logic to justify high real estate prices in the country. But a little bit of number crunching basically tells us that there is nothing right about this theory.
Let’s look at India has “too many people” theory first. As per the 2011 census, India has an average of 382 people living per square kilometre. When it comes to density of population India is ranked 33rd in the world. Let’s compare this with Japan. The country has 336 people living per square kilometre and is ranked 39th in the world.
Japan had a huge real estate boom in the 1980s. The boom came to an end towards the end of the 1980s and prices fell big time after that. As George Akerlof and Robert Shiller point out in
Animal Spirits: “Urban land prices…in Japan (where land is every bit as scarce as it is in other countries)…fell 68% in real terms in major Japanese cities from 1991 to 2006.” And if real estate prices could fall in Japan, which has a slightly lower population density than that of India, they can in India as well.
Even in India real estate prices have fallen in the past. It’s just that people don’t rememember about it anymore. As Manish Bhandari of Vallum Capital wrorte in a report titled 
The End game of speculation in Indian Real Estate has begun: “The previous deleveraging cycle in year 1997-2003 witnessed price correction by more than 50% in Mumbai Metro Region (MMR) property.” And this was just a little over a decade back. Bull markets lead to bad memories and theories justifying high prices.
In fact, real estate prices have been falling in some parts of the country.
A December 2014 newsreport in The Economic Times suggested that “secondary market prices of properties in posh South Delhi localities have fallen 25-30 per cent over the last one year as a pileup of inventory and need for money turn many investors into desperate sellers.” “Compared with peak prices, the discount is as much as 40 per cent, say brokers,” the report added.
Another important point here is that the consumer sentiment seems to be turning against real estate. Recently a buyer sentiment survey was carried out by IIM Bangalore and Magicbricks.
A report on the survey in The Economic Times said that: “[The survey] orecasts that the homebuyers expect real estate prices to drop over the next six months. In fact, the aggregate Housing Sentiment Index (HSI), measured across the 10 cities, dropped sharply by 29% in the 3rd quarter of 2014-15 to 81. (An HSI score of 100 suggests the prices would remain static).”
Now compare this with another survey that the business lobby ASSOCHAM had got done in June 2013, which said: “Over 85 per cent of urban working class prefer to invest in real estate saying it is likely to fetch them guaranteed and higher returns.” So, the sentiment clearly seems to be changing. And there is no greater danger to the price of an asset class than changing sentiment of those who want to invest in it.
The second theory offered is that India has very little land to house its huge population. Again a little number crunching tells us that this is not correct. The 
Indian Institute for Human Settlements in a report titled Urban India 2011 esimates that “the top 10 cities are estimated to produce about 15% of the GDP, with 8% of the population and just 0.1% of the land area.”
Economist Ajay Shah in a May 2013 column in
The Economic Times did some number crunching to show that India has enough land to house its millions. As he wrote “A little arithmetic shows this is not the case. If you place 1.2 billion people in four-person homes of 1000 square feet each, and two workers of the family into office/factory space of 400 square feet, this requires roughly 1% of India’s land area assuming an FSI(floor space index) of 1. There is absolutely no shortage of land to house the great Indian population.”
One corollary of this theory is that as cities expand they will take away land from agriculture and that will create a problem as well. Again this is a specious argument.
Data from World Bank shows that around 60.3% of India’s land area is agricultural land. The bank defines agricultural land as “share of land area that is arable, under permanent crops, and under permanent pastures.”
In fact, only the United States has more agriculural land than India. A
s India Brand Equity Foundation, a trust established by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry points out: “At 157.35 million hectares, India holds the second largest agricultural land globally.” Only, the United States has more agricultural land than India. Take the case of China. India has more arable land than China. This, despite the fact its total area is only a little over 34% that of China.
Hence, agricultural land near the cities can easily be diverted towards construction of more housing without it having any signficant impact on agricultural production.
The basic problem lies in the fact that too much black money has gone into real estate and has driven up prices ( as I wrote in the last column) to previously unimaginable levels. This has led to builders and politicians who back these builders to sit on a huge amount of unsold inventory instead of cutting prices to clear it. They have got used to these high prices. Also, so much money has already been made that sitting on inventory till prices start to recover, doesn’t seem like a bad idea at all to them.
As an article in
The Caravan magazine pointed out few years back: “There isn’t a bubble of real homes…If all these apartments were actually built, and built fairly to schedule, I guarantee you that they would find real buyers. The demand is out there. But there is a huge bubble in imaginary homes.”
And this is because the ill-gotten wealth of politicians and their cronies has found its way into the sector through “benami” means over the years. However, there continues to be demand for reasonably priced property even in big cities. Only if there was someone trying to fulfill this unmet consumer demand.
To conclude, it is worth sharing this example that Ruchir Sharma talks about in his book
Breakout Nations: “Lately Indian businessmen have been regaling one another with accounts of a leading politician from Mumbai who is known to have amassed a huge wealth through property deals. At a private screening of a new Bollywood movie, this politician asked the producer to replay a particular song-and-dance number, over and over. When the producer asked if he was taken with the leading lady, the politician said no, he was eyeing the location and wondering where the producer had found such an attractive stretch of open space in Mumbai.”
And this is where the real problem lies. 

The article originally appeared on www.equitymaster.com as a part of The Daily Reckoning on Jan 21, 2015

Sensex 4,20,000: Coming in 15 years at a stock market near you

rakesh jhunjhunwalaVivek Kaul

It is that time of the year when stock brokerages forecast their Sensex/Nifty targets for the next year. A few such reports have landed up in my mailbox and the highest forecast that I have come across until now is that of the Sensex touching 37,000 points by December 2015.
I was thinking of writing a piece around these forecasts, until I happened to read an interview in which big bull Rakesh Jhunjhunwala said that
he would disappointed if the Nifty doesn’t hit 1,25,000 by 2030.
Nifty currently quotes at a level of around 8,500 points. The logic offered by Jhunjhunwla is very straightforward. He said that the earnings of stocks that constitute the Nifty index will grow by fifteen times over the next fifteen years. And that would take the Nifty to a level which is fifteen times its current level ( actually 15 times 8500 is 1,27,500, but given that Jhunjhunwala was talking in very broad terms let’s not nitpick). Hence, Nifty will be at 1,25,000 by 2030.
How reliable is this forecast? Not very, is a straightforward answer. A period of 15 years is too long a time to make such a specific forecast on the stock market or anything else for that matter. There are many things that can go wrong during the period (or go right for that matter). Hence, such forecasts need to be taken with a pinch of salt and seen as something that has an entertainment value more than anything else.
In matters of forecasts like these it is important to remember the first few lines of Ruchir Sharma’s
Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles: “The old rule of forecasting was to make as many forecasts as possible and publicise the ones you got right. The new rule is to forecast so far into the future that no one will know you got it wrong.” Jhunjhunwala has done precisely that.
If earnings have to grow by 15 times in 15 years, the Indian economy also needs to grow at a breakneck speed. Over a very long period of time, the companies cannot keep growing their profits unless the economy grows as well. For 15% earnings growth to happen, the economy needs to grow at a real rate of 8-10% per year (the remaining earnings growth will come from inflation).
The trouble is that this kind of rapid long term economic growth in countries is an extremely rare phenomenon.
As Sharma points out in
Breakout Nations:“Very few nations achieve long-term rapid growth. My own research shows that over the course of any given decade since 1950, only one-third of emerging markets have been able to grow at an annual rate of 5% or more. Less than one-fourth have kept that pace up for two decades, and one tenth for three decades. Just six countries (Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Hong Kong) have maintained the rate of growth for four decades, and two (South Korea and Taiwan) have done so for five decades.”
In fact, India and China which have been among the fastest growing countries over the last ten years, were laggards when it come to economic growth. “During the 1950s and the 1960s the biggest emerging markets – China and India – were struggling to grow at all. Nations like Iran, Iraq, and Yemen put together long strings of strong growth, but those strings came to a halt with the outbreak of war…In the 1960s, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Burma were billed as the next East Asian tigers, only to see their growth falter badly,” writes Sharma.
Long story short: Rapid economic growth cannot be taken for granted and given this forecasts like Nifty touching 1,25,000 at best need to be taken with a pinch of salt. Indeed,
Jhunjhunwala had predicted in October 2007 that the Sensex will touch 50,000 points in the next six or seven years.
Its been more than seven years since then and the Sensex is nowhere near the 50,000 level.
In October 2007, India was growing at a rapid rate. At that point of time it was almost a given that the country would continue to grow at a very fast rate. In fact, this feeling lasted almost until 2011, when the high inflation finally caught up with economic growth and the first set of low economic growth numbers started to come.
Also, Jhunjhunwala and most other stock market experts did not know in October 2007 that more or less a year later, the investment bank Lehman Brothers would go bust, and the world would see a financial crisis of the kind it had never seen since the Great Depression.
The stock market fell rapidly in the aftermath of the crisis. Once this happened the central banks of the world led by the Federal Reserve of the United States, printed and pumped money into their respective financial systems.
The idea was to flood the financial system with money so as to maintain low interest rates and hope that people borrow and spend, and in the process get economic growth going again. That happened to a limited extent. What happened instead was that big financial institutions borrowed money at low interest rates and invested it in financial markets all over the world.
In the Indian case the foreign institutional investors have made a net purchase of Rs 3,19,366.35 crore in the Indian stock market between January 2009 and November 2014. During the same period the domestic institutional investors sold stocks worth Rs 1,27,280.1 crore. The massive financial flows from abroad have ensured that the BSE Sensex has jumped from around a level of 10,000 points to around 28,450 points, during the same period, giving an absolute return of around 185%.
The point being that despite this massive inflow of money from abroad, the BSE Sensex is nowhere near the 50,000 level that Jhunjhunwala had predicted in October 2007. Over the long term a lot of things can go wrong and which is what happened after 2007.
To conclude, let me ride on Jhunjhunwala’s forecast and make my own forecast. Jhunjhunwala has predicted that the Nifty index will touch 1,25,000 points in 2030. This means the Sensex will cross 4,16, 420 points in 2030.
How do I say that? The Sensex currently quotes at around 28,450 points. In comparison, the Nifty is at around 8,500 points. This means a Sensex to Nifty ratio of around 3.33.
Hence, when Nifty touches 1,25,000 points, the Sensex will touch 4,16,420 points (1,25,000 x 3.33). For the sake of convenience let’s just round this off to 4,20,000 points. I know, the world is not so linear. If forecasts were just about dragging a few MS Excel cells, everybody would be getting them right.
But then it is the forecast season and everyone seems to be making one, and given that even I should be making one. And if in 2030 I am proven right, I will search this column and tell the world at large that I said it first way back in late 2014 on
The Daily Reckoning.
To conclude, dear reader, remember you read it here first. That’s the trick and I know how it works.

The article originally appeared on www.equitymaster.com as a part of The Daily Reckoning, on Dec 4, 2014 

With gold imports almost zero, trade deficit unlikely to fall further

goldVivek Kaul 
The trouble with being a one trick pony is that the trick stops yielding dividends after sometime. Something similar seems to have happened to the efforts of the government of India to control the huge trade deficit. Trade deficit is the difference between imports and exports.”
Trade deficit for August 2013 was at $10.9 billion. This is a major improvement in comparison to the trade deficit of $14.17 billion in August 2012. The deficit was $12.27 billion in July, 2013.
This fall in trade deficit has come through the efforts of the government to bring down gold imports by increasing the import duty on it. India imported just 2.5 tonnes of gold in August and this cost $650 million. Now compare this to 47.5 tonnes imported in July, 31.5 tonnes in June, 162 tonnes in May and 142.5 tonnes in April of this year.
In April 2013, the 142.5 tonne of imported gold had cost $7.5 billion and the trade deficit was at $17.8 billion. If there had been no gold imports, then the trade deficit for April would have stood at $10.3billion($17.8 billion – $7.5 billion). If the gold imports had been at $650 million (or $0.65 billion) as has been the case in August 2013, then the trade deficit would have stood at $10.95 billion ($17.8 billion – $7.5 billion + $0.65 billion). This number is very close to the trade deficit of $10.9 billion that the country saw in August 2013.
So the point is that the government has been able to control the trade deficit by ensuring that the gold imports are down to almost zero. 
As the Indian Express reports “Gold imports stopped after July 22 due to confusion over a rule issued by the Reserve Bank of India, which required importers to re-export at least 20% of all the purchases from overseas.”
The confusion has now been cleared. Also, with Diwali in early November and the marriage season starting from October, gold imports are likely to pick up in September and October. Even if it doesn’t, the imports are already close to zero. So, any more gains on the trade deficit front by limiting gold imports, is no longer possible. 
The Indian Express report cited earlier quotes a senior executive of the Bombay Bullion Association as saying “Imports may again rise to around 30 tonne in September, as jewellers usually start building inventory to cater to the requirement during the festival and marriage season.”
At the same time, the government hasn’t been able to do much about oil, which is India’s biggest import. In August 2013, oil imports stood at $15.1 billion, up by 17.9% in comparison to the same period last year. Oil imports formed nearly 40.8% of the total imports of $37.05 billion. There isn’t much the government can do on this front, other than raising prices majorly to cut under-recoveries of oil marketing companies and limit demand for oil products at the same time.
But that may not be a politically prudent thing to do. The commerce minister, 
Anand Sharma, warned that with the international prices of crude oil rising over the past 10 days, the oil import bill may go up in the months to come. And this may lead to a higher trade deficit.
As Sonal Varma of Nomura Securities wrote in a report dated September 10, 2013, “Looking ahead, a seasonal rise in imports during the festive season and higher oil prices should result in a slightly higher trade deficit in Q4 2013(the period between Oct and Dec 2013), relative to Q3 (the period between July and Sep 2013).”
But imports form just one part of the trade deficit equation. Exports are the other part. Exports for August 2013, went up by nearly 13% to $26.4 billion, in comparison to August 2012. In July, exports were at $25.83 billion.
While exports may have gone up by in August due to a significantly weaker rupee, whether they will continue to go up in the months to come is a big question. As Ruchir Sharma, Head of Global Macro and Emerging Markets at Morgan Stanley, and the author of 
Breakout Nations, told me in a recent interview I did for Forbes India “Exports are dependent on multiple factors, exchange rate being only one of them. Global demand which is another major factor influencing exports, has been weak. If just changing the nominal exchange rate was the game, then it would be such an easy recipe for every country to follow. You could just devalue your way to prosperity. But in the real world you need other supporting factors to come through. You need a manufacturing sector which can respond to a cheap currency. Our manufacturing sector, as has been well documented, has been throttled by all sorts of local problems which exist.”
This something that another international fund manager reiterated when I met him recently. As he said “A part of the problem that India has is that the economic model has been based more on the service sector rather than manufacturing. The amount of manufactured products that become cheaper immediately and everyone says that I need more Indian products rather than Chinese products or Vietnamese products, is probably insufficient in number to give a sharp rebound immediately.”
The other big problem with Indian exports is that they are heavily dependent on imports. As commerce minister Anand Sharma admitted to “45% of exports have imported contents. I don’t think weak rupee has any impact on positive export results.”
In fact 
The Economic Times had quoted Anup Pujari, director general of foreign trade(DGFT) on this subject a few months back. As he said “It is a myth that the depreciation of the rupee necessarily results in massive gains for Indian exporters. India’s top five exports — petroleum products, gems and jewellery, organic chemicals, vehicles and machinery — are so much import-dependent that the currency fluctuation in favour of exporters gets neutralised. In other words, exporters spend more in importing raw materials, which in turn erodes their profitability.”
Also, the moment the rupee falls against the dollar, the foreign buyers try to renegotiate earlier deals, Pujari had said. “As most exporters give in to the pressure and split the benefits, the advantages of a weak rupee disappear.”
What all these points tell us is the simple fact that the trade deficit will be higher in the months to come. And given, this the market, like is the case usually, is probably overreacting.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on September 11, 2013 

 (Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)