Why HDFC Finds Homes to Be More Affordable, When They Clearly Aren’t

Summary: HDFC is getting better home loan customers that doesn’t mean homes have become more affordable. HDFC’s conclusion of homes becoming more affordable is an excellent example of survivorship bias.

Before I start writing this, I have a confession to make. I have written about this issue before, around five years back. But given that things haven’t really changed since then, it is a good time to write about it again. Hence, to all my regular readers who have been following me over the years and might have read this earlier, sincere apologies in advance.

Home loans in India are given by two kinds of institutions – banks and housing finance companies (HFCs). Among the HFCs, Housing Development Finance Corporation (HDFC) has been a pioneer in the area of home loans.

The company regularly publishes an investor presentation along with every quarterly result.

I am not sure for how long the company has been doing this, but its website has these presentations going as far back as March 2013, a little over seven years. Since then, the company has had a slide in its investor presentation which talks about the improved affordability of owning a home in India. Usually, it is the eight or the ninth slide in the presentation (sometimes, but very rarely tenth).

This is the slide in the latest presentation for the period April to June 2020.

Improved affordability of homes

Source: HDFC Investor Presentation, June 30, 2020.

Let’s look at the chart between 2000 and 2020, the last two decades. The home loan market in the country before that was too small and evolving and hence, prone to extreme results. So, it makes sense to ignore that data.

What does the chart tell us? It tells us that affordability of homes in the country has gone up over the years. The chart defines affordability as home price divided by the annual income of the individual buying the home.

In 2020, the average home price has stood at around Rs 50 lakh. Against this, the average annual income of the individual buying the home stands at around Rs 15 lakh. Given this, the affordability factor is at 3.3 (Rs 50 lakh divided by Rs 15 lakh).

Hence, the average individual in 2020 is buying a home which is priced at 3.3 times his annual income. (Please keep in mind that the property prices are represented on the left-axis and the annual income is represented on the right axis).

As can be seen from the chart, the affordability factor at 3.3 is the lowest in twenty years. Hence, affordability of homes has gone up. QED.

The trouble is, this goes totally against what we see, hear and feel all around us. Real estate companies have lakhs of unsold homes with absolutely no takers. They have thousands of crore of unpaid loans. The banks and non-banking finance companies (NBFCs) have restructured these loans over the years and not recognized them as bad loans in the process, with more than a little help from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). Bad loans are loans which haven’t been repaid for a period of 90 days or more.

Further, investors who bought real estate over the years have been finding it difficult to sell it. Indeed, if homes had become more affordable, this wouldn’t have been the case. Real estate companies would have been able to sell homes and repay the loans they have taken from banks and NBFCs. And the RBI wouldn’t have to intervene.

So, what is it that HDFC can see that we can’t? Before I get around to answering this question, let me tell you a little story. During the Second World War, the British Royal Air Force (RAF) had a peculiar problem.

It wanted to attach heavy plating to its airplanes in order to protect them from gunfire from the German anti-aircraft guns as well as fighter planes. The trouble was that these plates were heavy and hence, had to be attached strategically at points where bullets fired by the German guns were most likely to hit. The British couldn’t plate the entire plane or even large parts of it.

The good part was that they had historical data regarding which parts of the plane did the German bullets actually hit. And this is where things got interesting. As Jordan Ellenberg writes in How Not to Be Wrong: The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life: “The damage [of the bullets] wasn’t uniformly distributed across the aircraft. There were more bullet holes in the fuselage, not so many in the engines.”

So, historical data was available and hence, the decision should have turned out to be a very easy one. The plates needed to be attached around the plane’s fuselage. But this logic was missing something very basic. The German bullets should have been hitting the engines of airplanes more regularly than the historical evidence suggested, simply because the engine “is a point of total vulnerability”.

A statistician named Abraham Wald realised where the problem was. As Ellenberg writes: “The armour, said Wald, doesn’t go where bullet holes are. It goes where bullet holes aren’t: on the engines. Wald’s insight was simply to ask: where are the missing holes? The ones that would have been all over the engine casing, if the damage had been spread equally all over the plane. The missing bullet holes were on the missing planes. The reason planes were coming back with fewer hits to the engine is that planes that got hit in the engine weren’t coming back.” They simply crashed.

This is what is called survivorship bias or the data that remains and then we make a decision based on it.

As Gary Smith writes in Standard Deviations: Flawed Assumptions Tortured Data and Other Ways to Lie With Statistics: “Wald…had the insight to recognize that these data suffered from survivor bias…Instead of reinforcing the locations with the most holes, they should reinforce the locations with no holes.”

Wald’s recommendations were implemented and ended up saving many planes which would have otherwise gone down. (On a different note, both the books from which I have quoted above, are excellent books on how not to use data, especially useful if you are in the business of torturing data to make it say what you want ).

If you are still scratching your head and wondering what does this Second World War story have to do with HDFC finding homes more affordable, allow me to explain. Like the British before Wald came in with his explanation, HDFC is also looking at the data it has and not the overall data.

Look at the left-hand of the corner of the chart, it says based on customer data. The analysis is based on HDFC’s own historical customer data. When HDFC talks about an average home price of Rs 50 lakh and an income of Rs 15 lakh, it is basically talking about the set of people who have approached the HFC for a loan and gotten one. Hence, HDFC’s conclusion of better affordability is drawn from the sample it has access to.

But does this really mean that affordability has improved? Or does it mean that the quality of HDFC’s customers has improved over the years? The customers that HDFC is giving a home loan to are ones who can afford to buy homes. The HFC clearly has no idea about people who want to buy homes but simply do not have the financial resources to do so.

They don’t show up as a part of any sample, hence, the evidence on them is at best anecdotal. These people are like planes whose engines were hit and hence, they did not make it back to their base, in the Second World War. And like there was no data on the planes which got hit and didn’t make it back, there is no data on these people as well. Basically, HDFC’s data and conclusion are victims of the survivorship bias

In fact, HDFC’s investor presentation has always carried another interesting slide on low penetration of home loans in India. The following chart is from the latest presentation.

Home loans as a percentage of GDP

Source: HDFC Investor Presentation, June 30, 2020.

Total home loans outstanding given by both banks and HFCs in 2020 stands at 10% of the GDP (On a slightly different note, the ratio of homes loans given by banks to home loans given by HFCs is 64:36). In March 2014, the total outstanding home loans in India had stood at 9% of the GDP. If homes indeed were affordable this ratio would have gone up faster.

To conclude, it’s time that HDFC remove this misleading slide from its investor presentation or at least say that the affordability has improved for its customers and not for the country as a whole.

The Western growth model is broken and it ain’t getting fixed any time soon

3D chrome Dollar symbol

Everyone has a plan until they get hit in the mouth – Mike Tyson

In the aftermath of the financial crisis that started in September 2008, the central banks of Western countries started printing money and pumping it into their financial systems. The hope was that by flooding the financial system interest rates could be maintained at low levels.
At low interest rates people would borrow and spend more and economic growth would return. The Federal Reserve of United States led the money printing race. But money printing hasn’t led to people borrowing and spending as was expected, as can be seen from the accompanying chart.

Source: http://www.pimco.com/EN/Insights/Pages/For-Wonks-Only.aspx

The total loans in the United States currently amount to around $58 million. The loans have been growing at 2% per year in the last five years and 3.5% over the last 12 months. As can be seen from the accompanying graph this rate of loan growth is much slower than the growth in pre-financial crisis years, when the loan growth was at around 10% per year. It even touched 20% in 2007, a year before the crisis broke out.
Hence, economic growth in the United States was a clear function of the loan growth in the pre-financial crisis years. Now that the loan growth has slowed down so has economic growth. So what will it take to bring this growth back?
As Bill Gross who formerly worked for PIMCO, one of the largest mutual funds in the world,
put it in a September 2014 columnOver the long term, however, economic growth depends on investment and a rejuvenation of capitalistic animal spirits – a condition which currently does not exist…The U.S. and global economy ultimately cannot be safely delivered with artificially low interest rates, unless they lead to higher levels of productive investment.”
The standard theory that has emerged in the aftermath of the financial crisis is that consumer demand has collapsed in the Western world and this has led to a slowdown in economic growth. In order to set this right people need to be encouraged to borrow and spend. The trouble is that it was “excessive” borrowing and spending that had led to the crisis in the first place.
Raghuram Rajan and Luigi Zingales suggest this in a new afterword to
Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists: “For decades before the financial crisis in 2008, advanced economies were losing their ability to grow by making useful things. But they needed to somehow replace the jobs that had been lost to technology and foreign competition… So in an effort to pump up growth, governments spent more than they could afford and promoted easy credit to get households to do the same. The growth that these countries engineered, with its dependence on borrowing, proved unsustainable.
Interestingly, from 1900 to 1980, 70–80 percent of the global production of goods happened in the United States and Europe. By 2010, this share had declined to around 50 percent, around the same level that it was at in 1860. Also, faced with increased global competition, Western workers were unable to demand the pay increases that they used to in the past. This led to Western governments following an easy money policy, where they encouraged citizens to borrow and spend, and this ensured that economic growth remained strong.
But in the aftermath of the financial crisis this growth model has broken down with people not borrowing as much as they did in the past. So what is the way out? The way out is to create sustainable growth that is not financed through debt-fuelled consumption all the time. As Rajan and Zingales put it “The way out of the crisis cannot be still more borrowing and spending, especially if the spending does not build lasting assets that will help future generations pay off the debts they will be saddled with. The best short-term policy response is to focus on long-term sustainable growth.”
Nevertheless that is easier said than done.
A March 2011 working paper by Michael Spence and Sandile Hlatshwayo provides the reason for the same. As the economists point out “Between 1990 and 2008, jobs have seen a net increase of 27.3 million on a base of 121.9 million in 1990..Almost all of those incremental jobs (26.7 of 27.3 million) were created in the nontradable sector. In the aggregate, tradable sector employment growth was essentially flat.”
So what does this mean? Jordan Ellenberg defines the term nontradable sector in his book
How Not To Be Wrong—The Hidden Maths of Everyday Life. Nontradable sector is “the part of the economy including things like government, health care, retail, and food service, which can’t be outsourced and which don’t produce goods to be shipped overseas.”
Hence, basically whatever could be outsourced outside the United States has already been outsourced. This is simply because it is cheaper to produce stuff outside the United States. And this is likely to continue in the years to come. Over the coming decades, a billion more people are expected to join the work force in Asia, Africa and Latin America. This will apply a further downward pressure on costs and prices. Hence, Americans will not really be in a position to demand pay increases as they could have in the past.
What is true about the United States is also true about other developing countries as well. Given this, the Western growth model is well and truly broken. And as of now, the way things stand, it doesn’t look like if it will be fixed any time soon.

The article originally appeared in www.FirstBiz.com on Nov 12, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)