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Crack in Indian realty firms
Tuesday, Oct 21, 2008

Future economic historians may remember the month that just ended as Black September. Lehman Brothers collapsed; the Bank of America acquired Merrill Lynch; AIG was nationalised; banks such as Washington Mutual and Wachovia were wiped out. As credit and finance markets around the world tumbled like ninepins, so did stock markets in India, with the Bombay Stock Exchange Sensitive Index (Sensex) falling 3.35% or 469 points on September 15. The worst affected was the realty index which dropped 7.6% on the same day. Since then, while stocks prices in India have seen massive swings, shares of real estate firms have remained depressed, falling a total of 20% as of October 1.

In addition to housing stocks, home prices are taking a beating. By some estimates, prices have dropped by 25% in certain urban markets. While in the US - and also in Britain - the subprime mortgage mess has seen home prices fall dramatically, in India, such slowdowns have been rare - at least in the past. Prices may soften, sales activity may slow and occasionally a distress sale occurs, but there has not been an overall fall in home prices. "India has not seen a boom-bust cycle in real estate mainly because the industry is still nascent," says Anurag Mathur, joint managing director of Cushman & Wakefield, a global real estate solutions company. "India has not seen a boom and bust cycle in almost any sector," adds Rajesh Chakrabarti, a professor of finance at the Hyderabad-based Indian School of Business (ISB). "While there have been variations, we have not had cycles of the kind we see in the developed countries. It is only after liberalisation that the Indian economy has been seeing more cyclical movements."

According to Irfan Razack, chairman and managing director of the Prestige Group, a Bangalore-based real estate developer: "We have boom and bust cycles in India but because of our huge population, the demand keeps growing and that sustains the industry. You can build for the next 100 years and there will still be demand for housing in this country."

India has inadequate data on the real estate sector. For instance, no one tracks housing starts, an indicator that is regarded in many countries as an important yardstick of economic health. However, several real estate companies have gone public during the past couple of years, which makes information more transparent. Secondly, equity analysts have begun tracking these companies and the real estate industry.

Still, confusion continues. Consider the reaction of the markets to the Lehman collapse. Real estate was hit for two reasons. Lehman had invested $200 million in DLF Assets, a company belonging to DLF, India's largest real estate company. It had also acquired a 50% stake in Unitech's Mumbai project for $175 million. (Unitech is India's second largest real estate company.) Among other Lehman investments or proposed investments were those in the Mumbai-based Peninsula Land Ltd. and Housing Development & Infrastructure Ltd. (HDIL).



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