Uncomfortable times coming up in real estate?

Patrick Chovanec has a fascinating article in Foreign Affairs, titled China's Real Estate Bubble May Have Just Popped. This is interesting and important from two view points.

First, bad news for China is bad news for the world economy. We are already in a bleak environment, with difficulties in Europe, Japan, the US, and India. It will not be pretty if China runs into trouble as well. I am reminded of the feeling of carefully watching real estate in the United States in 2006, with a sense that the future of the world economy was going to turn on how it turned out.

Second, it made me think about real estate in India. As with China, one often sees buyers of real estate in India have the notion that this is a safe financial asset. This is a questionable proposition. Real estate is perhaps not an asset class with a positive expected return in the first place; and it is certainly not a convenient asset class with features like liquidity, transparency, diversification and easy formation of low-volatility diversified portfolios. I find it hard to explain the prominence of real estate in the portfolios of even educated people in India.

In the article, Chovanec says:

For more than a decade, they have bet on longer-term demand trends by buying up multiple units -- often dozens at a time -- which they then leave empty with the belief that prices will rise. Estimates of such idle holdings range anywhere from 10 million to 65 million homes; no one really knows the exact number, but the visual impression created by vast `ghost' districts, filled with row upon row of uninhabited villas and apartment complexes, leaves one with a sense of investments with, literally, nothing inside.

This has not happened in India. So in this sense, the situation in India is not as dire. But his second key message seems uncomfortably close:

As 2011 progressed, developers scrambled for new lines of financing to keep their overstocked inventories. They first relied on bank loans (until they were cut off), then high-yield bonds in Hong Kong (until the market soured), then private investment vehicles (sponsored by banks as an end run around lending constraints), and finally, in some cases, loan sharks. By the end of last summer, many Chinese developers had run out of options and were forced to begin liquidating inventory. Hence, the price slashing: 30, 40, and even 50 percent discounts.

Reuters

Part of this looks familiar. There is a lot of leverage in Indian real estate development and speculation. Real estate speculators and developers are finding themselves in a bit of a scramble hunting for credit. One hears about very high interest rates being paid by developers. Other sources of financing are also weak. This reminds me of the dark days before the global crisis, when borrowing by real estate companies was the canary in the coal mine.

If business cycle conditions and financial conditions worsen, the problems of borrowing by real estate developers and speculators will get worse. How might this turn out? Perhaps the borrowers will merely get uncomfortable. Or, a few firms could really get into trouble, and start liquidating inventory. That would have substantial repercussions.

Suppose there is a situation where there are many people who have speculative positions in real estate, but significant selling of inventory has not yet begun. The longs would then be nervously looking at each other, wondering who would be the first one to sell, to take a better price and exit his position. The ones who sell late would get an inferior price. In such a situation, conditions could change sharply in a short time.

On a longer horizon, I would, of course, be delighted if real estate prices are lower. This would help shift the supply function of labour, reduce the cost of setting up new businesses, etc. But that's more about the long-term policy changes, which would remove barriers for converting land into built-up housing, while rising vertically into the sky with FSI in Indian cities ranging from 5 to 25.

Ajay Shah's Blog