On the edge: Are prices of Indian real estate heading for a 50% crash?

We all know that real estate in India is terribly expensive and is now selling at prices making it practically unaffordable for almost everybody who wants to buy a home to live in. But how expensive is expensive? This is an important question that needs to be answered.

One way of looking at this problem is through the rental yield available on houses at any point of time. Rental yield is the annual return that can be earned by renting out a house. The number is obtained by dividing the annual rent of the house by its market price.

Price matters. AFP

Price matters. AFP

And what is the rental yield in India? As Ashwinder Raj Singh is CEO – Residential Services of JLL India points out in a June 2015 column in The Indian Express: "Rental yields vary across the globe, but an average of 2 per cent of rental yield is considered a good deal for residential properties in India."

Singh goes on to write: "In India, the cities which currently offer a higher rental yield are Mumbai, Pune, NCR-Delhi, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Chennai, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad. All these cities offer a rental yield of 2 per cent and above, and you can be assured that the average is not going down anytime soon. Investing in these cities will offer you the maximum returns on investment in properties bought for generating rental income."

Why would anyone invest for a return of 2 percent is a question that only perhaps Singh can answer? And at 2 percent the rental yield is already very low. We will leave this argument for another day.

Hence, we have an expert telling us that an average rental yield of 2 percent is considered good in India at this point of time. But is it enough? In a recent research report titled Real Estate: The Unwind and its Side Effects analysts Saurabh Mukherjea and Sumit Shekhar of Ambit provide the answer.

As they write: "In a fairly-priced real estate market, the rental yield tends to be somewhere close to the cost of borrowing. Instead, Mumbai has a rental yield of close to 2% (this is gross of tax and maintenance charges) whilst the lending rate hovers around 10%. The difference between lending rates and rental yields is one of the highest."

What Mukherjea and Shekhar are essentially saying is that the rental yields in India are totally out of whack.

Chart1

As the above chart (Exhibit 11) shows us, even China which has had a huge real estate bubble going has a rental yield better than that of India. In fact as the next chart (Exhibit 12) shows the difference between the interest rate at which money can be borrowed and the rental yield is one of the highest in the world, in India. At this point of time a home loan can be borrowed at 10 percent whereas the rental yield is 2 percent, a difference of 8 percent.

Chart2

What does this tell us? The rental yield as explained above has two inputs: the annual rent and the market price of the house. A rental yield of 2 percent means that the market price of homes in India has risen at a much faster rate than the rents.

And why is this the case? As Mukhejea and Shekhar write: "Rental yields in property markets in India have remained extremely low as compared to its other Asian peers thereby pointing to the over-valuation of this asset class mainly because it can absorb black money."

The rental yield cannot continue to remain out of whack. For it to come to the right level, the rents need to rise or the market prices of homes need to fall. Given the surfeit of homes available right now, it is highly unlikely that rents will rise. The chances of property prices falling are significantly higher.

As the Firstpost editor R Jagannathan wrote in a column in November 2014: "In India, borrowing costs for home loans are around 10.5-11 percent currently - when rental yields are a fourth of that level. If rental yields in India have to catch up with those in New York and London, Indian property rates have to fall by a third to a half."

Mukherjea and Shekhar of Ambit make the same point when the say: "Even if one assumes that buyers are willing to live with only 5% rental yields (as they might have an extremely bullish view of capital gains arising from real estate in India), this would imply halving of real estate prices in Mumbai." What is true about Mumbai is also true about other parts of the country.

Let me explain the maths through an example. Let’s say an individual buys a home for Rs 50 lakh. The rent that he can earn on this is Rs 1 lakh, meaning a rental yield of 2 percent (Rs 1 lakh expressed as a percentage of Rs 50 lakh).

For the rental yield to rise to 5 percent, what has to happen? One option is that the rent needs to rise to Rs 2.5 lakh. This would mean a rental yield of 5 percent (Rs 2.5 lakh expressed as a percentage of Rs 50 lakh). But as I explained above, the chances of rents going up at this dramatic rate are simply not there.

Hence, what needs to happen for the rental yield to be around 5 percent? Market price of homes needs to fall. A rent of Rs 1 lakh would lead to a rental yield of 5 percent, if the market price of the home is Rs 20 lakh (Rs 1 lakh expressed as a percentage of Rs 20 lakh). This means that the price of the home needs to fall from Rs 50 lakh to Rs 20 lakh or a fall of 60 percent. At a 50 percent fall, for a rental yield of 5 percent, the rent needs to rise to Rs 1.25 lakh (Rs 1.25 lakh expressed as a percentage of Rs 25 lakh).

This is the point that Mukherjea and Shekhar are trying to make.

While the maths looks all fine, the question is will this happen and how soon will this happen? The only way this will happen is if the black money going into real estate slows down to a trickle so that only genuine buyers are left in the market. This is easier said than done. The Modi government has had some focus on black money and let’s hope that continues and improves in the days to come, with the government focussing on domestic black money as well. A point worth repeating here is that ultimately almost all the black money is domestic given that it is generated within the country.

Also, it is worth remembering here that real estate prices don’t fall as rapidly as stock markets do. So, the right answer here is that real estate prices will fall and they will fall dramatically, but only over a period of time.

Stay tuned. The massacre has just started.

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