The real estate sector remains down in the dumps. Nevertheless, insiders (the builders, the real estate consultants, and the housing finance companies) would like us to believe that "achhe din" will be here for the sector pretty soon and hence, we should be investing in it.
In a recent report JLL India, a real estate consultant, pointed out that: "Many home buyers as well as investors have been speculating about the movement of residential property prices in Mumbai... The market's readings indicate that that it will start moving up later this year. An average price appreciation of around six per cent is expected by the end of Q4 2015. Mumbai's residential property market will start seeing a lot of buying activity in around six months, with buyers taking advantage of prevailing market conditions to get good deals. The increased market activity is expected to continue next year too."
What the report does not point out is the fact that the Mumbai Metropolitan Region has an unsold inventory of homes of close to 46 months or 192.27 million square feet. This data was released by Liases Foras, another real estate consultancy, sometime back. What it means is that if homes continues to sell at the current rate it would take around 46 months for the current stock to sell out. A healthy market maintains an inventory of eight to 12 months.
JLL India may have its own estimates of unsold inventory but they can't be significantly different from that of Liases Foras. And if there is so much ready supply available, how can real estate prices go up?
This is just one example of research reports that real estate consultants keep coming up with where the conclusion is that "real estate prices will continue to go up". For them it makes sense to do this simply because they make more money if the real estate sector is doing well, given that there are more deals to execute and more commission to be made in the process. And if the real estate sector is not doing well then they need to tell the world at large that it will start to do well, soon. These positive reports are splashed across the media, given that real estate companies are huge advertisers and a healthy real estate sector is a boon for the media.
The trouble is that the real estate sector in India has a huge information asymmetry, or something that the Nobel Prize winning economist George Akerlof referred to as a "market for lemons". In a 1970 research paper titled "The Market for 'Lemons': Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism," Akerlof talked about four kinds of cars: "There are new cars and used cars. There are good cars and bad cars (which in America are known as 'lemons'). A new car may be a good car or a lemon, and of course the same is true of used cars."
Akerlof then went on to explain why trying to sell a lemon is very difficult. In an essay titled "Writing the 'The Market for 'Lemons'", Akerlof wrote: "I knew that a major reason as to why people preferred to purchase new cars rather than used cars was their suspicion of the motives of the sellers of used cars." Long story short - a buyer will not buy without proof of the used car being in good shape and the seller will not have the proof.
And this led to the market for second-hand cars not working well. Tim Harford explains this phenomenon very well in his book The Undercover Economist: "Anyone who has ever tried to buy a second-hand car will appreciate that Akerlof was on to something. The market doesn't work nearly as well as it should; second-hand cards tend to be cheap and of poor quality. Sellers with good cars want to hold out for a good price, but because they cannot prove that a good car is really a peach, they cannot get that price and prefer to keep the car for themselves. You might expect that the sellers would benefit from inside information, but in fact there are no winners: Smart buyers simply don't show up to play a rigged game."
Hence, the market for second-hand cars has huge information asymmetry - one side has much more information (the seller) than the other (the buyer). And given that the market does not work well.
The real estate market in India is a tad like that. The insiders have all the information and there is no way to verify if the information they are putting out is correct. Take the case of something as simple as the prevailing price trend in a given locality.
There is no publicly available information. All you can do is ask the broker operating in that area and more often than not, he will tell you that "prices are on their way up". If you are able to figure out a price, there is no way of figuring out whether there are deals happening at that price.
Hence, the system as it currently stands is totally rigged against the buyer. Even when the buyer buys an under-construction property there is no way of figuring out if the builder will deliver everything that he has promised at the time of the sale. There are regular cases of builders promising to build a swimming pool, taking money for it and then not building it. Then there are cases of parking lots being sold even though that is not allowed. In the recent past, builders have disappeared after taking on money and not completing the project.
As Nate Silver writes in The Signal and the Noise - The Art and the Science of Prediction: "In a market plagued by asymmetries of information, the quality of goods will decrease and the market will be dominated by crooked sellers and gullible and desperate buyers." And that is precisely what is happening in India.
In fact, the real estate market in India currently is like the stock market used to be in the '80s and the '90s. India's biggest exchange the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) was run by and for brokers. Other stock exchanges operating in different cities ran along similar lines. Small investors investing in the market were regularly taken for a ride.
The Securities Exchange Board of India (SEBI) was given statutory powers in 1992. And it took time to crack the whip. The National Stock Exchange (NSE) started operations in November 1994 and gradually took away business from the broker dominated BSE. The BSE has been trying to play catch up since then.
The real estate business in India needs to be cleaned up along similar lines. The Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Bill, 2013, envisages setting up of a real estate regulator in each state. The builders need to be registered with the regulator and at the same time disclose essential details about the projects. These provisions if and when implemented are likely to reduce the information asymmetry which plagues the sector. But till then "caveat-emptor" will continue to prevail.