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A passage to India

Paul Sullivan

VANCOUVER (GlobeinvestorGOLD) - The real estate market in India is hotter than a flame-throwing chicken vindaloo these days. It's the result of the natural demand fostered by the increase in software and call-centre business, combined with a shortage of office space.

India has less total office space than Shanghai and Beijing, about 70-million square feet of A-grade space. Demand has doubled annually since 2002, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers' Global Real Estate report.

Then, there's a bit of a bubble. The sector is growing at the rate of 30 per cent annually, and already, in the first half of this year transactions have increased by 20 per cent over last year, according to Jones Lang Lasalles. That growth is mostly in the cities: Mumbai, Bangalore, New Delhi and Hyderabad. A typical example is Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi, where property prices have increased by up to 50 per cent in the last 18 months.

What's going on?

In North America, at least, we have a tendency to be entranced by the economic power of China, while India has stayed off the radar. Not for long. This coming week, India is featured on the cover of Newsweek, with a detailed and glowing article by Fareed Zakaria (the Thomas Friedman of Newsweek), who reports that the star of this year's World Economic Forum will be not China, but India.

India, he writes, has been the world's second fastest growing economy, averaging 6-per-cent-plus growth each year. But the past is not the reason the economic eyes of the world are turned towards India. According to Goldman Sachs, India's growth will outpace the world for the next 50 years. India's economy will be bigger than Britain's by 2021. How's that for a little Imperial Irony?

Of course, India has a lot of catching up to do. According to Newsweek, India has 40 per cent of the world's poor. More than 300 million people live on less than a dollar a day. But in a country where numbers are massive, there are also 300 million members of the middle class, defined as those who make $4,500 to $23,000 a year. And it's the middle class, led by a cadre of ambitious entrepreneurs, who are ready, willing and able to outhustle China. They need places to work and live.

According to London-based brokerage house Knight Frank LLP, the net yield on office property in India is 11 per cent, among the highest in Asia. Demand continues to rise. By 2010, "offshoring" technology companies may invest as much as $60-billion (U.S.) in new work, a four-fold increase over today, and already, 85 per cent of the demand for new space is driven by the technology sector. On top of that, observers see foreign retailers such as Walmart moving to India in the near term, competing for space that doesn't exist. Oh, and there's a shortfall of 20 million homes in India's major metropolitan areas. India is a hot market that can only get hotter.

Until recently, it was nearly impossible to get in on Indian real estate, and with the exception of a few holiday haciendas in Goa, who would want to? Land acquisition for foreigners has been prohibited, and while foreigners can invest in built properties or properties under construction, repatriation is severely restricted. You could be made mad by the Byzantine rules and requirements. Fortunately, as of April, 2004, the nation's securities regulators allowed the formation of real estate investment funds, and in 2005, the government eased up regulations to reduce the minimum plot size allowed from 100 to 25 acres. Try finding 100-acre plots in an Indian city, and you'll understand why foreign investment has only begun to trickle in. But the trickle threatens to become a deluge.

PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that as much as $8-billion will flow into real estate funds in the next 18-30 months. Most active funds over the next five years will be, according to New Delhi's Indian Express, the HDFC Real Estate Fund, the ICICI Ventures Real Estate Fund, the Arand Rathi Venture Fund, and the biggest, UK-based REIT Property Management India, a variation on REIT Asset Management, run by London financier David Cohen. Mr. Cohen looks for growth beyond the demand from the IT sector into something called "health hospitality". People are turning to India for inexpensive health care, and are often required to stay in urban centres for months, and are looking for inexpensive places to recuperate.

Of course, you don't want to get into this swirling vortex of opportunity without understanding the volatility that is India. Rajiv Sahni of Ernst & Young says India will need billions of dollars to get to an infrastructure level that equals China's. Financial reporting is, well, spotty, and real estate regulations, already mentioned, require an overhaul from top to bottom. But the biggest issue is corruption. Dennis Yeskey of Deloitte and Touche told The National Real Estate Investor that "India is bureaucratic and there are a lot of poor government officials, making the country ripe for corruption and payoffs."

You can spread your risk across the entire sub-continent with the Morgan Stanley India Investment Fund, which is benchmarked to the Mumbai Stock Exchange 100 and grew at 93.2 per cent in 2003! It posted more modest gains of 27 and 16 per cent in 2004 and 2005 respectively, but has lost value in past years. The Excel India fund is the only Canadian fund exclusively devoted to India, which has, over the past three years, grown at an annual rate of 41 per cent.

For small investors, it won't be possible to invest directly in real estate for a while: tax regulations for Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) are not yet in place. "Hopefully, 2006 will see the first REIT starting its operations," says the India Express of New Delhi.

But if you've got a million or two to throw in, it is possible to invest in one of the real estate funds already mentioned, such as The HDFC Real Estate Fund already mentioned. It requires each investor to put in a minimum of Rs 5-crore, the ($1-million US = 4.4 crore), which is out of the realm of most retail investors, such as yours truly. Although, ICICI bank, which operates the ICICI Real Estate Venture Fund, has just opened its first branch in Vancouver, handily right across the street from my office on Howe Street, Vancouver's small but storied financial district.

You won't have long to wait for more options. Real estate investment is expected to capture 18-20 per cent of all the money coming into India this year. U.S. firms such as Tishman Speyer L.P., GE Commercial Finance Real Estate have formed partnerships with Asia-based firms such as ICICI and Singapore's Ascendas Pte. Ltd. The ICICI-Tishman fund will invest $600-million into the office, multifamily and retail market, while the GE-Ascendas fund is investing $500-million in information technology parks over the next seven years.

I think it will be worth the wait. Despite the risks, which are considerable, India's upside is virtually unprecedented. With a young, vibrant work force, India will have the world's third largest economy by 2040. And those young, vibrant workers, will cash in -making, according to Goldman Sachs, 35 times as much as they make today. Talk about getting in on the ground floor.

Paul Sullivan is a Vancouver-based columnist and a frequent contributor to the Globe and Mail.

Paul Sullivan is a longtime Vancouver journalist and president of Sullivan Media. He also writes for The Globe and Mail.

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