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Property trusts may soon debut in India

Move will encourage foreign real estate funds to partake in construction boom

(HONG KONG) India could follow other Asian countries this year in creating a market for real estate investment trusts (Reits), making it easier for investors to buy into the country’s sparkling new office blocks and shopping malls.

The move would encourage foreign property funds, which are keen to join India’s construction boom but are not allowed to own finished buildings.

Reits or domestic funds could buy the assets they develop, offering them an easier way to exit the projects and take profits on their investments.

In December, market regulator Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi) issued draft guidelines for Reits, which pay most of the rent from their buildings to investors as dividends.

But people in the industry say that unless tax breaks are also offered by the government in its upcoming budget, a local Reit market would be a non-starter.

The Sebi proposal contained no mention of the kind of tax breaks that kick-started other property trust markets, but it could be fleshed out in the federal budget due on Feb 29.

‘It should’ve happened five years back,’ said Nayan Shah, chief executive of private developer Mayfair Housing Ltd, which wants to create a property trust of rental housing in Mumbai as soon as Reit regulations are in place.

‘Unfortunately, the government was never able to get over its regulations and set up a proper market,’ he said.

Arshdeep Sethi, head of capital markets at developer RMZ Corp, said he expected a market to be up and running within a year, adding that RMZ would also look to sell buildings into a trust.

‘We wouldn’t mind exploring it. It’s an instrument that will be interesting for investors and developers,’ Mr Sethi said.

Property trusts, long established in the United States and Australia, have caught on in Asia in the last five years, with investors enjoying stable yields that are higher than government bonds, and share price rises when rents and property values rise.

However, they have not been immune from global stock market turmoil, with Singapore’s Reit index , for example, dropping 20 per cent in the second half of last year and a further 13 per cent so far this year, in line with the broader market.

Reits would be riskier in India’s immature market, where a three-year building boom sparked by easing of foreign investment rules barely masks crumbling colonial-era infrastructure.

Overbuilding in some areas worries investors. For example, around 50 malls are being built in the New Delhi suburb of Gurgaon. With the information technology industry thriving, around 100 million sq ft of office space is to be built over three years, equal to all the office blocks in Washington DC.

An economy growing at around 9 per cent per year has helped push up Mumbai office rents by a fifth in the last year, but as new developments pop up in India’s main cities, old areas can also quickly go out of fashion.

Reits would help cut risks for property investors in the country by improving information flows – as listed securities they provide a constant stock market valuation of buildings and must divulge rental and other data.

As they hanker for new assets to lift investor returns, Reits would also give foreign funds new buyers for their buildings.

Although rules were eased on inward investment in the construction industry in early 2005, overseas investors are still not allowed to own finished buildings.

The likes of Citigroup, Warburg Pincus and Morgan Stanley have preferred to build and sell housing, but could now be tempted into commercial property.

Office yields are about 9-10 per cent in India.

Lacking a home market, a couple of Indian firms are looking to list Reits in Singapore, with the country’s most valuable developer, DLF Ltd, working on a US$1.5 billion initial public offering scheduled for the second quarter of this year.

As well as having an established Reit market, Singapore is attractive to Indian developers as its 10-year bonds trade at 2.3 per cent compared to India’s 7.5 per cent. So trusts, which need to draw investors with a premium to bond yields, can be sold to investors at higher prices in Singapore than in India. Reits in Singapore and Japan now offer yields of about two percentage points above domestic bonds.

But some analysts expect the Reserve Bank of India to push domestic listings by restricting the sale of more Indian assets into Singapore-listed trusts, in an effort to curb capital inflows that threaten to overheat the property market.

‘It might be too much for the RBI,’ said Param Desai, an analyst at India Infoline. ‘In the near future they might come up with a policy to restrict the flow of assets to Singapore.’

For an Indian Reit market to take root, DLF chief financial officer Ramesh Sanka said the government must waive stamp duty and introduce the tax ‘pass through’ that made Singapore’s US$19 billion Reit market popular.

Trusts there do not pay corporate tax but investors pay tax on dividends at their personal rate.

Sebi’s guidelines stipulated that Reits should pay at least 90 per cent of annual income as dividends and borrow no more than 20 per cent of gross assets, but no mention was made of tax.

 

Source: Reuters (Business Times 14 Feb 08)

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