Revenue management in real estate

Despite there continuing to be large amounts of unsold inventory of real estate in India, prices refuse to drop. The story goes that the builders are hoping to hold on to the properties till the prices rebound again, rather than settling for a lower amount.

While it is true that a number of builders are stressed under bank loans since banks have pretty much stopped financing builders, this phenomenon of holding on to houses while waiting for prices to recover is actually a fair strategy, and a case of good revenue management. Let me illustrate using my building.

There are eight units in my building which was built as a joint venture between the erstwhile owner of the land on which the building stands and the builder, both receiving four units each. The builder, on his part, sold one unit from his share very soon after construction began.

Given the total costs of construction, the money raised from sale of that one apartment went a long way in funding the construction of the building. It wasn’t fully enough – the builder faced some cash flow issues thanks to which construction got delayed,  but since he managed to raise that cash, he didn’t need to sell any other units belonging to his share. He continues to own his other three units (and has rented out all of them).

The economics of real estate in India are such that the cost of land forms a significant part of the cost of an apartment. According to a lawyer I had spoken to during the purchase of my property (he also has interests in the construction industry), builders see a significant (>100%) profit margin (not accounting for cost of capital) in projects such as my building.

What this implies is that once the builder has taken care of the cost of land (by paying for it in terms of equity, for example, like in the case of my building), all he needs to do to fund the cost of construction is to sell a small fraction of the units. And once these are sold, there is absolutely no urgency to sell the rest.

Hence, as long as the builder expects prices to recover (when it comes to house prices, builders are usually an optimistic lot), he would rather wait it out (when he can realise a higher price) than sell it currently at depressed prices. Hence, downturns in housing markets are not characterised by an actual drop in prices (few builders are willing to drop prices) but by a drop in the volume of transactions.

While there might be a large number of housing units that remain unsold, it is unlikely that there are apartment complexes which are completely unsold – there will be a handful of bargain-hunting early buyers who would have bought and funded the construction of the complex. And given the low occupancy rates, these people are losers in the deal, for it will be hard for them to move in.

And it is also rational for the builder to invest in new projects even when they are currently holding on to significant inventory. All they need to do is to find a willing partner who can contribute the necessary real estate in the form of equity. And new projects will inevitably find the first set of early buyers looking for a bargain, irrespective of the builder’s track record.

And so the juggernaut rolls on..

Bubbles and acquisition valuation

By all accounts, the Indian “startup scene” seems to be highly overvalued, and in a bubble. VCs, flush with cash, and chasing similar opportunities, are said to be overpaying significantly in terms of valuations. Check out this piece by iSpirt’s Sharad Sharma (HT: Saurabh Chandra), for example, where he hopes for a “soft landing” from the bubble:

In the soft-landing scenario, e-commerce companies are able to raise money but at near flat valuations. This allows the fundamentals to catch-up with the inflated valuation. Here the pain is localized. It’s only the early stage investors who are unable to participate in the new rounds that see rapid dilution. The rest of the ecosystem remains relatively unaffected.

An obvious  things for companies to do when they are overvalued is to use their balance sheets – use the overvalued stock price to make acquisitions. This can help explain some of the LBOs done by Indian companies in 2007 (Tata Steel buying Corus; Tata Motors buying Jaguar LandRover come to mind). And some of the startups seem to have internalised this principle, and are making use of their overvalued valuations to buy up other startups. It also helps that the acquiring startups are rich in cash, following fund raises, which helps them to even do part-stock part-cash deals.

The point is that if you are a company that has a takeover offer from a funded startup, you need to keep in mind that you are going to be mostly paid in “bubbled stock” and put an appropriate haircut on that account. I can’t advise on what this haircut percentage has to be, but if you are in the startup world, I guess you can take a guess!

Extending this argument further, if you are an employee who has just been offered a job in a startup, and are going to be part-compensated in equity, remember that the equity that you are being offered is “bubbled equity” and possibly overvalued, and once again you need to impose an appropriate haircut. I might go to the extent of asking to examine the books of a private company part-compensating in stock, but that’s likely to lead to breakdown of talks!

Writing on the Facebook-WhatsApp deal in 2014, valuation guru Aswath Damodaran wrote:

First, it is possible (and perhaps even probable) that the market is over estimating the value of users at social media companies across the board. However, Facebook has buffered the blowback from this problem by paying for the bulk of the deal with its own shares. Thus, if it turns out that a year or two from now that reality brings social media companies back down to earth, Facebook would have overpaid for Whatsapp but the shares it used on the overpayment were also over priced.

Keep the bubble in mind while accepting payment of any kind in stock!

Cross-posted on LinkedIn