News analysis

GIC's investment a boost to Indian developer's risk profile

Singapore's sovereign wealth fund is buying one-third of the rental property unit of India's largest developer in a US$1.4 billion (S$1.9 billion) investment viewed as a turnaround point in the country's debt-laden real estate business.

But it also points to the industry's biggest challenge: poor sales.

GIC's cheque will give DLF's controlling shareholders as much as US$1.9 billion. To that, add a share sale to other investors - probably a rights offer - and the beleaguered builder's net debt-to-equity ratio would fall from 102 per cent at end-March to 33 per cent, according to HDFC Securities.

Why is such a thick cushion of loss absorption necessary? Only a handful of Chinese developers in the US$5 billion-plus market capitalisation category have more equity than net debt. 

Developers like Sunac China, with an estimated debt-to-equity ratio of 349 per cent, are bulking up even amid significant investor concerns about a supply overhang.

By comparison, India is under-built and less urbanised. Selling first homes to a growing middle class should be less tricky. That isn't the case, however.

DLF this month reported a 57 per cent slump in profit for the June quarter. Although the builder has been battling lacklustre demand for four years, the recent slowdown came after it stopped sales in May to make projects compliant with a new consumer protection law.

There's also a possibility that India's new corporate bankruptcy code will give apartment buyers the same rights in insolvency as secured creditors, further raising funding costs for builders.

Investors are shrugging off the weakness, betting on a potential housing boom that CLSA India has pegged at US$1.3 trillion over the next seven years. Bond holders are focused on the more mundane reality.

Take the DLF deal. GIC, which recently made good money exiting its China warehouse venture, may be snapping up an interest in a few shopping malls in India's capital region with a 99 per cent tenancy rate and steady rents, and a claim on good-quality office buildings.

However, the sale of a hefty chunk of the strong rental business to GIC means the builder's own share of steady revenue will shrink, before new properties are ready.

Once the Indian housing market does pick up, the focus of developers will shift from deleveraging to growth.

For now, though, all DLF wants to do is push its US$4 billion net debt to below US$1 billion; two-thirds of that would be serviced by its own rent-earning property pool, leaving only about US$300 million as development debt.

GIC's investment will enable DLF to be seen as a better risk. Making use of that creditworthiness for the next opportunity will have to wait.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline 'GIC's investment a boost to Indian developer's risk profile '. Print Edition | Subscribe