Friday Asia Digest: Corruption, Maria Sharapova & “Black Money” in India | Australia/US Court Foreign Investors

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In India, Asia’s third largest economy and one of the world’s most populous countries, the battle against corruption and uncertainty rages on. Government and industry efforts, reported on in previous digests, designed in an attempt to ensure the continued flow of foreign funds into the country and sustain its continued growth, are facing an uphill battle. The main issues, as many proclaim, lie in the fact that the main battleground where “black money” (undeclared translations) are rife is the nation’s huge property market – where traditionally and to this very day, large percentages of transactions are demanded in cash, and remain undocumented, untaxed and unaccounted for. Developers will largely demand up to 30% of any purchase price in cash, which becomes lost taxable income, prevents home buyers from acquiring loans, as banks will only lend on the official purchase price, and provide for easy and rife money laundering by all and sundry.

Legislation that would bring more transparency to the industry will be considered during the winter session of India’s parliament, – investors, tax officials and bankers however expressed skepticism the law would stamp out illegal practices, which they say are closely entwined with politics – even though the effect on pricing has driven some of the emerging middle class out of the market. The proposed bill calls for appointing the sector’s first national regulator – but will not have control over land deals, which is where illicit activity is widely believed to be rampant. In the year to June 2012, about 6-billion USD or 30% of total transactions in the property sector, were executed using black money, according to a consultancy. Real estate accounts for more than a tenth of India’s $1.85-trillion economy. The draft says developers will have to get accreditation for projects from the regulator, make public disclosure of details, and maintain a separate bank account for each project.

Allegations last month of improper dealings between the son-in-law of ruling Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi and DLF, India’s biggest property developer, underline the perception of a nexus between developers and politicians. Some of that black money can later be poured into election campaign donations from developers. Those same developers might be awarded with plots of land at attractive prices or assisted in getting project approvals.

While foreign developers and investors are also greatly active in India’s property market, it is unclear if the “black money” practices, which often involve bribes to officials during the lengthy and multi-tiered approvals process, are as rife among the foreign entities active in the country, which in recent years has shown an increasing high demand for luxury accommodation – London-based “Homestead” has signed top tennis player Maria Sharapova to endorse the company’s second branded real estate initiative in the country. Last month, the company brought in Formula One driver Michael Schumacher to launch The Michael Schumacher World Towers, another of its Indian properties.

It is said that both Schumacher and Sharapova will play crucial roles in the actual design of the properties they are endorsing. Branded real estate has become the latest buzzword amongst luxury developers, according to a recent report from real estate group Knight Frank. The research revealed that on average, branded developments had 34% higher value than non-branded ones. The research put it down to the growing number of millionaires around the world.

Manhattan/Miami Realtors Globe-Trotting for Asian Money…

The fact that Asian investors have been extremely active in the post-GFC Western climate, previously reported on several occasions in previous digests, hasn’t escaped USA’s realtors’ notice – luxury real estate experts “Manhattan Miami Real Estate” is offering exclusive, free, private meetings on how to invest in their turfs to Asian investors in Hong Kong, Shanghai & Beijing in China, Taipei in Taiwan and Seoul in South Korea.

“We offer foreign investors all the information they need to invest in the Manhattan and Miami property markets which continue to see steady growth in prices and demand.” the company’s spokesman and co-founder said in an interview.

…and Australia Doesn’t Lag Far Behind

An Australian state government developer is relying on offshore investors to help pay billions of dollars needed to finish Melbourne projects that have stalled during the outbreak of the GFC. ”It’s not about selling finished units offshore,”, the developer’s spokesman has said, “it’s about investment in the development by offshore investors.” The pace of development has slowed as Australian developers struggle with banks and financiers to pay for construction. At a Hong Kong property conference this month, Places Victoria, the developer in question, offered to facilitate meetings between Asian wholesale and retail investors, and high-profile local developers. They have also recruited some Hong Kong real estate agents to pitch the projects to their clients.

Commercial property agent Jack Chang, of Cropley Commercial Real Estate in Melbourne, Australia, said Asian developers and investors, in similar fashion to those purchasing in other prime locations in the US, were looking not only for somewhere safe to park their money, but to apply for business migration visas to establish a new home for their families, close to good schools.

Global Gossip

* Blackstone Group’s Real-Estate arm, that has recently raised another 13 billion USD for its new Asia-centered property fund, as reported in previous digests, is already extensively invested in both India and Australia – and has finalized a 4th Australian transaction, buying a Sydney shopping mall in receivership, for 340 million AUD (352 million USD). The mall cost A$720m to construct. Blackstone this year bought an additional Australian property, at a 46% discount to the face value of the debt on it, as well as an Australian loan portfolio, including a shopping centre in Melbourne, with a face value of 1.8 billion AUD for 620 million. Australia has been one of Asia-Pacific’s most active markets for distressed sales, but Blackstone has also been doing deals in China, India, and even in Japan. The company already has scale in real estate that its rivals, competitors such as Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and Merrill Lynch, cannot match.

* CBRE, the world’s largest commercial real-estate broker, said there are no signs of a slow down in property development in the Philippines, which the company has labelled “best real estate market in the last 20 years”, with prospects for next year definitely on a positive track. In the office and commercial sector, the Philippines is holding a unique position in Southeast Asia with the phenomenal growth of business process outsourcing industry, according to CBRE. Demand from the high-end residential market will continue in 2013, they claimed, noting however, that developers will start shifting toward the mid-income market.

* China‘s ruling party’s leadership change is generally seen as a boon to the country’s, as well as Asia’s economic growth – China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, is likely to continue the course of economic reform, and maybe even increase its pace, experts claim. The property market, however, is predicted to remain subdued. Chinese property stocks have run up by 24% since September 5, according to MSCI data, buoyed by speculation that the new leaders would introduce stimulus measures, but toned down as the leadership change came closer. New leadership is expected to focus on long-term economic reform, working to push privatization and reduce the influence of state-owned enterprises, rather than inject money and inflation into the economy with short-term stimulus – which suggests little support for the property industry, which has been starved of credit by almost three years of home-purchase restrictions by Beijing. Shanghai and Chongqing have already introduced property taxes, and a gradual rollout into other big cities is likely. A tax on home ownership would ease the pressure on local governments, which generate the bulk of their budget from land sales.

(Partial sources list – “Campaign AP“, “The Financial Times“, “The Age“, “EIN News“, “GMA News“, “CNBC“, “The Globe and Mail“)

(Pic 1 – Bankroll / Steven Depolo, Pic 2 – Chinese Flag and Child / Dave Watts)

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Ziv Magen (G+) is an Australian, and has been living alternately in Japan and Australia for the past decade. "Born and bred" an IT project manager, he has made the transition to full-time real-estate investing several years ago, and subsequently opened a buyers' and proxy agency - assisting others in remotely capitalising on Asia's booming property market.

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