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India finally opens US$20b door to spin off Reits

Final rules on new funding channel for cash-strapped developers due soon

[NEW DELHI] India approved the setting up and listing of real estate investment trusts (Reits) as the nation seeks to unlock a US$20 billion market.

The trusts will have to own assets worth at least five billion rupees (S$102.2 million), the Securities and Exchange Board of India said in New Delhi. Investors must put in a minimum 200,000 rupees. Final notifications would be issued soon to make the new rules for Reits effective in a month or two, Press Trust of India reported, citing U K Sinha, chairman of the regulator.

The introduction of Reits will provide a new source of funding for cash-strapped developers that are struggling to reduce debt amid one of the highest interest rates in Asia and economic growth near the lowest in a decade. The products will give investors the ability to participate in the country's property market without investing directly.

"The sector has been in all sorts of trouble primarily due to high leverage for most of the developers," Pramod Gubbi at Ambit Capital said in an interview to Bloomberg TV India. "What Reit does is to open up another avenue for funding and this should bring down their cost. More money in the hands of the developers could see more projects taking off."

DLF Ltd, India's largest developer by value with about 28 million square feet of operational rental assets, could be a "big beneficiary", brokerage Emkay Global Financial Services said in an Aug 1 report.

Other gainers include Prestige Estates Projects, a Bengaluru-based developer with eight million square feet, and Phoenix Mills, a mall operator that owns six million square feet, according to HDFC Securities.

The S&P BSE India Realty Index rose 2.6 per cent yesterday morning. DLF added 4.2 per cent, Prestige 4.5 per cent and Phoenix Mills 4.8 per cent.

The combined debt of India's six largest developers climbed to a record 394 billion rupees in the 12 months through March 31, more than double the 158.8 billion rupees in 2007, according to data compiled by broker IIFL.

Reit-funded assets may reach US$20 billion by 2020, according to an estimate by property broker Cushman & Wakefield, of which as much as US$12 billion could be raised in the first three to five years.

"It'll also provide liquidity to investors as these trusts will be listed and traded on stock exchanges," Neeraj Bansal, partner at KPMG India, said.

Reits, pioneered in the US in the 1960s, are traded publicly and pool investor money to buy real estate such as shopping malls, office buildings and rental housing. India's Reit market has the potential to grow to rank among the top five in Asia by market capitalisation, according to Cushman & Wakefield.

While the market regulator had released the first draft of guidelines for Reits in 2008, they didn't get final approval because of a lack of clarity on taxes and because the global financial crisis hurt investment climate, according to a report by Knight Frank in June.

The regulator released a new set of guidelines in October, outlining the eligibility criteria for setting up Reits. - Bloomberg