The Indian real estate sector, once the realm of high-risk investments with astronomical returns, is facing a liquidity crisis in the face of escalating commodity prices, interest rates and inflation.

With the sector carrying a debt burden of about $24.6b in the year to July 2011 – up almost seven times from $3.8b in September 2005 – many small- and midsized Indian property groups face the risk of default. Major developers are delaying projects, discounting properties and looking to sell big assets.

“This is one of the worst liquidity crises the sector has ever faced,” says Dipesh Sohani, an analyst at MF Global. “Investors are staying away from the sector as the risk associated with it is too high.”

DLF, the biggest developer, has been trying to raise as much as Rs100b ($2.2b) by selling its non-core assets, such as hotels and land. Its debt burden rose to $4.4b on the back of a tenfold increase in its interest costs since 2008, according to Bloomberg data. DLF paid Rs25.9b in interest in the year ending in March 2011, compared with Rs2.78b in 2008.

“We are living in a difficult environment,” says Saurabh Chawla, executive director of finance at DLF. “We see some moderation in demand. The cost of capital and cost of mortgages is high.”

Meanwhile, other major players are having trouble completing their projects and are seeking new buyers. Orbit Corp, which operates mainly in Mumbai, has been seeking potential buyers for its unfinished building in India’s financial capital since the start of August.

In the three months to June, an 8.7 per cent increase in annual industry revenues was accompanied by a nearly 20 per cent annual decline in profits, according to research compiled by Edelweiss Securities, a Mumbai-based brokerage firm.

In such dire times, the banks have almost stopped lending to the sector, and there are few companies willing to take a high-risk bet on high-priced development projects or buyers able to pay high mortgage rates.

“Basically, no one is lending to the sector right now because they see a risk attached to it,” says Sharan Lillaney, real estate analyst at Angel Broking. Total banking industry exposure to real estate was 3.1 per cent in July, down from 3.7 per cent in July 2009.

Meanwhile, residential demand in India’s financial capital dropped to a 30-month low in the second quarter and sales fell 11 per cent during the same period, according to real estate research company Liases Foras.

Between slumping demand and recalcitrant banks, developers find themselves in a catch 22 situation. “The builder can’t reduce prices because then they have to restructure the loan with the bank [at a higher rate],” says Mr Lillaney. “But they have to reduce prices because otherwise they can’t get any bookings.”

Many buyers are unable to secure a mortgage because record high interest rates, which India’s central bank raised to 8.25 per cent on Friday – the 12th hike in 19 months – are taking a big toll on the industry. The average loan rate to buy a house in India is 16.5 per cent, according to the Housing Development Finance Corp, India’s largest home lender by revenues, up from 10.25-11.25 per cent in December 2008.

The industry is facing strong headwinds, says Mr Sohani, including high commodity prices. “Steel and cement ... are up more than 20 per cent are hitting the companies’ margins,” he adds.

Ramesh Nair, a managing director for real estate consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle, adds that the government’s Rs 3.14 per litre petrol rise would further hurt the industry.

Those higher costs, coupled with project delays, have caused private equity investment in real estate between April and August to drop by 20.2 per cent – at about $831m, down from $1.04b during the same period last year – according to Venture Intelligence, a research firm. It all adds up to Indian property launches being down 42 per cent in June compared with the average number of launches in the past 12 months, according to Kotak Institutional Equities.

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