BY T.V. PERERA

The real estate sector is one of the most internationally renowned sectors. In India, the real estate sector is rated the second major sector following agriculture. Until around mid last year the real estate sector in Sri Lanka had been a prospective business investment with good returns.  Uncertainity, however, which set in the property market resulted in the residential sector taking a declining trend with many construction projects being on hold, property developers facing difficulties in re-paying their loans, and some even ending bankrupt. 

While property developers are weighed down, being unable to earn expected profits, those who buy apartments to sell them at gains are saddled with cost excursion. In Sri Lanka, land prices keep rising year after year. The Colombo District Land Price Index compiled by the Central Bank reached 132.2 during the first half of 2019 recording an increase of 13.6% compared to the first half of 2018. The sub-indices of land price, namely Residential, Commercial and Industrial have contributed to this increase. The averge price of a residential lot was up 15.3% in 2018 and in Colombo, by 15.5%. 

There is evidently a bubble in the market when buying a property with intention to sell it at a higher price although not on a very high scale in Sri Lanka, due to land prices constantly rising.  At some point of time this bubble will surely burst where none of the apartments could be sold. 

The subdued economic performance which resulted in the drop in the real estate sector is attributed to weak domestic demand, continued tightening in monetary conditions, government consumption spending, stagnant fixed investment, and lower net exports. 

The tightening monetary policy enforced on the recommendation of the IMF was one cause that led to drag down domestic demand and investments, and further,  inconsistent economic policies driven by instability adversely affected public and private sector investments, the key drivers of economic growth.

The real estate sector, which is described as property consisting land and the buildings on it as well as the natural resources including crops, water, and mineral deposits, is linked with the overall performance of the economy. Hence fluctuations within the sector magnify ups and downs of the overall economy.  As a result of this link, large movements in the real estate market tend to amplify fluctuations in the overall economy in addition to potentially destabilising the financial system. An example of this is the financial crisis where the real estate market had vast and disasterous effects on the overall economy on a global scale. 

Cont..

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Hyper-leap to a vibrant equity market 3 1279

 

In this exclusive interview with BiZnomics Magazine, the Chairman of the Colombo Stock Exchange Mr.Dumith Fernando, discusses the digitalization of the Colombo Stock Market. He also touched on the future investment environment in Sri Lanka. Fernando is Chairman of the leading investment banking firm, Asia Securities Holdings Ltd, which he has led for the last six years. He also serves as a member of the Financial Stability Consultative Committee of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka. With 25 years of experience in international and Sri Lankan capital markets, Fernando spent much of his career in global financial centers in New York and Hong Kong with global banking giants JPMorgan Chase and Credit Suisse.

What role will the ‘hyper-leap to the future’ play in creating a vibrant equity market for Sri Lanka?  

The “hyper leap” to the future, what it refers to is the digitalization of the stock market. The Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) called for a joint committee of the Colombo Stock Exchange (CSE) and SEC with the intent of digitalizing some of the core activities of market and market participants. The goal was to digitalize as many of the stakeholder touchpoints, enabling end to end connectivity electronically with interactive user interfaces and interactive user experiences so that the stock market can be accessible to anyone with a smartphone. Early on we converted a lot of the statements to electronic form, for instance, CDS statement is sent via email, and companies listed on the CSE were allowed to pay dividends directly into their shareholders’ accounts, electronically. In the second phase of the initiative, we introduced a mobile application. A CSE mobile app that allows anyone from anywhere in the country to open a stockbroking and Central Depository System (CDS) account without visiting a branch of a stockbroker physically. It helps broad-base the market and brings a lot more individual investors onto the market, which is a fundamental part of creating a vibrant equity market.

How has the market performed in the past few weeks?

The activity levels and market valuations have gone up considerably. In the past few years, after 2015, every single year the average daily turnover in the market was under a billion rupees. It was Rs. 710 million a day in 2019. Today we are probably doing over Rs. 1.5 billion of turnover per day. On the 14th of October, there was a turnover of Rs. 5 billion, and the number of actual trades in the market was the highest since 2011. Before the lockdown, there was very heavy foreign selling in particular, and when the market reopened for one or two days you had markets falling about 13 or 14%. From that time what we have witnessed is local investors, seeing very good value in the market and taking advantage of this opportunity.

How will the market face a second scenario?

The market was closed for about 7 or 8 weeks in March through mid-May, a big part of that was the lack of full confidence that trades could be settled, due to the trade settlement process. So with the current digitalization move, we’ve asked brokers to get on board as many of their customers for online settlement and online payment to bank accounts. This allows us to be much more confident about operating the market even during the unfortunate eventualities of a lockdown or a curfew. In terms of COVID management we have performed much better, the markets and companies are better prepared now to deal with the COVID situation. So that’s why I think even if there is a second wave of any sort, companies are much better prepared for that and we would expect to see companies and the stock market also performing in a much more resilient manner than before.

What role has interest rates played in boosting the market?

This was a fundamental catalyst for the share market performance. Since the reopening after the lockdown, there was a precipitous drop in interest rates. Interest rates falling has always been good news for equity markets for three reasons.

First for individual investors in particular, if you’ve been sitting on high-interest rate deposits for the last few years they might sometimes be getting double-digit returns on fixed deposits. That has now fallen considerably. For a lot of people, the return they are getting on their money from bank deposits is just not enough.

That has made them shift to the equity asset class particularly because valuations were so low by the end of the lockdown. Dividend yields in the equity markets are probably about 3% so that combined with the price appreciation that have been expecting will give them a better return. Secondly, when interest rates drop, the finance cost of listed companies go down,  and with that comes a boost in earnings.  This resulted in some of these particular companies being highly geared and a boost in their earnings, leading to their stocks performing quite well. Third impact will be for those who trade stocks on margin. Their margin interest cost also goes down, then they are in a better position to get into the market. There’s a high degree of confidence that you can make more money in the market than you pay in margin interest costs. That is also one of the positive impacts of low interest rates.

Will we be seeing more IPOs in the coming years?

When people come to the market to list, generally we would look at two or three different things. High valuation, high price to earnings multiples, and high price to book value multiples in the market. These factors would assure much greater investor engagement. Sentiment and confidence also plays a big role, because it’s not just a matter of placing your shares in the market, you want the share price to perform well. Now we’ve obviously gone through a period where markets have been somewhat challenged. Even as of last month the valuations of our market were the lowest among peer countries. That’s one of the reasons why I think a lot of companies in the last three years have not gone out for listing.

We want to see more companies tapping into the public share market to raise money; raise capital for their growth. With the COVID-19 lockdown I think there may be a number of companies who have survived on bank financing, some challenges of the COVID impact may mean that raising equity is the way out of any sort of balance sheet challenges. So we would expect to see some of those companies as well, now considering equity markets. State minister for capital markets Hon. Nivard Cabraal has challenged the CSE to look at getting to 500 listed companies in five years. We’re at about 300 at the moment and that 300 hasn’t really changed over the last few years. We have been having promotional campaigns and doing various things to get them to come into the market but we are definitely going to have to redouble our efforts to push towards some of those targets now.

What is the outlook for the Sri Lankan economy in the medium to long-term?

I’m generally positive. We should expect to go back to 5 percent or 5% plus growth as an economy. Even though there is a lot of noise around the current sovereign rating downgrade and international debt repayments I’ve never had doubts about our October bonds being repaid. I don’t have doubts about our July repayment. Clearly there are concerns and fears! I’m not trying to say that the future or the next year or two is going to be easy but, there’s a lot of free space between it being easy and not being able to repay debt and I think we will definitely find the middle ground in that space to do what we have done for all these years, which is, never default on a sovereign issue.

Outside of that we are in a very good position. There’s a lot of infrastructure investment that still needs to happen, the road network and the country being better connected, the two ports being expanded, the Hambanthota Airport now potentially getting more utilized, I think the logistics infrastructure is a fundamental necessity for economic growth and it is all falling into place. We’re also seeing potentially quite positive wins from some of the government focus to move towards local manufacturing. If you look at local manufacturing stocks on the exchange, they performed extremely well in the last few months

One sector that is seeing a bit of slowdown and will do so in the next 12 to 18 months will be the financial and banking sector in particular. But with other parts of the economy growing and strengthening the banking sector will pull through.

We don’t have the answers to when the tourism sector will bounce back, it’s not a massive part of our economy but contributes about 4-5 % of the economy. It’s a big foreign exchange earner and there are quite a few jobs that depend on it. There’s a lot of dependencies, not just economic dependencies, primarily health-related dependencies including travel bans been lifted, a vaccine for COVID, and treatments for COVID advancing. So there are number of things that are very hard to predict at this stage.

However we’ve seen exports bouncing back with about a billion dollars of exports a month, that run rate would make it possible to put us ahead of last year’s full year export number.

On the production and manufacturing side, I think we’re much better organized to operate even if there were a COVID second wave.

With that in mind, there will need to be much stronger capital formation across industries and that’s where we see a big opportunity for the Stock Exchange. With more companies raising capital through the CSE.  I am positive about our outlook! We have a game plan; we’ve been able to stabilize policy uncertainty which we had for the last few years, with a consistent government in place, good policy and solid public sector private sector engagement, I think we should get back to 5% plus growth.

Hassan Esufally – He has a story to tell! Comments Off on Hassan Esufally – He has a story to tell! 971

Hassan Esufally-01.jpg

‘’Running a marathon is all about perseverance, dedication and a healthy dose of motivation. ‘’

Running a marathon is a tough challenge. If it was your first marathon, then just getting to the start was an achievement, never mind the finish line. Completing a marathon – regardless of the time – should be considered an amazing achievement. 

Hassan Esufally-02

How many amazing sights they see – the scenery on an amazing trail run or the electric sights of a big city marathon. Did you hook up with any runners and make new friends? How did you feel? Did you get your nutrition and hydration right? Did you run strong and feel good? 

The adventure marathoner Hassan Esufally, the first Sri Lankan in history to run a marathon in all seven continents by completing the difficult Antarctic Ice Marathon with a time of 8 hours and 35 minutes, shared his stirring experience with us. 

The champion marathoner endured the 42.2km event under tough conditions with falling snow and poor visibility which required a phenomenal effort. Previous multiple times winners of both the Antarctic Ice Marathon and 100km events who participated in the event, were quoted as saying that this was one of the toughest years in the competition. 

Hassan Esufally, one of Sri Lanka’s leading marathoners recently took on the ambitious mission of earning the prestigious and highly sought-after Seven Continents Marathon Club Membership. The challenging endeavor required him to complete some of the world’s toughest and most exclusive marathons across all seven continents. Before the Antarctic Ice Marathon he was also the first Sri Lankan in history to complete the world’s hardest marathon, the Inca Trail Marathon. He has completed marathons in Europe (Stockholm Marathon in June 2017), Asia (Colombo Marathon in October 2017), Australia (Melbourne Marathon in 2014 and 2016), and Boston Marathon in USA (April 2018) and the Big Five Marathon in South Africa (June 2018) – putting Sri Lanka on the marathon map.

By: Chantal D 
Photography by: Eranga Pilimatalawwe

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