Banking crises and property crashes often go hand in hand. That is one reason why America’s housing bust has so troubled investors and policymakers recently. Commercial property, too, has a history of boom and bust that has brought havoc to the financial markets: think of the Japanese property slump during the 1990s, or Britain’s secondary-banking crisis of 1973-74, when too much lending to property developers helped cause the London stockmarket’s worst year of the 20th century.
Even though commercial and residential property do not necessarily move together, the same factors associated with the American housing market—tighter lending standards and slower economic growth—should hurt business demand for office and retail space as well. Like residential mortgages, loans for offices and shops have been bundled up and sold to investors. So could some swanky offices and shopping centres eventually suffer the subprime fate?
Until early this year there was plenty of evidence of hubris. In February the $39 billion paid by Blackstone, a private-equity firm, for Equity Office Properties, a big landlord, was a record price for a buy-out—and the seller, Sam Zell, has a reputation for shrewdly judging the top of the market. In Britain, the share prices of property firms had surged ahead of the government’s decision, after years of dithering, to introduce the tax-efficient Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) structure in January. During part of 2006, more than half the money flowing into British mutual funds was invested in property.
For whatever reason, investors have since taken fright. “The market has had a bucket of cold water poured over it,” says Tony Horrell, head of European capital markets at Jones Lang LaSalle, a commercial agent. Shares in property companies took a battering over the summer, making the sector the worst performer in the American market in May, June and July, according to Lipper, an information group.
But is this really the start of another bust or simply some judicious profit-taking? Commercial property has been the asset to own this decade. Figures from the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, an industry body, show that an investment in American property at the start of 2000 would have more than quadrupled in value by the end of last year. By comparison, the leading American share index, the S&P 500, returned just 8% over the same period.
This has not been just an American phenomenon. According to the Investment Property Databank, 16 out of the 21 national property markets it covers delivered double-digit returns last year. A global economic boom, allied with a desire by investors to diversify from equities and bonds, made property appealing.
Despite investors’ enthusiasm, industry experts argue that the market has not seen some of the excesses that marked previous cycles. There has not been the kind of overbuilding of skyscrapers that usually spells severe trouble. The latest survey by Reis, a research firm, found that the vacancy rate in American offices was 12.5% in the third quarter, the lowest for six years. Rents grew by 2.4% between the second and third quarters, a slower rate than before but still a respectable one. Mr Horrell says that in most European markets the fundamentals for commercial property are good and that rents should continue to grow.
Andrew Jackson of Standard Life Investments, a fund-management firm, argues that commercial-property investors are not as dependent as their home-buying counterparts on borrowed money; the average gearing of the REITs he invests in is just 31%. As a result, tighter lending standards have not had the dramatic consequences that they have had in the residential sector. There has not, as yet, been the sharp rise in loan delinquencies that was seen in subprime mortgages.
The credit crunch has undoubtedly had an effect on confidence but so far it has not been catastrophic. “A number of transactions are on hold while investors wait to see how deals are repriced,” observes Jonathan Thompson, head of real estate at KPMG, an accountancy firm. “Debt is still available but the cost has gone up a bit and the loan-to-value ratio has fallen.”
Ken Cohen of Lehman Brothers says that the volume of new loans to finance property deals has fallen by half since May and June when credit was widely available. In turn, this has led to a sharp fall in the issuance of commercial mortgage-backed securities (CMBSs), the products that consist of repackaged loans which helped propel the structured-finance market before it seized up.
That means property is likely to behave in a patchy fashion. Some markets that were overextended, such as Britain’s, are already seeing a retreat for the first time in 15 years. Norwich Union, an insurance company, downgraded the valuation of one of its main property funds by 2-3% in September, while British Land, a leading property group, abandoned plans to sell a shopping centre in Sheffield in northern England. In other markets, investors may start to shun properties in poor locations or with low-quality tenants. But they will still be attracted by city-centre buildings that have been pre-let or by markets that are soaring, such as Asia’s.
A lot may depend on whether the debt markets recover their confidence. In America, in particular, a healthy property market requires a revival in CMBS issuance. Mr Cohen of Lehman reckons that by the new year the market could be getting back to normal. Investors will be looking to make their allocations into property for next year, he believes, and it will help that they will not have been swamped with issuance in the second half of 2007.
Commercial property is no longer the bargain it seemed a few years ago, when rental yields were well above those on government bonds. But it will probably take a recession, in America and elsewhere, for the recent wobbles to turn into an outright crash.