Real estate, alternative real assets and other diversions

The View from Berkeley Square This week, Robert Fowlds reflects on political change and retail portfolios

Investor's Notebook

Vintage map of Berkeley Square in London

Chaos in Washington and dollar weakness, combined with the Macron win, has had a major impact on markets. For a sterling investor, the global real estate sector is flat YTD, but the Americas is down 6% compared to Europe up over 8% including the UK up c. 7%. But the UK sector performance has been credible in spite of on-going Brexit concerns and only slightly underperforming the All Share up 7.5%. Results from British Land and Land Securities have been robust, particularly from Lands which is demonstrating good earnings growth even though it has been selling non-core assets and reducing its development exposure while remaining debt neutral ahead of an anticipated change in the demand-supply dynamic in the London market. Meanwhile, capital markets have been open with IPOs and equity issuance back on, including a PRS REIT, and more issuance from the Tritax paper machine. And for a dollar investor, the performance has been enhanced, with the UK showing a total return of over 12% YTD. The perennial bears of the UK sector must be feeling a touch uncomfortable!

London: a two-tier market

The London office market is proving resilient. The vacancy rate is gradually rising (4.7%) but the development pipeline keeps being deferred and the wave of potential new schemes which was concerning Rob Noel (CEO of Land Secs) two years ago keeps being pushed back (7msf deferred to date). However, a two tier market is emerging as the amount of second-hand space available increases and the weakness in Grade B space rents starts to come through. This has several implications; developers of good quality space at mid-market rents (Derwent and GPE lead the way) should continue to let space and see their development pipelines achieve good surpluses and profits, but investors in secondary assets with shorter leases and smaller suites may see values steadily decline, particularly in the City. As the investment banks start to relocate EU deal-makers to Paris and Frankfurt, the impact will become more significant. The question is whether this will provide an investment opportunity in repositioning Grade B into Grade A? I believe so, but I suspect the market leaders are happy to remain patient.

At the same time, WeWork and others have made a major splash in the London market and even though they will not be immune to softer demand, they are well positioned for the structural changes taking place in office markets around the world. Many smaller businesses, and in particular the creatives which need to be mobile, now see co-working environments as standard and in some cases mission critical. This could have a negative impact on the traditional small suite office market and multi-let secondary offices could see meaningful obsolescence. And it is very interesting to see British Land dip a toe into the flex-space market with 80,000sf being prepared, and another 80,000sf earmarked. The issue BL faces is how to compete efficiently given they have few economies of scale in serviced offices and no global co-working network. Investors worry this new venture will require investment in services while having to live with shorter income streams from this space. The concerns may be overdone, and I can see why an element of co-working space can be highly desirable and productive either for a large multi-let office or a campus-style office environment. The other aspect to co-working space which surprised me when I ‘door-stepped’ several operators last year is the high percentage of multinationals taking flexible space. It isn’t just SMEs.

Retail: a new (old) threat

Just as retail landlords are coming to terms with internet sales and how to position their portfolios for the seismic change towards on-line shopping and distribution via logistics, they have a new threat to deal with: inflation. We have seen all the big mall REITs around the world (SPG, General Growth, Westfield, Unibail and others) make radical changes to their portfolios in anticipation of the growth in e-tailing and decline in any retail asset which lacks dominance and experience. Land Securities has made huge changes to its mall portfolio in the last 3 years, and only just in time, improving the quality and its orientation towards entertaining the shopper with a strong leisure offer. But even the best UK retail portfolios will struggle as the effects of inflation start to bite. Thankfully the oil price has not worsened the situation, but just the impact on food prices for example (and I mean Pret, not Sexy Fish!) will affect discretionary spend, and this is before any interest rate increases.

Investor's Notebook

About Robert Fowlds

Robert Fowlds

Robert Fowlds retired from investment banking in 2015 as Head of Real Estate Investment Banking for JP Morgan Cazenove. In 10 years Robert led or co-led around 60 public market transactions including IPOs, equity raises and M&A. Prior to corporate finance, Robert was Co-Head of Real Estate Equity Research at Merrill Lynch, and previously Kleinwort Benson, where his team was #1 ranked in the Extel and Institutional Investor Surveys for 11 years. Robert's early career was as a chartered surveyor.

Articles by Robert Fowlds

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