Foreign Exchange Market

Predators poised to pounce on bargains

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 September, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 September, 1997, 12:00am

Intra-Asian property investment may have ground to a virtual standstill amid the currency crisis, but some agents in the region claim they are now busier than ever with enquiries.

Little in the way of transactions is expected until the regional currencies calm down, but agents are reporting a wave of enquiries at their regional offices from bargain hunters keen to find out what properties might be available when the time to strike is right.

As the year goes on, analysts predict a rising tide of fire sales, particularly in Bangkok, as banks force their troubled clients to sell. The same might occur in Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta and Manila.

Many owners have lost money on the stock and currency markets, and their businesses may be on the verge of collapse.

With liquidity tight, a large number of developers are said to be having trouble finding financing to complete their projects.

For the moment, most are said to be trying to hold on, although given past experience elsewhere there will no doubt come a time when the banks move in to give them a little shove.

This could provide an ideal opportunity for anyone still bullish about the long-term prospects of the Southeast Asian property markets to pick up investments at bargain prices.

'This is when the real hard-nosed investors move in,' one broker said.

Agents said the enquiries were coming primarily from wealthy Hong Kong Chinese and overseas Chinese within the region, from places such as Indonesia and Singapore.

To a lesser degree, there have been reports of buying interest from Australian, United States and European funds.

Brooke Hillier Parker is among those reporting a rising number of enquiries at its Bangkok office, from people wanting to find out what properties might be available.

However, David Faulkner, a partner at Brooke Hillier Parker, said: 'The immediate response has been to hold back and take a view to see if the currency has reached the bottom.' It would appear most property investors are not yet satisfied this has happened with regard to the baht.

John Forrest, Jones Lang Wootton (JLW) senior manager, said: 'Most investors don't see stability for another three months.' Christopher Brown, chairman of Jones Lang Wootton (Singapore) said: 'As long as the currency turmoil continues, it creates uncertainty in the minds of investors.

He said buyers would be fearful of converting their US dollars for investment if their money could be worth significantly less a few days later.

On the other hand, currency devaluations around the region of 5 to 30 per cent have made Southeast Asian property substantially cheaper in US-dollar terms.

Speaking at the Mipim-Asia property convention in Singapore last week, Ian Hawksworth, executive director at Hongkong Land, said: 'Correction in the [regional] currencies will make real estate more affordable for cross-border transactions.

'But if you are investing in one currency and your recurring income is in another, you must have a good idea where that currency is heading.' Another factor in the shortage of firm deals in Bangkok is that Thai developers are said to be overly optimistic about their asking prices, given the scale of the country's economic crunch and property oversupply.

At some stage there will no doubt start to be a meeting of minds.

Given the risk seen in investing in Southeast Asian real estate, buyers are expected to look for higher yields. This will occur only when prices come down.

Mr Brown said most prospective buyers were looking for prime, quality properties, whereas at the moment mostly distressed stock was available.

Steven Choo Kian Koon, JLW's head of Southeast Asia research, said investors were looking for upmarket office and residential buildings, whereas Bangkok, for instance, was flooded with low-quality housing.

Frederick Rehkoff, chief executive of Bovis Asia Pacific, said there were many projects in Thailand that were months late, over-budget, and in which developers lacked expertise.

'Quality will always survive cycles, poor buildings will not,' Mr Rehkoff said.