Despite China's volatile stock market, property investment in Asia remains stable

Despite China's volatile stock market, real estate remains stable, writes Peta Tomlinson

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 September, 2015, 11:53pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 September, 2015, 12:18am

There is rarely consensus in the stock market vs real estate debate: investors are normally fixed in one camp or another.

But these are not normal times. The only thing certain is that nothing is certain, and given the turmoil in equity markets the world over - especially in China - might bricks and mortar be considered a more solid investment?

Chinese investors certainly seem to think so. According to Mark Wizel, a senior director for CBRE in Australia, the realty firm's Melbourne and Sydney offices have been inundated with demand since the Shanghai stock market rout in August.

"We were fortunate to get onto the trend [of Chinese property investment in Australia] quite early, doing our first transaction with a mainland group - a deal worth A$28.5 million [HK$155.42 million] - in 2009, and we have done A$6 billion worth of sales since then," Wizel says. "I believe the last five weeks have easily been the highest volume and greatest level of urgency from Chinese buyers for commercial properties."

They are also shifting away from purely development sites in favour of income-producing property such as hotels, shopping centres and office buildings, he says.

Wizel believes the volatility in China has "definitely played a part" in accelerating the plans of Chinese investors keen to diversify into a place such as Australia.

Wealthy Chinese are also pouring billions into US property markets, and Svenja Gudell, chief economist at real estate site Zillow, told CNBC it is "very plausible" that the mainland stock market's recent volatility could push more Chinese investors to "flee to safe assets" and buy homes in the US.

On the other hand, the world's biggest asset manager with about US$8 billion in property investments in Asia is eyeing China. John Saunders, head of Asia-Pacific real estate at BlackRock, told Reuters the fund would target opportunities in mass-affluent shopping malls and grade A and B offices in first-tier and selective second-tier mainland cities.

So where would mum-and-dad investors park their money, if real estate investment were their goal right now? If Knight Frank's latest Prime Global Cities Index is a guide, Asian cities would have to be among the frontrunners. In the latest index, for the second quarter, seven of the top 10 luxury residential markets ranked across 35 cities worldwide are in the Asia-Pacific region. They include Sydney and Melbourne, Bengaluru in India, Tokyo, Jakarta, Seoul, and Shanghai - with Hong Kong occupying the 11th spot.

Nicholas Holt, Knight Frank's head of research for Asia-Pacific, points out that prime residential markets in Asia have seen the strongest price growth globally since the Lehman collapse sparked the financial crisis in September 2008, led by Jakarta, which leads the way with a "staggering 174.5 per cent price appreciation over this period".

Just as the prime Chinese markets of Beijing and Shanghai were significantly boosted in the post-Lehman era, Holt expects a ripple effect from the latest equity crisis. "Recent volatility in the Chinese stock market could lead to more capital seeking a home in bricks and mortar, providing a boost to demand in [first-tier] Chinese prime residential markets," he says.

Colin Galloway - consultant with the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and lead author of "Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2015", an annual forecast on which markets and sectors offer the best prospects, produced jointly by PwC and ULI - thinks otherwise. He says the stock market crash is having a real impact on investor sentiment towards China among Western-based investors.

"In reality, I doubt the impact on China's commercial real estate markets will be that great, but right now it's pretty hard to persuade investment committees based in the US or Europe to commit new capital to China. That will probably remain the case until they see more clarity on the local economy, so there's likely to be some kind of drop-off in incoming capital for real estate investment in the second half."

"Emerging Trends" tipped Tokyo as an investor favourite "by a wide margin" this year, followed closely by Osaka. Based on interviews with investors, it also put Sydney and Melbourne in leading positions, with Beijing and Shanghai "showing reasonable strength".

"In Japan, cap rates for commercial properties have compressed to a point where you're unlikely to see them come in much more, but rents are rising and the banks continue to offer cheap capital," Galloway says. "Buyers can lever up to, say, 70 per cent at about 1 per cent cost of funding. That still gives a good margin, together with access to a liquid market in a developed economy."

Since getting hold of good assets can be hard in a market dominated by local real estate investment trusts, Galloway adds, most investors are looking to good B-grade assets with potential to add value.

Australia has a similar appeal in that it's again a developed economy with a fairly liquid market. "Cap rates there are higher at around 5 to 6 per cent, which seems a pretty good bet in a generally yield-starved environment, so there again has been a huge stream of money from China, Korea and Southeast Asia this year. Again, it can be hard to find good assets."

And yet, according to at least one financial adviser, now is not a good time to be investing in real estate - even in the perceived solid markets of Sydney and Melbourne. "No way," says Michael Roberts of HFS Asset Management, when asked if he'd put money into property right now. Rather, he says, the volatility is an opportunity to buy equity.

"Now is the time we get to work buying undervalued companies before they bounce back," says Roberts, who is a licensed adviser with Hong Kong's Securities and Futures Commission and the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, and has offices in Sydney and Hong Kong.

He asserts that the property markets in Sydney and Melbourne are overvalued, making it extremely difficult to find bargains, and that rental returns don't justify the outlay. "If you can get 3 per cent [interest] in a term deposit, why would you accept 2.5 to 3 per cent from property?"

Roberts worries that after a stock market crash, investors tend to flood into the property market since they think it is safer. "This could end up driving property prices even higher."