Regional strength

Safe havens hold all the aces as the balance of economic power moves east.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 December, 2012, 3:27pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 December, 2012, 11:42am

With the rest of the world engulfed by economic uncertainty, industry analysts are again looking east for good news in the property sector next year. There are very few signs of an upswing elsewhere, especially in debt-troubled Europe, but traditional safe havens, such as Singapore and Australia, continue to lure overseas investors, especially Chinese.

The region, where property prices weakened slightly in the latter part of this year, sees strong prospects and features in Knight Frank's report that looks ahead. It notes that despite cooling measures in previously booming Asian markets, investors would not be deterred.

This is based on the premise that the Asia-Pacific region will continue to be the main engine of growth in the world economy. "With moves towards a resolution in the euro-zone [crisis], we expect the Asia-Pacific region's economies and property markets to enjoy the prolonged benefits, as the balance of world economic power tips towards Asia," the Knight Frank report says.

Nicholas Holt, Knight Frank research director for Asia-Pacific, points out that more countries in the region saw positive price growth in their respective residential markets this year, so the momentum may already be there.

"The ongoing difficulties in the world economy, including a slowdown across Asia-Pacific markets, will continue to have an impact on residential markets in the region. With much uncertainty in the world, the ongoing euro-zone crisis, the sluggish recovery in the US and a slowdown in China, sentiment has been impacted. That said, underlying drivers will continue to support demand for residential property in developing Asia and the volatile performance of other asset classes will continue to attract investors who trust hard assets in the form of property," Holt says.

Singapore-based property investment firm Pacific Star Group says residential markets in Asia will continue to hold up relatively well.

"The region is transforming to be the economic centre of the world and over time property prices here will benefit from structural shifts, such as growing populations, urbanisation and rising wealth," says Lam Chern Woon, vice-president of research and strategic planning.

"Still, we adopt a cautious outlook for 2013 as the global economy is far from being out of the woods. The spectre of the US fiscal cliff and the European debt crisis, coupled with already weak growth in these two major economic regions, will continue to weigh on global confidence.

"We expect the cyclical outlook to be tempered by current economic uncertainties, supply issues and further policy risk. Capital values and rents will remain under pressure for prime property markets, although we are relatively more sanguine for the mass housing segment as policies have centred more on curbing foreign speculation. The silver lining is that genuine homebuyer-demand is still intact, supported by positive demographic trends and low interest rates."

Drilling down to individual markets, Lam expects Singapore to remain largely unaffected by the recent cooling measures. The new tax on properties held for less than a year has thinned out speculative buyers. However, liquidity remains strong and property sales "fairly buoyant" in spite of the Additional Buyer Stamp Duty (ABSD) introduced at the end of last year. "On the whole, we expect some correction in property prices for 2013, but less so for the mass market segment, which is supported by strong upgrader demand," Lam says.

Supply is a concern to some: over the next few years, 80,000 private residential units will come on the market in Singapore. However, half of these are already sold, and it would take two to three years to clear the unsold inventory based on recent sales history. "As such, we are not overly worried about the supply pipeline. In the next six months, we can expect the launch of luxury projects such as South Beach Residences, Paterson Collection and Ardmore Three. These projects will be closely monitored for signs of a revival in the luxury segment," Lam says.

On the mainland, new-home prices are already inching up again, especially in the major cities, Lam says. "From what we have witnessed in the earlier part of 2012, residential sales in China are still highly sensitive to price cuts, attesting to the robust underlying demand. However, we do not expect a major upswing in the market as the Chinese economy is slowing and property curbs will likely remain in place."

Even though half of 70 Chinese cities saw new home-price growth of above 2 per cent in the first nine months of this year, Lam expects tier-one cities to continue to outperform. "Investors can focus on cities with good connectivity to tier-one cities as their advantageous locations drive ongoing urbanisation. Some inland cities are also developing rapidly and could provide interesting opportunities."

He describes the upcoming supply in China as "ample", a legacy of ramped-up development in 2010. "However, developers are now more cautious in breaking ground for new projects and we expect supply fundamentals to improve more significantly in 2014 and beyond."

Suchad Chiaranussati, managing director of Real Estate Capital Asia Partners, a private equity property firm, agrees that, by and large, Asia-Pacific markets should remain stable in 2013. "Greater China faces headwinds as China is slowing down and the Singapore market is quite close to its peak potential," he says. "Indonesia and the Philippines look positive due to favourable fundamentals and re-rating of these markets. Vietnam is a standout from being the most challenging market in 2013. Australia will be affected by commodity cycle negatively."

Suchad cites Thailand as a market showing a positive growth trend for the next three years, given the improving political and economic situation. "The people in the country have low levels of debt and plenty of savings," he says. "As for Japan, given the economic situation and the financial stress due to the earthquake, we see more and more attractive deals when compared with other Asian countries."

Suchad expects a preference for inner-city living will continue to drive purchasing decisions in Asia-Pacific markets. "Given the considerable land price due to geographical advantages, new developments will tend to offer boutique flats, accompanied by high-quality finishing, decent facilities and innovative design features."

Australia is going into 2013 with a mixed bag across its property markets. After a four-month run of recovering values between June and September, October saw a 1 per cent aggregate fall, according to RP Data-Rismark. Tim Lawless, RP national research director, says a broad-based stimulus including official interest rate cuts has improved conditions and is likely to support a housing market recovery.

"For 2013, the low-interest-rate environment is anticipated to encourage more stable housing market conditions with a best-case scenario of value appreciation in line with income growth. It is important to remember that values are currently 5.5 per cent lower than their peak, which suggests that any modest growth next year will be recovering some or all of the losses incurred over recent years," Lawless says.


Where will investors turn their attention to next year? According to Tim Murphy, CEO of IP Global, Asia-Pacific markets will continue to appeal. He maintains that neither various cooling measures nor external factors will deter investors from Asia-Pacific markets next year.

He says Australia is interesting in that prices have eased, but now look like rebounding. He says IP Global particularly likes the commodity belts such as Perth in Western Australia.

Murphy expects the Singapore market to be "steady rather than spectacular" in 2013, while he remains "consistently bullish" on Malaysia, the second-cheapest market in the region after Jakarta. Apart from a low entry price, Murphy says investors are starting to see the advantages of Malaysia, which include no entry barriers for foreigners.