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Investors in commercial property in region advised to move boldly

Tokyo, Beijing, Shanghai and Singapore look good bets for investors in commercial property, HK and Taipei less so

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 December, 2013, 3:47am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 January, 2014, 2:09pm

As 2013 draws to a close, it is time for occupiers and investors across the region to review their corporate real estate and investment strategies for the coming year.

Occupiers in the Asia-Pacific region will need to deal with the highest occupancy cost increases of any region over the next two years, with little room for space efficiency savings across many markets. Therefore, they will need to be bold and innovative in tackling operational flexibility to counteract cost increases.

Investors will benefit from good relative value across most regional markets. But relative value will come down as soon as interest rates rise. With time running out, investors should carefully assess drivers of investment return in the region and boldly target the most liquid markets globally.

Looking ahead to next year, economic sentiment in the developed world has improved markedly. Growth across all regions is now projected to be positive, with the United States becoming once again one of the main engines of global economic growth.

However, there has been some decoupling in the outlook across the region. Overall GDP growth is expected to improve marginally to around 4 per cent over the next five years, in contrast to a more notable uptick in the US and Europe.

Growth in China is set to slow over the coming years as the economy rebalances. This will offset the improvement in Japan, where a weakening currency, fiscal stimulus and recovering global demand are coming through quickly to support economic recovery.

The outlook for occupiers in the region will be somewhat mixed next year.

A substantial increase in the vacancy rate is forecast for emerging markets in the region, providing occupiers there with a greater range of options for office accommodation. However, the region overall is forecast to record the highest increase in occupancy costs compared to the US and Europe, led by its mature markets where new supply is relatively limited.

In light of the diverse market conditions across the region, the window of opportunity for occupiers to secure preferential deals appears to be closing in some places.

Tokyo is expected to lead the cost increases in absolute terms as its economic recovery gains momentum. Rents will be further bolstered by limited new supply.

Despite registering rental declines in 2013, Hong Kong is expected to return to growth over the next two years, further reinforcing its position as the most expensive office market in the region.

In emerging markets, Beijing will continue to show strong growth in occupancy costs, underpinned by a tight vacancy rate and limited new supply in central business districts. Growth in Shanghai is relatively moderate compared to Beijing, as demand growth is matched by a high level of supply from decentralised districts.

In contrast, the large pipeline of new completions will continue to suppress rental growth in many tier-2 Chinese and Indian markets, for example in Chennai, Shenyang and Tianjin.

Despite these increases, there are opportunities for occupiers to mitigate these expected cost increases in some markets through improved space efficiency. Tokyo is expected to see the biggest cost increase, but with above-average space utilisation for the region, occupiers do have the opportunity to manage the increases.

Our occupier metrics tool [] allows occupiers to assess the impact of desks per worker, varying space utilisation across different divisions, or to determine if savings can be made by relaxing on quality or location.

Many emerging markets in the region already show a high degree of efficiency, especially in India and China. Therefore, occupiers in these markets need to be more focused on operational flexibility to improve global competitiveness.

The 2014 outlook for global investors is strong. The majority of property markets in the AsiaPacific region are attractively priced based on our Fair Value Index.

However, the region's attractiveness has deteriorated over the past year. This has been due to a slowing of projected rental growth in emerging markets eroding expected returns, while increasing bond yields are expected to push up required returns.

Consequently, many Asia-Pacific markets are considered relatively less attractive compared to US and European markets.

We expect investment volumes across the region to reach US$88 billion this year excluding land sales, with the expectation that volumes will moderate slightly, but remain at near-record levels. This is supported by record levels of available capital for investment across the region.

But one of the biggest challenges to the investment market might now come from better-than-expected economic growth, which is likely to trigger the unwinding of accommodating monetary policies in the US and Europe. This will trigger an increase in bond yields and interest rates, thereby placing upward pressure on property yields.

Concern about upward yield movement is especially the case in markets that are currently at or near record lows, such as Hong Kong and Taipei. Investors therefore need to consider the extent to which demand and rental growth will be able to cushion these negative impacts on total return.

Core markets like Tokyo, Beijing, and Shanghai will offer steady rental growth sufficient to offset increases in required returns.

Although Australian markets such as Sydney and Melbourne offer limited rental growth, the continuing high spread between property yields and bond yields provides a buffer to any potential upward yield movement and so they remain attractive investment destinations for now.

Investors should move ahead with their execution across a broad range of markets before relative value is no longer available. As we highlighted a year ago, those investors seeking high returns should look to non-prime opportunities.

With average rents starting to grow and yields expected to tighten, investors should move now. Our experience shows that investors are typically attracted to large markets with high levels of liquidity enabling them to enter and exit positions efficiently.

Singapore has critical mass and high levels of liquidity. Comparatively larger markets such as Tokyo and Hong Kong show lower liquidity levels. Our advice is move boldly while the opportunity lasts.


Dennis Fung is head of Asia Pacific Forecasting and Strategy for DTZ