Singapore home builders face looming debt as prices drop

Borrowings due within a year come as slowing economy and high vacancy rates push home prices to their lowest in almost two years

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 October, 2014, 4:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 October, 2014, 4:52am

Singapore's listed developers and real estate investment trusts face their heaviest burden of near-term maturities on record just as home prices drop.

The 80 property companies on Singapore's stock exchange reported a combined S$23.5 billion (HK$142.9 billion) of borrowings that have to be repaid within a year in their latest filings.

The looming debt comes as the vacancy rate for condominiums soared to the highest since 2006, pushing prices to the lowest in almost two years, according to data from the Urban Redevelopment Authority.

Real estate consultancy Savills predicts refinancing for homebuilders and reits will be more challenging as Singapore's economy slows, with growth cooling to 2.4 per cent in the second quarter, from 4.8 per cent in the previous three months.

Population growth on the island is at a 10-year low and Standard & Poor's expects home prices have further to fall.

"We're at that point in the cycle when every quarter you're seeing selling prices come down a little bit and secondary market transactions aren't very active," said Chan Kah Ling, a property analyst at ratings agency Standard & Poor's. "I suspect we haven't seen the bottom yet."

Developers of residential homes are suffering not so much from lower selling prices than "collapsed" sales volumes, said Alan Cheong, a senior director of real-estate research at Savills.

Secondary home sales plunged to the lowest since 2003 in the first quarter, according to URA data, and as business slowed, builders with less pre-sales money to finish projects had to rely on loans, boosting short-term borrowings, Cheong said.

Despite the weaker demand, the number of new residential dwellings being built remains high. Units under construction reached a record in the second quarter of last year and some 65,270 flats were in the pipeline as of June 30, URA data showed.

Regulatory measures have been introduced to dampen the market. Between 2009 and mid-2013, the Monetary Authority of Singapore implemented eight rounds of property cooling measures to address its concerns the low interest rate environment would lead to a property price bubble.

"Appetite to buy is already curbed" and rents could fall further, Chan said.

City Developments posted debt of S$1.66 billion in the second quarter, 48.6 per cent more than at the end of last year. Net income in the quarter fell 33 per cent, it said in August, and the company was looking to expand overseas to offset declining demand in Singapore.

City Developments' S$500 million of bonds due next September and sold to investors at par in August 2010 are trading at 101.2 per cent of face value, down from 101.25 at the end of last year. It sold S$100 million of 10-year 3.78 per cent notes last week.

A spokeswoman for City Developments said the company had a strong financial position .

Reits are in better shape than listed developers because they started refinancing with longer tenor debt ahead of rising interest rates, according to S&P.

Starhill Global Reit, which has S$124 million of notes that mature in July, reported S$129.1 million of short-term borrowings as of June 30, more than double the amount it had in December 2013. Retail occupancy rates at the trust's flagship Wisma Atria mall slipped to 98.5 per cent in June from 99.5 per cent at the end of 2012. Office occupancy rates are 100 per cent.

Jonathan Kuah, a spokesman for Starhill, said the company had refinanced its debt due within the coming 12 months.

Retail sales, which affect revenue at some reits, have decreased for four of the past five months, the worst performance in two years, data from Singapore's Department of Statistics showed.

"In 2008, when the refinancing situation was quite bad, the reits still managed to pull through," said Danny Tan, a fund manager at Eastspring Investments. "There's a high probability these reits will be able to refinance especially because the loan market is also open to them."

Developers on the island are changing their business models and reducing exposure to the local market, according to Tim Gibson, who helps run Henderson Global Investors' global property equities fund.

"By buying Singapore developers now you're really buying exposure outside of Singapore and into markets like China," Gibson said.

It "doesn't give you a huge amount of confidence that a turnaround in the residential market is coming anytime soon", he said.