What should investors be looking for in the coming year?

What should investors be looking for in the coming year?
What should investors be looking for in the coming year?


Despite the global financial crisis now in the rearview mirror, investor risk aversion continues drive the flight to quality - prime office, retail and industrial assets in major markets.

Australia, with its yields offering a premium to markets such as New York, London and Paris, continues to be a magnet for large global pension funds and sovereign wealth funds hunting for yield. With their big cheque books they are aggressively competing with domestic investors for a limited supply of prime assets.

As a result, cap rates have been pushed lower and prices higher – the so-called “weight of money effect”. Investors are being forced to pay up for the perceived safety of these prime assets – and in some cases they are really taking on more risk as their assets are being “priced for perfection”. This has caused a disconnect between real estate capital and real estate space markets.

The underlying real estate fundamentals continue struggle post the GFC. Across our major CBD office markets, vacancy rates and tenant incentives remain elevated. The Brisbane CBD office market hit a record high vacancy rate in January and tenant demand across Australia’s office markets was the lowest on record in 2013. Retail sales have been subdued albeit it is now showing signs of picking up. Industrial demand spurred on by changes in logistics and distribution has been the one bright spot.

Part of the justification I continually hear is that the yield spread – the difference between real estate yields and real bond yields - is at historical highs. Prime Sydney CBD office yields are around 6.75% offering a spread of some 470 basis points which is 50 basis points higher than the long-term average. However, a spread this wide is unlikely to last. Bond yields are starting to tick up at the same time as cap rates are firming. Hopefully, any fallout from rising bond yields on real estate values will be offset by improving real estate fundamentals and income growth.

We aren’t at the heady days of the late 90s or 2007/2008 when Sydney CBD prime office yields hit a record low of 5.5% in both periods. So we can draw some comfort. But at the same time we should not get complacent. The “weight of money effect” if it continues could push yields well below today’s level. I don’t think they will get that low in this cycle but one can never rule it out – when the money’s flowing it’s hard to stop.

So what should investors be looking for in the coming year?

I have always taken the view that you make money in real estate by buying well. Overpaying now for an asset in a low growth, low inflation environment doesn’t give you many get out of jail free cards. Sure the underlying real estate fundamentals should improve as economic growth picks up but paying too much now for that future growth may cause some investors pain down the track. Discipline buying is critical.

Investors could look beyond prime markets and seek out quality assets in non-prime locations which are trading at a yield premium to the prime locations. Suburban office markets are definitely worth looking at.

Investors prepared to move up the risk curve could purse value-add strategies – repositioning assets, re-leasing etc to create core product for the more risk averse investors. Timing the entry and exit, and active asset management, are critical to successfully executing on this strategy.

Finally, one strategy that I believe has real merit is to expand the definition of core assets beyond office, retail and industrial to real estate related social infrastructure such as child care, student accommodation, seniors housing and medical/health to name a few. The yields are typically higher, the leases longer, the demographics are on your side and they often have government backed cashflows. And the competition for assets is less intense. Well at least for now!

Greg Paramor is managing director of Folkestone.

Commercial Office

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