Real estate is a cumbersome slow moving asset. Its not like stock prices which can move up and down a few percent on the same day. Real estate is however a reflection of liquidity, a wealth indicator, a confidence indicator, a leading indicator, and a lagging indicator as well, depending on how you argue and look at things. Hence it opportune to have a peek at some real estate hotspots to see if the surprising bull run ties in with the investing situation in real estate.
The Australian housing market downturn is likely to be milder than in the U.S., UK and EU in 2009. Australia's house price correction had a head start going back to 2003. Furthermore, housing demand from migrants to the commodities-rich west and the chronic housing shortage in eastern Australia will keep prices from stabilizing back at pre-boom levels unless Australia fails to avoid a deep recession. Indeed, building approvals and housing loans to owner-occupiers began to recover since October 2008 after the government doubled grants for first-time purchases of homes until December 2009. Mortgage interest rates fell to their lowest level in four decades after the Reserve Bank of Australia cut the overnight cash rate 425bp within a year to 3% in April 2009, the lowest since 1960. Tax cuts, government handouts and lower petrol prices will also raise the affordability of housing. Affordability may not mean higher house prices, though. Despite increased sales (new home sales in Q1 2009 rose 20% since end-2008), house prices fell 6.7% y/y in Q1 2009. Rising unemployment and lower household wealth will keep buying sentiment mild this year but, short of a deep recession, improved affordability and ongoing housing shortages will help Australia avoid a housing crash as bad as in the U.S. and Europe.
New Zealand housing market is in worse shape than Australia's but is also likely to avoid as deep a correction as in the U.S. and Europe. The Reserve Bank of New Zealand has cut 575bp since July 2008 to 2.5% in April 2009 but longer-term, fixed mortgage rates have recently begun to rise again due to expectations of a quick recovery and higher interest rates. Fiscal policy has been laissez-faire towards the recession, opting merely for tax cuts as the government would rather not stand in the way of the economy's structural adjustment. With housing assets 5.7 times the household disposable income, New Zealand property markets are even more leveraged than their U.S. counterparts. House prices fell 8% in 2008 and are down 9.2% y/y as of April 2009. Some analysts believe the housing market will bottom on an annual basis in 2009. The housing market has already bottomed on a month-over-month basis, with the median price rising from $325,000 in January 2009 to $340,000 in April. Immigration has revived housing demand and sales have been strongest in the low-end segment thanks to increased affordability. However, new building starts and new home sales remain below the boom levels of 2004 and will likely remain so due to credit constraints, rising unemployment and sluggish economic growth in the year ahead.
The housing sector is one the most important factors affecting the economic slump in the UK, which is similar in many ways to the difficulties facing the U.S. economy. The latest data on the UK housing sector continues to be mixed but some analysts are tentative to call the bottom in Q2 2009. The latest Halifax price index fell 1.7% m/m in April with price levels back to 2004 readings. Nationwide data brought a 0.4% decline in April but the y/y contraction fell from 15.7% in March to 15% in April. Mortgage lending showed some signs of recovery in April according to the data from CML with a 9% m/m drop. Despite hopes of a recovery, lending is still 60% lower than a year. The monthly data could be quite volatile in the coming months, drawing a slow bottom-like pattern. A real recovery of the housing sector will depend on improvement in the personal income and employment situation in the economy, which are not yet foreseen.
Asia has witnessed sharp real estate correction led by the Asian Tigers, plus China, India and Vietnam. All these markets saw declining home and office prices and rentals, lower sales and rising vacancies. Prices are approaching fundamental values and slowing construction activity might somewhat close the estimated excess supply. But further price and rental correction are imminent. This because household and corporate demand will remain subdued in 2009 despite policy measures such as interest rate cuts and fiscal incentives as well as attractive discounts offered by realtors. Slowing or contracting consumer spending and rising job losses in most economies are hitting residential and retail markets. Slowing corporate earnings and capex, declining exports and liquidity crunch are weighing down on commercial real estate. Though banks are reducing exposure to the real estate sector, lower earnings among realtors and income pressures among consumers are raising the risk of delinquencies. Nonetheless, as the global liquidity crunch abates overtime, high growth potential and attractive returns, given rising incomes and urbanization in developing Asia, will revive domestic and foreign investor interests in Asia's real estate.
Unlike many global markets, the residential property market in China is showing some signs of stabilization. Significant price discounting, lower mortgage rates, incentives and overly ample credit extension are contributing to an increase in transactions and helping to reduce the existing inventory. Chinese property prices began falling in mid-2008 as anti-speculation measures and slower economic growth reduced investment. However, transactions could slow if authorities rein in lending growth in mid-2009. Commercial property has yet to show signs of recovery. The global capex retrenchment is also putting pressure on commercial property as it delays some expansion plans especially by foreign companies. Although domestic companies are somewhat less affected, a slower pace of consumption growth may weigh on both office and retail property markets.
The HK real estate seems to be bubbling up again at least in terms of sales to investors as increased credit availability, and a weakening US and Hong Kong dollar, encourage investment. However, new tenants remain scarce and vacancies are on the rise, suggesting further downward pressure on prices, especially as Hong Kong’s economy, including the financial sector, continues to contract and consumption weakens.
Home prices in India have corrected 15% to as much as 40% in some prime areas since September 2008. The recent pick-up in demand due to discounts by realtors and mortgage rate cuts by banks will be largely outweighed by the excess supply of homes in the market. So another 15-20% price correction is underway in residential and office markets over the next 6-to-8 quarters. This is especially because bank lending standards have tightened, households face wealth erosion and slowing job market, affordability remains low and corporate sector faces liquidity pressures. Mall construction and rentals have taken a hit and so have activity and employment in the construction sector. Drying funding from foreign investors and domestic equity market is forcing the indebted real estate firms to divest shares to raise capital, hold back expansion plans, and refinance bank loans which has been helped by recent central bank measures.
Singapore's real estate sector started moderating in Q2 2008 and home and office prices witnessed record decline of over 10% in Q1 2009 with rents also falling sharply. Another 15% to as much as 25% correction is expected in the residential sector and may be even higher in the luxury section. Woes in the financial and service sectors, negative wealth effects among households and shrinking population due to outflow of laid-off immigrants – all will weigh down on residential and retail real estate. This will be exacerbated by falling speculative investment due to tight domestic and foreign liquidity.
Vietnam's property prices are down over 30% in some markets with luxury section taking the biggest hit and office rentals showing steep decline. Though realtors have been cutting prices and banks are resuming lending, demand has been slow to pick up. Investors also remain reluctant to enter the market since they largely depend on foreign liquidity. The sector is unlikely to improve in 2009 and this will be exacerbated by lower investment via remittances and FDI.Japan
Economic downside risk in Japan was highlighted when exports plummeted by 49% year-over-year in February. The steep decline in exports, a key driver of economic growth, stemmed from faltering global demand and the strong Japanese yen. Amid the dramatic drop in external trade, domestic consumption slowed in the quarter as well. The government reports that, on a year-over-year basis in February, household spending shrank 3.5% and retail sales contracted by 5.8%, the steepest decline in seven years. Imports declined 43%. Bank of Japan’s latest tankan survey in March shows that large manufacturers turned more pessimistic about business prospects, which does not bode well for industrial production or the labor market. Indeed, the unemployment rate rose to 4.4% in February, a three-year high. The excess capacity resulting from the collapse in demand and consumption has increased the risk of deflation. Headline inflation contracted by 0.1% in February. In one of the few bright spots in the Japanese economy, bank lending in Japan grew by nearly 4% year-over-year in January and February, much higher than the growth during the same months last year. Commercial land values are falling. Land prices in the three major urban areas (Greater Tokyo, Nagoya and Osaka) in January declined by 5.4% year-over-year, the first drop in four years, according to the government. The decline was more pronounced in Greater Tokyo, where the government said that prices dropped 6.1% in January. Meanwhile, the tightened lending policies adopted by banks, coupled with the difficult business environment, have pushed up the number of companies filing for bankruptcy. In the first two months of 2009, corporate bankruptcies rose 25.5% over the previous year. That helped prompt a rise in office vacancy in Tokyo’s five wards to 6.1% in March, from 4.7% at year-end 2008. Vacancies are likely to rise further as companies consolidate their space requirements. Newly constructed buildings will be hard to fill as demand dwindles. We believe that weak demand will persist this year and competition for tenants will lead to more concessions from landlords – rental discounts, longer rent-free periods and other incentives. With demand for class-A office space likely to remain soft and rents under pressure, cap rates for class-A offices will likely rise in the quarters ahead, possibly by 10-30 bps. Commercial land prices will see further downside as well. Residential land prices are also falling. Land prices in the three major urban areas declined by 3.5% in January from a year ago, according to the government, which said that the decline was a bit steeper, 4.4%, in Greater Tokyo. The volume and velocity of transactions has slowed sharply. In Tokyo, only 621 new condominium units were marketed in January with a contract ratio of 67%. The number of unsold units stood at about 4,200 units at the end of January, almost double from a year ago. As part of the national budget for fiscal year 2009, the government has included steps to rejuvenate housing demand that include tax breaks of up to 6 million yen for home buyers who move into their property in 2009 or 2010. The amount of the tax break will be lowered gradually after 2010.
REIT markets in Asia posted mixed results in the first quarter. REITs gained in Hong Kong (14%) and Malaysia (5.3%), but J-REITs and S-REITs posted negative returns, as investors raised concerns about refinancing issues. Still, REITs mostly outperformed the broader equity markets, possibly because investors were attracted by the deep discounts to net asset values (NAV) and higher dividend yields.
Total Returns, REITs vs. All Equities
1Q09 / 2008 / 2007 / 2006 / 2005
Hong Kong 14.0% / -28.9% / 10.4% / 9.8% / 2.0%
Japan -4.7% / -49.0% / -2.3% / 29.7% / 13.5%
Malaysia 5.3% / -14.8% / 17.8% / N.A. / N.A.
Singapore -1.1% / -56.1% / 2.8% / 57.9% / 22.2%
Hong Kong 0.2% / -52.4% / 40.3% / 32.6% / 11.3%
Japan -8.9% / -41.4% / -11.3% / 2.9% / 47.4%
Malaysia 1.0% / -39.7% / 43.0% / 31.4% / 1.1%
Singapore -3.7% / -50.9% / 22.1% / 33.9% / 16.1%
Indeed REIT yield premiums ranged from 569 to 940 bps above long-term government bond yields. As of the end of March, the region had 83 REITs with a total market capitalization of US$44.4 billion, which is moderately down from US$45.2 billion at end of last year. The weighted average dividend yield fell by 30 bps in the first quarter, to 8.2%.
Market Cap and Dividend Yields of Asian REITs
No. of REITs / Market Cap (US$ bil.) / Average Dividend Yield / Risk-free Rate /* Risk Premium (bps)
Japan 41 / 26.28 / 7.03% / 1.34% / 569
Singapore 21 / 9.93 / 11.40% / 2.00% / 940
Hong Kong 7 / 6.92 / 7.80% / 1.93% / 587
Malaysia 11 /1.10 / 10.80% / 1.89% / 891
Korea 3 / 0.17 / 10.60% / 4.68% / 592
Total 83 / $44.4 / 8.20% (weighted average based on market cap)
p/s photos: Zhou Weitong