Key commentary from CBRE’s new report – After the Storm: Where Next for European Property?
• Background

December 2009 / January 2010

The economic aftermath of the collapse of Lehman in September 2008 has been well documented and continues to unfold. Against a background of extreme uncertainty, investment decisions froze and most of the world’s major economies entered recession. Unemployment has risen sharply across Europe and is still rising; stock markets, asset prices and business and consumer confidence tumbled, and even now the flow of credit to businesses remains patchy.

The main elements of policy response were near-zero interest rates and state intervention roughly equivalent to a sixth of GDP in Europe and the US. Not surprisingly, these have had some stabilising effect. Recent economic data are more varied and suggest that some economies are resuming a growth path, albeit a gradual one. While many economies and real estate markets will therefore enter the new year with prospects apparently looking brighter than seemed likely even a few months ago, this has been a challenging year to say the least.

• What sort of economic recovery will we see in 2010?

Estimates suggest that the major European economies will have shrunk by between 2% and 5% in 2009. There has clearly been some improvement since early 2009 when the Eurozone economy fell by over 1.5% in one quarter, and France and Germany proudly announced that their recessions ended in Q2, when the string of quarterly output falls was broken. We therefore appear to be past the low point in the economic cycle. While the risk of a “double-dip” remains real, a number of forecasters are now expecting a resumption of year-on-year growth early in 2010, and positive (if sub-trend) growth for most European economies in 2010 as a whole.

In addition, labour markets tend to lag changes in output and, with Euro area unemployment approaching 10% and still rising, this will act as a drag on recovery.

The role of government policy is difficult to exaggerate in the current environment. Specifically, the timing of withdrawal from the stimulus programmes introduced this year, and tightening of monetary policy, will be critical: too early and it risks stalling the recovery; too late and growth may already have become inflationary. The steepness of yield curves at present suggests at least some concerns about inflation potential.

• What has been happening to investment turnover?

In the first three quarters of 2009, we saw around €41 billion of investment activity in the European commercial real estate market. There has been a steady increase in activity each quarter since the low of €12 billion in Q1 2009, and we expect that this will continue, with Q4 seeing the highest level of activity for the year. Our expectation for the year as a whole is for a total of around €60 billion of investment transactions in Europe, which would be around half of 2008’s total.

“The recent upturn in investment activity suggests that many investors believe the European market is approaching the bottom of the cycle; and in some cases, it may well be past that point. Whilst investment turnover has started to pick-up from lows of around €12 billion in both Q1 and Q2 this year, concerns remain about slow economic recovery and its lagging impact on the occupier market.” Michael Haddock, Director, EMEA Capital Markets Research, CB Richard Ellis

• Will this recovery continue into 2010?

While deal flow is likely to remain subdued for a while yet, we do expect that the steady improvement that has been seen throughout 2009 will continue in 2010. The final months of this year have started to see more opportunities coming to the market and this will translate into higher levels of activity during 2010.

However, a feature of the investment recovery so far is that, other than in the UK, it has been heavily concentrated on “defensive” investments: well-let, well-located, modern buildings, secured to good covenants on long leases.

In other words, it has been focussed on quality and duration of income, and explicitly based on avoiding, or at least minimising, short-term exposure to the relatively weak occupational market.

In the UK, investors are showing more signs of being prepared to consider property that is further up the risk spectrum. This may be partly a reflection of the relatively wide yield spreads between prime and secondary, and the view of the UK market as something of a “safe haven”, even if some economic fundamentals appear to be lagging. The risk is that it stems partly from shortages of prime stock forcing investors to widen their search criteria reluctantly.

Outside the UK, more secondary property, with potential exposure to the occupier market through vacancy, lease expiries or weak tenants, has yet to see a substantial increase in demand from investors.

So long as investor demand remains largely focussed on this prime segment of the market, the scale of growth in activity will be restricted. This is partly because investors’ buying parameters will remain tight, and also because of the limited flow of new properties onto the market that meet the necessary criteria. It is unlikely that we will see much forced selling of prime property and, with no obvious motive to sell into a rising market, the vendor base may be confined to those who are looking to recycle capital.

CMBS/bank sales are key determinants of the recovery in volumes, as is the strength of economic recovery in giving confidence that occupier demand will improve. This could, in turn, tempt investors into secondary or riskier deals.

“The majority of investment interest is still heavily concentrated in the prime segment of the market. Some recently offered UK properties have attracted over 20 bids from a wide range of buyers, highlighting substantial build-up in competition for very good quality assets and putting increasing downward pressure on yields.“ Michael Haddock, Director, EMEA Capital Markets Research, CB Richard Ellis

• What geographic and sectoral patterns should we expect in 2010?

The focus on prime assets has implications for the likely pattern of investment across different parts of the European market in 2010. Some of the most severe impacts on value and investment activity over the past two years have been felt in markets that have seen an unwinding of very sharp increases in property values in earlier years, such as Spain, Ireland and CEE. Some of these markets had seen very strong economic growth in the 2003-07 period (in some cases over 5% per year) which, combined with cheap debt, fuelled the expansion.

Current patterns of investor appetite reflect the legacy of this: a comparison of 2009 with 2008 shows the Nordics and CEE regions as having seen the biggest fall in investment activity (both over 80%). Risk-averse investors will continue to be cautious about markets that had seen risk premia fall well below historic norms, but which are not yet established as liquid, international real estate investment locations.

In absolute terms, we expect further increases in investment volumes in the UK market, even though, having seen significant growth in 2009, the growth rate may appear smaller in percentage terms than in some other European countries. Germany, which has seen strong growth in transactions over the last few months of 2009, could also figure as one of the fastest growing markets in 2010.

Investor demand in France is undoubtedly strong, but growth in transactions is expected to be held back by the limited amount of available stock.

Markets such as Ireland and CEE, where 2009 activity has been very subdued, could easily see larger year-on-year increases in completed transactions in 2010 simply because of the low base they are starting from.

Sector trends are more complicated. In the first half of 2009, investment activity in the office sector declined most sharply, mainly as a result of the difficulty in financing large transactions and the uncertainty over the outlook for occupier demand, especially in financial services and associated business services.

The majority of large transactions in the first half of 2009 were for retail property. Not shopping centres, as might be expected, but portfolios of more specialist retail space such as high street bank branch outlets. Prominent examples include the disposal of a portfolio of 180 high street bank branches in Italy by Unicredit for €530 million; and Spanish bank BBVA completing a sale and leaseback of its Spanish real estate portfolio in September, comprising more than 900 bank branches and office buildings for €1.15 billion. In the second half of 2009, activity in the office sector picked up again. In recent months there have been a number of large office deals, including Blackstone’s purchase of a share in Broadgate and the sale and leaseback of HSBC’s tower and the sale of 5 Churchill Place, both in Canary Wharf, London.

Growing interest in the logistics sector has also been evident throughout the year, with increasing demand from German Open-ended Funds, who have historically avoided this sector.

• Who will be buying?

The limited availability and stringent terms of debt finance (and the related fact that some lenders are still struggling to manage their existing debt books) means that, to a large extent, highly-leveraged investors and developer-traders are out of the market. At this stage of the cycle, with values having fallen steeply, we would have expected more activity from opportunistic “vulture funds” and value-add players looking to acquire sites or income management opportunities - but the combination of the limited number of vendors and uncertainty over the short-term economic outlook have restricted their scope.

As a result, the European real estate investment market is being dominated by equity buyers, mostly seeking well-let assets in core markets. German Open-ended Funds are very active and we are seeing growing activity from the Sovereign Wealth Funds. Institutional investors are also growing in importance, both directly and though indirect funds. Finally, the recovery in stock markets means that the listed property companies have switched from being net sellers to net buyers.

There is also some evidence that cross-border investors’ appetite for real estate is still strong. The fact that in Central London, for example, around 80% of 2009 transactions have been to foreign buyers is a good illustration of this. It is also interesting to note that in contrast to 2006/07, when investment from outside Europe was mostly from the USA, current demand is global, with investors from all parts of the world active in the search for prime assets.

To access the remainder of this press release or the full report document please download from the document links below:

CB Richard Ellis 2009 Review - 2010 Outlook
CB Richard Ellis 2009 Review - 2010 Outlook

EMEA Viewpoint After the Storm Jan 2010
EMEA Viewpoint After the Storm Jan 2010