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Uncertainty prevails for property investors post Brexit

by June 26, 2016 General
A group of young people gather to protest at Parliament Square in London the day after a majority of the British public ...

A group of young people gather to protest at Parliament Square in London the day after a majority of the British public voted to leave the European Union. Photo: Getty

Australian property investors are predicting short-term turmoil in Britain following the vote to leave the EU but also expect that the volatility will trigger an inflow of capital as overseas cash seeks safe havens outside of Europe.

The main Australian investors in the UK and Europe are industrial giant Goodman Group, retail landlord Westfield, and developer and funds manager Lendlease​.

Most Australian investors in the UK over the years have been real estate investment trusts, but many sold out of the assets after the global financial crisis in 2008.

An artist's impression of Elephant & Castle project being developed in London by Lendlease.

An artist’s impression of Elephant & Castle project being developed in London by Lendlease.

Goodman has extensive assets, mainly in Europe, while Westfield has large shopping centres in London and Italy. They declined to comment on Brexit, until a clearer picture emerges of the full impact of the leave vote.

A Lendlease spokesperson said: “We have maintained strong liquidity positions and balance sheet in the UK and, as with any change like this, we will wait to see how it unfolds.”

Lendlease is developing a number of projects, including a mixed-use residential site at Elephant & Castle. It was the developer of London’s Olympic village.

The good news, according to CBRE, is that some sectors will be more resilient than others. For example, Brexit won’t stop the UK population increasingly shopping online, so the demand-supply imbalance in UK industrial property will continue to be a hot topic. This will aid Goodman and Westfield, as they are both integrating online shopping into their traditional bricks-and-mortar businesses.

Britain’s residential development also looks less likely to be affected, given the structural shortfalls in supply which exist in many UK markets, and particularly in London, though even in the residential sector house builders are expected to proceed with caution.

Although this caution is not likely to be as dramatic as the collapse in new supply in 2008-09, it could push prices up further in the short term if demand is sustained.

This will be good news for Lendlease’s residential projects and also Westfield, which is looking to build apartments near its Westfield London mall in North London and Stratford in the east.

John Sears, the head of research at Cushman & Wakefield, said the likely impact from a Brexit on Australian commercial property

would be uncertainty and financial market volatility, which could hurt consumer and business confidence.

“Australian trade with the UK may increase as UK ties with the EU are cut, but any reduction in global economic growth will limit Australian growth,” Mr Sears said.

“As financial service firms reduce their exposure to the UK, they may reweight to the Asia-Pacific region.”

Mr Sears said there was also likely to be reduced investment volumes if debt margins increased on higher risk asset classes. “But these are expected to be offset by Australian commercial properties’ relative attraction in a low interest rate world.

“With the vote to leave, the examples of the ‘Grexit’ and European debt crises in recent years, indicate the capacity of the EU to do what it takes to reduce market disruption. This suggests a leave vote could result in a Grexit style ‘muddle along’ scenario, characterised by ongoing market disruptions as key dates approach rather than a ‘Lehman Brothers’ like shock.”

Mr Sears said the vote to leave should reduce the UK’s economic growth, but a significant concern for global financial markets is “contagion” if other EU members choose to leave and a possible global move toward a more protectionist environment.

Nicholas Holt, head of research for Asia Pacific for Knight Frank, said the UK had long been a destination for Asian real estate investors, with the attraction of the strong liquidity, stable governance, transparency and clear title, meaning that investors from China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand have all invested in the country.

“With the decision to exit the European Union, for existing Asian property owners, the fall in the pound will impact the repatriation of any income returns, as well as the gains on any disposal. Although there is likely to be more volatility in the market, ultimately most investors are looking to the long term – so will continue to hold their assets, in the hope that any short-term instability will eventually subside when more clarity of the UK’s role in Europe is determined,” Mr Holt said.

Paul Craig, Savills chief executive of Australia & New Zealand, said the UK is clearly entering unknown territory. In Australia, it’s unknown what impact it will have, however, any level of change in the world is always treated with caution.

“In saying this our leasing market is not heavily exposed to UK tenants,” Mr Craig said.

“Furthermore, having just returned from two weeks in Asia promoting Australian property, in particular Singapore and China are very much still looking to place money overseas, and Australia is well placed to benefit from this. On a global scale, Sydney and Melbourne will now become even bigger destinations for capital over London.

“The huge volatility shown in the stockmarkets has traditionally always led to greater investment into bricks and mortar. In an unpredictable market, bricks and mortar investments have always provided what some may call a safety net for investors.”

Kevin Thorpe, the chief economist at Cushman & Wakefield in the UK, said it was still early days.

“Investors need to be careful not to overreact to one day of volatility,” Mr Thorpe told UK property journal Commercial Observer.  

“The terms of the divorce will be negotiated over the next couple of years, and the word I think that best describes the tone of the next six months is ‘uncertainty’.

“The outlook for the UK and Europe will be uncertain in the near term, and that uncertainty will likely lead to a fall in consumer confidence and slower economic growth in the UK and in the European Union.”

Ric Clark, chairman of Brookfield Property Group, which has two commercial real estate projects in London, said the UK remained an attractive investment in general.

“As long-term investors, we remain committed to London and the UK and are confident the UK will continue to attract international capital and remain one of the leading business centres in the world,” he told Commercial Observer.

CBRE’s Dr Neil Blake, the head of EMEA Research, and Miles Gibson, head of UK research, said development and construction could be affected by a Brexit. Developments not yet started were likely to be delayed until there was more clarity about the level of demand in the economy.

The agents said offices were most likely to be affected, but house building may well hold up in the short term. Longer term, development prospects depend on the state of the economy but also on the costs of construction.

Investment sentiment is likely to be affected in similar ways to before the referendum. The UK’s openness exposes it to flows of international capital, but investment sentiment depends more on the outlook for the UK economy than on our strict relationship with the EU.

CBRE said the UK was likely to remain an attractive property investment destination and not all sectors would be equally affected. Money diverted away from the UK will not necessarily end up elsewhere in the EU.