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CPT Awarded Green Star Rating

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Cordatus Property Trust has been awarded a Green Star in the recently released GRESB 2021 survey results.

Mike Channing, CEO of Cordatus Real Estate and Fund Manager of Cordatus Property Trust commented “this is a very pleasing result. A significant amount of hard work has gone into improving the ESG credentials of both Cordatus Real Estate and Cordatus Property Trust and it is good to have this hard work recognised by the industry’s benchmark survey.”

The Cordatus Property Trust was established in December 2015 and has consistently outperformed its MSCI benchmark over that period. In the 5 years to June 2021, the fund delivered an unlevered 7.0%pa total return (MSCI Quarterly Index 4.3%pa) and an income return of 6.4%pa (MSCI 4.5%pa), ranking the Trust on the 3rd percentile for income.

Economic and Market Commentary Q2 2021

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Brexit news

June saw the signing of a trade deal with Australia, removing all tariffs on all goods, the first major trade deal negotiated from scratch by the government since leaving the EU. Last year, trade between the two countries amounted to £13.9bn and this figure is likely to increase following the agreement.

The Secretary of State, Liz Truss, claims that the agreement paves the way for the UK to apply to join the Trans Pacific Partnership, the 11 nation, £9 trillion free trade area which is home to some of the biggest consumer markets of today and tomorrow.

Predictably, the complex situation of Northern Ireland shows no sign of being resolved. The Northern Ireland protocol, signed by both the UK and the EU as part of the withdrawal agreement, prevents a hard border in the island of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods. Difficulties have arisen in transporting goods across the Irish Sea in terms of both bureaucracy and in raising prices, while the Unionists are concerned that the protocol undermines Northern Ireland’s place in Great Britain.

The House of Lords has ruled that both the UK and EU have taken a ‘fundamentally flawed’ approach to the protocol and that both sides need to compromise. Easily said, but whenever Northern Ireland is concerned, not so easy to do in practice.

In addition, there is also disagreement over the so-called ‘divorce bill’ – the amount the UK has to pay the EU for spending commitments made before the UK left the bloc. New figures from the EU puts the total at £40.8bn, significantly above the UK’s assertion of between £35bn and £39bn. The government insists that the EU has ignored money owed back to the UK.

No doubt these disagreements will rumble on. Where would we be without a little bit of tension between the parties!

Global economy

Eight months into the vaccination programmes, countries’ economic prospects are diverging further, depending on access to vaccines. On the optimistic side, developed countries can anticipate further normalisation later this year while those less able to obtain the vaccine access are still facing resurgent infections and still rising death tolls. Even those countries in this latter group where infections are currently low, are not assured of a quick recovery as long as the virus is circulating elsewhere.

The global economy is now forecast to grow 6.0% this year, unchanged over the last three months, masking a 50-basis point increase in the growth of the advanced economies and a 40 bp reduction in developing economies. Next year sees a 50 bp increase to the global growth forecast to 4.9%. This time, both advanced and developing economies have been upgraded, by 50 bps and 20 bps respectively, from our forecasts three months ago.

The advanced economies have been boosted by continued policy support and the expectation of additional fiscal support in the US later this year. Greater optimism from health metrics is also a factor in the upgrades.

Nevertheless, risks to these global forecasts remain tilted to the downside. The clearest danger is slower than anticipated roll out of the vaccine, particularly to developing markets. But there is an obvious risk that financial conditions, which have remained accommodative throughout the pandemic, may be reassessed, especially if inflation expectations increase further. That is a point we delve into at greater length in the next section. The twin hits of limited vaccinations and higher interest rates brought about by a tightening of monetary policy would be particularly bad news for both emerging markets and developing economies.

First quarter 2021 GDP outturns surprised on the upside, particularly in Asia and Latin America. Conversely, renewed lockdowns, from which countries are just now emerging, have hit European economies. However, data for Q2 has shown that the recovery, which began in manufacturing, is now widening into service sectors. Recovery, though, has been and still is being hampered by component and labour shortages and disruption to the supply chain, all of which are affecting the speed of the bounce bank and rates of inflation.

Flash estimates of activity in Q2 remain mixed. Annualised growth of the US economy fell short of consensus growth of 8.5%, recording 6.5%, while the eurozone posted quarterly growth of 2.0, ahead of some expectations. Japan has yet to publish its Q2 estimate but expectations are for growth of 0.2%, thereby halting the run of negative quarters of growth. Disappointing consumer spending figures continue to hold back the Japanese economy. While both the US and EU are seeing accelerating growth across many sectors, the rising number of patients infected with the ‘Delta’ variant is clearly reminding everyone that we are not out of the woods yet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inflation

Concern has risen globally about the sharp rise in inflation and whether that will affect interest rates and through them, property yields. Inflation does tend to increase as economies start pulling out of recession and this time is no different, inflation having picked up in many economies. The reasons for this rise are both the cyclical recovery phase in which economies find themselves and the sharp reversal out of recession that we are experiencing.

In most recession/recovery phases, time frames can usually be measured in years: this time one of, if not, the severest downturn followed by a sharp recovery can be measured in just a few months. Supply bottlenecks have been adding to pricing concerns, while, arithmetically, commodity prices were at rock bottom twelve months ago, meaning that annual rates of price increases are abnormally high. The table below shows the price increases of selected commodities this year.

 

 

There are two key questions regarding inflation. The first is, is the rise temporary, implying that rates will quickly revert to more ‘normal’ levels? The second is, will central banks take action to prevent higher rates of inflation in the future by tightening policy before the economic recovery has fully taken root. That will invariably result in higher interest rates

We believe that inflation is in most cases likely to subside to pre-pandemic target levels next year and that central banks are unlikely to raise interest rates in the short term. Our view therefore remains that interest rates will remain low for some time yet. It could, however, be more persistent if people and businesses come to expect higher inflation and seek to raise prices and wages in anticipation. That has been recently illustrated by some supermarket chains in the UK who are offering a sizeable joining bonus to lorry drivers, who are in short supply.

 

The EU economy

 

As activity begins to return to some sort of normality, EU unemployment is falling The rate of unemployment fell from 7.4% in March to 7.1% in June, but it still means that 14.9 million people are out of work. A year ago, the rate of unemployment was 7.6%.

Our economic forecasts have been increased for both this year and next by 20 bps and 50 bps respectively. As with our forecasts for the other economies, the risks are skewed to the downside and are vulnerable to a renewed spread of the virus.

 

The UK economy

With many Covid restrictions being unwound across the UK, expectations are for the economy to deliver strong rates of growth this year. GDP for Q1 fell by 1.6%, but the economy has been on recovery mode since the end of January. The first estimate of growth in Q2 came in at 4.8%, slightly below some forecasts but we still believe that the UK is on track for a full year growth forecast of 7% (Source: IMF), an upgrade of 1.7 percentage points since our last report three months ago. Some forecasters are putting even stronger growth this year at nearer 8%, but even so, growth of 7% would be the highest yearly growth since the Second World War.

Our forecast for next year, 4.5%, is also below some forecasts, but trying to place precise estimates for events months in the future is fraught with difficulty particularly when we cannot rule out new or more virulent strains of the coronavirus affecting life for months to come.

Some caution is required before these forecasts are met:

  • Covid case numbers in the UK are still running at elevated levels and though, thanks to the successful vaccination programme, the direct link between case numbers and hospitalisations seems to have weakened, we cannot dismiss the possibility that the ‘Delta’ variant or some new strain emerges to stall economic activity.
  • The furlough scheme is winding down. It has been a resounding success in preventing major job losses over the last 17 months. It is telling that the unemployment rate, which many economists at the onset of the pandemic expected to rise towards 9%, is now likely to have peaked at 5.2%, an increase of just 1.3 percentage points from pre-pandemic times. However, some further job losses are anticipated from those now coming off furlough.
  • The ‘pingdemic’ effect whereby workers are required to self-isolate when they are identified as a close contact of someone infected. The number of persons required to self-isolate has been modified downwards, so hopefully, future such cases will lessen any hit to output.
  • Skills shortages. The economy has changed over the last 17 months, in some industries, out of all recognition. Clear winners have been food stores and online retailers. Losers include some high street retailers with no online presence and some hospitality ventures, some of which will struggle to survive even with lockdown restrictions being removed. This change in the structure of the economy is ongoing but is creating some pressure points. For example, shortages of lorry drivers have been highlighted by some supermarket chains but finding and training new staff is one thing; obtaining driving tests for these drivers is another with major delays in that process.
  • Supply chain bottlenecks are affecting all countries and many industries. We highlight one aspect that has directly impacted the commercial property landscape – the move from a ‘just in time’ stock control system to a ‘just in case’ one. It will be interesting to follow this in the future to see if the latter endures.

As well as unemployment starting to decline, job vacancies are back above levels pre-pandemic. The latest vacancies covering the three months April to June 2021 amount to 862,000, 10% above the last three-month period before the onset of the restrictions. These labour shortages are contributing to some increased wage pressure with average basic pay having risen by 6.2% in Q2. However, much of this apparent strong figure is due to temporary factors such as a fall in the proportion of lower paid employees. ONS believe that the underlying average pay growth after adjusting for the reduction in lower paid jobs is likely to be around 2.5% – 3%. This lower figure for underlying wage growth is one of the factors behind the Bank of England’s relatively benign view of the current rate of inflation.

The ongoing vaccination programming coupled with the relaxation of many of the restrictions has pushed consumer confidence back to a pandemic high. Confidence numbers declined to levels last seen in 2007 at the onset of the first Covid lockdown in March 2020 but since the turn of 2021, they have been on an upward trend. The latest, July, figure is now higher than it was immediately before the coronavirus took hold of the economy last March.

 

 

A separate survey by You Gov highlighted that the outlook for job security and confidence among households about their personal finances are both at record high levels.

That said, headline wage growth is picking up and coupled with pent up demand from both businesses and consumers, inflationary pressures are rising. Add in shortages of some raw materials and supply chain bottlenecks, inflation is on the increase. CPI inflation for the month of June measured 0.5%, the strongest monthly increase in June since records began, leading to the rate for the year to June increasing to 2.5%. The rate will increase further over the coming months to over 3% and it is likely to remain above the Bank of England’s 2% target this year and for most of next year.

From commercial property’s point of view, construction costs increased by over 10% for the year to May. Not only have raw materials been in short supply, so have workers as the industry struggles with record levels of construction activity. These cost pressures will certainly be affecting development opportunities in the commercial market with new distribution warehouses being the most at risk of being delayed, or cancelled altogether, at present.

The labour market is continuing to recover in line with the momentum behind the economic recovery. Further Covid shocks aside, the UK is poised to post the highest 2021 GDP growth rate of the G7 group of countries. Laudable as that may be, one must not lose sight of the fact that the UK posted the worst decline in activity of these countries last year.

As Covid-induced restrictions unwind, some businesses will feel the full brunt of the ending of the moratorium on eviction while the ending of business rates support may hamper some retail and leisure entities.

 

Market Commentary

Not only has the commercial property market been moving at different speeds, it has also been going in different directions – the gung-ho industrial market, the resilient performance of offices and the valuation collapse of many retail assets. Growth in asset values in the industrial market alone has propelled the market as a whole into positive territory for the last two quarters. Leaving the high-flying industrial sector to the side, the performance of the rest of the market has been less satisfactory, but more in line with returns expected during the more challenging recessionary influences that we have encountered.

There was a welcome return to growth in retail assets in Q2, growth in average shops and retail warehouses offsetting the continuing collapse of shopping centre valuations. This return to average asset value growth of retails ensured that all three main sectors posted positive growth in the quarter for the first time since the last quarter of 2018.

Growth in average property values, as measured by the MSCI Quarterly Index, came in at 2.3% for Q2, nicely building on the return to growth seen in Q1. But this return to growth has been flattered by the performance of the industrial sector, which in Q2 delivered average growth in values of 6.4%, the highest quarterly figure since the MSCI Quarterly Property Index was launched in 2001.

At least the cataclysmic fall in retail values has ended with Q2 growth of 0.3%, although that masks a diverging profile with retail warehouses seeing 2.0% growth in the quarter but shopping centres continuing its downward trajectory with a further fall in average valuations of 2.7%.  The move by retail assets as a whole into positive territory ended a run of ten quarters of declining capital values.

The performance of offices during the pandemic has held up remarkably well, capital value movements being midway between the soaring industrials and plunging retails. There is little consensus as to how the office will work in the future. It certainly will not be the same; but we do not subscribe to the theory that the office is dead with everyone working from home. Neither do we expect offices to return to pre-pandemic levels of occupancy. Yes, some firms will take one or the other of these extremes but the large majority will favour a ‘blended’ approach, workers mixing working from home and working in the office, with office capacity reduced.

From a performance point of view, there has never been such a wide spectrum of returns. In the five quarters since the onset of the pandemic (the beginning of Q2 2020), total returns from a basket of retail assets were -6.7%, a basket of office assets, 0.1% while industrials would have delivered an astonishing 22.6%. If one’s fund performance is measured and ranked by MSCI, sector allocation has never been more crucial.

So critical, that a fund with the foresight of not having any retail assets and whose sector allocation otherwise followed the MSCI Quarterly Index’s sector weights would have delivered a total return 6.25 percentage points more than the official All Property total return over these five quarters (10.6% v 4.35%) and four percentage points per annum more over the last five years (8.3% pa v 4.3% pa) (both author’s calculations).

Commercial property yields are currently showing no signs of following gilt yields higher. MSCI report continuing yield hardening in sectors over Q2 (when yield compression was the greatest contributor to capital growth for the market as a whole) while Savills report that prime yields have remained, on the whole, static over the quarter with West End offices falling another 25 basis points to 3.25%, a level last seen almost three years ago.

It is easy to see why the industrial market has been the clear winner in terms of performance recently. For investors, industrial, until recently, was regarded purely as an income play, its high yield compensating for minimal, if any, rental growth. How that has changed over the last year or so. Strong demand from investors has pushed average yields down to historic lows (and to levels considered unlikely just a few years ago). At the end of Q2, average (equivalent) yields of industrial assets in the MSCI Quarterly Index stood at 4.4% – the lowest of the three main sectors. Prime industrial yields, according to Savills, now stand at 3.5% – a year ago they were a full point higher.

Investors remain optimistic over the prospects for industrial assets. Take up is running at unprecedentedly high levels, vacancy rates are at historic lows while the development pipeline is struggling to keep pace with tenant demand. Online distribution facilities have mushroomed during the pandemic and ongoing disruption to global supply chains (not eased by Brexit issues) are forcing businesses to hold more stock than was thought necessary before – in effect changing the business model from ‘just in time’ to ‘just in case’.

Industrial space take up is running at its fastest pace ever, over 24m sq ft in the last six months, and over 50m sq ft in the last twelve months, both records by a long way. The bulk of recent transactions are from online retailers but manufacturers too are acquiring more units, its share of the warehouse take up doubling to 15% in the space of one year.

Investment volumes for the market as a whole are picking up. Deals worth £12.59bn in Q2 (source: Property Data and BNP Paribas RE) was the highest second quarter for three years. Likewise, the total for the first six months of the year was the highest since 2018. And though this half year total is comparable to the ten-year average, it is a pale shadow of the volume of transactions during the middle of the last decade. Indeed, the £23.95bn total transacted over H1 was just 60% of that in 2015 at the height of the market.

 

However, the source of capital for these transactions has been shifting over the decade. UK investors are still the largest single grouping by a long way, but their share of total UK transactions has fallen from 64% in 2011 to 48% last year while the domestic share during the first six months of 2021 has shrunk even further to 44%.

It is worthy of note that overseas investors do not seem to have been put off investing in the UK since the Brexit vote in 2016. Their share of total transactions has continued to rise despite the grave warnings that some economists made at the time of the referendum about the viability of UK business after it leaves the EU. Indeed, the year after the vote, 2017, saw the highest annual amount of UK property bought by overseas investors (£32.5bn out of that year’s total of £66.5bn). It’s wonderful what a sharp deterioration in the sterling exchange rate does to the mindset of overseas investors!

The sustained investors demand has ensured that total returns from commercial property remain highly competitive against other domestic asset classes. Indeed, over the last decade, commercial property has delivered higher returns than those of UK equities and government bonds. Also note the recent strong performance of REITs which is often a leading indicator of the performance of direct property.

 

Some commentators are suggesting that, in an era of higher inflation, commercial property is well placed as an inflation hedge. We do not fully subscribe to that view. The rental growth outlook remains particularly weak for retail and office assets, with only industrial assets generating meaningful rental growth over the short term.

Rather, we believe that property performance will be yield driven; capital growth and through that, total returns being dependent on property yields remaining firm and, in some cases, hardening further. The outlook for the industrial sector remains positive – tenants chasing a decreasing number of available units – at least for the next few quarters.

Development is increasing, but so are costs. Bar for some completing in the coming few months, these cost increases, and in some cases lack of available construction staff and materials may begin to impact negatively on proposed new builds. Some proposed development may become unviable or may have to be deferred thereby further limiting tenant choice and further pushing up asking rents.

The industrial sector

Rarely can a set of drivers have been lined up so perfectly for any part of the commercial property market than for the industrial sector just now: the enforced closure of much of the physical retail space, the necessity of shoppers to buy online and the corresponding massive demand from distributors that has fuelled the growth in rents. Through that, demand from investors has driven yields down to historic low levels. Yet, the industrial sector has for many years delivered above market average returns, generated mostly from the high income return, which compensated for limited rental growth … until now.

Average asset value growth over the last 12 months in excess of 20% in many regions of the UK has propelled this previously unfashionable sector to the top of investors’ must haves. Take up of distribution space is currently running at unprecedented levels with over 21m sq ft let in the first six months of 2021, reaching levels that have become customary for the whole year.

Not surprisingly, the amount of available space has decreased markedly. At a nationwide level, the vacancy rate has dropped to 4.8%, the lowest since records began (source: Savills). Grade A space only accounts for just over a quarter of this amount. Speculative development is picking up, but the estimated 17m sq ft underway is equivalent to only five months take up at the current pace of letting.

The retail sector

While the immediate outlook for rents and yields remains the weakest of the three main sectors, there are glimmers of optimism on the horizon. The collapse in values across the retail space seen over the last few years seems to have come to an end. Rents and values are still falling in high street shops and shopping centres, but at a much lesser pace. But retail yields are firming – the 6 bp fall for average shops and shopping centres being the first quarterly fall in equivalent yields for three years. Add to that the ending of most restrictions so giving a welcome boost to spending on the high street and other physical shops.

 

 

One bright spot is the return to favour of retail warehouses. Average rents may still be falling (by just 0.6% in Q2) but yields have now been moving in for two quarters, finally reversing the three-year rise.

The office sector

The office sector is one that has bypassed much debate over the last year or so, not because there has been little of note to discuss – far from it – but more because of the headlines raised by the soar-away industrial values and the depression that has been felt in the retail sector.  Minimal capital movements and mid-range total returns, nevertheless, are commendable during the deepest recession in history and also because many offices have been unused for over a year. The position in central London is covered in some detail in the next section, but here we concentrate on the office markets outside central London, using the MSCI regional definitions.

The drivers of property performance differ across the regions – occupier demand differs everywhere and so too does the quality of existing stock and provision of new stock. Consequently, vacancy rates vary by region, and can move erratically when developments complete and become let. The following charts show the outlying regions in terms of current vacancy levels – both those where vacancies are high and where they are below average.

 

Unsurprisingly, there is a link between vacancy levels and rental growth. The regions on the left hand chart showing low vacancy rates have recorded positive rental growth over the last year, in contrast to many of those with higher vacancy levels. However, West Midlands, which currently has a vacancy

rate of 20% has recorded the highest rate of rental growth over the last twelve months (2.3%).

 

Summing up, were it not for the industrial sector, commercial property would have delivered disappointing rates of return, but more in line with what is expected during a recession. The pandemic and the resultant changing shopping habits it created has merely accelerated what has been ongoing for several years.

The outlook for industrial assets looks set fair for some more quarters with still high levels of tenant and investor demand. But the sector is in an unusual situation with ultra-low yields and so remains vulnerable to interest rate shocks and changing investor sentiment. Offices look fairly priced, but much will depend on how quickly businesses decide on their staffing policies and how the business is run. Meanwhile, vacancy rates are edging higher with development adding to the uncertainty.

Our one change in view is to suggest that the retail sector is coming back in vogue. With most restrictions now lifted, the high street is now better placed after years of underperformance. Retail warehouses have already seen yields begin to harden, and though rental growth across the retail sector may be some way off, the sector is beginning to offer a yield/income play.

 

Central London offices

Both take up and investment transactions have improved markedly since the pandemic caused the effective closure of the market a year past March, but even so, both measures are still off their pre-pandemic highs.

In terms of investment transactions, Q2 deals in the City and West End combined amounted to £3.2bn. This compares with deals of only £590m in the equivalent quarter last year, at the height of the pandemic-induced market closure. This improvement helped both central London office markets to post deals in the first six months of the year well up from that of last year – in the City a rise of 64% and an increase of 25% in the West End.

 

 

 

So far this year, there has been a welcome return of large transactions, i.e. transactions over £100m. In June alone, two transactions totalling almost £1bn completed: the 550,000 sq ft, 18-storey, multi-let 30 Fenchurch Street office building was purchased by Brookfield, the North American investment manager for £635m while the near 300,000 sq ft Minster Building in Minster Court was bought by Far Eastern investors for £353m. Both deals reflected net initial yields of 4.5%. The largest West End transaction in Q2 was the £177m purchase of One Embassy Gardens, SW8, by the Beverly Hills based real estate investment company, again at a net initial yield of 4.5%. These transactions demonstrate that Covid or no Covid, the large deals are back.

However, looking at investment strategies, investors are no longer favouring investment into the London-centric markets as much as previously. The percentage of the total market that is being accounted for by central London office deals has been on a declining trend for over a decade. Clearly, investors have been moving into industrial markets recently, to the detriment of other sectors, but it is striking that the share of the market that central London offices account for has shrunk by more than a half over the last decade.

Uncertainty over the future use of the office is another factor causing investors to look elsewhere. But with the latest IPF Consensus forecasts indicating that investors expect the office sector to start outperforming industrials from 2023, and retail assets from the following year, central London’s share could once again edge back up.

 

As to be expected in times of below trend lettings, vacancy rates are moving higher. The City’s void rate is now 9.0%, a 10 bp rise in the quarter and 330 bps higher than at June 2020. That vacancy rate is sure to continue rising in the short term with nearly 500,000 sq ft being added later this year on development completions and the release of 290,000 sq ft in the St Botolph building in EC3 by its present tenant, the insurer JLT. The West End is faring slightly better. Its present vacancy rate of 6.8% is 10 bps lower than three months ago but it is still at elevated levels compared to the recent past.

 

 

Presently, there are 27m sq ft of developments due to complete in central London by the end of 2024. Of that, just 21% has been pre-let, signifying that there is 21m sq ft of speculative space scheduled to complete in the next 3½ years. That may be an over-estimation of the picture with worker and material shortages likely to delay some completions. Increasing material costs may also cause some developers to defer some of the later projects, but even so, if alarm bells are not ringing now about vacancy levels, they soon will be.

The lettings market continues to see steady growth quarter by quarter. Take up in Q2 in both the City and West End markets was up from that in the previous quarter. The West End is seeing by far the greater interest with Q2 take up almost 10% higher than in the previous quarter, while over the first six months of the year, take up was 20% higher than in H1 2020. In contrast, take up in the City remains modest, its H1 2021 figure being down 14% on the equivalent period last year.

In contrast to investment transactions, which saw a welcome return of the large deals, the lettings market has been dominated by small transactions, particularly those below 10,000 sq ft. It is clear that the bigger employers are still playing a waiting game before deciding on the next move.

However, there are signs that the lettings market is beginning to awake from its lengthy slumber. Space under offer at the end of the quarter (June) has increased significantly from three months ago while several occupiers are reactivating their search for new premises.

 

 

Perhaps surprisingly, average rental value growth picked up over Q2. After five quarters in which average rental values fell in both City and West End office markets fell. ERV growth turned positive in the most recent quarter, rents rising by 1.5% in the City and by 0.7% in the West End.

 

 

Yield compression rather than rental movements was the driver of capital growth in Q2. Yields in the City fell by 25 bps (from 5.53% to 5.26%) in Q2. Given that the IPD Quarterly Index covers 110 City offices with a total valuation of £4.4bn, such a large inward yield shift shows that it was not just a few, prime properties that benefited from yield hardening – it was a far larger subset where yields moved in. West End yields saw a much more modest inward yield shift of 6 bp average. West End yields are almost a full percentage point lower than those of the City in the MSCI database while, according to Savills, prime West End yields are 75 bps lower than those in the City.

 

 

 

Summing up, it is remarkable just how well the central London office market has weathered the recent storms. Not only has it had to cope with the implications of the Brexit vote, it has had to endure a lengthy period in which much of the office space has effectively become redundant.

Take up and investment transactions are picking up, but remain well below recent years’ figures while vacant space is rising to worrying levels, especially in the City. On many counts, central London offices look fairly priced, as long as general interest rates remain where they are. However, it is difficult to see where rental growth is going to come from in the short term.

High vacancy rates and a poor outlook for rental growth implies that central London offices are vulnerable to changes in investor sentiment and upward yield pressure.

 

Finally, it is worth considering the wider picture. Most commercial property markets, and certainly those in western Europe, are experiencing not dissimilar features such as lower take up and curtailed development. Huge quantitative easing policies have lowered interest rates around the globe, consequently leading to low property yields and higher asset prices. Under that scenario, London offices look favourably priced against its European peers. According to BNP Paribas, prime West End yields, despite standing at a near all-time low, are now higher than those of Paris, Frankfurt and Milan. Conversely, the continental office markets are generally looking expensive.

All investment and take up data and statistics from Savills, unless stated; all performance statistics from MSCI; all graphs by the author.

Stewart Cowe, August 2021

Continuing focus on ESG initiatives

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We have been busy across the Cordatus Property Trust portfolio completing a number of ESG initiatives in 2020, but our work is never complete with a focus on ongoing projects for 2021.  A couple of examples of the work completed last year are:

33 Bothwell Street, Glasgow

The 2nd floor vacant office suite was stripped back to shell condition and the gas-fired wet panel heating system was removed. The refurbishment works included the installation of a new ceiling system, with LED lighting and PIR motion sensors, plus a new 7 zone, 2 pipe VRF heating and cooling system.  On completion of the works, the accommodation received an EPC rating B.

The reception area of the building was also upgraded. Works included the replacement of the reception desk and furniture, new flooring and wall coverings. Lights were replaced with new LED lighting.

  Minster Court, Littlehampton

We took back an industrial unit totalling 3,200 sqft, which had been heavily fitted out as a food processing unit. We undertook strip out and refurbishment works, in order to bring the unit up to a lettable standard. The works included the removal of two cold storage units, a mezzanine structure, three industrial cookers and a thorough overhaul of the electrical system and services throughout.

The project presented an opportunity to review the unit’s ESG credentials and upgrade accordingly. We were able to replace the existing lighting with LEDs, plus the removal of an old inefficient boiler with a new electric flue boiler designed to heat re-circulated water within the heating system therefore recycling water and reducing waste.

2021 ESG Initiatives Underway

In 2020 we completed a BREEAM In-Use assessment of Queen Square House, Bristol. The assessment resulted in an Acceptable rating, will boost the fund’s GRESB score in 2021 and will be used to inform the ESG performance of the asset going forward. To assist with this a BREEAM In-Use Improvement Plan has been produced and will be reviewed to identify appropriate actions that can be implemented in the coming years.

We are also reviewing the energy performance of the whole portfolio. One element of this is updating and improving the EPC ratings on all units and taking a risk based approach to EPC improvement. A second element of our energy performance review is targeted energy audits at our assets with the highest energy consumption. The first asset we are targeting for an energy audit is the Lisnagelvin Shopping Centre in Londonderry. An initial desk-based assessment has been completed and an on-site audit will be undertaken once Covid restrictions are lifted.

Another key priority is to fully understand the Taskforce on Climate related Financial Disclosure (TCFD) recommendations and how they apply to the portfolio and assets so that the portfolio is resilient to climate related risks. As part of this we are considering different options for the assessment of physical and transition risks. This will include making use of the Carbon Risk Real Estate Monitor (CRREM) tool to assess the transition risks associated with assets for which we have data.

Second Annual Cordatus ESG Award

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We are delighted to confirm that the winner of this year’s Cordatus ESG Award is Andrew Murray.

The award encourages the Cordatus team to continually think about these important issues as part of the day to day portfolio management of their assets. This year there were a record number of submissions, all of which were of high quality.

After careful deliberation, the judging panel felt that Andrew’s submission however demonstrated a clear understanding of not just the importance of the ‘E’ of ESG in the real estate sector but also the ‘S’ and a range of successful initiatives were recorded across a wide range of property types and locations.

Andrew commented:

“I am delighted to be awarded this accolade for the second year running and I would like to think of this is a team effort alongside our property managers and consultants, as we continually strive to improve the ESG credentials of our assets under management. Whilst last year had the additional complications from COVID-19, we were still able to implement a wide range of ESG improvements across our assets both from refurbishments as well as through a number of community creativities, such as offering NHS key workers discounts and priority queuing at our neighbourhood centres. We also have some very interesting ideas for the year ahead, including the potential introduction of bee hives and bug hotels at some of our industrial estates.”

An Amazon e-voucher of £100 was awarded to the winner.

Harrow auction success

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Despite views from some that the high street investment market is uniformly difficult we demonstrated in a recent auction that there is strong demand in certain micro markets.

As part of a rebalancing exercise Cordatus Property Trust has sold 82-84 St Anns Road, Harrow for £3.25m , some 75% above the guide price. The lot was the largest in the Acuitus auction and attracted intense bidding from a large number of private investors. The price achieved reflected the demand for retail units with accompanying residential development potential in a market that has been largely starved of opportunities.

The sale reflects our policy of always employing a bottom up as well as a top down strategy when it comes to both purchases and sales.

Economic and Market Commentary Q1 2021

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Brexit news

The post-Brexit Trade and Co-operation Agreement between the UK and the EU, which had been operating provisionally since January, was formally ratified by the European Parliament at the end of April.  MEPs voted overwhelmingly for the trade deal by 660 votes to 5.

The agreement now comes into force despite reservations on both sides about fishing rights and the difficulties over Northern Ireland trade. The first of, no doubt, several stand offs occurred just a few days after the Agreement’s ratification, resulting in warships being deployed to protect the Jersey fishing fleet. Ironic, as Jersey is neither part of the UK nor in the EU, but is a Crown dependency so is defended and represented internationally by the UK government. Gunboat diplomacy at its most basic!

A reminder that the trade deal covers the trade in goods only and we await any news on future trade between the two on the likes of financial services.

Meanwhile trade between the two recovered in February after the significant drop the month before. UK exports to the EU jumped by 46% in February after January’s 42% fall. It does, though, mean than exports are still down roughly 15% over the first two months of the year. While some of the reduction in trade was down to added bureaucracy, many companies were bringing forward business ahead of the implementation of the new rules, thereby increasing trade in late 2020 at the expense of trade in the early months of this year.

The UK and India have announced a new, enhanced trade deal between the two countries, with the aim of doubling trade by 2030. And hopes of a deal with the US have risen with the American Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, suggesting that the dialogue between the countries could be revived.

Global economy

It is now just over a year since the World Health Organization declared Covid-19 a global pandemic. Many lives have been lost, economies shattered and billions spent on protecting jobs and businesses but much, too, has been achieved in the last 13 months, none more so than the rollout of several vaccines at record pace. However, many hurdles and uncertainties remain.

Infection rates and mortality rates are still stubbornly high in many countries and vaccination programmes are not progressing as quickly as desired in some countries. Yet there is much reason for optimism about the near term.

The vaccination programmes should lower future infection rates. Economies, businesses and individuals have adapted remarkably well to the constraints imposed while the massive fiscal support that many countries have employed, and are still doing, brings a more positive feel for economic activity.

We are now forecasting a stronger recovery this year and next for the global economy compared to our forecast three months ago, although the upgrade is substantially brought about by the better growth prospects for the US. We are now expecting world growth to be 6% this year and 4.4% next year, an increase of 80 and 50 basis points respectively from the January forecast.

Forecasts for the US have increased significantly since our previous report. Our expectation for growth this year has been hiked from an already strong 5.1% to our present 6.4%. Next year’s forecast has been upped by one percentage point to 3.5%.

Much of these increases are on the passing of the ‘American Recovery Plan’ act. The £1.9tr package is one the largest in US history and includes $1,400 payments to every US citizen, an extension of unemployment benefits and a child tax credit. It is estimated that this stimulus is in itself responsible for adding one percentage point to expected global growth over 2021 and 2022 combined.

Not content with seeing through the Recovery Plan, President Biden is now proposing an even bigger $2.3tr package to upgrade the country’s aged infrastructure and in tacking climate change. It is likely that will be financed through raising corporate taxes and increasing public spending and these features alone will alienate Republicans. The Democrats are divided over the magnitude of the proposals so Biden will have his work cut out to ensure this policy is passed.

It is evident that the pace of recovery is differing significantly not just across countries but also within countries. Much of these divergences can be linked to the varying pace of vaccination, although the extent of economic policy support and other structural factors (most noticeably, countries depending on tourism) are relevant. Already China has surpassed its pre-Covid level of GDP, the US is now forecast to do so later this year, but many others may take up to another two to three years to regain their pre Covid levels of activity.

Of increasing concern is the probable return of inflation. Already energy prices are increasing (oil prices have trebled over the course of the last twelve months), commodity prices are rising and while there is no prospect of inflation increasing anywhere near levels seen in the 1970s and 1980s, rates moving above the 2% levels central bankers have been targeting are likely. Some US investors are already putting money into inflation-linked government bonds, a sure sign of their concerns over the re-awakening of inflation.

The EU economy

In contrast to the booming US economy, the eurozone’s economy fell back into recession in Q1, 2021. An overall 0.6% shrinkage in the latest, January to March, quarter followed the 0.7% reduction in Q4. These last two quarters’ contractions marked the second such recession for the eurozone (defined as two successive quarterly declines in GDP) since the onset of the pandemic.

The first quarter’s data has clearly been affected by the renewed surge of Covid-19 infections and the resultant restrictions imposed but it is also evident that different countries have been experiencing differing levels of, and timings of both rising infections and tighter restrictions. To date, only Italy of the larger continental economies has plunged into recession this time, having contracted in both the last two quarters. France, Germany and Spain have managed to post growth in one or other of the last two quarters.

Germany was the most affected large economy in Q1 with a 1.7% contraction. A hike in value added tax in January following a temporary cut last year to support the economy was a key contributing factor in the decline.

Much of the pessimism about the near-term performance of the economy across continental Europe relates to the slow roll out of the vaccination programme. At the date of publishing this report, vaccines have been administered to approximately 30% of the EU population, compared to 46% in the US and 53% in the UK. Comparing the number of individuals who have received both doses, the EU (roughly 10%) trails the US (32%) and the UK (26%) (source: Johns Hopkins University).

Despite the job retention schemes that were introduced last year, unemployment increased over the summer of 2020. The unemployment rate for the euro-area peaked at 8.7% in August. It has fallen back to 8.1% or 13.2m unemployed. Over the course of the last twelve months, unemployment has increased in the euro-area by 1.6m.

The UK economy

The outlook for the UK looks brighter now than at any time during the Covid period. While activity has undoubtedly been affected by the most recent lockdown, businesses have adapted more effectively to the latest restrictions, thereby ensuring that the hit to the economy during the most recent lockdown is much less than during the initial one in Spring 2020. Then, the economy shrank by roughly 20%: contrast that with the first estimate of a 1.5% hit during the post-Christmas lockdown.

There are three main reasons for the improving confidence in the economy – the aforementioned business resilience, the rapidly improving rates of business and consumer confidence brought about by the rapid rollout and acceptance of the vaccination programme and the belief that UK consumers will soon be spending at least some of their accumulated cash savings. Continental Europeans must be looking enviously across the Channel at the speed of Britain’s vaccinations given their much discussed problems.

That is not to say that the UK is completely set fair. News that public sector borrowing hit £303bn for the year to March 2021 is a sobering reminder of the economic cost of the pandemic. That huge figure is almost £250bn higher than the total for the previous (pre-Covid) total and double that of the 2009/10 year at the height of the global financial crash. However, even that huge level of borrowing, equivalent to 14.5% of GDP, is still £24bn lower than the Office of Budget Responsibility had forecast just a few weeks earlier at the time of the Budget.

Consumer confidence hit a pandemic high in March while the re-opening of non-essential shops in April was eagerly anticipated by the frustrated shoppers. Additionally, a Deloitte survey showed that optimism amongst chief financial officers (CFOs) has risen to a record high. The same survey showed that CFOs have moved from defensive strategies to expansionary ones. Much of this optimism is down to the amount of savings the typical consumer has built up over the last twelve months. Many commentators believe that Britain is poised for a consumer boom. And judging by the lengthy queues pictured outside Primark, to name just one retailer, when it re-opened, few would bet against that expectation.

The UK’s GDP fared better than expected during Q4 2020, posting growth of 1.0% when most were anticipating contraction. The first estimate of a 1.5% contraction in Q1, encompassing a full three months of lockdown, was better than expected. And forecasts for Q2 and later are being upgraded almost daily. The IMF forecasts growth of 5.3% this year followed by 5.1% next. These have been increased by 80 and 10 bps respectively from last quarter’s report. More optimistic forecasts from Deloitte, Capital Economics and EY published in late April suggest that cumulative growth rates over this year and next could be up to 3 percentage points higher. The latter two named indicate that the UK will surpass its pre-Covid level of GDP in the second quarter of next year. As we go to print, the Bank of England has added to the good news by intimating that the UK is poised to grow by 7.25% this year, the fastest rate since comparable records began in 1949.

Further good news appeared with the news that the UK service sector, which accounts for over three-quarters of the UK economy, recorded its fastest rate of growth since October 2013 according to the widely respected IHS Markit/CIPS purchasing managers’ index for April. The latest monthly index of 61 was significantly above the previous month’s 56.3 and was the highest for over seven years. Tim Moore, economics director of IHS Markit welcomed the news, adding that the “April data illustrates that a surge in pent-up demand has started to flow through the UK economy, following the loosening of pandemic conditions”.

The feel-good factor has also manifested in a boom in house sales and house prices. House price growth usually moves in tandem with the economy; rarely do house prices rise during recessions, and if so, then not at the rate seen this year. Yet that is what has occurred. Over the last twelve months, average house prices increased by 8.2% (source: Halifax) while homeowners borrowed a record £12bn more than they repaid in April – the highest monthly amount borrowed in the 28 years that the Bank of England have been monitoring mortgage statistics. The pandemic may be responsible for some of this, with homeowners seeking to move to more appropriate houses but of equal importance are the low interest rates and the stamp duty holiday which has now been extended for home buyers in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Much of the optimism surrounding the UK economy is based on the expectation that, now the vaccination programme is progressing well and the government’s ‘roadmap’ out of the restrictions is seemingly on track, Britons will spend much of the savings they have accrued during the last twelve months or so. Survey data indicate that consumers have amassed between £150bn and £180bn since the start of the pandemic. Clearly not all will be spent – the Bank of England reports that consumers have been repaying non-mortgage debt in ever-increasing amounts – but retailers are eagerly awaiting a significant proportion of that being deployed to bolster retail spending.

Nevertheless, unemployment has been rising over the course of the last year, but at a somewhat lower pace than initially envisaged. At the onset of the pandemic, commentators were predicting that the unemployment rate would rise to 9%. To date, that figure looks particularly pessimistic, with 4.9% currently unemployed which is up from 4.0% prior to the pandemic. However, the test is still to come when the furlough scheme ends in September. Currently, there are 4.7m workers on furlough; not all businesses, particularly those in the hospitality industry, will emerge unscathed when restrictions are fully relaxed, and unemployment could take another lurch upward in the autumn.

The Commercial Property Market 

The commercial property market, as measured by the MSCI (IPD) Quarterly Index, returned to growth in Q1 2021 with a small but noteworthy increase in capital values of 0.64%. This quarter of growth therefore ended a nine-quarter decline in average property values, the longest in the 20-year history of the index.

But the fact that it was the All Property measure that returned to growth is only half the story. Once again, the industrial sector was the star performer with average values rising another 4.0% in the quarter. This advance was sufficient to carry the rest of the market as average office and retail valuations continue to fall. There was a noticeable reduction in the magnitude of the decline in average retail valuations – the Q1 decline of 1.51% being the lowest since Q3 2018 when retail values were just starting to decline.

And though it is tempting to believe that the worst is behind the commercial property market, and that, now the All Property valuations are moving up, future quarters will show further growth, that certainly cannot be guaranteed. Much will depend on how many businesses survive the coming months, particularly when the various job retention schemes and loans to businesses end in the autumn. Further bad news on the jobs front is certain over the course of 2021 and although the debate about the future of retailing and home working will be heard for some time, sentiment will sway with every major announcement.

Valuations of industrial assets continue to rise. The 4.0% increase in average valuations in Q1 took the last twelve-month increase to 9.3%, remarkable at a time of major economic challenge. The sector has clearly benefited from investors’ flight to safety, with logistics assets in particular being perceived as much safer investments than office or retail.

In contrast, average retail assets continue to see valuation declines. But the Q1 fall is the lowest since the third quarter of 2018. Within the retail sector, shopping centres continue to show extremely weak returns. A Q1 fall of 7.9% brought the twelve-month decline to over 28% and to a massive 55% since average valuations started their decline in 2016. There is better news about retail warehousing. A small 0.25% fall in Q1 brought the fall over the last year to a more modest 10%. Now that non-essential shops have re-opened, retail warehouses could be the retail segment where valuations are poised to recover first. Consumers, generally, remain reluctant to shop in crowded indoor malls, despite the safeguards put in place, whereas the outdoor setting of retail parks poses shoppers less issues. Add the segment’s link to house furnishings and DIY, these assets could well start performing.

While it is easy to believe that all forms of retail are suffering, supermarkets are clearly bucking the trend. An increase in average supermarket values of 1.9% took growth over the last twelve months to 5.5%. Not quite at the standard of industrial assets, but welcome nonetheless.

Tied in with the weak performance of retail assets is the continued shrinkage of the high street. The Local Data Company (LDC), which has been tracking shop openings and closures for some time, reported that 2020 was the worst year on record for closures – 17,532. And what made last year even worse was the fact that only 7,655 shops opened, the lowest number on record. Not surprisingly, the net shrinkage – the difference between the number which closed and which opened was a record high.

Emphasising how unusual last year was for retailers, city centres suffered the greatest number of closings (7.7% of the existing stock). London postcodes also fared badly with a closure rate of 6.9%. At the other end of the table, seaside towns and villages enjoyed the least number of shop closures, at 5.1% and 4.1% respectively. LDC note that this is a reversal of historical trends. For years, multiple operators have opened more sites in cities and closed units in smaller towns. As consumer and location preferences have changed over the course of the year, retailers are now preserving locations they regard having more potential in any post-pandemic environment.

Capital values across all office segments fell in Q1 but by less than 1%. This continues the robust performance of the office sector during the pandemic with average values having fallen by just 5% over the last twelve months. Perhaps surprisingly, central London offices, in particular City offices, are holding their values better than provincial ones.  Over Q1, the average values of City offices were trimmed by just 0.2% for an annual decline of 2.2%. Contrast that with the capital value performances of rest of south east and rest of UK offices which saw average declines of 0.6% and 0.8% in the quarter and 5.3% and 4.1% over the year.

In total return terms, commercial property delivered a positive return of 1.8% in the first quarter, pushing returns over the last twelve months into positive territory at 0.9%. Commercial property rarely performs during recessions, but as we have discussed before, this recession is like no other.

As can be seen in the next chart, property returns have more than held their own against other assets over the last 10 years.

Much of the reason behind commercial property’s solid returns is down to the restricted number of developments coming on stream and the huge quantitative easing programmes which have inflated real asset prices. Property has also benefited from ultra-low interest rates ensuring that the asset class delivers high levels of income, relative to other assets.

Sector issues

Industrial

Long regarded as the third sector in terms of investment and investor interest, the recent outperformance of industrial assets and positivity surrounding the sector has well merited the reassessment it has undergone. Now the largest of the three sectors by some way – making up over 30% of the MSCI (IPD) Quarterly Index – it has certainly benefited from the pandemic-induced stay at home orders and shop closures.

Investment transactions hit a 20-year quarterly high in Q4 amounting to £5.6bn and the start of 2021 has also started strongly with transactions of £3.2bn, the third highest quarterly total in the last 20 years. At a time when investment in commercial property is down markedly, industrial’s investment in Q1 2021 is almost double that seen in the equivalent quarter of 2020.

This renewed demand for safe, solid income has pushed prime industrial yields down by 50 bps over the last twelve months, to 3.75%, remarkably half that of many prime retail assets. Pressure remains for further hardening of these prime industrial yields in the short term.

Offices

The key question critical to the future performance of offices is how the future use of offices will pan out. The work from home requirement has been more successful in terms of productivity than could have been imagined, but now, more than a year after the first lockdown, there are signs of workers suffering from ‘Zoom fatigue’, and many missing the company of colleagues. Many employees enjoy the greater flexibility that working from home offers: others would prefer to return to the office as their home has not proved suitable.

Many virtual board meetings will have discussed future working arrangements. There is, though, no unanimity in their deliberations. Two of the largest financial services companies, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan have recently announced their future plans, and ensuring debate continues, they are taking different stances. On one side, Goldman has told staff to be prepared to return to the office in June. It also plans to open a new technology hub in Birmingham later this year. On the other side, JP Morgan has announced it intends to use “significantly” less office space in the future, requiring only 60 seats per 100 workers.

Irrespective of whether the Goldman or Morgan approach is the one favoured by the majority of businesses, what is clear is that work will definitely not revert back to the pre-Covid model. Surveys from several organisations have pointed to a desire by employees to a return to the office, but for just two or three days a week.

From an investment point of view, it is clear that investors will need to engage with tenants, and potential future tenants, in a way not required before. Flexibility will be the buzzword, landlords offering space that is flexible in terms of floorspace design, can be configured with all the necessary safety features, and even with greater flexibility in terms of lease length. Inserting more break clauses may not be what investors want but they may become a necessary feature for ensuring the space is let.

Retail

The performance of retail assets, on the whole, continues to disappoint. There are clearly a few bright spots, such as supermarkets and some supermarket-anchored retail parks, but for the majority of shops and shopping centres, valuations remain under downward pressure. A further 7.9% fall in average shopping centre valuations in Q1 brought the cumulative average fall over the last four years to 53%.  Investors have been reluctant to trade in this market – the few deals that have occurred recently have focussed on the potential for change of use – but there are signs that deal flow may be on the up and with a deepening pool of investors.  A test of the market will be potential sale of the Touchwood Shopping Centre in Solihull which is being marketed for £130m, an initial yield of 7.5%. A few years ago, its valuation was more than £400m.

The above valuation change calculations show only the impact of rising yields and take no account of movements in underlying rents. Factoring them in as well gives a more sobering assessment of the performance of many retail assets. However, the table below does indicate that the rate of decline in both headline and net effective rents seems to be levelling off after collapsing last summer.

Do rising bond yields point to rising property yields?

We now ponder whether property’s fortunes are about to take a hit. We mention later in the report that development completions are edging up, at a time when tenant demand remains quiet. A more fundamental concern relates to the re-emergence of inflation and the consequent increase in interest rates that would bring. While some commentators believe that inflation is a concern for only the US, yield curves around the world have been moving up in recent weeks. The equity sell-off in mid-May was a direct result of investors factoring in the return of inflation, and higher interest rates, into their portfolios.

In much the same way as the pandemic has accelerated ongoing structural changes to the economy, it has also altered the mindset of commercial property investors. Clearly, the ability to transact has been compromised during much of the last twelve months, but the pandemic has altered investors’ asset preferences. It has also impacted on investors’ ability to correctly price income, risk and obsolescence. Much of the hit to transaction volumes was down to these aspects as to the lack of stock on offer.

Changing asset thinking

The composition of the IPD Quarterly Index highlights the shift in the makeup of the index over time. Ten years ago, for example, almost half of a typical portfolio comprised retail assets, 30% were in offices and the remainder in industrials and a disparate group of ‘other’ assets such as hotels, leisure, buy-to-let residential and care homes. Fast forward five years and the transforming of the typical portfolio was underway. The most noticeable changes were a sharp reduction in retail assets, being replaced by increased allocations to industrial and ‘other’ assets. It is important to note that the move away from retail was occurring before the recent challenges to the high street manifested, and before the severe mark down of retail valuations began. Equally, the increased allocations to industrial properties preceded the major outperformance enjoyed by these assets.

Arriving at today’s typical portfolio, we see that allocations to retail properties are now barely half of what they were ten years ago, while, remarkably, the industrial asset class, historically the Cinderella of the three main sectors, is now the biggest sector in terms of valuation. That transformation was highlighted in our report three months ago when it was pointed out that the stock market listed Segro (an industrial specialist) now has a bigger market capitalisation than British Land and Land Securities (historically the largest by far) combined.

There are two different factors working on these allocation percentages. First, sales and purchases of assets out of and into the Quarterly Index and second, the relative performance of the various sectors. Clearly, the significant underperformance in valuation terms of retail assets and outperformance by industrial assets will have been a major factor in the changes to these allocation percentages. The author calculates that roughly 78% of the reduction in retail assets’ allocation can be attributed to the fall in average values, implying that 22% of the reduction has occurred because of net sales of retail asset to investors whose funds are not measured by IPD. The industrial sector allocations prove even more interesting as relative asset valuation movements explain only 61% of the sector’s increased allocation, indicating that either assets have been purchased from previous owners not measured by IPD or that investors have been developing new estates or adding to existing estates, thereby increasing their valuations.

What is certain is that investors will continue to mould their portfolios towards assets they believe will deliver the best returns. Nimble investors will seek to anticipate changes in fashion like the move into retail warehouses in the early 1980s and the more recent move into distribution and ‘last-mile’ distribution hubs. The above instances of changing sector allocations will not be the last.

Investment in commercial property across the UK amounted to £10.5bn in Q1 2021. Although this was down substantially on the levels recorded both in the previous quarter and in Q1 2020, there are signs that investor interest is on the rise. Certainly, the number of potential investors is increasing and there are clear signs that investment in some of the recently moribund retail segments is growing.

It will come as no surprise that the industrial sector amassed most transactions in the quarter – £3.2bn – the sector’s third highest quarterly total in 20 years.

Summing up

The UK commercial property market has weathered the storm remarkably well. Few commentators a year ago would have envisaged that commercial property would deliver such a resilient performance in such challenging times.

We have long believed that commercial property would continue to deliver sound performance as long as the yield argument held up. There are signs now, though, that as inflationary pressures start to build up globally, so does the prospect of rising interest rates which may feed through to rising property yields. However, we do feel that any such increase in bond yields will be modest as central bankers have indicated that policy rates will be held at current levels for some time.

Where rising interest rates may impact the commercial property market is in altering investors’ appetite for risk. Record highs in stock markets, coupled with sharp mark downs, particularly in the US, are pointing to a reawakening by investors for more risky assets. Any change in emphasis is likely to alter investors’ assessment of the risk premium for their property assets – any upwards reassessment of the risk premium deemed appropriate could well dwarf any increase in property yields brought about by rising bond yields alone. Therein lies the risk for future performance.

News flow will continue to influence one’s take on the future of the high street and the office, with the likelihood of a slimming down of the office stock needed in the future and further consolidation of town centre retail. Vacancy rates are increasing in the CBD office markets, although future development pipelines remain modest by historic standards.

 Central London offices

Take up of central London offices remains weak by historic standards although quarterly figures are gradually increasing from the lows of the second quarter of last year. Lettings in the City and West End combined in the first three months of the year amounted to 1.34m sq ft, down 34% from Q1 2020 but above that of Q4 when take up totalled 747,000 sq ft. At least lettings in Q1 are moving in the right direction, with March take up above those of January and February.

Of increasing concern to office watchers, however, is the build-up of empty office space. With limited levels of take up, completions of new developments and space being released by tenants on to the market, vacancy rates in central London are hitting levels not seen for more than a decade. There is approximately 12.3m sq ft of vacant space in the City, equating to a vacancy rate of 8.9%. Over 60% of that is in the City core where the vacancy rate is over 11%. The West End is faring marginally better – its 7.8m sq ft of empty space equating to a vacancy rate of 6.9%. One saving grace is that the majority of this empty space is of Grade A quality.

Over the course of the next 3½ years (to the end of 2024), approximately 16.6m sq ft of new development and refurbishment is due to be completed in the City.  In the West End, the equivalent figure is 12.6m sq ft. Of that total, 21% has been pre-let, implying that over 23m sq ft is being developed speculatively. While that may seem high in current markets, a return to more ‘normal’ letting markets would soon soak up this new space: average yearly take up in the City and West End office markets has exceeded 10m sq ft over the last decade. However, the scale of developments alone does not tell the full story about the extent of vacant space and its likely path in the coming months and years. Much will rest on how much space tenants feel compelled to place on the market as they themselves opt to downsize their office requirements.

Investor interest in central London offices remains firm but restrictions on viewings and the limited stock being put on the market are curtailing the actual number of transactions. Total deals in the two sub markets in Q1 amounted to £1.33bn, just over half of that transacted in the equivalent quarter twelve months previously. At least the latest quarterly deals exceeded the low points of the second and third quarters of last year. However, by way of comparison, in investment terms, Q1 2021 marked the lowest first quarter in term of transactions since 2009.

The lack of stock being offered to the market was highlighted by the fact that only one of the twelve properties sold in the City during Q1 was first marketed in that quarter.

The future of the office has already been aired in the previous section but a transaction in the West End indicates that one investor has opted to convert unused office space into 42 residential units plus ground floor retail. Bain Capital, the US investor, bought Grosvenor Gardens House in Belgravia for £80m, reputably £10m above the guide price in a competitive bid.

Capital values are still under downward pressure, but by less than fundamentals would have suggested. Despite a weak lettings market and modest levels of investor demand, average City office values fell by just 0.2% in Q1 for a twelve month fall of 2.2%. City offices though outperformed their neighbours as West End offices declined on average by 0.3% in the quarter for an annual fall of 6.6%. Last year marked the fourth successive year that average City office values outperformed their West End neighbours, a trend that has extended into 2021. Given the West End’s lower vacancy rate, lower number of developments coming on stream and the traditionally wider occupier base, that is an anomaly that could be soon reversed.

Summing up.

London office watchers will have been pleased, and no doubt a little relieved that the performance of both City and West End offices has held up so well, so far. Not only did these segments have to contend with Brexit uncertainties, they were faced with further economic uncertainty in the form of the pandemic.

Perhaps the first twelve months will prove to be the easiest period. Perhaps rising vacancy levels, the prospect of a large downward assessments of some occupiers’ requirements and the possible rising property yields will be the story of 2021 and beyond? Perhaps ….

Nonetheless, we still believe that it is premature to signal the end of the office as we know it. The debate over the future use and size of the office will continue for some time. For every major employer signalling the demise of the office, there will no doubt be similar numbers voicing their benefits. What is clear, though, is that the future office will have to offer flexibility and to that end, landlords will have to engage with their tenants (and potential future tenants) in ways not envisaged before.

Sentiment will continue to feature heavily on central London offices. Home to many of Britain’s biggest and high-profile employers, they will continue to generate and dominate press headlines.

Values have been declining for several quarters and only an optimist would suggest a rapid change in direction. With rising vacancy rates, rents will remain under downward pressure for some time, but we repeat that we do see a major hit to valuations in the coming months. Longer term, there is concern that rising bond yields could spill over to push up property yields but more of a worry, in our belief, are changes to the risk premium that investors will require for investing in bricks and mortar.

 

All investment and take up data and statistics from Savills, unless stated; all performance statistics from MSCI; all graphs by the author.

Stewart Cowe, May 2021

Cordatus Appoints Middle East Head

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Cordatus are delighted to appoint Bassam Kameshki as its Head of Middle East with responsibility for relationship management in the GCC region.

Bassam is a seasoned Real Estate Professional with over 13 years of diversified real estate experience, starting his professional career in project and development management then spending time in corporate real estate consultancy and real estate investment banking. Throughout his career he has worked with top regional real estate consultants and banks providing him with a rich exposure to different stakeholders and industries within the real estate sector.

Bassam was previously Head of Real Estate Asset Management at Al Salam Bank, the largest Islamic Commercial Bank in Bahrain and before that the Head of Real Estate Investments at Ibdar Bank mainly managing its international real estate portfolio between UK and USA.

Bassam has worked with several regional and international real estate partners and has an in-depth experience in advising on the right real estate investment on both; regional and international markets.

Bassam will split his time between the GCC region and London.

Bassam’s contact details are as follows:-

Bassam Kameshki

Head of Middle East

Cordatus Real Estate Limited

 M +973 (0) 3964 5400

Email:  bkameshki@cordatus-re.com

 

Cordatus launches Middle East Partnership

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  • The Cordatus Platform will enable direct and easy access to UK real estate for Middle East investors
  •  The Partnership aims to capitalise on enduring confidence in UK market from Gulf-based clients

Cordatus Real Estate (‘Cordatus’) and JISR Holdings have today 8th March 2021 announced the creation of a partnership to provide Middle East based clients with direct and easy access to UK real estate.

The Cordatus platform enables investors direct and easy access to UK real estate opportunities. Cordatus is a full-service provider, sourcing opportunities, structuring, and transacting deals, asset managing business plans and managing exits to maximise investor risk adjusted returns.

Having a Middle East partnership is part of Cordatus business expansion strategy to tap into new regions. The target through this partnership is for Cordatus to become the investment management partner of choice for Middle East investors seeking to invest in the UK.

Cordatus is looking to achieve total investment volumes of approximately £200m during 2021, reflecting the enduring appetite for UK commercial property assets with Middle East based investors.

Anticipated acquisitions are expected to be between £10m and £50m million , across all  sectors (office/industrial/retail and residential) focussing on opportunities that present strong and sustainable cash on cash returns that are in line with investors risk profile.

Talal Al Zain, Founder of JISR Holding said: “This new partnership will enable us to match clients’ appetite with attractive UK assets, drawing on both partners’ expertise to create a compelling proposition. The partnership’s Middle East office in Bahrain brings us to be closer to our clients and will allow us to provide an outstanding service and constant support.”

Michael Cunningham, Cordatus Director said: “We believe in long-term relationships with our investors by maintaining the highest standards of trust, ethics and governance.  We spent considerable time looking for a Middle Eastern partner to be the right fit and we are confident JISR will prove to be that partner.  Cordatus and JISR both share the same values, are run by highly-respected teams, and have proven track records that are second to none.”

The business will be run on a day-to-day basis by Cordatus directors Michael Cunningham and Gavin Munn together with the Head of Middle East, Bassam Kameshki, who will manage the relationships on the ground.

The partnership will operate from offices in London, Edinburgh and Bahrain.

-ends-

Further information, contact:

Ben Copithorne / Richard Pia

Camargue

T: 020 7636 7366 / bcopithorne@camargue.uk / rpia@camargue.uk

 

About Cordatus Real Estate (“Cordatus”)

Established in 2006, Cordatus Real Estate is an independently owned real estate asset management specialist. Its directors have over 170 years of combined experience in the UK property market, having held senior positions in some of the UK’s largest investing institutions and property developers.

Cordatus operates out of offices in Edinburgh, the Midlands and London.  Its directors are Michael Cunningham, Mike Channing, Gavin Munn and Paul Blyth.

www.cordatus-re.com

 

About JISR Holding (“JISR”)

JISR is a consultancy company, with the prime focus on Business-to-Business (B2B), providing consulting services to financial intuitions, pensions, governments, insurance companies, international fund managers, corporations, sovereign wealth funds, financial professionals, family offices, and high net-worth individuals.

 

Our vision is to build a leading brand in the Middle East with a core focus on Advisory, Restructuring, and Multi Family Offices (MFOs) through specialized entities and presenting innovative ideas and solutions, expertise and highest levels of integrity to our clients.

 

JISR firmly believes in serving our stakeholders by advising on investment strategies that delivers long-lasting returns that are achieved by a shared commitment to our investment philosophy, long-term disciplined approach and adhere to the highest standards of fiduciary responsibility that is fully geared towards our stakeholders’ interests.

 

https://www.jisr.com/

Cordatus Property Trust celebrates fifth anniversary with market-beating returns

By | News
  • Portfolio delivers a total return of 6.04% p.a. over the 5-year period against 3.78% p.a. for the index.
  • Income return of 6.42% p.a. also outperforms the index benchmark of 4.56% p.a.

The Cordatus Property Trust (CPT) – the flagship fund of Cordatus Real Estate (‘Cordatus’) – marked its fifth anniversary by significantly outperforming its index and posting impressive returns.

With the MSCI Quarterly Index results for December 2020 just released, the Trust has performed extremely well, outperforming its benchmark over every time period: 3 months, 1 year, 3 years and 5 years for the main measures of Total Return, Income Return and Capital Return.

The Trust’s portfolio delivered a total return of 6.04% p.a. over the 5-year period against 3.78% p.a. for the index.

Crucially for an income focussed fund, the income return of 6.42% p.a. over the same period was ahead of the 4.56% p.a. recorded for the index. This ranked the Trust on the 4th percentile for income returns.

Mike Channing, four time Standard & Poors performance award winning fund manager, Chief Executive of Cordatus and Fund Manager of CPT commented:

“These strong performance numbers are testament to our rigorous investment process and our hands-on, active asset management – fundamental skills that are important at all times.

“Last year one was of the most challenging in my 30 years of real estate fund management and I am pleased that Cordatus Property Trust continued to perform so well in testing market conditions.”

The Cordatus Property Trust was established in December 2015, with the objective to provide investors with returns through a diversified portfolio of core/core plus income producing assets designed to deliver income with an element of capital appreciation and with a focus on smaller lot sized assets (typically in the lot size range £3m to £17.5m).

  • The Trust currently has a portfolio valued at c. £159m, with 50 properties and 229 tenancies.
  • The property portfolio is 52% weighted to industrial assets.
  • Rent collection for 2020 averaged 96.1%.
  • During the year (2020), 26 new lettings and 20 lease renewals were completed, adding or securing over £1.45m of annual income.

 

Encouraged by these results, Cordatus is looking forward to building on the success of CPT over the next 5 years.

-ends-

Further information, contact:

Ben Copithorne / Richard Pia

Camargue

T: 020 7636 7366 / bcopithorne@camargue.uk / rpia@camargue.uk

 

About Cordatus Real Estate (“Cordatus”)

Established in 2006, Cordatus Real Estate is an independently owned real estate asset management specialist. Its directors have over 140 years of combined experience in the UK property market, having held senior positions in some of the UK’s largest investing institutions and property developers.

Cordatus operates out of offices in Edinburgh, the Midlands , London and Bahrain. Its directors are Michael Cunningham, Mike Channing, Gavin Munn and Paul Blyth.

www.cordatus-re.com

Economic and Market Commentary Q4 2020

By | News

Brexit news

Brexit-weary Britons received an early Christmas present with the announcement that the UK and the EU had finally agreed a trade deal. Despite both sides threatening to abort the talks during the last few, frenetic weeks, the deal was finally signed by both parties on 30 December. The EU has made a habit of dragging out negotiations to the wire – recall the Greek bail out and more recently, the €750bn “Next Generation“ recovery fund – this time, both sides left it almost to the closing minutes before announcing that agreement had been reached.

While Prime Minister Johnson claims that “Brexit is done”, the reality is far from that. The deal only involves the importing and exporting of goods, and does not cover, for example, financial services, which account for a sizeable percentage of Britain’s workforce and trade with the EU. Even the Prime Minister acknowledged that the Brexit deal “perhaps does not go as far as we would like” for financial services. It is hoped that a co-operation agreement will be signed by the two parties on financial services by March. Going by past experience, any deal is unlikely to be ratified soon.   

Even though the trade deal is now in force, ensuring that goods flowing between the two regions are free of tariffs, companies have not been finding trade as frictionless as before. Bureaucracy has increased significantly resulting in delays on both sides of the channel, and evidence is appearing that some foodstuffs are having to be destroyed owing to the delays in arriving at the end user. Whether these features will be ongoing issues or merely teething troubles will only become evident in the coming weeks and months.

Over the course of 2020, Britain signed more than 50 trade deals with countries outside the EU, but one that failed to be completed was one with the United States. It had been anticipated that signing a trade deal with the Trump administration would have been easier and quicker than with any future president, but no deal emerged. President Biden no doubt has far more in his in tray at present than concerning himself with the relatively small matter of a trade deal with Britain.

One potential trade deal that may be announced soon is that with the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP-11) which is the recently agreed trade agreement between 11 Pacific rim countries. While the population of these countries totals 500 million, or roughly 10% larger than the EU, they account for less than 9% of Britain’s trade.

 

Global economy

Following on from somewhat higher rates of activity in the second half of last year, our expectation for global growth in 2020 has been raised by 90 basis points from our -4.4% forecast three months ago to -3.5%. This outturn would have been even better had many countries not been in some form of lockdown in Q4, caused by a further wave of Covid-19 infections and more worryingly, new and more easily transmittable strains of the virus.

However, 2021 began with the news that vaccines have been approved for general use and that the vaccination rollout is progressing in many countries. This fact alone has brought about improvements to our global activity forecast for this year, increased by 30 bps from October’s 5.2%. The outlook for next year is unchanged at 4.2%. The availability of the vaccines is the prime reason behind the belief that downside risks to our forecasts are now lower than for some time.

The improvements to the forecasts are not evenly spread; much will depend on the ability of countries to source and pay for the vaccine. Aside from the boost given by the vaccination programme, the upgrades reflect government spending measures, particularly in the US and Japan, which see cumulative upgrades of 160 bps and 150 bps respectively over 2021 and 2022 combined. In contrast, Europe’s fortunes have been reduced by a total of 50 bps over this year and next. 

Q3 growth mostly surprised on the upside. Private consumption rebounded strongly but in contrast, apart from in China, investment has been slower to improve. The momentum behind the strong Q3 numbers, however, has not been carried on to Q4. Rising numbers of cases in many countries plus the consequent lockdowns imposed have stalled, at best, this recovery. With lockdowns still in place, there are fears that many countries will face a further recession, reporting declines in GDP in both the final quarter of 2020 and the first quarter of 2021.

Vaccinations aside, a lot still has to be done on the economic front to limit permanent damage from the severe contraction in activity last year. The two-year forecasts assume that the vaccination programmes are rolled out by mid-2021 for most advanced countries and by the second half of 2022 for most other countries. Together with improved testing and tracing practices, transmission of the virus will be brought under control everywhere at low levels within two years. This year sees further huge fiscal support in the US, Japan and the EU, while fiscal deficits should decline in most countries as revenues increase and government spending falls with the recovery. Additionally, financial conditions are expected to remain supportive for some time.

The Q4 GDP reporting season got off to an upbeat start with the US announcing a better than expected annualised growth of 4%, although that was down significantly from the rebound seen in the previous quarter. Over 2020 as a whole, the US economy shrank by 3.4%, the sharpest fall since 1946. It is likely that the US will have performed better than most other major economies in both Q4 and over 2020.

With the Democrats now in control of both houses in Congress, President Biden appears to have a clear mandate to implement fresh policies and indeed to reverse some of his predecessors’. Raising the minimum wage and paying higher Social Security payments are key policy changes which should drive household consumption, the “Buy American” laws will seek to protect and boost jobs, while the US pledges to re-engage with the Paris Climate Accord.

 

The EU economy

Most countries performed better economically than anticipated during Q2 and Q3 enabling us to up our forecast of activity for 2020 as a whole by 110 bps. However, lockdown measures across many continental countries towards the end of last year has prompted a downward reassessment of activity in Q4 and the start of 2021 and has resulted in trimming our full year estimate for the year by 1 percentage point to +4.2%. These changes confirm that the single currency bloc will suffer a              permanent loss of output resulting from the pandemic. Indications currently suggest that the eurozone will not recover its pre-Covid level until late 2022 or early 2023. This recovery, though, will not be uniform across the 19-nation bloc, nor uniform across sectors.

Policy responses by the European Central Bank and individual countries have certainly cushioned the impact of the pandemic, though the 7% – 8% estimated contraction for 2020 is by far the worst annual figure in the short life of the eurozone. Individual countries have seen a wide divergence in activity, ranging from the almost euphoric outcome of just a 5% contraction in Germany to the much greater losses experienced in the more tourism-focussed countries of southern Europe.

The eurozone has the luxury of ultra-low interest rates. Consequently, member countries and the European Central Bank enjoy low borrowing costs which is a major benefit at a time when debt levels for many are at elevated levels. With inflation expectations also muted, monetary policy can remain supportive until the recovery takes hold.

 

Despite the job retention schemes that were introduced last year, unemployment has been rising across the continent. The number unemployed in the euro area at the end of the year has increased to 13.67 million or 8.3% of the working age population, an increase of 1.5 million in the year. The similar figures for the EU as a whole are 16 million unemployed, up almost 2 million in the year or a rate of 7.5%.

 

The UK economy

Economic modelling at the outset of the pandemic last year anticipated a deep but relatively short downturn in the first half of the year followed by a strong rebound in the second half. While the downturn generally fell in line with expectations, the recovery has somewhat stalled owing to the emergence of further, more easily transmitted forms of the disease. Activity in the UK failed to build upon a solid recovery in the third quarter, with strict lockdowns being imposed before and after Christmas resulting in yet more pain for retailers and the likely creation of a double dip recession. 

2021 is going to be a battle between the fast-spreading virus and the optimism that the Covid-19 vaccine rollout will allow life to get back to some sort of normality. But the current downturn indicates that activity will not regain its pre pandemic level until sometime in 2022. The arrival of the vaccine has at least limited further downside risks but we are anticipating that the economy will still only claw back roughly 40% of the estimated 10% 2020 decline this year. 

The travails of the retail sector have been a regular feature of this report over the last few years … and with good reason. Retailers suffered their worst annual sales performance on record last year, driven by a slump in demand for fashion and homeware products. While food sales were 5.4% ahead of the 2019 amount, non-food sales fell about 5%, according to the British Retail Consortium.

It therefore came as no surprise that job losses in the retail industry hit another high last year with a loss of almost 180,000 jobs (source: Centre for Retail Research). There is not expected to be any respite this year either, with the trade body expecting another 200,000 jobs to disappear. But while the retail sector has been at the forefront of job losses during the pandemic, it is important to realise that it is not only the retail industry undergoing rationalisation. The fact that unemployment has risen by over 400,000 (source: ONS) since the beginning of the crisis highlights that it is not just retailers that are suffering.

Many leisure and hospitality ventures are struggling to cope with enforced closure and apart from the retail industry already mentioned, it is these sectors of the economy which are likely to suffer most in terms of job losses. Some pain has been deferred owing to the furlough schemes and other help provided by the government, but many of these, previously vibrant parts of the local and town communities, will be lost for ever.

The new year could not have begun with more sobering news that two of the high streets’ most established retailers, the Arcadia Group (owner of brands such as Top Shop and Top Man) and department store Debenhams are both going to disappear from town centres. Both companies fell into administration last year, and although the Debenhams brand and brands within the Arcadia stable have been bought by online specialists ASOS and Boohoo, neither purchaser intends keeping a high street presence. This means that over 25,000 jobs will be lost in the closure of these previously former giants of the high street.

On the brighter side, there is certainly evidence that there is a significant weight of money waiting to be unleashed into the economy when the tide turns, the vaccination programme completes and the economy returns to some sort of normality. With Britons having had limited spending options over the last year, many families will have accumulated greater than usual savings thereby offering some hope to the beleaguered retail sector. Some estimates put the amount of excess savings over the last nine months at £150bn, a figure that could grow to £200bn by April. But averages do hide the darker side to the effects of the pandemic. The Office for National Statistics has indicated that almost 9 million people had to borrow more money last year just to “get by”. Many of these individuals were young and low earners, both groups suffering more from furloughing and job losses.

In economic terms, Britain suffered a particularly bad 2020 compared to many of its peers. Reasons given by commentators for the country’s underperformance include the greater weight of the country’s service sector and Brexit uncertainties. But a report from Capital Economics argues that the UK population fell by 1.4m workers last year – primarily on account of migrants electing to return home (for either virus, job or Brexit-related reasons). Whether these workers return could have a significant bearing on activity this year. 

 

Market Commentary

Average property values fell again in Q4, extending the period of decline to nine quarters, the longest in the 20-year history of the MSCI/IDP Quarterly Index. The 0.25% decline was the lowest quarterly reduction in that nine-quarter period and continues the trend of reducing declines which prompts hope that capital values will soon start rising.

 

With the two previous quarterly results showing a narrowing of the extent of capital value falls, there was some expectation that Q4 could see a reversal of this lengthy negative trend, the possibility of which being heightened when both the recent MSCI Monthly Index and the CBRE Index showed gains.

However, unlike the period of declining values around the global financial crash (GFC) when average values in each of the three sectors fell by roughly similar amounts, the magnitude of the valuation falls this time has been more sector specific. The polarisation of valuations of, on the one hand, industrial assets, and on the other, retail assets has been stark. The Q4 quarterly total return differential between the total returns of the best and worst sectors, i.e. industrial and retail, is the widest ever recorded.

Since September 2018 (the recent peak in market valuations), average industrial values have actually risen by almost 6%. By contrast, average retail values have fallen by a massive 23%. Indeed, the collapse in retail values started much earlier, its peak in terms of average valuations being the end of 2017, and the fall in average retails since then has been 30%. Shopping centres have fared even worse, having fallen on average by 50% over that period. Given the continued bad news emanating from the retail industry, there is no sign of a quick end to the constant falling valuations.

Offices, historically the most volatile sector, have been the model of consistency recently. Over the last two years, average values have been trimmed by just 5%. Central London offices have shown divergent paths, City offices down just 1% and West End by 6% over that period. Given both Brexit and pandemic issues, either of which could have proved detrimental to both sentiment and occupier demand, these performance figures are particularly robust. 

In total return terms, commercial property delivered a positive return of 0.9% in the fourth quarter and a return of -2.3% over 2020 as a whole. Both figures can be deemed more than acceptable, given the unprecedented shocks to the economy during the year. As can be seen in the next chart, property returns have more than held their own against other assets over the last 10 years. Much of the reason behind commercial property’s solid returns are down to the huge quantitative easing programmes which has inflated real asset prices and the absence of major development recently.

Q4 benefited from a reversal of recent trends by the return of yield hardening in provincial offices and in the industrial sector, although yields still continued their outward yield drift in the retail sector. Yield hardening was noticeably prevalent in industrials, accounting for most of the sector’s average capital value growth of 5.2% in the quarter.

The lower rate of decline in average property valuations is in stark contrast to the events of a decade ago. During the GFC, and over an eight-quarter period, average commercial property valuations fell by 44%; this time, average valuations have fallen by 10% over the last nine quarters.

 

The changing UK commercial property landscape is clearly illustrated by the real estate investment trust (REIT) market. Currently the largest stock by a large margin is Segro with a market capitalisation of over £11bn – a valuation greater than the combined market valuations of Land Securities and British Land, two previous giants, but whose market caps have tumbled in line with the valuations of their assets. Segro, a specialist in the industrial market, has seen its valuation soar as online shopping has taken off and the values of its predominantly industrial assets have risen. It is reckoned that every extra £1bn spent online last year required almost 1m sq ft of distribution space. And in another chilling reminder of the power and reach of Amazon, the internet giant leased a quarter of the 50m sq ft of warehouse space let in the UK last year.

The outperformance of industrial properties plus strong demand for industrial units have pushed Segro shares to a premium rating (over its net asset value), compared to the deep discounts of the more general trusts. 

In contrast to the positivity surrounding industrial assets, retail assets continue their downward trend. 2020 was the worst year for job losses in more than a quarter of a century with an estimated 176,000 retail jobs lost and this year has begun with equally grim news. As mentioned earlier, the collapse of Debenhams and Arcadia will see their shops disappear from the high street, adding yet more vacant space to struggling town centres, and making another 25,000 workers unemployed. In terms of finding new tenants for these soon to be vacant units, it is worrying that a quarter of the former BHS stores, which went bust over four years ago, are still lying empty (source: Local Data Company, August 2020). At this stage of the evolution of the retailing landscape, it is difficult to see where alternative retailing tenants will come from. Landlords and local authorities alike are going to need the wisdom of Solomon to address this thorny issue.

A fall of 3.7% in the last quarter of the year brought the full year valuation fall of average retail assets to 17% while shopping centres fared even worse with a quarterly decline of 8.6% and a full year fall of 30%. The retail market has been hammered by the various lockdown restrictions but Covid was not the sole reason for the collapse in valuations. The industry has been undergoing a structural change for several years, the Covid crisis merely accelerating these changes.

The shopping centre market has been particularly hard hit. Some are questioning the future of these city-centre and edge of town centres. Not only have values been declining, so have investment transactions. Over the course of 2020, only £340m of shopping centres were traded (source: Knight Frank), around one-tenth of the long-term annual average. Of that, only five centres valued above £20m were traded. However, active players in this market appear to be some local authorities who are prepared to bring forward regeneration plans or bring ownership from cash-starved owners to the wider benefit of their towns.

 

Investment in commercial property fell 20% last year to £42.4bn, the third consecutive year of decline. While Covid-related restrictions on viewing were certainly one factor in the decline, one must not lose sight of the fact that, with few alternative investment opportunities presenting themselves, many institutions are reluctant to part with property assets without first having sourced a replacement. Hence the supply of suitable product on the market fell.

Office and retail sector investment was down sharply last year but demand for industrial product increased 11% from its 2019 total to £8.5bn, equating to 20% of total transactions.

 

Summing up.  The property market enters 2021 in remarkably good shape given everything that has been thrown at it. Against other asset classes, it remains good value and with the rate of decline in property valuations perhaps now nearing its conclusion, the prospects for much of the market looks favourable. We believe that commercial property will remain good value as long as interest rates remain low and the supply/demand equation remains in equilibrium.

Continued growth of online sales is the key driver for industrial/distribution units; rental growth is likely to continue as long as supply remains limited.

In contrast, the retail sector is likely to see continued pain. There seems to be no end to the bad news coming out of the high street but hopefully, once the vaccination programme is rolled out in the coming months, retailers will benefit from the spending spree that many economists predict.

It is the office sector which still divides opinion. On the one hand, rising investor interest and take up point to better times ahead: on the other, rising vacancies, development completions and tenant released space suggest caution. Add to that the uncertainty about the future place of the office in the post-Covid world.

 

Central London offices

Central London office take up increased over the closing months of the year, but, overall, 2020 turned out to be the worst for almost 20 years. The City take up in the first, pre-Covid quarter of 2020 exceeded the amount leased in the following three quarters. The West End did not fare much better in terms of the amount let, although a healthier closing quarter took the annual amount let to 1.70m sq ft. City and West End take up combined totalled 4.33m sq ft in the year, both sub markets down 60% from the total of the previous year.

Indeed, Knight Frank state that the office leasing activity over the whole of London recorded its two lowest quarters ever in Q3 and Q4. But London is not alone in posting poor letting figures. Both Paris and New York also recorded their two lowest ever quarters for letting last year, albeit having let more space than London in these quarters.

 

In terms of investment transactions in Q4, City investment of £2.14bn was down by a third on Q4 2019. Meanwhile the West End recorded its highest Q4 investment, £2.87bn, since 2014. It was notable that Land Securities and British Land took the opportunity to sell major London offices in Q4 for a combined £960m. Both purchasers were overseas investors.

 

Across all the London office markets, total transactions amounted to £12.1bn, down 13% from 2019’s total and the lowest annual figure since 2009. It is notable that, despite all the Covid-related difficulties in the market, overseas investors remain positive on UK property in general and central London offices in particular. Over the last decade, the overseas share of transactions in this market has remained in a relatively tight band around 66%, peaking at 75% in 2017 and falling to a low of 64% in 2015. The share that overseas buyers accounted for in 2020 was 66%, down 1 percentage point from the 2019 figure.

 

Investors remain risk averse, preferring properties offering secure, long dated income. Over 80% of City purchases fell into the ‘core’ or ‘core plus’ category last year, while equivalent figures for the West End are similar.

With lettings down, it comes as no surprise that vacancy levels are increasing. Voids increased sharply over the course of 2020, the City’s vacancy rate of 9.3% being the highest in eight years while it is ten years since the West End last recorded a vacancy rate as high as 5.75%. The one positive aspect of the lengthy restrictions in force for much of last year was the fact that many developments are facing delays to completion.

 

Developments alone do not tell the full story about the extent of vacant space. Across central London, the amount of tenant released space available for sub-leasing increased substantially over the course of 2020. At the start of the year, tenant controlled vacant space was estimated at 1.7m sq ft. By the end of the year, it had risen to over 6.2m sq ft, accounting for over a third of all vacant space. With many businesses facing unprecedented uncertainty over their futures, it can be expected that this space will continue to grow in the coming months as some occupiers seek to reduce costs. 

Capital values are still under downward pressure, but Q4 saw a marked divergence in the rate of decline in the sub markets. While average City offices fell in value by just 0.4%, for a 2.2% fall in the year, average West End offices had a much greater fall of 3.5% in the quarter, and a 7.0% fall over 2020. Last year marked the fourth successive year that average City office values outperformed their West End neighbours. Given the West End’s lower vacancy rate and the traditionally wider occupier base, that is an anomaly that could be soon reversed. 

Summing up, the central London office market has weathered the recent storms relatively well. Although take-up and investment transactions are picking up, they remain well below recent years’ figures. Of more concern, though, in the short term, is the growing amount of vacant space, which is made worse by the flood of tenant space coming to the market. Central London offices, like all office markets, are still in the midst of the debate over the future role of offices versus home working. In the short term, further weakness in valuations is likely.

Finally, it is worth considering the wider picture. Most commercial property markets, and certainly those in western Europe, are experiencing not dissimilar features such as lower take up and curtailed development. Huge quantitative easing policies have lowered interest rates around the globe, consequently leading to low property yields. Under that scenario, London offices look favourably priced against its European peers. According to BNP Paribas, prime West End yields, despite standing at a near all-time low, are now higher than those of Paris, Frankfurt and Milan.

 

All investment and take up data and statistics from Savills, unless stated; all performance statistics from MSCI; all graphs by the author.

Stewart Cowe, February 2021