Real-Estate Investors Flee the U.S. for a Land of Fuller Offices
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Real-Estate Investors Flee the U.S. for a Land of Fuller Offices

International investors feel bullish on Japan’s economy, with the stock market trading near a 33-year high, as a weak yen sweetens the pot

By SYLVAN LEBRUN
Wed, Jul 26, 2023 8:24amGrey Clock 3 min

TOKYO—Office building investors are in full retreat from most U.S. cities. Some are finding a haven in Japan, where most workers have returned to the office and banks are eager to lend.

Foreign investors including LaSalle Investment Management, London-based M&G, and Singaporean conglomerate Keppel are buying Japanese office buildings, attracted by the market’s stability.

Investment in Japanese office real estate hit over $4 billion in the first quarter of this year, more than double the figure a year earlier, according to JLL.

In the U.S., pension funds and property developers are selling off their office holdings at a discount. Office vacancy rates are surging in major cities, hitting 16% in Manhattan and 32% in San Francisco in the second quarter, according to CBRE. Vacancy rates in Tokyo’s central business districts have stabilised around 6%.

LaSalle bought a medium-sized office building in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district last year. PHOTO: SYLVAN LEBRUN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

“Almost every other office market in the world would trade places in a heartbeat with Tokyo,” said Calvin Chou, head of Asia-Pacific for Invesco Real Estate.

The office sector often acts as a proxy for a country’s economy, and international investors like Invesco are feeling bullish on Japan, Chou said. The stock market has been trading near a 33-year high, and property buyers’ dollars go farther thanks to the weak yen.

An additional incentive, according to investors, is the generous spread between the rent yield on office buildings and the cost of borrowing to acquire the buildings, which is low thanks to the Bank of Japan’s near-zero interest rates.

Smaller apartments and a cultural emphasis on in-person communication with colleagues spelled the swift decline of remote work in Japan. As of the end of April, office attendance rates in Tokyo were above 75%, according to NLI Research Institute. In the U.S., the average return rate is stalled at about 50%, according to data firms and industry participants.

Millions of square feet of new office space will hit the market in Tokyo and Osaka over the next few years, but analysts said they didn’t expect many empty cubicles to result.

Kunihiko Okumura, chief executive of LaSalle’s Japan branch, said his firm has continued actively buying offices in Japan over the last several years. He projected that LaSalle’s new $2.2 billion Asia Pacific real estate fund would invest 60% of its Japan allocation in office property.

In September 2022, LaSalle purchased a vacant medium-sized office building in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district, near the Park Hyatt hotel made famous in the 2003 movie “Lost in Translation.” LaSalle completed renovations in March and has already made more leasing progress than expected, Okumura said.

By contrast, LaSalle in February unloaded an office building in Santa Ana, Calif., at a loss of more than 50%.

Many foreign investors have gravitated towards Japan’s Class B or medium-size office buildings instead of top-tier properties.

“We continue to seek the assets which have been very poorly managed by property owners,” Okumura said. “That kind of inefficiency provides us with a very good opportunity to be able to push up the value of the asset and sell it to a very strong core market.”

British investor M&G paid more than $700 million last October for an office building in Yokohama, just south of Tokyo. Its head of Asia real estate, JD Lai, said the building would provide long-term stable income.

This winter, BlackRock purchased the 17-story Harumi Front office building in Tokyo, tapping a loan from Japan’s Mizuho Bank. According to the seller’s disclosure, the price was more than $250 million.

Investors across Asia are also joining the game. From Singapore, Keppel picked up a boutique office building in the Ginza neighbourhood last November, while SilkRoad acquired an office in central Tokyo as part of a six-asset portfolio buy in April.

Last year, Hong Kong private equity firm Gaw Capital helped Invesco complete a $3 billion effort to privatize the U.S. company’s office real estate investment trust in Japan, which owned 18 buildings.

“We renovated two of the assets and created common areas, and then we actually managed to raise rents quite a bit,” said Isabella Lo, a Gaw Capital managing director.

Satoru Aoyama, a senior director at Fitch Ratings in Japan, said Japanese banks have a strong lending appetite for office real-estate investments, even while U.S. financial institutions are having second thoughts.

Analysts said Japan likely isn’t a place to make large gains, given the country’s shrinking population and generally slow-growing economy. Some big players remain on the sidelines, unsure whether the work-from-home trend may come back to Japan after all.

“It’s not an exceptionally attractive market, but it’s a very solid market,” said Aoyama. In discussions with investors, he said, “we try to list concerns, but for each concern, we find a mitigant.”



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The city’s real-estate market has been hurt by high interest rates and mainland China’s economic slowdown

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Hong Kong has taken a bold step to ease a real-estate slump, scrapping a series of property taxes in an effort to turn around a market that is often seen as a proxy for the city’s beleaguered economy.

The government has removed longstanding property taxes that were imposed on nonpermanent residents, those buying a second home, or people reselling a property within two years after buying, Financial Secretary Paul Chan said in his annual budget speech on Wednesday.

The move is an attempt to revive a property market that is still one of the most expensive in the world, but that has been badly shaken by social unrest, the fallout of the government’s strict approach to containing Covid-19 and the slowdown of China’s economy . Hong Kong’s high interest rates, which track U.S. rates due to its currency peg,  have increased the pressure .

The decision to ease the tax burden could encourage more buying from people in mainland China, who have been a driving force in Hong Kong’s property market for years. Chinese tycoons, squeezed by problems at home, have  in some cases become forced sellers  of Hong Kong real estate—dealing major damage to the luxury segment.

Hong Kong’s super luxury homes  have lost more than a quarter of their value  since the middle of 2022.

The additional taxes were introduced in a series of announcements starting in 2010, when the government was focused on cooling down soaring home prices that had made Hong Kong one of the world’s least affordable property markets. They are all in the form of stamp duty, a tax imposed on property sales.

“The relevant measures are no longer necessary amidst the current economic and market conditions,” Chan said.

The tax cuts will lead to more buying and support prices in the coming months, said Eddie Kwok, senior director of valuation and advisory services at CBRE Hong Kong, a property consultant. But in the longer term, the market will remain sensitive to the level of interest rates and developers may still need to lower their prices to attract demand thanks to a stockpile of new homes, he said.

Hong Kong’s authorities had already relaxed rules last year to help revive the market, allowing home buyers to pay less upfront when buying certain properties, and cutting by half the taxes for those buying a second property and for home purchases by foreigners. By the end of 2023, the price index for private homes reached a seven-year low, according to Hong Kong’s Rating and Valuation Department.

The city’s monetary authority relaxed mortgage rules further on Wednesday, allowing potential buyers to borrow more for homes valued at around $4 million.

The shares of Hong Kong’s property developers jumped after the announcement, defying a selloff in the wider market. New World Development , Sun Hung Kai Properties and Henderson Land Development were higher in afternoon trading, clawing back some of their losses from a slide in their stock prices this year.

The city’s budget deficit will widen to about $13 billion in the coming fiscal year, which starts on April 1. That is larger than expected, Chan said. Revenues from land sales and leases, an important source of government income, will fall to about $2.5 billion, about $8.4 billion lower than the original estimate and far lower than the previous year, according to Chan.

The sweeping property measures are part of broader plans by Hong Kong’s government to prop up the city amid competition from Singapore and elsewhere. Stringent pandemic controls and anxieties about Beijing’s political crackdown led to  an exodus of local residents and foreigners  from the Asian financial centre.

But tens of thousands of Chinese nationals have arrived in the past year, the result of Hong Kong  rolling out new visa rules aimed at luring talent in 2022.

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