Wall Street Is Ready to Scoop Up Commercial Real Estate on the Cheap
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Wall Street Is Ready to Scoop Up Commercial Real Estate on the Cheap

Firms are raising billions of dollars for funds to target assets with slumping values

By PETER GRANT
Thu, Aug 17, 2023 8:14amGrey Clock 3 min

Wall Street firms are raising new funds to acquire office buildings, apartments and other troubled commercial real estate, looking to scoop up properties at a fraction of the price investors paid a few years ago.

Cohen & Steers, Goldman Sachs, EQT Exeter and BGO, formerly known as BentallGreenOak, are among the prominent names raising billions of dollars for funds to target distressed assets and other real estate with slumping values, according to regulatory filings.

“The last few weeks, I’ve been saying, ‘holy mackerel, they’re coming out of the woodwork,’” said Kevin Gannon, chief executive of Robert A. Stanger & Co., an investment-banking firm that tracks real-estate fundraising.

The new funds are seeking to capitalise on one of the most troubled commercial-property markets in decades. Values have nosedived since interest rates spiked last year, driving up borrowing costs in the highly leveraged business. The office market, one of the largest sectors, has also been clobbered by a sluggish return-to-office rate, which has sent vacancy rates soaring. Apartment buildings, an investor haven in the past, look vulnerable as owners try to refinance at much higher rates. Mall owners are contending with steep value declines, some of more than 70% over the past few years.

Commercial-property sales have been moribund until recently because most sellers haven’t been willing to cut their prices to the levels that buyers are demanding. Now, a small but growing number of office owners have begun to capitulate, unloading distressed properties.

The capitulation marks a new phase in the commercial real-estate upheaval, as more beleaguered property owners turn over properties to lenders or decide to take what they can get, rather than hold out hope for an eventual recovery. This wave of fundraising is the latest sign that sales activity is expected to increase as more sellers yield on price.

In one recent example, the owner of a downtown San Francisco office tower unloaded the property for $41 million to developer Presidio Bay. The seller, Clarion Partners, had purchased the property for $107 million in 2014.

While the clearest distress is in the office sector, many property owners with floating-rate debt may also feel pressured to sell at marked-down prices because they are unable to refinance at today’s higher rates. In addition, fund managers expect values to fall as regional banks, under pressure from this year’s rash of bank failures, unload commercial-property loan portfolios at discounted prices.

“There are selective opportunities beginning to arise for investors that are in a position to take advantage of weakness,” said Rich Hill, head of real-estate strategy for Cohen & Steers, which is aiming to raise more than $2.5 billion in a new nontraded real-estate investment trust.

Commercial-property values already have fallen about 10 to 15 percentage points from their peaks in the third quarter last year, and might fall a total of 20 to 25 percentage points, said Hill. “You have to go back to the [savings and loan] crisis and the global financial crisis to see such big declines in property valuations,” he said.

The volume of distressed commercial real estate grew by $8 billion in the second quarter, reflecting the rise in cases where the owners defaulted or lenders foreclosed, according to data provider MSCI Real Assets. That is the biggest quarterly increase since the second quarter of 2020.

While most of the new funds are looking to buy property, some are planning to lend to property owners and fill the void left by the cutback in activity from regional banks and mortgage real-estate investment trusts. With less competition, the lenders who are still active are able to charge higher rates and get better deal terms from borrowers.

Invesco Real Estate, which has a long track record of raising funds from institutional investors for real-estate credit funds, is raising its first such fund targeting the retail audience.

Many of the new funds, such as those being raised by Invesco and Cohen & Steers, are targeting individual investors. Smaller investors have shown an enormous appetite for property investments in recent years, especially with the growth of the nontraded real-estate investment trust industry which raised about $100 billion in the past seven years.

But many of the non traded REITs that were formed before last year’s rise in interest rates have been under pressure to redeem money back to investors who want to cash out. Over $9 billion was redeemed in the first six months of this year, according to Stanger, and many investors have been forced to wait to get their money because of the rush to the redemption door.

Still, the new funds will be facing a lot of competition from cash-rich funds aimed at institutions. Opportunistic real-estate funds run by private-equity firms have nearly $145 billion in so-called dry powder for future investments, up from $120 billion at the end of last year, according to data firm Preqin.

It is still possible that distressed opportunities won’t arise if the U.S. economy has a soft landing, in which inflation is tamed by the Federal Reserve without tipping the economy into recession.

Sales volume will likely increase when debt markets stabilise and values become more clear. “Broadly speaking, people are waiting to see what the world looks like,” said Michael Stark, co-head of the PJT Park Hill Real Estate Group, a global advisory firm and placement agent. “They’re waiting for motivated sellers.”



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Hong Kong Takes Drastic Action to Avert Property Slump

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

By ELAINE YU
Fri, Mar 1, 2024 3 min

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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