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Opportunistic investors recoil from Asia property

Business Times – 11 Mar 2008

They see more scope for picking up cheaper properties in US, Europe; loans in Japan tougher

(HONG KONG) Opportunistic investors are pulling back from Asian property because they see more scope for picking up distressed assets in the United States and Europe, and loans are harder to get in Japan, one of their favourite markets.

Hedge funds have stopped dabbling in property in the region, fund managers say. And although private equity players will continue to develop property in India and China, they are more likely to buy buildings on the cheap in the West than in Asia.

‘Six months ago, it was quite straightforward. We didn’t have to answer questions about why to invest in Asia,’ Guy Cawthra, Asia fund strategist at Morley Fund Managers, told a recent conference in Hong Kong. ‘Now investors say ‘we might not want to invest in Asia; we want to invest in Europe, the UK and the US’.’

In the wake of the 1997-98 economic crisis, Asia – in particular, Japan and South Korea – drew a raft of investment from funds run by the likes of Morgan Stanley, General Electric and private equity firms such as Carlyle Group .

Many made fat profits on a revival by Asian property markets, which are now mostly strong because of a shortage of new supply and still buoyant economies.

Researchers at consultants Jones Lang LaSalle forecast Tokyo office prices will steady this year after a 28 per cent jump in 2007, while Seoul, Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai are still on the up.

Better opportunities now lie elsewhere for investors who think they can spot a market trough and  ride a recovery.

Because of tight credit and a worsening economy, US commercial real estate values could fall by 20 per cent in the next five years from their 2007 peak, JPMorgan analysts forecast, causing losses of about US$120 billion, including on commercial mortgage-backed securities.

London office values have dropped 12 per cent from a peak in the middle of last year, and they will be pressured further by forecasts of a 10 per cent decline in rental values through 2009.

‘I think a lot of investors will return to home markets,’ said Bart Coenraads, head of real estate at Fortis Investments. ‘Some will try to buy distressed core and refinance it. They could make good returns.’

Last year, total direct investment in the Asia-Pacific region jumped 27 per cent to US$121 billion – a sixth of the global total – with about half invested in Japan, which has been popular for its rock- bottom interest rates.

However, Japanese banks are getting cold feet on property, analysts say, giving loans worth only 60- 70 per cent of a building’s value, compared to 80-90 per cent a couple of years ago.

Lower debt gearing is likely to crimp returns for equity investors. But having spent years setting up teams, private equity funds are unlikely to withdraw completely from Asia, said Tim Bellman, global head of strategy for ING Real Estate.

Many, such as Morgan Stanley Real Estate Funds, no longer see themselves as ‘opportunistic’, and are in Asia for the long haul.

‘Funds have been raised and platforms are set up, and they don’t want to unwind them overnight,’ Mr Bellman said. ‘But at the margin, opportunistic investors who looked at Asia are finding those opportunities back home.’

Morgan Stanley is building housing in China and taking stakes in Indian developers in a high-risk, high-return strategy. But the US investment bank also bought the Tokyo headquarters of Citigroup last month, indicating it is still interested in ‘core’ assets that are low risk but give modest returns\. \–Reuters

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