Middle East investors remain active abroad, despite sell-offs
The weak oil price has pushed Middle East government budgets into significant deficits, with some starting to sell off assets to balance their finances. Middle Eastern investors have also been quite active in European real estate in recent years and the question is, would they also start to sell real estate assets as they had been doing with their more liquid assets, equities and money market funds, last year?
Until 2014, Europe was the main destination for Middle Eastern capital. But several very large deals in Manhattan and involving a US industrial portfolio, both in 2015, have pushed the Americas ahead of Europe. While Middle Eastern investors have increased their investment activity in some continental European markets, investment volumes in their most favoured investment destination, London, were more muted.
Close to 50 per cent of Middle Eastern activity is still focused on London. Preliminary statistics suggest that the slowdown in investment activity in London led to decline of about 20 per sent of Middle Eastern investment activity in European commercial real estate. Even though this decline is significant, we do not expect a major effect on the overall European real estate market, although some sub-segments may be affected.
During the past few years, Middle Eastern capital contributed between 3 and 4 per cent of total European commercial real estate investment volumes. But sovereign wealth funds have been focusing on larger lot sizes, above €150 million (Dh623m), in the office sector – most notably in London and Paris but also in the major German cities of Berlin, Frankfurt and Munich – as well as in the hotel sector.
Despite many real estate professionals’ perception, data does not prove that Middle Eastern investors have pushed prime office yields down.
In London, however, transactional yield evidence does suggest some decline over the past few years, but this is in line with the overall falling gilt rate environment.
Recently, there is some, although anecdotal, evidence that several deals in London were cancelled as investors were not prepared to pay the asking price. It cannot be definitely confirmed if the falling oil price and a change in investor strategy were the reason behind the failure of the deals as investment activity in the rest of Europe continued.
US dollar-denominated investments in the eurozone have become slightly more affordable following the devaluation of the euro, which was stronger than for the British pound. Furthermore the recovery of the eurozone commercial real estate market, in particular the occupier and rental cycle, is only at its early stages while the UK and, in particular, the London office market is at a more advanced stage. It makes sense for Middle Eastern investors to diversify their European investments outside the UK.
Investing in US commercial real estate also makes sense from a currency perspective. Another hypothesis behind investor caution on London is the political discussion on the UK’s EU membership, which may influence future decisions.
With the oil price unlikely to return to 2013 levels anytime soon, could the market expect a retreat of Middle Eastern capital from global real estate, in particular from Europe?
First of all, commercial real estate investment volume statistics show only part of the market, namely the direct commercial real estate investment market. The direct investment data is somewhat biased toward sovereign wealth funds and lower inflows from oil revenues could well influence their investment strategies. Middle Eastern investors, in particular wealthy people and smaller institutional investors, have also been investing indirectly into commercial real estate, which is more difficult to follow.
(Direct investments are direct purchases but could be joint ventures as well. Indirect investments are real estate investments in funds.)
The Middle Eastern commercial real estate domestic markets offer only limited income-producing product. The search for yield from institutional and wealthy investors alike favours investing in commercial real estate, meaning increased demand for income producing assets in global markets.
The current geopolitical environment in the Middle East is translating into an increased demand for global commercial real estate to meet investor needs for regional diversification but also increasing need for income return and wealth preservation.
Lower oil revenues may also lead to investing in lower lot-sized real estate assets. This could broaden the investment scope of Middle Eastern investors, in particular in Europe, where lot sizes in the office and retail sector are mainly below €100m.
But a more geographically diverse and lower lot-sized portfolio may challenge and stretch the current business set-up of some institutional investors in the region as a more granular portfolio is more management intensive than a handful of big assets in a limited number of locations.
A consequence could be that Middle Eastern investors move more towards indirect investments or partnerships with regional and local managers or explore fund-of-funds strategies.
As such public data for direct commercial real estate investment volumes may show a decline of Middle Eastern investor real estate investment activity in the future but might get shifted to the indirect market, which gets often quoted as “global” capital.
Gunnar Herm is the head of real estate research and strategy at UBS.
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Updated: February 11, 2016 04:00 AM