Friday, March 20, 2009

Funds, banks start shopping for real estate assets

Players laying groundwork to snap up regional assets on the cheap

(SINGAPORE) Institutional funds and private banks are scouting for property assets in the Asia-Pacific, industry players say.

The funds and banks - armed with billions of dollars in cash - are laying the groundwork so they can snap up assets on the cheap later in the year.

SG Private Banking, which just set up a centre in Singapore to focus on real estate, hopes to invest another US$500 million in Asian property by end-2010.

Other firms here have similar plans. For example, Woori Investment & Securities (Woori I & S), part of Korea's Woori Financial Group, is looking at arranging and investing about US$300-500 million in Asian property over the next two years. And Singapore-based ARA Asia Dragon Fund aims to invest another US$1 billion in Asia over the next two to three years.

Investment sales across Asia fell sharply in 2008 amid financial market turmoil, tight credit and higher funding costs. In Singapore, for example, investment sales last year were $17.8 billion - a 70 per cent drop from $54.02 billion in 2007, according to CB Richard Ellis.

But buying interest is slowly coming back as asset prices fall from their 2007 peaks. 'The near- term weakness creates a favourable entry point,' said John Lim, chief executive of ARA Asset Management, which manages the ARA Asia Dragon Fund.

Keiichi Hirano, SG Private Banking's Singapore-based global real estate head, told BT that asset prices generally are already about 30-35 per cent off their peak. Others put the drop anywhere between 20-40 per cent.

Market players say there is still a difference between asking prices and what buyers are willing to pay.

But Sung Heun Do, director and head of real estate investment and finance at Woori I & S, said: 'We believe this year will present very good opportunities to acquire key assets, though a lot will depend on other factors like the credit market.'

The amount the firm will invest will 'depend heavily on whether we are able to secure the right assets at the right risk-adjusted returns', Mr Sung said.

Others echo this view, saying returns are crucial as they shop around. SG Private Banking's Mr Hirano said his team will look for physical assets and property-related paper assets that yield about 10 per cent per annum.

He wants to increase SG Private Banking's exposure to real estate through its new Global Centre of Expertise in Real Estate in Singapore. SG Private Banking had 66.9 billion euros (S$138 billion) of assets under management at end-2008. The bank did not say how much of this was in the Asia-Pacific region, or in real estate. But right now, less than 5 per cent of SG Private Banking's investments are in real estate. By contrast, most high net worth individuals have 18-25 per cent of their portfolios in real estate, Mr Hirano said.

ARA's Mr Lim said that for the next six to nine months there will be a continued downward pressure on rents across most sectors and markets. But taking a medium-term view of three to five years, now is a good time to go in, he said: 'You must be able to take the medium-term view to make serious money.'

Established markets are proving more popular, with firms looking hard at Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore and Australia. Woori I & S is also bullish on Korea and said it is seeing a lot of interest from non-Korean associates to partner it in acquiring prime assets in Seoul.

China, on the other hand, is proving more controversial. Some funds BT spoke to said they will stay away from China as the real estate markets there are not well-established. ARA's Mr Lim, however, is upbeat about the country. 'We are most confident in China. We still think that the fundamentals are strong,' he said.

Another development is that many funds are looking at physical real estate, rather than just paper assets. In the past four or five years, clients were more interested in property-linked paper assets such as equities and funds, as these were cheaper and easier to invest in. But interest in physical assets is increasing as their prices slump in the current economic downturn. 'We will offer our clients the opportunity to invest into any country, and any type of property,' said SG Private
Banking's Mr Hirano.

Source: Business Times, 20 Mar 2009

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