Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Chinese Investors Back Away From Global Property Markets


The days of Chinese investors snapping up trophy buildings in Western markets are likely over for now.



Chinese investors had been known for setting record prices for trophy buildings on both sides of the Atlantic, such as when Anbang Insurance bought the Waldorf Astoria for $1.95 billion in 2015. PHOTO: DREW ANGERER/GETTY IMAGES
2 COMMENTS
By
Esther Fung and
Dominique FongJanuary 1, 2019

Chinese investors will likely continue beating a retreat from the world’s top commercial real-estate markets in 2019, adding to the downward pressure on prices from rising interest rates.

For years, the increasing flow of Chinese capital, alongside investments from other foreign countries, helped push property values higher. But now, the opposite is happening as Beijing continues its tight restrictions on capital outflows.

Chinese conglomerates and other institutional investors sold $233.3 million of European hotels, office buildings and other commercial property in the third quarter, while purchasing only $58.1 million of European property, according to data from Real Capital Analytics. In the U.S., they offloaded more than $1 billion while purchasing $231 million during the same period.

Analysts predict the trend will continue in 2019. With Beijing’s focus on keeping the yuan stable, China’s top policy makers show few signs of easing stricter rules on overseas investment.

The Chinese currency fell 5.7% against the U.S. dollar in 2018 due to an economic slowdown. The slide will likely continue in 2019, especially if the U.S.-China trade fightescalates, analysts say.

The selling of commercial property by Chinese investors “has more to do with domestic politics than market conditions,” said Tom Leahy, a senior director at Real Capital.

The exodus of Chinese investors comes as rising interest rates imperil long-running bull markets in many U.S. and European cities. Commercial property is extremely interest-rate sensitive because buyers typically use high leverage to finance purchases and institutional investors often shift funds from property to bonds when rates rise.

Real-estate research firm Green Street Advisors predicts there will be a “modest” property-price decline in the U.S. in 2019. “You’re probably going to see some cracks” in property prices, said Cedrik Lachance, director of Green Street’s REIT research.

Many executives think that prices of major property asset classes such as apartments, office, industrial and retail are fairly priced or overpriced, according to a survey of emerging real-estate trends by the Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers LLC.



To be sure, Chinese investors make up only a small portion of U.S. and European real-estate markets. In London and other major European markets, investors from South Korea and Singapore have partly made up for the departure of many Chinese players, said Real Capital Analytics.

But Chinese investors had been known for setting record prices for trophy buildings on both sides of the Atlantic and their pullback could have an impact on market psychology, analysts say.

Starting in 2014, Chinese investors went on a global expansion spree, buying office buildings and development projects to diversify their holdings and to seek steadier returns. They were aided by cheap bank loans, which propelled some of them to become more aggressive in picking ambitious projects at record prices.

Beijing policy makers stepped in as concerns intensified over the health of Chinese investor balance sheets and systemic risks to the overall Chinese financial system. “Most [Chinese investors] are finding it difficult to borrow wherever they are,” said James Shepherd, head of greater China research at real-estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield .

Major deals in Europe in 2018, included the sale of Ropemaker Place, a prime office building in London, by AXA Investment Managers, on behalf of a consortium that included Chinese state-owned Gingko Tree Investment. Another seller was Chinese conglomerate Hualing Group, which sold a stake in the residential project Middlewood Locks in Manchester.

Anbang Insurance Group Co., known for buying New York’s Waldorf Astoria for $1.95 billion in 2015, the highest price ever for a U.S. hotel, is in the process of selling a portfolio of hotels that it acquired two years ago for $5.5 billion. The Waldorf, currently under renovation, isn’t part of that sale.

Some Chinese companies said that the selling is part of the normal course of business as they are taking profit ahead of a widely expected downturn in prices.

Some Chinese investors remain active in global markets. Others continue to look for properties, such as industrial real estate, that align with China’s global economic plan, known as the Belt and Road Initiative.

But the days of Chinese investors snapping up high-profile deals in many Western markets are likely over for now. A report by Real Capital on the first three quarters of 2018 noted that Chinese and Hong Kong cross-border capital to purchase real estate peaked in 2017 as 17% of overall global cross-border flows and has fallen to 10% in year-to-date 2018.


“It appears that capital controls have restrained investment activity from China and from related Hong Kong asset managers,” the report said.

Write to Esther Fung at esther.fung@wsj.com and Dominique Fong at Dominique.Fong@wsj.com

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