According to consultancy JLL in a new report, property investment sales are set for a bull run after a spectacular start to the year. The positive outlook is being driven by the office, and possibly the retail and residential sectors.
The overall value of real estate investment deals soared 67 % in the first quarter to $4.99 B – of which $4.47 B was from the private sector.
Private investment sales of office property accounted for $2.12 B – the sector’s strongest first-quarter showing for the past 9 years. The $2.12 B figure was a 60.6 % rise from the fourth quarter, and more than treble that of a year ago. Last year’s private-sector investment sales stood at $19.06 B.
The top two office deals in the first quarter were entity sales. One was the sale of the entire interest in the holding company of PwC Building in Cross Street to an indirect unit of Manulife Financial Corporation for $760.6 M. The other was the divestment of the entire interest in Plaza Ventures – the owner and developer of GSH Plaza in Cecil Street – to Hong Kong-listed Fullshare Holdings for $725.21 M.
JLL noted the potential for the full-year sales of private office assets to surpass the $6.49 B recorded last year, considering the recent deal for One George Street and sizeable assets available in the market, including Asia Square Tower 2 in Marina Bay.
The residential segment, registered $1.69 B in private investment sales for properties valued at $5 M and above in the first quarter.
For retail and industrial sectors, private investment sales more than doubled that from the previous year in the first quarter: $280 M for retail and $390 M for industrial.
JLL predicts a bright investment sale outlook for the year, driven by the recent sale of the $2.2 B Jurong Point mall and upbeat sentiment in the private residential market. A growing appetite for collective sale sites by developers facing depleting land banks and limited supply of sites from the Government could also lend support to investment sales.
Formerly named Cecil House and now known as DB2Land Building, 139 Cecil Street has an estimated land area of 7,936 sq ft. The approved GFA for the addition and alteration works reflects an 11.2 plot ratio (ratio of maximum GFA to land area) – the same plot ratio stipulated under URA’s Master Plan 2014 for the commercial-zoned site.
Under the proposed refurbishment granted written permission by URA last year, there will be food and beverage use on the first storey, offices from the second to 14th floors and a mechanised car park from basement to the fifth storey. The 16th storey will have a communal roof terrace and F&B space.
The Zhou family from Shanghai picked up an office block at 137 Cecil Street last year, and bought a 60 per cent stake in the company that owned the next-door property at 139 Cecil Street.
The latest deal is said to value the 11-storey property at S$140 million. It has a balance lease of around 64 years.
Written permission was granted by Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) for a refurbishment exercise to build additional floors to 16 storeys, costing about S$20 million.
The Zhou family has paid S$75 million for a 60 per cent stake in Ececil Pte Ltd, which owns 139 Cecil Street, to a joint venture between Vibrant Group and DB2 Group. Vibrant announced the completion of the sale in a regulatory filing last week. The Vibrant-DB2 joint venture continues to hold the remaining 40 per cent in Ececil. It acquired 100 per cent of Ececil in 2014 from Cheong Sim Lam in a deal that valued the office block at S$110 million.
The major refurbishment, or “addition and alteration” works, will see the gross floor area (GFA) of the property increase from 68,809 sq ft currently to 88,886 sq ft; the latter figure is estimated to yield about 75,300 sq ft strata area.
The next-door property at 137 Cecil Street, which was once known as Aviva Building, is now named Hengda Building after the Zhou family’s Shanghai Hengda Group, which is involved in real estate and other businesses.
Mr Cheong, a member of the family that developed International Plaza in the 1970s, gained control of the two adjacent buildings from Yi Kai Group and Fission Group shortly after the duo teamed up to acquire the two properties in July 2009 for S$100.80 million.
Prices of office space were flat in the second quarter after a 0.5 per cent increase in the first quarter, while prices of retail space fell 0.3 per cent after remaining unchanged in the previous quarter, the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) said on Friday (July 25).
Rental prices of office space in the second quarter rose 2.8 per cent from the previous three months, following the 2.4 per cent increase in the first quarter. Rental prices of retail space in the second quarter also increased, rising by 0.6 per cent in the second quarter, compared with the decline of 0.3 per cent in the January to March period.
As of end-June, there was a total supply of about 1.055 million square metre (sqm) gross floor area of office space in the pipeline, and a supply of 879,000 sqm gross floor area of retail space from projects in the works.
The amount of occupied office space increased by 22,000 sqm in the second quarter, compared with the 6,000 sqm increase in the previous quarter. During the quarter, the stock of office space decreased by 1,000 sqm, compared with the increase of 15,000 sqm in the previous quarter. As a result, the islandwide vacancy rate of office space at the end of June fell to 9.6 per cent, from 10 per cent at the end of March.
According to URA, the amount of occupied retail space increased by 38,000 sqm in the second quarter, while the stock of retail space increased by 49,000 sqm. As a result, the islandwide vacancy rate of retail space rose to 5.9 per cent at the end of June, up from 5.8 per cent at the end of March.
Retailers do have the freedom of contract to choose which type of landlord to lease space from, be it shopping malls owned by real estate investment trusts (Reits), developers, property funds, or small-time owners of strata unit stores, industry watchers say.
This freedom weakens the validity of their grouses that Reit-owned malls are imposing too-steep rental increments and injecting too many unfair terms into lease agreements. They have the option of renting from another mall owner with less onerous terms.
That said, their options may soon narrow in future, as other categories of landlords begin to adopt the business practices used by Reits and some property funds. At the same time, the choice of available landlords is also shrinking as more malls previously in the hands of other landlords now come under the control of Reits.
One main gripe retailers have is the harsh terms and conditions included in lease agreements, such as having to pay a significant chunk of their turnover (25 per cent, for instance, is deemed insurvivable for business) together with the base rent.
Other such terms include possible eviction if a minimum sales target is not met, short notice needed to be given for tenants to vacate a space, as well as the landlord not having to compensate the tenant if he decides to redevelop the building and relocate the latter.
“Every lease agreement has some of these things,” noted Douglas Benjamin, chief operating officer of FJ Benjamin Holdings, an international luxury and lifestyle brand retailer.
But while these sorts of contractual terms are deemed unfair to retailers, they are not regarded as anti-competitive, according to Burton Ong at the National University of Singapore law school. “They don’t harm competition, they just make life very difficult for the tenants,” he said.
There is not much relief for retailers looking to get out of these “harsh and one-sided” contracts, partially due to their insufficient bargaining power and simply put, because “they entered into these agreements eyes open”, he added.
It is also unlikely that any legal avenue for smaller retailers seeking relief from onerous contracts will be set up any time soon, because it will appear inconsistent with the pro-business environment the Singapore government is trying to maintain, he said.
Associate Professor Ong thinks that the troubles plaguing retailers are an inevitable part of operating a business in a capitalistic market-based economy.
“Parties are expected to look after their own interests, even when up against another party with much stronger bargaining power. Freedom of contract means the tenant is free to choose if he wants to accept these terms or look elsewhere.”
Retailers couldn’t hide their turnover even if they wanted to. Some malls, especially those owned by major retail Reits, harness a point-of-sale system, where each time the cash register is rung up, sales data is captured and fed to the landlord’s computer system.
Mr Benjamin concedes that Reits are just doing their job: “There’s no need to vilify the Reits particularly, they’re doing what they’re mandated to do, which is to get the best returns for their shareholders, and every business has to do that.”
To be sure, Reits are also finding it increasingly difficult to compete, said DTZ’s SE Asia chief operating officer Ong Choon Fah.
They may enjoy a great headstart over developer-owned malls (the recent trade ministry study showed that rents grew 20 per cent at Reit malls between 2009 and 2013, compared to 9.2 per cent for single-owner malls on a compounded annual growth rate basis), but they are their own greatest enemy.
“In a way, Reits are a victim of their own success, because they always have to compete against themselves, to how well they did last quarter,” said Ms Ong.
Part of the reason for Reits’ active management of their malls is that they have to account for what they have done, to investors every quarter. Also, because every square foot is a revenue generator, Reits tend to squeeze returns – both rental and advertising – from their space.
The difficult part, says Chew Tuan Chiong, CEO of the manager of Frasers Centrepoint Trust, is finding that equilibrium – how much you can increase the leasable floor area by without resulting in clutter or deteriorating the shopping experience; how much rent to charge tenants so that they will stay and the Reit can still distribute a decent return to unitholders.
“It’s actually the equilibrium that we are striving at. It makes no sense for us to charge too high a rent and change tenants too frequently because there is downtime every time there is a tenant change. Our objective is to help tenants succeed because if they don’t do well, it affects us too. The relationship between landlord and tenant is quite symbiotic.”
Yet, it has come to this: that retailers’ rental and manpower woes have turned them cautious about expansion. FJ Benjamin is relooking which stores to keep and which to give up for profitability or strategic reasons, while restaurant chain The Rotisserie said it will relook its outlets when it is time to renew their leases.
But are there really as good non-Reit alternatives out there, and can they be effective substitutes?
DTZ’s Ms Ong believes that some developer- owned malls can be as well managed as Reit malls, with less traffic but higher conversions to sales. She cites the example of Allgreen Properties’ Great World City, favoured by shoppers for its good tenant mix, expanse of space and slower pace.
As for strata-titled malls, they can sometimes work for certain target groups, as in the cases of Lucky Plaza and Queensway Shopping Centre. “Sometimes people also want to go somewhere a bit disorganised, so there’s an element of surprise,” Ms Ong said.
At least 600 “more promising lots” of new strata shops in mixed development projects are scheduled for completion in the next couple of years, which may reverse the image of strata malls as small-sized, drab malls lacking in diverse retail offerings, said R’ST Research director Ong Kah Seng.