Singapore property falls flat

Developers are now investing abroad as government measures have caused residential prices to fall for four straight quarters.
Property developers are investing more in New York, Australia and the UK for better returns. Above, residential buildings in the Grange Road area of Singapore. Nicky Loh / Bloomberg News
Property developers are investing more in New York, Australia and the UK for better returns. Above, residential buildings in the Grange Road area of Singapore. Nicky Loh / Bloomberg News

Singapore developers struggling to sell apartments in their home market are buying property overseas, turning the island-state into the largest foreign investor from the region this year.

Companies including City Developments and Keppel Land pumped US$2.32 billion into overseas markets in the nine months through September, a three-fold increase from the same period last year and the most in at least eight years, according to data from Real Capital Analytics, a research firm that specialises in investments in commercial property.

The Singapore developers are looking abroad as government measures to rein in property values have caused residential prices to fall for four straight quarters, the longest period of declines since 2009.

“Many Asian countries such as Singapore are facing property cooling measures at home, so they are venturing to western markets where they can find returns and are seeing a strong recovery,” said Terence Tang, the managing director of capital markets and investment services for Asia at Colliers International, a real estate broker.

City Developments, Singapore’s second-largest developer by market value, said in September that it invested in a plot of land in Tokyo valued at S$356 million (Dh1bn). Keppel Land, Singapore’s third-biggest developer, in July said it made its maiden investment in the United States with a prime residential development in New York City. The project, which it said at the time was valued at about $70 million, is on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and will be developed by Macklowe Properties.

At the same time, the developers have become increasingly vocal about the difficulties they face in Singapore, where their margins have been squeezed by falling property prices. Government measures to stem growth in the market and prevent a speculative bubble have brought residential prices down about 4 per cent from the peak in September 2013.

“In Singapore, the residential market is virtually dead,” said Desmond Woon, the executive director at the luxury home developer Ho Bee Land. “With the government measures in place, it has become very hard to do development of residential properties.”

The government’s curbs have included a cap on debt at 60 per cent of a borrower’s income and higher stamp duties on home purchases. Additional taxes for foreigners buying residential property were raised to 15 per cent in 2013 from 10 per cent, on top of the basic buyer’s stamp duty rate of about 3 per cent. All home sellers need to pay 16 per cent in levies if they sell within the first year.

City Developments warned last month that Singapore’s housing market may face “fire sales” and mortgage defaults as sales and prices fall.

The overseas investments by developers have helped to catapult Singapore into the top place among Asian countries investing in overseas real estate so far this year, according to figures from the New York-based RCA.

The country’s sovereign wealth fund, GIC, has been a major buyer of overseas real estate, although its 20-year investment horizon gives it a different profile from the listed Singapore developers. In total, Singapore entities invested $9.8bn in overseas commercial property in the nine months to September, overtaking China with $8.4bn of overseas investments, and Hong Kong with $7.3 bn, RCA said.

Ho Bee, which has invested in office towers in London and is developing homes in Melbourne and on the Gold Coast in Australia, is scouting for more buying opportunities in Sydney and London, Mr Woon said.

The flip side of the developers’ growing interest in overseas real estate has been a drop in bidding at Singapore land auctions as the market cooled. Results of a land auction announced in August showed only three bids were submitted, the fewest in 18 months, and well below 2009 when there were about 16 bids at the auctions, according to Nicholas Mak, the executive director at SLP International Property Consultants.

Developers are willing to take on the additional risks associated with overseas investments, Mr Tang at Colliers said.

“Mainland Chinese and Singapore developers are going to New York, Australia and the UK,” Mr Tang said. “They are ready to take a development risk, which is the highest point of the risk curve, as they need higher returns and because they are seeing these markets showing signs of a recovery.”

They are also finding higher yields. Profit margins for developing homes in Singapore are between 5 and 10 per cent, while margins in Australia are between 10 per cent and 20 per cent, Ho Bee’s Mr Woon said.

Office properties in London can yield between 4 per cent and 6 per cent, while Singapore office yields are about 4 per cent, he said. Shares of City Developments fell 1 per cent to S$9.96 in Singapore, while Keppel Land declined 1.5 per cent to S$3.32. Ho Bee lost 0.8 per cent to S$1.97.

“The Singapore residential real estate market will need to battle headwinds as sentiments remain subdued with little signs of property curbs being tweaked or removed in the near-term,” City Developments said in an emailed response, citing its earnings statement. The company is “actively pursuing opportunities in the US, UK, Australia, China and Japan”, it said.

The government said in October that home prices need to fall further.

Other developers going overseas include Pontiac Land Group, owner of the Singapore Ritz-Carlton, which invested $200m in reviving a 72-storey residential tower project adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan last year. OUE, the owner of Singapore’s Mandarin Gallery shopping mall, agreed to buy US Bank Tower in Los Angeles, California’s tallest building, for $367.5m in March 2013.

Singapore developers are acquiring mostly offices in London and hotels and commercial properties in Sydney, Colliers said.

“Developers are searching for higher yields and returns,” said Sigrid Zialcita, the managing director for Asia- Pacific research at the real estate broker Cushman & Wakefield. “Singapore with its cooling measures is quite restrictive in terms of investments. We don’t see a dramatic reversal of policies over the next year so the trend of developers going overseas will continue.”

The city-state has fallen out of a ranking of the top 20 cities for property investment, according to a report by Cushman & Wakefield. Singapore, along with Toronto, Moscow and Seoul, was knocked out by Beijing, Shanghai, Miami and Stockholm, the report showed.

“The risk appetite is getting larger and larger with the profile of investors and the structure of deals changing,” Tang said. “The real estate market has slowed down a fair bit in Asia so developers need to find other alternatives to generate profit so they are going to markets outside Asia where they can see growth potential and a strong recovery.”

* Bloomberg News

Published: December 1, 2014 04:00 AM

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