Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Commercial Real Estate Is Set For A Nose Dive If The Markets In The US Continue On The Current Negative Trend

Commercial real estate is set for a nose dive if the markets in the US continue on the current negative trend. Analysts report that rising borrowing costs may make some commercial real estate ventures unappealing, and the owners will start to sell. Full Article from the Financial Post.

Teetering towers
Commercial Real Estate industry braces for a fall in prices

Garry Marr
Financial Post
Saturday, August 11, 2007

Falling real-estate prices? It sounds like a contradiction in terms. But rest assured, it can happen and many in the sector are bracing for a declining commercial real estate market -- something that hasn't happened in the past seven years.

"I promise you [prices] can go both ways. I've seen enough of that in my career," said veteran real-estate analyst Frank Mayer, who retired this year after 35 years in the sector. "Just think of 1989 through 1994."

The latest statistics from real-estate firm CB Richard Ellis Ltd. show that for the first time this century capitalization rates are actually inching up in some markets, albeit slowly. Cap rates, as they are known in the industry, are the real estate sectors' method of pricing property.

The cap rate is determined by taking a building's positive cash flow and dividing by the value of the asset. A building with $100,000 in positive cash flow that's valued at $1-million would have a 10% cap rate. Much like the yield on a bond, rising cap rates are indicative of falling prices.

The concern in the real-estate community is that rising borrowing costs are going to make it harder for companies to make profitable leveraged real-estate purchases. As borrowing costs go up, cap rates will have to rise too in order for transactions to make financial sense.

"There's a raging debate in the real estate community," says Mr. Mayer, about whether higher borrowing costs will ultimately impact real-estate prices. The thinking among some commentators is there is some institutional and pension-fund money, immune to debt concerns, waiting to buy real estate. That demand would mean prices won't budge.

Cap rates are already at an all-time low in most markets in the country. The starkest example is probably Vancouver's apartment market where investors are willing to accept a 3.5% return on a high-rise unit. If that sounds low, consider the Bank of Canada's 10-year bond -- a risk-free instrument in terms of potential default --generates about a 4.5% return.

The Vancouver apartment building pays one percentage point less than the Government of Canada debt and presumably carries a little more risk than the bond. But investors in Vancouver and other hot markets such as Calgary and Edmonton are paying a premium for potential growth in income and capital.

"If you are [investing in] Alberta where rents are up 40% from a year ago and are going up sharply again, a 5% cap rate really isn't a 5% cap rate. You know the returns are going to be higher in future," said Mr. Mayer.

Michael Cooper, chief executive of Dundee REIT, which last month pulled off a $2.4-billion real-estate sale that many say will be the last of its kind in this cycle, says pricing real estate can be tricky these days.

Dundee sold most of its assets in Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland to GE Real Estate. Dundee held onto to $1.5-billion of assets in western Canada and GE Real Estate agreed to buy $165-million of outstanding units in the REIT, about 18% of Dundee, at $47.50 a unit.

"He got that deal done right under the wire. No way it would get done today at that price," said one analyst.

But Mr. Cooper says there is a new reality in the marketplace that is impacting pricing. "From 1995 to 2005 it was all about current income, but now we have growth in rental rates in almost every market in the country. More of the value is coming from [anticipated] growth," he says. "Today, sure you pay more interest and cap rates are lower but that's just Day 1. We all anticipate that income will grow."

He says publicly traded REITs are recording huge jumps in income because rental rates just keep rising on their existing portfolios. In fact, says Mr. Cooper, buildings with long-term leases and low rental rates are going to drop in value.

"Five years ago if you had a locked-in lease people said 'this is fabulous.' Today people say 'you've given up so much on the asset'," he says.

CB Richard Ellis actually thinks there could be some downward movement in cap rates, but, for the most part, thinks prices have stalled. "We are seeing a trend where rates have flattened compared to where we were three or four years ago," said Ray Wong, national research director of CB Richard Ellis. "Some investors are starting to question the pricing of assets."

Ross Moore, the research director of Boston-based Colliers International, is more pessimistic. "I can't go to a meeting or get on a conference call these days without somebody talking about a deal that is falling apart," he says. It's all about the rising cost of debt and Mr. Moore says it's leading to a lot of renegotiating.

"There is a general tone in the marketplace of caution," said Mr. Moore, who doesn't believe improving fundamentals and rental rates will carry the day in the market. "I learned a long time ago fundamentals do not drive real-estate values; liquidity and access to capital drive values. Period. That may sound cynical but that's what I believe. Capital markets are global. This isn't just a U.S. problem," said Mr. Moore, about some of the deals now falling apart. "This will happen in Canada."

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