Published June 21, 2007

Foreign buyers sink $2.4b into office property

Amount invested so far this year outstrips the $1.9b for the whole of last year


(SINGAPORE) The shortage of office space on the island that has led to spiralling office rents and capital values has at the same time drawn more foreign investment into Singapore office blocks.

So far this year, foreign investors, including private equity groups and non-listed funds, have picked up about $2.4 billion worth of en bloc office buildings and sizeable strata office properties.

This surpasses the $1.9 billion for the whole of last year, which in turn was more than double the $733 million in 2005, according to latest data from CB Richard Ellis.

Also, the $2.4 billion of office buildings bought by foreign investors gave them a 69 per cent share of the $3.5 billion total in major office deals so far this year. The latter figure, for the period Jan 1 to June 8, 2007, is higher than the $3 billion chalked up for the whole of last year.

Big office acquisitions by overseas buyers this year include Macquarie Global Property Advisors' $1.04 billion purchase of Temasek Tower in March, the $525 million sale of SIA Building on Robinson Road to German Pension fund SEB, the $260 million purchase of Vision Crest's office block and The House of Tan Yeok Nee in the Penang Road/Clemenceau Avenue area by German fund manager Union Investment Real Estate AG (formerly known as Difa Deutsche Immobilien Fonds).

Local buyers have bought around $1.1 billion of office space so far this year, with the biggest deal being the $600 million collective sale of UIC Building at Shenton Way to United Industrial Corp. The mainboard-listed company itself owns 78.8 per cent of the property.

However, Singapore real estate investment trusts, or S-Reits, have not made any purchases of office blocks so far this year, after making acquisitions of over $700 million in each of the preceding three years.

CBRE excluded the Raffles City transaction in 2006 from its analysis as the apportionment of the value of the office space in the mixed development was not made public. The Raffles City complex also includes two hotels, convention facilities and a shopping centre, besides an office tower. Raffles City was purchased jointly by two Reits - CapitaCommercial Trust and CapitaMall Trust - for $2.1 billion. In its analysis, CBRE also excluded small strata office transactions.

Commenting on the big jump in the acquisition of office blocks by foreign buyers and falling purchases by S-Reits, CBRE executive director Jeremy Lake observed that while S-Reits are still bidding for office blocks in Singapore, they have not had much luck clinching acquisitions as the prices they can offer are constrained by the need for the acquisitions to be immediately yield-accretive to unit holders. Otherwise, there is a risk of the unit price of the Reit falling on the stock market.

On the other hand, foreign buyers, which are mostly private equity and unlisted funds, can bid more aggressively as they are looking at a total return story, Mr Lake said.

For instance, foreign buyers can offer a higher price for an office building that may reflect an initial yield, based on the building's existing rental income of, say, only 2 or 3 per cent, with the knowledge that as leases come up for renewal at higher market rents, the yield may then go up to, say, 5 per cent. Also, these players may be looking at selling the assets and crystallising a capital appreciation a few years down the road, Mr Lake said.

Looking ahead, Mr Lake expects foreign buyers will continue to remain dominant buyers of office blocks in Singapore. He also reckons that the office en bloc market on the whole will remain very active for the rest of the year. Asked if there is a sufficient stock of office buildings for sale, he said: 'When the market is strong, surprises come along the way. People whom you do not expect to sell their buildings will sell.'

CBRE data show that the average Grade A office rental value in prime locations has shot up 82 per cent over the past 12 months to $12.40 per square foot a month in Q2 this year.

The average capital value of prime office space has more than doubled over the past year to $2,500 psf in Q2, from $1,150 psf in the same period last year. At the trough of the current cycle, which stretched from Q3 2003 to Q2 2005, the figure was $980 psf.

DTZ Debenham Tie Leung data released yesterday evening also show that the average monthly prime rent in Raffles Place rose 20 per cent quarter-on-quarter to $13.10 psf in Q2.

Average rents in the Raffles Place and Marina Centre areas have more than doubled from a year ago.