Published December 11, 2008

Prime office rentals coming down to earth

Q4 sees them crash by up to 20% in some cases as tenants call the shots


(SINGAPORE) Landlords may be frowning but those looking for office space have reason to cheer. After climbing steadily for nearly four years, average Grade A and prime office rental values in Singapore are estimated to have slipped about 20 per cent in the fourth quarter of this year over the preceding quarter, according to latest figures by CB Richard Ellis.

Grade A covers the best office space within CBRE's prime office space basket.

The Q4 decline means that for the whole of this year, the estimated fall in rentals is around 13 per cent for Grade A space and 14 per cent for prime space. 'Modest rental growth featured in the early part of 2008, but the market had peaked by Q3 2008. It was only in Q4 that the sheer depth of the financial crisis pitched the office market into decline,' CBRE executive director Moray Armstrong said.

'We expect further downward pressure on rents through 2009,' he added without elaborating.

The firm estimates the average monthly Grade A office rental value at the end of this year at about $15 per square foot, down from $18.80 psf in Q3. The average prime office rental value in Q4 is estimated to have eased to $12.90 psf from $16.10 psf in Q3. The Q3 figures were unchanged from the preceding three months.

The latest figures confirm that the office upcycle which had seen rents galloping over the past two years has ended.

Office rents nearly doubled last year, rising 96 per cent for Grade A category and 92 per cent for prime space. That was on top of respective gains of 53 and 50 per cent posted in 2006.

Putting the latest rental slide in perspective, Mr Armstrong said: 'The extraordinary pace of rental growth experienced through the past three years was clearly not sustainable and would have been arrested by the increased volume of new supply in the pipeline. We had already anticipated a supply-led softening in the market from 2010 onwards.

'The rapid deterioration in the economy and loss of business confidence have accelerated the process as office demand has dried up.'

Tenant retention is the top priority for existing landlords. Next year is likely to be a market where lease renewals outnumber relocations, Mr Armstrong says.

Cushman & Wakefield Singapore managing director Donald Han predicts Grade A office rents will weaken a further 10-15 per cent in first-half 2009 from current levels. 'Landlords are more keen to provide existing tenants with an incentive to retain them, in terms of rental discounts during lease renewal negotiations; because if they leave, the landlord will suffer downtime until it finds a replacement tenant that will also have to be given fitting-out time. This means loss of rental income.'

The office rental slide reflects a reversal of the market dynamics to a more demand-led rather than a supply-led model, Mr Han argues. 'Office rents had surged because of a shortage of existing office stock; now rents are softening because of weakening demand,' he explains.

Another seasoned market watcher said while a 20 per cent drop in Q4 rentals seems alarming, the absolute drop of about $3.20 to $3.80 psf in monthly rents is not so, given that 'rents were at artificially high levels' on the back of shortage of existing Grade A and prime space.

Grade A vacancy rates had been sub-1 per cent for almost two years before rising to 1.2 per cent in Q3. Some analysts estimate this will rise further to over 2 per cent by end-2008.

CBRE does not expect to see significant changes in vacancy levels until sizeable new office developments start to be completed from 2010.

Tenants, meanwhile, are looking to contain costs during the economic downturn, Cushman's Mr Han observes.

CBRE's Mr Armstrong says: 'Corporates will be under severe pressure to contain and indeed reduce costs. (But) the reality in the Singapore office market is that many tenants with renewals and rent reviews next year under leases committed three to four years ago will still be faced with rents that could potentially increase by 75 per cent to 150 per cent. We expect some fairly robust negotiations.'

He also predicts an increase in subletting and surrenders of space by tenants if job attrition in the key financial services sector spirals.

'Take-up in new developments will inevitably be sluggish until demand improves and tenants are able to secure capital expenditure approvals to relocate. It will be highly competitive,' Mr Armstrong says.