Wednesday, 24 May 2017

Are property funds an investment worth building?

Written by  Published in Investment Wednesday, 28 November 2012 07:43
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Bonds are in "bubble" territory, the critics say, and equities, even after recent falls, are expensive. Deposit accounts at banks, meanwhile, pay miserable interest. Is commercial property, still 40% below its 2007 peak and paying a yield of around 5% a year, the better option?

 

Small investors can choose from a number of property funds, most which can be put in a tax-free Isa. Their promoters claim they pay a much better annual income than bank accounts, yet also offer a decent chance of future capital gains.

 

But let's be clear: these funds do not invest in residential or private rental property, focusing instead on office blocks, retail centres, industrial premises and even GP surgeries.

 

The risks, as anyone who bought just before the last bubble burst in 2007 knows to their cost, are numerous. You can buy and sell shares in BP, Glaxo or HSBC in a millisecond, but it can take years to sell an office block, and during the post-2007 collapse investors were simply told they couldn't withdraw their money. The word "liquidity" takes on a crucial meaning in property funds.

 

But big money managers have recently begun shifting their private clients into commercial property. Investec Wealth & Investment, a leading private money manager, is moving £500m of its investors' cash into commercial property.

 

Chris Hills, chief investment officer at IWI, says: "We are sending a clear signal to clients that at a time of rising asset prices, commercial property represents a pocket of value they should be investing in. Capital values outside London have hardly recovered from the lows of 2009 … We believe some of the money going into London in the past few years will extend into the UK's regions as confidence in our economic recovery increases."

 

But other financial advisers are more cautious. Brian Dennehy of Dennehy Weller & Co says: "It is difficult to see how the market will push yields or capital values much higher."

 

If commercial property does appeal, small investors first have to choose between "bricks and mortar" funds and "property shares" funds.

 

The funds investing in the quoted shares of the major property companies, such as British Land and Land Securities, act more in line with the general stock market; the bricks and mortar funds use money raised to buy physical buildings, and in a downturn can have liquidity problems.

 

To complicate matters, investors have to choose between Reits (real estate investment trusts), which are more like individual shares and quite volatile; property unit trusts, which have a wide basket of investments; and conventional investment trusts, which have lower costs and can "gear up", but also suffer from "discounts" where the price of the trust is lower than the assets in which it has invested.

 

Bricks and mortar funds

 

The biggies are run by M&G and Henderson, with F&C a relatively new entrant. The M&G Property Portfolio has £2.2bn under management, and a minimum investment of just £500.

 

Richard Gwilliam, head of research at M&G Real Estate, says commercial property had a poor 2012, "reflecting general concern over the prolonged repair and rebalancing of the occupational market", but that this year there are tentative signs of a recovery. "The provinces, where average rents have been continuously falling since mid-2008, are likely to see ongoing decline until 2014," he warns.

 

Guy Glover, manager of F&C UK Property, is more optimistic. "There has been a significant change in sentiment in the commercial property market in the last few months. In value terms it fell by 44% in 2007-08 and was still reversing in 2009, but we are now expecting things to turn positive. We may be at an inflexion point."

 

His fund is mostly invested outside London – for example, it owns the Carpetright building in Tunbridge Wells, Homebase in East Grinstead, and Adelphi House in Reading, whose tenants include the local jobcentre. He is confident investors will be able to enjoy yields of around 5% a year going forward, plus some capital growth.

 

Share-based funds

 

Aberdeen Property Share is the best performer among the unit trusts, with a return of 58% over the past three years. It is mostly UK focused and is a big holder of shares in Derwent London, which has lots of office and retail sites around the Crossrail stations opening in the capital.

 

But investors are not limited to the London office market. The £720m TR Property investment trust takes a pan-European approach, and its biggest holding is Unibail of France, the continent's biggest real estate company. TR's share price has risen from £1.50 to £2 over the past year.

 

It is managed by Marcus Phayre-Mudge, who says the key to investing in European property is to stick to the core of major northern cities: London, Paris and the "big six" German cities are his favoured destinations.

 

Does he have concerns about London's high crane count? "It does feel like there are a large number of cranes on London's skyline. But in King's Cross, much of it is for Google, while Aon has agreed to occupy half of the Cheesegrater. A lot of the cranes aren't for offices but for Crossrail. There is almost no speculative finance around, so almost no speculative development. The banks are just not lending."

 

It is that fact that may provide most reassurance to potential investors. The last commercial property boom and bust was financed by reckless lending by banks, especially in Ireland and Spain. Although no one wants to say "it is different this time", most fund managers are quietly confident that the worst is over, and that safer, steadier returns are likely in the coming years.

Read 59681 times Last modified on Monday, 24 June 2013 13:45

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