Evan Robin, Listed Property Portfolio Manager, Old Mutual Investment Group
Listed property fell substantially during the Covid-19 pandemic and has been subsequently weaker over the past two years.
However, the risks facing the sector relative to other domestic sectors are likely to subside in 2024, and, while property conditions will remain challenging, negativity around the sector is somewhat overdone.
Tough environment is troughing
While there are not yet any tailwinds on the horizon, the headwinds are reducing.
Among the risks facing the sector, interest rates and the local operating environment are two key headwinds to unpack.
A high interest rate environment is not good for listed property given that it lowers the asset value of properties and reduces earnings.
However, this challenging environment may subside with the market expecting interest rates to go down next year.
Additionally, while local operating conditions have been very tough for commercial property owners for years, this environment may have troughed and appears to be improving.
This has been reflected in recent forward-looking commentary from a number of large listed property companies.
Many domestic property fundamentals stopped deteriorating some time ago, but these did not reflect in company earnings as the improvements were drowned out by the impact of higher interest expenses and load-shedding costs.
Consequently, some large property companies have provided double digit negative earnings guidance for next year despite an improved backdrop in their operational businesses.
Further reducing headwinds
Once multi-year tenant leases expire, they are renegotiated to the prevailing market rental level.
The rental level is based on how different the rental paid by expiry is from the market’s current rental level.
Over time, however, most of the rental book has been signed at the new lower rentals, which is reflected in the rental base and reduces the level of negative rental reversions.
This is beginning to occur now with reversions starting to get less negative, and in some cases positive.
This dynamic is most evident in the retail sector, where tenant affordability ratios (the ratio between sales/income and rent) are now at much more affordable and sustainable levels.
If tenant sales grow, there is now the potential for commensurate rental growth to come through.
Load-shedding is another headwind that is already in the base.
Property companies have taken the hit and their earnings reflect the additional costs of load shedding.
They have also improved their recovery of load-shedding costs from tenants and may turn a crisis into a long-term opportunity by rolling out solar with electricity self-generation.
While the risks are receding for domestic listed property, there is still a significant risk facing the sector globally.
Many listed property companies have exposure to global property holdings, which have borrowed at foreign interest rates to fund these holdings.
Not only will it be much more expensive to refinance these loans when they expire, given increased global interest rates since the deals were financed, but the availability of funding to do so is a challenge.
This potential headwind could overwhelm the domestic improvements in the sector.
As we’ve learnt over the past few years, economic conditions can change at any time.
However, barring a deterioration of current economic conditions and the anticipated local political risk, we are expecting a modest uptick in the listed property sector domestic earnings, which will reflect in published earnings with a lag.
We are not talking about a boom story here, but the fading of a bad cycle – with pricing reflecting this negativity.