The global real estate sector has been in a prolonged upward cycle. We expect occupancies and rents to continue rising, especially in the prime segment, while supply should remain healthy. This bodes well for 2017, although we do recognize that many markets, especially in the office segment, are in a late stage of the cycle.
Offering a 4% dividend yield, the global real estate sector remains an attractive asset category for income-oriented investors. In developed markets, fundamentals are still strong with FY2016-FYE2018 earnings growth rates in the mid-single digits. As pay-out ratios are upped, we expect dividends to rise accordingly. Overall leverage for the listed sector is moderate with an average Net Debt to Enterprise Value of less than 30% and Net Debt/EBITDA (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization) of around 6.0x.
After a solid performance of 7% in 2016, we remain neutral on the sector’s valuation levels. Real estate stocks currently trade at a high single digit discount to net asset values (NAVs). Still, on a relative Price/Earnings basis, real estate stocks versus equities trade in line with the historical average of around 0.9x.
As witnessed in 2013 and late 2016, the sector’s performance will remain vulnerable to short-term interest rate movements as the Fed is likely to hike interest rates in 2017. Meanwhile long-term interest rates will remain volatile and could maintain the upward momentum that started in early November 2016. The effect will greatly depend on the underlying cause of the interest rate movement and how the interest rate curve will move.
Meanwhile cap rate spreads to local 10-year bond yields are still above historical averages. After a steep increase in BBB yields starting in December 2015, US corporate credit spreads have dropped from over 200bp to 150 bp in early 2017. A healthy credit market is definitely supportive for real estate valuations. In the US implied cap rate spreads to investment grade yields are around 170bp, a healthy level versus the historical 150bp average.
Despite healthy credit markets, in part driven by unprecedented quantitative easing, the global economy is still in a deleveraging mode. Robeco Property Equities favors actively managed companies with low financial risks, strong (free) cash flow profiles and high ESG scores. In a positive macro-economic scenario with steadily rising interest rates, these companies are in a better position to either pursue acquisitions or start new (re)developments. In a downside scenario or any ‘black swan’ event, fortress balance sheets will protect these companies, enabling them to weather the storm, as we have seen in the Great Financial Crisis.
‘Real estate is a local phenomenon’
For the foreseeable future, we expect a healthy supply of new commercial real estate and as such physical depletion could cause a shortage of high grade real estate as global GDP growth improves. Real estate is a local phenomenon and we carefully monitor supply on a regional or even city based level. A potential fallout in demand, e.g. in the case of BREXIT, could threaten demand for commercial space, both in terms of tenant demand or investors’ demand. Besides significant swings in foreign-exchange rates, these effects could have a meaningful impact on valuations and property returns.
Although the level of global real estate transactions cooled during 2016, we do foresee continuing strong demand for real estate. Change in US regulations (e.g. FIRPTA), ageing demographics and increased appetite for alternative assets classes, all favor this trend.
The global real estate sector has been in a prolonged upward cycle. Occupancies and rents will keep on improving, especially in the prime segment as tenants rationalize their physical presence to top locations such as Central Business District (CBD) areas. We believe this holds for both prime retail and office space. Combined with healthy supply levels this will create a landlord-favorable market in the coming years. However, we do realize that many (office) markets are in a late stage of the cycle.