How to Play the Property Meltdown in Five Charts - Kanebridge News
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How to Play the Property Meltdown in Five Charts

Savvy buyers made a fortune after the 2008 crash, picking up real estate at distressed prices. Investors hoping to spot bargains in the latest slump can watch these trends.

By CAROL RYAN
Thu, Aug 31, 2023 10:45amGrey Clock 4 min

Is the pain over yet for U.S. commercial real estate? The answer might be yes for stocks but no for the assets they own.

A record $205.5 billion of cash is earmarked for investment in U.S. commercial real estate, according to dry-powder data from Preqin. But good deals may not be available for another six to 12 months. Here are some trends investors can watch for signs of when it is the right time to buy.

How Much Are Values Down Already?

U.S. commercial property prices have fallen 16% on average since their peaks in March 2022, according to real-estate research firm Green Street. Unlike the 2008 crisis, when a lack of credit hurt the value of all real estate, today’s downturn has hit some types of properties much harder than others.

Unsurprisingly given remote working, offices are the worst performers, having lost 31% of their value since the Fed first began raising interest rates. The discount isn’t as enticing as it sounds, as troubled buildings need heavy investment to bring them up to a standard that will attract tenants, or to be redeveloped for new uses.

Meanwhile, prospects for snapping up America’s e-commerce warehouses at knockdown prices look slim. Warehouse values are down just 8% from peaks to reflect higher financing costs, and top industrial stocks like Prologis don’t look cheap either, trading close to net asset value.

Apartments might be a better bet for those hunting for distressed assets. Prices for multifamily apartment buildings have fallen by a fifth since March 2022. Some owners who paid top dollar for properties during the pandemic using short-term, floating-rate debt may be forced to sell if mortgage repayments become unmanageable when their interest rate hedges expire.

Property Sellers Are Still Demanding Yesterday’s Prices

Sellers are holding out for prices that are no longer realistic. MSCI’s bid-ask spread reflects the difference between what U.S. property owners are asking for and what buyers are willing to pay.

As of July, the gap for multifamily apartments was 11%, the widest it has been since early 2012, when the property market was still recovering from the 2008 crash. The gap for office and retail is a bit narrower at around 8%. Price expectations are closest for industrial warehouses, where sellers want just 2% more than buyers are willing to pay.

The market will be sluggish until one side caves. In the second quarter of 2023, investment in U.S. commercial real estate was down 64% compared with a year earlier, according to data from CBRE.

As the bid-ask gap narrows, it will signal that valuations are approaching more sustainable levels. But this will take some time. It was five years after the 2008 crash before buyers and sellers saw eye to eye on prices on the hardest-hit assets like apartments—although the adjustment should be much faster this time.

What Could Force Sellers to Slash Prices?

The number of properties that slip into distress will be key for bargain-hunters.

So far, there haven’t been many forced sales. Only 2.8% of all office deals in the U.S. in the second quarter were distressed, according to MSCI.

This may be because loans haven’t matured yet. “Owners don’t want to take a loss but once there are refinancing issues, they will have that come-to-Jesus moment with lenders,” says Jim Costello, chief economist at MSCI Real Assets.

Even if forced sales are still rare, the value of U.S. property in distress—in default or special servicing—is rising. In the second quarter, an additional $8 billion of assets got into distress, bringing the total to $71.8 billion, according to MSCI. Including properties that look at risk, the pool of potentially troubled assets is more than double this amount.

Investment-grade corporate bond yields suggest that property prices have further to fall

Owning commercial property is a bit like owning a corporate bond, only slightly riskier: You bet on the solvency of a tenant, with more uncertainty about the value of the capital you’ll get back. For at least the past 20 years, investors in U.S. real estate have required a return premium of 1.9 percentage points over the yield on investment-grade corporate debt, according to Green Street’s director of research, Cedrik Lachance.

Right now, real estate only offers a 1.3 percentage point premium. For the relationship to return to normal and make property attractive again, U.S. real-estate prices need to fall a further 10% to 15%.

The share prices of listed property companies also point to further falls

Publicly traded real-estate stocks provide a live read of sentiment toward property markets. In the U.S., listed property companies currently trade at a 10% discount to gross asset values, based on Green Street data. This is a good proxy for the size of the price falls that investors still expect in private real-estate values.

Investors can also keep an eye on property stocks for signs of improvement. “Listed real estate is a leading indicator for private in downturns and also recoveries,” says Rich Hill, head of real estate strategy and research at Cohen & Steers, who points out that there are already green shoots. At the end of June, REITs had risen in value for three consecutive quarters and were 13% above their lowest point in the third quarter of last year. Based on how long it usually takes for a recovery to feed through to the private market, property values could hit the bottom within six to 12 months.

All this suggests the best strategy is to buy property stocks but to wait to purchase physical real estate. “If you want to bottom fish in real estate now, do it in the public markets,” says Green Street’s Lachance.



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I.M. Pei was the confident visionary behind such transformative structures as the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong and the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, but he was also humble, and for years resisted a retrospective of his work.

Pei, a Chinese-American architect who died in 2019 at 102 , would always protest any suggestion of a major exhibition, saying, “why me,” noting, too, that he was still actively at work, recalls his youngest son, Li Chung “Sandi” Pei. A decade ago, when Pei was in his mid-to-late 90s, he relented, finally telling Aric Chen, a curator at the M+ museum in Hong Kong, “all right, if you want to do it, go ahead,” Sandi says.

A sweeping retrospective, “I.M. Pei: Life Is Architecture,” will open June 29 at M+ in the city’s West Kowloon Cultural District. The exhibition of more than 300 objects, including drawings, architectural models, photographs, films, and other archival documents, will feature Pei’s influential structures, but in dialogue with his “social, cultural, and biographical trajectories, showing architecture and life to be inseparable,” the museum said in a news release.

As a Chinese citizen who moved to the U.S. in 1935 to learn architecture, Pei—whose full first name was Ieoh Ming—brought a unique cultural perspective to his work.

“His life is what’s really interesting and separates him from many other architects,” Sandi says. “He brought with him so many sensibilities, cultural connections to China, and yet he was a man of America, the West.”

Facade of the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© South Ho Siu Nam

Pei’s architectural work was significant particularly because of its emphasis on cultural institutions—from the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., to the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar—“buildings that have a major impact in their communities,” Sandi says. But he also did several urban redevelopment projects, including Kips Bay Towers in Manhattan and Society Hill in Philadelphia.

“These are all places for people,” Sandi says. “He believed in the importance of architecture as a way to bring and celebrate life. Whether it was a housing development or museum or a tall building or whatever—he really felt a responsibility to try to bring something to wherever he was working that would uplift people.”

A critical juncture in Pei’s career was 1948, when he was recruited from the Harvard Graduate School of Design (where he received a master’s degree in architecture) by New York real estate developer William Zeckendorf.

With Zeckendorf, Pei traveled across the country, meeting politicians and other “movers and shakers” from Denver and Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston, and New York. “He became very adept at working in that environment, where you had to know how to persuade people,” Sandi says.

During the seven-year period Pei worked with Zeckendorf, the developer fostered the growth of his architecture practice, supporting an office that included urban, industrial, graphic, and interior designers, in addition to architects and other specialists, Sandi says.

When Pei started his own practice in 1955, “he had this wealth of a firm that could do anything almost anywhere,” Sandi says. “It was an incredible springboard for what became his own practice, which had no parallel in the profession.”

According to Sandi, Chinese culture, traditions, and art were inherent to his father’s life as he grew up, and “he brought that sensibility when he came into America and it always influenced his work.” This largely showed up in the way he thought of architecture as a “play of solids and voids,” or buildings and landscape.

“He always felt that they worked together in tandem—you can’t separate one from the other—and both of them are influenced by the play of light,” Sandi says.

View of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, on the mesa, in a photograph commissioned by M+ in 2021.
© Naho Kubota

Pei also often said that “architecture follows art,” and was particularly influenced by cubism, an artistic movement exploring time and space that was practiced in the early 20th century by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and the sculptor Jacques Lipchitz, among others. This influence is apparent in the laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., and at the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, N.Y. “Those two buildings, if you look at them, have a play of solid and void, which are very cubistic,” Sandi says.

Yet Sandi argues that his father didn’t have a specific architectural style. Geometry may have been a consistent feature to his work, but his projects always were designed in response to their intended site. The resulting structure emerged as almost inevitable, he says. “It just was the right solution.”

Pei also intended his buildings “not only to be themselves a magnet for life,” but also to influence the area where they existed. “He never felt that a building stood alone,” Sandi says. “Urban design, urban planning, was a very important part of his approach to architecture, always.”

After he closed his own firm to supposedly “retire” in the early 1990s, Pei worked alongside Sandi and his older brother, Chien Chung (Didi) Pei, who died late last year, at PEI Architects, formerly Pei Partnership Architects. Pei would work on his own projects, with their assistance, and would guide his sons, too. The firm had substantial involvement in the Museum of Islamic Art, among other initiatives, for instance, Sandi says.

Working with his father was fun, he says. In starting a project, Pei was often deliberately vague about his intentions. The structure would coalesce “through a process of dialogue and sketches and sometimes just having lunch over a bottle of wine,” Sandi says. “He was able to draw from each of us who was working on the project our best efforts to help to guide [it] to some kind of form.”

The M+ retrospective, which will run through Jan. 5, is divided into six areas of focus, from Pei’s upbringing and education through to his work in real estate and urban redevelopment, art and civic projects, to how he reinterpreted history through design.

Sandi, who will participate in a free public discussion moderated by exhibition co-curator Shirley Surya on the day it opens, is interested “in the opportunity to look at my father anew and to see his work in a different light now that it’s over, his last buildings are complete. You can take a full assessment of his career.”

And, he says, “I’m excited for other people to become familiar with his life.”