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TOP 8 ASIAN CITIES TO WATCH IN 2019

This list (ranked in no particular order) is compiled by Asian Property Review based on various sources in particular the real estate forecast jointly published by the Urban Land Institute (ULI) and PwC.

SINGAPORE

Singapore is ranked as the second top real estate investment market in Asia Pacific as the city-state continues to rebound from cyclical lows since the last few years. Office rents have been rising strongly due to a lack of supply and a revival in tenant demand. Co-working and other flexible office space operators have become amongst the biggest lessors of office space, while tech firms have also been active in the market.

Singapore will continue to favour landlords in 2019 before new supply in 2020 rebalances the scales, opines Knight Frank.

The residential market in Singapore continues to be resilient, despite cooling measures in place for several years.

Meanwhile, solid economic growth and high visitor numbers have supported rents and yields for prime retail space in 2018, following years of poor performance as Singapore landlords struggle to adapt to new models of retailing.

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The logistics market remains plagued by oversupply. This has suppressed rents, although there are signs excess space is now being taken up, with rents predicted to improve slightly in 2019.

Its pro-business environment and the growth in crowd data also has placed the republic as one of the more attractive markets for data centres; an alternative asset class with higher yields.

HO CHI MINH CITY

HCMC continues to be the top emerging market, and is particularly strong in the development stakes, ranking second behind only Melbourne. It is also the hottest market for acquisitions in virtually every sector: office, retail, and residential, while second behind only 2020 Olympics host Tokyo for hotels. The population is young, incomes are on the rise, and growth is forecast at an annual 6.6 per cent for each of the next three years by Standard & Poor’s.

Vietnamese gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 6.8 per cent is the highest in the region, with strong activity from both Chinese and Japanese manufacturers.

Housing has historically been the focus for foreign investors in Vietnam, usually in partnership with a local developer. In addition, a number of deals have occurred over the last year, with foreign investors buying into the platforms of local developers.

Market segmentation has now shifted from the high to the middle part of the spectrum, as urbanisation leads to ongoing demand for housing in large urban centres. Ho Chi Minh City alone has projected demand for new housing amounting to some 400,000 units per year.

Worker-focused housing has widespread appeal, therefore. Homes that cost around US$80,000 are considered affordable.

Incomes are three times the national average, so housing affordability is much higher, encouraging aggressive investors to target mass-market, middle- class homes.

Modern office space is in short supply, too, leaving rents far higher than, for instance, Bangkok, and encouraging investment into commercial property, which investors say has great potential.

There is basically no logistics space countrywide that’s up to international standards, but this is a sector investors are watching since there’s also little indication that the economics work for the rents such facilities could charge at this stage.

The Vietnamese government encourages foreign investment, and imposes comparatively fewer barriers to foreign participation. Foreign capital is supplemented by the reshoring of money by Viet Kieu, the overseas Vietnamese population.

Vietnam has always been a strong tourism destination, and is witnessing a boom in visitors from neighbouring China, leading to extensive hotel development along the coast. Phu Quoc in particular is witnessing an unprecedented boom in hotel openings in 2018 with many more in the pipeline.

BANGKOK

The occasional military coup does not seem to derail the Thai economy or frighten tourists, but it does tend to discourage cross-border real estate investors. That said, the city has risen in popularity this year and remains one of Asia’s most vibrant and liveable cities.

Bangkok is also set to benefit from a huge wave of infrastructure investment, which is expected to transform public transport and open up a number of new locations for real estate investment and development.

Low vacancy and limited new supply of office space are creating a market biased in favour of landlords. Office rents climbed 9 per cent in the 12 months to June 31, 2018, with solid demand from the financial services and fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) sectors. Less than 250,000 square metres is due to be added to office stock by 2023, only 5 per cent of existing space.

Knight Frank on the other hand opines that Bangkok’s growth will be kept in check with new supply from 2020.

Retail, on the other hand, is seeing substantial new supply, with close to 700,000 square metres slated for 2018 alone. Nonetheless rents have risen, albeit marginally, in the 12 months to mid-2018, with demand supported by increased visitor numbers.

In November, Southeast Asia’s biggest mall, Iconsiam opened. Built at a cost of US$1.65 billion, the 750,000 square meter riverside complex is made up of retail, dining, entertainment and residential spaces. Iconsiam’s developer has invested in its own BTS Skytrain elevated rail line to alleviate traffic issues, called the “Gold Line,” but it won’t start running until 2020. Prices of surrounding properties have already surged with more hotels, hostels and shops opening in anticipation of more visitors.

There is a growing population of professional expats in Bangkok that is supporting growth in the city’s serviced office market. Increased visitor numbers means the hotel sector has performed well, with stock expected to increase by 27 per cent by 2023.

New residential supply was high in 2017, slowing the market somewhat and prompting developers to delay launch of new projects. They are also increasingly targeting foreign buyers, as residents from Hong Kong and Singapore look for cheaper cities to invest savings.

Knight Frank adds that residential in 2019 should see a slowdown following the introduction of tighter lending rules but the prime market should be less affected given its buyers have stronger balance sheets.

HONG KONG

Hong Kong is the most expensive real estate market in the world, with residential and office values at their highest-ever levels and retail space that is still expensive despite two years of falling rents and values. High prices make it hard for investors to get the underwriting to add up, but there is a core of regional and international investors that has been active throughout the current cycle, either carefully timing strata office acquisitions or taking on value add office, retail, and mixed-use projects.

While Hong Kong’s prime Central offices are tightly held and attracting world-record rents, the city has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of B- and C-grade offices ripe for improvement.

At the top of the market, Mainland China financial services companies continue to move to Hong Kong and to demand the best space, while multinationals find themselves moving to fringe or decentralised areas.

Coworking operators, both international and home grown, are also taking more office space. Given their lower profitability, a number of hotels are now being converted to office space. Some hotels are also being converted to co-living spaces for students or young professionals.

The retail sector appears to be bottoming after two years of plummeting rents and values, and a number of foreign private equity investors have already bought into the recovery. Rents are not yet rising, however, and it remains to be seen if Mainland spending will support the city’s many luxury brands.

There are growing signs of weakness in the residential market, with developers cutting asking prices of new launches. However, underlying demand remains strong in the mass market. The U.S.-China trade war might subdue appetite for super-luxury properties in the short term.

In a worst-case scenario, JLL predicts prices might fall by up to 25% in 2019 if trade tensions worsen between the US and China, the stock market continues to slide and the government does not adjust its property cooling measures.

JAKARTA

Indonesia has been on the radar of emerging-market investors for years, with Jakarta nominated as the survey’s number two investment prospect destination as recently as 2015. Its stock has fallen more recently, however, as a result of an ongoing glut of office and residential supply.

A fourth year of record new supply in the Jakarta office sector continues to depress fundamentals. While the higher quality of new supply means it will usually draw tenants (with coworking operators especially active), the impact overall is strongly negative, with office vacancies approaching an extraordinary 35 per cent in mid-2018, according to JLL.

As a result, Jakarta is the only major city in the Asia Pacific to see significant declines in capital values and rents in the year to mid-2018, continuing a trend in place since the beginning of 2015.

Knight Frank adds that the traditional quiet season leading up to 2019 April Presidential elections is also contributing to the market correction.

Not only is the market generally tightly held, but local owners are reluctant to take a haircut on values even if declining rents and capital values imply they should.

Residential markets are also suffering from oversupply, especially at the top end, and transactions remain soft. A healthy market has sprung up in the affordable housing sector, however, with strong demand and construction of new supply booming.

“Jakarta’s residential in 2019 will remain quiet in the first half with the April elections and May’s Ramadan season before picking up as long-term fundamentals remain sound,” says Knight Frank.

With the moratorium on new retail supply still in place, there is little activity in this sector either, resulting in a quiet market all round.

Private-equity investors continue to show interest in Indonesia, however, and are looking at various options. One possibility is to buy bulk lots of unsold residential stock that developers continue to hold on their books with a view to converting it to serviced apartments. A number of deals of
this type were struck in 2018. Another option is to convert these units to co-living facilities on the premise that slowing job creation and wage growth will lead to further softness in residential sales and a corresponding increase in demand for rentals.

MANILA

Fundamentals continue to be strong despite a steep fall in sentiment.

Office rents and capital values have risen relentlessly, vacancies have fallen to a low 2 per cent, yields are in the area of 8 per cent, and strong absorption of new stock continues based on activity from the online gaming and BPO industries.

At the same time, however, foreign investors are deterred by domestic political concerns, regulatory barriers to entry that restrict foreign equity interests in local property assets to a maximum of 40 per cent, and most recently by potential economic consequences of capital outflows caused by rising interest rates both domestically and in the United States.

What’s more, one fundamental issue that has long acted as an indirect barrier for foreign capital remains in place—local asset markets are overflowing with cheap domestic capital. Foreign players who demand risk-adjusted returns in the high teens are therefore priced out of the market by local banks offering financing at 2.75 per cent.

Still, local developers are now increasingly open to working with foreign players in order to leverage operational expertise as well as their international connections. In addition, good opportunities are increasingly available for investors able to find reliable local partners and to think out of the box, in particular by targeting alternative or emerging sectors.

While growth in the BPO industry has now levelled off as automation and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies eat into market share, new opportunities are opening up in other areas. The government’s infrastructure push is one theme.

Another is the logistics and industrial park sectors, not only because of the shortcomings of existing facilities, but also because Chinese manufacturers are increasingly moving operations into Asian emerging markets in an effort to avoid the fallout of an impending trade war with the United States.

Knight Frank is of the view that 2019 will be a positive year for Manila residential given its stable economic fundamentals and prices face upside pressure on the back of the government’s aggressive infrastructure policy.

TAIPEI

Taipei has now been consigned to the bottom of the survey table of ULI/PwC for several years, largely as a result of a domestic investment environment that forced local institutional investors to channel their capital into domestic assets, pushing yields down to some of the lowest in Asia and taking most investable properties off the market.

While that scenario has now changed—local institutions are now compelled to invest offshore— the longstanding repercussions to the domestic investment landscape remain in place. Taipei therefore remains unpopular with cross-border investors, who prefer not to compete with local institutions whose buying keeps yields at around 2.5 per cent.

Transactions of any sort were thin on the ground in 2018, with most buyers being owner-occupiers. With rental growth predictions of around 2 to 3 per cent in 2018, there has been little to interest investors.

Regardless, the Taiwan economy has been fairly strong, with GDP growth of 3 per cent expected for 2018 and unemployment below 4 per cent. Office demand comes mainly from the financial and technology sectors.

Authorities recently announced a number of public/private partnership projects involving both new development and regeneration located on government-owned land near major transit hubs in the capital. These projects may offer a rare opportunity for foreign investors to participate in the local market.

A surge in visitors from Mainland China in 2016 has not been maintained. As a consequence, the hotel sector has suffered and Taiwan is now trying to promote itself as a MICE (meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions) destination and also to boost US visitor numbers.

However, with the November surprise election victory by the Mainland-friendly Kuomintang party, relations with China is set to reach unprecedented new levels of cooperation. It is anticipated that this will attract more visitors and investments from China, as well as raise demand for its property in 2019.

KUALA LUMPUR

Kuala Lumpur office rents have been falling in 2018 and with 20 million square feet of new supply due to hit the market by 2020, the short-term outlook remains gloomy. Demand is weak, but there has been some interest from both local and global co- working companies.

Prime retail rents continue to increase, although modestly, due to the effect of huge supply. There is a gulf in rental performance between established prime malls and new centres. In 2017, five new malls totalling close to 3 million square feet of retail space were opened and there is a significant number of large shopping centres and boutique malls currently being constructed.

A number of overseas developers are active in the retail and mixed-use development space. The residential market has also been affected by politics; however, a rising population, low unemployment, and fairly robust growth mean underlying demand is strong. Supply was high up to 2017 but has slowed in 2018 and observers expect a modest upturn if 2019 sees a return to political stability after the historic change in government in May.

In November, one of Malaysia’s top developers, Sime Darby Property Bhd announced that it is undertaking a “tactical price review” of all unsold inventories particularly the completed development units. Low absorption rates due to the current economic uncertainties and tight lending conditions have resulted in very competitive marketing promotion and price discounting by property developers. It is anticipated that if Sime Darby drops its prices, other developers would follow suit, thus depressing prices further in 2019. On the flipside, the lower prices will present great buying opportunities.

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