Real estate seen taking a breather

KUALA LUMPUR: Last week's stock market selloff and volatility sparked by the downgrade of the US' credit rating and economic concerns have thrown into question the outlook for Malaysia's property sector. With investor confidence now shaken, the big question is whether that will also affect the property sector.

A default on US debt may have been averted but a double-dip recession still cannot be completely ruled out. Coupled with the European debt problems, a slower global growth scenario will likely have spillover effects on the domestic economy, and may eventually affect the property market.

On the other hand, a potential third round of quantitative easing in the US and perennially low interest rates may continue to fuel the property boom.

Property stocks fell on high volumes in the sell-off last Monday and Tuesday, only to rebound later. The Kuala Lumpur Property Index, which tracks property companies listed on Bursa Malaysia, plunged 6.6% in the two days, from 1,017.29 on Aug 5 to 949.79 on Aug 9, before rebounding by 3.2% to 980.47 last Friday.

For the week, the index fell 3.6%, outpacing the FBM KLCI's 2.7% decline.

Analysts pointed out that the sharp fall in property stock prices was simply due to a strong correlation with the broader market.

Physical property prices are unlikely to be impacted yet due to a lag which can range from 18 to 24 months.

At the moment, demand still appears strong, judging by the strength of recent launches. However, analysts and industry observers noted that confidence has weakened in light of concerns over a pending global slowdown.

Malaysian home prices continued to rise in the first quarter of the year, although annual growth in prices, as measured by the Malaysian House Price Index (MHPI), had moderated from a high of 8% in 4Q 2010 to 6.5% in 1Q 2011.

This marked an extension of the recovery since the end of the 2008/09 global financial crisis. Even during the depths of the crisis, Malaysian home prices held up well, unlike those in the US and elsewhere, due to the lack of a preceding price bubble.

Industry observers noted that property prices had long lagged GDP and income growth since the end of the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis, with home prices, as measured by the MHPI, rising just over 3% annually.

Hence, they view the property boom over the last two years as an overdue re-rating exercise for prices to play "catch-up" after a decade of under-performance, rather than signs of a bubble. If this view is correct, then current property prices would appear to be sustainable.

Tang Chee Meng, chief operating officer of Henry Butcher Marketing, said the traditional time lag should prevent any immediate impact on property prices and demand.

However, he expects developers to think twice before launching any new projects and show preference for smaller units with bite-size pricing to attract investors. As the economy contracts, projects with lower absolute pricing will become more attractive to investors with better liquidity and low initial capital outlay.

"2010 boasted an active property market with record levels of growth," said Tang, "However 2011 has seen the market slow down. Expect prices to increase, but at a much slower rate. Rising costs for developers and slowing demand will continue to rein in the high growth of 2010."

Tang's overall sentiment is of cautious optimism, and he advised investors not to speculate in the property market.

"Investors should focus on medium to long-term investments in recession-proof properties. Avoid condos which may be oversupplied and instead rely on products that are unique and differentiated from their peers. Do not count on short-term appreciation and capital growth, and expect to reap profits in about two to three years," he said.

"Luckily, our economy is still alright. People are not afraid of losing jobs. Without that sort of uncertainty, it is still safe to consider investing in property," he added.

Jupiter Securities head of research Pong Teng Siew has a more conservative view. From a macro perspective, he said property stocks are risky at the moment and he maintains a reduced exposure to the sector.

"Household debt to GDP is at a whopping 76%, the same level of gearing as the US before the subprime crisis hit. This level of leveraging is unsustainable in the long run. A bust is doubtful, but there is not much room for upside gains either. Given the risks, investing in properties is not attractive," he said.

A recent report published by Jupiter Securities (see page nine) highlights the fall in affordability of housing with representative price to per capita income at a high of 10.9 times, (see table above), which was only previously matched in 1996. While low interest rates currently make a repeat of the mid-1980s bubble bust unlikely, the report indicates that the interest rate cycle may have bottomed out and may possibly be on an upswing given inflationary pressures.

Falling affordability is further exacerbated by developers moving to upper-end and "niche" developments, and away from cheap mass market units, Pong noted. His other concerns include lax lending practices with longer loans and high loan-to-value (LTV) ratios.

"Banks are now offering up to 43-year loans, some spanning two generations in spite of interest rates being at a long-term low of 5%. LTV ratios have risen from ceilings of about 70% to as high as 95% and even 100% in some cases", he explained.

"Without the high interest rates of the mid-1980s, we can expect to see the market plateau. Furthermore, observing periodic cycles, the market is at the end of a two-year cycle and is due for a downswing" said Pong.

Che King Tow, a property veteran involved in developing Bukit Rimau and Jaya 33 and currently, an independent director of Malaysian Resources Corporation Bhd and a member of the Real Estate Housing Developers' Association of Malaysia, said he is not particularly optimistic, especially since the Malaysian Rating Corporation has cut Malaysia's growth forecast from 5.3% to between 4%-5%.

"Growth should be between 6.5% and 7% for the market to boom," he said.

Che, however, is still optimistic on less-speculative, income generating investments  — particularly corporate, commercial and industrial space.

"High-rise developments are still lucrative, and offices on large floor plates are still in demand whereas small stratified offices on small floor plates are currently oversupplied and should be avoided", he advised.

"Shop-houses should also be avoided due to the difficulty in securing tenants, although this class of property has always been the preferred type of investment by commercial investors," said Che, adding that he is personally not very confident of residential properties for investment, and considers them overpriced when indexed against personal earnings.

"Location is very important. Rent continues to increase in well-located commercial and enterprise zones like Cyberjaya, Petaling Jaya, Damansara, Kuala Lumpur city centre, KL Sentral and surrounding areas that are sound for investing," he said.

Meanwhile, property developers remain optimistic on the outlook for the sector.

Chan Wing Kwong, Bolton Properties Bhd group executive director, said in the short term, he does not foresee any negative impact.

"With a growing population and urban migration there is still demand in the own-use market. Other buyers and investors will likely employ a wait-and-see approach while overleveraged speculators will want to unwind," he said.

While Bolton saw strong sales in 1H2011, Wing Kwong's said he expects developers to be "more conservative and for the time being clear stocks while observing the economy".

He shared Tang's cautious optimism and believes property prices will not fall.

"While the Malaysian economy is not totally insulated, it should not be adversely affected by the global economy. Furthermore, the government has committed to big infrastructure plans. The spending will help stimulate the economy. Asian currencies are also healthy compared to their western counterparts," said Wing Kwong.

He added that there is no housing bubble and attributed the uptrend in property prices over the past two years to rising costs, and not just speculation amid a low interest rate environment. Demand for properties has also increased as a more stable hedge against inflation.

Nevertheless, Wing Kwong expressed concerns that potential rate hikes from Bank Negara Malaysia in the coming months may negatively impact demand.

CEO and managing director Tan Sri Leong Hoy Kum said demand will remain strong for landed residential properties in good location, especially in gated and guarded schemes.

"Investors know that land is scarce and construction cost will  continue to rise. Hence it is inevitable that properties in good locations will continue to appreciate and astute buyers would want to lock in their investments at today's prices", he said.

Over in East Malaysia, the outlook is stable, according to Datuk Raymond Chan, managing director of Sagajuta (Sabah) Sdn Bhd, a major Sabah-based developer which is in the midst of undertaking a backdoor listing exercise via Jerneh Asia Bhd.

Chan sees a silver lining in the current equities rout. "It could be a blessing in disguise for developers as investors will be opting to invest in properties. They are less volatile and are considered to be overall a safer form of investment for the medium term," he said.

His strategy for 2H2011 is to focus on affordable homes and condos priced below RM200,000 for the Sabah market.

"As for the commercial segment, we are focusing on shoplexes, duplex shops which come with lifts within a street mall concept. There is pent-up demand in this segment," he added.

"Cash flow will continue to be sustainable as many buyers own oil palm plantations and palm oil are currently fetching a good price,"  Chan said, adding that the Sabah property market will be more insulated than Kuala Lumpur's.

Recent global economic and stock market events, coupled with an active property market over the past two years, are a potentially volatile mix.

Given that the property market depends largely on consumer confidence and to some degree stock-market generated wealth, how the local bourse fares — after the current bout of volatility ends — will be closely watched.

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