ALL QUIET: Covid and UK Property

A brief glance at an excellent first half for investors:  thoroughly “risk on” for the first quarter, but a slower but still an upward grind thereafter. Not that such arbitrary dates matter. What does count is what can make it kick on from here?

Covid patterns

So, first a glance at COVID, or rather our reaction to it. The disease itself is now less important in most OECD economies, they have the capacity to deal with it, vile though it is, and the vaccine numbers are rising steadily, faster than we expected in the UK.





This is a screenshot from this website at Johns Hopkins University : https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html

In raw demographic terms, in most places it is barely a flicker on the remorseless upward march of global population growth, but the extraordinary evasive action being taken mattered much more, and I see little sign of that abating.

Watch a dynamic map of all births and deaths at this site: https://srv1.worldometers.info/world-population/  (these figures include all deaths, not just from Covid 19.)

One of the key issues is that, for whatever reason, it is prone to sudden spikes, the only defence to which is almost complete (90%?) vaccine coverage. Indeed, the spikes can clearly ride quite widespread vaccination, higher than originally thought. But the spikes last weeks, perhaps a month, and for most of the year, most places are not experiencing them.

The trouble, especially in the UK, is our muddled policy response is to take down the economy on a semi-permanent basis, almost as a fetish against the lurking evil. To put in place colossal support measures for spikes that are transient is both cripplingly expensive and turns emergency response into embedded base cost. We are on a constant war footing, even when the enemy has seeped away to regroup.

So, despite Mr. Javid’s optimism, we do expect the bureaucracy to cling onto extensive controls, that limit capacity in public services and many consumer sectors. I had hoped that the ridiculous restrictions would bear down on the elite’s summer holidays, but I now understand they don’t care, as they clearly don’t obey them anyway.   

HOW MUCH MORE DELAY CAN THIS ‘REOPENING TRADE’ TAKE?

Which brings us to two thoughts, firstly the re-opening trade is shrugging off some mighty setbacks, and very little of the run up from last November was based on controls extending into 2022.

At some point balance sheets will start to crack, and values will then retreat.

Commercial property sector

The other is a more sector specific concern, but also a straw in the wind, in the extension of the UK commercial eviction ban well into 2022. I don’t follow the logic of that, it is a significant ongoing seizure of private property rights, it is not clear to what end. It is not protecting jobs, unless furlough is also to be extended. It appears to assume businesses can occupy premises rent free for an extended time period, although the Government also suggests (slightly oddly) that much of their business support package (mainly loans, with government backing) can be used to pay rent.

Not that I care much for commercial landlords, who have long been over protected in the UK and exploitative, but it is to me, an odd move. We looked at real estate earlier in the year and expressed support for the TR Property Investment Trust in particular, in February, after which it has been on a run. But reading a quartet of March year end REIT annual accounts, I feel rather less sanguine:  those are British Land, Land Securities, Helical and NewRiver.

The trouble here is they got hammered last year, with their March rent collections a mess, and double figure valuation drops on the retail side, they have been hammered again this year, with similar double figure write downs, and now it looks like they could be hammered for the current year too. That’s a lot of damage for the sector.

Office rents are holding up, collections are better, surrenders fewer, but they are running hard to stand still, with typical average lease lengths in single figures; this brings a lot of renewals too close for comfort. Time off debt maturities is also becoming significant.

Some Specifics on British Land, Land Securities, New River.

Equally clearly a lot of London occupiers, in particular, will have spare space, probably well into 2024 and maybe forever. Successive asset write downs, keep eating into the debt cushion, rates are low, so debt service is not an issue, but covenants are tightening, cash flow for development is getting squeezed and banks are not sitting back, just because the tenants have a state license not to pay.

They do differ of course, British Land is fairly serene, based on London offices.  Land Securities having been boring for so long has appointed a new team, from the student accommodation and logistics worlds. Granted both were good performers in the last decade, but they are talking of ditching much of the existing portfolio, to chase development schemes. Brave if nothing else, one might say. Helical is smaller but goes for ultra-high quality office refurbishments and expansions, with tenants who can pay for quality, but each of their complex inner-city projects can take years to get through planning and their growth depends on a steady stream of them. After current ones complete, there will be a hiatus.

While NewRiver, always an aggressive high (and at times uncovered) yield stock, also looks strange. Debt is substantial, and another double figure fall in values could be harsh. Granted that would take more of its yields into double figure territory, in areas where demand (and alternative uses) should really provide a floor. But it also flirted with a badly timed foray into pubs, and their valuers are (to no great surprise) saying valuations for those are in the “who knows?” realm. Meanwhile the finance man is apparently jumping ship to lead a spin-off of the licensed premises, which sends some quite odd signals, although maybe holders have tired of his complex skills.

This leaves a more bifurcated market than ever, but with the risk of overvaluations both in the good stuff (last mile logistics in particular) and storage in general, and in residential.

By contrast UK retail is looking ever more wounded. It has been a great reopening trade, but unless the runway is really getting cleared, take off may now be too late for some.

Meanwhile Boris can’t seem to let go, having gained control, freedom is clearly an unattractive option to those in power. If that stays the same, we can see a perfect real estate storm brewing, if and when liquidity dries up a little.      

The umbrella organisation, RICS, has in the mean time this summary to offer as its full market survey results.

Politics in the constituency of a murdered labour politician

Finally, the odd thing about Batley and Spen, was the idea that the Tories could win. I looked up the odds on Labour last week, at 4: 1 against, I found them most attractive. And that was based on my wrongly writing off Gorgeous George, who mercifully is one of a kind.

Without his strange allure it was and is very solidly Labour. Another non-story, I fear.

Charles Gillams

Monogram Capital Management Ltd