With Britain trying to hammer out the terms of its exit from the European Union and banks considering their options on the continent, is this the best time to start building a new financial district in London?
China thinks so.
Four of the country’s biggest banks this month agreed to finance the first stage of a 1.7 billion-pound ($2.12 billion) transformation of an old East End dock into a hub for Asian businesses. To the west of the site near London City Airport, the towers of Canary Wharf stand as a reminder of how ambitious projects in the U.K. capital can remain white elephants for years before turning into cash cows.
Chinese companies are on track to invest 4 billion pounds in London property this year, beating the 2015 record by a third, according to data compiled by CBRE Group Inc. Though the U.K.’s vote to leave the European Union lowered prices for Chinese by depressing the pound against the yuan, any longer-term payoff depends partly on whether Brexit will drive down rents and values by diminishing the city’s role as Europe’s finance hub.
“Chinese investors are betting that the U.K. will do well in the Brexit talks, and if it doesn’t, companies will still choose London as their base,” said Michael Marx, former chief executive officer of developer U & I Group Plc. “London didn’t become the financial capital of the world overnight and it certainly won’t lose that status so quickly.”
Developer ABP London and investment company Citic Group Corp. are hoping that lower rents along with the pound’s drop will attract expanding companies from China and other parts of Asia to their new hub. The rise in London investment coincides with a Chinese binge on foreign properties, driven by high prices and dwindling commercial property investment opportunities at home.
Since the Brexit vote, buyers from the world’s most populous country have spent 600 million pounds in the U.K., according to CBRE data that excludes purchases by individuals. China Minsheng Investment Corp. bought Societe Generale SA’s London headquarters for 84.5 million pounds. China Vanke Co. bought Ryder Court, an office building in Mayfair, for 115 million pounds and Kingboard Chemical Holdings Ltd. acquired Moor Place in the City of London financial district last month for 271 million pounds.
“We’re now getting inquiries from investors who have sat on the sidelines for years,” said Rasheed Hassan, a director of cross-border investment at Savills Plc who advised Kingboard Chemical on its purchase. “They’re jumping in all of the sudden. Even though there is a small discount on the yield, there is now a big discount on currency.”
Commercial real estate isn’t the only market to benefit. In Canary Wharf, where banks including Barclays Plc, Citigroup Inc. and Credit Suisse Group AG are scaling down office space and workers, Greenland Holdings Corp. is hoping London homes will be more attractive than residential property at home.
This month in Beijing, the Shanghai-based company unveiled its Spire London project in Canary Wharf, set to be Europe’s tallest residential building upon completion in 2020. At least seven prospective buyers signed up immediately and paid the 10,000-yuan deposit ($1,454) to secure a slot when local subscriptions officially start in about two weeks.
A little more than 200 of the 861 units have been sold, according to a spokeswoman for the developer. Properties are priced from 693,000 pounds for a one-bedroom apartment to 1.9 million pounds for three bedrooms. Properties in Canary Wharf valued at more than 1 million pounds have fallen 8 percent since September 2014 peak as higher sales taxes deterred buyers.
Returns for Chinese investors in London property since the Brexit vote will depend on currency movements as much as the direction of prices and rents in the city.
“If you assume the exchange rate between the renminbi and the pound goes back to where it was, there will be a currency gain on top of any property returns, but there is no guarantee that this will happen,” according to Colin Lizieri, a professor of real estate at Cambridge University. “Rents or capital values could fall over time if there are oversupply issues or dwindling demand.”
Office values in the City of London fell the most in at least seven years in July on concerns that vacancy rates could rise and rents could fall if the Brexit vote prompts companies to move workers abroad. International businesses may shift as many as 100,000 jobs away from London within two years of the U.K. officially starting a process to leave the EU because businesses risk losing their passporting rights, according to Jefferies Group LLC analyst Mike Prew.
“There’s a lot coming onto the market, adding to the mix of the Brexit shock,” Prew said by telephone. “We have priced in rental falls of between eight and 10 percent over the next 24 months with a downside risk of as much as 20 percent if the market goes the way of 2001 and 2002, when the tech bubble burst.”
Concerns that London will lose its status as Europe’s financial capital didn’t stop ABP and Citic from securing more than 300 million pounds to finance the first phase of the Royal Albert Dock project and getting reservations for 13 of the 20 buildings to be built in that stage. Bank of China Ltd., Agricultural Bank of China Ltd., Industrial & Commercial Bank of China Ltd. and China Construction Bank Corp. are lending to the development.
“We have seen no drop off in interest since the vote; in fact it has increased,” ABP spokesman Neil Robinson said in an interview at the site, where diggers and workmen are preparing the ground for construction. “Investment is coming from Asia and it’s now better value for them as their money goes further.”
History shows that starting a new London financial district can be a rough ride. Canary Wharf was taken over by creditors in 1992 after Paul Reichmann’s Olympic & York Developments Ltd. said it couldn’t pay interest on its loans. Songbird Estates Plc, the owner of most of the district, was forced to sell shares in 2009 to investors including China Investment Corp. to repay a loan as the economic crisis hit. Last year, Songbird was purchased by the Qatar Investment Authority and Brookfield Property Partners LP and renamed Canary Wharf Group Investment Holdings Plc.
At least 1 billion pounds of new deals will be struck by Christmas, according to Richard Zhang, London-based head of China desk for EMEA at CBRE. The Los Angeles-based property broker, which says it advised on 70 percent of investment from that country in London property last year, is currently working on three more transactions with Chinese clients valued at about 1.2 billion pounds, said Zhang, who declined to say which properties are being purchased.
Groups of prospective buyers are arriving weekly at the Royal Albert Docks site, according to Robinson, who said he isn’t worried about rents falling in rival locations.
“Companies in China have outgrown their domestic market and they need to expand abroad in order to thrive,” he said. ABP estimates in a marketing brochure that rents at the development will stand at 37 pounds a square foot in 2018, compared to 52.84 pounds in Canary Wharf.
“London is still a great magnet for companies from Asia which already have trading agreements with the EU and can still trade irrespective of the trade deal that the U.K. eventually gets.”
— With assistance by Sharon Smyth, and Dingmin Zhang