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Homeland Security

COVID-19 Spells Trouble For Europe's Pensions, and Skyscrapers

By Jamie Dettmer August 05, 2020

Commercial landlords across Europe are bracing for prolonged repercussions from the coronavirus. While they argue offices will remain just as important after the pandemic as before, corporate bosses are starting to rethink their office space needs and many white-collar employees say they would prefer to continue to work largely from home.

The pandemic may have kicked off a revolution in working practices – and that could spell trouble, economists say, for pensions funds, which have billions of dollars invested in commercial property, seen before the pandemic as a safe long-term bet.

Property experts in London say the demand for office space in the British capital's financial district is set to fall significantly. They predict corporate bosses will start shunning skyscrapers, preferring instead to rent self-contained buildings for their staff, which can be more easily managed in a public health crisis.

The end of the skyscraper?

The chief executive of Barclays Bank, Jes Staley, says there will be a distinct trend away from skyscrapers. He told the BBC, "I think the notion of putting 7,000 people in a building may be a thing of the past, and we will find ways to operate with more distancing over a much longer period of time." Barclays is already exploring moving out of large flagship buildings and using retail branches as work hubs for their corporate management employees and investment bankers to use when they need to have face-to-face meetings.

Property consultant Tony Lorenz says shifts in working practices will amount to the most radical change for the commercial property market in the past half-century.

He and other property consultants calculate Britain businesses will find they have far more office space than they need. And they say corporate boards are questioning why they need to have staff working from expensive buildings when their white-collar employees have shown they can work productively from home by exploring the full potential of technology. "I'm anticipating at least a 20 percent to 30 percent fall in rents for offices," Lorenz told reporters in London.

Unpaid rents

In the more immediate term commercial landlords have already lost a fortune because of lockdowns and tenants being unable to pay their rents. "When you look at the investment market, investors will not be confident that tenants will survive. Even the strongest tenants are struggling to pay rents," Lorenz says.

Across the world millions of tenants and not only in financial districts have stopped, or are delaying, paying their rent to landlords as economies have been left reeling. Hotels and restaurants as well as retail and warehousing businesses have all been struck hard by the pandemic, many will go bankrupt, leaving commercial landlords with considerable losses on their hands, say analysts.

Across Western Europe less than half of tenants have been paying their rents on time. Hotels have been especially laggardly, hardly surprising given occupancy rates have fallen to as low as 15%. "The impact of COVID-19 on sentiment in the commercial property sector was always going to make for painful reading. However, the erosion in confidence is stark. What's even more worrying for investors and occupiers alike is that the full extent of the toll it will take on businesses and the underlying economy is still unclear," says Simon Rubinsohn of Britain's Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors.

A global issue

The same commercial property slump is being seen outside Europe as well. In the United States commercial landlords have seen rent collection fall by half, according to research firm Remit Consulting.

The US commercial real estate market is coming under increased stress, according to Real Capital Analytics, a New York-based research firm that monitors the commercial real estate investment market. It reported last month that transactions fell 68% in the second quarter of 2020 across all property types compared with 2019. Many investors have been waiting on the sidelines to see what unfolds. The firm warned the market was paralyzed because the worth of assets is now unclear.

Australia, too, is seeing the same problem when it comes to rents and a paralyzed commercial property market. "With many tenants unable to pay rent and vacancies rising, many owners [have] opted to wait and see before making any swift decisions resulting in a decline in investment activity," Vanessa Rader, head of research at Ray White Commercial, told the Australian Financial Review.

The short-term losses and likely major changes roiling the commercial property market represent a major threat to pension funds and other long-term investors, adding to the economies woes triggered by the pandemic. With the yield on government bonds dropping since the 2008 financial crash, institutional investors have turned increasingly to the commercial property market, investing in hotels, shopping malls and office buildings, netting them an average 7% return.

Last week the World Bank said that the 2008 financial crisis reduced the value of global pension assets by 23%. "The magnitude of the pandemic is expected to be higher," it warned.

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