BlackRock plans S$3.8 billion Europe property boost over three years

BERLIN (BLOOMBERG) - BlackRock Inc., the world's biggest asset manager, plans to buy as much as 2.5 billion euros (S$3.8 billion) of continental European properties over three years - more than doubling its pace of investment - as its clients seek to take advantage of a weak euro.

"Investors, particularly from the US and Canada, are looking to diversify into European real estate," said Mr Thomas Mueller, a portfolio manager who joined BlackRock's London office in February to oversee an increase in investment focused on office buildings in France and Germany. "The devaluation of the euro is clearly an interesting play for them."

Record volumes of European properties are being bought by investors from North America, Asia and the Middle East to boost returns amid low interest rates, and a weak euro is fuelling further increases by making buildings cheaper.

Buyers from those regions added 32.5 billion euros of commercial properties in mainland Europe in the first nine months, 53 per cent more than a year earlier, according to data compiled by Real Capital Analytics. The euro has lost about 12 per cent against the US dollar in the past year.

BlackRock, based in New York, will focus on buildings known in the industry as "value-add" because the owner can boost the price by doing renovations or improving the tenant base. With pristine, fully occupied offices fetching record-high prices, more investors are taking the same approach.

"Value-add is where we see opportunities," said Mr Mueller. The yield spread, which measures the value of prime properties against second-level assets "is at almost historic high points".

BlackRock spent less than one billion euros on mainland European properties in the past three years. In Munich, for example, a core building in the central business district might change hands at a net initial yield of about 3.8 per cent; compared with 5.8 per cent for an asset of a lower quality in a less-popular location, according to data compiled by broker Jones Lang LaSalle Inc.

In the wake of the financial crisis, many investors focused on prime properties in their hunt for reliable returns while the value-add market was dominated by private-equity firms including Blackstone Group LP and the Carlyle Group. Now, traditionally conservative investors including pension funds and insurers are taking on more risk to improve returns because yields are low for assets such as prime buildings and sovereign bonds.

BlackRock has also benefited from refurbished European buildings in the past. In May, the firm said it sold the Illum department store in Copenhagen to Thai Central Group, fetching as much as 400 million euros, according to an estimate by Nordic Property News. The property was acquired in 2011 for about 220 million euros by MGPA, now a unit of BlackRock, then refurbished and expanded. Mr Mueller declined to comment on the deal.

BlackRock will seek assets in Germany and France, with some acquisitions in smaller countries including Denmark and Poland, Mr Mueller said. The focus will be on office and retail buildings, each valued at less than 100 million euros. The firm manages US$21.5 billion (S$30.5 billion) of real estate assets in 11 countries in Asia, Europe and the US. It had about seven billion euros of assets in Europe at the end of 2014.