London landlords are hoisting 'for sale' signs on office towers

The Canary Wharf financial district is seen at dusk in London.
The Canary Wharf financial district is seen at dusk in London.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - London landlords are offloading some of their most valuable properties as demand from investors in the Asia Pacific region continues despite the Brexit vote.

Spurred by the record sale of the Cheesegrater tower, stakes in office buildings including the skyscraper known as the Walkie Talkie and 20 Canada Square in the Canary Wharf financial district are being offered for sale. Other investors including Blackstone Group and the real estate unit of Axa are seeking to sell investments that have risen in value as investors continue to seek higher yielding alternatives to stocks and bonds.

"The market is still robust for the best assets," Stephen Down, head of central London at broker Savills, said by phone. "The focus is on income" rather than taking the risk of developing a building and then having to find a tenant.

Investment in central London offices slumped to a five-year low in 2016 as few owners were willing to offer buildings for sale amid concerns the Brexit vote might dent values. Office-focused real estate investment trusts such as Land Securities Group and British Land should now sell more projects and use the money raised to return capital to shareholders, Hemant Kotak, an analyst at Green Street Advisors, wrote in a March 23 note titled "Sell to Stay Safe."

C C Land Holdings, a Hong Kong-based real estate developer, will pay 1.15 billion pounds to British Land and Oxford Properties Group for the Cheesegrater, formally known as the Leadenhall Building. The price was "unprecedented" for a London tower on a square-foot basis, Morgan Stanley analyst Bart Gysens said in a March 1 note to clients.

In the past month, properties valued at more than 2 billion pounds have been offered to investors. Blackstone plans to sell its St. Katharine Docks complex adjacent to the Tower of London for about £450 million (S$786.8 million), Axa is offering ICBC Standard Bank's London headquarters and Brookfield Property Partners is offering an office building in Canary Wharf for £420 million.

Morgan Stanley's real estate investing unit plans to sell its stake of almost 12 per cent in the London skyscraper known as the Walkie Talkie and China Investment weighed a bid for the holding, people familiar with the plan said in February. Other investors in the building are also weighing a sale of their stakes in the property, CoStar News reported on March 15.

There's a strong chance the buyers of those properties will be Asian. Chinese and Hong Kong investors spent £2.9 billion - more than buyers from any other region - on central London offices in 2016, broker Knight Frank said in a Feb. 1 report. They're benefiting from a weaker pound, which has lost almost 16 percent against the Hong Kong dollar since the referendum.

"There is a good group of Asia Pacific investors continuing to look for quality, well-leased buildings," James Beckham, who as head of central London investment at broker Cushman & Wakefield Inc. advised on the sale of the Cheesegrater, said in an email. "Yields in London are providing strong resilience against some of the negative headlines surrounding Brexit." For some analysts, the decision by landlords to sell is a good one.

"Risks are skewed to the downside and REITs trade at discounts" to their net asset value, Kotak wrote. "Greater caution is required" among firms pushing ahead with new developments as they "carry greater risk and reduced margins."