Economic Affairs

Property firms head overseas in hope of growth and profits

Even smaller players have moved to diversify outside the slowing domestic market

The combination of cooling measures, tougher banking rules and slowing population growth has meant that the party has been over for property developers for some time.

This year, there are added pressures. With additional taxes set to kick in if units remain unsold and a peak supply of 21,906 completed units due to hit the market this year, there is a sense of urgency in property circles that it is time to act.

The national property body - the Real Estate Developers' Association of Singapore - has issued a clarion call for the lifting of the cooling measures.

While the situation is indeed challenging, the past year for the property developers has not been as dire as, say, in the oil and gas or shipping sectors, where companies are loss-making or have had to make huge write-downs.

With the recent earnings round just over, a check of these property firms' results not only show that practically all remain profitable but also that dividend payouts have been maintained, a sign that they still have ready funds.

City Developments (CDL) kept its dividend payout unchanged, as did UOL. CapitaLand and OUE held theirs steady too.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Smaller firms such as Roxy-Pacific also managed to keep the same level of dividends to reward shareholders. And in the case of Oxley, whose year-end is June 30, it has in fact declared an interim dividend where previously it didn't.

Property firms have been unwilling to be the frog that finds itself slowly boiled alive.

Most have taken steps to manage their exposure to the slowing domestic market. Some have gone down the privatisation route, to avoid paying additional penalties for the unsold units. Others have been leasing out units or have tried to find large funds that are willing to buy many units in one go.

Some like CDL are trying to build up recurrent income. CDL aims to have some $5 billion of assets under management by 2018, a move that will bring in regular returns. A recent example is Wing Tai, which announced that it is setting up its own fund management unit, WT Fund Management. This fund will partner institutional investors and focus on the Asia-Pacific.

With the writing on the wall for the local market, most players, even the small ones, have also made moves to diversify outside the Singapore market.

Overseas investments by Singapore-based developers from 2013 to mid-2015 came to $6.84 billion, almost double that for 2010-2012, figures by property consultancy JLL show.

About 32 per cent of the investments between 2013 and mid-2015 went to Australia, followed by the United Kingdom at 19 per cent. The United States, Hong Kong and mainland China were 13 per cent each, according to JLL.

These latest figures show that it is no longer just the Temasek-linked companies like Keppel Land, CapitaLand and Mapletree Investments - which heeded the call long ago - that are venturing overseas. Even the smaller local developers, who were previously reaping the gains of the buoyant market here, have made their debut in foreign markets.

Players such as Roxy-Pacific, Aspial, Lian Beng and Oxley are among the several smaller firms that have ventured overseas.

JLL suggests that the popularity of these more established markets stems from the fact that they are mature and transparent, with strong legal and regulatory frameworks, which may appeal to the Singapore players that are used to similar conditions at home.

They may have had to pay more for the peace of mind, but analysts say that they have a well-stocked war-chest earned from the boom market days post-financial crisis.

What is happening is that these developers with strong balance sheets are now recycling their capital into overseas markets and, by all accounts, prospects are promising.

For example, jewellery chain Aspial says in its latest earnings report that it has secured more than A$1.05 billion (S$1.08 billion) of sales revenue from its residential and commercial developments, the Australia 108 and Avant projects. Australia 108 is being developed by Aspial unit World Class Land and the 101-storey project in Melbourne is gunning for the title of the tallest residence in the Southern Hemisphere.

Aspial, in fact, is confident enough to say that it "expects to make substantial profits from its development projects in Singapore and Australia".

Home-grown Oxley Holdings, whose founder Ching Chiat Kwong is on the Forbes' Rich List, has a presence in at least seven countries apart from Singapore: the United Kingdom, Cambodia, Malaysia, Ireland, Indonesia, China and Japan. The group also provides project management and consultancy services in Myanmar.

Over in the United States, OUE, which is behind the OUE Bayfront here, is building an observation deck at its 72-storey US Bank Tower in Los Angeles. According to OUE, the Downtown Los Angeles market finished last year on a positive note, with increasing rents and decreasing vacancy, and consultancy Colliers expects this year's market to be roughly the same.

Despite everyone fretting about the Chinese economy, the news is not all bad. Take Keppel Land, for example. It sold 4,570 homes last year, double the number it sold in 2014. Nearly three quarters of these homes were sold in China and another 20 per cent in Vietnam.

China's moves to ease some of its property restrictions have helped the market. Keppel says property prices in China's main cities are still rising. Other cities such as Tianjin, Wuxi and Chengdu are seeing stable prices. In Chengdu, Keppel Land will be partnering China property giant Vanke to develop the site there.

And the list goes on. Brisbane in Australia and Hangzhou in China are just two of the other areas where a Singapore developer can be found building away.

However, the going can get tough. CapitaLand is one of those who had a rocky start in China - its Raffles City Shanghai project - before it eventually came good. Foreign currency fluctuations, changes in regulations and unfamiliarity with the market are definite risks.

Investors in these companies take a risk with the exposure to so many foreign markets. The Singapore banks that would be, to a certain extent, funding this overseas expansion will also find they have a more risky portfolio. A further word of warning: Many of these property players are still in the process of launching or building their projects. So far so good, but the proof is in the pudding.

Still, it is only fair to say that, for most of these property firms, while they will always have a foothold in Singapore, their future lies overseas.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 09, 2016, with the headline 'Property firms head overseas in hope of growth and profits'. Print Edition | Subscribe