Asia-Pacific office leasing market more resilient to virus fallout

Work-from-home phenomenon will hit region only marginally: Report

According to a report by real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, there is early evidence that the Asia-Pacific region will be somewhat more resilient to the impact of the pandemic relative to other global regions. In terms of the Asia-Pacific'
According to a report by real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield, there is early evidence that the Asia-Pacific region will be somewhat more resilient to the impact of the pandemic relative to other global regions. In terms of the Asia-Pacific's office employment base, the demographic growth in emerging markets helps to mitigate overall office-job losses. ST FILE PHOTO

The Covid-19 recession will have a more benign and shorter-lived impact on the office leasing market in the Asia-Pacific - excluding Greater China - than elsewhere, and the region will take just a marginal hit from the work-from-home phenomenon.

This is according to real estate services firm Cushman & Wakefield (C&W), which noted that all the economies in the region are set to see gross domestic product return to pre-pandemic levels by the third quarter of next year in the baseline scenario.

The slowdown in the creation of new office-using jobs as well as outright job losses will challenge office leasing fundamentals over the next six to 18 months, C&W noted in a report published yesterday.

That said, demand - as measured by net absorption - in the region is forecast to remain positive from now through 2030.

Net absorption in the Asia-Pacific this year will plunge by 70 per cent from last year to about 21 million sq ft under the baseline scenario, the firm predicted.

This represents an absorption rate of 2 per cent, the lowest since record-keeping began in 2007.

Next year, net absorption is expected to moderately improve to 28 million sq ft, C&W said.

From 2022 to 2030, the firm foresees net office demand growing by 729 million sq ft in the region.

This will be despite a 4.5 per cent drag as a result of more employees working from home.

"Increased flexible working and work-from-home practices are less prevalent across the Asia-Pacific as a whole compared with other regions, and so do not meaningfully alter the outlook for the region's office market," said Dr Dominic Brown, head of insight and analysis for the region at the firm.

There is early evidence that the Asia-Pacific will be somewhat more resilient relative to other global regions, even though it is still not immune to the pandemic's impact.

 
 

For instance, net absorption in the United States during the second quarter of this year was minus 23.1 million sq ft, versus 2.9 million sq ft in the region. In terms of the Asia-Pacific's office employment base, the demographic growth in emerging markets helps to mitigate overall office-job losses.

Emerging markets such as India, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines are likely to see more jobs that are office-using, as their economies move rapidly up the value chain.

The slowdown in the creation of new office-using jobs as well as outright job losses will challenge office leasing fundamentals over the next six to 18 months, C&W noted in a report published yesterday.

Office rents in emerging markets will therefore see just a shallow and short decline of 2.6 per cent over the next 18 months, before returning to pre-pandemic levels in the fourth quarter of 2022 with continued growth after that.

In contrast, the more advanced markets - including Singapore, Japan, Australia and South Korea - will experience lower demand for offices, which will flow through to weaker rental growth.

A sharper peak-to-trough rental decline of 21.3 per cent is forecast over the next 21 months for offices in the region's advanced markets, after factoring in the more severe employment declines and more elastic rent responses to declining occupancy levels.

Aggregate rents in the advanced economies will return to pre-Covid-19 levels only in 2026, according to C&W.

Dr Brown noted that the region had entered the Covid-19 crisis with a "formidable supply pipeline, with a robust wave of office development slated for delivery in 2020-2022".

More than 211 million sq ft of new supply is expected by end-2022.

As such, even before the pandemic, Asia-Pacific markets were already softening as vacancies rose and rents fell. This trend is set to intensify, based on the real estate firm's forecasts.

Vacancies in the region will likely peak at 16.7 per cent in late 2021 and stay elevated for the following year, before decreasing more rapidly.

That vacancy level is over 500 basis points above pre-pandemic levels in the fourth quarter of last year, and will be the highest on record, C&W said.

 
 

As for Greater China, the uptrend in vacancy rates even before the pandemic is expected to accelerate amid weaker demand.

Of all the regions studied in C&W's report, Greater China will see the smallest impact to its structural office demand. The work-from-home trend will lower net office demand by only 2.9 per cent, the firm said, adding that net office demand for the region is set to grow by about 536 million sq ft from 2022 to 2030.

THE BUSINESS TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2020, with the headline 'Asia-Pacific office leasing market more resilient to virus fallout'. Subscribe