London office property prices have stayed surprisingly high since the Brexit vote to leave the European Union (EU) in mid-2016.
A recent rise in vacancy levels (from a low base) hasn’t yet made a dent in high rent costs, while low transaction prices have attracted foreign buyers lured by the post-Brexit fall of the British pound.
But that might be about to change. There’s a high level of new office construction coming to market just as demand appears to be faltering. Are rent prices like Wile E. Coyote after he has run off the cliff, but before he has looked down?
So far, so good
Demand for office space has stayed healthy since the Brexit vote. At the time of the vote, several multi-national banks talked about relocating staff to Frankfurt, Dublin and other cities inside the EU; to date, very few have actually moved. And banks aren’t the only tenants in London—technology firms have been a big source of office demand.
Both Google and Apple are planning large new London headquarters. The unglamorous area around Old Street roundabout has become an unlikely hub for technology start-ups, and is now nicknamed “Silicon Roundabout.”
Over the cliff?
Headline rents have stayed high, but landlords are offering longer rent-free periods to new tenants, which is a significant indicator of effective rents falling. Additionally, supply of new office buildings over the next three years is likely to be above its long-term average, with a significant proportion that is not pre-let to tenants[i]. London office rents and investment property prices could fall 10-20% over the next two years, with some risk of a worse downturn.
In March, British Land sold its stake in the “Cheesegrater” building to a Chinese buyer for £1.1bn. This sale may mark the peak of the London property cycle and the harbinger of price declines, just as the sale of HSBC’s London headquarters in 2007 for £1.1bn marked the previous cycle’s end[ii]. Some of the UK’s largest property companies have been strengthening their resilience to a downturn by selling investment property and paying down debt. This puts them in a good position to buy land for future development cheaply if prices do fall.
The outlook for London office properties depends on what kind of agreement the UK makes with the EU. Tougher UK rules on immigration would lead to higher trade barriers with the EU—both of these would be bad for office demand. The recent UK election weakened Prime Minister Theresa May’s position and has led to further uncertainty. On the one hand, the election has made May’s vision of a “hard Brexit” (i.e., tougher rules on immigration and trade) less likely. On the other hand, her fragile position has increased the risk of no deal, which would automatically result in higher trade barriers.
In the meantime, office rents and property prices may continue to drift down while this uncertainty persists.
Julian Wellesley – Senior Global Equity Opportunities Analyst – Loomis Sayles