Investment confidence wavers in Canadian commercial real estate in Q4 2020

Investment confidence awaits vaccine boost

Monday, January 25, 2021

A surging second wave of COVID-19 tempered investment confidence in commercial real estate during the fourth quarter of 2020. Newly released results of the REALPAC/FPL Canadian Real Estate Sentiment Survey finds participating senior executives expressing slightly less optimism in market conditions than they exhibited three months earlier. Notably, though, data was collected in October before the confirmation of approved vaccines.

In assessing both survey responses and accompanying insight from interviews with more than 50 influential Canadian players, analysts with FPL Advisory Group conclude that some indicators aren’t telling much of a story. In particular, the survey’s conventional focus on real estate asset pricing has shifted largely to macro-level observations, but there are more tangible details to report on access to capital.

“Transaction volume remains low, resulting in inconclusive asset valuations. Distressed transaction activity has yet to emerge in Canada,” the survey summary states. “Lenders remain active. There is an increased level of scrutiny during the due diligence process with many less willing to engage in higher risk investments. Equity capital is available; however, investors are increasingly discerning when evaluating investment track records and leverage ratios.”

Analysts also suggest “uncertainty” characterized the October snapshot, but that came with some perspective on a potential stabilizing force. “Many remain hopeful that a vaccine is imminent,” they advise.

Survey respondents — representing owners, asset managers and affiliated professional service providers in all property sectors — collectively nudged the overall index score down to 43 on a scale of 100. Confidence ebbed in both current and future market dynamics compared to the third quarter outlook.

Canadian executives were somewhat more positive about current conditions than were their U.S. counterparts — delivering an index score of 28 versus the U.S. consensus at 27. However, Canadian expectations for a future bounce-back were more modest — translating into an index score of 58 compared to the U.S. score of 61.

Nearly one-third of Canadian respondents deemed market conditions in the fourth quarter to be “much worse” than they had been 12 months earlier. That’s a significant jump from the 13 per cent expressing that view in Q3. Nevertheless, there was a small gain in respondents who perceived conditions were “much better”— climbing to 14 per cent from 10 per cent in Q3.

A larger share of respondents expected a longer-lasting downturn, with 27 per cent suggesting that market conditions will be somewhat or much worse by Q4 2021 compared to 23 per cent in Q3. Accordingly, fewer respondents foresaw “somewhat better” times ahead, with 47 per cent making that prognosis for 12 months in the future versus 51 per cent in Q3. A steady 18 per cent of respondents in both quarters predicted conditions would be about the same one year hence.

Despite the lack of transactions, 86 per cent of respondents pegged asset values at somewhat or much lower than they had been one year earlier. That’s an increase from 72 per cent expressing that view in Q3, which also encompasses a sizeable jump — from 6 to 24 per cent — in the quotient calling values much worse. Looking forward, 35 per cent of respondents expect asset values to drop further during the next 12 months, while 39 per cent of respondents expect “somewhat” improvement. That’s also more pessimistic than Q3.

The report’s selection of anonymous quotes from leading industry sources reiterate many common themes of 2020, including preference for industrial and multi-residential assets, the pandemic’s hard hit on already struggling retail assets and unease about tenants’ prolonged absences from office space. Those are consistent trends among lenders and equity investors, as industry sources note that wariness of office and retail assets is serving up competitive jockeying to lend on industrial and multi-residential assets. Alternative lenders are also forging more presence in the market.

Generally, respondents reported more hurdles to secure capital in Q4, with 69 per cent gauging it was somewhat or much more difficult to get debt financing and 67 per cent saying it was more difficult to obtain equity capital than it was in Q4 2019. Looking forward, 56 per cent anticipate that equity capital will be somewhat or much more abundant by Q4 2021, while 45 per cent expect lenders will be somewhat or much more amenable.

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