Changing home investment scene

Non-landed residential market most likely to gain from influx of foreign talent, say CHUA YANG LIANG and JACQUELINE WONG

SINGAPORE’S non-landed residential market put in a strong performance last year, sub-prime notwithstanding, driven by the luxury and prime segments whose resale capital values saw stunning year-on-year growth of 51.7 per cent and 50.6 per cent respectively.

Lights, camera, action: Key projects and events, including the Marina Bay Sands integrated resort (above), the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix and the Singapore Youth Olympics in 2010, will push Singapore up a notch on the tourist destination list and also increase the expatriate work force and demand for housing

The buoyant buying sentiment coupled with high global liquidity helped propel high-end condominium prices beyond the $4,000 per square foot mark, with one new development reportedly closing at $5,000 psf – a historic milestone.

Spurred by the large gap of around 35 per cent between resale and new residential launch prices in prime districts (9-11), investor interest was at a crest in 2007. There was $8.5 billion worth of collective sales transacted by institutional investors and developers. This is 18 per cent more than the value of en bloc deals done in 2006 and 2005 put together ($7.2 billion).

With the new en bloc regulations introduced last October, overall costs of collective sale deals have risen and coupled with the overall cautious sentiment, the level of en bloc transactions will be more moderate in 2008.

The euphoria in the non-landed residential market is an unexpected by-product of an enlarged foreign population that catapulted leasing demand to a new level and changed the residential investment climate. While the clouds brought on by the US sub-prime debacle remain in the short term, the long-term outlook is positive.

Shifting buyer demographics

As the birth rate of the indigenous population is below replacement level, immigration is necessary to sustain the continued growth of the local economy. In 2007, the total population stood at 4.59 million with foreigners making up well over a million. This is an increase of 33 per cent from the 750,000 foreigners recorded in 2000.

Naturally, the residential market feels the impact of this sudden influx. The ratio of Singaporean buyers in the Core Central region today is less than half while foreigners of non-resident status have edged up to a quarter of the total buyers. Although less pronounced in the Outside Central region, foreign ownership (excluding companies) has also increased by some nine percentage points.

Continual government efforts to attract foreign investments and immigration-friendly policies to support this long-term economic growth will benefit the residential market tremendously.

Last year, the Economic Development Board brought in more than $16 billion worth of commitments in fixed-asset investment. These are expected to create some 28,600 new jobs and add $11.6 billion per year to Singapore’s GDP. This strong job creation benefited both locals and foreigners – local employment grew by 92,100 while foreign employment jumped by a remarkable 144,500. As a result of the slower growth in Singapore’s indigenous work force and a faster increase in employment opportunities, one out of three of the 2.73 million people employed in Singapore is a foreigner.

Continual population growth is essential to fuel our economic engine. The estimated population of 6.5 million is projected to be met in 40 to 50 years’ time, predominantly through immigration. These foreigners do not qualify for subsidised public housing and require ministerial approval for the purchase of any landed properties. So the non-landed residential market is likely to feel the bulk of this demand.

Just in 2007 alone, foreigners and permanent residents (PRs) chalked up 8,884 units in sales (some 77.8 per cent higher than 2006), which accounts for 29.1 per cent of total private non-landed residential transactions. This sales figure is the highest in 13 years and is likely to rise further over time.

While foreign purchasers are still predominantly from our neighbouring countries – Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand – the buyers are increasingly becoming more diversified. The next emerging groups are South Koreans (7 per cent), mainland Chinese (7 per cent) and Indians (12 per cent). Notable countries making their first foray into the Singapore market include Myanmar, the Middle East, Russia and Ireland.

Return of corporate buyers

Another rising trend is residential investments made by property funds and financial institutions since 2003. Attracted by yields above 4 per cent between 2003 and H105, these foreign institutional investors snapped up residential units to inject into their yield-focused investment portfolios. In the last 12 months, although yields have compressed to below 4 per cent, interest from Middle Eastern funds and opportunistic funds has been strong.

Out of the total $2.6 billion worth of non-landed residential developments, 42 per cent was transacted by these funds, and included anything from several units to whole condominium blocks and even development sites. These investors include Macquarie Global Property Advisors, Kuwait Finance House and US-based Wachovia Development.

Institutional investors remain optimistic about the upside potential of the Singapore residential market. Many of these investors are looking at total return, that is, including capital appreciation rather than just income yield. The majority of the investors have pumped these projects into their investment portfolio.

The minority have exited by riding on local capital growth or price differential when these properties were marketed in the home country of these foreign funds. This trend of institutional buyers in the residential market is likely to remain. Their interest is fuelled by the remaking of Singapore where several new developments and initiatives have been slated to transform it into a global city.

New lifestyle

With tourism a key component of GDP, two massive integrated resorts are now under construction – Marina Bay Sands, located at Marina South (completion in 2009) and Resorts World at Sentosa (completion in 2010). Other key projects and events include the Singapore Formula One Grand Prix and the Singapore Youth Olympics in 2010. The completion of these projects and events will push Singapore up a notch on the tourist destination list and also increase the expatriate workforce and demand for housing.

Pro-business environment

Singapore’s strength lies in its corruption-free government, socially and politically stable climate, sound economic fundamentals, favourable tax policies, and a well-regulated and robust financial sector. Singapore has always been perceived as a safe, pro-business environment that is supported by a well-respected government with transparent and consistent policies that protect companies’ physical and intellectual property (IP) investments.

Investors can also enjoy the benefits of an extensive global network of free trade agreements, avoidance of double taxation agreements and investment guarantee agreements. No longer seen as a little red dot on the global stage, Singapore has transformed itself into a global hub for business and investment. In the 2007 World Competitiveness Yearbook, Singapore was ranked second to the US as the most competitive economy globally.

While the banking and insurance-related services still constitute the largest component of financial sector GDP, several emerging financial clusters have contributed increasingly to its growth. These include the sentiment-sensitive industries of wealth advisory, brokerage and treasury clusters. Collectively, these sectors all contribute towards the growth of Singapore as an internationally competitive financial centre.

Singapore’s multicultural and racial base also offers the corporate world a platter of business platforms conducted in a choice of languages other than English.

The network and cultural connections that the indigenous population has with its neighbouring countries make Singapore the ideal melting pot where deals are made between Asia and the rest of the world. Coupled with a well-educated and highly skilled work force, and a world-class network of air, sea and IT infrastructure, it is not surprising that capital, enterprise and talent have been attracted to this island city-state.

Consequently, more than 26,000 international companies have made Singapore their base camp as well as a gateway to the region.

Hubs of hubs

Singapore is also recognised as one of the premier asset management centres in the Asia-Pacific. Its pro-business regulatory framework and competitive tax framework also spearheaded its success as a Reit hub.

The operation of Changi Airport’s Terminal 3 along with the proposed Seletar Aerospace Park has enabled the city state to consolidate its status as a regional aviation hub as well as an aerospace maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO) hub.

Ranked the best in Asia by the World Health Organisation, Singapore has also established itself as a multi-faceted medical hub serving Asia and the world and is earning a global reputation as a medical convention and training centre.

More than 400,000 international patients visit Singapore for a whole range of healthcare services annually. It has also attracted many world renowned medical professionals to work in the internationally accredited hospitals and specialty centres located here.

Besides priding itself on an international standard education system, Singapore has also attracted world-class institutions with strong industry links to set up centres of excellence in education and research. They include respected names such as Insead and University of Chicago Graduate School of Business.

To meet the rising demand for quality schools for expatriate children, the list of international schools has also been growing. The NPS International School, part of a pioneering group of educational institutions headquartered in Bangalore, India, opened its Singapore campus in January 2008, while United World College of South-east Asia has announced plans to set up a second campus.

With such accolades and continual developmental growth in each economic sector, Singapore continues to attract a global pool of investors and talent. Incoming talent will not only bring their unique expertise but also put demand on the housing market. Eventually, some of them will bring their families and possibly even consider permanent residency.

All these developments have collectively positioned Singapore high on the list of many global investors and given them the confidence to continue investing in the Singapore residential market.

A global city in the tropics

With Singapore being a base for many regional and international conglomerates, it is also now home to a myriad of global talents and their families. Singapore is indeed transforming itself into a global city in the tropics, possibly close to being on par with London and New York in the West.

The economic rise of Asia, especially China and India, has filtered through to a buoyant economy in Singapore, resulting in a surge in demand for both office and housing space. Both office rents and housing prices have escalated over the past year. Nonetheless, prices remain highly competitive when compared to global cities such as London, New York and Hong Kong.

Singapore’s strategic placement between two rising global economic engines of India and China makes it a popular choice of relocation, if not as a base for a second home for expatriates.

The non-landed residential market will continue to benefit further from the influx of these foreigners. The demand pool for the non-landed residential market, which traditionally came from the local population and residents of neighbouring countries – Malaysia and Indonesia – will become ethnically more diverse with buyers from China, India, Korea and corporate entities increasing their share.

Its multiculturalism and tolerance of diverse ethnicities support the quick and smooth assimilation of new immigrants into the larger society – a sociological strength that favours Singapore greatly. This attribute will continue to attract expatriates as well as residents of other Asian cities to Singapore.

In the longer term, the foreign ownership of residential properties in Singapore will become increasingly more cosmopolitan than that of Hong Kong, which is likely to remain dominated by mainland Chinese. The level of foreign ownership will continue to rise and eventually resemble what is found in London today – making Singapore the first global city of the tropics.

Chua Yang Liang is head of research, South-east Asia, Jones Lang LaSalle; and Jacqueline Wong is head of residential, Singapore, Jones Lang LaSalle

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