Potential oversupply to hit prices

Singapore is about 700 sq km in size and has roughly 890,000 public housing, 70,000 landed residential and 187,000 non-landed residential units. It is a small country with a small residential property market compared to 100 or more countries. However, the challenge of keeping tab on the physical supply of residential units in Singapore seems insurmountable, especially when trying to estimate future supply.

It seems easier to track completions for the private residential sector as the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) publishes quarterly data. Data for Housing and Development Board (HDB) completions and total HDB supply are available once a year from its annual reports. As we have no ability to forecast the HDB demolition pipeline, net additional supply of HDB stock is also impossible to predict.

Let’s examine the anticipated supply of private residential units this year. In the URA’s 1Q2006 publication, it was anticipated that 6,115 units will be completed this year. Most of those were “planned” and not yet “under construction”.

Over the next few quarters, this number grew and by 3Q2007, it was anticipated that up to 21,451 units will get the Temporary Occupation Permit (TOP) this year. This is a 251 per cent rise over 18 months. During that time, there were worries that private residential prices were rising beyond the reach of HDB upgraders. The strong supply numbers sought to alleviate these concerns.

However, as the global economy faltered with Bear Stearns disappearing in March 2008 and Lehman Brothers collapsing in September 2008, the anticipated number of units getting TOP for this year dropped to a low of 5,394 in 2Q2009, coinciding with the worst point of most major stock market indices. This was only nine months away from 2010.

What happened? Did construction companies stop work? Did developers request construction companies to slow down? How did the anticipated supply ratchet down as quickly as it had sprung up?

Forecasts should get sharper and more precise as the event draws nearer. Yet those were turbulent times and the URA’s survey of developers could have reflected high degrees of uncertainty too.

But the swing from a high of 21,000 to 5,400 and now back to around 10,000 makes challenging work for investment consultants.

Average annual completions in the last decade numbered about 8,000 units. In mid-2007, an investor holding a residential unit that should be completed this year would think that there was way too much supply coming onstream. He would decide to sell.

In the middle of last year, an investor holding a unit that should be completed this year would decide to hold, because there seemed to be inadequate supply coming onstream. However, the 5,394 units that were anticipated to be completed in the whole of this year were surpassed by June this year, when 5,786 units obtained TOP.

We anticipate this year will close off with 10,536 units completed, almost double the number that the investor in the middle of last year had thought and 32 per cent higher than the long term average of 8,000 units. It poses a challenge for us in advising clients who may want to time their investments and divestments.

What’s the supply outlook for the next few years?

As we approach next year, I anticipate that we would also face an upsurge in TOP numbers. Although current official data show that 6,766 units will get TOP next year, my estimate is that we are likely to close next year with more than 10,000 units completed per year. There is a very high chance that many of the units anticipated to complete in 2012 will be ahead of schedule.

Two financial analysts I hold in high regard are Ms Wendy Koh and Mr Tan Chun Keong from Citibank Equities Research, who faithfully track and make projections for private residential completions. In their report Singapore Property – Increasingly Unfavorable Risk/Reward Ratio, they forecast a completion of over 10,000 units in this year and 11,000 each next year and 2012.

Responding to the thirst for private housing and for land to build private residential developments, the Government Land Sales (GLS) programme for 2H2010 has 18 sites on the Confirmed List and 13 sites on the Reserve List. These 31 sites can generate 13,905 units. This is the highest potential supply quantum in the history of the GLS programme.

The HDB has also stepped up its supply of new homes. In his National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said 16,000 new HDB flats would be built this year and up to 22,000 next year. In addition, the HDB will accelerate the completion of flats to 2.5 years.

As for the total supply pipeline of private homes, there are almost 73,000 coming onstream within the next five to six years. As many as 55,000 units are expected to be completed by 2014. This represents more than 20 per cent of today’s total stock of about 257,000 units.

Of the 19,535 units that are expected to get TOP in 2013, 11,621 are already under construction. Of the 20,504 in 2014, 8,768 are already under construction. We estimate the bulk of those “under construction” units will be completed ahead of schedule because building a typical condominium project takes 24 to 30 months. Exceptions would be very large-scale developments such as The Interlace that has over 1,000 units. Most projects that have begun construction should be completed in late 2012 or in 2013.

What does this all mean?

To sum it up, we believe that in the private residential space, there will be about 11,000 to 12,000 units completing next year and in 2012, and about 12,000 to 14,000 units completing in 2013 and 2014. The completions this year and next will be heavier in the prime districts but completions in 2013 to 2014 will be mainly in the mass market segment.

Adding to this are 16,000 to 22,000 HDB flats that will be completed per year. So, prices may slide from the potential oversupply rather than from the policy measures announced on Aug 30.

What about the demand side of the equation? Singapore’s economic make-up has been overhauled and restructured in the 13 years since the Asian financial crisis. Job creation has been strong, with the services sector expanding and financial institutions abuzz with activity, and demand for housing will be driven by the population growth.

So while we may see a potential price drop of 10 per cent next year, the global economic recovery anticipated in 2012 may bring new levels of demand to Singapore.

Supply within three years we can confidently forecast. As for demand, we can be optimistic, but to be able to forecast whether it will match or exceed supply, I’ll sign up for tea-leaves-reading classes.

By Ku Swee Yong, founder of real estate agency International Property Advisor, which provides services to high-net-worth individuals.