LONDON (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic has forced sovereign wealth funds to think the previously unthinkable.
With prime office blocks lying empty around the world, hotels half-vacant and retailers struggling to stay afloat, the funds are retreating from many of the real estate investments that have long been a mainstay of their strategies.
Sovereign wealth funds (SWFs) invested $4.4 billion in the sector in the first seven months of 2020, 65% down from the same period a year ago, according to previously unpublished data provided to Reuters by Global SWF, an industry data specialist.
The nature of property investments is also shifting, with funds increasingly investing in logistics space, such as warehousing, amid a boom in online commerce during the pandemic, while cutting back on deals for offices and retail buildings.
Such shifts in behaviour can have seismic effects on the global real estate market, given such funds are among the largest investors in property and have interests worth hundreds of billions of dollars in total. Three sovereign funds sit within the top 10 largest real estate investors, according to market specialists IPE Real Assets.
A big question is whether the changes are structural for the funds, for which property is an asset-class staple at about 8% of their total portfolios on average, or a temporary response to a huge, unexpected and unfamiliar global event.
“Real estate is still a big part of sovereign wealth fund portfolios and will continue to be so,” said Diego López, managing director of Global SWF and a former sovereign wealth fund adviser at PwC.
“What COVID has accelerated is the sophistication of SWFs trying to build diversification and resilience into their portfolio – and hence looking for other asset classes and industries.”
Sovereign funds have been more bearish on property than public pension funds, another big investor in the sector, Global SWF found. While they have outstripped the pension funds in overall investment across most industries and assets this year, by two to one, that ratio is reversed for real estate.
Funds are nursing hits to their existing property portfolios stemming from the introduction of lockdowns and social-distancing restrictions. While other parts of their portfolio, such as stocks and bonds, have rebounded from March’s trough, a real-estate recovery is less assured.
Property capital value globally is expected to drop by 14% in 2020 before rising by 3.4% in 2021, according to commercial real estate services group CBRE. Analysts and academics question whether the pandemic’s impact may prove long-lasting, with more people working from home and shopping online.
“I think there’s a real threat to some commercial business districts in the big cities as I can’t see us all return to the 9-to-5 schlep in, schlep out,” said Yolande Barnes, a real-estate specialist at London university UCL.
The value of property assets of some funds has fallen in 2020, with those experiencing the biggest drops including Singapore’s Temasek Holdings and GIC, Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (ADIA) and Qatar Investment Authority (QIA), according to data compiled for Reuters by industry tracker Preqin.
Those four funds have collectively seen the value of such assets drop by $18.1 billion to $132.9 billion, the data showed.
Reuters was unable to confirm whether the fall was due to lower valuations or asset sales. The funds either declined to comment or did not respond.
Many sovereign funds do not publicly disclose data on property investments, with Norway’s one of the exceptions.
The Norwegian fund, which has around $49 billion invested in real estate, up from $47 billion at the end of 2019, said last week its unlisted property portfolio returned minus 1.6% in the first half of 2020.
Sovereign funds have also largely steered clear in 2020 of new direct investments in London or Los Angeles, hotspots in normal times, according to property services firm Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), which said SWFs were “on the defensive”.