Friday, October 13, 2017

13/10/17: Debt Glut and Building Dublin


Just back from Ireland, a fast, work-filled trip, with some amazing meetings and discussions, largely unrelated to what is in the 'official' newsflow. Some blogposts and articles ahead to be shared.

One thing that jumps out is the continued frenzy in building activity in Dublin, predominantly (exclusively) in the commercial space (offices). Not much finished. Lots being built. For now, Irish builders (mostly strange new players backed by vultures and private equity) are still in the stage where buildings shells are being erected. The cheap stage of construction. Very few are entering the fit-out stages - the costly, skills-intensive works stage. And according to several sector specialists I spoke to, not many fit-out crews are in the market, as skilled builders have not been returning to the island, yet, from their exiles to the U.S., Canada, Australia, UAE, and further afield.

Which should make for a very interesting period ahead: with so many construction sites nearing the fit-out stages, building costs will sky rocket, just as supply glut of new offices will start hitting the letting markets. In the mean time, many multinationals - aka the only clients worth signing - have already signed leases and/or bought own buildings on the cheap. Google owns its own real estate (hello BEPS tax reforms that stress tangible activity over imaginary revenue shifting); Twitter has a refurbished home; Facebook is quite committed to a lease (although it too might take a jump into buying); and so on. Tax inversion have slowed down and Trump Administration just re-committed to Obama-era restrictions on these, while Trump tax plan aims to take a massive chunk out of this pie away from Ireland. So demand... demand is nowhere to be seen.

Will this spell a twin squeeze on office blocks currently hanging around in a pre-weather tight conditions?

The market timing for a lot of this real estate investment is looking shaky. Globally and across Europe, corporates are doing relatively well. But, despite this, there is no investment cycle on the horizon. And revenues growth rates have been sustained by a massive glut of legacy credit sloshing in the international monetary system. Courtesy of Daniel Lacalle @dlacalle_IA, here is a Deutsche Bank chart illustrating what the past monetary excesses have produced:
Three lessons are to be extracted from the above:

  1. Lags in corporate investment activity imply that the current level of demand for hard assets worldwide is driven by the 2016 ultra low borrowing rates; 
  2. Forward corporate investment activity is starting to show the pressure of rising rates and reduced (or even negative) assets purchases by the Central Bankers, with negative rates share of the total debt market shrinking from over USD12 trillion at the end of 2016 to USD8 trillion now; and
  3. The glut of debt continues to rise through 2017, albeit at a slightly slower rate than in 2016.
These points suggest that, barring a new miracle of monetary variety, forward debt financed investment and growth is bound to slow. And the cost of debt carry is bound to rise. Which should be bad news for the European and U.S. debt-funded real estate activity. 

And it will be an even tougher pill to swallow for the crop of new (Nama-linked) Irish developers who were quick in raising hundreds of millions in funding in form of cheap (ultra cheap) debt and frothy equity. Many of these lads have nearly zero experience in building, some are backed by 'experts' from Nama's top cohorts of 'specialists' - the cohorts that were dominated by the pre-bust advisers, not developers. 

The bust is still unlikely at this stage, as majority of current sites that are in mid-stage development have a low acquisition cost, thanks to the fire sales by Nama, and still enjoy a couple of years of cheap debt carry costs. 

But inflation in construction costs will sap whatever wind the housing building sub-sector might have had in it (which is not much, as housing construction is still sitting well behind offices activity). Planning permissions for new housing are languishing sub 1,500 per quarter, comparable to 2010 levels. Planning permissions for ex-residential are at late 2007- early 2008 levels, aka stronger.


In other words, the upcoming cost squeeze is likely to do two things to the Irish market:
  • Cost inflation at fit-outs will probably dent future development activity, instead of creating a large-scale bust; and
  • Commercial development sector will continue pressuring house building, driving up rents and residential property prices.

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