London's crown jewels shine

By Russell Lynch

Demand for office towers is running hot, reports Russell Lynch

The sale of HSBC's Canary Wharf HQ could set a British record, say property sources. Photo / Getty Images
The sale of HSBC's Canary Wharf HQ could set a British record, say property sources. Photo / Getty Images

If you wanted to tell the story of the credit crunch and its aftermath in a single building, the recent history of banking giant HSBC's gleaming headquarters at London's Canary Wharf could be a good example.

Completed in 2003, the Sir Norman Foster-designed tower was sold in April 2007 for 1.09 billion (now $2.2 billion) to Spanish property firm Metrovacesa. The company was forced to sell it back to the bank 18 months later when the financial crisis struck.

The opportunistic HSBC flipped its headquarters again in November 2009, this time to the South Korean pension fund NPS, for a more modest 772.5 million, part of a wave of investments by overseas investors encouraged by falling prices and a cheap pound to hunt down bargains. And now the building is on the market again for 1.1 billion.

Property sources suggest it will fetch much more, setting a British record for a single office building and banking a likely 400 million profit for NPS in little more than four years.

The sale of HSBC's HQ is the latest sign of a revival in a London commercial property market enjoying its best year since the heady days of 2007.

The top 10 sales in the City alone have accounted for more than 6 billion of property sales over the past year. The pace has picked up significantly in the opening three months of 2014 with more than 4 billion of deals being completed, according to the agents Cushman & Wakefield.

Another landmark will be auctioned off this year after lenders last week appointed receivers to the City's "Gherkin" skyscraper, formally known as 30 St Mary Axe. This building, a former holder of the title of the country's most expensive office building before HSBC, was bought by the German bank IVG and private-equity firm Evans Randall at the top of the market in 2007. The owners have been in default on their 400m loan to buy the building since 2009. But the Gherkin is virtually full, generating valuable income: the lenders have now decided to pull the plug as a rising property market raises the prospect of a good sale price.

Investment agents are already salivating at the opportunity of selling these prized assets and an international roster of buyers is likely to emerge, including the Chinese insurance giant Ping An, whose purchase of the Lloyds building last year was its first in the London market and meant as a signal of intent. Sources suggest it has billions to spend.

Meanwhile, a mix of international investors from Singapore to Kuwait, Germany to the US, have also been betting on the capital as wobbles elsewhere in the world underline the attractions of London as a safe haven for international cash. US Treasury bonds are yielding below 3 per cent, but prime City buildings can return between 4 and 5 per cent, as well as offering the attraction of a globally revered legal system and being outside the eurozone.

James Roberts, research partner at the property consultancy Knight Frank, says: "Financing conditions have been improving and another aspect which has increased the appeal of the London property market has been the recent turmoil in emerging markets. There's a feeling emerging markets have peaked while Western economies are starting to pick up again. The returns on commercial property are also attractive compared to yields on assets like government bonds."

An imbalance of supply and demand is pushing up prices, but the fundamentals for rent returns are also good. Since financial deregulation in the mid-1980s, companies who signed up to 25-year or 30-year leases are reaching lease events, that is renewals or breaks, prompting them to look for new homes away from ageing space.

The increase in demand coincides with a lack of supply as building work virtually stopped in the wake of the financial crisis.

According to the consultant Deloitte's latest bi-annual crane survey, developers are catching up as the economy recovers, and total office space under construction in the Square Mile is now past the 5 million sq ft mark for the first time since 2009.

But if the sale of the HSBC tower was a straw in the wind before, could things go horribly wrong again? Sources close to the sale say no: parties from all over the world have already expressed interest: "This is very different to 2007. The property market is much more globalised and there's a huge supply and demand imbalance. Trophy assets are in short supply and everybody wants a slice of the action in London," says one agent.

Even with interest rate rises on the horizon, borrowing costs will remain close to historic lows. The appeal of London's commercial property as the preferred shopping market of Asian pension funds and Middle Eastern petro-dollars looks set to endure.

- Independent

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