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The Hong Kong Convention Centre is a great venue for an event like MIPIM. It’s almost 10 years old now but it remains one of the most inspiring structures along that most famous of skylines. Reed Midem, the organisers of the MIPIM events, made the most it, putting on a slick and seamless event with plenty of pizzazz. It’s an opportunity to see all the high profile resort developments, from Dubai to the South Seas. A perfect venue for investors to acquaint themselves with eye-catching projects such as the new Marina Bay Sands Casino resort in Singapore. And of course it’s another chance for the local industry to gather and socialise.

Not that the local industry needs another real estate event - let alone two in quick succession - the Expo Real event kicks off in November in Macau. On this showing though, the Germans may struggle to get the numbers. For more than a few of the local Asian players, with these two events there’s a sense of ‘leave us alone, we don’t need your European style-over-substance’.

MIPIM Asia has a tough benchmark to beat. The event in Cannes now attracts over 20,000 participants. In Hong Kong there were fewer than 2,000 and although the official figure for the number of investors present was 400, the exhibitors IPE Real Estate spoke to had seen substantially fewer buyers through their stands.

Not an unqualified success then, and MIPIM Asia Director Gilles Saint Georges Chaumet conceded that the event needs to work harder to deliver the end investor next year. “We are finding our way,” he said. “We will try to increase the Chinese involvement for the next event.” But he expressed himself pleased to have established the event in Hong Kong. The company will use the same venue next year. “The market is not mature, but if we can improve the event again next year, we will have greater numbers.”

Away from the exhibition, the conference sessions assessed investment opportunities around the region. RREEF’s Brian Chinappi spoke of the strong growth prospects in Korea. “There’s a large stock of institutional quality assets and no shortage of capital. Domestic and international demand is still strong.”

Sanjay Verma of Cushman & Wakefield in Delhi spoke of the most important aspect of India’s emergence - the crucial need for infrastructure investment. The investment is planned, as much as $190bn (€149bn) of it in the next five years, which will have a cascade effect on the real estate sector. Verma remains cautiously optimistic: “This is the one problem that could spoil the party before it begins. India has a more stable long term growth outlook than the other BRIC countries. But it is just not comparable with other emerging countries when it comes to infrastructure. I just hope they (the Government) at least stick to what they have said they will do. If all of this work is not done in the next few years we will have enormous problems and you guys should look at another country.”

Despite this potential disaster scenario, India is still a popular destination for real estate investors. Verma says there is little risk of a bubble at this point, in spite of recent price appreciation. “Don’t get too bothered about prices,” he says. “The number of new players coming to the market will continue to grow. Urbanisation is highly visible and healthy and this will be a huge push factor for real estate.”

Jeremy Stewardson of Eagle Asset Management, the managers of the Champion REIT, put in a rather wearied defence of the mixed performance from the first batch of Hong Kong REITs. He could barely disguise his contempt for the analysts and fund managers who have taken issue with the structuring of these IPOs, and, as he says, “particularly this one”.

The Champion REIT has just one property, the Citibank Tower offices in Central (Hong Kong’s CBD). Rents in Hong Kong have increased substantially in the last year and Stewardson says 93% of the rentable area of Citibank Tower will be mark to market by the end of 2008. But Champion has been attacked on three fronts. Fund managers such as Henderson’s Chris Reilly have successfully argued that the valuations at IPO have been excessive. A lack of diversification is another criticism, to which Stewardson would only say, “We are in Central; we don’t want to diversify”. The last criticism concerns the use of financial engineering to boost the yield. That is seen as just a little too cynical, and the combination of perceived faults has been enough to slow the momentum of the Hong Kong REITs market. Having been slow getting into the REITs game, Hong Kong has not exactly covered itself in glory in its first year. Singapore still has the edge in south-east Asia.

A new association for the unlisted real estate market, called the Asian Real Estate Association (AREA), used the event as a launch pad. Robert Lie, managing director of ING Real Estate in Asia, explained that AREA has come about in response to a growing demand for market data and improved transparency in the unlisted sector. “International investors are underweighting Asian property assets. The region accounted for only 14% of total direct commercial property investment globally in 2005. Europe accounted for 40% and the US 46%. But Asia’s share is rising steadily and on the current rate of inflow we expect real estate investment in Asia to grow by an accumulated 15-20% in the next five years.”

The challenge for the various groups that make up AREA’s initial management, including Axa, Clifford Chance, CLSA, Grosvenor, Hongkong Land, Invesco, LaSalle and Merrill Lynch, is to improve the flow of information. Robert Lie says, “Limited liquidity, lack of transparency of valuations, restrictions on transfer, have been anecdotally identified by investors as key reasons that prevent them from investing in non-listed real estate vehicles. All these factors potentially hinder the growth of primary and secondary private real estate markets.”

 

 

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