ASIA FOCUS – Real estate opportunities in the growing economies of Asia

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

As the economies of Europe and the US remain in the doldrums, Asia is providing the impetus for global growth where some of its economies are powering ahead.

From a recent trip to Singapore and Malaysia, and notwithstanding reports from financial institutions, analysts  and experts, my own personal observation is that consumer sentiment is confident albeit cautious, government spending is strong where the focus is on providing better infrastructure to lay foundations for sustained growth whilst retail and commercial activities are vibrant.

Construction of new public parks and amenities on reclaimed land, Singapore

Construction of new public parks and amenities on reclaimed land, Singapore

Some key Asian growth indicators:

1. Performance of Asian Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs)

Asian REITs have outperformed global REITs by up to three times in the past five years. Mr Ng Cheze How, AmInvestment Bank’s director of retail funds says that Malaysian REITs provided an average return of 7 – 8% compared to the average of 6.3% returns from Asia-pacific property trusts. Malaysian indices give out 3.5% in dividends,” Ng said, adding that each business cycle averaged between seven and eight years and that Malaysia is in the third year of recovery.

More investors are gradually using real estate as a hedge against inflation. Rising costs of living across developing nations in Asia and Australia means that inflation is Deposit rates are generally low and and interest earned are subject to tax. Coupled with inflation rates of between 3 – 4% each year, keeping money in the bank may be prudent but inflation may eventually erode savings.

2.  Singapore’s costs of living overtake Hong Kong for first time

Singapore has overtaken Hong Kong as a more expensive city for expatriates for the first time, driven by a stronger currency and higher rents, according to Mercer’s Worldwide Cost of Living Survey.

Singapore’s GDP growth for 2010 was 14.5%, the highest in the world and now, the island nation is ranked the eighth most expensive city in the world, rising from eleventh spot last year due to a susbtantial increase in housing costs. The record GDP growth last year also helped Singapore become the world’s highest proportion of millionaire households at 15.5% of the population, according to a Boston Consulting Group report in May 2011.

Axis REIT Managers Bhd chief executive office Mr Stewart Labrooy said that real estate prices in Malaysia are relatively inexpensive compared to its regional neighbours such as Singapore. Although both countries have seen solid growth in real estate values over the last few years, Malaysia is still relatively attractive given its stable economy, abundance of natural resources and its strategic location within Asia’s financial powerhouses of Hong Kong and Singapore.

Watching Singapore's skyline from a 150-metre infinity pool on top of Marina Bay Sands

Watching Singapore's skyline from a 150-metre infinity pool on top of Marina Bay Sands

Inflation was 4.5% in May 2011 as food and transportation costs increased. The island nation uses the exchange rate as its main tool to manage inflation and has allowed its currency to appreciate to a record in an attempt to contain price increases.  The Singapore dollar has risen by 13% in the past year against the US dollar, matching the South Korean won as the two best performing currencies among the 10 most actively traded currencies in Asia excluding Japan. Singapore’s economic expansion has pushed the unemployment rate to a 3-year low and economists including Irvin Seah from DBS Group Holdings Ltd said rising labour costs were contributing to the risk of higher inflation. Singapore’s real estate prices climbed for eight straight quarters to a record high, prompting the government to introduce new measures to curb speculative buying.

Local and guests enjoying the pool at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

Local and guests enjoying the pool at Marina Bay Sands, Singapore

3. China’s economic growth engine

China’s economy grew by 9.5% in the second quarter, slightly lower than the first quarter but still showing no signs of any slow down despite housing curbs and five successive interest rate hikes since October 2010. The efforts of the Chinese government in putting on the brakes on its economy may have a dampening effect on Hong Kong, although its dollar being pegged to the weak US dollar had little effect on the city’s ranking against Singapore above.

4. India’s emerging economy

India’s real estate prices have also been growing steadily over the last few years although there is a word about a property bubble brewing for real estate prices in Mumbai where prices could fall by up to 35%. The reason for this is a large number of developers who have bought land at higher prices  need to correct prices and the recent residential sales of 65% and 35% apartments in Mumbai and Delhi respectively being sold to speculators according to Jones Lang La Salle.

However, its economy is still powering ahead at 7.8% for the first quarter of 2011 and is expected to grow strongly into the future. Foreign direct investments stood at US$32 bilion and India is experiencing a growing middle class, strong urbanisation and government spending where US$46 billion has been allocated for infrastructure upgrades. It has a solid banking and financial system and its demographics shows a very young country where 51% of the population is below 25 years old.

So what does this all mean for the Australian investor?

It is clear that recent gains on the Australian dollar has made it extremely difficult for businesses in the tourism, education, manufacturing and retail industries where the relatively expensive dollar has been curbing international visits, foreign investments and real estate growth. As I write this article, major retailers David Jones and Myers have reported sharp decline in profits.

Real estate agents have reported a marked slow-down in foreign investors. The official 2-speed Australian economy is well and truly underway and as long as China continues to demand raw materials, our resources sector and associated industries such as transport and logistics will continue to be strong.

No doubt our real estate prices have seen very solid growth in the last 24 months and are now taking a breather. It is generally a buyer’s market in Australia and a good time to review portfolios. Manufacturing your own equity through upgrades, improvement and construction are a strategic moves in the current flat markets.

Australia needs to improve its competitiveness

To remain competitive and attractive for foreign investments due to the strong dollar, Australia needs to focus on its key drivers of growth. No longer can we rely on real estate predicated on the natural beauty of harbour and river settings because prices are now beyond the reach of international investors and growth will slow. Local investors have squirrel away A$80 billion in the last financial year due to uncertainty around the world.

From a tourism point of view, there are so many attractions around South East Asia that can rival the Sydney Opera House and its band of attractions around Australia that are far more cost competitive due to the location of these attractions in cities with a high density population and spending-power. The international airports in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are miles ahead of Sydney and Melbourne airports in terms of efficiency, customer-focused conveniences such as high-technology wifi, telecommunications, banking and forex, shopping and hospitality.

Space and abundance: Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA)

Space and abundance: Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA)

Overseas opportunities

In addition to strong infrastructure growth,  real estate investment opportunities are looking ever so attractive in these new Asian markets due to the strong Australian dollar. These investment opportunities include:

  • Investment in strategic locations in Malaysia for the dual purpose of investment and retirement where the standard of living is relatively high whilst the cost of living is low. Modern and highly developed infrastructure such as international schools and hotels, hospitals, transportation systems and English being widely used throughout the country make it easy for English-speaking foreigners to relocate to Malaysia.  An idyllic lifestyle such as beaches set around tropical real estate with access to high-quality broadband, health care, relatively cheap international and local cuisine, domestic assistance such as maids and chauffeurs make this a very real and attractive proposition.
Gallery at U-Thant: High-end luxury condominiums in the heart of Kuala Lumpur

Gallery at U-Thant: High-end luxury condominiums in the heart of Kuala Lumpur

  • Malaysia My Second Home program where strong incentives are given by the Malaysian government to foreigners who choose to make Malaysia their home. This program is now attracting a significant number of foreigners from the UK, China, Japan and South Korea who are relocating their families to Malaysia (Stay tuned for more about the incentives, tax concessions, real estate opportunities on this program in my next post).
Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA)

Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA)

  • Indian real estate in top cities such as New Delhi, Mumbai, Chenai, Kolkata, Hyderabad, Pune, Gurgaon and others.
  • Private apartments in Singapore where scarcity of land is pushing up property prices.

Look out for my next few posts to give you more information about these overseas investment opportunities which are set to rival Australian investment and retirement options due to the changes around the Asia Pacific region.

Panoramic view of beaches along Batu Ferringhi, Penang

Panoramic view of beaches along Batu Ferringhi, Penang

Australia needs to be very serious to remain competitive and relevant to rival the business and investment opportunities that is being presented to the world by cities such as Shanghai, Beijing,  Hong Kong and Singapore.

Readers, property investors and interested parties are invited to call Albert Wong on +61 413 660909 to discuss real estate investment opportunities to take advantage of our strong Australian dollar.

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Disclaimer: Views, opinions and comments expressed in this article are general in nature and do not constitute investment, legal or financial advice. Readers are advised to seek their own professional advice as and when required.

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