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Is commercial property investment no longer a safe haven?

commercial property a safe investment?Commercial property pre-pandemic was considered one of the more secure options for money by investors, particularly by pension fund managers.
But the consequences of changing consumer behaviour, the aftermath of the pandemic lockdown and the retail High Street revolution would suggest a pause for thought and perhaps a rethink.
While the most obvious sector of business related property to be in trouble is retail it may prove not to be the only one.
Retail has been hit by a significant move to online shopping that has been building for several years, but it is also beset by what has been called an archaic rental collection system, whereby rents are payable quarterly.
The most recent Quarter Day was on 24th June (Midsummer Day) and it has been estimated that in the region of just 14% of retailers were paid their rent that day.
It was no surprise, therefore that Intu, owner of some of the UK’s biggest shopping centres, such as Lakeside and Manchester’s Trafford Centre called in the administrators the day after the Quarter Day.
Intu had been struggling even before the lockdown as a result of a list of store closures announced throughout the year so far, including well known names such as Warehouse, Oasis, Monsoon, Quiz, Pret A Manger and others. It has been estimated that in excess of 50,000 jobs have been lost in the sector so far.
The lifting of lockdown in retail is not likely to help to restore the High Street’s fortunes given the restrictions and limitations shops have had to impose to ensure customers are safe from infection.
But commercial property is not only about retail.
Lockdown meant that many businesses had to close their offices and again, they have only been able to re-open amid considerably changed circumstances for safety reasons.
Not only this, but many previously office-based businesses have discovered that their employees can work efficiently and often more productively from home and have therefore they have been reviewing their business models to enable employees to carry on working remotely.
Where they have a need for some employees to be in the office at least some of the time, they have introduced rigorous sanitisation measures, abandoned such practices as hot desking, installed safety screens at more widely-spaced desks and introduced flexible working so that employees no longer have to arrive or leave at the same time. Much of this is aimed at helping staff avoid travelling on crowded public transport but it is  also a recognition that flexibility is benefitting both employers and employees.
The trust issue assumed by management has also largely been allayed; indeed staff have tended to work harder at home than they did in the office with few companies experiencing any loss in productivity. I would argue that requiring staff to work in the office was never a trust issue but more one related to the egos, status and security of managers who need the reassurance of having staff on hand; nothing to do with employees’ ability to work.
Inevitably, the successful experiment will mean that many businesses no longer require such large commercial premises and will terminate leases as soon as possible to downsize the space needed.
Indeed I know of two large professional firms who were about to move into larger offices in the City when the lockdown hit, fortunately for them they hadn’t signed the lease and have since decided then no longer need larger premises since everyone has worked perfectly well from home.
Furthermore less space will be needed as the recovery to pre-lockdown levels is looking unlikely.
Earlier this year McKinsey produced a paper full of advice for private equity and investors in commercial property about the radical changes they would need to consider for the future.
“Many will centralize cash management to focus on efficiency and change how they make portfolio and capital expenditure decisions. Some players will feel an even greater sense of urgency than before to digitize and provide a better—and more distinctive—tenant and customer experience.”
And this was just the start!
It went on to suggest that commercial property owners, especially in B2B environments, will have to change their behaviour and “engage directly with tenants. They should follow up quickly on the actions they have discussed with tenants. Not only are such changes the right thing to do—they’re also good business: tenants and users of space will remember the effort, and the trust built throughout the crisis will go a long way toward protecting relationships and value.”
However, the report does suggest there will be some commercial property niches that could benefit from the pandemic upheaval, such as commercial storage, and in time there may be others.
There is no doubt that the nature of the commercial property market is changing, but it is perhaps premature to predict its demise.
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