We’re sometimes accused of focusing too much on London property.
In some ways it’s not surprising – London is the largest part of the UK property market. It’s also the one that’s in the throes of a huge bubble, which makes it interesting to write about.
But it’s not typical of the wider British experience. Even if you exclude the Northern Irish market, where the slump resembles Ireland’s rather than the UK’s experience, prices in the regions are nowhere near as heated as in the capital.
One region in particular that seems to have turned a corner is the West Midlands. After decades of decline, the British manufacturing sector is undergoing a mini-revival. This is led by the car and aerospace industries, which are ‘re-shoring’ work back from foreign climes, and bringing the jobs back to the UK.
This in turn is having a knock-on effect on property in the region – here’s how you can profit.
Offshoring goes into reverse
Over the past few decades, most companies in the developed world have engaged in ‘offshoring’.
If someone working at call centre in India, or on an assembly line in China, could do the job more cheaply than their British, European or American counterpart, then why not save money by moving operations overseas?
This made sense while there was a huge supply of labour in those countries, willing to work for next to nothing. However, wages have now shot up in emerging markets as the supply of cheap labour has been exhausted and workers start to enjoy better living conditions.
Indeed, rising wages are now a key part of China’s strategy to rebalance itself towards consumer-driven growth. As a result, the cost advantage of moving production overseas has been greatly reduced.
Firms are also having second thoughts about the lengthy supply chains involved. Managing people thousands of miles away, even with modern communications, is tough. A survey by Capital Economics suggests that more than half of smaller firms that had moved production abroad suffered problems with product quality.
At the same time, UK manufacturing has been reinventing itself, focusing on high-technology industries, such as cars and aerospace, where Britain has a comparative advantage. These sectors played a large part in the 2.4% rise in general UK capital spending in the last quarter of 2013.
This mini-revival has proved particularly positive for the West Midlands, where much of Britain’s remaining manufacturing is located. Employment there rose in the last quarter of 2013 at double the rate in the rest of Britain.
Birmingham, the region’s main city, should also benefit from the HS2 rail link, which is due to be completed by 2026. This will cut the length of a journey to London to only 50 minutes.
How to buy commercial property in the West Midlands
So how can you profit?
One option is to buy into the region’s commercial property. More hiring and stronger businesses means more spending and more investment. That’ll drive up the price of offices and shops in turn.
Several funds focus on UK real estate – we cover some of them in this week’s MoneyWeek magazine (if you’re not already a subscriber, get your first three copies free here).
However, most focus on the wider market. While this reduces risk, it also increases exposure to the more expensive parts of the market, such as London. As a result, any returns from cheaper areas could end up being cancelled out by losses from prices becoming less inflated in the capital.
However, there is at least one interesting regional property company: Real Estate Investors (Aim: RLE). This Aim-listed fund focuses on property in the West Midlands and central England. While its main focus is on offices and retail space, it also owns some flats as well – residential property in the West Midlands doesn’t exactly look cheap compared to the past, but it’s certainly nowhere near the price of London property. Andrew Kelly of the TM Cartesian UK Opportunities Fund likes the fund’s emphasis on finding assets that can generate a high yield.
At the moment it trades at just under ten times current earnings, and offers a solid dividend of 3%. It trades at a discount of more than 11% to the net value of its assets. The company has recently raised a large amount of money through a major share offering, which should allow it to expand further.
If you’re looking for a way to benefit from the UK recovery – however short-term – spreading beyond London, this looks a good way to do it.
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