Has Brexit marked the top for UK commercial property?

With Standard Life banning withdrawals from its UK real estate fund, could Britain's commercial property market be about to crumble? John Stepek looks at what it means for you.


The commerical property sector is looing decidedly wobbly

Has the UK commercial property market already wobbling been dealt a killer blow by Brexit?

Britain's third-largest open-ended commercial property fund has just stopped investors from getting at their money.

The £2.9bn Standard Life UK Real Estate Fund has suspended redemptions for "at least 28 days". In other words, if you have money in the fund, you can't get it out.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Subscribe to MoneyWeek today and get your first six magazine issues absolutely FREE

Get 6 issues free

Sign up to Money Morning

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Don't miss the latest investment and personal finances news, market analysis, plus money-saving tips with our free twice-daily newsletter

Sign up

It's the first in the sector, but unless this is very unusual, it won't be the last.

So what's next?

Is Brexit the last straw for the UK commercial property market?

As Jonathan Guthrie reports in his Lombard column in the Financial Times, at the end of May, the fund had a hefty cash cushion of 13% of its value, put aside for this very eventuality. "Investors must have made heavy inroads into this amount" to drive the "gating".

Brexit on its own might not have been so bad. But the commercial property sector was already looking a bit wobbly before the big vote. Judged by various indicators including office space in development and rental yields prices are near or above where they've been during previous peaks.

Notes Guthrie: "Land Securities and British Land, the UK's two largest property companies, reined in their loan-to-value ratios in anticipation of a real estate downturn well before the Brexit vote." Other big commercial landlords had warned that the London boom was on its last legs.

So the market wasn't cheap. And several funds in the sector had already shifted their pricing regime to reflect this. So will the shock of Brexit be enough to push this wobbly sector over the edge?

Truth is, we'll just need to wait and see. If Standard Life has to sell off assets quickly and other funds lose money at a similar rate of knots, forcing more asset sales, then yes, this could turn into something bigger. Alternatively, if the underlying market remains relatively healthy, it may be more like a correction.

If you own this fund, or one of the other big players in the sector, I'd suggest that you don't panic. There's not much you can do at this point, and clearly you shouldn't be using this sort of fund as an instant access account.

However, I would avoid drip-feeding any more money into such funds. If you really want to invest in commercial property, there's a much better way to do it, which we'll get to in a moment.

A valuable lesson in the appeal of investment trusts

Because this is what happens when the fund manager can't sell the underlying assets quickly enough to satisfy the number of investors who want to sell out of the fund.

This isn't just a problem with property. Those with slightly longer memories might remember the demise of New Star's Heart of Africa fund back in 2009 for pretty much the same reason. People wanted out of the fund at a faster rate than the manager could flog off the illiquid underlying assets.

Now I'm not sure why the fund management industry insists on offering commercial property via open-ended funds. But there's an easy solution for any investor who wants to avoid this sort of problem. If you want to invest in commercial real estate, buy an investment trust.

We're fans of investment trusts at MoneyWeek, as regular readers will know. An investment trust is simply a company that invests in other companies or assets. It's listed on the stockmarket. In effect, it's a lot like an open-ended fund (a unit trust or OEIC), but with a critical difference because it's listed, the share price of the fund can move independently of the value of the underlying portfolio.

This means that you can always sell out. When you sell shares in an open-ended fund, the manager has to raise money to pay you. If that means selling a few blue-chip shares, that's easy. If it means selling an office block well, that's going to take a bit more time.

But when you sell shares in an investment trust (or closed-end fund), it has no impact on the underlying portfolio. The price you get will depend on supply and demand for the shares themselves, not the value of the portfolio. Thus the share price of the investment trust can trade at a discount (below the value of the underlying portfolio) or at a premium (above the value of the portfolio).

So you might not be able to get your money out at the price you want. But you will always be able to get it out.

I'll certainly be keeping an eye on commercial property over the next few months to see how things pan out. This could turn out to be a good buying opportunity for some of the bigger property investment trusts, which are now trading at big discounts.

But it depends on how the wider market pans out as I've already noted, this stuff wasn't cheap, so chances are it needs to blow off some froth anyway. There's no rush here.

Meanwhile, we'll be updating on the MoneyWeek investment trust portfolio and how it coped with the Brexit shock in the next issue of the magazine, out on Friday.

If you're not already a subscriber, sign up here.

John Stepek

John Stepek is a senior reporter at Bloomberg News and a former editor of MoneyWeek magazine. He graduated from Strathclyde University with a degree in psychology in 1996 and has always been fascinated by the gap between the way the market works in theory and the way it works in practice, and by how our deep-rooted instincts work against our best interests as investors.

He started out in journalism by writing articles about the specific business challenges facing family firms. In 2003, he took a job on the finance desk of Teletext, where he spent two years covering the markets and breaking financial news.

His work has been published in Families in Business, Shares magazine, Spear's Magazine, The Sunday Times, and The Spectator among others. He has also appeared as an expert commentator on BBC Radio 4's Today programme, BBC Radio Scotland, Newsnight, Daily Politics and Bloomberg. His first book, on contrarian investing, The Sceptical Investor, was released in March 2019. You can follow John on Twitter at @john_stepek.