UK Commercial Real Estate & Coronavirus (COVID-19)

In an extremely erratic start to the week, global financial markets have been in full “risk-off” mode.  Panic manifested itself throughout the marketplace in the wake of accelerating cases of the COVID-19 in the developed world, while the global oil price war has added to a fragile backdrop that’s already reeling from the COVID-19 outbreak.

The breakdown of talks between OPEC and Russia last Friday prompted Saudi Arabia to launch a price war, with US shale producers getting caught in the crossfire.  Adding to the risk averse tone in the commodity markets was news of the rapid spread of COVID-19 cases in the US and across Europe, with efforts to contain the virus dampening global demand, as large events get cancelled and mobility restrictions (and fear in general) keep people at home in Italy and China. 

To date the UK has around four hundred cases of COVID-19, but given its spread over the last two weeks it seems highly likely the UK will see a marked increase in cases over the next few weeks. This may prompt the UK Government to take measures to restrict travel in order to delay the spread of the disease and to close schools or ban public events. In the short term this will lead to a reduction in real estate market activity, lower pricing in certain assets and potentially some distressed real estate sellers needing liquidity in a quiet market.  Whilst none of us have lived through this type of virus before, our best estimate is:

  1. Core Grade A investment properties will see little or no change in their valuation as they are underpinned by a likely reduction in interest rates and risk aversion.
  2. Risk premiums will increase on most other assets, leading to a down valuing of many lower quality real estate assets.
  3. Business decision making will be reduced in the short term due to the operating environment (remote working, increased staff ill-health etc) making it hard to undertake transactional activity.

Assuming that the types of health measures we are seeing in Italy and China work, then the virus should be contained in the coming months, although it will have significantly impact GDP growth. In the longer term, we foresee see a broader recovery to the lost economic output from abundant liquidity, lower oil prices, likely looser monetary policy (after the Bank of England reduced interest rates today) and a spending boost from the UK Government.

In respect of the real estate assets that we manage in the UK, we have robust and recently updated business continuity plans in place to minimise any loss in operational tempo should the UK impose restrictions to travel, leisure or work. We are in regular contacts with our tenants to make sure that they also have suitable plans in place and to offer any advice and support we can.