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No quick recovery for Singapore property market: seminar

The private housing inventory from the last few years of government land sales supply, along with the plunge in demand and rising vacancy rate, is seen as a continued drag on the market.


AS Singapore faces a "new normal" of slower growth and even stagnation risks, the property market is unlikely to stage a major rebound even if some cooling measures are relaxed now, market watchers said at a property seminar on Tuesday.

Chua Hak Bin, head of emerging Asia economics at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, warned that Singapore may enter a period of stagnation over the next couple of years.

Recent alarm bells were sounded when employment growth contracted for the first time in the first quarter since the global financial crisis (GFC), loans growth contracted in May for the first time since the GFC, and Singapore's inflation plunged to the lowest in five years, he said.

Some studies in the US have shown that macro-prudential measures such as housing loan-to-value ratios and stamp duties are more effective as tightening tools, but loosening these measures has less impact akin to "pushing on a string" in a downturn, Dr Chua said at the Real Estate Developers' Association of Singapore (Redas) property market seminar.

Redas president Augustine Tan flagged that any recovery in the property market will not be brisk. "We have to brace ourselves for a different mode of operation as the real estate market enters a different period," he told market practitioners at the seminar. "The build-up of the oversupply situation in the private residential market will not abate in the short term and recovery will not be a quick one."

The private housing inventory from the last few years of government land sales supply, along with the plunge in demand and rising vacancy rate, remains a drag on the market, he said.

Private home prices marked their seventh straight quarter of decline - the longest downward streak in 13 years - based on the Urban Redevelopment Authority's second-quarter flash index; over 89,000 new private residential units, including executive condominiums, are expected to be completed from 2015 to 2019.

Savills head of research Alan Cheong noted that prices alone do not provide a full picture. "It is more about market transactions collapsing that one should be concerned with," he said. Using the average monthly sales from January to May, it will take 12 years to clear the stock of launched and unsold inventory in the core central region. In the mass to mid-tier private homes market, it will take over 11 years to clear the inventory assuming that the government continues to sell land at the 2015 pace.

It also seems that Singapore's economy is becoming less supportive of the property market - going by lower GDP growth, slower population growth and a productivity drive that has fallen far below the growth target of 2-3 per cent per year. Labour productivity growth was negative in the last four years, while private investment contracted over the past two years.

But as the US starts raising interest rates, likely from September, the Sibor is expected to climb to 2 per cent by the end of next year, Dr Chua projected. Though past Federal rate hikes was accompanied by stronger US economic growth that in turn buoyed Asian economies and currencies, "we think that this time is different because of China", he said. A sputtering Chinese economy is negating that lift from the US economy and changes in US consumption patterns have reduced demand for Asian exports.

Property consultants at the seminar on Tuesday noted that prevailing economic conditions are also hurting key non-residential property segments.

As manufacturing activities remain subdued and supply of multiple-user factory space continues to outpace demand, rentals are expected to remain under pressure, said DTZ head of research Lee Nai Jia. "Difficulty in leasing is also expected to widen the rental gap between new and older industrial developments."

The relocation of tech companies like Google and Oracle from the CBD to modern high-tech business parks that are some 30-40 per cent cheaper in rents does not bode well for the office sector, property consultants noted.

According to Christine Li, research director at Cushman & Wakefield, new office leases as a proportion of total leases by floor area plunged to only 4 per cent in the first half of this year from 15 per cent in 2014. And among relocation contracts, as much as 88 per cent of the space is signed at cheaper buildings such as high-tech industrial buildings, business parks and suburban office buildings, up from 29 per cent in 2014. Office prices have shown to strongly correlate with economic growth in the past, except in an oversupply situation, Ms Li said.

In the retail space, rents and prices are also under pressure amid sliding occupancy rates. Knight Frank's survey of retailers showed that 53.3 per cent of the respondents are mulling downsizing or moving retail outlets to cheaper locations.

"The existing trend of major retailers consolidating their operations could persist through H2 2015 with the challenging retail market outlook," said Knight Frank's head of research and consultancy Alice Tan. "An influx of new retail space of 1.7 million sq ft in 2015 and 2016 could exert downward pressure on prime retail rents island-wide by 1 to 2 per cent in 2015."