(Read Ben Johnson’s Institutional Insider column every months in Real Estate Forum and right here on GlobeSt.com.)
No doubt you have been inundated in recent weeks by the avalanche of industry forecasts and outlooks with prognostications for the new year. Cutting through the clutter, 2013 seems destined to be a year of Great Discoveries, and with that in mind, here are a few items that bear recognition by institutional investors, and for that matter, all investors, over the coming months.
Follow the data. One of the biggest question marks is how much cash institutions will be pumping out in the early days of 2013. Coincidentally, one of the most anticipated and must-read reports is due out in January/February, the authoritative annual survey of leading institutional investors in commercial real estate conducted by Kingsley Associates and IREI. The last survey, released in early 2012, found that institutional investors set a target allocation of $36 billion to commercial real estate in calendar 2012, a 17% increase over 2011. Soon we will know exactly how that forecast panned out, but the figure for 2013 will be a key barometer to watch.
Another key data point to consider: construction starts. This real estate cycle has been marked by a virtual standstill in new construction, so existing supply has had a chance to recover in spite of the moribund job market. However, developers develop and they won’t stay out of the game forever, so look for more of those telltale cranes on the horizon.
Watch those Sovereigns. Norway’s oil-rich sovereign wealth fund, the largest in the world with $660 billion in assets under management, purchased a suburban office complex outside Zurich, Switzerland, for more than $1 billion. That is serious coin, but it represents only a fraction of the capital now available to be deployed by the sovereigns. By the way, oil prices are projected to keep heading north, adding to the investment coffers of the Middle Eastern sovereigns.
Follow the (right) leader. For a change, please don’t follow each other as in past cycles. Instead, try watching Blackstone. Global head of real estate Jon Gray is the smartest person I know in the commercial real estate business. His track record has proven nothing short of stellar. It’s really hard to argue with Blackstone’s success in raising billions in funds over the years, but it will be interesting to watch the firm’s long-anticipated exit strategy. Stay tuned on this one because it will be a market mover.
Broaden your gaze beyond the primaries. It’s become less than sport . . . more like shooting fish in a barrel in fact . . . to invest in trophy assets in gateway markets. San Francisco, New York, Boston, the list is becoming old, tired and more important, well-worn. Pricing is also heating up, making secondary markets a more attractive opportunity for those taking the time to do the necessary leg work.
Check that expected return. No, really. Check it again. Is an 8% assumed rate of return realistic in today’s environment? Really and truly? Several plan sponsors have lowered their assumed returns, and we will likely see more of the same, perhaps at an accelerated pace, in 2013 and beyond. The slow pace of the economic recovery mandates a serious rethink since keeping assumed returns artificially high puts increasing pressure on investment officers to tiptoe higher up the risk scale.
Watch our friends to the Great White North. Canada has emerged from the recent economic mess better than most and is no longer a continual source of mocking (well, maybe we can still say “eh” every now and then just ‘cause). One of the most active institutional investors in recent memory is the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board. With its $18 billion real estate portfolio, Graeme Eadie and his team have truly taken “global” to heart, investing in far-flung properties from industrial in China and Brazil to shopping centers and newly developed office towers in Australia to apartment communities across the US.
And finally, there is this. The head of Japan’s $1.3 trillion Government Pension Investment Fund, the world’s largest public fund, is considering investing in alternative assets including infrastructure, private equity funds and real estate. Now that would be an interesting development.
Ben Johnson is a contributing editor to Real Estate Forum and GlobeSt.com. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are the author’s own.