225 West Wacker Drive

CHICAGO—Foreign investors have long flocked to the top gateway markets like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, but increasingly these individuals and institutions are poking around secondary markets throughout the US, a reflection both of the American economy’s strength and the transparency provided by the country’s real estate laws.

“We’ve had a great deal of foreign investment for decades,” Bruce Miller, the Chicago-based international director for JLL, tells GlobeSt.com, and many factors can turn the spigot on or off, including things like adjustments in currency exchange rates. But the way it typically works is at the beginning of an economic recovery, money flows to those gateway cities, but now that the recovery has taken hold, many foreigners have found the pricing there too aggressive and have shifted their focus to cities like Chicago, Houston and Seattle.

“Secondary is a very relative word,” Miller admits, and some observers may not consider those cities truly secondary. Still, “we are starting to see South Korean investors coming into Chicago,” and that represents a big shift. In 2011, for example, a group of Hong Kong and South Korean investors bought the 57-story 70 W. Madison for about $344 million. The group now has the building up for sale. And Miller led the sales team that handled the 2013 purchase by Mirae Asset Global Investments, a South Korean firm, of the 31-story 225 W. Wacker for $218 million. Also in 2013, a group that included South Korean investors bought the 50-story 161 N. Clark for $348 million.

“There was, at least at that point in time, a lot of uncertainty in South Korea due to the situation with North Korea,” Miller adds. “And sometimes, there can be political instability that drives investment from overseas,” but for the most part, what drives foreign capital to Chicago is not an occasionally troubled political situation, but the metro area’s underlying economic strength, especially in its office market.

For one thing, there has been “a significant reduction in new supply,” Miller says. Typically, developers in the market will add about twenty-million-square-feet in each decade. In this decade, however, developers will add only about three to four million, increasing the likelihood of rising rents and boosted returns. And along with everyone else, overseas investors have noticed the inflow of suburban companies into the CBD. Miller estimates that these suburban migrants have taken about 3.5-million-square-feet just in the last 24 months. And finally, the burgeoning tech sector in the CBD has attracted a lot of interest, combined with the presence of a host of tech incubators including the region’s many universities. “I think a lot of foreign investors have realized what an incredible talent pool we have here.”

In addition to South Korean investors, German, Chinese, Canadian and Israeli firms have made big Chicago purchases. A subsidiary of Japan-based Sumitomo Corp., for example, just paid $111.5 million for the 27-story 203 N. LaSalle St., the first such Chicago investment by a Japanese group in nearly a decade. The fact that Sumitomo was unfazed by the upcoming departure of DLA Piper, the building’s anchor tenant, is perhaps the best illustration of foreign investors’ confidence in the city’s office market. And China-based Cindat Capital Management was part of a group that just bought 311 S. Wacker for $304 million. “We know of several other Chinese groups that are out there looking,” Miller adds.

 

But foreign investors have also targeted cities beyond Chicago. In the last year, foreign buyers have scooped up four Dallas office buildings. Brookfield Asset Management out of Canada paid $68 million for Riverside Commons, and the Japanese Kajima Corp. purchased One Telecom for nearly $42 million. Gruppo Haddad of Mexico bought the other two. Meanwhile, Bahrain-based Investcorp purchased nearly $100 million worth of student-housing properties in Austin last November.  

“Nashville is also a great example,” Miller says, of a city once considered off the beaten path now getting significant looks from foreign institutions. Furthermore, German investors have gotten active in Minneapolis and Pittsburgh and Canadian investors throughout much of the Midwest. “These cities are not perceived as being on the same global scale as Chicago,” but each has sectors with tremendous growth prospects.

Chinese investors, for example, sensing an opportunity in the residential market, have even started buying up property in Detroit’s CBD, not normally considered a magnet for outside investment. As reported in GlobeSt.com, however, many corporations have moved downtown, and thousands of their employees have filled up every nearby apartment building. Perhaps in response, last fall China-based Dongdu International used an online auction to buy three older downtown skyscrapers. The company has talked about transforming the collection into residential use but has not made any final decisions.   

But the health of a particular US city’s real estate market is not the only factor bringing in foreign investors. According to Miller, a representative of a high net worth family in South America who doesn’t want to be named told JLL that transparency in the US market is one of the key reasons they choose markets like Seattle, Portland and Pittsburgh for their commercial real estate investments.

“We focus on places where we can understand the legislation and the ground rules,” he said. “Where you really feel like if you have to go to court, you’ll be well protected and corruption levels are at a minimum. That’s a key feature.” JLL’s latest Transparency Index ranks the US as the second-most transparent country in the world, behind the United Kingdom.

“All in all, it’s good news for our clients who are selling,” Miller says. “We have every reason to believe that this will continue for the next several years.”