A bellwether for London office property market

Written by New York Times | London | Updated: Jun 12 2014, 19:38pm hrs
When the global bank HSBC sold its London headquarters tower to a Spanish buyer in spring 2007, at the height of the credit and property boom, the deal was the single largest real estate transaction in British history.

Then the boom went bust, prompting a fire-sale handover of the building back to HSBC. Next came the nadir. A new owner, this time from South Korea, bought the tower in hopes of a rebound.

Now the 44-storey building, still serving as HSBCs headquarters, is for sale yet again.

Because the market is teeming with international money, some analysts predict the price this time will surpass that 2007 record of 1.1 billion, or $1.8 billion a forecast that might say everything you need to know about the boom-bust-boom of London commercial real estate.

Except that there is actually much more of a story to tell about the HSBC tower. As goes this building, so goes the London market. It traded right at the top, and then again at the bottom and now its right back up at the top, said Simon Mallinson, MD of Real Capital Analytics, a company that tracks global real estate transactions. The tower is reflective of where the city is.

Prices for London office buildings, not adjusted for inflation, have surpassed their previous high point reached in 2007 by 10%, according to Real Capital. Last year, 19 billion worth of commercial real estate was sold, compared with the previous record of 17.9 billion in 2007, according to another firm, CBRE Global Research and Consulting. 2013 was a storming year, the best year we have ever had, said Neil Blake, a CBRE executive.

In recent months, the American investment company Blackstone, which scooped up London property during the depths of the crisis, has sold its stakes in two major building groups, posting giant profits on each. In a separate deal, St Martins, the property division of the Kuwait Investment Authority, paid 1.7 billion in cash for another group of London buildings.

Residential real estate in London and southeast England generally, propelled by foreign money, is also on a tear, with prices running at an annual growth rate of 17% which has politicians and central bankers wondering how to subdue the frenzy.

For international investors in commercial real estate, London has some important advantages over the US. Sales proceeds on buildings do not incur capital gains taxes, and leases are much more favourable to owners than to renters.