From the January 2011 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

January 1, 2011

For Real Estate Investors, Growth Is Overseas

While the U.S. market struggles, commercial real estate overseas is seeing growth

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Since the financial crisis erupted in 2008, the resulting wave of loan foreclosures and the plunge in housing prices served to dim investor interest in real estate. The economic recession that followed was so severe, in fact, that it caused real estate values to slump worldwide, prompting lenders to withdraw financing for new projects and tenants to demand lower rents.

While it may take years to sort out the U.S. housing market, commercial real estate markets overseas are doing quite well. Rents, as well as capital values for commercial real estate properties in major cities such as Tokyo, Singapore, and London are set to rise at least 10% in 2011, according to a November report from international real estate consultants Jones Lang LaSalle, and global direct commercial real estate investment could jump as much as 35%.

There are 11 exchange-traded funds (ETFs) that invest in foreign real estate. There are global and international (ex-U.S.) funds, most of which target the developed world. As yet, there is no real estate ETF for emerging markets specifically, though there is one for China, the Guggenheim China Real Estate ETF.

What will likely draw investors to these funds is their attractive yield: Four of the 11 funds were yielding more than 5% in early December. Three of the funds ranked among the top 10 yielding ETFs as well. These funds do have some drawbacks though, including a startling similarity to one another. Many funds have a large exposure to Hong Kong, which Jones Lang predicts will be one of the hottest real estate markets in 2011.

Among the group is the iShares FTSE EPRA/NAREIT Developed Real Estate ex-U.S. Index Fund, which, as of Oct. 29, had a 12-month yield of 7.12%, among the highest of the group. The fund’s 177 holdings are heavily concentrated in Asia. Its three largest holdings as of Dec. 2 were Hong Kong developer Sun Hung Kai Properties, Australian shopping center developer Westfield Group, and Mitsubishi Estate Co., a Japanese real estate management firm. The WisdomTree International Real Estate Fund, the iShares S&P Developed ex-U.S. Property Index Fund, as well as the Cohen & Steers Global Realty Majors ETF offer very similar portfolios.

The oldest and largest among the group is the SPDR Dow Jones International Real Estate ETF. Launched in December 2006, it has about $1.4 billion in assets, more than three times the next largest fund. Its geographical exposure is similar to other funds—Japan, Australia and Hong Kong are its largest holdings. Along with Westfield Group, its top three positions as of Dec. 2 included Paris-based Unibail-Rodamco, a leading commercial property operator, investor and developer, as well as Mitsui Fudosan, a Japanese commercial and residential property developer and investor. It yields about 3.3%.

For those who don’t want such a high concentration in Asia, there is the iShares FTSE EPRA/NAREIT Developed Europe Index Fund, whose top geographical exposures are to the United Kingdom, France and the Netherlands. Its top three holdings as of Dec. 2 were Unibail-Rodamco, London-based Land Securities Group, the largest commercial property group in the United Kingdom, and British Land, which owns London office buildings and retail properties outside the city. Its 12-month yield on Dec. 2 was 3.67%.    

S&P Senior Financial Writer Vaughan Scully can be reached at Vaughan_Scully@standardandpoors.com. Send him your ideas for ETF story topics.

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