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Family Offices' Contrasting Property Investment Stories

Alastair Graham, July 6, 2020


Drawing on the data from Highworth Research, with which this publication is a media partner, we look at the different property market experiences of family offices in Europe and elsewhere.

(An earlier version of this item ran on June 30.)

Alistair Graham, founder of Highworth Research, whose database has details of what single family offices in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere are up to, talks about some of the property investment behaviors coming to light amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This publication's sister website, WealthBriefing, is exclusive media partner with Highworth. (To receive information about accessing the Highworth Research database, click on this link.)

In June 2020 Pontegadea, the family office of Amancio Ortega, Chairman of fast-fashion multinational Inditex, took legal action against H&M, owned by the family of Stefan Persson, for non-payment of $1.3 million in rent on H&M’s 4,000 sq.m. store in Powell Street, San Francisco. 

For a family office to sue another billionaire family is a rare event but times in the retail property business are hard. Most retail businesses and owners of retail real estate have fared badly in the coronavirus crisis and family offices associated with either have seen significant impairment of AuM as a result. 

Real estate has always been a core asset class in family offices’ investment portfolios, but the virus has now introduced new challenges for asset allocation in this sector.

Commercial real estate market suffers major downturn
Private capital has increasingly supported investment in office buildings in recent years but now family offices are concerned about whether increases in unemployment, coupled with the growth in home-working and the use of video meetings, will reduce demand for office space. 

Equally, family offices with investments in retail real estate, or hospitality, are anxious about whether tenants will pay rent or whether they themselves will meet their debt covenants on a building. 

Only one or two family office owners of massive shopping mall interests, such as Australians Frank Lowy or Sam Alter, had the foresight to exit the mall business a couple of years before it turned sour from consumers’ shift to online shopping and the shut-down caused by COVID-19.

Residential property hit but family offices invest for the long term
According to the Single Family Offices Database published by Highworth Research in association with WealthBriefing, as much as 51 per cent of family offices in Europe allocate capital to residential real estate. Yet even this apparently safe segment of the property market is facing serious headwinds. 

Savills forecast in April 2020 that housing transactions in the UK this year would fall by 20 per cent to 40 per cent from the past five years’ average, and would recover by only 60 to 80 per cent by January 2021. Similarly, in Spain, the Don Piso network of estate agents has forecasted that the Spanish housing market will contract by 20 to 25 per cent this year compared with 2019.

However, an advantage which family offices do have is that they can take a long view. In May 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 crisis, the billionaire brothers David and Simon Reuben, whose family office is Reuben Brothers in Geneva, purchased 250 hectares of land near the town of San Martin de Iglesias in the Madrid municipality, Spain and plan to build 650 homes there as well as a large hotel.

Family offices invested in logistics, farms and data centers are the winners.

But family offices which invested in real estate in sectors other than offices, retail, residential, and hospitality are facing a much more favorable future. 

Those which have investments in logistics and warehousing, agricultural land, and certain niche markets such as data centers will have reason to be positive in the midst of the COVID-19 year. 

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