September 2023 quarter ASX A-REIT market update - Cromwell Funds Management
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Home September 2023 quarter ASX A-REIT market update
October 20, 2023

September 2023 quarter ASX A-REIT market update

Stuart Cartledge, Managing Director, Phoenix Portfolios


Market Commentary

The S&P/ASX 300 A-REIT Accumulation Index moved lower in the September quarter, losing 3.0%. Property stocks underperformed broader equities in the quarter, with the S&P/ASX 300 Accumulation Index giving up a lessor 0.8%. This underperformance is unsurprising considering the 10 Year Australian Government Bond yield increased meaningfully over the quarter, finishing at approximately 4.5%.

Despite the property index underperforming over the period, the headline result masks the weak performance of most property stocks. Only 8 out of 32 index constituents outperformed the index. This result was mostly driven by the outperformance of the index’s largest stock, Goodman Group (GMG), which rose 6.9%, despite the weakness seen elsewhere. Many investors became excited about the opportunity in data centre investment that GMG referenced in their result. For more on GMG, see the performance commentary section of this report.

During the quarter, most property stocks reported their full year financial results to 30 June 2023. A key feature of results was increased interest costs and the impact they are having to short term profitability and distributions. Phoenix normalises for mid-cycle interest rates when considering the valuation of a stock, so the impact was minimal to our valuations, however, was seen as very significant by those focussed on short term distribution outcomes.

Stocks with exposure to office property were particularly weak during the quarter. Incentives to secure office tenants remain elevated and vacancy is beginning to creep into office portfolios as existing long-term leases come to their end. Growthpoint Properties Australia (GOZ) lost 20.8%, whilst Cromwell Property Group (CMW) gave up 29.3% and Centuria Office REIT (COF) dropped by 14.6%. Large capitalisation office owner Dexus (DXS) also lost ground, off 6.4%. Charter Hall Group (CHC), whilst a diversified manager of property funds, has a meaningful exposure to office property and was also weak, giving up 11.4%.

Owners of large regional shopping centres broadly reported solid results in August’s reporting season. Specialty sales were strong, supported by elevated inflation and resilient consumer spending. All-important specialty re-leasing spreads were positive for both Scentre Group (SCG) and Vicinity Centres (VCX). There is some concern that cyclical factors such as weakened consumer sentiment will weigh on future results despite the recent strong performance. SCG and VCX marginally underperformed the index, losing 4.1% and 4.7% respectively. Owners of smaller neighbourhood shopping centres were weaker during the period as their rental outcomes are not as directly tied to inflation, but their costs are rising sharply. Region Group (RGN) gave up 11.0% and Charter Hall Retail REIT (CQR) finished the quarter 13.0% lower.

Developers of residential property showed resilience during the period as the undersupply of housing in Australia came into focus. All else equal, a sharp increase in interest rates should have a cooling effect on residential house prices and sales, however the impact of interest rates is offset by an acute shortage of both rental and stock for sale. Peet Limited (PPC) outperformed, up 1.2%, AV Jennings Limited lost only 1.9% and large capitalisation developer Stockland (SGP) dropped 2.7%.

Market outlook

The listed property sector is in good shape and provides investors with the opportunity to gain exposure to high quality commercial real estate at a meaningful discount to independently assessed values. While share market volatility may be uncomfortable at times, the offset is liquidity, enabling investors to rebalance portfolios without the risk of being trapped in illiquid vehicles.

Rising interest rates have been a headwind for many asset classes, with property, both listed and unlisted, a particularly interest rate sensitive sector. The August reporting season saw a number of listed stocks come under pressure as short term interest rates hedges are beginning to roll off and higher interest costs are impacting earnings growth and distributions. Long term valuations are driven by “normalised” interest costs, meaning the impact of short term hedges maturing is mostly immaterial.

The industrial sub-sector continues to be the most sought after, given the tailwinds of e-commerce growth, the potential onshoring of key manufacturing categories and the decision by many corporates to build some redundancy into supply chains to cope with current disruptions. All of these factors are contributing to ongoing demand for industrial space, which is evident by rapidly accelerating market rents and vacancy rates at historic lows of around 1% in many markets.

We remain cognisant of the structural changes occurring in the retail sector with the growing penetration of online sales and the greater importance of experiential offering inside malls. Recent performance of shopping centre owners has however been strong, with consumers showing resilience. It is interesting to note the juxtaposition of very high retail sales figures despite very low levels of consumer confidence, no doubt impacted by rising costs of living. Importantly, we are also now seeing positive re-leasing spreads in shopping centres, indicating strengthening demand from retail tenants.

The jury is still out on exactly how tenants will use office space moving forward, but demand for good quality well located space remains. Leasing activity is beginning to pick up, and there has also been some transactional activity, albeit at prices typically at discounts to book values. Incentives on new leases do remain elevated and some vacancy in the market is becoming apparent.

We expect to see further downside to asset values in office markets, but elsewhere expect market rent growth to largely offset cap rate expansion, particularly in industrial assets. Listed pricing provides a meaningful buffer to such movements.

About Stuart Cartledge

Stuart is the Managing Director of Phoenix Portfolios and the portfolio manager for each of the company’s property portfolios. Prior to establishing the business in 2006, Stuart built a strong track record in the listed property security asset class and has been actively managing securities portfolios since 1993. Stuart holds a master’s degree in engineering and management from the University of Birmingham and is a Chartered Financial Analyst.

Performance commentary

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