Never before have so many property funds shut the doors on so many property investors.
Against this backdrop of unprecedented uncertainty, as tenants of shops, bars, restaurants and offices refuse to pay their rents en masse and almost all commercial property deals fall through, it’s all but impossible to put an accurate price on the current value of commercial real estate.
Virtually no one can escape the economic fallout from Covid-19. Not even the owners of commercial real estate, who benefited so handsomely from the central bank-engineered bailouts and property bubbles of the past decade, are immune.
In the UK, a decision by the government to grant retail tenants a three-month moratorium against eviction — an essential lifeline for many businesses that have seen their incomes dry up or drop dramatically as a direct result of the lockdown — has shifted the locus of immediate financial stress from tenants to property owners and their lenders.
The shuttered bars and restaurants in central London are a case in point. Early last week, they received a collective quarterly rent bill of around £500 million. But most of the bars and restaurants took advantage of the government’s moratorium: Instead of paying their rents, they decided to use the freed-up cash to try to weather the crisis. Now, it’s their landlords who are suddenly short of money and who may, as a result, struggle to pay their staff and meet fixed costs such as quarterly interest payments to lenders.
The same is happening across the retail landscape. Some commercial landlords received less than a third of their expected rent on Wednesday.
They include Intu, the embattled owner of dozens of semi-shuttered malls in the UK, as well as a handful in Spain, which revealed it had collected just 29% of expected first-quarter rent, even after offering a deferral and cutting service charges. That compares to 77% during the same period last year, which was already low.
Even before the virus crisis, the company was already on its last legs having endured wave after wave of retail restructurings, resulting in soaring vacancies and plunging property values. In mid-March, two weeks before the UK government initiated a generalized lockdown of the retail sector, Intu warned it was on the brink of bankruptcy after declaring losses of £2 billion for 2019 and a debt of £4.5 billion. Its shares are now worth just four pennies a piece, having tumbled by 96% over the past year.
Intu is now threatening to take legal action against non-paying tenants, saying it would not “bankroll” retailers that have “just decided they don’t want to pay their rent.” Many other retail landlords are reportedly doing the same, despite the fact that many of their tenants have had to halt the lion’s share, if not all, of their business activity, decimating their earnings for the foreseeable future. Even before this crisis hit, many of these retailers were already struggling in the face of slowing sales, high costs, low profitability and rising competition from online rivals.
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