What to expect from the property industry in South Africa in 2022, including continued semigration

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It’s that time again, early in the new year, when we are speculating as to what 2022 may hold, in this case for the property part of the South African economy, says John Loos, property sector strategist at FNB.

In a still-weak, albeit improved economy with rising interest rates, property market fireworks don’t appear to be on the cards this year, he said.

“But there are some expected relative positives, notably the industrial property market, an expected turn for the better in the residential rental market, and an outperforming Western Cape region that may be experiencing a renewed surge in skilled and affluent semigrants from elsewhere.”

Here are the 10 key themes, or features, that Loos believes will be worth looking out for.


1. Rising trend in all property vacancy rate expected to continue

The MSCI All Commercial Property Vacancy Rate has been on a broad multi-year rising trend, from a low of 4.3% as at the 2nd half of 2015 to 9.7% by the first half of 2021, said Loos.

“We would expect this rate to move into double-digit territory in 2022, if it hasn’t already during the second half of 2021. We believe that economy-wide production levels are insufficient as yet to fuel sufficient commercial space demand in order to eat into mounting oversupply.”

Loos said that while FNB does project Real Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to finally get back to the pre-Covid 19 levels of 2019, the 2019 level of GDP was insufficient to halt the rising vacancy trend, “and we believe it will still be insufficient this time around”.

After a sharp -6.4% decline in real GDP in 2020, the level of economy-wide output is believed to have only partially recovered back to 2019 levels, with a +4.7% growth expectation for 2021 being insufficient to fully revive the output level.

FNB said that a key driver of the continuation of a rising property vacancy rate rise is a severely underperforming office market.

This further rise in the national All Property Vacancy Rate is expected to sustain downward pressure on real rentals and real net operating income.


2. Rising interest rates

The recovery of the global economy subsequent to 2020’s hard lockdown-related recession, coupled with major global supply chain disruptions to the supply side of the economy, has unleashed a surge in inflationary pressures, said FNB.

Domestically, the CPI (Consumer Price Index) inflation rate rose through much of 2021, from 2.9% year-on-year as at February last year to 5.5% by November, with petrol and food prices being key influencing factors.

This took the CPI inflation rate up to near to the 3-6% upper target limit of the SARB, which responded by raising interest rates by 25 basis points in November 2021. 3 more such 25 basis point interest rate hikes are expected in 2022, taking prime rate from its current 7.25% level to 8% by year-end.

The expectation of a further rise in the Government debt-to-GDP ratio, with Government finance under ongoing pressure, along with short term interest rate hiking, is expected to exert upward pressure on long bond yields and therefore property capitalization (cap) rates in 2022, with cap rates being a source of downward pressure on real commercial property values.

From a decade low monthly average of 6.9% in May 2013, the monthly average long bond yield ended the year 2021 3 percentage points higher at 9.9%, and the broad rising trend is expected to continue in 2022.

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3. Average capital value on commercial property expected to stop falling in nominal terms

The economy will likely be significantly improved from the hard lockdown year of 2020, said Loos. “We, therefore, expect that actual average capital values on commercial property will at least halt their decline or recent years in 2022, moving back into very low single-digit positive territory in 2022.”

However, rising cap rates and weak net operating income growth is expected to keep average capital values in “real” declining territory, said Loos. In other words, the low capital growth that may be experienced is not expected to keep pace with the general price inflation rate in the economy.

The multi-year correction in property values is thus in effect expected to continue in 2022, albeit at a slower pace and in real terms only, the strategist said.

How far are we into the multi-year correction in real property values?

Since the 2nd half of 2018, the average capital value per square metre had declined by -9.5% as of the first half of 2021, according to MSCI data. But 2016 was the year in which the correction really started, in lagged response to broadly stagnating economic growth since around 2012, said FNB.

“While actual (nominal) valuations weren’t yet declining significantly until much later, 9 out of 11 semesters from 2016 to the 1st half of 2021 have shown real (GDP inflation-adjusted) declines in average values when compared with the preceding semester.

“So, while actual valuations have dropped far less, in real terms (the proper way to assess a correction) the cumulative decline in the MSCI All Property Average Capital Value has been a significant -29% from the first half of 2016 to the first half of 2021.


4. Hotel property market

While much economic activity has normalized as lockdown regulations have been eased, three major challenges face the battling hotel property class. “Firstly, a large portion of demand for hotel rooms is non-essential in nature, and with many businesses and households financially pressured in the aftermath of the major 2020 recession, many will continue to put travel and hotel stays on the back burner,” said Loos.

Secondly, he said that given the successful ‘zoomification’ of much business interaction during the lockdown period, a portion of business travel that used to take place prior to Covid-19 is likely not to return, stated Loos. Thirdly, South Africa has been plagued by limitations on foreign travellers to the country.

Vaccine rollout is key in improving this situation, but the Sub-Saharan African region is reportedly behind with this rollout.

All 3 of these challenges are expected to be in part alleviated in 2022, enabling an improved hotel property market year, but insufficient to end this class’ underperforming of the “big 3” commercial property classes.

By October 2021, the average hotel occupancy rate had risen to only 31.6% from 18.8% in October 2020, which was still far below the 52.8% of October 2019, while total hotel income for October 2021 was still 32.9% down on October 2019.


5. More employees expected to work from the office

FNB said that the office property class is expected to be the underperformer of the 3 major commercial property classes in 2022, with its already high average national vacancy rate of 17.9%.

This major class is expected to see its national average vacancy rate continue to climb in 2022, as many companies revise their office space needs down. Much has been made of the work from home (WFH) surge, and this is a key dampener of demand for office space.

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As lockdowns ease and economic activity trends towards “normal”, more employees will go back to their offices, said Loos.

“But we believe the level of full-time office working won’t go back to the same levels as before the lockdowns, and as technology continues to improve, so the multi-decade trend towards greater remote work levels will resume following the initial back to the office move after the lockdown spike.”

He noted that people often overlook two other sources of pressure on demand for office space. The first is the normal recession effect, which caused a major drop in employment numbers in the office-bound sectors of the economy. This means that, even without any increase in remote work, there are fewer employees in these services sectors, which would normally imply less office space needed.

In addition, the trend towards improved utilisation of desk space seems to have picked up speed of late, with the “hotelling” of desk space increasing in popularity.

“Hotelling” refers to a desk booking system, something Firstrand has recently implemented, meaning that employees either book a desk for a day or they don’t have one.

“Gone are the days when every employee had a desk reserved for themselves, meaning a large portion of desks standing empty much of the time. This sharing of desk space will further reduce the need in the coming years for office space,” said Loos.


6. Retail improvement is likely to be harder going

Retail property performance improved in 2021, but 2022 will likely make further improvement tough going, said Loos. After underperforming the office market in the 2020 lockdown year, retail property made something of a comeback in 2021, and its total returns last year likely outperformed those of office property but underperformed those of industrial property, he said.

Real household disposable income is projected to grow further, but at a very low rate of +0.2% in 2022, following a +2.8% growth rate in 2021. Real disposable income growth is expected to be constrained by very weak employment growth, companies often attempt to use labour productivity improvement instead of employing, as they rebuild balance sheets, said FNB.

“Slightly higher average consumer inflation in 2022, compared with 2021, is expected, and forecast hikes in interest rates on outstanding debt would eat into disposable income further. On top of this, the long-term rising trend in the effective tax rate on households is expected to continue, with adjustments for wage inflation-related tax bracket creep being only partial.

“In a financially constrained consumer environment, we would thus expect retail centres focused more on high-frequency essentials, and less on luxuries and low-frequency purchases, to outperform. This implies that we expect total returns on smaller-sized convenience, neighbourhood, and community retail centres to outperform the larger regional centre categories.


7. Industrial property market the outperformer

FNB said it expects the industrial property market to remain the relative outperformer of the major commercial property classes.

“We do question how far this outperformance can extend, as manufacturing production is mediocre at best, and economy-wide inventory levels have declined significantly in recent years, so the traditional economic fundamentals related to industrial property are not overly strong,” said Loos.


8. Residential rental market expected to see better times

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The Residential Rental Market has had a very weak period in recent years. But 2022 is expected to see some strengthening. “We know already from TPN tenant data that the percentage of tenants in good standing with their landlords regarding rental payments has recovered markedly following the 2020 lockdown dip.

“In addition, more recently, we have just started to see signs that the national average rental vacancy rate has possibly peaked and is beginning to move lower.

“TPN’s national average vacancy estimate has declined from a peak 13.31% in the 1st quarter of 2021 to 10.66% by the 3rd quarter, and average rental inflation increased mildly to +0.4% year-on-year in the third quarter after having dipped into moderate negative territory in prior quarters,” said Loos.

A decline in vacancies would provide some mild support for something of a rental inflation recovery, early hints of which we’ve already seen, the property expert said.

“We would expect a mild recovery in the Residential Rental Market in 2022 because of our expectation of further moderate interest rate hiking. Interest rate-hiking typically curbs the 1st time buyer rush to buy homes that interest rate cutting brought from 2020 onward, that rate cut-driven buyer demand surge having helped to leave a gaping hole in the rental market.

“And with a greater portion of tenants’ income restored following the 2020 lockdown income shock, new household formation in the rental market may be ready to pick up some speed.”


9. Residential development market to peak

Despite the residential rental market expected to pick up moderately, it will likely still be well-supplied for 2022 at least, said FNB. It said that expected rising interest rates will likely cool home buyer demand.

“This leads to our expectation that we should see the number of residential unit plans passed the peak in the near term in 2022, and residential completions to follow suit with a mild lag. 2022 is thus expected to see the most recent mini-surge in residential building activity peak,” said Loos.


10. Semigrants continue to flock to theWestern Cape region

With regard to major regions’ property market performance, Loos believes that the Western Cape province could be the likely outperformer in 2022. “We base this expectation on the belief that the Western Cape’s ability to attract semigrant skills and purchasing power, crucial for economic growth, has recently been enhanced.

“The Western Cape has been the most popular semigration destination for many years now, due to the perception of the province as having a great lifestyle coupled with significant economic opportunity. It has also been seen to be a region where provincial and local government is relatively well-run.”

And as time has passed, Loos said that communication and information technology has enabled businesses and individuals to be more removed from the major economic hub of Gauteng.

“In 2021, the unrest and looting in KZN and Gauteng may have further enhanced the relative appeal of living and doing business in the Western Cape, a province that largely escaped that event. In addition, the City of Cape Town is the only one of the major 6 metros that has emerged from the recent local government elections with its ruling party having a clear majority, and thus free of the uncertainty of coalition politics.”


Read: More Gauteng residents are semigrating to the Western Cape – here’s where they are moving to

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