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Samantha McCaughren: 'Withdrawals from commercial property funds should be seen as a warning sign'


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Reduced risk: For most pension holders there should be no concern as money is invested in a range of funds and assets. Stock picture

Reduced risk: For most pension holders there should be no concern as money is invested in a range of funds and assets. Stock picture

Reduced risk: For most pension holders there should be no concern as money is invested in a range of funds and assets. Stock picture

Last year was a record year for Irish commercial property as deals with a value of €7.2bn were completed.

This was great news for Irish investors and pension funds, many of which have put vast sums into funds backing prime properties in high-profile locations such as Grafton Street and St Stephen's Green in Dublin. As the value of these properties increased, so has the paper value of their nest eggs and pension pots.

However, something unexpected has been witnessed by fund managers in recent weeks and months.

The Irish economy is booming. Unemployment is at a 13-year low. Foreign direct investment has been flowing in with global technology giants reaffirming their commitment to the Irish market.

As a result the office market was strong last year. Meanwhile, Irish retail has been steady despite global fears over the threats of online shopping to bricks and mortar stores.

Yet fund managers have seen unusually high numbers of withdrawals from commercial property funds. This is where brokers, intermediaries and investors have decided that it is time to get out of Irish commercial property.

The funds managers - Aviva and Irish Life - say they believe the property market will continue to perform strongly. Irish Life says international demand is strong and the value of all assets fluctuates from time to time. But something is afoot.

The funds invest in retail, office and industrial sectors. And for the last eight years or so there has been a firmly held view that Irish commercial property would continue to increase in value in this booming economy.

Indeed it has been taken for granted by many that the value of commercial property would continue to march upwards.

So the decision of two major fund managers to mark down their commercial property funds is seen as significant.

For pension holders, there should be no immediate concern. Most pension money is invested in a range of funds and assets to reduce risk. Eggs are rarely put in one basket. And those who invested in commercial property some years ago have already made a significant return on paper.

But for two major property funds to take precautionary action because they are seeing money going out of commercial property should be seen as warning sign.

It suggests that one part of the economy may be showing some early signs of strain.

Today, some investors and pension holders may be disappointed that their investments have take a moderate but sudden hit.

The bigger concern should be that worse could come. Is this development a bellwether for the commercial property market in Ireland?

Of course, the funds in question could bounce back and Irish commercial property could go on to thrive.

However, Aviva has already flagged that if more money is taken out of the funds, properties in its portfolio could have to be sold off.

If this does come to pass, it will do little to engender confidence in what is to come for Irish commercial property. It would certainly seem that some in the investment and pensions market believe time is almost up.

Irish Independent