Are Our Pensions Founded on Sand?

We are used to seeing environmental protection at the centre of sustainability arguments. We are not so used to thinking about the economic sustainability of what we do in construction. I believe that we may need to rethink the economic model behind commercial construction in the UK or face some dire consequences. Let me explain:

Back in 2009/2010, early in the recession, I was seeking new premises for my business. I identified a recent development in Bristol which was still unoccupied several years after completion. Normally, we would not have been able to afford city centre rents, but I thought that this building should have been ripe for negotiation, having no tenants. However, when I approached the agents I found that commercial property rent is not subject to the usual market forces of supply and demand. The agents gave me the following reason for being unable to reduce the rent. The asset value of the building is determined by the anticipated rental yield. Having purchased the building at a value based on predicted rent the landlord will not reduce the rent in order to attract tenants as this would reduce the asset value leaving them with a loss on their balance sheet. Apparently the paper value of a building is more important than it actually generating revenue. Why would this be?

Well, consider our typical commercial development model. A developer borrows money from the banks in order to construct a building which nobody actually wants. In order to maximise the potential return, the building is constructed to the lowest acceptable specification for its target market. Shortly after completion, the building will be sold to a landlord, typically a pension company. The pension company uses the asset value of the building to underwrite its future pension commitments. The pension company appoints an agent to market the building and then largely forgets about it. Rental revenue pays for the operation of the building. The developer repays the bank loans and pockets the profit.

So, now I understand. The pension companies hold these buildings on their books as assets on paper. It is these paper assets that underwrite the security of my (and your) future pension. However, it seems to me that this is based on the premise that:

  1. the asset will generate revenue;
  2. the asset will appreciate in value.

If the building does not have tenants and is not generating a revenue then what value does it actually have? Consider this other example:

Green Park is a business park development near Reading originally owned by Prudential. The park, which was valued at £500M – £600M in 2008, was held in the Prudential’s Life Fund. Green Park’s principle claim to fame is its highly visible wind turbine next to the M4. Green Park’s other landmark, 450 South Oak Way, the building facing the M4 motorway, together with its sister, 400 South Oak Way, have sat empty since completion in 2002.

450 South Oak Way has sat empty for 10 years, consuming capital rather than generating revenue.

450 South Oak Way has sat empty for 10 years, consuming capital rather than generating revenue.

These buildings were leased by Cisco shortly before the dotcom crash and never occupied. Cisco has been trying unsuccessfully to find alternative tenants since. Now, in order to prevent the building fabric from deteriorating, it must be the case that basic heating and cooling systems are kept in operation and basic maintenance is carried out. This will not be cheap considering the buildings’ fully glazed south facing elevations. So, without tenants, these buildings are consuming capital rather than generating revenue. How does that affect the asset value held on Cisco’s books? Well, Cisco gave up and surrendered their leases in July 2012.

So now the cost of maintaining these empty buildings falls once again on the landlord. Interestingly, by now, Prudential had also gotten out of Green Park, selling to Oxford Properties, the property arm of a Canadian pension fund, in 2011 for £400M (a loss of at least £100M for the Pru, such are the shenanigans of the property world). So the costs of maintaining these “assets” must now be borne by Canadian pensioners until tenants are found. I wonder if they will fare any better than Cisco or Prudential did.

In the past, commercial property has clearly been a good investment for pension funds as the assets typically always appreciated. However, this paradigm is changing. As regulations on building energy consumption are continually drawn tighter, underperforming commercial buildings will quickly become obsolete. Commercial tenants are beginning to demand energy efficiency in buildings and, further, from 2018 landlords will be unable to offer for rent any building with an EPC rating lower than E. 450 South Oak Way is Band D according to the agent’s particulars and so it is not in immediate danger of becoming obsolete. Nevertheless, the longer that buildings such as this sit empty the less likely it becomes that they will ever find a tenant, as newer buildings come along with substantially better energy ratings. Do we face the prospect that recently constructed buildings may even be demolished without ever having generated revenue? I wonder what this does to the asset value recorded in the pension fund’s books. Will we find ourselves in a few years time faced with pension funds loaded down with a whole load of toxic assets as bad as the sub-prime mortgage situation?

I’m not an economist and don’t know the answer to this question, but I do know that if my business does not produce revenue then it has no value as an asset and cannot be used to underwrite borrowing or liabilities. It worries the hell out of me that my pension might be underwritten by assets with no value other than paper.  Does anyone else have any insights on this situation?