ULI Europe: Geopolitics, housing and migration take centre stage

There is a notable trend among real estate conferences. They were once relatively narrow in their focus, looking at issues that would only ever be of concern within the industry. Today, they seem fascinated with the big picture – in so-called megatrends and exogenous shocks.

In the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008, the real estate industry initially sought to distance itself from what it termed a ‘banking crisis, not a real estate crisis’. But as it became clear that the effects of the crisis were to become all-encompassing, real estate conferences invariably became about the external – from predicting Black Swans to dealing with regulation and worries about the euro-zone crisis.

Then came the megatrend double-whammy: technology and demographics. Conferences were suddenly all about these global, disruptive forces. They had been there for some time, but were now taking centre stage. As the UK prepares to leave the European Union and Donald Trump settles into the White House, real estate conferences are turning to geopolitics.

The opening keynote speaker at the Urban Land Institute’s (ULI) European Conference in Paris this week was Robin Niblett, director of Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. One of the questions from the audience was: Is there going to be a third world war?

Later that day, Francois Trausch, chief executive of Allianz Real Estate, referred to it during a panel session. He remarked that even just a year ago, such a question at a real estate conference would have seemed inconceivable.

Trausch was speaking during a panel debate on capital markets, moderated by Jon Zehner, global co-head of client capital group at LaSalle Investment Management. Introducing the session, Zehner said that, unlike the rest of the conference programme thus far, his would be more about real estate. But, almost inevitably, conversations returned to big-picture themes.

When asked what trend or area of change today would have the biggest impact on future investment strategies, Trausch opted for geopolitics. He said he hoped that the likes of Brexit and Trump were just the “last breath of the old economy” – a sort of final rejection of the new global one.

If the rise of western populism is just that – a temporary push-back – perhaps investors should be more concerned with the more structural, long-term megatrends. Climate change is an obvious one, but demographics was one that came to mind for Trausch’s fellow panellists.

When asked the same question, Sophie van Oosterom, CIO of EMEA at CBRE Global Investors, said the fact that people are living longer has a number of implications for real estate investors. Are investors building enough senior housing? Are they building the right sort? If people are living healthier lives in older age, are traditional care homes the right model?

But demographics also pose another uncertainty for real estate investors. If people live longer and pensions are insufficient, what is going to happen to saving and spending patterns? And what will this mean for interest rates over the long term? Earlier in the session, Van Oosterom remarked that, while lower-for-longer environment was helping support real estate investments, investors should be wary of becoming “addicted” to low interest rates.

But a more immediate concern relating to demographics is housing more generally. One session discussed what is fast becoming a global “housing crisis”. Urbanisation – another megatrend – has been on the increase as people move into cities, creating more density and boosting local economies. But today’s live-work-play mantra is under threat by the very success of these cities, as housing becomes unaffordable.

Yolande Barnes, head of world of research at Savills, showed how some cities had gone beyond a “mature” level of urbanisation to what she termed “urban dispersal”, where satellite towns were benefitting as the major cities became expensive. She cited as examples, Newcastle, north of Sydney in Australia, and Margate, south of London in England.

James Murray, deputy mayor for housing and residential development for the City of London, talked about the steps the mayor’s team was taking to ensure London did not suffer from its own housing crisis. It will take time to address, he admitted, but said Londoners recognise it takes time to “turn the tanker round in a better direction”.

Migration formed an important part of the discussion. The economic costs and benefits of migration are always spread unevenly across cities, said Michael Keith, professor at the University of Oxford.

ULI is undertaking research on mass migration in European cities, and gave a preview of the full report that will be launched in the Spring.

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