Investors have loaded up on commercial property. Now they face a reckoning
投资者购买了大量商业地产。现在他们面临清算

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YOU MAY not realise it, but a growing share of your savings and pensions pot has been wagered on the commercial buildings in which you work, shop and sleep. The original idea was that these investments would provide a steady stream of earnings for decades into the future, rather as government bonds did before interest rates fell so low. But now the virus has thrown that assumption into a cement mixer.

尽管人们可能没有意识到,但他们的存款和养老金正被越来越多地押在写字楼、商场和旅馆等商业地产上。最初的构想是,这些投资能在未来几十年里带来源源不断的稳定收入,有点像利率还没降到如此低水平时的政府债券那样。而如今,新冠病毒让这种设想化成了泡影。

Across the world millions of tenants have stopped paying rent, leading to chaos among shopping-mall and office landlords. In the longer term, a renewed appreciation of the threat from pandemics, and of the potential of new technologies, could lead to a sharp shift in how commercial buildings are used. Savers and fund managers need to be alert. A safe, slow-moving asset class has become an unpredictable one that demands scrutiny and active management.

全球已有数以百万计的租户停缴租金,这在购物中心和写字楼的房东中引发了混乱。从长远来看,对大流行病的威胁以及新科技的潜力的重新认识可能会导致商业地产的用途发生骤变。储户和基金管理人需要保持警觉。房地产这一稳健而变动缓慢的资产类别如今已变得难以预测,需要对它多加审视、积极管理。

Commercial property has become an investment craze over the past two decades. In that period the nominal yield on a long-term American government bond has dropped from over 6% to less than 1%. Desperate to find other steady higher-yielding sources of earnings, pension trustees and fund managers have piled into malls, offices, hotels and warehouses. A corner of the economy that had been the preserve of moguls, amateurs and aristocrats has become increasingly infiltrated by strait-laced institutions and algorithm-crunching fund managers. The typical pension fund’s allocation to commercial property has risen from 5% in 2000 to over 10% now; institutional investors have about $11trn sunk into the asset class. Leases routinely stretch a decade or more into the future. The combination of reliable rental income and capital appreciation has meant that commercial property has successfully given investors annual returns of over 7%. All they needed was patience. That will no longer be enough.

过去20年里,商业地产成为投资热点。在此期间,美国长期政府债券的名义收益率已经从超过6%下降到不足1%。养老金受托人和基金管理人急于找到其他稳定的高收益来源,蜂拥进入购物中心、写字楼、酒店和仓库等领域。经济中的这一部分曾经是大亨、业余投资者和显贵们的专属领地,如今越来越多刻板守旧的传统机构和使用算法交易的基金管理人也开始涉足其中。养老基金对商业地产的一般配置比例在2000年是5%,现在已超过10%;机构投资者在这一资产类别上已投入约11万亿美元。租约通常一签就是10年或更久。可靠的租金收入再加上资本增值,让投资者成功从商业地产上获得了超过7%的年回报率。过去投资者需要的只是耐心。而将来,仅有耐心不够了。

The immediate problem is that tenants are behind on the rent. Every recession involves sporadic delinquencies, but the lockdowns have led to anarchy in some bits of the property business. Perhaps a quarter of free-standing shops, half of mall tenants and 60% of restaurants in America and other Western markets are not paying their dues. This can be a spontaneous rebellion or landlords may have offered holidays. Some cities and governments have introduced moratoriums. Landlords have taken a hit to their income. So far they have been unwilling or unable to repossess buildings that may have no other prospective tenant. A growing number have defaulted on their debts. Commercial-mortgage-backed securities, which bundle up property loans, have seen delinquency rates exceed the levels in the financial crisis of 2007-09.

眼下迫切的问题是租户拖欠租金。尽管这种情况在每个经济衰退期都时有发生,但此次疫情期间实施的禁足令已经让房地产行业的某些部分陷入混乱。在美国和其他西方市场,可能有25%的独立店铺、50%的购物中心租户以及60%的餐馆经营者没有在缴纳房租。这可能是租户自己拖延,也可能是房东主动提出延缴。一些城市和政府出台了延缴措施。房东的收入受到严重影响。直到目前,他们一直不愿意或者无法从欠费的租户那里收回房产,这些房产可能也找不到新租户。越来越多人开始拖欠贷款。打包房地产贷款的商业抵押担保证券的违约率已经超过了2007至2009年金融危机时的水平。

Temporary delinquencies are only part of the problem. In the longer run the uses of property may change. E-commerce activity has risen to the level pundits had thought it would reach three to five years from now, speeding up the decline of bricks-and-mortar shops and boosting demand for warehouses. Firms that have found remote-working tolerable may shrink the office space they hire. Video calls in lieu of business trips could reduce the number of hotel nights billed. Even as economies open up again, there are signs that behaviour may have changed permanently. The latest mobility-tracking data suggest that activity in offices in America is 36% below normal levels. It is 15% below the usual level for retail and recreation spaces such as restaurants, shops and cinemas.

暂时拖欠租金只是问题的一部分。从长远来看,房地产的用途可能会改变。电子商务活动已经发展到了专家原以为三五年后才会达到的水平,这加快了传统实体店的衰落,也加大了对仓库的需求。那些发现远程办公可行的公司或许会缩减自己租用的办公空间。用视频电话代替出差,会减少付钱住酒店的次数。种种迹象表明,在经济重启之时,人们的行为模式可能已经发生了永久改变。最新的移动追踪数据显示,美国写字楼的人员活跃度比正常水平低36%。餐馆、商店和电影院等零售和娱乐场所的活跃度比正常水平低15%。

Savers and the fund trustees who represent them should follow two tracks. The first is to get a realistic picture of the losses they face. If the property industry used to be amateurish, it is now all too often professionally opaque, with layers of holding companies and debt standing between the bricks and girders and their ultimate beneficiaries. The managers of buildings and investment vehicles may have an incentive to mask difficulties. Some, for example, are bailing out struggling retail tenants, perhaps in order to avoid admitting to rent defaults. Others are sticking to unrealistic valuations, which the industry’s arcane accounting practices make easier to sustain.

储户和代表他们的基金受托人应该遵循两点。首先,对面临的损失有现实的认识。如果说房地产行业过去不够专业的话,如今它在制造不透明方面倒是常常很专业——在这些钢筋水泥建筑及其最终受益人之间隔着一层又一层的控股公司和债务。房产和投资工具的管理人可能有意粉饰太平。比如,一些管理人对陷入困境的零售商户出手相助,或许是不愿意承认有欠租其事。其他一些管理人坚持不切实际的估价,而该行业晦涩难懂的会计操作让这样的估价更容易维持下去。

The bigger task is for investors to embrace the restructuring that must take place. Hotels may need to become apartment blocks; malls may need to be reincarnated as e-commerce-fulfilment centres; and office blocks may need to be refurbished so that desks are farther apart. All of this involves not sitting on properties and milking them for rent, but reinvesting in them and, often, selling them to different owners. That holds open the potential for greater efficiency, but also for fee-skimming and unnecessary losses if unaltered buildings are sold off cheaply.

对投资者而言,更重大的任务是积极接纳必然要发生的改造。酒店可能需要变成公寓楼;购物中心可能需要变身为电子商务履单中心;写字楼可能需要翻新,拉大办公桌之间的距离。所有这些都需要对房地产进行再投资,并且往往还要为它们寻找各类新买家,而不是坐收房地产租金就行了。这个过程有可能提高效率,但如果未经改造的房产被贱卖,也可能被人从中渔利,遭受不必要的损失。

Property has long been a slow-moving asset class because leases last for years and tenants normally change their behaviour only gradually. Landlords and their financial backers have thus got used to a business that moves at a glacial pace. For two decades a reliably easy way to make money has been to buy a commercial building and go to sleep. Time to wake up.■

由于租约一签就是好几年,而且租户经营方式的改变通常都是渐进的,因此房地产这一资产类别一直变动缓慢。房东和他们的金融资助者也因此习惯了这种龟速发展的业态。20年来,一种可靠又轻松的赚钱方式就是买下一处商业地产,此后便可高枕无忧。该醒醒了。