‘Bifurcation’ in Global Office Real Estate Markets

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Welcome to Thoughts on the Market. I’m Ron Kamdem, Head of Morgan Stanley’s U.S. Real Estate Investment Trust and Commercial Real Estate Research. Today, I’ll be talking about our outlook for the future of the global office real estate market. It’s Thursday, August 3rd at 10 a.m. in New York. 

There is more than 6 billion square feet of office space across the globe with value of more than 4 trillion U.S. dollars. Within this vast market, there are clear differences across the regions, ranging from occupancy to design to financing.

In the U.S., office real estate fundamentals this cycle, appear worse than they were during the great financial crisis of 2008 in terms of occupancy, subleasing activity and office utilization. In fact, overall, U.S. office utilization seems to be stalling at 20 to 55% compared to other regional markets in the 60 to 80% range. This trend will likely remain in place as key U.S. tenants are looking to reduce office space by about 10% over the next three years. Work from home and hybrid arrangements are the biggest drivers, particularly with business services and technology focused firms on the West Coast. In addition, sharp rate hikes and regional bank weakness have driven up loan-to-value ratios in the U.S. versus global peers. 

Looking at other countries, Australia and Mexico may be having similar problems as far as work from home is concerned, but average loan-to-value ratios are much lower, which lenders typically consider a good sign. Mainland China is unique among our coverage markets for having declining rates. Hong Kong seems to be the most undervalued and closer to bottoming, and we prefer it over Singapore, Japan and Australia. In Latin America, we remain on the sidelines. Despite the increase in net absorption growth, the office real estate market is still showing a slow paced recovery from pandemic levels, especially in Mexico. All in all, global office markets remain 10 to 15% oversupplied. 

While higher vacancy is an issue impacting all countries, an important emerging theme across the various region as a bias towards newer and greener buildings. Our channel checks with tenants and landlords suggests that as employees, especially the younger cohorts, choose to work for organizations with strong climate change values, employers will seek to establish offices and more energy efficient buildings. Also, in an effort to encourage office attendance and in-person collaboration, occupiers are gravitating toward younger buildings with more attractive amenities. 

Overall, as we look across regions and countries, one common thread is what we call “bifurcation”, that is a widening gap between the class-A prime assets and the rest of the commodity B&C space, which is happening at an accelerating pace. We believe it would take 5 to 13 years for the global office market to return to pre-COVID occupancy levels. However, the class A prime assets can recover in half the time as the rest of the market and newer, greener buildings in particular are likely to be most favored. 

Bottom line for the U.S looking at fundamentals is that New York and Boston on the East Coast are showing the most resilient trends. Downtown L.A., downtown San Francisco, downtown Seattle and even Chicago are showing the most headwinds. Sunbelt markets are somewhere in between but have been slowing.  

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