Economy Watch: The Truth About Chinese CRE Investment

CPE's economy writer Dees Stribling breaks down the significance of Chinese investment to the U.S. economy.

The Chinese economy has been hiccoughing and snorting lately, with industrial production down and whatnot, but the thing about very large economies is that they fluctuate. Actually, so do small economies, but the world doesn’t care nearly as much. One current line of thinking is that China might drag down the rest of the world in the near future (that is, the United States, since the EU’s already in something of a permanent funk). It might be something for domestic CRE interests to worry about — a slump caused by forces completely outside the normal orbit of U.S. property holders. But should we worry about a Chinese contraction?

Maybe. That’s the best that can be said when it comes to the macroeconomics of countries with murky economic data and marginal transparency. But there’s also an argument that China still has a great deal of residual strength, and real estate investment is a component of that argument. Chinese outbound capital flows into global commercial real estate markets have now exceeded U.S.$10 billion in a year for the first time ever, according to the latest research from CBRE Group Inc. CBRE reported this week that over the past four years, annual China-sourced outbound flows to commercial real estate experienced a compound annual growth rate of about 72 percent to reach over U.S.$10 billion for the year 2014. China accounted for over one-quarter of total outbound CRE investment from Asia during 2013 and 2014.

In short, China — or at least a certain stratum of Chinese society — has gotten very rich very fast, and they’re looking for somewhere to put all that capital. An economy like that has momentum, whatever to bump along the way (and the current situation might well be a bump). As property investors, the United States is a particular favorite of the Chinese. Anecdotal evidence has suggested that already (for example, the Waldorf-Astoria), but CBRE has quantified things: U.S.-bound flows accounted for over one fifth of total outbound investment from China in 2013 and 2014; the majority of which has gone to hotel and office assets, as well as development sites, in gateway cities. Over the two-year period, purchases of hotel and office assets in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and San Francisco accounted for over 60 percent of U.S.-bound capital to CRE, with purchases of premium office and hotel assets in New York and Los Angeles comprising about half of the total.

The hunger for U.S. properties isn’t confined to China, either. Earlier this year, CBRE reported that Asian cross-border commercial real estate investment surged in the first quarter of 2015, reaching U.S.$8.6 billion. That constitutes the strongest recorded Q1 outbound performance since major Asian outflows began in 2013, driven by growth in institutional capital flows. The U.S. investment volume reached U.S. $3.3 billion, ahead of Europe at U.S. $2.5 billion. This volume includes investment in existing portfolios only. Beyond that, Asian buyers invested at least $600 million in development sites in the Americas region in the first quarter 2015. So essentially the world has changed; Asia beyond Japan has wealth, and U.S. real estate holders stand to benefit from Asian interest in their properties, either as sellers, or from bidding-war-inspired appreciation.