Friday, January 11, 2008

Lian Beng’s Interim Net Up Four Times

Source : The Business Times, January 11, 2008

Construction division remains key growth driver, contributing 90% to revenue.

CONSTRUCTION outfit Lian Beng Group has achieved a near quadrupling in net profit for the six months ended Nov 30, 2007.

Its first-half net income attributable to equity-holders was a record $8.06 million, up from $2.2 million for the corresponding period of 2006. This was due mainly to improved takings from its construction business. Revenue for the six months rose 23 per cent to $106.3 million. Earnings per share came to 1.72 cents, up from 0.48.

‘The past half year has been very exciting, after a dry spell that lasted about 10 years,’ said Lian Beng’s managing director Ong Pang Aik. ‘We managed to secure some interesting contracts, and were able to take advantage of the construction boom to expand our business activities.’

The group said its strong half-year results were due largely to better margins from its construction services, and higher revenue recognition from the progressive completion of construction projects.

Lian Beng said its construction division continued to be its key growth driver - contributing more than 90 per cent to its revenue. The remaining 10 per cent came from the engineering and leasing, and property development divisions.

The significant construction contracts that were added to Lian Beng’s order book during the half-year included condominium developments at Toh Tuck Road and Simon Road.

The group expects the outlook for the construction and property sectors to remain relatively robust in the next six to 12 months. Lian Beng’s construction order book stands at some $608 million to date.

‘We will maintain our strategy of selectively tendering for larger scale construction projects in both the public and private sector, and will gradually strengthen our property development arm via suitable acquisitions and strategic alliances,’ Mr Ong said.

Lian Beng shares closed 4.5 cents down at 74 cents yesterday.

Eng Wah Shares Soar To Record High

Source : The Straits Times, Jan 11, 2008

CINEMA group Eng Wah Organisation’s share price shot up by 16.5 cents to 85 cents - an all-time high - on news that its portfolio of properties was up for sale.

The counter went as high as 91 cents during the day.

Eng Wah’s properties could be worth as much as $190 million so, based on the 150 million shares in the market, shareholders could get as much as $1.20 in cash per share if all the cash proceeds were distributed.

The group announced in May that it would buy the business of Japanese pharmaceutical firm Transcutaneous Technologies (TTI) by issuing new shares to TTI shareholders. Existing assets of Eng Wah would be sold off, with practically all of the proceeds going back to the shareholders.

Yesterday, Ms Goh Min Yen, Eng Wah’s managing director, reiterated that the asset disposal had always been part of the deal.

Still, a report unveiling details of the sale of the properties by marketing agent Jones Lang LaSalle breathed life into the counter.

Kim Eng Research calculated that each share’s fair value is $1.70. That means even after the jump to 85 cents, the shares look undervalued.

The assets up for sale are the Toa Payoh Entertainment Centre, Jubilee Theatre at Ang Mo Kio, the former Mandarin Theatre at Kallang Bahru, Empress Theatre at Clementi and the 16th floor of Orchard Towers.

River Valley High To Get $79m Campus In Jurong

Source : The Straits Times, Jan 11, 2008

To be ready in 2010, it will be one of the largest and most expensive govt schools

RIVER Valley High's new $79 million campus in Jurong - boasting full facilities for its six-year integrated programme - will be one of the largest and most expensive government schools.


The 7.64ha campus, at the junction of Jalan Boon Lay and Boon Lay Avenue, will welcome its first batch of students in 2010.

It will cater to 2,500 students from Secondary 1 to Junior College Year 2.

River Valley High, which will offer a six-year integrated programme, now has 1,600 students from Secondary 1 to Secondary 4 at its current location in Malan Road, off Alexandra Road.

The new campus will include a hostel for 500 students (below, artist's impression) for its upcoming boarding programme.

Principal Ek Soo Ben expects all students to stay in the hostel at some point in their six years there.

She also wants to open it to their foreign partner schools as part of learning exchanges.

'With a hostel, we can have learning symposiums for foreign partner schools and their students can work on meaningful projects together with our students,' she said.

Apart from standard facilities like 50 classrooms, two lecture theatres, an indoor sports hall and a big canteen, the school will also have non-standard ones like a performing arts theatre and special science laboratories.

The school will have to raise about $1.2 million to $1.5 million for these non-standard facilities.

As the school is the West Zone Centre of Excellence for Science and Technology, its six special science labs will have up-to-date facilities for photonics, mechatronics, analytical chemistry and molecular biology.

Being a Special Assistance Plan school with a strong Chinese tradition, the new building's design will take in elements of Chinese heritage.

This motif will, for instance, be incorporated into the 'meandering walkways and six courtyards', each with a different theme, such as science, design and performance.

The design will also have learning and social interaction spaces. For instance, the science courtyard will have an eco-trail and the performance courtyard will encourage music jam sessions and outdoor performances.

Students said they were excited about the prospect of moving to a new campus.

Secondary 4 student Lim Ze Ming, 16, who is a 400m runner, said: 'Now, we can only do strength training in the gym when it rains. An indoor sports hall will allow for training regardless of the weather.'

Plunge In Key Interest Rate May Lead To Cheaper Home Loans

Source : The Straits Times, Jan 10, 2008

Interbank lending rate drops to lowest in three years and is expected to fall further by mid-year

HOMEBUYERS could be in for some cheer in the coming months after a recent plunge in a crucial interest rate that indirectly determines how banks set mortgages.

The three-month Singapore interbank offered rate (Sibor), as it is called, has hit its lowest level since February 2005 and is expected to sink further by the middle of the year.

It is significant as the Sibor is the rate at which banks lend cash to each other and thus influences what consumers pay on loans such as mortgages.

It hit 1.7625 per cent yesterday, down about 0.8 percentage point in a fortnight, and the lowest since the 1.75 per cent level nearly three years ago.

With banks getting cheaper money, it is expected that homebuyers could benefit in turn from cheaper mortgages, although there is usually a lag between Sibor and consumer loan rate movements.

Citigroup economist Chua Hak Bin said: 'Mortgage rates could head lower in two months.'

But a Sibor fall is bad news for savers as fixed deposit rates could drop too.

Economists say the Sibor's sharp dip is due to recent interest rate cuts in the United States - with more likely to come later this month, huge capital inflows into Singapore and poor stock market sentiment, which have prompted investors to leave more money in the bank.

CIMB-GK economist Song Seng Wun said: 'The Sibor's plunge corresponds with the recent sharp decline in US interest rates and the expectation of more cuts.

'People have started 2008 with plenty of uncertainty, and are holding on to more cash and being more risk-averse.'

OCBC economist Selena Ling added: 'It's due to foreign funds coming in, seeking refuge from the weakening US dollar, and the recent plunges in the equity market.'

The US Federal Reserve has cut key interest rates from 5.25 per cent to 4.25 per cent in recent months.

Market experts predict a further 50-basis point cut later this month as part of moves to avert a possible recession.

Economists expect the Sibor to remain soft, due to the likelihood of further rate cuts and the cautious equity market sentiment.

Dr Chua said: 'We expect the Sibor to fall by a further 30 to 50 basis points by mid-year, especially if the Fed cuts rates by 75 basis points by the end of the second quarter.'

While home owners welcome a Sibor fall, banks dread it.

It affects their net interest margins because most of their Singdollar corporate and small business loans are linked to the Sibor.

A Deutsche Bank analyst report noted: 'This plunge is of concern, as we estimate that a 25 basis point fall in the Sibor will eventually lead to a fall in earnings per share of 4 per cent for DBS Group Holdings, 2 per cent for United Overseas Bank and 1 per cent for OCBC Bank.'

And savers will get belted too. Low interest rates combined with the high inflation now building up in Singapore spell 'negative real interest rates' - the interest earned on savings will not be able to offset the rise in prices.

Mr Song said: 'It's a sign for people not to keep money in the bank, as savers lose out.

'It's a good period to borrow, as there is more incentive for people to take money out rather than put it in.'

Thus, Dr Chua advocates that 'some diversification away might be prudent'.

He suggested alternative instruments such as real estate investment trusts, utility stocks and foreign currency fixed deposits, which offer higher rates, to hedge against inflation risk.

Clementi Shopping Mall Put Up For Sale

Source : The Straits Times, Jan 11, 2008

A SHOPPING mall directly opposite the Clementi MRT Station has been put on the market by property firm Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL).

JLL is inviting expressions of interest for CityVibe, a retail and entertainment building known for a McDonald's fast-food outlet on the first floor and a cinema that used to be upstairs. The cinema has since been replaced by a Party World KTV branch.

The whole building will undergo reconstruction after the Chinese New Year.

But the owner - Mr Victor Boh of Grandview, linked to Wint Thai Trading - is seeking buyers for the three-storey mall, even as it is being upgraded.

The reconstruction was 'planned some time back but approval was granted only last year', explained Mr Derek Wong, the senior manager of investments at JLL.

Mr Boh decided to go ahead with the upgrading, expected to be completed in November, but was 'serious about selling if it can fetch a good price', added Mr Wong.

Although JLL would not disclose an indicative price, experts said the property could fetch more than $130 million, or over $3,000 per sq ft of gross floor area.

This would give a rental yield of at least 5 per cent, based on JLL's projection of $8.4 million in gross annual rental income.

The mall, which has about 70 years left on its lease, has a site area of 15,597 sq ft and a net lettable area of about 26,581 sq ft. It is to be rebuilt into a three-storey complex with a rooftop terrace.

'It is a very good location in the sense that it is directly opposite the MRT station, and everyone that comes down from the station will walk past this building,' said Mr Wong.

The property is located next to the future Clementi central hub and Clementi bus interchange.

S'pore F1 Grand Prix - $275

Source : TODAY, Friday, January 11, 2008

That's what the cheapest 3-day grandstand pass at the S'pore grand prix is likely to cost

Wondering if you can afford a trackside view of the first Formula 1 race in Singapore? Today has the latest on the ticket prices: A three-day grandstand pass could start from about $275.

Don't fancy paying that much for a seat? Organiser Singapore GP has revealed exclusively to this newspaper that the price of a three-day general admission package for the standing area along the downtown street circuit could cost less than $200. The other good news is that the colour-coded tickets can be used to admit a different person on each day.

Singapore GP was, however, tight-lipped about the price of the most sought-after seats for the public — along the Start-Finish straight, near the Singapore Flyer and opposite the pit lanes.

Today understands that these tickets to the first F1 night race in the world are likely to be in the region of $1,100 to $1,300 each — similar to what fans will pay at the F1 races in Britain and Germany this year.

Access to the corporate suites will start from $3,500 per person and those prepared to pay $7,500 can use the exclusive Paddock Club, which boasts VIP access to the areas where the teams are. Pricing details for the SingTel Singapore Grand Prix from Sept 26 to 28 were to have been released last month, but organisers are still exploring how to increase ticketed viewing areas. For now, the race has an 80,000-spectator capacity.

"The number of tickets currently available for the public is 65,000, which we are working hard to increase. Another 11,000 are reserved for Corporate Hospitality Suites and a further 4,000 for the Paddock Club," said Mr Jonathan Hallett, Singapore GP's media and communications director.

But creating more standing area, involves not only Singapore GP's own engineers but also the owners of the land along the circuit and several Government agencies.

"This process inevitably takes time," said Mr Hallett. "But it will ensure that spectators get the best choice of tickets and locations. We do not want a situation where a spectator had already bought a ticket and we subsequently release additional inventory they would have preferred."

Mr Hallett also revealed that when tickets go on sale, they would be released in phases, with the three-day passes going on sale first. And only if there were still seats available after that, then would two-day tickets and eventually single-day tickets be made available.

"We want to encourage people coming together and pooling their resources to buy tickets," he added. "You may have a situation where three guys won't be able to attend all three days. It will make more sense for them to buy the three-day pass and split the tickets among themselves."

Also, the tickets will buy spectators a full day of racing on each of the three days -— not just the Formula 1 race at night. At most European races, the GP2 championship is held before the F1 race; in Australia it is the V8 Supercar race.

"So far, the Porsche Carrera Cup Asia is confirmed and there are two more support races still to be announced. This should happen in the next few weeks," said Mr Hallett.

GIC Moves In On British Property Market

Source : TODAY, Friday, January 11, 2008

Fresh from bailing out Europe's largest bank UBS with a 11-billion Swiss franc ($14.2-billion) cash injection, the Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) has taken a 3-per-cent stake in British Land, The Daily Telegraph reported yesterday.

The investment is worth about £138 million ($388 million), based on British Land's market capitalisation of £4.6 billion, according to Bloomberg data.

British Land, founded in 1856, is Europe's largest real-estate company in terms of assets.

It invests in freehold commercial properties including office buildings, retail superstores, shopping centres as well as warehouses and industrial facilities both directly and through joint ventures.

British Land's portfolio is valued at £15.9 billion, of which £7.4 billion is in office buildings, almost all of which are located in London, according to its website.

GIC's investment comes after months of speculation that cash-rich investors would swoop in on the beleaguered real estate market, which has seen property shares tumble by 40 per cent in the past year, The Daily Telegraph reported.

British Land's share price had halved from a high of £17.22 at the end of 2006 on fears of a crash in capital values of office buildings in the heart of London. The shares were hovering at £9.05 at press time yesterday.

British Land was forced to pull the £1.7-billion sale of a stake in its flagship shopping centre Meadowhall last November after the global credit crunch hit, The Daily Telegraph reported.

GIC was said to have been interested in acquiring the stake from British Land earlier in the year.

Instead, it bought a 40-per-cent stake in MetroCentre from Liberty International. GIC also owns 50 per cent of the Westquay shopping centre in Southampton, according to The Daily Telegraph.

GIC, which manages Singapore's foreign reserves worth more than US$100 billion ($143 billion) was established in 1981 to invest and boost the Republic's reserves.

Since then, the company has formed ventures and acquired property in Asia, the United States and Europe to build a multi-billion dollar diversified portfolio of real-estate holdings.

Judge: Your Story 'Can't Be Believed'

Source : The Electric New Paper, January 11, 2008

Eldest son sues mentally challenged daughter & siblings for houses. Court throws out case

HE wanted all. But he didn't get them.

The New Paper, 21 July 2007.

Yesterday, the High Court quashed businessman Chang Ham Chwee's claim against his three siblings and low IQ daughter.

He had wanted the two houses bequeathed to them on top of the semi-detached house that he received as part of his late mother's legacy.

He claimed the houses were bought and built with the money he had earned through the lighterage business he took over from his late father.

But Justice Choo Han Teck said in his judgment that Mr Chang's story 'cannot be believed'.

In dismissing the claim, he said: 'Ultimately, the question central to this action, namely, whether the plaintiff took over and owned the lighterage business after his father died in 1950, depended on whether I believe the plaintiff.

'I do not.'

The family feud began shortly after Mr Chang's mother, Madam Tan Soo Keow, died in July 2006 at the age of 91.

In a will which she had made in April 2002, she bequeathed one semi-detached house to her son, Mr Chang, 69, managing partner of Chan Kain Thye Lighterage Company.

She gave another semi-detached house to her mentally-challenged granddaughter, Ms Chang Lee Siang, 51.

She is Mr Chang's daughter.

Madam Tan then willed the proceeds of a bungalow to be split four-ways: To her daughters, Madam Chan Siew Khim, 70; Madam Chan Meow Khin, 60; her other son, Mr Chan Hung Hor, 67; and to a charity of the Chan sisters' choice.

But Mr Chang - a respected businessman here - claimed that the money, which was used to buy and build the houses in the '50s and '60s, was actually his.


He claimed that his mother was holding the money in trust for him. And, as such, these properties - which were in his mother's name - actually belong to him.

He told the High Court in a hearing last July that when his father, a lighter operator, died suddenly when his boat exploded in September 1950, he was forced to step into his shoes and take over the running of the business.

He was about 12 years old at that time.

In the days before the clean-up of the Singapore River in the early 1980s, lighters (also known as tongkangs) used to transport cargo between the port and the ships anchored out at sea.

His mother could not have run the lighterage business, he claimed, as it would not have been possible for a woman to do so.

He claimed that he gave the money that he had made from the business to his mother for safekeeping, as he was too young to open a bank account.

He claims that his mother knew she was holding the money for him.

In 1951, he said, profit from the business was used to buy two plots at Paya Lebar Crescent.

They were put in his mother's name as, he claims, he was too young at that time.

Two years later, money from the business was used to buy another property along that stretch, now known as 40G. In 1959, Mr Chang's mother and siblings moved into the bungalow built there.

Meanwhile, Mr Chang stayed at a shophouse in Boat Quay, to be close to his office.

In 1965, he decided to build four semi-detached houses on the other two plots so that they could be rented out.

In 1990 and 1991, two of the semi-detached houses, 40B and 40C, were sold for about $1.1m to help pay off Mr Chan Hung Hor's business debts.

Mr Chang claimed that even after this, his mother had assured him that the rest of the properties belonged to him.

But, Mr Chang's two sisters, represented by Mr Anthony Lee, disagreed.

Their side of the story is that Madam Tan was the one running the business.

And Justice Choo agreed with them.

He said: 'The very idea that a 12-year-old boy assumes his father's mantle in what he has himself described as a very rough trade was implausible.

'In my view, a 35-year-old widow (as Madam Tan was at that time), assisted by her husband's experienced foreman and her own adult brother, would have been far more capable of taking over the business than a 12-year-old child.'

The judge said that while it may be true that Mr Chang grew up by the quayside and learned the trade gradually, that was not the same as taking over the father's business from the day he died.

He noted that there was documentary evidence showing that it was Madam Tan who submitted the accounts of the lighterage business and that she was the one who engaged the accountants.

There are also some documents showing that it was she who engaged the architect and employed the contractor to build the houses on the land.

Justice Choo added: 'It is also important to note that this state of affairs (that Madam Tan ruled the roost after her husband's death) was not challenged in her lifetime.'

The judge also noted that Madam Chan Siew Khim was an 'angry and feisty woman' and if her mother, Madam Tan, was like her, she would have little difficulty in dealing with the boatmen.

Speaking to The New Paper on behalf of his low-IQ client, Ms Chang, lawyer Wong Siew Hong said: 'My client is very thankful that she gets to keep her late grandmother's gift.'

Intrinsic Value Of Area May Resolve En Bloc Woes

Source : The Straits Times, Jan 11, 2008

I WOULD like to ponder the potential influence of intrinsic value of area (IV) as a 'currency' to deal with a myriad of problems in collective sales.

Let's look at various scenarios to resolve the unhappiness of minority owners. Please also refer to my letter, 'Flaws likely if en bloc choice left to owners' (ST, Jan 5).

IV forms the foundation on which a conduit for meaningful negotiations from a common baseline is established. It could lead to a happy medium and a win-win situation for owners and developers.

Units of IVs as 'currency' offer complete freedom of choice for owners. The options are total cash-out, partial cash-out and total exchange with cash compensation equal to interest derived from total IV value at prevailing borrowing rate for the entire redevelopment period, payable quarterly. Owners receive two house removal allowances (out and back).

For example: In a condo collective sale, the IV was established as $250 per sq ft at launch in 1985. Mr Tan owns a unit of 2,000 sq ft (2,000 IVs). The tendered market price raises the IV to $1,800 per sq ft. Owners can consider the following options:

Mr Tan can cash out all IVs at $1,800 x 2,000 and moves out with $3.6 million.

He can trade part of his 2,000 IVs for a 1,400 sq ft unit at the same floor level with any view in the redevelopment and pockets $1.08 million ($1,800 x 600) for his balance 600 IVs. If the developers agree, he could reduce his IVs to bargain for a higher floor unit or increase his IVs for cash for a lower floor unit.

He can exchange all IVs for a unit of 2,000 sq ft at the same floor level with any view in the redevelopment and receives compensation for house removal and quarterly interest payment in advance. He wins a new home with higher IVs while the developers win profits for redevelopment.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

Straits Trading Aims To Redevelop Specialists' Centre, Hotel Phoenix

Source : The Straits Times, Jan 11, 2008

Its 'advanced talks' with OCBC may see new complex taking shape come year-end

THERE seems to be some progress at last in the much-anticipated redevelopment of the Specialists' Shopping Centre and Hotel Phoenix complex in Orchard Road.

The Straits Trading Company - which is the object of a buyout offer - announced yesterday that it is in 'advanced negotiations' with site owner OCBC Bank regarding redevelopment and management plans.

Construction of a 21-storey complex with shops and a 580-room hotel will begin in the second half of this year, according to OCBC.

The complex will be linked to Far East Organization's upcoming Orchard Central mall and Lend Lease's upcoming Somerset Central mall, both nearby.

The announcement yesterday was as much about the complex ownership and development structure put in place in response to amended restrictions that prevent banks from getting involved in property development.

Straits Trading is a holding company with businesses that range from smelting and mining to hotel investment and property development.

As it is the subject of a buyout offer by The Cairns, a privately held investment firm that is part of the Tecity group, it had to inform shareholders of its advanced talks with OCBC.

Tecity is controlled by the family of the late Dr Tan Chin Tuan, a past chairman of OCBC. Dr Tan set up Tecity, which has held a stake in Straits Trading since the 1950s.

The OCBC group also holds a stake, directly and indirectly, amounting to 26.1 per cent.

Dr Tan also started the old 392-room Hotel Phoenix, which closed in August after 35 years.

In yesterday's statement, Straits Trading said OCBC will appoint a Straits Trading special-purpose vehicle to undertake the construction of the complex.

The proposed arrangements include funding for the vehicle and the construction based on a maximum development cost to be agreed on between Straits Trading and OCBC.

Once the complex has been completed, Straits Trading will sell it to OCBC and then lease it back for three years, with an option to renew the lease for a further three years.

OCBC said it had opted for a sale and leaseback plan because it sees the property investment as one that will bring 'long-term financial returns'.

Design details for the new complex, which will have a total gross floor area of 50,079.07 sq m and a net retail lettable area of 14,014 sq m, are still being finalised.

Sixty per cent of the gross floor area will be taken up by the hotel, and the remainder by retail shops and a carpark that will accommodate 262 vehicles.

Tange Associates is the architect for the project.

Office Redevelopment Worsens Space Crunch; Rents Soar

Source : The Business Times, January 11, 2008

CBD supply fell 3.7% y-o-y in Q4 2007 to 19.98m sq ft: DTZ

ONLY 341,180 sq ft of new office supply became available for the whole of last year. At the same time, 1.02 million sq ft of office space was taken away, as a result of buildings undergoing redevelopment or addition and alteration work.

A report by DTZ Debenham Tie Leung shows that existing stock in the central business district (CBD) was 19.98 million sq ft in the final quarter of the year, a decline of 3.7 per cent year-on-year.

Island-wide, the decline of existing stock was marginally less at 1.2 per cent to 56.04 million sq ft.

For non-central areas, existing stock increased by 0.6 per cent to 15.16 million sq ft.

Tight supply has pushed up occupancy levels to 97.5 per cent island-wide, an increase of 2.5 percentage points from the comparable quarter in 2006.

DTZ says that office rents have consequently risen to record levels, with prime office rents in Raffles Place for the quarter 94.1 per cent higher than 12 months previously, at $16.50 psf per month.

High rents prompted companies to consider relocating to lower-cost premises in the CBD fringe, non-central areas and several business parks.

Average monthly gross rents for office buildings in areas like Marina Centre, Alexandra Belt and Tampines Finance Park jumped 81.3 per cent to $14.50 psf per month, 85 per cent to $7.40 psf per month and 62.2 per cent to $7.30 psf per month respectively year-on-year.

While the short-term situation remains challenging, DTZ believes the mid and long-term situation could prove better for office tenants.

DTZ executive director Cheng Siow Ying said: 'The pace of rental growth is expected to moderate as tenants become more rent-sensitive and more choices of office supply such as transitional offices, disused state properties and business park space are made available to occupiers.'

DTZ is forecasting that about 7 million sq ft of net lettable area could come on stream in the next four years.

In 2007 alone, it estimates that 1.9 million sq ft of gross floor area of office space was generated through the conversion of disused state properties for office space and transitional office sites.

Supply of business park space in the industrial sector also increased in 2007.

Island-wide, existing stock of industrial space increased 4.1 per cent to 297.36 million sq ft.

Of the 7.6 million sq ft of private industrial space that was completed in the first three quarters of 2007, DTZ said that 5 per cent was business park space. DTZ also estimates that 7 per cent of the 20.4 million sq ft potential supply of private industrial space over the next three years could be business park space.

DTZ executive director Chua Wei Lin said: 'An increased number of business park developments, built-to-suit and high-tech facilities are expected to come on stream, partly due to heightened demand from qualifying office users as the office market tightens.'

Average monthly gross rents for business park/science park/high- tech industrial space recorded increases of 50 per cent year-on-year to hit $3.90 psf per month.

50% Chance Of Recession In Japan: Goldman

Source : The Business Times, January 11, 2008

View contrasts with upbeat reports from World Bank, OECD on major economies

JAPAN'S economy could follow that of the US into recession this year, investment bank Goldman Sachs warned yesterday, underlining a growing gulf between analysts in the private and public sectors over prospects for the global economy in 2008.

A senior Bank of Japan official, meanwhile, acknowledged that Japan's positive economic cycle is weakening, and that risks to global growth are also increasing.

Goldman Sachs advised clients that there is now an at least 50 per cent chance that Japan's economy will slip into recession in 2008, meaning that growth would turn negative for at least two consecutive quarters. A day earlier, the leading US investment bank had predicted that America could suffer a recession this year, because of weaker consumer spending and a tumbling housing market.

These and other bearish views expressed by leading investment houses contrast with upbeat recent reports from the World Bank and OECD arguing that major economies can avoid recession in the wake of the sub-prime mortgage crisis.

A similarly optimistic note was sounded yesterday by the Institute of International Finance (IIF) in Washington, which said that recession should be avoidable in the US and Japan.

'A difficult environment featuring continual credit market tensions and highly elevated oil prices should contribute to a slowdown in the global economy this year,' the IIF suggested. 'However, a recession in the United States is likely to be avoided, while emerging market growth is seen as remaining strong,' said the institute, which speaks on behalf of 370 leading financial institutions around the world.

Goldman Sachs, meanwhile, cut its forecast for growth in the Japanese economy this year to just 1 per cent overall, taking into account an expected shrinkage in the US economy during the second and third quarters of this year.

Goldman also said that it expects the Bank of Japan to keep interest rates on hold throughout this year and into 2009.

BOJ deputy governor Toshiro Muto declined to say when the bank will move on interest rates but he rejected speculation that the BOJ might be forced to lower its short-term policy lending rate (currently at 0.5 per cent) to fend off possible recession. 'The positive cycle of output, income and expenditures is weakening temporarily,' he said 'But I don't think the mechanism itself will break,' he added.

The IIF suggested in its report that Japan's economy will slow to 1.3 per cent real growth this year from an estimated 1.9 per cent in 2007. It claimed that the Japanese economy is supported by 'healthy levels of business confidence', a strong labour market and a banking system that is 'relatively immune from the turmoil affecting in the United States and Europe. The institute forecast GDP growth of 2.3 per cent this year for the US and 2.2 per cent for the euro area.

For emerging markets, the IIF said that 'the main factor pushing growth slightly lower in 2008 is the effect of tighter monetary policies put in place by many emerging market central banks through 2007.

'For example, monetary tightening in China is likely to contribute to a slowdown in growth to 10.5 per cent from 11.5 per cent in 2007. Elsewhere in Asia, growth in India should be stable, and an acceleration is in prospect in Thailand and the Philippines.'

The IIF said that the volume of net private capital flows to emerging markets in 2007 reached a record of US$681 billion, compared to US$560 billion in 2006.

This reflects 'sustained momentum in flows to emerging markets, despite the turmoil in mature credit markets in the second half of the year. The flow of equity capital remains robust, and diminution of commercial bank lending to emerging markets looks to have been remarkably limited to date.'

Hotel Sector Shaping Up For Bumper Takings

Source : The Business Times, January 11, 2008

Operators see room rates rising 25-40% on host of demand and supply factors

A bumper 2008 awaits hotels in Singapore as the Formula One (F1) Grand Prix race comes to town and tourist numbers rise to new highs.

Hotel operators are already on a roll after a good year that saw a record number of tourists checking in, raising room rates by 15-25 per cent in 2007. They expect rates to shoot up another 25-40 per cent as the supply of rooms remain tight.

Last year's growth was largely spurred by the positive economic climate, hotels said.

'The hotel industry did very well in 2007, with tremendous growth and increase in tourism arrival,' said Aiden McAuley, general manager of Swissotel The Stamford. 'For 2008, we expect an even better year for the tourism industry in Singapore, with big events such as the Singapore Air Show in February and F1 in September.'

Swissotel sees room rates increasing 30-35 per cent this year, while Marina Mandarin Singapore is targeting to up its rates by 25-40 per cent.

Hoteliers are banking on both demand-side and supply-side factors as they hike room rates. Demand will climb with increased corporate and meetings, incentives, conventions & exhibitions (MICE) travellers as well as more tourists drawn here by events such as the F1 race.

'The trend of growth in corporate meetings, especially, continues to be significant and will be sustained in 2008,' said Cheryl Ng, Pan Pacific's public relations manager.

Hotels expect the MICE and corporate traveller segment to account for a big chunk of their takings this year as several major events roll into town.

What is likely to generate the greatest buzz this year is the F1 race. Trackside hotels are expecting a full house during race week, with room rates likely to be at least twice the regular rates, according to industry sources.

'Comparative to the general rates quoted in the industry, our room rates will increase relatively by about 2-3 times the usual rate during the week of the race,' said a spokeswoman for Marina Mandarin Singapore.

A sample survey done by DBS Vickers Securities last November showed that room rates could be expected to increase by about 114 per cent year-on-year in 2008 during the race period. For trackside hotels during peak race weekdays, the rates hike will be even greater - up to 311 per cent - the survey showed.

Rates will also be raised by supply-side factors. On the back of surging tourist arrivals, the average occupancy rate has climbed from 74 per cent in 2002 to over 80 per cent in 2006 and 2007. For 2008, it is expected to be close to 90 per cent. This is because growth in room stock has been relatively flat, while the demand for rooms has increased.

The situation, said DBS Vickers, has been exacerbated by significant underinvestment from 2002 to 2006. Room stock as of end-2006 stood at 30,476, relatively unchanged from 30,468 rooms at end-2002.

'On the basis that Singapore is on track to meet its target of 17 million visitors by 2015 . . . the demand-supply imbalance for hotel rooms is expected to worsen in the next few years, leading to further upside in room rates which bodes well for hotel operators,' said the research firm in a recent note.

The bulk of future supply is tipped to come on-stream between 2009 and 2010. Upon completion in 2009, the Marina Bay Sands is projected to add around 2,600 rooms to supply, while about 1,800 rooms are expected from the Resorts World at Sentosa when it opens in 2010.

In the near term, however, the industry does face one big challenge - labour shortage.

'For our industry, we usually have to look overseas to hire some of the staff as well as hiring foreign talents for some of the departments,' said Swissotel's Mr McAuley.

Said Marina Mandarin: 'In the next few years, we will start to face a shortage of manpower in the hospitality industry, fuelled by the integrated resorts coming on stream.'

With other hotels reporting the same problems, high up on hoteliers' wish-list for 2008 is government action to allow more foreign workers to be hired in the service sector - such as extending the Work Permit scheme to non-traditional sources including China and Indonesia.

Phoenix Site To Rise Again As Hotel-Retail Complex

Source : The Business Times, January 11, 2008

Straits Trading in talks to redevelop site; new complex to roll out in 2011

A new 580-room hotel and a retail complex with a net lettable area of about 150,800 square feet is slated to come up on the Specialists' Shopping Centre and Hotel Phoenix site in 2011.

OCBC Bank, which owns the land parcel, told BT yesterday that work on the site is likely to start in the second half of 2008 and will take about three years to complete.

The upcoming hotel will occupy about 60 per cent of the complex's gross floor area and the remaining 40 per cent will be taken up by retail shops. The complex will have about 262 parking lots, OCBC said. Right now, the complex has a gross floor area of about 539,000 sq ft.

OCBC was responding to queries from BT after Straits Trading Company said in a filing to the Singapore Exchange that it is in 'advanced negotiations' with the bank to be appointed to develop a hotel and retail complex at the Specialists' Shopping Centre and Hotel Phoenix site.

Under the deal, a wholly owned special-purpose vehicle (SPV) of Straits Trading will fund and build the complex based on a maximum development cost, which will be agreed on between Straits Trading and OCBC.

Once the complex is completed, Straits Trading will then sell the SPV to OCBC and at the same time lease the complex for a period of three years - with an option to renew for a further three years at an agreed fixed annual rent. The terms of the arrangement are currently being discussed and negotiated, Straits Trading said.

Structuring the deal this way minimises development risk for OCBC. 'As a bank, we believe that it is inappropriate for us to assume development risk,' said Koh Ching Ching, head of group corporate communications for OCBC Bank.

OCBC appears to be going ahead with its plans to develop its Specialists' Shopping Centre and Hotel Phoenix complex - rather than working with its insurance subsidiary Great Eastern Holdings, which owns shopping mall Orchard Emerald just across the road.

OCBC and Great Eastern seemed poised to redevelop the Specialists' Shopping Centre and Hotel Phoenix complex together with Orchard Emerald just a few months ago, judging by the two companies' submissions to the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA).

Data released by URA last October showed that provisional permission for the development of the two properties was given in August 2007.

But yesterday, OCBC said: 'Orchard Emerald is held by the Great Eastern Group and we believe that Great Eastern is at a very preliminary stage with regard to this potential redevelopment.'

Straits Trading, one of Singapore's oldest companies, is now seeing a buyout offer from Tecity Group, an investment firm owned by several members of the family that have stakes in OCBC.

Tecity offered on Sunday to buy all Straits Trading shares it did not already own for $5.70 a share - valuing the company at some $1.86 billion.

OCBC, which has direct and indirect interests totalling 26 per cent of the shares in Straits Trading, said on Monday that it has not decided whether to accept the buyout offer. About 20 per cent of the shares are held by Great Eastern.

Analysts said that OCBC's plan to launch a new hotel in place of the ageing Hotel Phoenix is timely as Singapore will continue to see a shortage of hotel rooms over the next few years due to increasing visitor numbers.

OCBC's shares shed 14 cents to close at $8.10 yesterday, while shares of Straits Trading rose one cent to close at a one-year high of $5.67.

CityVibe Put Up For Sale At $140m

Source : The Business Times, January 11, 2008

CITYVIBE, a new three-storey retail and entertainment complex opposite Clementi station and next to the future Clementi Central Hub, is for sale through an expression of interest exercise at an asking price said to be $140 million.

CityVibe: The retail and entertainment complex in Clementi will be built between February and November

This could work out to a 5-5.25 per cent net yield for the property, which will have a net lettable area of 26,581 sq ft, sources say.

Developer Grandview has obtained official approval to redevelop the existing property on the site - a two-storey building that used to house a theatre - into the new complex.

Using construction methods that involve more steel and less concrete, CityVibe will be built between February and November this year, according to Jones Lang LaSalle, which is handling the sale of the property on a completed basis.

JLL is also the marketing agent for leasing of the units in the new building.

Grandview's shareholders are Victor Boh See Fook, Eric Cheng Kwee Kiang and Woon Yong Thai.

CityVibe will be developed on a site with a remaining lease of about 70 years. Grandview is believed to have bought the asset a few years ago.

Asked about potential competition that retailers at CityVibe will face from the adjacent Clementi Central Hub when it is completed in 2010, JLL's regional director and head of investments Lui Seng Fatt said: 'Clementi Central Hub will be a magnet for the whole area and benefit CityVibe as well.

'In any case, the location has a very strong catchment not only from the surrounding HDB estate but also from nearby tertiary institutions such as National University of Singapore, Singapore Polytechnic, Ngee Ann Polytechnic and Singapore Institute of Management.'

JLL expects the expression of interest exercise for CityVibe, which closes on Feb 1, to attract local and foreign investors because it offers an investment-grade retail property in the HDB heartland.

The site is zoned for commercial use with a 40:60 split between retail/F&B and entertainment/office use. CityVibe has been exempted from providing carpark lots because there is sufficient parking nearby, JLL said.

Analysts Allay Fears Of Declining US Dollar

Source : Channel NewsAsia, 10 January 2008

Market-watchers said they still expect the Monetary Authority of Singapore to allow the Singapore dollar to appreciate faster against the greenback.

That's even though there are concerns that a stronger currency will hurt exports and in turn weigh on economic growth.

Analysts said they are optimistic the economy can hold its own as Singapore is now more diversified.

And with construction and services sectors at a boom, the city-state is expected to hold up.

Thio Chin Loo, Senior Currency Strategist of BNP Paribas, said: “The prospect still looks fairly good given that on the construction side we have several big projects in the pipeline and on the services industry as well, we do expect the financial services industry, tourism and related industries to hold up fairly well."

Even in its trade links, analysts said Singapore is now less dependent on its exports to the United States.

They noted that trade within Asia has picked up significantly alongside an increase in non-electronic exports like pharmaceutical products going to Europe.

The Sing dollar is expected to be allowed to appreciate at a faster clip to dampen inflationary pressures.

Some market-watchers are calling for the Sing to hit S$1.34 by the end of 2008 which translates into a gain of more than 6 per cent.

And it's not just the Sing dollar that's expected to climb.

Other regional currencies are also expected to show strength.

"I think some of the ASEAN currencies, for example the Sing dollar, the Ringgit and the Philippine peso are still very much in investors radar screens because the fundamental strength of the economies are there," said Mr Thio.

In the meantime, prices of oil and other commodities are expected to remain high.

Vishnu Varathan, Regional Economist of Forecast said: "A weaker US dollar creates a conducive environment for rallies in commodity prices and oil prices and these will be the major factors. I think this will be the over-arching factors that push inflation upwards.

Inflation in Singapore has been forecast to hit as high as 5 per cent in the first six months of 2008 before easing off in the second half. -CNA/vm

Why Only A Footnote For Hsien Yang's Appointment?

Source : TODAY, Friday, January 11, 2008

Tucked away on Page 60 of Fraser and Neave's 200-page annual report and stated in a matter of fact of way is the announcement that one of the most talked about corporate agreements with a high-profile company chieftain has been dissolved.

In just one paragraph in that report, which was released to the media on Tuesday, the public-listed heavyweight said non-executive chairman Lee Hsien Yang's $1 million-a-year consultancy agreement is being ended by mutual consent.

The $1 million will now be paid as director's fee in addition to the $250,000 he will get a year as chairman.

What an anti-climactic way to try and bring closure to a story that hit the headlines four months ago raising issues like possible conflict of interest, accountability and transparency, points raised in a Weekend Today cover report.

A company spokesperson, when asked if the announcement could have been made in a more public way because of how the original announcement on Sept 5 last year was received, said: "The annual report is a public document which we give the SGX, shareholders and is available on our website. Hence, it cannot be more public."

Allow me the liberty to analyse the spokesperson's words and this is what they mean: We have informed the public through the legally-required channels. That is it, we have discharged our responsibility.

F&N did discharge its duty as far as its legal responsibility was concerned. And it did the right thing to end the consultancy agreement because the appointment of one man as chairman and consultant was going to create some awkward situations for staff down the line.

But what about the way Tuesday's announcement was communicated to the public?

Since Mr Lee's appointments became one of the corporate talking points of last year, the blue chip company could have won some brownie points if it had come out with a separate statement giving reasons for its decision to collapse the two roles.

It could have provided answers to questions like: Why incorporating the two roles into one was not thought of in the first place? Why did it take them three months to make the change? Was it just a case of "simplifying matters", as the annual report explained?

The spokesperson said the change will result in greater transparency and accountability as the director fees will have to be approved by shareholders at the annual general meeting on Jan 31. But, why was greater transparency and accountability not evident in October?

A great opportunity to take corporate disclosure to a new level was lost.

Having said that, F&N has taken the right step in making this move, whatever the official reasons it has given for the change of mind.

Mr Lee deserves the $1.25 million F&N wants to pay him. The company should be applauded for keeping a corporate talent in Singapore and not losing him to foreign shores.

Now all that is left is for the shareholders to say yes to the payment. And for Mr Lee to get on with his work and chart a new course for the property, food and beverage and publishing giant — the way he did with SingTel when he was its CEO. - TODAY/ra

Banyan Tree Signs Contract To Manage UAE Resort

Source : Channel NewsAsia, 10 January 2008

Banyan Tree has signed a management contract to operate a resort on Saraya Islands in the United Arab Emirates.

This will be the luxury resort operator's 12th resort in the Middle East.

The resort will have 150 suites overlooking the Persian Gulf.

It is expected to be completed in 2011.

No financial details of the deal were given. - CNA /ls

Straits Trading, OCBC To Name Vehicle To Oversee Orchard Rd Project

Source : Channel NewsAsia, 10 January 2008

The Straits Trading Company said it is in advanced talks with OCBC with regards to the redevelopment project at Specialists' Centre and Hotel Phoenix.

In a statement to the SGX on Thursday, Straits Trading said the two parties are working out arrangements for a Straits Trading special purpose vehicle to undertake the project.

On completion of the project, Straits Trading will sell the special purpose vehicle to OCBC. It will then lease the new hotel-cum-retail complex on the site from OCBC for three years with an option to renew for a further three years.

The statement followed the announcement from Straits Trading earlier this month that The Cairns plans to make a general offer for Straits Trading.

The Cairns is controlled by the family of the late Tan Chin Tuan. - CNA /ls