Thursday, July 24, 2008

US House Passes Housing Bill; Bush Lifts Veto Threat

Source : The Straits Times, July 24, 2008

WASHINGTON - THE United States House of Representatives passed a massive housing rescue bill after the White House dropped a threatened veto, paving the way for passage of measures aimed at shoring up the worst US home market since the Great Depression.

Withdrawal of the veto threat spurred investors to snap up shares and bonds of mortgage finance companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which would receive an emergency government lifeline under the election-year bill.

Approved on a 272-152 vote, the bill now moves to the Senate, where approval was expected within days, with the precise timing of a final vote still uncertain.

The bill had been in the works for months, but took on greater urgency as concerns about Fannie and Freddie's finances began to rattle global financial markets earlier this month.

Ten days ago, the US Treasury pledged an unspecified credit line for the companies and said it would buy their stock, if needed, to bolster investor confidence. Those emergency measures required congressional approval.

The two companies, which own or guarantee almost half of the US$12 trillion (S$16 trillion) in US mortgage debt outstanding, have recorded heavy losses in the past year amid rising defaults.

If they were unable to keep financing mortgages, analysts say the already weak housing market could grind to a halt, tipping the US economy into a deep recession.

No time to wait
A White House spokesman earlier said President George W. Bush would sign the bill because it is needed urgently to address the housing and credit crisis, despite concerns about a provision that would provide grants to communities to buy and repair foreclosed homes.

'We do not believe we have time for a prolonged veto fight,' spokesman Dana Perino said.

Lawmakers have moved with unusual speed since the Treasury proposed the financial backstop for the two companies.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he wanted to send the measure to the president on Wednesday, but cautioned Republican lawmakers could still stall it.

South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and six other Republican senators on Wednesday told Mr Reid in a letter they want to amend the bill with a measure to block Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac from using taxpayer dollars for lobbying.

On the Senate floor late on Wednesday, Mr Reid said to DeMint: 'If your amendment is made part of what we're going to do here and this legislation is changed, it goes back to the House again and we have a process that seems never-ending.

'I don't think we should send this back to the House. I think we should complete it here.'

Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson said he recommended that Mr Bush drop his objections to the bill because reforms for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the country's two biggest mortgage finance companies, were too important.

'What we're doing with the (companies) is orders of magnitude more important than any of the other parts of this housing legislation,' Mr Paulson told reporters.

In a further sign that market concerns about the companies are relaxing, risk premiums on debt issued by the two companies narrowed. Priya Misra, an interest rate strategist at investment bank Lehman Brothers, said the legislation 'makes it easier for them to raise capital'.

Fannie Mae on Wednesday sold US$3 billion in short-term debt at higher interest rates than a week earlier. The rates, however, rose less than a benchmark investors use to judge value, showing decent demand for the deal.

Stronger regulator
Congressional budget analysts have put a US$25 billion potential price tag on provisions to bolster Fannie and Freddie, but said there was potential for the cost to vary widely.

Both Mr Paulson and the companies have said the credit line was just a backstop and they had no intention of using it.

In addition to that backstop, the bill would set up a new regulator for the companies and raise the size of mortgage loans that they and the Federal Housing Administration can guarantee. It would permit the FHA to refinance up to US$300 billion in mortgages facing foreclosure.

A new regulator for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the result of years of debate over reining in the powerful government-sponsored enterprises, would have broadened authority to set capital requirements. The Federal Reserve would have a 'consultative role' in setting those requirements and ensuring the soundness of the mortgage enterprises.

The bill also contains an increase in the Treasury's borrowing authority. This hike was sketched out in a fiscal 2009 budget blueprint that cleared Congress earlier this year.

The current debt limit is set at US$9.815 trillion. Under the bill, it would be increased to US$10.615 trillion to accommodate the federal government's continued deficit spending.

Currently, the public debt is around US$9.5 trillion. -- REUTERS

Fed: US Hit By Double Whammy Of Slower Grow, Rising Prices

Source : The Straits Times, July 24, 2008

WASHINGTON - THE United States slogged through slower economic growth and rising prices during the summer, packing a double whammy to consumers and businesses alike.

The Fed's new snapshot of business conditions, released on Wednesday, also underscored the challenges confronting Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues as they try to get the economy back on track.

For now, many economists predict the Fed will probably leave a key interest rate alone when it meets next on Aug 5 - given all the economic crosscurrents. Boosting rates to fend off inflation would hurt the fragile economy and the already crippled housing market. On the other hand, the Fed isn't inclined to lower rates because that would aggravate inflation.

Growth and inflation barometers turned worse in the summer, according to the Fed report. Some worry that the US may be headed for a bout of stagflation, that toxic combination of stagnant growth and stubborn inflation last seen in the 1970s.

Mr Bernanke has said, however, that he doesn't believe the economy will suffer from stagflation.

Information from the Fed's 12 regional banks around the country suggested that 'the pace of economic activity slowed somewhat since the last report' issued in June, the Fed report said.

Consumer spending - the economy's lifeblood - was reported as 'sluggish or slowing' in nearly all the 12 Fed regions, although the government's tax rebate checks spurred sales for some items, especially electronics. Sales at many other stores, particularly for housing-related goods, were typically characterised as 'weak or falling', however.

Looking ahead, 'the outlook for retail activity was also generally downbeat', the Fed report said. Sales expectations were described as 'grim' among retailers in the Dallas Fed region and 'subdued' in the Atlanta region.

Auto sales, meanwhile, were characterised as 'almost uniformly weak' across all Fed regions. Sales were especially poor for gas-guzzling SUVs, trucks and some minivans.

On the manufacturing front, activity declined in many Fed regions. Production of housing-related goods, such as construction equipment, wood products, home furnishings and heating and cooling systems were particularly hard hit. On the positive side, though, overseas demand for US exports remained 'generally high'.

The drooping value of the dollar, which makes US-made goods and services cheaper and more attractive to foreign buyers, has helped to boost export growth. That export growth has been a key force keeping the economy afloat.

The Dallas region noted strong overseas sales of high-tech products. The Fed regions of Cleveland, Richmond, Chicago and Kansas City all reported continued high demand for exports.

Meanwhile, food manufacturers in the Fed's San Francisco region said they are continuing to operate at, or near, full tilt because of persistently high demand.

Turning to inflation, all Fed regions described 'overall price pressures as elevated or increasing', the Fed report said.

Businesses continued to be hit by rising prices for fuel, metals, food and chemicals, among other things. Many Fed regions said manufacturers planned to raise prices to customers as a way of coping with the higher production costs. Some worried about a drop in customer demand and overall sales volume because of price hikes.

Some companies in the Philadelphia Fed region indicated that sluggish demand has made it difficult to raise prices. Meanwhile, some businesses in the Atlanta region were hesitant to pass along their higher costs as price increases because of cutbacks in discretionary spending by consumers.

Retail prices went up in several Fed regions. In the Kansas City region, for instance, companies reported higher prices at hotels, restaurant and resorts. Chicago retailers reported raising prices charged to consumers in response to higher wholesale prices.

By contrast, the Fed regions of New York and Cleveland reported relatively stable retail prices. One major retail chain in New York said that while costs under existing contracts were not up substantially, 'some escalation in prices was expected within the next year', the Fed report said.

The government last week reported that consumer prices in June rose at the second-fastest pace in a quarter century. Wholesale prices went up sharply, too.

On the jobs front, most Fed regions said employment conditions were about the same or slightly weaker. Employers have cut jobs for six straight months as they try to keep work forces lean amid the economic slowdown. Housing, credit and financial problems all have weighed on growth. The unemployment rate, at 5.5 per cent in June, is expected to climb in the months ahead.

Wage pressures, meanwhile, were described as 'generally modest'. Economists look to wages for clues about inflation.

Businesses in the Fed regions of Cleveland, Atlanta, Chicago and Kansas City reported very little upward wage pressures, except for very skilled workers and those in the energy field. But the Boston and Dallas regions said more workers were requesting higher wages to supplement cost of living increases.

Mr Bernanke has said he doesn't see a repeat of the 1970s-style situation where workers demanded - and got - higher wages to keep up with ever-rising prices. But Mr Charles Plosser, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, has warned that the Fed shouldn't wait for signs of something like that to emerge before taking corrective action.

Mr Plosser, an inflation hawk, has warned that the Fed might need to start to raise rates sooner rather than later to thwart inflation - even if the economy stays fragile.

The Fed's survey is based on information supplied by the its 12 regional banks. The information was collected before July 14. -- AP

S'pore Voted Best Place To Live In For Expats

Source : The Straits Times, July 24, 2008

SINGAPORE has emerged the best place to live in the world in a survey of more than 2,000 expatriates by HSBC Bank.

The city-state also ranked first for quality of accommodation and second for luxury living.

Singapore's safe, tax-efficient environment makes it 'an ideal location for expats to grow and protect their savings and investments'. -- ST PHOTO: ASHLEIGH SIM

Its closest competitor, Hong Kong, was ranked fifth overall, and first for an expat's ability to earn and save.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the United States came in as joint second best overall destinations, with Belgium ranking fourth.

HSBC's Expat Explorer Survey - a first for the bank - interviewed 2,155 expatriates across four continents to rank destinations based on living standards, the ability to earn and save, a country's popularity, and the level of luxury experienced.

The survey, released on Thursday, comes after human resources consultancy Mercer ranked the Republic the fifth most expensive Asian city for expatriates - up a notch from a previous survey.

ECA International, also a human resources consultancy, ranked Singapore as the best place for Asian expatriates to live worldwide earlier this year. And in a separate survey, found that Singapore has become a more expensive place for expatriates to live, but it is still cheaper than Hong Kong.

The Republic jumped 17 places to land at the 114th spot in a global survey of the costliest cities for expatriates, on the back of higher inflation and a stronger Singdollar in the past year.

But despite rising living costs, especially in housing, Singapore remains competitive compared to its Asian neighbours such as Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong, and other global financial centres like London and Zurich, said Mercer.

HSBC's head of consumer banking in Singapore, Ms Wendy Lim, said there are about 300,000 expats living in Singapore.

Singapore's safe, tax-efficient environment makes it 'an ideal location for expats to grow and protect their savings and investments', she said.

S'pore Getting More Expensive For Expats: Mercer Survey

Source : The Straits Times, July 24, 2008

It moves up a spot in two categories - to No. 5 in Asia and No. 13 in the world

SINGAPORE is now the fifth most expensive Asian city for expatriates, up a notch from an earlier survey, human resources consultancy Mercer said yesterday.

The annual cost-of-living survey did not spring too many surprises, with traditionally expensive cities in Europe and Asia featuring strongly in the top 20 cities for this year.

PRICEY NEIGHBOURHOOD: Moscow, with the iconic domes of St Basil's Cathedral, is the world's most expensive city for expatriates. -- ST FILE PHOTO

For the third year running, Moscow retained its top spot, while Tokyo climbed two spots to second, knocking off London and Seoul, which dropped to third and fifth, respectively, in the global rankings.

Singapore, which was number six in Asia last year, also edged one spot higher in global rankings this year, coming in at 13th.

'Singapore's rise in the rankings is partly attributable to the appreciation of the Singapore dollar against the US dollar,' said managing director for Mercer-Asean, Ms Su-Yen Wong.

'Another contributing factor is its continued strength as a hub for the region...this has increased demand for items such as housing, food and transportation.'

Mercer's survey, which covers 143 cities around the world, measures and compares the costs of over 200 essential items for expats.

These include housing, transport, food, clothing, household goods and even entertainment.

The rising cost of living reflected in the survey confirmed the global trend of price increases for staple items such as food and petrol.

The findings also showed a high correlation between the cost of living, economic growth and quality of life in a country.

This was more true for fast-developing Asian cities such as Singapore, where the cost-of-living increase can be attributed to the higher quality of life enjoyed by residents, Mercer said.

But despite rising living costs, especially in housing, Singapore remains competitive compared to its Asian neighbours such as Tokyo, Seoul and Hong Kong, and other global financial centres such as London and Zurich.

This has also not deterred foreign firms from setting up shop in Singapore.

'Our members are concerned about increasing rents but other costs are pretty much at world standard levels,' said Mr Nick Cocks, president of the Australian Chamber of Commerce, Singapore.

'And, overall, most of our members find Singapore a great place to live.'

Its American counterparts, however, painted a less-than-positive picture of Singapore.

A recent survey by the American Chamber of Commerce here showed that 74 per cent of its members were 'dissatisfied' with the cost of leasing offices and housing, while 95 per cent expected the cost of living to rise.

New York, the most expensive city in the US, is ranked 22nd on Mercer's global list.

宏茂桥私人组屋 3000人参观示范单位 首两小时130人登记抽签选购

Source : 《联合早报》July 24, 2008

昨天上午的一场大雨阻止不了宏茂桥私人组屋Park Central@AMK的潜在买家到示范单位参观及了解详情。

将建在宏茂桥52街的Park Central是建屋局第三个交由私人发展商设计、兴建和销售的组屋项目。联合工程(United Engineers)是发展商。  

昨天上午虽然下了一场大雨,Park Central@AMK示范单位在开放首两个小时仍吸引了1200人参观。(邓智炜摄)

由4座30层组屋组成的Park Central@AMK,共有578个单位,其中172个四房式、406个五房式,四房式售价40万元至50万元;五房式60万元至69万元,平均每平方英尺490元至500元。  

Park Central昨天上午10时发售,但由于不是周末,人潮不比文庆路私人组屋City View@Boon Keng发售日的多。不过,它在发售后两个小时吸引1200人参观,其中130人登记抽签选购。到了傍晚6时,参观者已有3000人。但发展商因登记系统故障无法提供最新人数资料。  


参观者认为 地点方便售价偏高  









Park Central的订购登记下月5日截止,示范单位每天上午10时开放至傍晚6时,公众可拨64518002了解详情。

Ascendas India Trust Q1 Distributable Income Up 12%

Source : The Business Times, July 24, 2008

ASCENDAS India Trust has reported distributable income of $12.4 million for its first quarter ended June 30, 2008, up 12 per cent from a year ago.

This translates into a distribution per unit (DPU) of 1.65 cents for the quarter, which represented an annualised yield of 8.3 per cent over the closing price of 79.5 cents of the units on July 22, 2008.

Total property income was $28.6 million, which is 23 per cent higher than the year-ago period. Net property income was $16.0 million or 20 per cent higher.

The trust said demand for its portfolio of 4.7 million sq ft of space, and hence its income stream, remained stable. The two buildings which were completed in the last half year have contributed to the bottom line, and will continue to do so as the building operations stabilise and margins further improve.

It said its high quality IT Parks continue to enjoy rental growth and high occupancy, and are well placed to weather market uncertainties due to a diversified and well-constructed income stream.

S'pore Is 13th Most Expensive City

Source : The Business Times, July 24, 2008

It is also the 5th costliest in Asia for expats: Mercer survey

SINGAPORE is the world's 13th most expensive city for expatriates, and the fifth most expensive in Asia.

According to Mercer's Worldwide Cost of Living Survey 2008, Singapore ranks above Sydney (15th), New York (22nd) and Shanghai (24th).

Mercer's survey, which covers 143 cities on six continents, measures the comparative cost of more than 200 items in each location, including housing, transport, food, clothing, household goods and entertainment.

For instance, a fast-food hamburger meal costs US$4.50 in Singapore, US$3.18 in Hong Kong and US$5.97 in Tokyo.

Mercer's managing director (Asean) Su-Yen Wong said: 'Singapore's rise in the rankings is partly due to the appreciation of the Singapore dollar against the US dollar.' At the same time, Singapore's strength as a regional hub and its 'high quality of living' have attracted talent from overseas. 'Consequently, this has increased demand for items such as housing, food and transport.'

Rents have increased significantly here. According to Mercer, a 'luxury' two-bedroom unfurnished apartment now costs US$3,539.77 a month, an increase of about 20 per cent from US$2,946.09 in 2007.

But 'luxury' rent here is lower than in Hong Kong at US$6,411.89 a month and Tokyo at US$5,128.84.

On the upside, Singapore's annual ranking has not increased as rapidly as before. Its 13th place this year is only a notch up from its 14th last year. In 2006 it ranked 17th - way up from 2005 when it was 34th.

In the latest survey, Moscow has been ranked the world's most expensive city for expatriates - for a third straight year. London dropped one place to third.

Yvonne Traber, a principal and research manager at Mercer, said: 'Although the traditionally expensive cities of Western Europe and Asia still feature in the Top 20, cities in Eastern Europe, Brazil and India are creeping up the list. Conversely, some locations such as Stockholm and New York now appear less costly by comparison.'

With New York as the base city at 100 points, Moscow scored 142.4 and is close to three times costlier than Asunción in Paraguay, the least expensive city with a score of 52.5.

Mercer noted that contrary to a trend last year, the gap between the world's most and least expensive cities now seems to be widening.

In its report, it says: 'Our research confirms the global trend in price increases for certain food items and petrol, though the rise is not consistent in all locations. This is partly balanced by decreasing prices for certain commodities, such as electronic and electrical goods. We attribute this to cheaper imports from developing countries, especially China, and to advances in technology.'

CCT Open To Sale Of Market Street Car Park

Source : The Business Times, July 24, 2008

Reit reports 23% rise in Q2 distributable income to $36m

CAPITACOMMERCIAL Trust (CCT) says it is 'open to all options' when it comes to plans for Market Street Car Park (MSCP), and these include selling the site.

Prime site: CapitaCommercial Trust has obtained outline planning permission from the Urban Redevelopment Authority to redevelop the car park into an office tower for $1 billion to $1.5 billion

The update was given at CCT's results briefing yesterday. Supported by strong rental reversions, the trust reported distributable income of $36.06 million for the second quarter ended June 30, 2008, up 23.2 per cent from the same period last year. Q2's distribution per unit (DPU) of 2.6 cents is 22.6 per cent higher than in Q2 2007.

CCT has obtained outline planning permission from the Urban Redevelopment Authority to redevelop MSCP into an office tower for $1 billion to $1.5 billion.

In April, CCT manager CapitaCommercial Trust Management Limited (CTML) said that it was evaluating the project's financial viability and funding structure, and would not decide on redevelopment anytime before mid-2009. It cited the project's size, rising construction costs, financial market volatility and the uncertain development premium as reasons for the deferment.

Responding to a query on whether CCT would consider selling MSCP instead, CTML's chief executive Lynette Leong said: 'We are open to all options.'

According to her, the development premium remains uncertain, and construction costs are still rising.

Ms Leong pointed out that the redevelopment decision may still be subject to unitholders' approval. Even if they were to reject the proposal, MSCP's value has risen because of its redevelopment potential. 'If it makes sense to sell it, why not? We will not rule out that option,' she said.

For H1 2008, CCT's distributable income of $71.92 million also outperformed the year-ago period's by 22.9 per cent. This translates to a DPU of 5.19 cents, which is 22.7 per cent more than in H1 2007 and exceeds the manager's forecast by 4.2 per cent.

The annualised H1 2008 DPU of 10.44 cents represents a distribution yield of 5.5 per cent based on Tuesday's closing unit price of $1.91.

'The outstanding numbers were largely driven by strong organic growth due to the prime quality of our assets augmented by our proactive leasing and the high standard of our property management,' said Ms Leong.

Lease renewals and new leases contracted in H1 2008 for CCT's office space registered an average rental rate increase of 193 per cent over last contracted rates, and there is still potential upside. 'Many of our expiring leases have rentals that are significantly below market and are being reviewed to market as they renew,' she said.

CCT's gearing ratio as at July 11 was 35.7 per cent, and this took into account the acquisition of 1 George Street. The property will contribute to CCT's income from Q3 2008, and brings its asset size close to $7 billion today.

In its latest asset valuation exercise, CCT's portfolio as at June 1 stood at $5.57 billion, about $463 million higher than at Dec 1, 2007. The portfolio comprised CCT's existing properties, its 60 per cent interest in Raffles City through RCS Trust, and excludes 1 George Street.

'Given Singapore's attractiveness as a global city and tight office supply, we are confident of exceeding our forecast DPU of 10.61 cents for the financial year ending 2008,' said CTML's chairman Richard Hale.

CCT will continue to seek quality and yield accretive assets, though at a more deliberate pace, given the current market environment.

CCT units rose 3.7 per cent or seven cents yesterday to close at $1.98.

Housing Legislation A Help But No Magic Wand

Source : The Business Times, July 24, 2008

NEW YORK - Washington's plan to rescue the housing market may help shore up the US economy as it copes with the worst slump in the housing market since the Great Depression, but don't look for a swift recovery.

Investor confidence has been bolstered by the government's recent proposals, driving stock price higher since last week, and economists agree the move to provide extra funding for mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac is vital.

One unintended consequence, however, has been rising interest rates as the bond market has sold off sharply since the plan was unveiled last week. That risks muting, at least in part, the broader benefit of supporting the two mortgage finance firms.

The US House of Representatives approved the housing plan on Wednesday afternoon, with the Senate expected to vote on it later.

Policy-makers and economists see the government sponsored enterprises as crucial to keeping the housing market open for business since they own or have guaranteed almost half of the US$12 trillion in US mortgage debt outstanding.

Financial markets' recent loss of confidence in the GSEs led many economists to contemplate the consequences if they were to collapse, convincing many that measures being taken by Congress were necessary.

'It's necessary and it will have positive benefits to the US economy for a period while we're in such difficult straits,' Brian Fabbri, managing director of economic research at BNP Paribas, said about the rescue package, which has also been supported by the US Treasury.

'If there is no GSE Treasury help, the housing market wouldn't just be in recession or declining, it would plunge. We wouldn't begin to estimate how low it might go if GSEs were not able to fulfill their mission.'

Mounting costs
President George W. Bush on Wednesday dropped a threat to veto the rescue bill, seeing the need to promptly address the housing and credit crisis as more important than his earlier reservations about a provision in the bill unrelated to the GSE aid.

Removal of the presidential veto threat spurred investors on Wednesday to snap up shares and bonds of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac which are privately held companies despite their government-sponsored status.

The prospects of GSE rescue had a positive influence on stocks on Wall Street. However it contributed to a sell-off in safe-haven government bonds, causing their yields to rise.

Government bonds were also weighed down by concerns over the cost of the measures to shore up Fannie and Freddie, which could potentially amount to US$25 billion, according to congressional budget analysts.

The measures would give beleaguered Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac access to an expanded credit line from the US Treasury. In addition, it authorizes the Treasury to purchase equity in the two companies if necessary.

If sustained, the rise in Treasury yields could ultimately hurt the housing market, since government bonds are the benchmark for borrowing costs throughout the economy.

Interest rates will remain a key focus for the housing market's recovery. Thirty-year mortgage rates hit one-year highs last week, eroding demand for US home loan applications, according to data from the Mortgage Bankers Association released on Wednesday.

Economists will continue watching mortgage rates but said the mild rise in Treasury yields so far was a small price to pay for the goal of financial stability that is the rationale behind the bill.

Given Treasuries' status as ultra-safe investments, it is also a good sign for the economy that their appeal is in decline, some argue.

'Anything that stabilises the financial system at this juncture is probably a contributor to better outcomes on growth,' said Neal Soss, chief economist at Credit Suisse in New York.

Still, economists caution against getting too optimistic over the legislation. The housing market has been in a steep slide for nearly three years, during which time a glut of homes for sale has swelled, ruling out any quick fixes from the current rescue plan or other sources.

'What the government does is help to draw a line in the sand and say we're not going to allow a major collapse here akin to what we saw in the Great Depression,' said Brian Levitt, economist at OppenheimerFunds in New York.

'But there's simply not a lot of stimulus for the broad economy and there's not a lot of stimulus particularly for the housing market.' -- REUTERS

Property Rates Here Leave US Execs Grumpy

Source : The Business Times, July 23, 2008

New high of 74% unhappy with cost of housing and office leases: survey

AMERICAN executives' grouses about the cost of housing and office leases here hit a new high this year, according to the latest Asean Business Outlook Survey by the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Singapore.

In its report, 74 per cent of American senior executives surveyed indicated that they were either 'dissatisfied' or 'extremely dissatisfied' with both the cost of housing and office leases.

While these costs have been a long-standing grievance for expatriates in Singapore, this year's figures are a significant jump from 2007's numbers, up from 61 per cent and 45 per cent who were unhappy about housing and office leasing costs, respectively.

While 2007 was a brutal year for average rental prices, with housing rental rates increasing 41 per cent and office lease rates increasing 52 per cent according to Knight Frank's director (consultancy and research) Nicholas Mak, there might be some respite from soaring property rentals this year.

'Over the six-month period in 2008, housing rental prices have gone up close to 10 per cent and I expect the increase in rental rates to slow down over the rest of 2008, to 10-15 per cent by the end of the year,' said Mr Mak.

Office lease rates, which have gone up by 12 per cent over the six-month period of 2008, are also expected to grow at a slower pace this year.

Mr Mak attributes this to the number of arriving expatriates slowing down and a job market that is growing at a slower rate.

American executives based in Singapore also had the gloomiest outlook on the effects of a US recession on business in Asia compared to their counterparts in other Asean countries.

Some 80 per cent of the respondents in Singapore expect the spillover from a US recession to hurt business in Asia, compared to 66 per cent in Malaysia and even 77 per cent in inflation-stricken Vietnam.

The survey, carried out in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Thailand, included 535 respondents overall, with 130 of them from Singapore.

While respondents in Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines have adjusted their regional profit expectations downwards, they were also the least cheerful in Singapore with only 53 per cent of American executives in Singapore expecting increased profits in Asean for 2008, compared to 58 per cent and 57 per cent in Malaysia and the Philippines, respectively.

Sentiments about expansion plans for their firms in Asean also took a beating in Singapore with 71 per cent saying that they plan to expand in Asean within the next two years, compared to 82 per cent a year ago.

Respondents in Vietnam were the most upbeat overall, with 72 per cent of Vietnam-based respondents expecting business expansion in Asean to happen over the next two years.

Asking Price For Collective Sale Site Slashed By 40%

Source : The Straits Times, July 24, 2008

THE owners of a site off Bukit Timah Road are trying again for a collective sale - but after slashing the original price by nearly 40 per cent because of the grim market.

They want $58 million to $60 million for Robin Court, a walk-up block of 15 flats, and No. 1 Robin Drive, a detached house that hosts a preschool.

The new price tag for the 40,518 sq ft parcel works out to $964 to $996 per sq ft (psf) of the total potential floor area of about 62,400 sq ft. This is almost 40 per cent below the $1,500 to $1,600 psf they sought during their first sale attempt last year when the property market was buzzing.

Ms Yong Choon Fah, executive director of Credo Real Estate, which is marketing the District 10 site, said Robin Court's majority owners had agreed to sell en bloc before collective sale rules were changed in October. They are re-inking the sale agreement to lower the reserve price. A developer could build 30 high-end apartments of 2,000 sq ft each. The breakeven cost would be $1,470 to $1,500 psf of floor area, estimated Ms Yong.

The site was first put up for sale in November along with Robin Star, a 10-unit apartment block that is not included in the latest sale effort.

Meanwhile, buyers are being sought for two blocks of apartments at Gallop Gables off Farrer Road. Property firm Knight Frank is inviting expressions of interest for the 38 tenanted apartments, which have been kept for investment since completion of the project in 1997.

The properties are owned by Straits Trading. The indicative price is $1,500 psf, which works out to about $4.5 million for each apartment, or $171 million in total.

Robin Court, 1 Robin Drive Relaunched For Collective Sale

Source : Channel NewsAsia, 23 July 2008

Owners of Robin Court and No. 1 Robin Drive are putting their properties up for collective sale for a second time. But this time, their asking price is 40% below their initial expectations.

Robin Court

The indicative price of the combined plots is now S$58 million to S$60 million. No development charge is payable for redeveloping the site.

The prime District 10 parcel at Robin Drive, off Bukit Timah Road, is a few minutes' walk from the newly-announced Stevens MRT station. It spans more than 40,000 square feet, with a gross plot ratio of up to 1.4.

Credo Real Estate, which is marketing the deal, said the land cost is about S$964 to S$996 per square foot per plot ratio. At this price, the developer is expected to be able to breakeven at about S$1,470 to S$1,500 per square foot.

1 Robin Drive

The new development could accommodate a luxurious residential project with a gross floor area of 62,398 square feet. It could yield 30 apartment units with an average size of 2,000 square feet each. - CNA /ls

Soilbuild Wins Site With S$13.61 Mln Bid

Source : The Business Times, July 24, 2008

Integrated property developer Soilbuild Group Holdings said on Thursday it has won the tender for an industrial site at Woodlands Industrial Park E5.

Soilbuild's bid for the 180,835 sq ft site was S$13.61 million.

Based on the maximum plot ratio of 2.5 and the maximum gross floor area of about 452,000 sq ft, the land cost for the 60-year lease site works out to be S$324.05 psm/gpr.

The total development cost, including land, is around S$35 to S$40 million.

Development of the site is expected to take about 20 months and the factories are targeted for completion by 2010. -- EMILYN YAP, BT NEWSROOM

Condo Land Falling Below Building Costs

Source : The Business Times, July 24, 2008

Developers of entry-level housing squeezed by weak selling prices and surge in construction costs

For the first time in at least two decades, construction costs for some 99-year condo sites are actually higher than their land costs. This is taking place against the backdrop of soaring construction prices and a weak outlook for the prices at which private housing developments can be sold.

Some industry watchers expect this trend for entry-level private housing to continue - which suggests that the government may have to be prepared to accept declining land bids at state tenders.

'Right now, developers can bid up to about $200-250 per square foot of potential gross floor area at most for suburban condo sites, which translates to breakeven costs of $650-700 psf. However, if construction costs continue to go up and selling prices continue to drop, there's not much else you can do except to lower your land bids. The question is what is the government's threshold for pain?' a seasoned developer said.

In May, URA (Urban Redevelopment Authority) awarded a site in Choa Chu Kang for $203 psf per plot ratio (psf ppr). 'So the $200 psf ppr mark has been tested. The next question is: Will the government be prepared to sell sites at even lower prices, say, around $150 psf ppr?' he added. This $203 psf ppr was below the construction cost of a new development on the site.

Last month's winning bid of $270 psf ppr by Frasers Centrepoint at a state tender for a plot at Woodleigh Close was also lower than the construction cost of about $300 psf of gross floor area (GFA) for mass-market condos, industry observers noted.

Meanwhile, constructions costs - after staying stagnant for several years - are now at record levels.

Construction cost consultancy Rider Levett Bucknall (RLB). said: 'Construction prices for medium-quality condominiums indicatively range from $260 psf of GFA to $320 psf of GFA in Q1 2008, and prices have risen further to $280 to $350 psf of GFA for Q2 2008,' it said. 'High demand and competition for limited resources, the lack of tendering capacity among contractors, sub-contractors and suppliers, and volatile commodity prices have contributed significantly to building tender price escalation,' the firm added.

Construction costs are estimated to have risen 20 to 25 per cent for Q4 2007 compared with the corresponding period in 2006 for average medium quality condominiums (for the upgraders' market).

While the trend of construction costs exceeding land costs has drawn more attention since the recent tender closings of Government Land Sales (GLS) sites, some observers say it surfaced as early as December last year, when Chip Eng Seng bought a plot at Elias Rd in Pasir Ris for $228 psf ppr.

In the same month, Frasers Centrepoint picked up a site at Lakeside Drive for $248 psf ppr - which was probably about equal to construction costs at the time.

Construction costs comprise not just the cost of building materials but also include factors such as workers' wages among others.

As for the mid-market and high-end residential sectors, land values would still be above their respective construction costs, although there have hardly been any land deals in these segments in recent months because of weaker homebuying sentiment.

Instead, developers have been focusing more on suburban sites suitable for being developed into mass-market private homes targeted at upgraders, as this is the sector where end-unit demand is relatively more resilient. Still, developers have had to be more prudent with their land bids.

'It's a simple equation, a function of selling price for the end-units against development cost and profit,' a property investor observes.

Buyers of mass-market condos are extremely price sensitive, while construction costs have been escalating. 'At the end of the day, something's got to give - in terms of a lower land bid,' observes Knight Frank managing director Tan Tiong Cheng.

'Developers have to allow a larger sum for contingencies because of the way construction material prices have been going up.

'The trend is likely to continue - until construction costs come down or selling prices of private homes go up again,' Mr Tan added.

For now the pressure on construction costs shows no signs of letting up. 'Given the large existing project commitments on hand, price escalation trends are set to continue for this year and may be in the order of 15 to 20 per cent,' RLB said.

Property Transactions With Contract Dates Between July 7th - 12th, 2008

Beachfront Condo In Australia From A$1,100 psf

Source : The Business Times, July 24, 2008

A BEACHFRONT home on the Western Australian coast, just a 15-minute drive from Perth, can be yours at prices starting at around A$1.5 million (S$2 million) to A$1.6 million for the smallest units.

This works out to be between A$1,100 and A$1,200 per square foot (psf).

Called The Leighton, the 45-unit apartment development by Multiplex Living is located at the former Leighton Marshalling Yards.

It is marketed by Jerrytan Residential. Managing director Jerry Tan said that so far, about 20 units have been sold.

In Singapore, four units have been sold with two bought by Singaporeans.

Mr Tan believed that the property market in Perth still promises 'capital upside'. 'Talk of the mining boom will last for some time,' he said.

Still, Mr Tan believed that The Leighton is more likely to attract owner-occupiers.

As with all high-end developments, The Leighton will come with luxury finishes like travertine floors and designer fittings. But it is the view of the Indian Ocean that will be the main selling point.

If a seaview is not for you, Knight Frank is marketing a prime lakefront property set against a mountain range in Queenstown New Zealand.

Called The Rees, the development comprises 89 luxury apartments and 23 lakefront private residences on a lake-edge site, located midway between Queenstown's airport and the central business district.

The prices for these homes range between $853 psf and $1,147 psf. The development will comprise two, three and four-bedroom apartments and three and five-bedroom lakefront residences. The homes will come fully furnished with appliances and fittings.

En Bloc Site Relaunched With 40% Lower Price Tag

Source : The Business Times, July 24, 2008

Elsewhere, Straits Trading asking $162m for Gallop Gables apartments

A DISTRICT 10 collective sale site at Robin Drive, off Bukit Timah Road, has been relaunched for sale - with a new asking price as much as 40 per cent lower in view of the current market sentiment.

Gallop Gables: Straits Trading owns two blocks consisting of 38 large apartments which are tenanted. The condo off Farrer Road has seven low-rise blocks with 140 apartments in all

The two properties on the site are now being sold for $964-$996 per square foot per plot ratio (psf ppr), a downgrade from the initial asking price of $1,500- $1,600 psf ppr when the site was first launched in December 2007.

The property was not the only one to be put on the market yesterday. The Straits Trading Company has put up for sale two blocks of apartments at Gallop Gables with a price tag of about $162 million, or $1,500 psf.

The Robin Drive site now consists of two properties - Robin Court and No 1 Robin Drive. Robin Court is an apartment block with 15 units while No 1 Robin Drive is a detached house now occupied by a preschool.

The indicative price of the combined plots is now $58-$60 million. If the developer maximises the potential of building up to 10 per cent of gross floor area (GFA) for balconies, the land rate works out to be about $964-$996 psf ppr, said Credo Real Estate, which is marketing the sites.

The majority owners of Robin Court had agreed to the collective sale before amendments to the en bloc laws took effect last October. But now, they have begun signing the collective sale agreement to lower the reserve price in view of the current cautious sentiment in the property market, Credo said.

No development charge is payable for redevelopment of the site at a plot ratio of up to 1.4, with a further 5.5 per cent in GFA for balconies, said Yong Choon Fah, Credo's executive director.

The new development on the site could accommodate a luxurious residential project with a GFA of about 62,398 sq ft and can be configured into 30 apartments with an average size of 2,000 sq ft each, Credo said.

The developer should be able to break even at about $1,470-$1,500 psf, the firm added.

The expressions of interest (EOI) exercise for the two properties will close at 2.30pm on August 14.

Elsewhere, Straits Trading is selling two blocks consisting of 38 large apartments in Gallop Gables. Situated off Farrer Road, Gallop Gables, which was completed in 1997, has seven low-rise blocks with 140 apartments in all.

Straits Trading's apartments have been retained for investment since completion. The 38 apartments have a total gross floor area of about 108,170 sq ft.

The apartments are tenanted and 'present an opportunity to purchase an income-producing investment with capital growth potential', said Knight Frank, the property firm marketing the two blocks.

The EOI for the apartments will close on September 9 at 3pm.

Newton Suites Shortlisted For International Highrise Award

Source : The Business Times, July 24, 2008

UOL's Newton Suites has been selected as one of the five contenders for the International Highrise Award (IHA).

Green living: Newton Suites features cantilevered skygardens and a 30-storey wall of creepers

Having made the shortlist, Newton Suites, which is designed by award-winning Singapore architectural firm, WOHA, has been elevated to the same league of buildings designed by Foster and Partners (Hearst Tower, New York), Renzo Piano Building Workshop (New York Times Building) and OMA (Television Cultural Centre, Beijing).

An international jury of architects, engineers, real-estate specialists and architecture critics in Frankfurt/Main were responsible for the selection of the five buildings.

On Newton Suites, the Jury citation reads: 'In this residential tower, the feeling of living in the tropics both indoors and outdoors is transferred to a vertical dimension. It represents a development for life in the vertical in densely developed metropolises and can be seen as a pioneering model for other tropical cities.'

UOL Group COO Liam Wee Sin said that being on the shortlist with the likes of Hearst Tower and New York Times Building, 'is a step closer towards building an exciting living environment for Singapore, and having a development good enough to be selected among entries from around the world'.

'For UOL, the recognition will inspire us to continue to push the frontier of good design and sustainable city living in Singapore,' he added.

Newton Suites is a 36-storey apartment building, clad in metal mesh sunshading. It features cantilevered skygardens and a 30-storey wall of creepers.

The green areas of the building exceed the original site area, demonstrating how cities in the future can become much greener without loss of density or quality of living.

WOHA director Wong Mun Summ added: 'The integration of the environmental features such as sunshading and hanging gardens into the design shows how tropical highrise can be different from temperate climate models.'

Aussie Mortgage Arrears Rise To Record-High In May

Source : The Business Times, July 24, 2008

Late repayments on prime loans increase for sixth consecutive month

(MELBOURNE) Australia's mortgage arrears rate rose to a record in May as home owners struggle to meet loan repayments which have surged with the highest interest rates in 12 years, according to Standard & Poor's.

Payments more than 30 days late on so-called prime loans increased for a sixth consecutive month in May, gaining one basis point to a record 1.49 per cent of mortgages used to secure bonds from a month earlier, S&P said yesterday in a statement. A basis point is 0.01 percentage point.

'Mortgage lenders have increased their lending rates, independent of official rate rises, due to the ongoing high cost of wholesale funding,' analysts led by Vera Chaplin said in the report. 'This has meant that there has been no relief to borrowers in recent times.'

Australia's central bank has increased its benchmark lending rate four times since August to 7.25 per cent to cool the fastest inflation in 17 years.

Banks, trying to offset higher funding costs, have raised interest rates even faster at a time when housing affordability is at a three-decade low.

Arrears on sub-prime and nonconforming loans in residential mortgage-backed securities, as measured by S&P's SPIN index, fell to 14.52 per cent in May from 14.62 per cent in March. This rate may increase in coming months, Ms Chaplin said.

'If the economy slows and living costs continue to rise, then it is likely that Australian borrowers will be put under more stress,' she said in the report.

Standard & Poor's Mortgage Performance Index measures the weighted-average arrears more than 30 days past due on residential mortgage loans on both publicly and privately rated Australian mortgage-backed bond transactions. -- Bloomberg

Two Singapore Office Blocks Sold For $40m

Source : The Business Times, July 24, 2008

Both buildings with 999-year leasehold transacted around $1,300 psf of NLA

Amid the quiet investment sales market, two small office blocks have been sold - in High Street and Middle Road - for a total of about $40 million or $1,300-plus per sq ft of existing net lettable area (NLA). Both buildings have 999-year leaseshold tenure.

Done deals: Wisma Sugnomal (left) at 75 High Street was sold for $23.5 million and the five-storey building at 33 Middle Road was sold for $16.8 million

A Hong Kong investor is believed to have bought Wisma Sugnomal at 75 High Street for $23.5 million or $1,349 psf based on existing NLA of 17,414 sq ft.

The property is believed to have been sold by mortgagee bank DBS. The mortgagor is understood to be an entity linked to the Aswani family.

The seven-storey office block, which has shops at street level, is about 12 years old.

The existing gross floor area of about 25,500 sq ft is slightly higher than the maximum allowed for the site under the Master Plan.

Fragrance group has bought 33 Middle Road, which is next to a Hotel 81, for $16.8 million or $1,324 psf of existing NLA in the five-storey building.

Market watchers expect Fragrance to convert the property into a budget hotel when existing leases to Tyndale Education Group and another tenant run out in the next few months and give the neighbouring Hotel 81 a run for its money.

Based on building's existing gross floor area of almost 17,000 sq ft, the property could house about 50 budget hotel rooms, industry observers suggested. Colliers International is believed to have brokered both deals.

Oversupply Worse than Expected?

Source : TODAY, Thursday, July 24, 2008

There is a distinct possibility of lower prices with so many developmentsset to be completed at the same time

RECENT arguments against earlier predictions of a private housing oversupply are overblown, and cannot be further from the truth. In fact, those predicting an oversupply are probably understating their case. How bad the market fares will depend on the economy. But, leaving the economic factor aside, demand and supply factors alone dictate that the market has to correct in a significant way.

But before we go into that, let us examine the construction bottleneck argument. It is claimed, with justification, that this will result in significant delays to future supply. By one industry estimate, only 60 per cent of the 30,000 units forecasted will be completed as scheduled.

But when does completion date matter when new units these days are sold off-plan, even before construction starts? What will impact prices is surely the timing of the sale. Nothing can prevent all 30,000 units from flooding the market within the next 12 months if developers choose to launch. By the same token, nothing can force developers to sell if they don’t want to.

It is easy to forget that there was very little new supply from September last year to May this year. But, in a matter of weeks, this number has probably tripled, or even quadrupled. A friend with an avid interest in properties remarked to me recently that he will need a few months just to visit all the show units.

And while some have predicted a 30-to-40 per cent price correction for the luxury/upper-tier segment, it is interesting to note that this segment actually saw far fewer launches in the past weeks. So, in the current market, the luxury/upper tier segment actually faces less competition and hence, less pressure to lower prices. However, it does not mean it is in a healthier position, as buying for this segment has dwindled to a trickle.

When does completion actually matter in the housing demand and supply equation? I would say, it is when the market is investor-dominated. When buying is mainly done by owner-occupiers, the moment a unit is sold, it is taken out of the supply equation. Supply gets depleted. This was the situation in the past. We determine whether the market is oversupplied or not by the amount of units left unsold versus potential demand.

But, when the market is investor-dominated, sold units held by investors remain in the supply equation as investors need to sell onward to owner-occupiers or have them tenanted.

By my conservative estimates, more than 50 per cent of the units sold in 2006 to 2007 were bought by investors. This is because the high prevailing prices then were beyond the affordability of most owner-occupiers. This is supported by a recent National University of Singapore study which showed that the affordability of owner-occupiers for private housing has declined significantly in recent years.

Some projects, such as The Sail at Marina Bay, Marina Bay Residences and One Shenton, as well as those on Sentosa island, will most definitely have a higher proportion of investor buyers — as high as 60 to 80 per cent — because there are few of the amenities nearby, such as schools, which are usually desired by owner-occupiers, unless a case can be made out that the majority of units are holiday homes for the super-rich, or are bought by singles. For singles, their level of affordability is even lower.

Between the second quarter of 2006 and third quarter of 2007, developers sold an astounding 22,651 units. This translates to an annual average pace of about 15,100 units, or about double the long-term average absorption rate of about 7,000 to 8,000 units. Conservatively, this means at least 12,000 “sold” units remain in the supply equation.

When these investor-owned units are completed, someone has to occupy them. If rentals then cannot cover mortgage payments and if owners are highly-geared, they will have to contemplate selling the units sooner or later.

If more owners are in the same predicament, the competition to sell will result in lower prices.

The writer is head of research at Chesterton International.