‘Panic’ Brexit withdrawals freeze US$23bil property funds

To let signs advertising office spaces sit on the exterior of commercial buildings in London, U.K, on Wednesday, July 6, 2016. Three asset managers froze withdrawals from real-estate funds following a flurry of redemptions and the pound plunged to a 31-year low less than two weeks since the nation backed quitting the European Union. Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

LONDON: UK property funds with about £18bil (US$23.4bil) of assets froze withdrawals as investors sought to dump real estate holdings in the aftermath of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.

“It’s reminiscent of Bear Stearns’ subprime funds before the Lehman debacle,” Bill Gross, a fund manager at Janus Capital Group Inc, said on Bloomberg TV. “The system doesn’t allow liquidity to flow into the proper places.

“If these property funds are just one indication, perhaps there will be others to follow. I think it’s something to worry about.”

Henderson Global Investors, Columbia Threadneedle Investments and Canada Life suspended trading in at least £5.7bil of funds on Wednesday.

Aberdeen Fund Managers Ltd cut the value of a property fund by 17% and suspended redemptions so that investors who asked for their money back have time to reconsider.

Legal & General Group Plc said yesterday it is adjusting the value of its £2.3bil property fund by an additional 10%.

Investors are pulling money from UK property funds as analysts warn that London office values could fall by as much as 20% within three years of the country leaving the EU. During the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008, real estate funds were similarly hit by redemptions and forced to halt withdrawals, contributing to a slump in property prices of more than 40% from their peak in Britain.

Wednesday’s moves brings the number of UK firms curbing redemptions to seven since the June 23 vote.

Henderson said on Wednesday it had temporarily halted its £3.9bil UK Property PAIF fund along with feeder funds due to “exceptional liquidity pressures” and the recent suspension of other funds. Columbia Threadneedle halted its £1.39 bil-pound PAIF and feeder funds and Canada Life froze four funds totalling £450mil. “The problem with open-ended funds is you do start to have panic selling, so you really have no choice but to suspend the fund,” said Jason Hollands, managing director at investment firm Tilney Bestinvest. “There’s an inevitability to this now.” Aberdeen, which marked down the value of its £3.2bil UK property fund, said it was halting withdrawals for 24 hours as of noon on Wednesday so clients who asked for their money back have time to reconsider their orders.

“Shareholders wishing to redeem will do so at a price which is subject to the above dilution adjustment in order to reflect the current market environment and the fact that short-term trading in the property market has relatively penal consequences,” the firm said.

With the real estate tremors echoing the last financial crisis, the growing fear is that failure to control aftershocks from the Brexit vote will propel the economy into recession.

The pound sank to a fresh 31-year low as the fallout continued to reverberate through financial markets.

“We can’t ignore what’s happening from a redemption request perspective or the closing perspective,” Wayne Bowers, chief executive officer of the international asset management arm of Northern Trust Corp, which manages about US$900bil of assets, said in an interview in Sydney. “You can’t brush that under the carpet. Then you’re looking at other assets that are under, or are potentially under, similar pressure.”

Investors pulled money from real estate funds in the lead up to the vote, depleting cash levels. Standard Life Investments was the first money manager to halt withdrawals on Monday, followed by Aviva Investors and M&G Investments. About £24.5bil is allocated to UK real estate funds, according to the Investment Association. There’s “a loss of confidence in the valuations being used” by fund managers, said John Forbes, an independent real estate consultant and former tax partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP who specialises in property funds. “The retail funds had cash and balances in liquid shares” to manage normal levels of outflows, he said.

Aberdeen said its funds had invested in 79 UK properties across sectors including retail and industrial. “The portfolio was positioned defensively prior to the referendum with one of the highest levels of liquidity of all similar funds and having sold all its quoted property companies investments in the week prior to the referendum and holding this as cash,” the firm said. – Bloomberg

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