Asia-Pacific economic outlook

Activity (especially in services) has been more resilient than expected in several markets, led by the US. This means that central banks, especially those in the western developed markets (DMs), will likely have more tightening to do in the near term. Our view remains that a recession is necessary for inflation to return to target levels. The timing of this has been pushed back to early 2024 (from the first half of 2023).

We think the overall interest rate outlook in Asia-Pacific (APAC) is more benign than in the western DMs, with Australia being a notable exception.

In China, the reopening rebound has faded fast. Unlike other markets, Chinese inflation remains muted and shows little sign of moving above target as the economy settles into endemic living. The surprise cut to the seven-day reverse repo rate in June was indicative of the authorities becoming increasingly concerned about the faltering rebound.

In Japan, consumer strength should continue to support growth in the coming months and fuel speculation over domestically generated inflation. Yet, the spillover from a US recession, that we expect to hit in early-2024, will weigh on growth. The Bank of Japan (BOJ) continues to view current inflation as transitory and has left policy settings unchanged. Our base case remains that the yield-curve-control policy will be tweaked in July, but the overall policy settings should remain accommodative.

While labour demand indicators continue to soften gradually in Australia, the labour market itself is still near record tight levels. Indeed, the Reserve Bank of Australia's (RBA) deputy governor has warned that the unemployment rate may need to rise to 4.5% (from the near 50-year lows of 3.55% as of May) to tame inflation. Following the surprise hike of 25 basis points (bps) in June, many observers expect the RBA to remain on a tightening path.

APAC economic outlook

Source: abrdn Research Institute; June 2023
Forecasts are a guide only and actual outcomes could be significantly different.

Asia-Pacific real estate market overview

Besides a relatively more benign interest rate outlook, APAC’s office occupier market also appears to be in a better shape compared with its western DM peers. With the exception of Australia, this is because of a faster return to office working post-Covid. More workers returning to offices in APAC is mostly to do with structural factors, such as smaller living spaces per person, and a more affordable and efficient office commute in Asia’s key cities. That said, our analysis suggests vacancy risk remains a threat in several office markets over the next three-to-five years. Seoul, Singapore and Mumbai may be the exceptions here.

Property yields in Australia and Korea have risen the most in APAC, especially for warehouses and offices. Investment sentiment is cautious, and prices have adjusted, especially in the case of Sydney and Melbourne’s central business district (CBD) offices, and logistics in Greater Seoul. That said, recent transactions do not suggest there is widespread distress yet. In the case of Sydney and Melbourne’s CBD offices, some of the wider discounts to book value transacted could be attributed to asset-specific issues, such as low occupancy and the building’s age. This supports our thesis that a faster price correction in secondary-grade assets will create opportunities for ESG (environmental, social and governance) upgrades.

Occupier market fundamentals continue to guide our preferences and we are most positive on certain aspects of the market. These are highlighted below.

Seoul's offices: Occupier market fundamentals remain solid, with record-low vacancy rates, limited near-term supply and robust leasing demand. Domestic information and communication technology firms have been particularly active in leasing additional space. While the supply pipeline is expected to pick up in four-to-five years’ time, we expect vacancy rates to remain tight relative to history even with conservative assumptions.

Australia's industrials and logistics: Record-low vacancy rates in many cities, at 1% or less, will continue to support rental growth, albeit at a slower pace. We also expect expanding yields to translate into more attractive entry points for investors as interest rates continue to climb.

Singapore's industrials and logistics: Limited near-term supply and robust demand for modern ramp-up facilities are supportive of further rental growth, despite a weak external environment for trade. This remains one of the few markets where the yield still offers an attractive positive carry to borrowing cost, even though it comes at the expense of a shorter land tenure.

Outlook for risk and performance

While our base case remains that the overall interest rate outlook is more benign in APAC (ex-Australia), compared with the western DMs, capital returns from real estate will continue to be challenging over the next 12 months. This is especially the case for Sydney and Melbourne’s CBD offices, and logistics in Greater Seoul where the short-term occupier market fundamentals are also poor. Beyond the immediate 12 months, we expect lower interest rates to support better capital returns. This is particularly the case for Seoul and Singapore's offices, where the occupier market outlook remains solid despite the expected recession.

Macroeconomic drivers will continue to have a bigger impact on real estate’s near-term performance. The risks to our base case include:

  • On the downside, a ‘no landing’ or the ‘Federal Reserve has two bites of the cherry’ scenario, whereby inflation remains elevated, and policymakers are forced to rapidly tighten again after a pause. This would imply higher interest rates for longer. Importantly, we think this could also result in a later but deeper recession.

  • On the upside, a more significant policy easing in China than we are currently expecting could more forcefully unlock household and market confidence. This would provide a near-term boost for assets in Greater China, Singapore and Korea. The flipside is that higher inflation suggests any upside in rents could be more than offset by lower capital values, as borrowing costs are kept higher for longer.

Asia-Pacific total returns from June 2023

Source: abrdn, June 2023
Forecasts are a guide only and actual outcomes could be significantly different