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A $100 Billion Bet on China’s Economy Sours as Warehouses Empty

  • Vacancies are climbing at many logistics and industrial parks
  • E-commerce slowdown, company offshoring slams landlords
A JD.com logistics facility in Shanghai.Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

In many parts of China, the warehouses and industrial parks that used to be a magnet for international investors are grappling with a surprising slowdown in business activity.

Logistics hubs that were built in anticipation of a long-lasting boom in e-commerce, manufacturing and food storage are losing tenants, forcing building owners to slash rents and shorten lease terms. Shares of real estate investment trusts that own China commercial properties have plummeted, and some of their managers expect their rental income to fall further.

Average vacancy rates at logistics properties in east and north China are approaching 20%, the highest in years, according to real estate consultancies. More warehouses are being built, which is making the problem worse. “We are looking at a supply glut in logistics and industrial properties in China,” said Xavier Lee, an equity analyst at Morningstar who covers the real—estate sector.

The deterioration has been disappointing for property owners that were counting on an economic rebound in China this year. Global institutions have collectively invested more than $100 billion in warehouses, industrial buildings, office towers and other Chinese commercial real estate over the past decade, according to data from MSCI Real Capital Analytics. The foreign investors include Blackstone Inc., Prudential Financial Inc.’s PGIM, Singapore’s GIC Pte. and CapitaLand Group, and many others.

Money Magnet

Investments in China commercial real estate* peaked during the pandemic

Source: MSCI Real Capital Analytics

Note: * Income-generating assets include office, retail, industrial, hotel, apartments, seniors housing and care. Data only includes deals of at least $10 million.

A few institutions are contemplating divestments of their worst-performing assets before rents fall further. Others intend to wait out the downturn and expect to make money in the long run.

“The best locations are still resilient,” said Hank Hsu, CEO and co-founder of Forest Logistics Properties, which owns warehouses and distribution centers at major transportation hubs in Beijing, Shanghai, Wuhan and other Chinese cities.

Six-year-old Forest Logistics has about $2.5 billion in assets under management from investors that include private equity firms, insurance companies and pension funds. It counts Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com Inc., courier SF Express, and multinational consumer products makers among its customers.

Hsu said the recent market weakness hasn’t deterred his firm’s expansion plans, and it is planning to build another logistics facility in the southern Greater Bay area in the coming months. “We will keep deploying capital in China in the next one to two years because we consider it a golden opportunity,” he added.

A logistics park in Tianjin built by Forest Logistics Properties.Source: Forest Logistics Properties

Spending Cutbacks

China’s commercial real estate sector was a bright spot through much of the country’s housing downturn that began in 2021. It is now feeling the effects of spending cutbacks by consumers and businesses.

The softening in the logistics and industrial sectors is happening alongside an office property slump that is playing out in major cities including Beijing and Shanghai. Both slumps also partly the result of overbuilding that was powered by the large sums of money that poured into commercial real estate when interest rates, borrowing and construction costs were low.

Warehouses that were built to house e-commerce fulfillment centers, giant refrigerators for chilled or frozen produce, and spaces for businesses to hold their components and manufactured goods aren’t being utilized as much as their owners hoped. China’s domestic e-commerce growth has been sluggish, as shoppers have become thriftier. The country’s online penetration rate for retail sales is already relatively high at 30%.

Heightened geopolitical tensions are prompting companies to shift some of their manufacturing offshore, to cater to end-customers that want to reduce their reliance on China. That and a slowdown in cross-border trade have also reduced businesses’ need for storage facilities in mainland China.

Internet Sales

China's e-commerce growth has slowed since the coronavirus pandemic

Source: National Bureau of Statistics of China

High Vacancies

The warehouse vacancy rate in east China — where many logistics properties are clustered — climbed to 19.2% in the first quarter, according to data from Cushman & Wakefield. The overall vacancy rate nationwide was 16.5%, thanks in part to the better performing southern region.

The situation in China contrasts with the US and other logistics markets in Asia. In the US, vacancies have increased at industrial properties and warehouses in some parts of the country, but they are at mid-single-digit percentage rates that are below historical averages, and rents are still rising. In Asia, logistics assets in South Korea, Japan and Australia are enjoying high occupancies and rent growth.

Of the 20 major Chinese cities that Cushman tracks, 13 saw logistics rents drop in the first quarter from the preceding three months, led by Beijing and Shenzhen, with falls of 4.2% and 3.9% respectively. An additional 33 million square meters — equivalent to around 4,600 soccer pitches — of new supply is scheduled for completion by end 2026 in the country, the consultancy said.

CapitaLand China Trust, which owns malls, business parks and other properties, acquired four logistics parks in Shanghai, Wuhan and other cities in late 2021 for a total of 1.68 billion yuan ($231 million). The logistics portfolio’s overall occupancy rate dropped to 82% at the end of 2023 from 96.4% a year earlier.

The Singapore-listed REIT’s shares have lost 27% in the year to date, versus a 2.7% gain for the benchmark Straits Times Index. “We are actively engaging prospects for our logistics parks to further improve occupancy,” said a spokesperson for CapitaLand China Trust.

China's Logistics Downturn

Vacancy rates at logistics properties in China's major cities have soared

Source: Savills

Packing Up

Industrial parks in China that were designed as science and technology clusters with office buildings and manufacturing facilities are also losing multinational and local companies. The overall vacancy rate at business parks in Beijing was 20.5% in the first quarter, according to Colliers data.

In Guangzhou, the country’s southern manufacturing base, some multinational companies are shutting plants and changing their business strategies after a disappointing post-pandemic recovery.

Lonza Group AG, a Swiss health-care manufacturing company, said earlier this year that it will close a drug manufacturing facility following a strategic review. The 17,000 square meter factory started production just three years ago in the China-Singapore Guangzhou Knowledge City, a high-tech business park jointly backed by the city’s local government and CapitaLand, owned by Temasek Holdings Pte. Lonza still operates manufacturing facilities in Suzhou and Nansha, and is retaining a commercial sales organization in China.

A Chinese real estate investment trust that owns industrial properties recently saw the occupancy of one of its buildings in a Shanghai technology park drop by nearly half when a tenant — an subsidiary of smartphone giant Oppo — relinquished 19,314 square meters (207,890 square feet) of space before the end of its lease. The mobile phone manufacturer decided to shut down its chip development arm Zeku last year.

Rental Pressure

Companies now have the upper hand when negotiating lease renewals for warehouses and other properties.

“Competition for tenants is pretty intense at the moment,” said Luke Li, managing director at ESR Group Ltd., during an online conference about the logistics sector in mid-June. The Hong Kong-based real estate asset manager owns e-commerce distribution centers, cold chain storage facilities and manufacturing industrial parks in China and other countries. To keep warehouses occupied, landlords have been offering flexible rent terms, better amenities and other sweeteners to tenants, Li added.

ESR saw its revenue from the Greater China region drop by 20% in 2023 from the year before, according to its most recent financial report. The company cited weakened consumer sentiment and leasing demand as reasons for the decline.

Mapletree Logistics Trust, another Singapore-listed REIT, has also been having a difficult time in China. Rents across its 43 properties in the country fell 10% in the first three months of 2024, and some tenants have fallen behind on their rent payments. The trust has maintained the occupancy of its China logistics assets at around 93%.

Ng Kiat, the Mapletree REIT’s CEO, said on an April earnings call that the China environment will remain volatile and uncertain for the next 12 months. The trust is focusing on tenant retention and looking to sell some of its poorest performing China assets, she added. “We are trying to get greater clarity on whether we are seeing the bottom. But I don’t think we are seeing it now. We’ll have to wait for a while,” Ng said. Mapletree declined to comment.

“Everybody is cutting costs,” said Humbert Pang, Head of China at Gaw Capital Partners, an alternative-investment firm that owns real estate assets. Speaking at the same conference as Li, Pang said rents at logistics properties are not going up even though the buildings are occupied. “I think most of the logistics space owners are having a tough time negotiating with the existing or new tenants,” he added.

China Effect

Singapore-listed REITs with China assets have underperformed the broader stock market

Source: Bloomberg

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