What the Russia-Ukraine conflict means for SA’s housing market

What the Russia-Ukraine conflict means for SA’s housing market

MAIN IMAGE: Carl Coetzee, CEO of BetterBond; John Loos FNB Commercial Property Finance strategist

Staff writer

South Africa’s housing property market has shown remarkable resilience in the past two years, emerging stronger from the pandemic and remaining robust during civil unrest and inflationary pressures,” says Carl Coetzee, CEO of BetterBond. “We expect it to do the same in the face of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict as well.”

This is not to say that a protracted conflict will not have an impact on the housing market, adds Coetzee.

“Rising oil prices because of the tensions in Eastern Europe may well have a knock-on effect on inflation in South Africa, leading to escalating interest rates. The South African Reserve Bank has forecast nominal 25 basis-point interest rate hikes for the next three years, but these increments may increase as inflation rises.” Bloomberg reports a strong chance of a 50 basis-point increase – the largest since January 2016 – when the Monetary Policy Committee meets on 24 March. This will take the prime lending rate to 8%.

“However, the solid fundamentals already in place will buffer against these pressures. More than a year of record-low interest rates have strengthened the property market so that it is able to withstand these geopolitical shocks,” says Coetzee.

BetterBond is still reporting upward trends in the volume of bond applications for the 12 months ending in February. “The number of application approvals increased by 9.2% over this period, while the number of formal grants increased by 14.2% – higher than the growth of 13.3% recorded for the previous year.”

As FNB reports, much of the current buyer activity is at the upper end of the market, where homebuyers are less sensitive to interest rate increases. “So, while increased interest rates may subdue market volumes, there will still be pockets of positive growth. Bonds granted for homes of more than R3 million currently account for 7% of all our formal grants, an increase of 44% over the past 12 months. There has also been an almost 26% increase in formal grants for homes of between R2.5 million and R3 million,” says Coetzee.

Rising interest rates have not dampened property prices across the board, and the average home purchase price is up 11% in the past 12 months (January data), to R1.37 million. The average purchase price was R1.2 million for the 12 months ending January 2021. Despite not being as active as in 2021, shortly after lockdown restrictions eased and interest rates hit a record low of 7%, the average purchase price for first-time homebuyers has also increased by 11% to R1.15 million. First-time homebuyers were paying on average just over R1 million for their homes in 2021.

“It is also worth remembering that property has established itself as a resilient and safe asset class, especially during turbulent times. This could lead to investors seeking to shore up their portfolios by focusing on property. The interest rates are still accommodative enough to make this a sound financial decision,” says Coetzee. Furthermore, while there’s no denying that the cost of living is rising – with electricity tariff hikes and fuel price increases on the horizon – rising inflation does have a related effect on the value of your home.

“If interest rates are relatively low, as they are now, this means that the value of your home is increasing at pace with inflation, without you having to pay that much more into your bond each month,” says Coetzee. Should the interest rate go up to 8% later this month, it will mean an increase of R617 a month on a R2 million bond, taking the monthly payment from R16 112 to R16 729. While this is admittedly an added expense at a time when household costs are rising, there is peace of mind in knowing that property is still a good asset investment during uncertain times.”

John Loos FNB Commercial Property Finance strategist said there are seemingly obvious potential impact points.

Potential energy supply disruptions in the region, in part as a result of the conflict but also owing to potential sanctions and boycotts against Russia, a key oil and gas producer, have sent energy prices rising significantly.

On March 4, the Brent Crude spot price was near $115/bl, 17% higher than on February 23, the day before the invasion began. This adds to already mounting energy price inflation pressures, the recent Brent Crude price levels being about 124% above the end of 2020 level, as evidenced with South African petrol prices skyrocketing. The Ukraine invasion looks likely to add to this fuel price inflation, Loos points out.

In addition, the escalation of sanctions and boycotts against Russia and some allies, and potential retaliation, can further exacerbate broader supply chain disruptions globally, which can have inflationary impacts.

Loos explains that while the inflation in certain commodity prices in agriculture and mining, notably gold as a safe haven investment, can be somewhat beneficial for certain domestic agriculture producers and mining companies, a Ukraine inflationary effect on local food and petrol prices, as well as a possibly more widespread inflation impact from general global inflationary pressures, is likely a negative consequence, which not only eats into consumer incomes to  a greater degree, but also because of greater upside risk to interest rates, given the South African Reserve Bank’s inflation target.

Impact on property

“Upside inflation, and therefore upside interest rate risk, and downside economic growth risk, are the basic macroeconomic risks that appear to emanate from the Ukraine war, the magnitude of which is highly unpredictable.

“Given the partial link between short-term interest rates and long bond yields on the one hand, and property capitalisation rates on the other, some negativity around inflation prospects as a result of the Ukraine conflict led to some sell-off of South African government bonds, with the average yield for ten-year bonds having risen from 9.26% on February 25 to 9.665% on March 4, ”Loos said.

Loos notes that while this is not a major sell-off in bonds to date, it does suggest that the Ukraine crisis is fuelling heightened inflation and interest rate fears, which would likely exert upward pressure on local property capitalisation rates and, hence, be a negative for property valuations.

Moreover, after recent years of rising average vacancy rates in all three major commercial property markets (industrial, retail and office), FNB’s Property Broker Survey late in 2021 was pointing towards a possible stabilisation in retail and office vacancy rates and a decline in industrial property vacancy rates, supported by some recovery in the economy following the sharp 2020 gross domestic product contraction.

“South Africa’s economic situation is fragile at best, however, so any major global recessionary impact on the domestic economy could quite easily see vacancy rates rising once more.

“While industrial property may weather an economic storm of moderate proportions, the fragile retail and office sectors, which are challenged by increasing online retail and greater remote working respectively as it stands, could quite easily see renewed weakness that could return them to rising vacancy rates and further downward pressure on rentals,” Loos laments.

All three sectors could see economic pressures greater than would otherwise be the case, because of the Ukraine crisis’ potential global economic impact.

Industrial property

Industrial property’s link to the global economy is quite strong through warehousing and logistics space used for imports and exports, as well as the local manufacturing sector’s strong trade links to the rest of the world.

 

Apart from higher inflation eating into consumer incomes that are already under pressure from a weak economy, rising interest rates lift the cost of servicing debt, further eroding incomes. The war could potentially add to these pressures that have already been mounting.

Office market

The office market is arguably the least directly exposed to the potential global economic impact from the Ukraine war, although it does house certain tenants who trade with the world.

“But its potential impact is more indirect, through the slowing economy impacting on the number of office worker jobs, in turn exerting pressure on office space demand. Higher interest rates, too, would exert additional pressure on both the landlord and tenant population,” Loos explains.

Residential

The Ukraine conflict also looks to be a source of negative pressure on property valuations. However, it is too early and uncertain to tell if the magnitude of the potential economic and interest rate impact will be sufficient to delay an expected return in the All Property Average Capital Value to positive nominal growth this year.

The negative impact of the Ukraine war will be pushing against the lagged positive impact of a normalisation in economic activity, and some economic recovery, following the deep 2020 lockdown recession.

The potential impact of the war on the domestic residential rental market is tough to call, depending on how big the magnitude is. Mild additional upward pressure on interest rates, over and above what would have been the case in the absence of war, could see additional impetus provided to the expected rental market recovery.

“We have expected that the rental market will strengthen as interest rates rise, with the economy and tenant payment performance both recovering after the hard lockdowns, and a greater group of would-be home buyers postponing their home buying to remain in the rental market for longer while rates rise.

“But for this to continue, the negative economic impact of rising interest rates, and any additional Ukraine impact, must be mild at worst. Too big an inflationary and interest rate impact exerts financial pressure on tenants, and then all bets of recovery in this market are off. Therefore, it’s a fine balance,” Loos states.

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