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The age of uncertainty: How interesting times are making life tough for property pundits in 2023

  • Written by Peter Rose, Director at Forbury

Given the abundance of unknowns, predicting how and when the market will move has become a mug’s game.

Anyone else tired of speculating about when interest rates will stop rising, and how quickly Australia’s commercial property sector will start to enjoy the inevitable upswing, when they do?

As a property industry lifer with three decades and counting of investment, development and prop-tech experience under my belt, I’m struggling to recall a time of greater uncertainty – and one in which it’s been as difficult to forecast how the market will be travelling, six and 12 months from now.

Last year’s forecast

Late 2022 saw me predicting we’d be in bargain hunter heaven by the middle of this year. I reasoned we’d be seeing interest rates plateauing by that time and counter-cyclical buyers making the most of a temporary opportunity to snap up distressed or also-ran assets at deep cut discounts, from portfolio managers needing to increase their liquidity.

Fast forward a few months and that scenario is yet to unfold. It’s already nearly Easter and all signs suggest the Reserve Bank’s not yet done with its death-by-a-thousand-25-basis-points rate rises.

With unemployment sitting at just 3.5 per cent in February and an inflation rate that reached 6.8 per cent in the year to February 2023, further increases seem likely, as the year wears on.

Construction challenges

Meanwhile, the construction industry, long a barometer for the health of the wider property sector, continues to contend with a confluence of extraordinarily challenging conditions. They include supply chain disruptions, rising material costs and a skilled labour shortage that’s blown out budgets and sent a string of developers and builders to the wall.

While lag times can be long, particularly in the commercial and industrial arenas, a slowdown will inevitably be in the offing, if construction companies find themselves unable to turn a profit. The effect that will have on the value of existing assets remains to be seen.

Tense times

Beyond the domestic sphere, geo-political tensions continue to have a material impact on economies around the world. From the war in Ukraine to the deteriorating relationship between the US and China, it’s starting to look like the peace dividend we’ve collectively enjoyed since the cold war ended three decades ago will cease to be paid.

Australia’s commitment to invest an unprecedented $368 billion in a nuclear submarine fleet, as part of the AUKUS treaty, may well be a powerful portent of what’s to come: greater security spending in response to increased geo-political risk and economic growth that slows apace.

The question of climate change

And then there’s the climate change factor – the joker in the pack whose impact is now being felt, hard and often. From cyclones in New Zealand to continual, catastrophic flooding up and down the Australian coast and across the Top End, extreme weather events are now here for good and all.

They’re rendering some assets astronomically expensive to insure and others uninsurable at any price; a development that’s already having a very real impact on property values and investment decisions.

It’s a trend that still has a long way to run, and that means the market still has plenty of adjusting to do, to accommodate the cold hard actuarial facts now coming into play.

Identifying value in uncertain times

American oil tycoon J Paul Getty famously observed that ‘without the element of uncertainty, the bringing off of even the greatest business triumph would be dull, routine and eminently unsatisfying’.

Property professionals whose business it is to anticipate the movements of the market and make investment decisions accordingly might, however, take the view that one can have too much of a good thing!

What is certain though is this: possessing accurate information makes it easier to pick winners.

At Forbury, tracking the value of real estate assets is our raison d’etre. As the interesting times roll on, we’ll continue to keep a weather eye on the multitude of factors that collectively determine when and how quickly the market moves up or down.

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