Notwithstanding the ongoing recovery in the German economy, the challenges, particularly those faced by hotels, retail outlets and gastronomy remain substantial. The number of international tourists and business travellers remains significantly below the usual level, the continuing high level of remote working limits commuter flows and major events are still being cancelled or taking place with reduced attendance.
Last week, Frankfurt International Book Fair announced that for the 2020 event no physical exhibition will take place with the trade fair being solely digital. Experts estimate that the Frankfurt hotel and gastronomy sector will lose €55 million in turnover due to this alone. Some Christmas markets have already been cancelled, including those in Cologne and Dusseldorf. Given the challenges in the hotel sector, some investors expect that acquisition opportunities may occur.
There appears to be growing common acceptance that the major lesson learned from the COVID-19 crisis is that mixed-use properties and multifunctional neighbourhoods provide some protection from economic risks. The acceptance of remote working by companies and employees and the stronger penetration of home learning for pupils might also change the requirements families have for the layouts of their homes.
The longer the COVID-19 virus curtails daily life the more people are becoming careless in maintaining social distancing, resulting in Germany seeing an increase in the number of new infections. In order not to imperil the economic progress already achieved, the German Government decided to maintain not only its travel warnings and obligatory 14-day quarantine for entries from about 160 high-risk countries, but also extended the ban on mass public events until the end of the year, while additionally introducing a fine of €50 minimum for not wearing a protective mask where required. At the same time the financial support for employees on short-hours and the interim aid measures for small and medium-size firms were extended to the end of 2021.
Thus, hotels, retail outlets, gastronomy, cultural and other events, and the sports and leisure sector will still be unable to operate at normal capacity, with the potential negative impact on their ability to pay full rent or indeed to keep their businesses afloat. More office occupiers are openly considering hybrid working, however, as long as social distancing is required, and economic development is still beset by uncertainty there is no definite trend regarding future office demand.
According to initial figures from the national statistical office, the German economy plunged by 10.1% in the second quarter. This is by far the largest quarterly decrease ever registered-since the quarterly GDP reporting in Germany began in 1970. Compared to Q2 2019, GDP decreased by 11.7%. The negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy is much stronger than that of the great financial crisis 2008/2009. Exports, imports and private consumption all decreased very substantially, while the state increased consumption. Supported by the recent movements of the major indices, there is a common perception that the deepest point has been reached, and that GDP growth will re-commence in the third quarter.
However, due to higher numbers of new infections in recent days, fears increased among national administrative and health bodies that vacationers might return infected and that a second COVID-19 wave might occur. Testing for returners from high-risk regions are now obligatory, and in some regions preventive measures have been re-tightened.
Appetite from investors for real estate is strong with a focus on core assets with occupiers from sustainable sectors.
Despite easing of many COVID-19 regulations, most businesses are still far from operating normally. The majority of employees have not yet returned to their offices and this might not be an option before the end of this year. In many larger cities up to 50% of hotels are still closed. Annual retail turnover is forecast to decrease by 4% compared to 2019 with non-food-retailers suffering a 22% decrease, while food retailers and e-commerce have profited from an increase in sales. Municipalities’ trade tax income decreased by 28% in the first half of 2020.
The German retail association, HDE, forecasts that about 50,000 shops may close. Retailers and gastronomy are requesting a legal right to reduce their rental payment obligations due to the negative effects of the pandemic on their businesses. So far, many landlords are ready to defer payments but appear unwilling to reduce the rent levels stipulated in leases.
COVID-19 as a game changer: Studies and discussions try to explore how and to what extent the lessons learned from the forced remote working will impact the future landscape, but as yet, there is no authoritative forecast.
The German state governments are easing the restrictions on normal life and business step-by-step, but the obligation to maintain social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing and adherence to strict hygiene concepts are still affecting every area of activity. Nevertheless, general business and consumer sentiment both improved in June. The general sense is that the deepest point has been passed and recovery has started. At the end of June unemployment stood at 6.2% reflecting more than 2.8 million unemployed. New registrations for furlough support reached a peak of more than eight million people in April and has since fallen to 343,000 people in June.
As expected, office take-up figures declined in the second quarter in most markets as many firms postponed plans to re-locate or expand their businesses. However, prime rents remained stable due to a low level of supply of modern spaces. The same is true for prime office yields. Core offices rank at the top of investors’ wish-lists as do logistics assets, while high street yields and shopping centre yields increased. Most transactions signed in the second quarter resulted from negotiations which had started in late 2019/early 2020, but a revival of demand has taken place in recent weeks.
A survey has revealed that two-third of Germans are still focusing their shopping on essentials due to the obligation to wear protective masks in stores. Women in particular report that the fun of shopping is missing when wearing a mask. Against this background, the full recovery of sales seems likely to last longer than expected.
Department store chain Karstadt Kaufhof Galeria confirmed the closure of 62 of its 172 stores and staff reductions in the remaining stores. For 2020, sales are forecast to decrease by up to €1.4 billion. Although COVID-19 is not the reason for the firm’s problems, it was the trigger. Many high streets will lose their main shopping anchor. On the other hand, the closures may present the opportunity to introduce more up-to-date attractions to these prime city centre locations as footfall magnets.
Online job platform Stepstone questioned 1,200 managers on their firms’ remote working strategy after COVID-19. Whereas almost one third do not want to offer remote work, more than two thirds plan to operate a hybrid strategy. The same survey revealed that half of the managers plan to recruit staff in the next six months.
Expo Real Munich, the largest and most important real estate fair trade in Germany, plans to defy COVID-19. Last week, Messe Munich announced that the fair will take place as usual in October - however, it will be significantly smaller, and the concept will be a hybrid mix of 7,000 sq m exhibition space for face-to-face meetings and virtual events. The number of attendees is expected to be only 10% of the average of previous years. Days before the announcement by Messe Munich, it became public, that numerous large firms, who traditionally booked exhibition space, had decided against their attendance in 2020 due to COVID-19.
Deutsche Euroshop reported, that footfall in the first week of June increased in their shopping centres to 73% of the figure of one year earlier. In the German centres, May turnover was 66% of one year ago, compared to 50% in March.
Hotel booking platform HRS is forecasting falling prices for overnight stays due to less travel, with a recovery time of at least four years. Nevertheless, hotel firms assess the German market as solid.
On 3 June, the German Government agreed a €130 billion economic stimulus plan that was broadly welcomed, not least by the real estate sector. Amongst other measures, VAT will be reduced from 1 July for 6 months in order to stimulate consumers’ willingness to shop. Small and medium-sized companies who suffered significant turnover loss in April and May are eligible to receive interim aid as a non-repayable grant for their operating expenses for the period July to August.
ZIA, the major real estate representative body, and HDE, representing the retail sector, agreed a code of conduct that aims to ease lease negotiations between landlords and tenants regarding risk-sharing. Something similar was established for the members of the German Council of Shopping Places in April.
Real estate investor Deutsche Wohnen will replace Deutsche Lufthansa in the German DAX stock market index at the end of June, making it the second real estate company listed. Deutsche Lufthansa has been a DAX-listed company since the index was established and is now crashing out due to the harsh negative impact of COVID-19 on its business.
At the end of May, the expert advisory board for consumer issues flagged that approximately 10 million private households in Germany do not have any liquid savings. Should unemployment increase and short-time working last longer than expected, many households will be unable to pay their residential rents. So far, rent defaults have been low, according to information from housing associations and residential property companies. Moreover, the housing sector is believed to be impacted less by the coronavirus crisis than any other real estate segment.
Some commercial landlords reported rental default in April. Tenants of Aroundtown, excluding hotels, paid 90% of the usual monthly amount, Deutsche Industrie Reit received 87% and CA Immo approximately 81% in its European portfolio.
The Ifo-institute expects that industrial production will have decreased by more than 16% in 2020. This will reduce the demand for distribution centres and warehouses in the coming months and will reduce or stop distribution activities in existing stock. In the longer term, demand for warehousing might be boosted as manufacturers reassess their dependency on international supply channels and may opt to have a proportion of resources and products stored in Germany.
Last week, 7 more states allowed hotels to re-open for tourists, increasing the total number to 11. By the end of May, the ban on tourists as overnight guests will have completely ended nationwide, with Bavaria allowing re-opening from 30 May. Hotel operation will be subject to strict social distancing and hygiene rules similar to those applied to shops and restaurants.
This and ongoing restrictions on international tourists will limit the level of occupancy rates and turnover over the coming months and therefore also the ability to pay full rents. This is particularly the case for business hotels in the major towns. Considerations and discussions are ongoing regarding the inclusion of a ‘corona clause’ in leases in order to share risks between tenants and landlords.
Within the Government there are 2 positions regarding the regulation of working from home. Whereas the Minister for Labour plans a legislative initiative by autumn this year, which would give employees the right to work remotely, the Minister for the Economy announced last week that he does not see any necessity for such a law.
Now that retail store shutdown is history in all federal states, footfall in the main high streets is steadily increasing, however, it has not yet reached pre-crisis level. On Saturday, 16 May, footfall on Frankfurt’s Zeil and Munich’s Neuhauser Strasse was almost 40% below the level of a Saturday in January. Restaurants are now permitted to reopen in almost all states, but strict rules on physical distancing limit the number of diners to 30 - 50% of the possible number pre-crisis, and therefore ability to pay full rent will remain limited.
News emerged last week that Galeria Karstadt Kaufhof might close up to 80 of its 170 department stores in Germany. The company lost sales of more than €500 million during lockdown and expects further losses in turnover due to ongoing consumer reluctance to visit stores. As department stores are anchor tenants on high streets, closures will have a negative impact on their attractiveness as retail destinations.
The first reopening of offices took place last week. However, occupancy rates will be low for months and working from home will remain important. How work will be balanced between office and home or potential regional office hot spots in future remains an open question.
On 6 May the national and state governments agreed on a second major step in easing the COVID-19 constraints. The commitments include all shops being permitted to open immediately, irrespective of the size of their sales areas. However, the rules to minimise physical contact in private and business life will remain in force until 5 June, including directives to offer working from home wherever possible. For shops, the rules mean that the number of customers will be limited, and sales will remain below pre-coronavirus levels in the coming weeks. For real estate transactions, site inspections cannot take place for several more weeks.
All decisions on the re-openings of restaurants, hotels, cultural centres, indoor sports facilities are now the responsibility of the individual federal states, meaning that the easing route will differ from state to state.
Meanwhile investors have provided information that the lockdown reduced their rental income by 10% to 20% in April, depending on the sector composition of their portfolios. According to estimates, rental income across the 95 shopping centres managed by ECE in Germany was €85 million below the usual level. Rental deferrals in assets owned by the federal state of Hamburg amount to more than €10 million.
After an extraordinarily strong investment market in Q1, market activity cooled, with the number of contracts signed falling sharply. Purchase processes that were started in the first quarter are proceeding, but often more slowly and with purchasers asking for a lower price depending on the sector and the location of the asset.
Other transactions were stopped, potential transactions at an early stage have been delayed, as among other factors, site inspections could not take place, as well as uncertainty about the forecast economic recession and recovery and the impacts on the occupier markets. In addition, financing is more difficult, putting investors with a large share of equity at an advantage.
Due to the low number of transactions, valuation of real estate is more of a challenge than ever, as there is a lack of comparables and therefore market prices are hard to ascertain.
Impatience regarding the end of lockdown is growing steadily in the population and business and requests to re-open and for state subsidies are expressed more aggressively. Last week, three Federal States submitted a three-step plan for more easings from lockdown including the re-opening of restaurants and hotels from 11 May - under specific conditions.
Non-food shops with up to 800 sq m of sales space were allowed to re-open last week. High streets featuring these types of shops have seen an increase in footfall.
In Frankfurt for example, Institut für Weltwirtschaft reported that footfall fell to 29% of its average volume during the shut-down and returned to 51% in the first week of re-opening. However, sales reached only 40% of their normal level according to a survey by Handelsverband Deutschland. Retailers do not expect significant catch-up effects in the coming months, not least because consumer sentiment has fallen to a historic low. The trade association therefore sees the imminent risk of shop closures and an increase in vacancies.
According to a survey by ifo-Institut, half of German firms are running short-hour working: 18% plan to reduce the number of employees and 46% plan to delay investments. So far, the construction industry has not been so strongly affected, with 37% of firms running short-hour working and 2% reporting that they plan to reduce their staff. However, construction activities might see delays as workers fall ill, border closures reduce the supply of workers and hinder the supply construction material supply chain.
On 15 April the German Government and the Federal State Governments agreed to rescind the forced shutdown for non-essential retail shops from 20 April.
This easing is only effective for shops with a sales area of no more than 800 sq m and under the condition that all precautions regarding contact and distancing are implemented. Car showrooms, bicycle shops and bookstores are permitted to re-open regardless of the size of their sales areas.
However, implementation of the agreement will differ between individual Federal States in detail, for example in terms of the possible date of re-opening, whether shopping centres can re-open and the reduced area opening of large stores.
Overall, this is a first step for many retailers to re-commence operating, however, sales figures will suffer for the foreseeable future and rent payments will be paused or reduced. In the meantime, most landlords and asset managers have reached an agreement with their tenants to cope with the situation.
Restaurants remain shut down and hotels must not host tourists, with effect more than 90% of hotels were closed as of the end of March. According to Dehoga, up to one-third of all 220,000 firms in the sector might become insolvent.
Industry and industry bodies are becoming visibly impatient with lockdown and shutdown and are requesting at minimum some easing in order to get back to normal. Leopoldina, German National Academy of Sciences, worked out 9 recommendations covering all aspects of work and life for the short and long-term. On Wednesday, 15 April chancellor Merkel will discuss with the federal states when and how an exit from lockdown might start.
More than half of the German workforce is now working from home, thereof 30% for the first time. The home office is a new experience for many firms, and the virus is the catalyst bringing Germany more in line with other countries where the home office is much more common.
As it seems obvious that physical distancing measures will remain in place for longer, firms are developing strategic options how to structure office work in the short and medium terms including changes in office layout and fit-out and thinking about appropriate combinations of conventional office and home office.
Hotels may suffer for longer due to the requirements of physical distancing and lockdown on international travel. However, hotel assets will remain attractive, but pricing will remain extremely difficult while occupancy and sales cannot realistically be planned.
At the end of last week, the German Government decided that all current public health measures will need to remain in place until at least 19 April. Restaurants and shops, excluding those for essential goods, will stay closed during the lockdown to limit social contact. In addition, fines are imposed for breaches.
The Government announced that no easing of restrictions will take place until the doubling period for new cases has slowed to 12 to 14 days. However, according to economic experts, even when this happens, any exit can only be step-by-step and it is common sense to expect that 2020 (as a whole) will record negative economic growth.
Early last week, the German Council of Economic Experts published their latest forecasts, with GDP growth predictions for 2020 ranging from minus 2.8% to minus 5.4% in 3 scenarios.
Meanwhile (as of 3 April) approximately 2,500 companies have requested a loan under the KfW Special Programme 2020 External Link which provides extra liquidity aid for companies of all sizes, as well as self-employed and freelance professionals/ This includes an 80% to 90% risk guarantee by the German state whereby the remaining risk must be taken on by the firms’ banks.
However, industry bodies are calling for a 100% risk guarantee from the German state at least for the so-called German “Mittelstand”, the family run and medium-sized companies which form the cornerstone of the German economy. The Government will discuss this shortly.
Galeria Karstadt Kaufhof and Esprit, two well-known retailers have requested insolvency protection in order to secure their businesses, and Lufthansa put two-thirds of all employees on short-time working.
The situation is showing initial impacts on the real estate markets:
- High street assets have lost much of their attractiveness for investors and find it hard to obtain financing from the banks.
- The number of new requests for office space has fallen significantly in the last 2 weeks, particularly from smaller companies, and existing requests for larger spaces have been postponed.
- Take-up figures for the second quarter will reflect this. However, investors’ interest in core office properties, particularly in the major markets remain high .
In Germany's commercial property market, the most immediately visible impact of the Government measures taken against the spread of COVID-19 can be seen in the retail sector.
Most non-food retail and all leisure retail is closed. Food & Beverage outlets are only open for take-away. Some retailers are trying to shift to alternatives like delivery services, especially restaurants, even though their turnover will not be as high as usual, it will at least help their chances of survival.
The longer the resulting loss in turnover continues, the more difficult it will be for retailers to pay rent. According to the German Retail Association (HDE), 3 months without turnover would result in many medium-sized retailers becoming insolvent. Besides the obvious problem on the supply side, the consumers’ willingness to buy is also low right now, because of the economic uncertainty - see GfK consumer index External Link.
Restaurant chain Vapiano (230 restaurants in 33 countries; 55 in Germany) and steakhouse chain Maredo (37 restaurants in Germany and Austria) have already become insolvent, although Vapiano was known to be struggling long before this.
The German Government is now offering help to affected businesses in the form of:
- Tax deferrals; and