The confidence that Italy can continue to keep the virus under control is, today, less positive than 14 days ago. Since Wednesday there has been a significant increase in the number of daily cases - from 2,677 on 6 October to 5,724 on 10 October - following, at a slower pace, the trend of other major European countries.
This rate of new cases has not been recorded since the end of March (5,974 cases) but then a lower number of the population was being tested. Taking these facts into consideration, the Italian Government is evaluating new restrictive measures with the aim to control the rise in cases and avoid reaching the levels of other European countries. As a first measure, the Government approved a new decree last week whereby people are obliged to wear masks everywhere (also in the office). Additional measures are under discussion and will be approved soon. The areas in front of public places will be considered ‘red zones’ from 9pm, bars and restaurants must close at midnight, parties in private or public places will probably be forbidden as will contact sports. Additionally, the Government is discussing the possibility of asking companies to increase smart working for up to 70% (at present it is 50%) of its workforce.
Despite this increased level of uncertainty, the country’s latest economic performance has exceeded expectations: in August Italy’s industrial production reached last year’s level and outperformed other major eurozone economies. Moreover, output rose by 7.7% compared with the previous month - France recorded +1.3%, UK +0.3% - and it was the fourth consecutive month in which output grew by more than 7%.
Numbers in the real estate market are less positive but, also in this case, better than expected. Investors are looking at defensive investment strategies, with a strong interest for core and core + opportunities, especially in the office and logistics sectors which attracted 65% of the total investment volumes.
In Q3 2020, €2 billion was invested in the Italian market, with a total volume of circa €6 billion invested since the beginning of the year. Despite recording a decrease of 20% compared to 2019, so far volume for 2020 is above 2018 figures. The office market attracted circa 50% of the investments growing by 10% compared to the same period of last year. Logistics volumes doubled reaching the highest level in the last 4 years with yields below 5% net. Hospitality and retail registered €1.8 billion with an important decrease compared 2019 numbers due to the strongest impact of the uncertainty on the consumers and on the tourists. The ‘living sector’ is the rising star of the market, attracting over 5% of the total volumes invested in the first 9 months of 2020.
70% of Italians, last weekend, voted to reduce the size of Parliament though the approval of a constitutional amendment which will cut the number of members of the upper and lower houses (“Senato della Repubblica” and “Camera dei Deputati”). If this victory seems to reinforce the power of the populist anti-establishment party Movimento 5 Stelle, the Regional elections held during the same weekend saw 3 Regions (Toscana, Puglia and Campania) won over by the Partito Democratico and 3 Regions (Veneto, Liguria and Marche) won over by the Right wing coalition (lead by the Matteo Salvin’s Lega) with Movimento 5 Stelle losing numbers of votes across the country.
On a national level Movimento 5 Stelle should currently be at 8.9%, half compared to the results of the 2019 European Election and 24 basis points less compared to the 2018 political elections. The results of the vote reinforced the current governmental coalition composed by the Partito Democratico and Movimento 5 Stelle, reducing the probability of anticipated elections. The limited success of the right wing in this political tournament (with its populist approach against European policies and with a huge debate with the government around the potential ESM aid) is seen, by investors, as a further reduction of future uncertainty, especially regarding the possibility of Italy leaving the Eurozone. In this context financial markets reacted positively:
- 10y Bond Yields reached 0.873%v the lowest level since October 2019
- The spread with the German bonds decreased to 133 Bps the lowest level in the last 7 months
Less positive was the Stock Exchange Index, FTSE MIB, which lost circa 4% in one week due to the fear of a second European lockdown. On this subject new cases in Italy are rising but at a much slower pace compared to the other countries; the Financial Times Weekend issue underlined how the high level vigilance keeps COVID-19 under control in Italy “while few want to tempt fate ahead of winter - FT says - there is confidence that Italy’s efforts can continue to keep the virus under control”.
Signs of recovery since May are continuing to favour different sectors of the economy, from industrial production to exports. In July employment returned to growth, in August business confidence continued to increase while the consumer confidence slightly improved from 100.1 to 100.8. Italians are cautiously coming back to some form of ‘normality’ and this is also reflected in upward trends in shopping centre footfall since May, which in August reached 85% from last year (supported by a sales season that was postponed to August).
The Government has extended the emergency measures until mid-October, and next week, with the schools reopening, will be an important test for the country. Despite the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic slowly and progressively worsening (first week of September data), the number of new cases of infection remains overall quite lower than in other European countries.
The investment market hasn’t stopped, and some sellers have resumed talks with the buyers they lined up before the lockdown. After two weeks of the summer break, we recorded some deals completed for almost €700 million. More than 50% consists of a 5 stars hotel portfolio deal, sealed at the end of 2019 and acquired by the French-Italian Covivio. A prime Milan office (Via Turati 12), some logistics and small residential deals complete the post summer activity, confirming them as the most sought-after asset classes in this market momentum.
By far the most relevant property news is the launch of the sale of a Milan trophy office currently owned by Blackstone: the former Italian Post Headquarters, Piazza Cordusio, an example of an iconic asset repositioning.
This week Italy will return to full ‘normal’ activity, with the majority of the workforce returning from their holidays. This week will also be the test to understand what will happen with workers still working remotely and others back in the office. A recent survey published by Morgan Stanley showed that around half of all European workers have returned their normal jobs, with France and Germany leading the rate of return with 58%, and Italy and the UK following with 47% and 49% respectively.
The overall perception is that in Italy the situation is not clear-cut with companies either pushing smart working at the highest level and companies trying to drive workers back to the office. In a recent interview ING’s Italy Country Manager stated that “ING wants to be the first bank to give the maximum flexibility to all employees related to the possibility to choose where and when to work and stressing the focus on the results and not on the time spent in the office”. A good number of Italian multinational companies are following the same path: TIM (the main Italian telecommunication company) announced that it will strive for ‘agile’ work, Leonardo (leader in Aerospace, Defense and Security fields) is looking in the same direction, Enel and Eni (the two international energy companies) are maintaining smart working at the current level until the end of the year.
On the other hand, Milan’s Mayor Beppe Sala interviewed in July said that “it’s time to come back to work” highlighting that “there is a part of the city, which is blocked due to smart working, which cannot be considered the normality. If we consider this extreme situation as normality, we need to completely re-think the cities and to re-think cities will take time”. The Municipality of Milan is the biggest employer of the city with over 15,000 employees: Mayor Sala’s “back to the office” plan should keep 3,500 people among public workers, teachers, local police etc. working from home.
In this context it is clear that the general decision to push people back to the workplace or to continue to work remotely will depend on the number of new Covid cases registered during first weeks of September. Due to the increase of COVID-19 cases (1,365 new cases at 30 August 2020 with 20.9 new cases every 100,000 people; like Germany and UK and 4 times less than France and 10 times less than Spain) Italy has recently introduced mandatory coronavirus tests at airports for people returning from vacations in Spain, Greece and Croatia. It has also started to test ferry passengers returning to the mainland from Sardinia, where there have been numerous cases. Italy also recently shut down nightclubs and required masks to be worn after 6 pm in outdoor public areas where crowds may form.
August is the typical holiday period for Italian families and this year, due to the Covid situation, this Italian characteristic is even more extreme. National statistics say that over 21 million of Italians are on vacation during the middle of August which has been less affected, compared to the other months, by the lack of foreign tourists. The number of those on vacation in August is -11% compared to the same period in 2019; better than July (-23%) and June (-54%) according to Coldiretti (the most important agricultural association) analysis. 93% of Italians decided to spend the holidays in Italy and 25% decided to stay close to home. Another study from Federalberghi (the most important association of tourist and hospitality companies in Italy) is more pessimistic, recording 51% tourist drop in July (-76.4% foreigners and -24.5% Italians) with a potential impact on the tourist / hospitality companies’ turnover of more than -50% compared to 2019.
The areas of Italy less affected are the ones attracting domestic tourism and, on the other side, the most affected are the art cities (Venice with - 90% visitors is the most impacted) which are usually the target of foreign tourism. Federalberghi is expecting a 295 million drop in tourists (-70% compared to 2018) with a turnover decrease for the tourist sector of about €16.3 billion (-69%). Taking into consideration that the tourist sector is representing circa 13% of the Italian GDP, the potential impact on the job market is severe with already 110,000 seasonal jobs lost in June and an additional 140,000 at risk during the summer period. Investors and operators do not seem to be scared by the situation and interest in the Italian hospitality sector remains strong: on 13 August, sbe, the leading international hospitality group that develops, manages and operates award-winning brands, announced the expansion of the iconic Delano brand to Europe with the new 68 Rooms Delano Porto Cervo in Costa Smeralda, expected to open by June 2023.
In this context, with people less keen to follow the anti-Covid rules, since 6 August, Italy registered more than 400 new cases per day (except for 2 days) with a peak of 629 on 15 August. The numbers are less impressive compared to other European countries (especially France and Spain), but the Italian Central Government started to take new restrictive measures: starting on 17 August clubs remain closed, and it will be mandatory to wear facemasks from 6pm until 6am even in the outdoor areas of restaurants, bars and places open to the public (the so called ‘Movida’).
The end of July has been really hot for Italy and not only in respect of the summer temperatures, which passed 35 degrees in most parts of the country.
The front pages of the Italian newspapers covered:
- EU Recovery fund approval with a financial support for the country of €80 billion in subsidies and €120 billion in loans.
- 12.6% GDP’s drop (considered by the Italian Minister Roberto Gualtieri “Less severe than expectations” also compared with the rest of Europe).
- A new wave of migrants with a potential impact on coronavirus cases.
- Banca Intesa's successful completion of the hostile takeover of UBI Banca (creating the largest Italian bank the 4th European bank in terms of capitalisation and the 7th European Bank in term of Revenues).
- Some positive signs from retail sales, with just 1.8% decrease June 20 vs June 19 for modern distribution and from the tourism sector where the last ENIT (national tourism agency) bulletin shows that online booking for the central week of August (“Ferragosto”) are almost sold out, with 79% of the availabilities already sold.
In this sparkling context where small positive news tried to overcome the negatives, the real estate sector recorded the hottest month in 2020 with a number of important transactions; French investors lead the scene followed by a German investor completing the most important single asset logistic acquisition ever done in Italy. More specifically BNP Paribas, on behalf of different investors, closed 3 office transactions in Milan for total investment volumes of over €400 million. All assets are core / core plus offices located in the city centre or in a semi peripherical location of Milan underlining how the city’s office market is still the centre of the interest of the foreign investor. To reinforce this concept Amundi, on behalf of the Nexus fund, bought a mixed used asset in Via Dante, CBD Milan, from Hines for a price above €100 million. The logistics sector, not affected by COVID-19, has been rocked by an unusual large transaction by Italian standards: DWS has acquired a newly built Grade A logistics facility, Trecate Centre, in the Novara Province in Greater Milan, on behalf of one of its German open ended retail funds investing in real estate from Logistics Capital Partners, for a price over €200 million at a record yield. In addition, Round Hill Capital bought 35,000 sq m logistic asset in Caorso and Cromwell Properties acquired a DHL portfolio on behalf of the Korean Investors IGIS for a value of over €50 million showing, again, the resilience of the Italian logistic market.
The new instrument to support the Italian economy called ‘Decreto Rilancio’ is now law. On 16 July the Italian Senate approved the DL 34/2020 which provides financial aid for over €55 billion to compensate for the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on companies, independent and salaried workers families. The main measures are related to:
- 110% tax refund (‘Ecobonus’) for refurbishing residential units (in particular for improving the energy efficiency).
- Tax Credit for government social housing.
- Tax Credit related to rents on commercial properties.
- 50% of Municipality Tax (‘IMU’) exemption for Hotels, B&B, Camping and all the tourist assets.
- 4 weeks furlough extension.
- Specific measures supporting textile, fashion, fair, agricultural, tourism (with the ‘Holiday Bonus’) and logistic / transport sectors.
Meanwhile Italy is busy in the EU’s discussions for additional financial aid to boost internal spending without particular restrictions and without worrying about the current debt level. In particular at EU level, members are discussing:
- Seven-year budget, due to run from next year to 2027, with Brussels proposing more than €1 trillion in spending.
- A special coronavirus-recovery fund, with €750 billion fire power of which €500 billion in grants to member states and €250 billion in loans.
On these points, timing seems critical. Delaying too long could impact countries’ crisis spending. Projects in the EU budget - from infrastructural to environmental - won’t begin next year unless a deal will be signed soon. On another side, the real estate sector continues to perform above expectations. Despite H1 2020 numbers, 24% below the volumes of the previous year, investors are still keen in deploying capital in the country. A couple of interesting deals have been signed just after the closing of the second quarter 2020:
- The Korean investor JBAM finalised the acquisition of 49% stake in Pegasus fund (the remaining 51% was bought by Vittoria Assicurazioni one month ago) owning il Quinto Building in San Donato for circa €90 million (asset €195 million).
- The neighborhood Shopping Centre Primavera in Rome (11,000 sq m for a total of 40 Units) has been sold to a retail operator (Conad) for circa 6% yield representing one of the first 2020 shopping centre transactions in the Italian market.
In the June issue of the famous magazine ‘Monocle’ Gianni Riotta columnist for La Stampa closed his article about Italy titled ‘Rise Again’ by saying:
“…after the pandemic we will have to shape up, getting rid of our debt not because some zealot says so but because we will never be able to invest in the future generation. (…) the choice is there: progress or perish. I bet that Italians will make the right choice at the very last moment. Do not ask me why, I just feel it”
and this feeling, that Italy can rise again, is also mirrored in the continuous commitment by international investors in the Italian real estate market. After over €200 million invested by Deka in Milan, €350 million invested by Allianz in Milan and Rome and the giant transaction between UBI Bank and COIMA (backed by international capital), another important milestone for the Italian market has been signed in Milan, which is becoming, again, the territory of international alliances.
Australian developer LendLease and Canadian Pension Fund PSP Investment entered into a partnership agreement to proceed with a large urban redevelopment project worth €2.5 billion. The first stage of the agreement takes the form of launching a real estate fund, managed by Ream Sgr, of which Lendlease and PSP will be 50% shareholders. Two buildings under construction, Spark One and Spark Two, located in the northern area and close to the Rogoredo railway station will also be contributed to the same fund. Additionally, PSP will also become a partner for 50% of the entire Santa Giulia project - still to be developed - where sustainability (the whole project has carbon zero targets), social impact initiatives and long-term vision are combined. As part of the transaction, LendLease sold the two buildings under construction to the LendLease MSG 1 (Italy) fund through the 100% subsidiary InTown (50% of Risanamento was purchased by the Australians last February), which is worth approximately €250 million. Lease contracts have been signed with Saipem for Spark One and part of Spark Two, while marketing has just been restarted for the remaining vacant spaces.
In terms of market numbers H1 2020 showed a decline in take-up both in Milan and Rome. If in Milan the impact has been moderate with just 30% decrease compared to the same period of the previous year (but reaching the lowest take up level in the last 5 years, equal to circa 157,000 sq m), Rome received the biggest impact down by over 70% with just 44,000 sq m leased since the beginning of the year. On the capital markets side, transactions reached €3.7 billion, 26% less than the previous year, but aligned with 2016 and 2018 volumes. The market has been dominated by office transactions with over €1.8 billion (just above 2019 figures) with a focus on Milan with over €1.3 billion, just 12% below 2019 volumes. Rome, on the other side, has been particularly weak with just €220 million transacted. Despite the current situation, retail performed quite well thanks to an important transaction closed in Q1: H1 2020 volumes are just below €1 billion, twice 2019 figures, with both high street and modern retail deals closed during the Q2. Industrial and logistics performances are aligned with 2019 figures with transaction volumes north of €300 million and a strong investor commitment for the second part of the year. Hospitality had a strong impact on the transaction volume reaching the lowest level in the last 4 years but on the other side alternatives are raising the interest with volumes three times the 2019 and 2018 levels
The current Italian post-Covid situation doesn’t scare long term core investors who have been particularly active over the last 3 months.
Allianz bought a core office building in Rome for over €200 million - it’s second deal in two months - following the €140 million Sale and Lease Back in Via Armorari, Milan.
In addition, the Italian Pension Fund of the Doctor (ENPAM) through its asset manager DeA Capital SGR completed €86 million core acquisition of Mellerio Velasca buildings in CBD Milan from Kryalos SGR and a second core transaction in Rome will be closed in the coming days. Prime core assets are still attracting strong interest from investors which are focused on location, innovation, sustainability and tenant-use aspects. This approach is confirmed by Cushman & Wakefield’s Survey ‘Italian Real Estate Market - An Insight into Investors' Sentiment’, when we surveyed over 140 investors during May. Core office, logistics and residential opportunities have emerged as the most resilient asset classes, being the main focus for the majority of investors.
Italy has been judged as an extremely stable market without rapid pricing adjustments which help the medium/long-term investor view. In addition, most part of the investors are seeing a yield spread in logistic and residential sectors compared to the rest of Europe and the office sector is still being driven by quality, which is currently scarce. Key takeaways of the survey are as follows:
1. Investors are actively looking at the market trying to move into a more active investment phase and to place a significant volume of equity (82% respondents are still active on the market and capable of submitting LOIs).
2. Mismatch demand vs supply: there are approx. €20 billion of equity ready to be deployed in 2020 and 6 billion of assets to be sold.
3. Asset management activities focused on keeping the portfolio intact are investors main priority.
4. New investment strategy learns from the past to be more focused, with 74% of investors modifying their tactics by changing their projected equity allocation in terms of:
- Asset class:
- Increase: Residential 61%; Logistics 73%
- Stability: Office 55%
- Decline: Retail 80-90%; Hotels 43%
- Risk Profile:
- Core/Core plus: increase 50%
5. Re-pricing is expected across all sectors. If 70% of the investors are ready for a yield increase by year end, the scale varies among the different asset classes with office, residential and logistics more resilient, with prime yields expected to increase up to 25 bps.
6. Debt financing conditions for real estate are more difficult for 90% of investors.
7. Leasing market is back to normal on a different timescale according to the different asset classes but the rental trend is slowing down across all sectors, with the exception of logistics.
The economic numbers are starting to come in from official sources and the truth is clear: the effects of two months of lockdown will be so deep that the climb back will be more than challenging. In the latest June bulletin, the National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) predicts that the Italian national economy will contract by >8% in 2020 with a partial recovery in 2021 with 4.6% growth. During the first quarter Italian GDP dropped by 5.3% and the preliminary data for April from the Confcommercio - Censis Report shows a decrease of 20 - 25% (UK official statistical data said -20.4%).
At the end of May, during the last annual meeting, Ignazio Visco, the Governor for the Bank of Italy, quoting from John Maynard Keynes’s book 'How to Pay for the War', said that the guarantee for a quick outcome is a plan that allows for endurance 'a plan conceived in a spirit of social justice, a plan which uses a time of general sacrifice, not as an excuse for postponing desirable reforms, but as an opportunity for moving further than we have moved hitherto towards reducing in equalities' in other words, the Governor highlighted the need for an important economic reform to gain the best results from European aid.
Reforms have also been suggested by the commission run by Vittorio Colao (former Vodafone CEO) which is supporting the Italian Cabinet in designing the future of the country, speeding up the country’s development and improving the economic, environmental and social sustainability. In this context the Italian real estate sector has been shaken by €1 billion transaction involving the fourth Italian banking group, UBI Banca, and Italy’s leading real estate investment, development and management company, COIMA SGR.
UBI Banca will concentrate its HQ in Milan agreeing a 15-year lease for ‘Gioia 22’, the building in Milan’s Porta Nuova district designed by the architectural firm Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, simultaneously acquiring 100% of the shares of the Porta Nuova Gioia fund, which owns the Gioia 22 building, from a leading global institutional investor. At the same time UBI Banca has sold 7 properties in Milan to vehicles managed by COIMA on behalf of primary global and national institutional investors.
As the Government begins to ease lockdown restrictions, how is the social life of the high street starting?
Are consumers returning to the physical stores for their shopping?
Public transport will be hard hit by decreased commuting and with a fear of contagion, people will be more likely to walk to their local high street. This may suit some high streets and shopping areas more than others. Analytic data on the high street is difficult to obtain, so on site visits are the best way to test the field and we ‘tested’ a couple of different types of high street. In Milan, Corso Vittorio Emanuele - the most prime mass market high street in Italy - as you walk down the street, the feeling you get is that you are in August (when traditionally most Italians are on holiday).
The ‘normal’ frenzy of the street is missing, just like all the tourists as well as the 3 million commuters that travel in and out of the city every day. Outside a few mass markets stores a queue of people stand patiently in line waiting their turn to enter. Once inside you find a different world (compared to only 3 months ago): merchandise is maintained in an orderly manner; shop assistants greet you offering to help find what you are looking for and in general customers seem to be enjoying their shopping rather than wanting to leave the chaos as soon as possible.
It seems that the new trend in mass market is reengaging with the customer - a tailor made experience. Retailers are still trying to collect the first turnover figures and where a store, pre-Covid, averaged a turnover of €12,000 per day in the first weeks the numbers have been €2,000 per day (- 80%). Florence, Via Tornabuoni - the top luxury fashion prime high street in Tuscany - is quiet however, the Uffizi Museum has just reopened to the public with access to 450 visitors together (50% less compared to pre Covid). As you walk by you hear German, English, and Italian speakers queuing outside. Exiting an important high luxury fashion brand store, a customer comes out with 4 big shopping bags - the revenge spending effect? Notwithstanding this, especially the luxury brands are suffering the effect of restricted foreign travel and many have asked for temporary rent reductions which most landlords seem to have granted - the main objective is ‘keep the lights on’.
In this context, investors are still in the ‘wait & see’ stage, yet keen to invest even in high street retail, albeit with more selectivity. An expected drop in rental levels will probably impact on yields, although no transactions have been completed in Q2. Location and sustainability of rent will drive the investment and new KPI’s underlining leases will be the real hurdle for the near future. Even on the high street market, tenants and landlords will necessarily become partners rather than just counterparties. Data transparency will be fundamental for the success of the investment.
After 4 May (end of lockdown), 18 May (reopening date) and from the 3 June it will be possible to travel across regions. This date also represents the ‘kick off’ for summer weekends and for holidays (6 million Italians are expected to go on holiday in June). The tourism sector represents circa 13% of Italy's GDP and 6% of total employment. Foreign tourists account for circa 50% of the total tourism flow, spending over €44 billion in 2019.
Between March and July Italy lost 40 million foreign visitors (representing circa 18% of the total annual flow) and it is difficult to expect a full recovery by the year end. The current discussion is about the ‘corona - free’ corridors, which don’t currently include Italy, and borders closed between Italy and other countries will create further limitations on entering the country.
30% of hotels are expected to remain closed for the entire season; business hotels (4 and 5 stars in the major business cities) are suffering due to the travel restrictions (US travelers, representing 7.4% of total arrivals are absent) and are mostly closed. Despite this real estate investors confirmed their interest in a hotel asset which had a record year in 2019 with >€3.3 billion invested. The Italian hospitality market is still fragmented with a lot of privately-owned hotels where international hotel chains represent a small part of the market.
New development projects and hotel operator selections are still underway and interest from operators has not diminished.
In this context investors are looking for opportunities, taking into consideration that an important transformation and consolidation process was started before COVID-19, and we are expecting an acceleration post COVID-19 with interesting opportunities for hotel acquisition in the near future.
On 18 May almost all retail reopened, following several weeks where only essential retail stayed open (supermarkets, pharmacies, tobacco shops, DIY, electronics). The central government issued general guidelines, giving the Italian regions the ability to put in place further restrictions, meaning that the context may be different across the country.
The shopping experience has been radically affected, nevertheless the first week ended with a limited decrease in footfall. Most visitors went for focused shopping, so the slowdown in footfall was expected. At the moment, the trend varies depending on the type of site. Prime shopping centres (that normally work on larger catchment areas where customers expect a complete shopping experience), leisure centres (where cinemas and gyms are still closed), office districts located in city centres and high streets of tourist cities are the most affected.
On the other hand, neighbourhood shopping centres (with a strong focus on the primary catchment area), shopping centres with a strong component of grocery/supermarket, high streets of secondary cities and retail parks (thanks to several good performing stores: DIY, home & furniture goods, sporting goods) showed better resilience. After the first week, shopping centre footfall is already around 70-80% of 2019 levels and almost 90-95% of stores have already reopened, with some exceptions especially in F&B - one of the most affected industries due to the restrictive rules, fewer seats and additional mandatory cleaning activities.
On the financial side, to support the economic recovery, Italy has raised a record of over €22 billion with a bond sale (BTP Italia inflation linked). Institutional investors bought €8.3 billion of bonds, which mature in May 2025, showing how Central Bank stimulus and a potential EU recovery fund have increased investor confidence.
The Italian real estate market seems now to be reacting to the impact of COVID-19. The investment market was stirred by a €500 million deal closed by Vittoria Assicurazioni, an Italian insurance company, which bought a majority stake in a real estate fund owning ‘Il Quinto’ building in San Donato (Milan) from York Capital. Two additional buildings in Rome and Monza, as well as this iconic asset home to the ENI offices, were also transacted. At the same time, York capital bought 4 residential developments in Rome, Parma and Milan from Vittoria Assicurazioni, which completed the entire transaction. Additionally, at the beginning of the week, Corum AM acquired an €8 million office building in Rome from Tristan Capital Partners.
The office leasing sector is also showing signs of dynamism: in Milan 4,000 sq m in a centrally located asset owned by Bain Capital has been leased to a fashion brand at a rent aligned to pre-Covid level.
Italy is trying to return to some sort of normality: although many offices are now open, most of the working population continues to work from home. Following social distancing measures, from 18 May bars, restaurants as well as hotels and hairdressers were allowed to reopen. From Monday, 25 May, gyms and swimming pools will reopen and from 3 June, travel between regions as well as travel within the EU and Schengen Area will be allowed.
On the economic and financial side, the ‘Decreto Rilancio’ has been approved for a total of €55 billion for support. The main measures covered include the extension of the furlough period for an additional 9 weeks (€10 billion) and, for the real estate sector:
- tax credit for energy and large-scale building improvements
- credit covering 60% of the cost of the rent for shops, industrial warehouses, hotels and for non-residential lease contracts - if the turnover of the company has been reduced by at least 50% compared to the previous year.
On Monday 11 May about 4.5m people returned to work; families were able to go to parks, factories and construction sites are finally alive: a progressive reopening after 8 weeks of lockdown has started.
Between 11 and 18 May all the other shops will reopen except for bars and restaurants scheduled for 1 June. Normality will take much longer to achieve and the reality is that a lot of companies are still recommending that employees work remotely, due to the fact that only 20/30% of the workers are allowed in the office because of the social distancing rules.
The COVID-19 numbers (new infections and deaths) have been falling for more than a month but from Monday the attention is focused on the economic impact of the pandemic. The International Monetary Fund is expecting that Italy’s GDP will drop by circa 9% in 2020. UniCredit, the most important Italian bank forecasts a 15% fall. To partially compensate this fall, a new €55 bn financial law (so called ‘Decreto Rilancio’) is under discussion and will be approved this week. In addition, this week the access to the ESM has been approved to the limit of 2% of the GDP (Italy can borrow circa €35 bn to repay in 10 years at 0.1% of interest rate) to support the healthcare system.
The real estate market is still in a ‘wait and see’ position: office leasing negotiations that started before COVID-19 are proceeding slowly (circa 50% of the transactions are still alive compared to the beginning of the pandemic) as the office investment transactions (80% are ongoing). Retail, the most affected asset class, is still blocked and asset managers are working hard to fix issues with tenants, trying, at the same time, to understand what outcomes reopening will bring.
The Morandi Bridge, a strategic motorway connection in Genoa, collapsed in August 2018, killing 43 people. Despite skepticism regarding the duration of the reconstruction (Italy, unfortunately, is not famous for the efficiency of the bureaucracy machine). On Tuesday, 28 April, less than two years from the tragedy, the last section of the main structure of the new bridge was put in place, bringing the construction to the last phase of completion.
This achievement has been considered by the Prime Minister as a new light “giving hope to all of Italy”, a symbol of Italian strength and capacity. This symbol, this hope, is particularly important considering the 4 May is the reopening date for the country after more than two months of total lockdown.
In the meantime, Italian cities have started working to find solutions to manage key issues of Phase 2: first and foremost, transportation. Due to social distancing the use of public transportation will be limited to 25%/30% of full capacity, creating a lot of concern related to increase in traffic and pollution. In order to improve sustainable mobility, Milan is starting to increase bike paths; by September an additional 23 km will open and a further 12 km are expected by year end connecting peripherical areas with the city centre.
Two important facts happened in Milan this week which will explain, better than 100 words, the Italian real estate current market situation:
- A positive is that Hines has completed the acquisition, agreed before the COVID-19 pandemic, of 150,000 sq m land in the Ex Trotto area (the former horse racing track) which will be transformed into a major residential-led mixed-use scheme.
- On the negative side Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield has announced that the project for the construction of the largest and biggest shopping centre in Italy, planned to be built up in Segrate, Milan, and already named as 'Westfield Milan' has been officially suspended.
Italy’s re-start won’t be a ‘free for all’ but a progressive reopening: manufacturing and construction will restart on 4 May, all the shops and museums will open on the 18 May: bars, restaurants and hairdressers from 1 June.
Travel will be authorised within the same region but movement between different regions will only be allowed for serious reasons (work or health). During this week, when the Italian Government officially confirmed the date (4 May), Italy avoided a potential downgrade of its credit rating by S&P.
On Friday last week S&P confirmed a BBB Rating despite forecasting Italian debt’s level to 150% of the GDP level by the end of the year, due to the increase of bond sales needed to face the COVID-19 Emergency.
The ECB’s ‘bazooka’ for a massive assets purchase program stopped the additional public borrowing and put a stop to an increase in spread. In the meantime, another step ahead regarding the negotiation among the 27 EU Members was represented by the mandate to the European Commission to study a detailed proposal about the ‘recovery fund’ financed by EU bonds, which gave additional help to the country to keep the cost of debt under control. The Italian Government is also looking at additional financial aid for over €55 billion of which €13 billion to finance furlough (with 7.1 million beneficiaries) which will be approved by the end of this week.
Two topics made the front page of the Italian newspapers this week. The first is this week’s virtual meeting of EU leaders to discuss the form of the European support to face the crisis (ESM without conditions, 'Corona Bond' or other form of support). On this point the Italian politicians are not aligned and there is a lot of debate among different parties, opposition to the EU in Italy has never been higher. The second is related to Phase 2 which is expected to start progressively from 3 May; the guidelines are under discussions.
Bookshops, laundries, stationers, children’s clothes stores have already reopened in some regions and IT manufacturers workers are back at work. Different solutions are under discussion for the lockdown full exit plan, but some points are already clear: schools will open in September (Italian school year ends in June) and there won’t be other exceptions to the current lockdown measures before 3 May (as requested by some regions).
On the real estate side, market sentiment became more stable compared to the previous week but the ‘wait and see’ approach is common among investors, landlords, corporates and, in general, real estate players. Some investors, mainly opportunistic, started to ask for new opportunities with higher returns. On the other hand vendors are still reluctant to put new assets on the market before understanding how tenants’ requests will impact prices and yields.
In the last video message Italy's president, Sergio Mattarella, on the occasion of a ‘very different’ Easter said that "we also see the concrete possibility of overcoming this emergency [….] The sacrifices we have been making for more than a month are producing the desired results and we cannot stop right now".
The day before the Italian Prime Minister extended the country lockdown until the 3 May starting, at the same time, to scope out Phase 2 and hiring the former global Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao to lead the governmental task force which is going to define when and how the activities will reopen.
Looking at the factsheet, first quarter market data had not reflected the full impact of COVID-19, with investment volumes in the range of €1.7 billion, aligned with the same period of 2018 and 2019 volumes, despite some deals having been slowed down. On the occupier market, take-up in Milan stood at 100,000 sq m, quite robust while Rome slowed down at 25,000 sq m.
In the first week of April, further deals have been stopped with investors becoming more cautious, mainly for value-add deals. Banks are found to be very selective, increasing the cost of financing (and lower LTV) and some of the lenders are on hold. In addition, no new assets have been proposed on the market with most selling processes on hold.
Italy is in its sixth week of lockdown and it seems it is approaching the turning point: the trend of infections is slowing down, but the lockdown has been extended to the 13 April.
The Government started talks about ‘Phase 2’ concerning the gradual re-opening of activities which is expected to begin in May, subject to the level of infections. In the meantime, a new financial law is under discussion for additional €30 billion of new incentives.
Corporate occupiers are starting to question about how they should change their office layout to allow employees to come back to the office.
It may still be too early to assess long-term space requirements: however, some assumptions can be made using a post-crisis scenario.
It is likely that employee’s safety, social distances, and smart working will be the key drivers for office space demand in the short term.
This may be reflected in an acceleration of tenants’ ‘Wellbeing’ policies and towards a greater use of technology and ‘activity based’ working.
It could also create more demand for space if space per capita increases. Landlords should take note of new corporate requirements and think about how spaces could change in order to retain tenants and manage space to meet new requirements.
Requirements for temporary logistics space is rising, as the surge in online retail has increased tenants’ needs for flexibility. This is more evident in the grocery sector which has experienced unprecedented demand for home delivery.
Investors are moving cautiously, paying attention to both the Italian Government and the ECB and their moves to support the economy. Some transactions are proceeding but with difficulties in purchaser due diligence activities.
Financing is starting to be an issue and investors that are less dependent on debt are taking advantage of lack of competition. They are approaching deals in a more opportunistic way or trying to create a robust pipeline.
Quarterly preliminary data shows investment volumes are in line with the same quarter of last year due to deals started at the end of 2019 and agreed before COVID-19. We are expecting a very low Q2 due to a total stop of new assets put on the market in the last 4 weeks.
One month of gradual individual lockdown and shut down of almost all activities (excluding the essential ones) including construction sites in Italy, has led real estate players to review their strategies.
Investors are reacting in different ways. Some have already started to put on hold their decision-making processes and some others are considering withdrawing or asking for discounts on advanced negotiations. There are investors that have confirmed their investment strategy, taking some advantage from potential lower competition.
In turn, banks have started to be more prudent in financing new deals with lower LTV and higher costs, stopping most of the value-add and more opportunistic deals. Overall activity slowed down in Q1, with core investors more resilient and some opportunistic buyers looking for rescue deals.
On the occupier side, retail, leisure and hospitality are most affected by the imposed restrictions and this is resulting in requests for rental renegotiations and/or temporary suspension. No sectors are excluded apart from logistics, at least so far. A small share of office tenants have asked for rent reviews or suspensions - mainly flexible workplace operators - but this share could increase as corporates assess their business exposure to the consequences of the outbreak.
Office take up could be potentially affected by major risks of slow-down in the medium term: pre-lease agreements could be reviewed in the light of completion delays.