From mid-July onwards, the coronavirus is steadily bouncing back into Dutch public life after having it almost completely reduced to zero in the first weeks of July. Having successfully reopened schools in June without new outbreaks, the start of the summer holidays could not be better as a wave of optimism and positivism boosted the nation, but soon proved to be the starting point of a collective neglect of all the distancing rules which were and still are in place. As a consequence, the number of new cases is approaching levels which were last seen during lockdown.
However, a crucial difference to the first wave of cases is the current number of hospitalisations, which is still almost absent, most likely caused by the fact predominantly young people have been infected so far and are experiencing rather mild symptoms. Another factor contributing towards a difficult comparison with the first wave is the massive test capacity which is currently in place. More testing has led to more positive cases.
Despite the massive testing, the number of positive cases per 100,000 is increasing as well but is showing sharp regional contrasts in the country. Did the first wave mainly hit towns and rural parts in the South of the Netherlands, the current wave is almost exclusively witnessed in the larger cities in the Western part of the country as a result of outbreaks among the age cohorts (age 20 - 40), especially in the student population. As long as the daily number of hospitalisations remains under 40, no nationwide strict measures are expected.
The support measures of the Dutch Government are currently active and successful, hence minimising the consequences for the current workforce. This is to change when aid packages are to be phased out, most likely happening from September onwards, although still subject to political debate. Unemployment in the Netherlands has recently tipped a historic low of 3.4%, which was also one of the lowest unemployment rates in the Eurozone. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate of the Dutch labour force has risen sharply to 4.3%. In just 3 months, the number of unemployed grew by 131,000 people to a total of 404,000. Currently, people with temporary contracts and starters on the job market are particularly affected. For example, unemployment increased sharply amongst the 15 to 25-year olds.
The foreseen decline of the Dutch GDP by 6.4% in 2020 will cause unemployment to rise to 7.0% of the labour force by the end of 2020. Business investment will fall due to gloomy turnover expectations and private consumption will drop as a result of the desire to save, rather than spend money. As similar effects will most likely also affect our major trading partners, Dutch exports are expected to lag significantly this year and to only partially recover next year.
The impact of the virus outbreak has been clear on the property investment markets. As of mid-2020, investment volumes are approximately 15% below mid-2019. Although a sharp decrease can be seen from the monthly development of investment activity, transactions were successfully completed throughout the entire lockdown. However, large differences can be observed between the different asset classes. The contact-restricting measures had a profound impact on the hotel market and the retail market and were therefore subsequently hit harder than, for example, the (logistics) industrial market. The share of industrial in the total investment volume, at 28%, was approximately 10 percentage points higher than the share last year, which was twice the long-term average (2009 - 2020). In case the base forecast will turn out to be true, it is expected that the total investment volume for 2020 will amount to approximately €15 billion.
Despite the severe consequences of the pandemic on economic growth, it is important to keep looking at the developments which already started pre-corona. Some markets already underwent major structural changes, and these have simply been accelerated as a result of the corona outbreak. This includes the future of small-town high streets or the office markets in the suburban municipalities as a result of structural trends like online shopping and working from the home. The past period has therefore acted as a catalyst or accelerator for major long-term structural trends that were already underway.
The COVID-19 outbreak, however, will further strengthen the preference for lively central locations with high levels of urban amenities. The office being a place to meet and experience has become increasingly important following the virus outbreak. This results in both push and pull factors. On the one hand, the central office and a good digital infrastructure will enable office workers to live further away from their work, as the daily presence in an office is no longer the norm. Is has been proved that, on a structural basis, more work can be done from home. On the other hand, office workers might want to live closer to work reducing travel time and avoiding public transport. Finally, immediate proximity to an airport will lose importance over the short and medium term where location factors are concerned. Due to the large-scale adoption of video conferencing, business traffic is set to decrease in the years to come. Although COVID-19 will eventually pass by, a different way of thinking about the world and the way we work, shop, and live is here to stay.
After receiving a lot of criticism from the general public for not providing clear guidance on reopening, the Dutch Government presented a roadmap for opening society and the economy which consists of 3 phases until September.
- 11 May: primary schools, day care, contact-based professions (hairdressers and alike), libraries and group outdoor sports.
- 1 June: restaurants, terraces, cinemas, museums and other cultural institutions may receive up to 30 visitors. Terraces are not limited in capacity as long as 1.5 metres distance can be respected. One household can share 1 table (without distancing). Furthermore, high schools will reopen with 1.5 metres distance protocols, primary schools will reopen in full (with all distancing rules being lifted). Visitors are partially allowed back in elderly / nursery homes. Finally, all public transport will resume the usual schedules.
- 1 July: restaurants, terraces, cinemas, museums and other cultural institutions may receive up to 100 visitors. Campsites / holiday parks can reopen. Finally (mass) meetings up to 100 persons are allowed, which means churches, wedding venues, convention centres will reopen.
- 1 September: all (contact) sports, saunas, gyms, sex workers and casinos are back in business. Large scale gatherings remain forbidden for as long as there is no vaccine/medicine. That means football matches will be played without spectators and festivals cannot take place until further notice.
Practically all shops are now open, life as we knew it gradually returns, moreover as the country takes a radically different stance on private use of personal protective equipment. It is not necessary to wear face masks in general and is limited to use on public transport where keeping a distance is simply not always possible. Even hairdressers are not required to wear face masks, however reservations are mandatory, and the client will need to state that they do not show any symptoms of the coronavirus.
Meanwhile, the economy benefitted slightly from the not-so-tight lockdown as the first quarter showed a GDP retraction of 1.7%. It seems a rather modest decrease compared to European countries whose lockdowns were more severe such as Belgium -3.9%, France -5.8%, Spain 5.2% and Italy 4.7%. Sweden on the other hand saw its economy remain virtually stable at -0.3%. But as these economies are integrated deeply, there will be a significant impact for all countries in, and associated with, the Eurozone.
Last week the local Amsterdam newspaper Parool stated that long queues are typically associated with phenomena like economic crises: queues in front of social security offices, queues in front of bargain stores or food banks, but certainly not in front of IKEA…
After having voluntarily closed its stores from 17 March quite suddenly (in fact customers were asked to leave), IKEA decided it was time to reopen, albeit without Smaland and meatballs as the Swedish furniture giant asked its customers not to indulge in fun shopping but to restrict visits for a specific purpose.
IKEA was in fact one of the last big box retailers to reopen, as DIY stores, garden centres and other furniture malls never actually closed and were implementing social distancing measures throughout.
Although the Netherlands is officially still in a ‘smart’ lockdown, life is gradually starting up again and shopping appears to be an inseparable part of ‘normal’. As schools are set to gradually reopen from Monday 11 May following the already increased movement for those under twelve, the public is eagerly looking forward to 20 May when hospitality, F&B’s and hairdressers might reopen, depending on the success of the current set of measures.
Concerns over the virus outbreak by the general public are slowly but certainly being replaced by concerns over the economy.
The recently released outlook by the IMF and the first forecast of the country’s budget deficit by the Dutch Finance Ministry was grim. The IMF has forecast a deep recession of 7.5%, while the budget deficit for 2020 is forecast to be around 12% of GDP, approximately EUR 92 billion.
The consequences for the national debt are profound and is to skyrocket from 48.8% of GDP to 65.2% in a single year and has never been seen before.
Until now the Dutch economy has enjoyed an above-average growth for several years in a row. A thriving economy, based on solid institutions, offered real estate investors, among others, attractive opportunities and above all a safe haven. The Netherlands has profited from the global search for yield quite well. That will at least be temporarily different from now on. It is the open, export-oriented economy combined with a small domestic market size that now makes the Netherlands vulnerable as world trade is declining sharply.
The Dutch economy is heavily entangled with the economies of EU member states. On the one hand it heavily relies on trade with its neighbouring countries and, more in general, the domestic demand of the Eurozone members: two thirds of Dutch exports are destined for the Eurozone. On the other hand, almost 40% of the Dutch 2019’s investment volume was composed by Eurozone buyers.
The rather strict position of the Netherlands towards financial aid to the badly affected countries in the south of Europe seems therefore rather awkward from multiple perspectives. Not only is it quite embarrassing from the perspective of solidarity, as it was one of the primary reasons on which the European Union was founded, also it does not seem to make sense from an economic point of view when export markets are on fire.
Now the ‘intelligent’ lockdown enters its sixth week and the number of new COVID-19 hospitalisations is rapidly falling, the Dutch are eagerly looking forward to having some of the movement restrictions lifted. This week, more information will become available on how the Government will be taking next steps towards reopening society and the economy as of 28 April.
The Government is specifically calling for the various sectors in the economy to draw up plans themselves on how to get a six feet society working for their businesses for a longer duration of time. Cushman & Wakefield has responded immediately by redesigning part of the Amsterdam office into a six feet office concept, providing office workers a safe workplace in a post lockdown era. This initiative was quickly picked-up by national news and is now considered to be an example for other sectors.
Within the commercial office markets, both investors and occupiers are actively trying to assess and quantify future office space demand. There is broad consensus that in the longer term the need for office space will decline, due to the lessons learned from effectively working at home. In the short run, working in an office will require additional workspace, which will ultimately lead to a decrease of available workstations. Thus, the six feet office concept may well prove to be a last push towards the truly activity-based office concept where people meet, create and inspire each other rather than sitting behind a desk wearing headphones cancelling surrounding noise. Great ideas were never invented in a silent place. Let’s use the full potential of the office by putting the lessons into practice by working from home!
It has been 30 days since we entered an ‘intelligent lockdown’ as a country. Schools, meeting places, F&B establishments and gyms all had to close as of 15 March. Retail is exempt from this directive and has been allowed to remain open. Recent research by Locatus showed that approximately two thirds of all shops are succeeding in keeping their doors at least partly open to the public in one way or another.
Now that the imposed restricting measures yield results that actually ‘flattened the curve’, more and more retail chains are preparing to re-open their shops in the coming days. They follow the example of measures already introduced by the essential stores, such as mandatory routing (one-way traffic), plastic protection screens at the registers and a maximum number of clients allowed in the stores. Retailers hope to return to a ‘business as usual’ as much as reasonably possible in the new reality of the six feet economy.
Despite the light version of a lockdown - by European standards - the economic impact on the retail sector, on both retailers and landlords alike, will be nevertheless substantial. A round of intensive negotiations directed by Cushman & Wakefield has resulted in a 'Support Agreement Dutch Retail Sector'. This initiative, entirely setup by retail market stakeholders, provides retailers a 3 month postponement of rent payments. After this period, a possible waiver will be determined based on the actual loss of turnover incurred in the postponement period. Furthermore, landlords assured to not evict any tenants, while retailers in return have promised keep businesses open for as much as public safety allows.
This agreement was made on a voluntarily basis and serves as a starting point for future arrangements between retailers and landlords. It also clearly illustrates the collective sense that we are all in the same boat.
Our analysis of office occupancy, industrial premises and real estate investment market dynamics in Q1 2020 compared with Q1 2019, reveals the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on the real estate market in the Netherlands.
Q1 analysis (to 31 March for both 2019 and 2020) shows that the take-up in office and industrial property markets decreased 21% and 28% respectively and investment volumes fell by 21%.
In March, the decrease was stronger with a drop in take-up for offices (33%), industrial (45%) and a halving (52%) of real estate investment activity.
COVID-19 has a major impact on the real estate market, but it is also important to keep looking at market developments pre-pandemic.
Not all market trends are due to COVID-19 impacts. In some markets the signals had already turned red and those changes will accelerate and continue. For example, the decline of smaller core shopping areas or office markets in peripheral municipalities.
In the markets where all signals had turned green, the impact will be temporary, such as in the hotel market in core cities or in logistics hotspots. They will pick up, as soon as things get back to normal.
One thing is certain: the current crisis will be stored in our collective memory and we will continue to look at the world and the way we live, work, shop and live in a very different way.