By Lewis Jackson and Rae Wee
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Private credit lenders are increasing their footprint in parts of the Australian commercial property market, providing alternatives for borrowers as banks scale back higher-risk lending amid a slowdown brought on by elevated interest rates.
The funds available for deals are growing as investors including pension funds, sovereign wealth and insurance firms look for meaty returns hard to find in today’s equity markets, especially in the beaten-down real estate sector.
Australian real estate specialist Qualitas, whose backers include the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority, has nearly doubled funds under management to A$8 billion ($5.07 billion) since mid-2022, with roughly half the increase since this June.
U.S.-based PGIM Real Estate expects to deploy a further $1 billion in the country over the next few years, said its head of Australian real estate Steve Bulloch.
“Over the last 12 to 18 months we have seen a lot more institutional investor interest and many are seeing this as an attractive entry point to diversify their portfolios,” he said.
The moves are part of the steady growth of non-bank lenders in a market where four banks, Commonwealth Bank, National Australia Bank, Westpac and ANZ Group, still account for the bulk of all lending.
At roughly 5% of all financial assets in 2022, non-bank lenders are a minnow in Australia compared to the International Monetary Fund’s estimate of 50% globally.
But non-bank lending has been growing, reaching more than A$600 billion in assets last year, including lenders focused on retail credit. Lenders are expanding into residential and commercial construction as banks slow lending or exit, a March report from the Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) said.
Investors can expect returns from 9% to 11% with the added security of loans pledged against real assets like condos or warehouses, often with a 30% to 40% equity buffer, said Paul Notaras, executive director at Barings Real Estate Australia.
The juicy returns mean higher costs for borrowers, with the RBA in March putting the spread over a major bank loan at about 200 basis points for business loans of all types.
Yet non-bank lenders are a welcome source of credit at a time when banks have slowed lending to sections of the property sector historically seen as high risk like construction, Notaras said.
Some 2,213 construction firms filed for insolvency last financial year, the highest on records going back to 2013, as builders are sandwiched between higher costs and fixed-price contracts.
New commercial property lending by the four major banks has averaged 1% growth per quarter since June 2022, levels last seen during the pandemic, data from the prudential regulator shows, with exposure to offices and residential contracting.
More prudential scrutiny and less risk appetite has led major banks to prioritise blue-chip property companies, Qualitas co-founder Andrew Schwartz said.
“The traditional financiers have pulled back their loan-to-value ratios, narrowed the type of borrower that they’re wanting to deal with, it’s generally harder and you’re more likely to fall into the alternatives sector.”
For build-to-rent residential projects, banks hesitate to lend more than 40% to 45% against a project’s value, while private lenders could go as high as 65%, Barings’ Notaras said.
Bonds are out of reach for many unrated mid-market borrowers and property-related bond issuance is at record lows, with A$299 million raised the year to September, about a tenth of the decade average, according to Dealogic data.
Even for alternative lenders, the most beleaguered segments, such as office and retail, remain tough propositions as higher rates slash prices and home working and online shopping scramble the outlook for rental growth.
Instead, financiers are drawn to companies building for Australia’s chronically undersupplied residential market, especially in the budding build-to-rent sector, and the resilient market for warehouses and industrial property.
A A$1.45 billion partnership between Qualitas and the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority will focus on the residential sector.
“We’ve had more office financing proposals presented to us than I can ever remember and I can only assume it’s because the banks don’t want to do them and big institutions have too much,” said Qualitas’ Schwartz.
“We say office, interesting but less compelling.”
($1 = 1.5815 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Lewis Jackson in Sydney and Rae Wee in Singapore; Editing by Jamie Freed)