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‘It’s happening again’: UK property funds adjust pricing ahead of Brexit

Asset managers are reportedly getting tetchy about scrutiny of the Investment Association UK Direct Property sector in the lead up to Brexit despite the fact they argue they are better placed to deal with redemptions than summer 2016, when the UK voted to leave the European Union.

In December, the sector faced £315.6m outflows – the worst redemptions since July 2016, when a raft of funds gated due to a mass exodus of client money.

The Threadneedle UK Property Authorised Investment and Kames Property Income funds both switched to bid pricing in December, essentially wiping out returns for the year for investors exiting the funds. However, the funds attracted £10.8m and £2.6m respectively in a month where all other funds, bar MGTS St Johns High Income Property, faced outflows ranging all the way up to £92.6m for the Janus Henderson UK Property Paif.

Portfolio Adviser understands concerns have been raised in the industry that media coverage of liquidity positions could trigger a run on funds, despite the fact funds are raising cash levels and the market is more liquid than 2016.

The Financial Conduct Authority made headlines this month when it was revealed the regulator is monitoring property funds daily for liquidity.

UK property fund returns since Brexit

Fund Performance
Scottish Widows HIFML UK Property 28.85%
TIME Investments Freehold Income Authorised 25.94%
Janus Henderson UK Property PAIF 17.25%
L&G UK Property 15.28%
Sector: IA UK Direct Property 13.68%
TIME Investments Commercial Freehold 13.47%
Kames Property Income 12.93%
Royal London Property Inc 10.82%
BMO UK Property 2 Inc 10.72%
MGTS St Johns High Income Property 10.47%
Standard Life Investments UK Real Estate 9.89%
Aberdeen UK Property 8.85%
M&G Property Portfolio 8.15%
Threadneedle UK Property Authorised Investment 7.99%
Aviva Inv UK Property 7.30%
Source: FE Analytics for period between 24 June 2016 to 12 February 2019

‘It’s happening again’

In early July 2016, less than two weeks after the Brexit referendum, Standard Life, Aviva Investors and M&G gated funds followed shortly after by Columbia Threadneedle and Janus Henderson. Investors pulled £5.7bn from the sector in the period from January to July 2016, according to Morningstar Direct.

“It’s starting to happen again,” says Morningstar director for manager research ratings Jonathan Miller about December outflows and pricing adjustments. He attributes recent adjusted pricing at Kames and Threadneedle to outflows and “presumably a feeling that their rainy-day cash, part of keeping their powder dry to meet redemptions, wouldn’t suffice”.

Brexit uncertainty is largely cited as the driving force behind investors pulling money although other factors have compounded outflows. “Property managed a respectable 7.5% total return over the year so it seemed the investment community did trim quite aggressively,” says Architas investment manager Jen Causton.

She expects funds in the sector would have to gate if there is a no deal Brexit.

Chelsea Financial Services managing director Darius McDermott points to a slowing UK economy as a poor environment. “When the UK is slowing down, commercial property is not a go-to asset class. It’s quite correlated to the economy.” UK GDP growth slowed to 0.2% in Q4 2018 and the economy contracted in December, the Office for National Statistics this week revealed.

Total assets in the sector have shrunk from £14.0bn in May 2016, in the midst of outflows but ahead of the Brexit vote, to £11.9bn in December 2018, the last date for which Morningstar Direct has data.

UK Direct Property funds – AUM pre-Brexit vote versus now

Fund May 2016 December 2018
M&G Property Portfolio £4.8bn £3.7bn
L&G UK Property £2.5bn £3.3bn
Aviva Investors UK Property £815.0m
Janus Henderson UK Pty PAIF £1.6bn £2.8bn
BMO UK Property £305.0m £554.4m
Scottish Widows HIFML UK Property £479.1m £446.3m
SLI UK Real Estate Platform £608.0m £438.0m
Royal London Property £399.5m £408.4m
Aberdeen UK Property £625.5m £427.6m
Kames Property Income £203.4m £315.1m
Threadneedle UK Prpty Authrsd Invmt £270.9m £304.1m
TIME Freehold Inc Authorised £289.8m
MGTS St Johns High Income Property £38.9m £111.9m
VT Redlands Prpty £96.4m
Source: Morningstar Direct

Adjusted pricing wipes out returns

Architas holds L&G UK Property or Kames Property Income funds in its multi-manager range and a handful of investment trusts for more specialist exposure, like doctor surgeries and ecommerce.

“One of the funds we invest in moved to a bid price and it effectively wiped out last year’s returns,” says Causton. “You crystallise that if you come out of the fund. It does affect the performance quite a lot, particularly when returns are quite hard to come by.”

Kames and Threadneedle were the worst performers in 2018 falling 2.6%, the only funds with negative performance, compared to 3.9% gains in the IA UK Direct Property sector. In the period from 24 June 2016 to the end of November 2018, before the price adjustment took place the Kames fund returned 19% and Threadneedle delivered 15.1%, both outperforming the sector return of 13.5%.

Chase de Vere favours open-ended funds for its bespoke portfolios and discretionary models. Bid pricing is part and parcel of investing in the sector, says research manager Justine Fearns. “If you can time it right, or get lucky, then all good and well but if you are investing for the longer term then ultimately it should be the investment case that is the driver of purchases and redemptions, although there could be other considerations to take into account.”

IA UK Direct Property returns in 2018

Fund Performance
TIME Investments Freehold Income Authorised 8.07%
Scottish Widows HIFML UK Property 7.84%
TIME Investments Social Freehold 5.21%
TIME Investments Commercial Freehold 5.00%
L&G UK Property 4.65%
Standard Life Investments UK Real Estate Platform 4.57%
Aberdeen UK Property 4.36%
M&G Property Portfolio 4.17%
Janus Henderson UK Property PAIF 4.10%
Sector: IA UK Direct Property 3.91%
BMO UK Property 3.66%
Aviva Inv UK Property 3.65%
Royal London Property 3.40%
MGTS St Johns High Income Property 3.37%
LF Canlife UK Property ACS 3.30%
VT Redlands Property Portfolio 1.94%
Kames Property Income -2.57%
Threadneedle UK Property Authorised Investment INI GBP TR in GB -2.57%
Source: FE Analytics

Cash allocations march upwards

Kames Property Income fund co-manager Richard Peacock tells Portfolio Adviser two sales due to complete this week are due to take liquidity from 17.3% to 19%.

“Given the market outlook we are targeting a liquidity position of around 25%. With return prospects slowing, holding an elevated cash position will have less of a dilutive impact on fund performance,” Peacock says. The fund has had bid pricing in five of the 59 months since launch, he adds. “By comparison, the majority of the peer group swung to bid price in 2016 due to outflows and have remained on that pricing basis ever since due to continued outflows.” Kames introduced a 10% pricing adjustment to the fund following the Brexit vote.

Threadneedle holds 12.3% in cash “the upper end of its liquidity corridor”. “Whilst this plays an important role in the context of meeting potential redemptions, as markets stabilise it can provide a valuable buying opportunity as well,” a spokesperson says.

The M&G Property Portfolio is holding cash above its 7.5% to 12.5% range at 15%, which it describes as a prudent measure to manage any client flows during uncertain market conditions.

It has been reducing retail assets in a similar move to Janus Henderson. Ainslie McLennan, co-manager of the Janus Henderson UK Property Paif, says: “Our long held view has been that the retail sector, particularly traditional retailers and high street assets, would come under pressure.” Instead they are seeking an “appropriate, diversified mix of assets we believe to be best suited to the conditions ahead”, McLennan says.

Fearns lists L&G UK Property as her fund pick for the sector. The team has been engaging with clients regularly to help its liquidity management and it was one of the few funds that did not gate in the aftermath of the referendum, she says. Chase de Vere prefers property funds to hold cash over property securities for liquidity due to it being the more stable and liquid asset class, she says.

LGIM did not wish to comment when contacted by Portfolio Adviser but it has the highest cash allocation in the sector at 25.5%, according to FE Analytics. It made a 15% ‘fair value adjustment’ to L&G UK Property in the aftermath of the EU referendum.

In contrast, Royal London Property holds 8%. Head of property Gareth Dickinson highlights that the fund, which requires a £100,000 minimum investment, consists of a” relatively small number of institutional investors” and redemption requests require three months’ notice, which influences the shareholder base. The fund has not adjusted pricing since the Brexit referendum.

More liquid market

While redemptions are picking up, asset managers say the UK property market is more liquid than the lead up to the Brexit referendum.

“It is difficult to make a simple comparison between the two periods and the impact on liquidity management,” says Peacock, who describes the referendum as a binary risk event whereas recent outflows have been spread over several months.

He adds: “The levels of sales completed by the peer group already is encouraging and demonstrates that we still have a liquid market for those investors looking to sell which is a contrast to Q3 2016 when transaction volumes fell and liquidity dried up for many funds.”

Outflows may actually benefit the sector, according to Willis Owen head of personal Adrian Lowcock. “All that hot money is now out; all that shorter-term money is now out. What you’ve got left should be longer-term investors.”

However, outflows leave funds in the position of having to sell assets to increase cash positions, Lowcock says. Willis Owen currently favours passives for property exposure, such as the iShares Global Property Secs Equity Index and L&G Global Real Estate Dividend Index.

Investment trust versus open-ended debate rings on

Morningstar’s Miller says pricing adjustments highlight “what can happen overnight given the illiquidity in the space”. “We believe there’s a mismatch in having daily dealing for bricks and mortar property funds, given the illiquidity profile.”

McDermott says he currently only holds property via specialist investment trusts, but despite the swings that can occur when property funds adjust pricing, he warns investment trust volatility can be higher.

He says investors can only be penalised to the extent of the property fund’s spread, which is “typically 5%, sometimes 5.5%”. “Investment trust discounts can go much wider than that. After the Brexit vote when all the property sector was under stress, some of the investment trusts were trading at 20 or 30% discounts. You could get your money back but you were getting it back at 30%,” he says.

Association of Investment Companies data shows the Schroder Real Estate Investment trust discount was 19.7% on 30 June 2016 compared to a 1.6% premium three months earlier. It was trading at a discount of 16.3% at the end of December 2018. The UK Commercial Property Reit was the next highest discount at the time of the Brexit vote at 17.1%. It now trades at a 10.9% discount.

Source: Portfolio Adviser