M&G Freeze Shows Winter Is Here for U.K. Malls, And Staying

(Bloomberg) --

When shoppers leave the House of Fraser department store at the Fremlin Walk mall about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south-east of London, they’re greeted by an increasingly common sight: a row of empty stores.

The mall is the fourth-largest asset in M&G Plc’s flagship 2.5 billion-pound ($3.3 billion) property fund that was frozen this week after too many of its investors tried to flee. Its gating reflects a deepening crisis in the real estate industry: retail properties like the near 15-year-old open air center have become almost impossible to sell in order to pay back investors.

“I wouldn’t say there is a buyers’ strike for retail property, that would imply it is going to end one day,” said Andrew Jones, chief executive officer of real estate investment trust LondonMetric Property Plc. “This isn’t cyclical, it is permanent.”

The pain is harshest for landlords like M&G, which has about 40% of its holdings in retail. Its Fremlin Walk flagship tenant House of Fraser is one of dozens of U.K. retailers that have been forced to close stores and slash rents as they struggle to vie with online rivals, sending values into free-fall. The largest firms shut almost 6,000 stores in the first nine months of this year, a 77% hike on the whole of 2018, according to the Centre for Retail Research.

M&G Freeze Shows Winter Is Here for U.K. Malls, And Staying

Rattled investors are heading for the door. They’ve yanked more than 2.5 billion pounds from the nine largest daily-traded U.K. property funds for mom-and-pop investors this year, according to data compiled by Morningstar Inc. On average, retail property comprises about a third of those funds’ investments.

Performance has been poor this year, with the funds losing investors nearly 2% on average through November, according to Morningstar. M&G’s has fared the worst, down almost 7.6%, while the best performing fund -- and with the least retail properties -- was that run by Legal & General, which returned 2.9%.

By contrast, almost half of the Aberdeen U.K. Property Fund’s holdings are in stores and malls. Clients have recently stepped up withdrawals, pulling 32 million pounds on Wednesday, according to Morningstar. The fund had a cash buffer of around 176 million pounds at Oct. 31, a fact sheet shows.

Heightened Risks

The retail property crisis has underlined a crucial flaw in such funds. Because clients can exit them on a daily basis, the underlying assets can’t be sold fast enough to keep pace with sustained withdrawals. While many managers of real estate funds have built up large cash buffers, a wider lack of liquidity in the asset management industry is emerging as a key risk for investors.

“There certainly is a higher probability of other property funds following” M&G due to the illiquid nature of the asset class, said Bev Shah, founder of advocacy firm City Hive. “Any investor should also be aware of the risks of this happening.”

M&G’s freeze follows the shock collapse of former star stock picker Neil Woodford’s investment empire this year. The fallout from that has made investors more sensitive to managers who, in their hunt for yield, have holdings of harder-to-sell assets.

Sales of U.K. shopping centers are on track for their lowest level on record this year, according to broker Savills Plc, which estimates that mall rents have fallen by more than a quarter in 2019. Still, a handful of recent deals have completed at deep discounts, prompting a slew of write downs as valuers finally have some evidence on which to base their assessments.

St Modwen Properties Plc last month sold three retail properties at 9% below their May valuations, while Blackpool Council bought a shopping center for less than half the amount paid by its previous owner four years ago. Billionaire Mike Ashley bought the Brookfield Shopping Park for 25.4 million pounds in October, a third of the price paid by JPMorgan Asset Management in 2015.

To be sure, some funds are making headway selling off their retail property holdings. Aberdeen’s fund has several properties under offer, in an active move to reduce its exposure to the sector, according to its latest factsheet.

Still, it’s likely to be a steep uphill battle.

“It would be extremely difficult to liquidate that level of retail exposure in the current market,” Jones said.

Deja Vu

Investors have been here before. A string of property funds -- including M&G -- were forced to gate after the Brexit vote in 2016, with managers under pressure to sell what they could as fast as possible. That meant disposing of warehouses or London offices that remained attractive despite the political uncertainty, pushing up their relative exposure to retail.

The run on property funds in 2016 prompted the regulator to introduce new rules that will come into force next year, encouraging managers to hold more cash and to better highlight the potential for fund freezes. It seems the industry hasn’t given up on mom-and-pop investors just yet.

“It would be very easy for the Financial Conduct Authority to say they can’t invest in commercial property via open-ended funds because we want retail investors to get money out at the drop of a hat,” Andy Bell, chief executive officer of investment platform AJ Bell Plc, said in an interview. “That would be a travesty as far as I’m concerned.”

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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