Europe: Favorable developments bode well for certain regions
History and unique economics can make a difference
While global growth is slowing and investor optimism seems to be fading, we believe there are compelling investment opportunities in European farmland. European farmland investments can be difficult to access since the majority of farms are owned in small parcels. At the same time, there are vast differences across and between different European regions due to unique pricing structures and the fact that similar regions may be at different phases in the economic cycle. As such, we believe region-specific knowledge and local expertise are essential in identifying value. This is particularly true when it comes to often overlooked areas such as Poland and Romania. While there are many similarities between the two countries, we have found it is essential to work closely with local investors, farmers and end users to understand the unique characteristics of each region.
Romanian farmland appears poised for strong growth
These returns tend to differ across regions. For example, an investment combination of row and permanent crops in the U.S. over the past twenty-five years would have generated returns consisting of around 40% from yield and 60% from capital appreciation, according to the National Council of Real Estate Investment Fiduciaries. Romania, in contrast, has had row crop farming business returns comparable to that of other regions, but has also seen much stronger capital appreciation.
We believe region-specific knowledge and local expertise are essential in identifying value. This is particularly true when it comes to often overlooked areas such as Poland and Romania.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, a restitution process divided farmland into multiple small family-owned land plots. Since then there has been an active process of swapping from an operational perspective, allowing farmers to operate large land plots through swapping with their neighbors. However, the underlying land from these operational swaps is now being actively sold, bought and swapped from a legal title perspective moving from an operational swap to a legal swap. This brings additional appreciation because of the higher intrinsic value available as a result of owning a large contiguous piece of land. At the same time, the investor base has been relatively small but is starting to garner attention from global investors.
Comparisons of farmland investments between countries can be especially complex
While these sorts of historical trends are important, we also find it necessary to focus on fundamental analysis, comparing the differences between individual farms and regions. Investors in these asset classes need to understand individual growth patterns, rainfall amounts, accessibility of water and soil types to determine the best investment options. Similarly, the individual politics and policies of different regions can come into play.
To see how this works in practice, consider the similarities and differences between Poland and Romania. The two countries have similar rainfall patterns and soil types, but look quite different from an investment perspective. Local rent payments serve as a good example. In Poland, farmland rents have historically been paid up front, which can help mitigate risks such as the recent erratic weather that hurt the country in 2015 through 2017. In contrast, Romanian farms have historically paid rent at the end of the season, which can make issues like droughts or low yields difficult to prepare for. As such, professional farmland investors can look to shift Romanian farmland rents to up-front payment cycles to better manage unforeseen risks.
So while on the surface, farmland investments in two similar countries such as Poland and Romania could look pretty similar, they are actually quite different, and for reasons that have little to do with such traditional factors like rainfall or soil type. We have found that understanding the nuances of additional factors like historical and local trends can provide a significant investment edge.
European real estate
Berlin: a possible diamond in the rough
While the eurozone has experienced stagnant growth as part of a broader global economic slowdown, certain European cities offer compelling long-term real estate investment opportunities. By looking at broad-based structural trends such as economic growth, central bank policy decisions and local elections, we think it is possible to identify city-specific real estate sub-sectors such as housing and office space that offer attractive value. Since every city in the world is unique, we think the strategy for investing in each of them also needs to be unique. By spanning the globe and looking at a combination of local and global factors, we think it is possible to find investments that reflect a city’s individual personality. A case in point: investments in Berlin.
Berlin benefits from a range of demographic and structural advantages
Berlin is experiencing strong population growth. Berlin offers a lower cost-of- living alternative to cities such as London and Paris, and as such is attracting workers from around the globe. With three respected universities, the city continues to attract high-level students. This young and educated population creates a vibrant cultural scene filling theaters, bars, restaurants, galleries and nightclubs.
As students matriculate to the workplace, housing and workspace accommodations must be met. Our five-year office rental growth (as shown in Figure 5) forecast sees annualized growth rates of 3%, presenting one of the most compelling opportunities in Europe. These evolving demographic and socioeconomic trends have helped create a city we believe is attractively positioned for long-term growth.
We believe Berlin is well poised to navigate changing demographic trends, to meet evolving consumer demands. Germany itself remains vulnerable to a possible economic downturn due to factors such as a stretched debt market, anemic growth and the limited ability of the European Central Bank to provide stimulus. But Berlin may be able to buck the general negative trends and we think that city has the capacity to adapt to changing structural trends.
Taking advantage of low interest rates: student housing, rental properties and logistics
While Berlin overall is a city on the rise, we think there are specific real estate sectors that represent particularly attractive investment options. Berlin has been aggressively and smartly addressing the issues of rising population growth and an increased demand for housing. In particular, Berlin real estate developers have been capitalizing on low interest rates and high debt availability. As an example, city planning increasingly favors dynamic developments, which leads to a variety of futuristic living spaces. Similarly, the logistics sector is branching out into adjacent spaces such as data centers to accommodate the growing technological presence in the city. While structural demographics certainly support the Berlin economic outlook, certain real estate sectors of the city are better positioned for cyclical growth than others.
The bottom line is that even if a certain region or a certain country is experiencing economic pressure, that doesn’t mean we can’t find cities and sectors that offer potentially attractive real estate investments. Student housing, rental growth and logistics in cities such as Berlin are only one example of investments benefiting from strong structural demographics that can potentially find attractive risk-adjusted returns for long-term investors.