Picture: 123RF/rudall30
Picture: 123RF/rudall30

Deutsche Lufthansa’s departure in December from a low-slung “groundscraper” near Frankfurt Airport highlights the pandemic-related risks facing European landlords — and sends a warning to investors who have piled into the market.

Over the holidays, the airline moved 840 staff out of the Squaire complex, Germany’s biggest office property, as part of a cost-cutting plan. While German real-estate has held up better than other European markets, with commercial rents at historical highs after a 10-year boom, that resilience is likely to be tested in 2021 as the prolonged economic weakness raises the prospect of more job cuts by cash-strapped companies such as Lufthansa.

The market faces further challenges from cultural shifts hastened by the Covid-19 outbreak. If employees resist a quick return to the office, or more businesses embrace home-working for the long-term, for instance, landlords will see growing pressure to reduce rents.

“Economic crises always lead to a downturn in the office market,” said Michael Voigtlaender, an economist at the Cologne Institute for Economic Research. “This time, the recovery could take longer if more people end up working from home.”

Lufthansa’s move was the latest twist in the history of a building that has often reflected the ups and downs of Germany’s commercial-property market. When the curvy, nine-story Squaire opened in 2011, the city was reeling from the financial crisis. About a sixth of its office space was unoccupied, and the building’s then-owner was facing bankruptcy.

Then came the recovery. Over the next decade, Frankfurt rents rose by a third, drawing many of the world’s leading property investors to Germany’s business capital. One of them, South Korea’s Hana Financial Group, paid almost €1bn for the Squaire in December 2019 — a deal that epitomised the country’s real estate boom.

The market is still thriving as negative yields on government bonds push ever more domestic capital into property. At the same time, the country’s safe-haven status is luring global investors fleeing political uncertainty in cities such as London and Hong Kong. The question is whether that can continue.

Originally developed by IVG Immobilien, the Squaire ran into trouble from the start. Construction costs ballooned to almost double the original budget just as the global financial crisis led to big write-downs in the value of the company’s portfolio.

After being taken over by a trio of hedge funds in 2014, IVG’s real-estate unit was eventually sold to Blackstone Group  for €3.3bn in 2016. The Squaire was valued at about €643m shortly before the deal was agreed, according to mortgage filings at the time.

By the time Blackstone sold the property three years later, the private-equity firm had put it on a much sounder financial footing. The amount of empty space dropped from 10% to just 2%, while tenants had an average of 10 years left on their leases compared with a little over four years in 2016, according to people familiar with the process. They asked not to be identified because the information was private. A spokesperson for Blackstone declined to comment.

Now the building’s Korean owner has the task of finding a tenant to replace Lufthansa, which occupied 10,000m2 of office space. Fortunately for Hana Financial, the airline can’t break its lease until May 2022 at the earliest. Hana declined to comment.

The good news for the wider German market is that office vacancy levels in cities from Hamburg to Berlin are regarded by some as too low, preventing expanding companies from leasing space in prime locations. In that sense, a slight slackening of the rental market could actually prove positive.

“We’re experiencing one of the biggest economic crises since World War 2,” Henning Koch, a board member of Commerz Real Estate, said in an interview. “Still, that won’t have an immediate effect on demand because vacancy rates are so low — about 2% in Berlin or Munich. That’s not healthy.”


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