By Sujata Rao
LONDON (Reuters) - Commercial real estate has hit the headlines this week, a victim of the recent Brexit vote which has left over $20 billion trapped in funds that not long ago promised investors a slice of London's red-hot property market
Money placed in real estate vehicles managed by big asset management firms such as Standard Life and Henderson may have yielded strong returns during the boom years, but with the pound in freefall and Britain headed toward economic recession, the flip side of such investments is fast becoming evident.
The ins and outs of commercial property investments remain a mystery to many. But put very simply, this week's seize-up - the biggest since the 2008 crisis - has unfolded as punters lined up to demand their cash back from the asset managers.
The reason behind the outflow wave? Fears that economic uncertainty after Britons' decision to exit the EU will hit demand from companies to rent and buy commercial property.
In normal times, most funds allow investors to pull out their money daily. But when redemption requests balloon, as they did this week, funds may run out of cash and must then sell the buildings they own. That process can take months.
"Property is an illiquid asset and this week shows what can happen to illiquid assets when the fundamentals/facts change," Deutsche Bank reminded clients.
Many property investors will also remember the 2008 crisis when funds hit by huge redemptions were forced into a fire sale of commercial buildings, eventually bringing central London property prices down by as much as 40 percent.
Fund suspensions aim to avert this scenario by giving the asset managers more time to sell property.
Some managers such as Legal & General and F&C have resorted to less extreme measures such as reassessing the value of the fund to account for likely changes in market pricing even if sales data has yet to justify the figure.
That means anyone who wants money back must accept a lower price than was established the last time the property portfolio was formally valued - essentially an incentive to leave cash in the fund.
One thing has changed since the last crisis - the amount of money involved is far higher, exacerbated by shifts in the global investment landscape.
British property markets along with other business hotspots such as New York and Singapore have seen a huge influx of cash from investors - domestic and foreign - seeking to escape crushingly low or even negative yields on bond markets.
An investment in real estate on the other hand offered deep-pocketed money managers, such as sovereign wealth funds (SWF) or insurance firms, the promise of an asset that would hopefully appreciate in value while also providing handsome rental income.
Average SWF exposure to real estate rose to 6.5 percent in 2015 from 3 percent in 2012, according to a recent survey by Invesco, while a Reuters poll found in June that global funds held an average 2.9 percent of portfolios in property - the highest in at least five years.
In absolute terms, the value of investment in commercial property worldwide topped $650 billion at the end of 2015, more than four times 2009 levels, data portal Statista estimates.
This week's turmoil is likely to raise questions about how best to invest in property in future. Many are calling Britain's Financial Ombudsman Service to complain about the fund suspensions and the potential hit to their savings.
"Time and again investors are faced with making the difficult choice between withstanding the woes that strike when fear overshadows the property market, and paying a high price tag to liquidate their investments," Morningstar investment research analyst Muna Abu-Habsa.
She reckons property investors may be better served by real estate investment trusts (REITs) - closed funds with a set number of shares that pay dividends to shareholders. At REITs investors who want money back just sell their shares and trusts don't have to sell assets to meet redemptions.
However, shares in UK REITs, too, have slumped since the vote, with those from F&C and Schroders, for instance, down as much as 20 percent in the past two weeks.
What's the outlook?
Some deep-pocketed funds such as SWFs will be able to wait out some volatility. Longer-term, much depends on how Brexit is negotiated and whether foreign firms and banks exit London.
Many reckon that even with the suspensions, large numbers of properties will be sold cheaply, leading to price corrections that will ripple out from London across the country.
UBS Asset Management said it already expected price declines of 4-10 percent on City properties in 2017-2018 due to large volumes of construction. Now weaker demand due to Brexit could cause bigger falls, it added.
(Reporting by Sujata Rao, Simon Jessop and Carolyn Cohn; Editing by Toby Chopra)