Institutional investors “cherry-picking” best places to invest

by Kimberly Greene18 Nov 2019

Blackstone Group Inc. has an insatiable appetite for property. And as one of the world’s largest real estate investors looks for more to buy, the sky’s the limit on size.

“Anything is really possible,” Kathleen McCarthy, Blackstone’s co-head of real estate, said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. “There’s just less competition.”

Blackstone Chief Executive Officer Steve Schwarzman has long preached the virtues of scale. In a market where real estate assets “feel fairly fully valued in a lot of places,” that’s an added advantage, McCarthy said. The New York-based firm can deploy more capital faster and with greater certainty in complex situations.

Including two deals since June for a total of almost $25 billion, Blackstone has acquired a billion square feet of warehouse space in the past decade. McCarthy said logistics remains her highest-conviction bet, followed by offices and rental housing in so-called innovation centers such as Seattle and Stockholm, and “high-quality” travel destinations in coastal markets.

Blackstone’s play on e-commerce has shifted from large regional warehouses to smaller spaces in densely populated cities, because that’s what customers such as Inc. need to guarantee next-day or even day-of deliveries. By buying up multiple locations in the same areas, Blackstone gains control over supply, and with it pricing power.

“We see technology totally transforming the way goods move from businesses to people,” said McCarthy, who co-heads real estate with Ken Caplan. “Our clients want to be as close as they can get to the ultimate consumer.”

There is at least one serious competitor: Prologis Inc., which currently owns even more warehouse space in the U.S., has announced $14 billion of logistics deals in the past four months.

E-commerce isn’t the only hot spot in real estate. Low interest rates have spurred demand for everything from nursing homes to apartment buildings.

One consequence of all that competition for assets is ever-rising prices and, in residential areas, the soaring cost of housing. It’s such a problem on the West Coast, including in technology centers where Blackstone has been buying up rental properties, that Microsoft Corp., Google, Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc. have committed a total of $5 billion to alleviate the shortage of affordable space.

While local governments in cities such as San Francisco have focused on price as the main barrier to affordability, McCarthy said the real issue is lack of supply and barriers to construction, such as zoning laws.

“We can be a much bigger part of the solution,” she said. “We’re evaluating today a number of opportunities that would help us really add supply.”

Goldman Sachs Group, on the other hand, is focusing on the opportunities that exist in mid-size U.S. cities away from the coasts. These include Denver, Austin and Nashville, Jeffrey Fine, a managing director at the firm’s merchant-banking division, said at a conference hosted by the NYU School of Professional Studies.

“Companies are moving there, young people are moving there, there’s an affordability component to it,” Fine said. “We’re looking at places in Texas where taxes are having a big, big, big impact.”

Goldman’s merchant bank—which makes both debt and equity bets—is not a large investor in New York or Washington because of slower job growth and an unattractive supply-demand dynamic, he said.

Growth markets are also a focus of the Baupost Group, according to Nick Azrack, a managing director at the firm. There’s still money to be made, he said, even though markets like Nashville have already attracted significant investment.

“How tall can that tree grow, we don’t know, but we’ll keep trying to climb it, because why wouldn’t you?” he said. “If you can find a way to cushion your fall, that’s a great what to capitalize on those sorts of opportunities.”

Some investors are still putting money into coastal markets. Those areas have historically been better at preserving value during economic slowdowns, according to Cia Buckley Marakovits, chief investment officer of Dune Real Estate Partners. She said her firm is taking a “cherry-picking” approach on the coasts, while also investing in hospitality and health-care real estate.

“We’re just looking more holistically at what will outperform in a slowdown,” she said.