An update from our investment manager, Evert Castelein
In this podcast we are joined by investment manager Evert Castelein. Here he gives a top level perspective of the logistics sector across Europe in recent months and explores some of the long-term drivers for this Trust. He also discusses the portfolio in more detail and talks us through the importance of maintaining a dialogue with tenants.
Recorded on Thursday 1st October 2020.
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Interviewer: Welcome to the Aberdeen Standard Investment Trusts podcast series, where we get an update from our investment trust managers on their current positioning and the prospects for their sectors. Today we welcome Evert Castelein, Manager of the Aberdeen Standard European Logistics Income Trust, hi Evert. This has been a difficult time for commercial property generally, but in contrast it's also been a favourable time for some of the key long-term drivers on the Trust, such as online retail. Can you give me a top level perspective on the logistics sector across Europe in recent months?
Evert: Yes, of course. I think if you look at the logistics sector, in the last few years, it has been one of the strongest performing sectors in the real estate market and we expect that to remain the case going forward. If for example you look at our house view, we assume that logistics is going to outperform retail and offices, sectors that are being challenged by the working from home situation. And also the growing online consumption which is actually beneficial for logistics, as you said. So of course, logistics has not been immune to what has happened with the Covid virus as it’s an integral part of the economy. And now that there’s a recession across Europe, we clearly see that some companies are struggling, but as a sector logistics has proven to be very resilient. If we look at what’s happened this year, we noticed that the logistics supply chain was disrupted, especially in March and April when several countries went in lockdown in order to flatten the curve. And this has had a disruptive impact on supply chains that were very much focused on efficiency, ‘just in time’ deliveries, making it vulnerable. And if one of the steps is falling away in that supply chain, then goods will not be delivered on time. So that's what we saw initially. And especially companies focusing on international trade, or the automotive industry, or high street fashion and retail or restaurants - they have been, and maybe still are, struggling. But at the same time, we've also seen companies that have benefited from the situation such as groceries, the pharmaceutical industry, and ecommerce in particular. So it’s a mixed picture of how companies are experiencing the current situation. Some may struggle to survive, which could potentially lead to a small increase in vacancy levels. A good thing is that the starting point for the occupier market is really strong as there is an undersupplied situation across Europe with only 4% vacancy on aggregate. So that's extremely low. And there are a couple of structural trends supporting demand side for logistics space such as the rise of ecommerce, which I already mentioned, but also the reshoring of manufacturing activities and building up of inventory levels. If you start with the first one, ecommerce, we strongly believe that the growth of online sales is a structural trend. And yeah, more people are buying more online and in Europe, in 2019, online sales made up 10% of the total retail sales. And this is expected to increase to 15% this year, so that's quite a steep increase. And of course, as always, the best example to look at is Amazon. If you look at what they have done in the last few months, they have recruited 100,000 additional staff and they're expanding their logistics stock by 20%. So that's a big trend. But other big trends are the reshoring of manufacturing facilities - also called de-globalisation - which is a very strong trend. Many companies right now are moving their production activities from China back to Europe. And part of that maybe is related to an increase in wages or the trade war between the US and China. Another very important reason is that many companies wish to make supply chains more resilient to external shocks such as the virus outbreak and lockdown situation. So bringing production back home makes them less vulnerable, and for the same reason many companies are increasing their inventory levels. Something that was seen as weak management in the past because of extra cost, but now we realise that supply chains were maybe too efficient and focused on ‘just on time’ deliveries. And this is now changing, resulting in more demand for logistics space in Europe on aggregate. So this is what we see happening in the occupier market but if you look at the investment market, it's very clear that investors are recognising the opportunities making logistics as an asset class very hot. New fund launches are taking place, fund managers are reviewing existing strategies, for example moving away from hotels and retail and directing capital towards logistics with a strong focus on quality. So high demand will lead to competition and probably result in yield compression and higher property values. So we like to believe that ASELI (Aberdeen Standard European Logistics Income) is very well positioned to benefit from this flight to quality with the portfolio that we have.
Interviewer: Okay, that's great. Can you talk us through the portfolio is as it exists today, and in particular, your focus on the more liquid part of the market?
Evert: Yes, we have a very high quality portfolio with 14 warehouses in the portfolio across five different countries in Europe. Eight of the warehouses actually have been erected in the last few years so they are almost brand new. The majority of the capital has been invested in the Netherlands, where we have six assets right now. And this makes perfect sense to me as the Netherlands is seen as the gateway to the west European market thanks to its strategic geographical position and the largest port in Europe, which is the port of Rotterdam. And that's the starting point for large transport corridors leading towards Germany, Belgium and France to the south. So besides the Netherlands, we have also built up exposure in Germany with two warehouses in the Frankfurt Rhine-Main, two in France, two in Spain and two in Poland. It’s a very high quality portfolio. In sourcing deals, one of the key things to look at for us is liquidity. And with the Trust, we are investing in the most liquid part of the market where there's a lot of demand from both occupiers and investors. So within the segment of big boxes, we are focusing on mid-sized assets, as we think the ultra-big boxes with lot size above 1 million sq ft, for example, leased out to likes of Amazon has absolutely a role to play. But there's probably no alternative if a tenant leaves or gives you a hard time in renegotiating the terms or the maturity of the lease. So these buildings are so big and bespoke that we think it's better to invest in smaller sized assets that typically have a lot size of around 30, 40, maybe 50 thousand square metres.
So that's one. Another focus points for the fund is on urban logistics, a part of the market that we lack in particular. Urban logistics are the last mile delivery hubs. It’s the final step in the supply chain that is needed to deliver the goods that people have ordered online to the end consumer. And the way these operators are competing with each other is on delivery times so you need to get close and at the same the urbanization trend makes cities grow bigger. So there's a lot of competition for land and land prices are going up. And that ultimately will be reflected in higher rents. So we have very high growth expectations for urban logistics where we have built up quite a bit of exposure with the portfolio. The way I look at assets to get an idea of the liquidity is always by asking myself the question, if the warehouse has a second-life, in case the tenants would leave? Am I spending capital on a very large, bespoke, not flexible building with a long lease and a strong tenant on a secondary location, hoping the tenant won’t leave? Or am I investing in an established location with a lot of dynamics and with a building that, due to modern specification, can easily be leased out to another company? And I prefer the latter. I think that's a more liquid investment. And all our assets, I think are located on established locations and have these modern specifications that are needed in today's market. And, yeah, this is what you need, I think to build a durable income stream and pay stable dividends to investors.
Interviewer: Okay, so we can look at the income side in a bit more detail. I understand that rent collection has been reasonably robust, but where you have had tenants in some distress, what sort of conversations have you been having with them?
Evert: Well, I'm very happy with the rent collection so far. Our current estimate for the full year 2020 is that we will collect 97% of annual rent this year. And in today's market, I think that's really high. It's fair to say that the second quarter was challenging as companies started to feel the impact of the lockdown situation. We have collected 85% of rents due for the second quarter. And then the third quarter that number was 96%. Discussions evolve around rent deferrals or rent-frees in combination with material lease extensions. So these were the two options on the table. The majority of the discussions on rent-frees took place in our multi-tenant buildings, where we are dealing with shorter lease durations and where we normally would have had the same discussion on prolongations within the next few years or so. So on balance, there's hardly any difference, I think between the three year cash flow projection pre-Covid and now. And for me as the fund manager, I’m based in Amsterdam, it's really important to have support from our local resources within Aberdeen Standard Investments. ASI is the second largest real estate investor in Europe. And we have local boots on the ground, asset managers that are taking care of day to day business so they are liaising with our tenants, and making sure we make the right decisions together. And it really helps if your colleague based locally speaks the local language to get the best deal together. And, yeah, the property business is really a local and people's business. And that's why scale and local presence is really important. And it's something that sets us apart as a house.
Interviewer: And the Trust has recently maintained its quarterly dividend, which gives some stability for the shareholders. But how are you feeling about the rest of the year and looking into 2021? Are you kind of optimistic, pessimistic?
Evert: I'm not going to predict the future. But all I can say is, based on what we know today, that the logistics as a sector is really hot, and that we are in a really good position with ASELI. So overall, I'm very optimistic and the quality of the portfolio is really high, we have very liquid assets that are all fully leased out, and there's no vacancy, and we've managed the impact of Covid on our tenant portfolio with a satisfying result. And also the loan portfolio, it's very important to realise that there's sufficient headroom on the financial covenants that we have agreed with banks such as LTV and ICR ratios. So risks here are limited which ultimately resulted together with a strong rent collection to keep paying out the dividends, like we've done in Q1 and Q2.
If we look at the future of the logistics sector overall, I think it's really strong thanks to structural drivers such as the growth of e-commerce, which has really given a boost to the sector. And as a Trust, we have ambition to grow as well and to diversify risk with more assets in the portfolio and also focus on our existing portfolio by adding value to these assets with our local teams, for example, by extending our buildings, or by putting solar panels on the roofs and reduce the carbon footprint. So for me as a fund manager, the focus is very much on rent collection, keeping our tenants happy, adding value through active asset management, and growing the fund with new assets with the credit facility that we have put in place, which is a facility that allows us to buy an asset first before we go back to the market for a new capital raise. And at the moment, I'm looking at quite a few interesting deals with local transaction managers, both on an on- and off-market basis.
Interviewer: Great. Okay, thank you Evert for those insights today. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in. You can find out more about the trust at www.eurologisticsincome.co.uk and please do look out for future episodes.
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