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H&R REIT hits a roadblock with The Bow LORI MCLEOD November 14, 2008 When H&R Real Estate Investment Trust signed on as the owner and developer of EnCana Corp.'s new head office in Calgary last year, the deal marked a milestone. At the peak of the real estate boom in February, 2007, the handshake between the natural gas producer and the real estate developer set in motion the creation of a unique, crescent-shaped skyscraper which is set to become the tallest office tower west of Toronto. At the time it was announced the project known as The Bow, became a symbol of Calgary's coming of age as a Canadian financial powerhouse in the midst of the commodities boom. Almost two years later, times have changed and the development that was to become H&R's crown jewel has hit a funding wall. "At present there are no financing arrangements in place on any of the REIT's development projects, and the current difficult economic conditions have impacted H&R's financing strategy," the trust said late yesterday in a release of its third-quarter financial results. The trust said it is considering selling assets, including The Bow, to address its funding challenges. So far, attempts to find an investor for the project have failed and are unlikely to succeed until H&R moves further along with its financing and construction efforts, said Neil Downey, analyst at RBC Dominion Securities Inc. H&R's biggest problem has been the seizure of the credit markets, which happened swiftly, unexpectedly, and before it secured a construction loan for The Bow, said Dennis Mitchell, portfolio manager at Sentry Select Capital. Labour and materials costs are rising, and the cost of the project has risen from $1.1-billion to $1.4-billion. Adding to the pain is the downturn in the financial and commodities markets, which is sending office vacancy rates up and real estate values down. While the large scale of The Bow was a bit concerning, in "heady" times it was an exciting project, Mr. Mitchell said. "In February of 2007 you were essentially in the peak of the market. You were talking about [real estate firm] Equity Office Properties being purchased in a bidding war. You had people talking about a wall of capital coming into the markets. It was a pretty heady time," said Mr. Mitchell, whose firm recently sold nearly all of the 55 million H&R shares it owned. His view in February, 2007, was that H&R would be able to sell a 50-per-cent stake in the project at a gain in about six months. As the project proceeds, over budget and in need of $1.1-billion in funding, H&R is facing some tough choices, Mr. Downey said. While it was not mentioned as an option by H&R, Mr. Downey has raised the possibility of a distribution cut of up to 50 per cent, starting in 2009 and continuing until the project is completed in 2011, he said. "This would be a Draconian move by REIT standards," he added. However, it would provide H&R with an additional $300-million in capital, which should be enough to make up the financial shortfall if it can secure a $500-million construction loan, he said.
Housing market seen following commodities Value of building permits drops. Homes in Montreal, elsewhere overvalued by 10%, Merrill Lynch economist says ALIA MCMULLEN, Canwest News Service Published: 8 hours ago An outright decline in commodity prices could spell disaster for Canada's housing market, which already appears to have entered a "sustained downturn," David Wolf, an economist at Merrill Lynch Canada, warned yesterday. He said while the risk of a housing market crash was small, an "outright bust" in commodity prices would make the scenario "a rather more serious threat." The recent trickle of data has shown a significant slowdown in the country's housing market, following its record pace of growth. Demand has eased, supply continues to creep up, credit conditions remain tight, and house-price growth has turned flat with declines in some regions. The value of building permits in June fell a seasonally adjusted 5.3 per cent from the previous month, indicating that construction activity in the coming months probably will be lower, Statistics Canada figures showed yesterday. The data is notoriously volatile, but the trend rate of growth for residential building has declined since the beginning of the year. "Canada's housing market is entering a sustained downturn, in our view," Wolf said. "It does look like Canadian houses finally got too expensive, and builders too aggressive, for the underlying demand environment." He estimated that markets with the strongest price growth in recent years, such as Regina, Saskatoon, Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Sudbury, Ont., and Montreal, were all more than 10 per cent overvalued. On a national basis, Wolf predicts house price growth to remain flat. Merrill Lynch expects commodity prices to moderate over the medium term, a scenario that would aid in the housing market downturn but not cause an outright bust. Others, such as the CIBC, have a more bullish forecast for commodities, namely oil, expecting prices to continue to rise. This would continue to support Canada's terms of trade by bringing in higher export revenue relative to the amount spent on imports. But Wolf said the risk of a housing crash would become "a serious threat" if the recent correction in commodities continued because it could cause the terms of trade to deteriorate. The price of light crude has fallen about 18 per cent since peaking at a record high of $147.27 U.S. a barrel on July 11. Light crude for September delivery settled at $120.02 U.S. a barrel in New York yesterday. "The takeoff in commodity prices since 2002 has driven an enormous improvement in Canada's terms of trade, accounting for much of the strong growth in Canadian national income that has, in turn, provided the fundamental underpinning for the housing market boom," Wolf said. A Bank of Canada working paper by senior analyst Hajime Tomura earlier this year argued that a decline in the terms of trade would likely cause house prices to fall. It said "if households are uncertain about the duration of an improvement in the terms of trade, then house prices will abruptly drop when the terms of trade stop improving."