FT REPORT – PROPERTY 2008: US and Europe choose different routes

The coastal village of Sortland inside Norway’s Arctic Circle and the laid-back 300-days of sunshine a year village of Pipa, near some of the best tropical beaches in north-east Brazil, may seem to have little in common other than fishing. They do, however, share an important resident.

Sortland-raised Torben Frantzen, 36, one of the heirs to the Findus frozen fish empire, happens to have been on one of the first charter flights from Scandinavia to Brazil and fell in love with it.

He forsook Sortland and started developing hotels and resorts in the region, which is relatively under-developed and enjoys more sunshine, less violence and cheaper prices than the rest of Brazil.

Brazil and Mexico, between them accounting for 75 per cent of Latin America’s GDP and 50 per cent of the population, are usually the first choices for investors moving into the continent, says Pedro Azcue, Latin America CEO at Jones Lang LaSalle.

Despite the uncertainties created by the US economic crisis, institutional investors are allocating more to South America and Mexico, says Mr Azcue. Clients who started investing in Asia and have done well are looking for the next opportunity. They see Latin America as a logical next step up the risk curve.

Investment-grade Mexico has many of the prerequisites for safe investing, from the obvious, such as proximity to the US and high levels of English, to the practical, including real estate practices that are easy to grasp and advantageous, with contracts and leases usually denominated in US dollars.

Those European and US investors that take the plunge do so with very different aims, Mr Azcue points out. Europeans, dominated by German institutional funds, have been drawn by high and steady returns with a 7.5 per cent capitalisation rate - net annual operating income divided by the purchase cost - compared with 5 per cent at home.

Union Investment of Hamburg has made some $1.15bn in investments, he notes. While German investors look for a predictable income stream, US investors have embraced risk and are willing to fund from scratch projects earning returns on a leveraged basis of 15-20 per cent.

The relatively high risk-profile of US investments raises the big questio of how much the US economic downturn will hurt. “Projects that were relying on Wall Street-type financing are having a horrible time raising capital. US banks are referring business to the Mexican banks as they cannot execute new loans,” admits Mr Azcue.

In Brazil, meanwhile, Mr Frantzen is riding a wave. The second home and retirement market there is developing at a fast lick on the back of lower interest rates and economic growth.

Developers have access to cheap financing, something unthinkable three years ago, while global trends for further-flung second homes have brought in foreigners.

Brazilians are good at pizzazz. The launch of Mr Frantzen’s mega-resort Cabo São Roque starred a shirtless David Beckham and ageing Formula One driver Rubens Barrichello with clifftop press conferences. “That was a soft launch,” remarks Simon Rees, chief executive of the development, with no apparent trace of irony.

In a recent development in the north-east city of Fortaleza, Brazilians snapped up 70 per cent of the units, while Portuguese, Norwegians and Italians were the most significant foreign buyers.

For now, US second-home buyers remain firmly in second place behind Europeans in Brazil because of three main hassle factors: few direct flights to the north-east, Americans require a visa to enter Brazil and the dollar has weakened substantially against the real.

Work is in hand simplifying visa requirements and laying on more direct flights, while the exchange rate will presumably one day turn in favour of the US.

However, chronically weak infrastructure has dogged plans to increase tourist numbers, which remain at a paltry 5m. Banging heads together at the Ministry of Tourism and a greater Federal spend on infrastructure are improving matters, but progress is slow.

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