Investment Focus: Why property remains a good match for charities

Liam Kay finds that there are strong signs in this market, especially in pooled funds

The John Lewis distribution centre in Redditch is owned by the CPF
The John Lewis distribution centre in Redditch is owned by the CPF

Major retailers such as Sainsbury's, Halfords, Tesco, John Lewis, Homebase and Wickes all have strong records of supporting the sector through their charitable initiatives. But less well known is the fact that they are indirectly funding hundreds of charities across the country by having branches based in buildings owned by the Charities Property Fund, a fund that invests in commercial property and is open only to charity investors.

The fund has performed admirably in recent years, producing a return of 12.6 per cent in the past 12 months against a market average of 10.6 per cent. When this is measured over three, five and 10 years, the fund has produced returns on investment of 13.7 per cent, 10.2 per cent and 5.1 per cent respectively, all of which have outperformed market averages.

In December 2009, the CPF had £229m in property and capital and 928 investors. By December 2015 this had grown to £1.053bn and 1,859 investors.

The CPF's positive results have been replicated across the sector, with the property market blossoming over the past 18 months.

John Kelly, director of client investments at the charity fund manager CCLA, says that over the past couple of years investors in the property market have seen significant returns of up to 15 to 16 per cent.

He says that sentiment towards the property sector "has completely transformed itself, and investors that were generally cautious of underlying trends have become much more enthusiastic".

Kelly advises that charities considering investing in the property market should model their returns on strong rental value expansion, with expected returns likely to be in the region of 5 per cent to 8 per cent. While not at the level of the previous 18 months, the returns are still above inflation and represent a relatively safe bet compared with other markets.

But some types of property are performing better than others. Kelly says that offices are performing well, at rental growth of 8.5 per cent to the end of March 2016, and industrial property has also produced rental growth of 5 per cent. In contrast, retail property is struggling, mainly because high-street locations are becoming less popular.

Andrew Croft, chief executive of the third sector office and investment provider Can Mezzanine, says the greatest value is in so-called tertiary property in areas outside what is traditionally deemed prime real estate but which are likely to increase in value over the long term.

"Don't fall in love with the building - fall in love with the transaction," Croft says. "Be less vain about the purchase and more interested in the functionality you are looking to achieve and the kind of asset utilisation factors you might be able to achieve within the building."

Harry de Ferry Foster, fund director for the CPF, says that pooled funds such as the one he runs have their advantages. He says charities that invest this way will be accessing a large fund - worth more than £1bn in the case of the CPF - without having to make the large investment required to build a diversified portfolio. The CPF has a minimum investment of about £10,000, which, while still large, is tiny compared with that needed to buy property, let alone build a diversified property portfolio.

Furthermore, pooled funds do not require charities to pay stamp duty, so they avoid about 3 per cent in additional costs they would have to pay in more mainstream funds.

Kelly says that buying into a pooled fund reduces a charity's exposure to risk by having a diversified property portfolio. But he warns that charities need to consider the dominant characteristics of the fund and whether they meet the charity's needs. If the right fund is chosen, property provides consistent returns over the long term, he says.

"Property is a good match for many charities - it has the characteristic of solid income and, over time, reasonable capital returns," Kelly says.

"The characteristics of each individual property are extreme, so you have to make sure that someone, somewhere gives you a blended portfolio. If you are buying a blended portfolio, ask yourself if its strategy is aligned with yours - whether growth or income is its priority - and if it is an efficient sum for you."

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