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Whether it's on the Old Kent Road or Mayfair, property provides both income and capital growth, and indirect invest...
Whether it's on the Old Kent Road or Mayfair, property provides both income and capital growth, and indirect investment makes management easier. Mark Smulian throws the dice

Most people have played Monopoly at some time and done their best to secure the high-income hotel on Mayfair.

Even some houses on Old Kent Road can turn in a respectable profit, and whoever really does own London's Fenchurch Street Station must be coining it in from the office development built above the platforms.

But how can a council get into this kind of profitable investment with real, rather than Monopoly, money?

Property is a specialised market with good returns and it can balance equities in an investment portfolio. But it is an easy place in which to come unstuck.

Buy the wrong property in the wrong place and one is dealing with 'chance' cards.

Until the last decade or so, investing in property usually required a council to buy actual buildings, then incur costs to manage lettings, tenants and maintenance.

The growth of indirect property investment has made things easier for pension funds because they can simply put money into funds that are specialised investors in property.

Thus they can exploit market growth without having to directly manage buildings, and can take advantage of their fund managers' expertise.

David Morley, director of institutional business at Henderson Global Investors, says: 'There is a more sophisticated use of property as an investment by councils, and what they are doing in indirect funds is using our specialist access to the market.'

Different sized funds are advised to invest in different ways, but Mr Morley says 'even the largest might not find it viable to invest directly in central London offices or in buying a shopping centre, and a building like that needs specialist management'.

He says it is 'essential to invest in the right property in the right place'. This, he says, is where market expertise comes in.

His fellow director Gabi Tein says central London offices in particular are expected to outperform the rest of the property market.

She says: 'Property provides a good diversification and good performance. It does not outperform other investments but it sits between bonds and equities as a sort of hybrid, because it gives a foreseeable income like bonds but also capital growth like equities.'

Many property funds are 'closed ended', which means an investor can leave only at the end of the fund's life. This has deterred councils, but is being overcome as shares in funds can be now sold privately.

'We have a register to bring together buyers and sellers of closed funds units though we do not make a market, they agree a price between themselves,' Ms Tein explains.

Peter MacPherson, managing director for business development at ING Estate Investment Management, which offers a similar service, says: 'Property is an attractive investment because it is a good diversifier with a good level of increases, real returns and a good proportionin income, so councils get money in their pockets.

'It is easier to get involved through indirect means. If you wanted to invest 20 years ago, you probably had to buy a building, and that created administrative problems disproportionate to returns. Now they can invest with ease and move in and out.'

Surrey CC has about 5% of its£1.25bn fund in property, says Mike Taylor, executive director for performance and resources.

'We use property through funds as we don't feel we are big enough to invest directly on our own,' he says. 'If our reassessment of asset liabilities allows it, we might go up towards having 10% in property.'

In the last 12 months, Surrey has achieved returns of 18.3% on property 'well ahead of anything else', Mr Taylor says.

Surrey's investment fund has put its money into a mixture of commercial properties.

'I do get asked why we do not invest in residential since some returns there can be good,' he says.

'The problem is there are not many funds operating in that area and my job is to get best value, and it does not do that.'

Peter Morris, director of pensions at Tameside MBC, increased its property portfolio in the late 1990s and the council has 10% of its fund in property, compared with an average of 6-7%, he says.

Property returns were not good in the late 1990s, but Tameside's advisers foresaw this was likely to change in the medium term, Property now gives 'double digit returns, while some equities are negative', he says.

However, Mr Morris does not agree with the sentiment for indirect investment. Tameside holds most of its property directly and owns a range of commercial premises.

'Direct control offers scope to outperform against the property market,' he says.

'We have about£650m invested and we choose to manage that in house. It outperforms indirect investment, though the differences are rather marginal.'

Mr Morris urges investment managers to 'look at what returns you are looking for and the way to get to that'.

Fact file

>> The average local authority pension fund has 6.5% of its total fund invested in commercial property, equivalent to£6bn

>> Some 80% have some property exposure, with the highest around 13% of the total portfolio

>> Returns to March 2004 for local authority property funds are 10.3% pa over 10 years and 11.1% pa over five years, the best-performing asset class over this period.

Sources: Henderson, WM Company

Property options

There are three main ways for councils to gain exposure to property:

>> Funds up to£15m into a single pooled property fund which invests across a range of sectors

>> Funds of£15m-£100m in a fund of funds, investing in a range of pooled funds plus specialist sectors such as shopping centres, retail warehouse parks and central London offices

>> Funds of more than£100m into a diversified portfolio of properties, supplemented by specialist sector funds.

Source: Henderson

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