State-run monopoly Vietnam Electricity began construction of the 33- and 29- story dual-tower development in 2007, a year when 54 percent credit growth helped fuel the fastest economic expansion since 1996. Now, the economy has slowed, banks are struggling with an increase in bad debts, and unfinished property projects, empty offices and lower rents risk adding to the pile of non-performing loans.

“Banks were far too eager to lend and a lot of the projects that have been built haven’t been well-thought through,” said Stephen Wyatt, managing director for real estate broker Knight Frank Vietnam in Ho Chi Minh City. “A number of developments are on hold, purely because they have run out of funding. Banks are no longer willing to fund these massive developments.”

Vietnam’s economy, which the government opened up in 1986, expanded at a 4.7 percent annual rate in the third quarter, after exceeding 7 percent from 2002 through to the first quarter of 2008. After a lending binge fueled the fastest inflation in Asia, policy makers raised interest rates in 2010 and 2011, and restricted lending. Among the casualties are many of the nation’s inefficient state-owned enterprises, which had diverted cash to property developments.

“When the developer is a state-owned enterprise and is using the money it should be using for say, power generation, airlines, shipping or banking, that’s where the oversupply has come,” said Marc Townsend, the Ho Chi Minh City-based managing director of CBRE Group Inc.’s Vietnam unit. “They all felt they could make easy money by being a property developer.”

Property investments

State firms’ so-called non-core investments, such as property and stocks, account for as much as 12 percent of their registered capital, Deputy State Auditor Le Minh Khai said in July. The Communist Party’s Central Committee on October 15 called on state-owned enterprises to end non-core investments.

Office and retail rents in Vietnam’s two largest cities have slumped as a wave of supply entered the market at a time when slowing economic and retail-sales growth curbs demand for commercial real estate. The Hanoi market added more office and retail space since the start of 2011 than in the previous four years combined, according to property broker CBRE.

The average asking rent for top-grade central business district office space in Hanoi was about $47 per square meter per month in 2009, more than double the levels for the same grade space in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur at that time, according to data from the Vietnam unit of Los Angeles-based CBRE. The rate was 11 percent lower at $42.01 per square meter in the third quarter.

Average asking rents for Grade B office space in the capital’s western district, where some of the nation’s largest state-owned enterprises have their headquarters, have fallen 39 percent since the first quarter of 2009, and slid 22 percent in the city’s central business district, according to the data.

“I have never seen rents decline this fast in the market,” said Son Nam Nguyen, managing partner at Vietnam Capital Partners, an investment bank in Ho Chi Minh City. “If real estate rents and values continue to decrease as we’ve seen in the past three months and six months, the biggest risk is we will see developers walk away from projects and banks’ bad assets will increase very rapidly.”

Bad debt

Real estate loans totaled VND203 trillion (US$9.7 billion) as of August 31, of which 6.6 percent were classified as bad debt, Minister of Construction Trinh Dinh Dung told the National Assembly on October 31, citing a State Bank of Vietnam report. A broader category of real estate-related loans, including property-backed debt, account for 57 percent of total outstanding borrowing, or about VND1,000 trillion, he said.

Average office occupancy in Hanoi fell 2 percentage points to 79 percent in the third quarter from the previous three-month period, according to data from property broker Savills Plc, while average rents dropped 4 percent. The number of new leases signed in the period slid to the lowest this year.

Office occupancy rates in Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s commercial hub, rose 1 percentage point to 87 percent in the third quarter from three months earlier, while average monthly rents fell 2 percent to about VND540,000 per square meter from the April-June period, with almost a quarter of buildings lowering their rates, according to Savills.

Almost 16 percent of available Hanoi retail space was vacant at the end of the third quarter, according to CBRE, with most free space to be found in the capital’s shopping centers, which had an occupancy rate of 82 percent.

Risks ‘understated’

Many of Vietnam’s 1,300 state-owned enterprises are reportedly facing losses because of their recent forays into property, said Alfred Chan, director of financial institutions at Fitch Ratings in Singapore.

“It is not obvious, if you were just to look at the disclosure, what the potential risks to the banking sector are if you just look at the real estate sector,” Chan said. “Some of this exposure could well come from non-real estate companies that have ventured into that sector.”

Non-performing loans at banks are “significantly understated” and could be three or four times higher than official estimates, Fitch Ratings said in a March report.

The central bank chief, Nguyen Van Binh, said in April the level of bad debt at some lenders may be “much higher” than reported. Bad debts in Vietnam’s banking system may have accounted for 8.82 percent of outstanding loans at the end of September, Nguyen Van Giau, head of the National Assembly’s economic committee, told legislators in Hanoi November 13.

Deserted tower

Office rents may decline by as much as another 15 percent in the next three years, said CBRE’s Townsend, particularly if economic growth remains subdued and direct foreign investment fails to recover. Pledged foreign-direct investment fell 25 percent from a year earlier in the first 10 months of 2012, the Foreign Investment Agency said on its website October 25.

On the bank of Ho Chi Minh City’s Saigon River, the construction site for the 40-story Saigon M&C Tower is deserted except for two security guards.

The $200 million project – a joint venture between Saigontourist Holding Company, M&C Joint Stock Company, Dong A Commercial Joint Stock Bank and Dong A Bank Securities Co. – broke ground in 2007 and was due to be completed in 2010, according to Saigontourist’s website. Today, ropes dangle from the first six floors, originally designed to incorporate a 23,000-square-meter commercial space, while glass paneling is incomplete on the remaining floors.

“A lot of these developments were conceived and built in an incredibly good market,” said Knight Frank’s Wyatt. “That market is all but gone.”

Thanh Nien / Bloomberg - November 30, 2012