Building boom turning to bust as Turkey’s economy slows

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The villas are worth between $400,000 to 500,000 each. (AFP)
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The project to build 732 villas and a shopping center, which began in 2014, encountered difficulties as Sarot Group applied for bankruptcy protection. (AFP)
Updated 09 January 2019

Building boom turning to bust as Turkey’s economy slows

  • The villas close to the town center of Mudurnu in the Bolu region are intended to resemble European architecture and are part of the Sarot Group’s Burj Al Babas project
  • The ambitious development has been hit by regional turmoil as well as the slump in the Turkish construction industry

MUDURNU, Turkey: Deep in a provincial region of northwestern Turkey, it looks like a mirage — hundreds of luxury houses built in neat rows, their pointed towers somewhere between French chateau and Disney castle.
Meant to provide luxurious accommodations for foreign buyers, the houses are however standing empty in what is anything but a fairytale for their investors.
The ambitious development has been hit by regional turmoil as well as the slump in the Turkish construction industry — a key sector — as the country’s economy heads toward what could be a hard landing in an intensifying downturn.
After a long period of solid growth, Turkey’s economy contracted 1.1 percent in the third quarter, and many economists expect it will enter into recession this year.
The country has been hit by high inflation and a currency crisis in August. The lira lost 28 percent of its value against the dollar in 2018 and markets are still unconvinced by the readiness of the government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to tackle underlying economic issues.
The villas close to the town center of Mudurnu in the Bolu region are intended to resemble European architecture and are part of the Sarot Group’s Burj Al Babas project.
But the development of 732 villas and a shopping center — which began in 2014 — is now in limbo as Sarot Group has sought bankruptcy protection.
It is one of hundreds of Turkish companies that have done so as they seek cover from creditors and to restructure their debts.
Sarot Group filed for bankruptcy after some of their Gulf customers could not pay for the villas they had bought as part of the $200 million (175 million euros) project, Sarot’s deputy chairman, Mezher Yerdelen, said.
So far, $100 million has been spent on the project.
“Some of the sales had to be canceled,” Yerdelen told AFP, after the company sold 351 villas to Arab investors.
The villas are worth between $400,000 and $500,000 each. They were designed with the Gulf buyers in mind, architect Yalcin Kocacalikoglu said.
While the drop in oil prices hurt its Gulf customers, Sarot Group was also hit by “the negative impact of the economic fluctuations on construction costs” in Turkey, Yerdelen said.
Despite a legal battle over its bankruptcy status, Yerdelen said the company can continue making sales and that he hopes the project will be inaugurated in October 2019.
Yet the Al Babas project is hardly alone. Unfinished and empty housing projects are strewn across the country, testimony to the trouble the construction sector, and the wider economy, now finds itself in.
The construction sector has been a driving force of the Turkish economy under the rule of Erdogan, who has overseen growth consistently above the global average since he came to power in 2003.
But the sector contracted 5.3 percent on-year in the third quarter of 2018.
“Three out of four companies seeking bankruptcy protection or bankruptcy are construction companies,” said Alper Duman, associate professor at Izmir University of Economics.
“Whether we call it a construction bubble or a housing bubble, there is a bubble in Turkey,” he said.
He pointed to unsold housing stock as the main indicator of this, with data showing in that over the past 16 years 10.5 million apartments have been built but only eight million have been approved for use.
“There is a high risk this bubble will burst,” he said.
Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan said in mid-December that 846 companies had applied for bankruptcy protection since March 2018 but opposition daily Sozcu claimed in October the figure was more than 3,000.
Turkish Chamber of Civil Engineers head Cemal Gokce expressed pessimism, predicting “more bankruptcy protection applications, bankruptcies” among construction companies.
He said too many homes have been built in Turkey.
And most are not luxury villas like Burj Al Babas with its style reminiscent of the Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disney theme parks, but simple apartments and homes for ordinary Turks.
The construction confidence index of the Turkish Statistical Institute (TurkStat) fell 2.1 percent in December to 55.4, after 56.6 in the previous month. Anything below 100 indicates a pessimistic outlook.
However, Kerim Alain Bertrand, who previously headed up a firm that provided and analyzed data on Turkey’s real estate market, said recently he was more optimistic, partly due to the country’s growing population.
“The construction sector is this country’s locomotive sector,” he said.
While there will be a consolidation in the sector, it will “continue to be kept alive” by the young population, he added.
The median age of the population in Turkey was 31.7 in 2017, according to TurkStat, compared to 42.8 in the European Union.


INTERVIEW: ‘A rule for life — don’t lose money’

Updated 17 November 2019

INTERVIEW: ‘A rule for life — don’t lose money’

  • The Blackstone co-founder talks about his career at the top of the financial tree — and Saudi Arabia’s ambitious transformation plans

DUBAI: I must confess I was a little nervous about telling Stephen Schwarzman, co-founder and CEO of the gigantic financial group Blackstone, that I had not read every single word of his recently published book “What is Takes — Lessons in the Pursuit of Excellence.”

Ahead of our intercontinental conference-call interview, his aides had told me that he could work out pretty quickly if an interviewer had read it or not, and a recent interview in the Financial Times had made the point that he is not the type of man to indulge perceived lapses equably.

There was a long silence when I told him that, although I had read large chunks of it, I had not quite finished it, but I needn’t have worried. I have seen Schwarzman speak on many occasions, most recently at the Future Investment Initiative in Riyadh, and he was as pleasant and softly spoken on the phone with me as he had invariably been on those occasions. No expletives or combativeness during our phone call.

Schwarzman is pretty high up the list of the most powerful people in the world. Worth some $18 billion, he is one of the financial “masters of the universe” who count presidents, kings and princes among his circle of friends, and who has the fate of hundreds of thousands of employees in Blackstone’s portfolio companies in his hands.

Why did he write the book, which is a mixture of autobiographical memoire and self-help advice?

“I was mostly trying to give people advice and used myself as a literary device. My life’s been pretty interesting, and I’m writing about the types of things that happen to almost everyone — how through dejection and disappointment you scramble to reinvent yourself and learn from your mistakes to establish a new paradigm,” he explained.

The message from the book seems to be encapsulated in the first of his “25 rules for work and life”: “It’s as easy to do something big as to do something small, so reach for a fantasy worthy of your pursuit, with rewards commensurate with your effort.”

The response to publication has been “marvellous,” he said, including a story about a woman who had passed it on to her children as a primer for life.

Schwarzman’s own life is one that, arguably, could only have been possible in the post-war US. From small-town beginnings in suburban Philadelphia, the son of second generation immigrants who ran a linen store, he worked hard at school, got into Yale, was a track-star who signed up for the Vietnam-era army reserve and ended on Wall Street, after Harvard Business School.

A decade of fast-learning at Lehman Brothers in the 1970s — where he rose to be head of global mergers and acquisitions — gave way to disillusionment when the venerable firm was sold, and gave him the spark for what was to become Blackstone, one of the world’s foremost private equity investors.

I suggested that he had “invented” the private equity business, but he was not having that. “Inventing may be a bit too grand. What we did do was invent in effect the full-line alternative assets firm, you could call it the full-line private equity firm, which doesn’t just buy companies, which a normal private equate firm does. We also buy real estate, we also lend money, we buy credit products, we also have a big hedge fund operation.


BIO

Born: Philadelphia, US, 1947

Education

  • Abingdon Senior High School, Philadelphia
  • Yale University, bachelor of arts
  • Harvard Business School, master’s in business administration.

Career

  • Analyst, Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette.
  • Managing director and head of global M&A, Lehman Brothers.
  • Co-founder and CEO, Blackstone.
  • Numerous political advisory and philanthropic positions.

 

“We started out with one private equity fund, but we now have over 50 different business lines. We were pioneers in looking at new things that could be done within a private framework. Our high performance products typically earn double the stock market and almost never lose money,” he said.

He and his co-founder, Peter Peterson, put $400,000 into Blackstone in 1985. The firm now has $554 billion in assets and $62 billion in market value. Innovation has been the key to that success, identifying new sectors, new geographies and new financial products.

But old-fashioned bricks-and-mortar has also played a big role. Schwarzman saw a buying opportunity in the US real estate market when property prices fell, and Blackstone is now the “largest owner of real estate in the world,” he said.

I asked whether the current trend for valuation was up or down — for instance in New York.

His response echoed the recent comments from his friend President Donald Trump who moved his permanent residence from his home town to Florida. “New York has some special circumstances and doesn’t have as good prospects as some other places. We have extremely high taxes in New York which discourages people,” he said.

I think the Kingdom has got very ambitious plans for both growth and reform, individual rights especially for women.

 

Other parts of the US real estate market are more appealing. “You do the best typically when you buy near water, so the east and west coasts tend to be the best places to buy.” But the best property asset classes are warehouses, he said, which are benefiting from the logistics boom brought about by the likes of Amazon’s home delivery services. He has around $1 billion in warehouse assets.

Blackstone went public in 2007, just ahead of the global financial which it navigated much more successfully than many on Wall Street, including his old employer Lehman Brothers which became the largest bankruptcy in American history.

Schwarzman was able to use to broad spread of Blacktone’s global business to “see what was going on, this massive housing bubble,” before the crisis hit. He stopped investment in some real estate projects, sold down property related loans and shorted sub-prime mortgages, even making some money out of the meltdown, though he admits to some “very minimal damage.”

“We had exited, while many of the others were like the people sitting on a beach in Thailand watching the tsunami coming in. We were already a few miles inland by the time it hit,” he said. Blackstone has grown sixfold since the crisis.

Another reason for my initial trepidation on talking to Schwarzman was a warning from his advisers not to ask him too early in the conversation about the Middle East. For the past few years, he has been a confidant and business partner of Saudi Arabia, appearing on panels and forums in the Kingdom and speaking supportively of the Vision 2030 strategy, but the region does not figure too prominently in the book.

Founded in 1985 with with just a $400,000 capital, Blackstone now has $554 billion in assets and $62 billion in market value. (AP file photo)

 

There are only a couple of references to the Gulf — a capital-raising trip in the early 1990s that “bombed,” and a Kuwait-Dubai visit that nearly turned into disaster when a colleague had to be evacuated after a medical emergency by a private plane that developed engine trouble over Iran. (All ended well.)

The book ends before his most recent involvement with Saudi Arabia, the $40 billion infrastructure fund jointly invested with the Public Investment Fund, but he is happy to update his relationship with the Middle East.

“We have extensive relationships with the region. Let me give you some perspective: Since my first trip to Riyadh, it has grown seven times in population; many of the roads were dirt roads back then, but now the city is a huge, super-modern city. It’s changing so fast.

“I was in Kuwait six weeks after the Iraqi invasion was thrown back, and you could still smell cordite and see bullet holes all over. That’s where we got our first money in the region, the Kuwaitis were so grateful and we were the first Americans many of them had seen,” he said.

Saudi Arabia has been a Blackstone focus for the past couple of years. “I think the Kingdom has got very ambitious plans for both growth and reform, individual rights especially for women. Those are all good things.

“There’s a huge emphasis on the digital economy there, which is quite unusual by the historic background, and 70 percent of the population is under 30. There has been a positive response from them for what is going on there,” he added.

The $40 billion fund with PIF was “going quite well,” he said, especially against the background of low interest rates. He and PIF have bought one of the biggest ports businesses in north America and a big US pipeline business.

Like many wealthy self-made men, philanthropy is an increasing element of his personal philosophy. Schwarzman estimated he has given away something over $1 billion to a variety of philanthropic ventures, ranging from a cultural center at Yale University to the biggest ever donation to a British educational institute, a £150 million ($193 million) gift to Oxford University.

He seems most proud of the Schwarzman Scholars, a program at Tsinghua University in China which he hopes will help defuse the tensions between the US and China that have resulted in trade wars that have damaged the global economy.

That fits in perfectly with the Schwarzman philosophy. Rule number 19 in his 25-item list is: “Don’t lose money,” but he noted: “You might say that’s the No.1 rule.”