Spain: for sale.

Spain is for sale. And finally, it seems there are buyers. Dozens of investment funds from all over the world, but mostly from the United States, are buying apartment blocks, real estate firms, and even company debt. There are some vulture funds out for a quick buck, but most are looking for medium-term returns. “Two years ago, Spain was radioactive, and the property sector toxic. Suddenly it’s become our savior; it’s that stupid,” says one veteran real estate developer on condition of anonymity.

On February 7, 2012, when the future of the euro was still in the balance, Jaime Bergel, a former board member of energy giant Endesa, opened an office for 13-billion-dollar US investment fund HIG Capital in Madrid. “We had a feeling that people would come here looking for opportunities,” he says. In fact Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs were already here.

On August 6 of this year, HIG carried out its so-called Operation Toro, the first major sell-off of property accumulated by Sareb, the bank set up by the government to hoard unsold property and debt belonging to the country’s failed savings banks. HIG bought around 500 properties for a total of 50 million euros. Most of the properties are low-cost apartments in the outskirts of Madrid, Valencia, Seville, Málaga, Murcia and in the Canary Islands that so far nobody wants.

Investment funds have spent around two billion euros buying up property in Spain since April. Some experts are interpreting the great sell-off as good news, flushing the financial system with new money; others say that it is a de facto takeover of a significant chunk of the economy by foreign capital.

“We are looking for businesses with good assets and that are well managed but that can’t get their hands on the capital they need. We lend them the money and let them get on with running the business,” says Jesús Olmos, KKR’s representative in Madrid. In April, KKR lent 320 million euros to construction materials manufacturer Uralita over a seven-year period, and it has also taken positions in parking lot firm Saba and helicopter maker Inaer.

In 2008 Juan Vizcaíno, once of Lehman Brothers, set up Hipoges, which specializes in managing distressed assets. He now employs around 80 people in Madrid, and already manages assets valued at 2.3 billion euros, most of them in the form of property and bought at knock-down prices from the banks. “Most of the property we buy is new and hasn’t even been lived in. It was bought as an investment by people who have now gone abroad,” he says.

Vizcaíno says the toxic assets business has grown so fast that he has had to move office twice as he takes on new staff to keep up with demand. His current offices occupy more than 1,000 square meters in downtown Madrid: “We are spectacularly busy. Interest in Spain has multiplied tenfold,” he says.

In August, the owners of Mexican fund Fibra Uno bought more than 900 offices that had originally belonged to Banco Sabadell, which the bank had sold to a US fund for 300 million euros. The Catalan regional government sold 13 buildings to French company AXA for 172 million euros in a deal that sees the government pay rent on them. With a profit rate of 9.45 percent, in just under a decade AXA will have recouped its investment in rent alone.

Meanwhile, the Popular Party-controlled regional government of Madrid is busy selling off chunks of housing stock built for low-income families. On June 24, Madrid’s Municipal Housing and Property Company (EMVS) said that it had sold 1,860 low-rent apartments to Blackstone, an associate of Spanish property developer Magic Real Estate, for 128.5 million euros. Blackstone is one of the world’s largest investment funds, with assets of 60 billion dollars.

The purchase looks like a classic vulture fund move: buying where nobody else dared to strip the assets and sell as soon as possible. “Blackstone knows that 85 percent of property in Spain is privately owned, with just 15 percent rented out. The average in Europe is 70/30. Eventually Spain will get to that point. If the figure shifts from 15 percent to 25 percent, that is 2.7 million properties that will enter the rental market. In Germany, Blackstone has 50,000 properties for rent, but until now, there weren’t enough properties available for it to be worth buying in Spain,” says a source close to the operation.

Blackstone is obliged to continue the low-rental policy for a decade, during which time it will operate a zero-tolerance policy toward tenants who fall behind with payments, and after which it can rent them out at higher prices. Most of the properties are in the working-class district of Carabanchel, in the southwest of the city. Speaking to tenants in one block that has been sold off, it is clear most have no idea who the new owners of their homes are. One man says he has stopped paying his rent because he no longer knows who to make the transfer to. Average rents here are around 200 euros a month for a three-bedroom apartment. Many homes have never been occupied.

In August, the Madrid Housing Institute (Ivima), also set up to provide low-cost housing, sold 2,935 low-rent apartments in the working-class dormitory town of Parla to Goldman Sachs and Azora for 201.2 million euros. Azora already manages some 7,000 of these properties slated for social housing, along with student residences and hotels, all valued at 1.3 billion. Fernando Gumuzio, the company’s founder, says the firm charges rents of between 250 and 600 euros.

Gumuzio rejects the idea that companies like his are vultures circling the moribund carcass of the Spanish economy: “I prefer to call them opportunists. They are investing in problem companies, and helping to clean up their debts. This is the first step toward recovery. Later on, the institutional funds will move in.”

Rafael Powley of US consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle explains that investment funds are awash with cash after taking advantage of the collapse of the US property market and its subsequent recovery. “There are a lot of people who made a lot of money buying cheap, and want to repeat their success here.”

The figures suggest that property prices in Spain may well be bottoming out. The price per square meter for office space on the Paseo de la Castellana, Madrid’s upscale central thoroughfare, has been stable for a year now. At the height of the property boom, prices were 13,000 euros per square meter; the rate is around 6,500 euros. “The speculative market is always ahead of the real economy: that’s how you make money,” says Juan Manuel Ortega, who heads Jones Lang LaSalle’s operations in Spain. He says that three years ago, most of the firm’s clients were looking for advice on how to get out of Spain; “now they want us to tell them what to buy.”

Powley explains that most of those rushing to buy now are the same companies that inflated the property bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s: “In those days, a developer would call you to say that he had sacked his sales team because they had sold his property so quickly that he hadn’t been able to put the prices up.”

Ismael Clemente hails from a tiny community in the western province of Badajoz and has many years of experience in the property business. Before setting up Magic Real Estate, he headed the property division of Deutsche Bank in Spain. In November 2005, seeing which way the wind was blowing, he advised his bosses to get out of the Spanish property market before selling the Hotel Arts in Barcelona in early 2006. The bank made 170 million euros on the deal, selling the hotel to a Dutch group and Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund. “We lost 18 months, but we made up for it with that sale,” he says. Magic is now a partner with Blackstone.

Clemente explains some of the key points of Spain’s emerging property market: “Buying a shopping center in Leipzig is barely profitable, and one setback and you are down on the deal. So the idea is to get into other markets. Prices are back up in Dublin, London is enjoying its own particular boom, while France is beginning to look weak. A shopping center in Valladolid is more risky, but twice as profitable if you handle the purchase properly. That’s why the investors are here. People see these funds as pirate ships, but they are playing with other people’s money. Vultures serve a function: they clean up corpses. It’s the same here: they pump money into a market starved of funds.”

He says that Blackstone’s entry into the Spanish market has sent out a message of confidence: “Investors are like sheep. If things go badly here, these funds can always tell their investors that everybody else was here, and nobody could see what was going to happen.”

Some funds have already set aside fixed amounts to invest in Spain. “A client called me a couple of days ago saying he had 500 million euros to spend in Spain,” says Iñigo de Luisa, a partner at law firm Cuatrecasas. “This summer we have seen a lot of activity: I haven’t seen anything like it since the boom.” De Luisa specializes in buying debt, and advised the Bermudas project that saw Sareb sell 245 million euros in loans owed by Grupo Colonial to Burlington Loan Management. The mechanics of these operations is not rocket science: if a company owes 100, the funds buy the loan for 70, or much less, dependent on the risk. If they get the money back they have won; if not, they keep the property portfolio, which is worth more than the 70 they put up.

The party has barely started. Spain’s banks have huge numbers of apartments that sooner or later they must sell. The vulture funds have taken the first step by taking over the property divisions of Bankia (bought by Catalana Bank and Cerberus, a company partly owned by the son of former Prime Minister José María Aznar, whose government in the late 1990s oversaw the property boom). Meanwhile, La Caixa is negotiating the sale of 51 percent of Servihabitat to the Texas Pacific Group.

The country’s regional administrations are also keen to sell off their property assets, often at fire-sale prices, in a bid to generate desperately needed cash. Andalusia, Catalonia, and Valencia were the first to begin offloading publicly owned property: in total some 144 buildings that they hope will raise around 2.2 billion euros.

British investment company Moor Park, which is tied to risk fund Och Ziff, offered the Catalan regional government 450 million euros for 26 buildings it would then rent out to it. The offer was tempting, but the regional government eventually decided that the conditions were not up to scratch. The buyers wanted to be paid in dollars or Swiss francs. “At the height of the euro crisis, what sort of message would that have sent out?” say sources close to the Catalan government.

Murcia has put the seat of the regional government up for sale; Extremadura is also keen to reduce the size of its property portfolio; Asturias is looking for a buyer for its offices in Madrid and Brussels; the Canary Islands has palaces for sale; and Castilla-La Mancha has so far not found a buyer for 16 government buildings. But a consultant who has acted as an intermediary in the sale of government buildings to foreign investment groups says that only Madrid and Barcelona have any appeal. The regional government of Madrid has already put 11 buildings up for auction this year with a starting price of 32 million euros. But for Madrid City Hall, it was only after dropping the price by 40 percent that it managed to sell its environment department’s offices for 21.8 million euros to the Bank of China. The Valencian regional government says that it is in advanced talks to sell three buildings.

More and more properties owned by regional and municipal governments are expected to come onto the market in the coming months. The central government has so far only raised 90 million euros since 2012 from selling off its property portfolio, but now says that it is to put more than 15,000 properties on the market, among them 61 apartment blocks, almost 7,000 houses, and 800 stores. No price has been agreed, say sources at the Economy Ministry.

This macro-sale includes some attractive assets, as well as many that will prove tricky to dispose of. For example, the former headquarters of the National Stock Exchange Commission on the Castellana, valued at 30 million euros; the building formerly occupied by the RTVE state-owned radio and television company, just round the corner, along with properties in other upscale areas of the capital. The government even wants to sell 14,000 hectares of the Alcornocales natural park in Cádiz, offering permission to the buyer to build an aerodrome, two golf courses and a luxury hotel. As Spain goes on sale, nothing is beyond the bounds of possibility.

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