But we need no longer look to fiction, fantasy or indeed philosophers to confirm the existence of alternate realities. I am convinced that, at some time during the last two to three years, I have stepped through a portal from the world I know into another one.
The buildings, the people, the cars, the technology and the world appear to be the same. But in business property terms, it is all manifestly different.
The world that we have worked in for the last 10 to 30 years, where sensible, reasonable and rational decisions were made, has been replaced by a world where the “dash for cash” is the imperative.
Over the last four years, the commercial property and business markets have been faced with the most difficult and challenging conditions in more than a generation.
The current malaise in the market is not as a direct consequence of property issues but is much more a symptom of the difficulties and ills faced by the finance sector.
Even at compromised levels of price and value, there are extremely few businesses or individuals who have the “cash” to purchase property of any description. There is a fundamental and unavoidable reliance on funding support from the finance/banking sector and, quite simply, that funding - which is critical to the property market operating in a normal manner - is no longer available.
There are certainly potential purchasers and occupiers for commercial property and businesses but, as a consequence of the lack of funding, there are very few viable prospective purchasers.
Many of the mainstream lenders have gone through serious rationalisation, not only in terms of their staffing levels but also their loan books, and very few have any real appetite for new lending to property.
Major Scottish banks such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and the Clydesdale Bank are still in the process of rationalisation with an obvious effect on their appetite for new business.
Until the finance/banking sector has fully recovered from the effects of the credit crunch and banking crisis, the prospects for the property market in general remain challenged and I would expect this to be the case for some time to come.
The market that we are in is just as artificial as the market we were working within through the boom years. Between 2003 and 2008, the market which was artificially buoyed by soaring confidence and readily available loan finance, with bank policy driven by lending targets and market share. It was certainly not helped by television programmes such as “How to become a property millionaire”, “How to become a property developer” and other programmes of patent nonsense which encouraged a plethora of “amateurs” into the property sector.
Those conditions were artificially aggressive and we are now in a market which is artificially depressed. The dynamics of the property market remain largely where they have been for my lifetime, in that there is a demand for property and businesses at the correct price. What is missing is funding.
For those who can remember their economic text books, any free market needs four fundamentals to operate: land and buildings, labour, entrepreneurship and capital.
We have land and buildings aplenty, we have labour aplenty and we do still have entrepreneurship. What is missing is capital. It is the role of the finance sector to provide this capital and its lack is strangling the commercial property market.
There is some good news on the horizon, in that we have witnessed the emergence of several aggressive specialist lenders. The Santander Banking Group plans to increase its market share from 5% to 15% over the next two years and Lloyds Banking Group remains ready to lend, but at materially smaller volumes.
The present market does offer enterprising purchasers with cash reserves serious opportunities to acquire commercial property assets at bargain prices, many of which are available. The skill is in identifying the best of those opportunities and thereafter acquiring them at the correct price.
Those few viable prospective purchasers are therefore better placed than they have been in a generation to make the most of those opportunities. The ability, however, to move quickly and act decisively is paramount.
I do not expect to see any material change in underlying conditions for some time to come and certainly not until the finance/banking industry has sorted out its problems. The best barometer will probably be the performance of our clearing banks. When their share prices show a real recovery, then we can expect them to release more money to the market, which should allow the market to resume normal service. Our current “alternative” dimension is therefore our “reality” and we must simply learn to live with it.
George Nisbet, FRICS, is Commercial Valuations and Commercial Investment Partner, specialising in the Licensed Trade and Business Sales at the Edinburgh (Commercial) office of DM Hall Chartered Surveyors.