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Sour Asian economies may yield sweet deals for U.S. investors

The financial turmoil in Asia has raised the prospect of sweet deals for U.S. investors shopping for commercial real estate bargains both at home and abroad.

Real estate investment trusts and other potential buyers are keeping a close eye on commercial real estate prices in Japan, Thailand, Malaysia and other countries that have been hit hard by volatile stock markets and currency devaluations in recent months.And in the United States, they are making discreet inquiries to Asian investors who bought U.S. property when times were good, but now might need money because of downturns in their homelands.

"For the most part this crisis has put them as players on hold," said Mark Kuskin, a senior vice president at Secured Capital Corp., a Los Angeles investment bank that specializes in Asian investment.

"What some of the U.S. investors have done, shrewd investors, have made the following pitch: 'You guys are probably in a liquidity crunch right now. Here's an opportunity for you to sell us your buildings for cash. The dollar is strong."'

Non-Japanese Asian investment in U.S. commercial real estate grew sharply during the mid-1990s. Those investors sank $6.3 billion into U.S. property between 1993 and 1996, including $2.9 billion from Hong Kong, according to a 1997 study by the E&Y Kenneth Leventhal Real Estate Group. Singapore was second with $1.4 billion, followed by Taiwan with $521 million. Indonesia and Brunei invested $261 million each, while China and Korea paid $235 million apiece.

Kuskin and other industry observers said it is too early for major deals to have been completed since the Asian crisis began last summer. But the search for bargains highlights the severity of the financial crunch, and the willingness of U.S. investors, flush with the gains of a booming economy, to take advantage of it.

While automakers and high-tech companies are feeling the pinch from shrinking Asian markets, the crisis comes at a good time for real estate investors.

After two years of aggressive shopping, primarily by real estate investment trusts and pension funds, prices are rising and good deals have become more difficult to find in the domestic market. Real estate investment trusts, or REITS, earn profits for shareholders by managing income-producing real estate or lending money to developers. Pension funds are flush, partly because of the popularity of 401 plans, the employee retirement savings programs.

"The pension funds . . . don't know where to put the money, they have so much capital coming from the 401 , and there seems to be just no end to the (real estate) investment funds," said Mike Evans, national director of E&Y Kenneth Leventhal. "We expect this will continue."

The volatility of the stock market, especially during recent months, is another factor that will probably push pension funds and others looking for stability in the direction of commercial real estate, he said.

In fact, most Asian investors still regard the United States as a safe place to keep their money and probably will try to hold onto properties here until economies stabilize in Asia. Like Kuskin, however, Evans said U.S. investors will look to Asia for opportunities, especially in Japan. That, he said, would include purchase of real estate and buying portfolios of nonperforming loans from Japanese banks. Japan's bad debt problems stem from the collapse in the early 1990s of a wild bubble of speculation in land, stocks and other assets.

A number of big investment banks, including Lehman Brothers, Morgan Stanley & Co. and J.P. Morgan Securities Inc., are in Asia actively looking for deals, said Evans.

A case in point: Japan's Sumitomo Bank is in the process of selling the mortgage on the Ritz Carlton hotel in Boston with Morgan Stanley acting as adviser. Confidentiality agreements already have been signed with 35 investors looking into the deal, Evans said.

"That's just an indication of how hot the market is. If it has something to do with real estate today, you can sell it," he said.

Japan is the first place most U.S. investors will look because many investment bankers have years of experience working there, and are less familiar with some of the other countries experiencing turmoil.

Thailand, where overbuilding has made commercial property cheap, also is attracting attention, and not just from the United States, said Randall Lee, president of Lilly Enterprises Inc., a Los Angeles investment firm focused on attracting Asian money to the United States. Lee said a friend, who represents a Hong Kong-based investor Lee declined to identify, was looking at a project in Thailand that was considered a good deal for $60 per square foot. He decided to wait though, on the notion that a good deal might get better in a few weeks as Asia's problems worsen.

"People with money are poised to react," Lee said. "We think that there's a lot of interest. There's probably more interest in the Orient, investors from Hong Kong running to Japan to do deals. Are the American companies trying to do that, too? Yeah."