Swiss shopping spree

In a country better known for secret bank accounts and Rolex watches, Switzerland is now attracting investors keen on retail.

As Pramerica's deal to buy A&A Liegenschaften Schweiz demonstrates (see opposite page), foreign investors are hungry to do deals in Switzerland.

In the wake of that deal, for example, Middle Eastern investors, high-net worth individuals and private family investments vehicles all contacted Pramerica to ask if they could have a piece of the action. But many others are looking to invest directly.

The interest in Swiss property, and particularly retail property, comes despite the country's reputation as a closed and secret market dominated by long-term domestic investors. The retail market has also suffered in recent years from flat rental growth and sluggish property values.

However, partly because of the country's economic and political stability and some signs that rents are beginning to pick up, investors now view some retail assets to be as safe as, well, bank accounts.

Although rents in general remain static, prime high street rents in Zurich's Bahnhof-strasse have been rising, and shop vacancy rates are just one percent in both Zurich and Geneva, according to Cushman & Wakefield.

Zurich-based property advisor Wüest und Partner says the exception to the static rent rule is in locations where old shops have been revamped into larger units.

Alongside recent rent rises, the traditionally expensive Swiss retailers no longer have a total grip over the shopping landscape. Within the last 12 months, for example, two German bargain basement supermarket chains, Lidl and Aldi, have followed France's Carrefour into the market.

Though foreign investors bemoan a lack of buying opportunities, Christoph Zaborowski, partner at Wuest, says that many of them are looking.

“The reason is that the spread between interest rates and real estate yields is very attractive in Switzerland,” he says.

Helping to fuel the market, Coop, the country's second largest retailer, is selling and leasing back all but its best properties in order to concentrate on its core business.

In addition, insurance companies are more regulated now making it less attractive for them to own shopping centers, adds Zaborowski, who predicts possible disposals.

In the last few weeks of July more than CHF 600 million (€380 million; $485 million) of centers were sold.

If foreign investors have their way, those investments could prove to be as reliable as a Swiss watch.