Property Investment Opportunities in Mongolia – Sheer Madness, or is it?

I attended recently a terribly smart cocktail party in a Belgravia Embassy. I hovered contentiously, as I usually do, near the bar and the exit of the kitchens.

As I reached discreetly for my 10th little foie gras toast in nearly so many seconds, I was addressed abruptly by a very distinguished but firm Lady in a large (and quite silly) hat.

She addressed me; chin up, with a chilly “now young man, what are you doing with yourself these days”.

Her question had the tone of a sarcastic demand full of contempt for a young man who wasted his life so well.

I recovered from the embarrassment of dropping the foie gras toast, and, only slightly put off, answered in my most polite voice that I was indeed selling flats in Mongolia.

My distinguished interlocutor visibly stiffened, in a sudden jerk, brought her handbag closer to her chest, and remained thus startled in a state fit for Madame Tussauds.

“It’s very exciting you know! Very interesting market out there.” Finally she declared, in utmost frustration in a barely controlled high pitched voice “MONGOLIA!! What on earth for!! Never heard such nonsense!!!” long pause… “I didn’t even know they had flats!”

With this declaration she did an abrupt about turn and went off muttering something to the likes of “silly little man, what gibberish, Mongolia…”

I was not in the least disturbed by this incident but instead found it rather amusing as this was not the first time I had a similar reaction, usually bewilderment.

Mongolia is not a country which people would associate with investments of any kind, neither did I until recently.

When I think of Mongolia the image of Genghis and his fierce warriors come to mind, I expect most people think alike.

I recently went there and was surprised, if slightly shocked, to find a country in a full economic expansion.

I had epic and romantic visions of proud horseman wondering around a city of tents; instead I was greeted by a large full scale soviet city complete with international restaurants, traffic lights and jams, bars and trendy nightclubs.

I enquired as to the reason for that incredible sight; here is what I learned:

In the past 18 months or so, Mongolia has enjoyed a kind of delayed post-Soviet boom, as years of gradual reform (and U.S. aid) finally begin to pay off. While other former satellites, including Ukraine and Belarus, never fully recovered from a post-Soviet economic depression, Mongolia has regained its Soviet-era income level ($500 per capita) and is not looking back.

The economy has grown at a rate of 10.6% for 2004 but is expected to stabilise around 8.5% for 2005. Mongolia cleared off its debt to Russia for assistance received during soviet times in 2003. Inflation is reducing every year and was only 5% in 2005 compared to the 53% seen in 1995 while its external debt is equally decreasing and has reached 1.1 billion USD. “Mongolia has made great progress towards its transition to a market based system since the early 1990′s” (IMF, letter of intent on Mongolia, 2003)

In 2004 large deposits of gold and other minerals such as copper, molybdenum, tin, tungsten, iron and ore were found; this is expected to create an incredible growth in the economy. A number of British and American Mining companies have moved in and will start extracting soon, this means a lot of foreign investment and a considerable expatriate community will develop from it.

Foreign investment is increasing every year and so are the numbers of tourists and expats. Political corruption is very low for the region and the government is stable and democratically elected.

Sadly the picture for the Mongolian economy is not all rosy, they export copper, apparel, livestock, animal products, cashmere, wool, hides, fluorspar, other nonferrous metals but everything else has to be imported. Unemployment is decreasing but is still at 6.7%. “This is a rough neighbourhood, with rough neighbours,” says a Western diplomat in Ulan Bator. “No former Soviet state has come so far, and no former communist country in Asia has shown as much commitment to reform as Mongolia.”

The Real Estate market is possibly the most interesting part of the economy. The numbers of apartments approved by the city has increased by about 20% every year for the past three and the rental yields are some of the highest in Asia at about 18%. It has been calculated that demand so far outstrips supply that it will not be equilibrated before 2015. There are an increasing amount of developers such as the American entrepreneur Mr Lee Cashell who make the most of this situation by developing large luxury residential projects in the heart of Ulaan Bataar as an investment opportunity for European Investors.

Mr Cashell has barely completed a very successful residential complex called the Park View Residence that he is already in Europe selling his new property to British investors and agents: the Regency Residence. This promises to be the most luxurious and attractive development in Mongolia.

What makes the Regency Residence so unique in Ulaanbaatar is that there are very few modern, new build apartment blocks. Especially ones built to a luxurious Western European standard. Other apartments in the city date back from the Soviet era and most could do with some serious renovation work. This makes new apartments like the ones at the Regency Residence extremely sought after, particularly as demand outstrips supply.

High interest cost, lack of investment capital and low equity financing is hampering the developer’s ability to build large scale luxury apartments and thus meet the large demand.

In the coming years it is expected that developer will be able to increase capacity and produce more apartments however the scarcity factor is expected to remain for years to come.

UB is one of the only cities in the world where half of its residents are not living in apartments as many citizens remain in the traditional dwellings in the hillside surrounding the city