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Why the yuan may deck Singapore property stocks

The Port of Singapore.
Chris McGrath | Getty Images
The Port of Singapore.

Singapore's property shares, already on the back foot from expectations of rising interest rates, have taken a beating since China devalued its currency on Tuesday and more pain may be on the cards.

"Given that the majority of property stocks with China exposure do not hedge the currency exposures of their incomes and balance sheets, a weaker renminbi suggests that both asset values and earnings/dividends would be negatively affected," analysts at JPMorgan said in a note Wednesday. "Book values and dividend per unit (DPU) would be affected."

Singapore real-estate investment trusts (S-REITs) are also likely to take a hit as the moves Tuesday and Wednesday by the People's Bank of China to push down the Chinese currency also caused the Singapore dollar to weaken.

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"The weakening Singapore dollar would result in upward pressure on interest rates," it said, estimating that every 100 basis point rise in interest rates pushes S-REITs' DPU down by 2.7 percent because of increased costs.

Singapore property shares with China exposure based on earnings and assets under management include CapitaLand Retail Trust China, Global Logistic Properties, CapitaLand and City Developments, JPMorgan noted. Those shares are down 1.2-5.5 percent so far this week, after a bit of a recovery Thursday.

Singapore may not be alone in feeling property pain from China.

In Hong Kong, Wharf, Cheung Kong Property and Hang Lung all have significant China exposure, noted Patrick Wong, a property analyst at BNP Paribas in Hong Kong. He estimates around 25 percent of Wharf's earnings come from the mainland, while around 50 percent of Hang Lung's earnings come from China rentals.

But how much of a worry it will be depends on the size of the devaluation.

"If they're talking about 2 percent, it's fine. If it's 10 percent or higher, then it could be some impact," Wong said.

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But while property stocks may take a hit, physical property may hold up better.

"The market in Hong Kong is mostly supported by local demand," Wong said, noting that mainland buyers now account for less than 10 percent of buyers of new projects, down from around 30-40 percent a couple year ago, before the government introduced a stamp duty. Hong Kong's property market is notorious for falling short of meeting end-user housing demand.

Within Singapore, the market turmoil may actually spur demand for physical property.

"If there's capital outflow in China or the yuan devalues further in the future, [mainlanders] will purchase real estate assets in Singapore," particularly at the high end, Alan Cheong, senior director for Singapore at Savills Research, said.

The price gap at the high end between Singapore and Hong Kong high-end property has widened, possibly to more than 37 percent as the Hong Kong dollar is pegged to the U.S. dollar, while the Singapore dollar has weakened, he noted. A Singapore apartment goes for around $15,251 per square meter, compared with around $22,814 in Hong Kong, according to data from Global Property Guide.

Additionally, a flight to safely may spur people to pay premium prices for Singapore assets, he said, with demand not only coming from China.

"The greater concern closer to home is flight to Singapore by Malaysian investors because the ringgit has been weakening even faster than the Singapore dollar," Cheong said. "There seems to be no end in sight on the damage caused to the global perception of Malaysia. It's quite serious and it's very difficult to repair that."

Malaysia is facing an extended period of political uncertainty. Amid calls for his resignation, embattled Prime Minister Najib Razak shuffled his cabinet in July, sacking his deputy after he called on Najib to explain the controversy surrounding a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report that nearly $700 million from heavily indebted quasi-sovereign wealth fund One Malaysia Development Bhd. (1MDB) was deposited into the prime minister's personal bank accounts.

Najib has denied accepting money for personal gain and is reportedly considering a defamation lawsuit against the WSJ. On Monday, Malaysia's anti-corruption commission said the funds in Najib's private accounts were a "contribution" from a Middle East donor unconnected to 1MDB; it said the donor's identity couldn't be disclosed.

Amid the turmoil, the country's currency has plunged to levels not seen since 1998, during the Asian Financial Crisis.

Clarification: This article has been updated to change the price gap between Singapore and Hong Kong property to clarify the estimate from Savills' Alan Cheong.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1