The story is the same in almost every developed country: the bursting of the real estate bubble has caused property values to plummet, credit markets to seize up, and deal-flow to grind to a halt. According to Real Capital Analytics, a research and consulting firm, the volume of deals in the industrialised world fell 54 per cent in the first quarter of 2008 compared with a year ago.

What’s a restive real estate investor to do? How about an office block in China? Or an apartment development in India? Or an industrial park in suburban Moscow?

Due to urbanisation, a growing middle class and the opening of local mortgage markets property in developing economies is on a tear as the rest of the world stagnates.

RCA says the number of transactions in emerging markets jumped 43 per cent in the first quarter.

And the big investors are jumping in. A Citigroup survey of 50 major pension funds in the US and Europe found that portfolio managers want to commit some $370bn (£184bn, €232bn) to real estate over the next three years, in spite of the slowdown in their domestic markets.

That would bring property holdings up to 6 per cent of their portfolios, from an estimated 4.5 per cent.

Big chunks of that money are beginning to flow into countries such as China, India, Russia and the emerging economies of eastern Europe. Charles Schwab’s $228m Global Real Estate Fund, made its first foray into emerging markets in March. Its fund managers have holdings in India, Brazil, Mexico and the Middle East – and insist they have just begun.

“A lot of the real estate we want to invest in doesn’t exist right now,” says Dionisio Meneses, a portfolio manager at the fund, referring to the huge amount of money chasing relatively few properties. “The opportunity will only increase.”

The rush is coming from outside the west, too. Asian pension funds and sovereign wealth funds have begun to search for ways to get
into real estate in the
developing world, according to an analysis by the Urban Land Institute and PwC.

The Kuwait Investment Authority has invested $750m in the Cevahir shopping mall in Istanbul. Separately, the Mapletree India-China Fund, a unit of Singapore’s Temasek Holdings, has made a series of investments in China, including a $320m residential and retail development in the southern Guangdong Province and a $121m office block in Beijing.

“Investors believe emerging economies offer a great opportunity to grow capital,” says Dan Fasulo, managing director at RCA.

Analysts at Morgan Stanley are so upbeat that they expect a secular boom in emerging market property over the next 10 years. They think developing nations will spend $22,000bn on core infrastructure projects during the period. Half of that, about $11,000bn, will go towards construction.

The US credit crunch has sped up the process, as US investors pulling out of the domestic market look for other places to find returns on real estate. The fast growth in deals in developing economies is due, at least in part, to a relatively low base – big-league real estate deals in some of the countries barely existed a decade ago.

Even as growth slows in industrialised countries, deal volume still outstrips the number of transactions in emerging markets. The developing world is catching up.

A major reason for the speed of the growth is, not surprisingly, tied to the rise of China. In the 12 months through the first quarter, China received $102bn, or nearly two-thirds of the total flow to developing nations, RCA reports. Over the same 12 months, China was home to almost half of all land sales in the world, whether measured by their value or the number of parcels sold.

Much of the money going into Chinese real estate is Chinese. A full 69 per cent of the real estate investment China saw over the past year came from domestic sources.

Although China is the emerging real estate giant, it is hardly alone. India saw property sales volume jump 210 per cent in the first quarter over the first three months of last year, making it the world’s fastest growing real estate market, by RCA’s count.

And like China, local investors dominate the market, with 59 per cent of the transactions. But unlike China, India has been helped by a government push since 2005 to loosen regulations that prevented foreigners from investing in property.

A big driver of the surge in demand for real estate in India and China is population growth. The United Nations forecasts the two nations will become population powerhouses by 2050.

But it is not just the countries with fast growing populations that have become investment magnets. Russia’s oil wealth has spurred strong economic growth, and the real estate money has followed.

As is the case in parts of Asia, foreign firms looking to invest in Russian real estate must enter into a joint venture with a domestic company. But unlike the investment in the Asian nations, the Russian deals have involved existing properties for the most part.

Elsewhere in Europe, Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic have drawn in investment flows. In addition, Turkey has caught the eye of investors. Foreigners sank some $3.5bn into Turkish property last year, up from $2.9bn in 2006, Morgan Stanley reports.

The rationale for the flows: prosperity in emerging markets will create a need for residential and commercial development alike.

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