‘Bubble’ fears hit Spanish property

Spanish real estate companies took a hammering in the stock market Thursday as evidence mounted that Spain’s 10-year property boom is over.

Shares fell in Fadesa, Inmocarral, Colonial, Metrovacesa and Urbis, after a year of feverish speculation that had seen real estate stocks rise by more than 1,000 per cent in some cases.

But Thursday, disappointing data on house prices and reported trouble with some companies triggered a big sell-off.

House prices rose 7.2 per cent in the first quarter, the lowest increase in eight years, according to data published Thursday by the housing ministry. In many regions, house prices are falling.

The ministry said there was now oversupply, with licences issued for 800,000 new housing starts compared with an estimated demand for 600,000. Builders say there has been a rush to apply for construction licences ahead of stringent new environmental standards that come into force this year, and that this has added to the glut of unsold property.

The tepid news from the housing ministry came on top of reported trouble with some companies and controversy surrounding Sacyr Vallehermoso in France.

Astroc Mediterraneo, star of the real estate sector, went into free-fall on Wednesday after the company’s audited accounts for 2006 revealed that part of its profits came from the sale of assets to a fund controlled by chairman Enrique Bola-ños. Astroc’s shares fell 43 per cent in one day, wiping out €2.3bn ($3.1bn) of its market value.

The shares gained 6 per cent Thursday after the company denied that some of its biggest shareholders, including Amancio Ortega, chairman of the Spanish fashion group Inditex and Spain’s wealthiest businessman, were jumping ship. Mr Ortega owns 5 per cent of Astroc through an investment trust.

Mr Bolaños became a paper billionaire after Astroc was listed in June last year. Astroc’s shares rose more than 1,000 per cent and were worth €72.6 at their peak in February, when the company was valued at €9bn.

But according to Spanish trading houses, these kind of valuations for real estate companies are a thing of the past.

“The Spanish real estate sector is not a bubble, it is a huge balloon. When it blows up there will be an enormous bang,” said one Madrid trader.

Traders said most investment funds had already exited the real estate sector, and that the free float for many of the listed companies was very small.

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