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Welcome to Silicon Allee: the new global tech hubs

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Tech titans are attracting the world’s brightest talent, creating a concentration of wealth and investment in new city hubs. So much so that buyers intending to purchase a property over the next few years would be wise to invest in a place where one of the neighbours is an internet superstar. Or studying to become one. Research carried out by international estate agents Savills suggests that prices in its 30-strong list of “tech cities” will rise nearly twice as rapidly as those in their global counterparts.

Some tech cities, of course, have fared better than others, and Singapore has been one of the world’s clear winners. With its high quality of life and reputable universities – Nanyang Technological University and the National University of Singapore stand sixth and eighth respectively in the QS World University Rankings for engineering and technology – it remains very popular with investors looking for the next generation with bright ideas.

“The city is particularly good at grooming and developing young entrepreneurs,” says Victoria Garrett, head of residential for Knight Frank in Asia Pacific. “That’s one reason the startup generator Antler was launched here, before expanding into London, Amsterdam, Stockholm and further afield.”

Singapore

Amber Skye in Singapore; a two-bedroom apartment is £1.38m with Knight Frank
Amber Skye in Singapore; a two-bedroom apartment is £1.38m with Knight Frank

The city is home to 80 of the world’s top 100 tech firms (2019). It is an innovation hotbed – ranked first in Asia and seventh worldwide in the 2017 edition of the Global Innovation Index. Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin lives here.

Singapore, which attracts tech talent from all over south-east Asia, has numerous sought-after assets. “As well as being a financial hub, it has fantastic schools and infrastructure, and is very safe and clean,” Garrett says. Young professionals looking to purchase here are now focusing on the East Coast and Katong areas, where Knight Frank is selling a two-bedroom apartment with its own pool in the Amber Skye complex for £1.38m.

Berlin is also on the watchlist, with co-working rents almost half that of San Francisco and a lifestyle that can be enjoyed on a tight budget. What’s more, Berlin’s 2,500 startups look likely to retain their title of “Silicon Allee”.

“Back in the 1990s, west Berlin already had tree-lined boulevards and modern hotels and shops,” says Oliver Banks of Knight Frank’s London office, “but east Berlin had largely been flattened, making it an obvious place for development. Areas such as Friedrichshain are now seeing growing communities of young professionals from all over Europe, who are happy because everything is cheaper – from rent to eating out and transport.” Knight Frank is selling flats in the newly built Pure Living development from €265,000.

Scientific expertise has never enjoyed such public confidence, and cities renowned for their investigative research should also be on buyers’ radar. “Science and medical analysis have boomed as a result of the pandemic and locations with the world’s best teaching hospitals and scientific research facilities are likely to make big strides,” says Knight Frank’s Liam Bailey.

Berlin

The city’s Friedrichshain district is attracting young professionals
The city’s Friedrichshain district is attracting young professionals © Alamy

The German capital has a booming startup culture – pre-pandemic, a new startup was founded every 20 minutes, according to the German Times. The most successful include SoundCloud, FreightHub and Blinkist.

Toronto, for example, is renowned for the quality of its research. In 2021, the Eastern Lakefront will host the completed Waterfront Innovation Centre, where the University of Toronto in partnership with medical and science research unit MaRS intends to accommodate its growing portfolio of data-intensive startups.

Younger Torontonians emigrated from the city’s leafy suburbs to downtown districts long ago, but a pioneering generation of tech natives are beginning to colonise waterside quarters such as the Pan Am Village, Bayfront and the East Bayside district (where two-bedroom condominiums at Aqualuna start at CA$1.85m – about £1.07m – through Tridel). Jordan Robins, executive vice president and COO of First Capital Realty Inc, which is involved in the retail development of East Bayside, is impressed by forward-looking developers who are willing to commit to improving “urban infrastructure, the cost of living and transportation”.

Toronto

Aqualuna in Toronto’s Bayside; two-bedroom condominiums from CA$1.85m through Tridel
Aqualuna in Toronto’s Bayside; two-bedroom condominiums from CA$1.85m through Tridel

The Toronto-Waterloo Region Corridor is the largest tech cluster in North America outside Silicon Valley. The area supports 15,000 tech companies, from Google to Shopify; 5,200 startups; and hosts 200,000 tech workers (according to thecorridor.ca). It is also gaining a reputation for deep tech, focused on innovations such as artificial intelligence.

Transportation – or rather the potential to walk or cycle to work – has taken on a new urgency, enhancing the attractions of compact tech cities such as Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Barcelona. But the presence of affordable neighbourhoods within a stroll of your desk is also helping reshape larger ones. “Even before the events of this year, the generation between 25 and 40 wanted to live as near as possible to their office,” says Hugues de la Morandière, director-partner of Paris estate agents Agence Varenne. “Many don’t have cars or even driving licences and they want to walk to work.”

In Paris, this priority has pushed the boundaries of fashionable living north-east of the booming fintech sector – centred in the 2nd arrondissement, where Agence Varenne is selling a triplex apartment with a home office for €2.1m – into the formerly rough-edged 9th, 10th and southern 18th, all within a daily step count.

And the city’s vigorous tech sector has also provoked a geographical realignment south of the river, where Station F, backed by French telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel, has transformed an under-visited reach of the Left Bank into a lauded destination. “It’s made the 13th very hot,” says de la Morandière.

Some have declared that the pandemic will forever tip the balance of our working lives in favour of home working, but professor Richard Florida, one of the world’s leading experts on urban studies, argues that we should approach this assumption with caution. Wealthier older workers, he says, may decide to recalibrate their property ownership, splitting their time between a pied-à-terre near the office and a more spacious pad for telecommuting; but younger workers will continue to flock to cities to have fun and make the personal connections that drive careers. “They need to spend time in offices to absorb their companies’ corporate cultures,” he says.

Florida believes that cities like New York and London will quickly revive – “If there’s a huge sale, that’s where I’d buy.” From a tech perspective, New York remains an inviting prospect. “Venture capital investment in New York has overtaken San Francisco,” says Paul Tostevin, director of world research at Savills, “and the cross-pollination of finance and media has created a very deep talent pool.”

Though many tech aspirants will continue to head west, there has no doubt also been an eastward current: Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook have, over the past few years, all taken on extensive offices in Manhattan, transforming Hudson Yards, the glossy mini-city between the West Village and Hell’s Kitchen, into a tech hub. “For a long time, people wanted to live in New York, but they felt the jobs weren’t here,” says Julie Samuels, executive director of the nonprofit Tech:NYC, which represents the city’s technology industry. “Now the jobs are here.”

New York

The six-acre Essex Crossing development in New York’s Lower East Side
The six-acre Essex Crossing development in New York’s Lower East Side © QuallsBenson

The Big Apple ranks first in Savills’ tech cities index of 2019. The city has supported more than 9,000 startups in an ecosystem worth $147bn in 2020, according to Tech:NYC. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has a home on Fifth Avenue, and could be your neighbour if you are fortunate enough to secure a home on Millionaires’ Row

Likewise, buyers are more concerned about wellness: demanding cleaner air and ready access to green space and sustainably sourced food – priorities that have only been underlined by recent events. Those responsible for Essex Crossing, a six-acre development 20 minutes’ walk from Apple’s HQ on the Lower East Side, were ahead of this curve, transforming an expanse of flattened vacant lots into a user-friendly mix of medium-rise apartments, office buildings, commercial spaces and public parks, alongside The Market Line, an underground market linked to new condominiums at One Essex Crossing (sales launching early 2021, through Corcoran Sunshine Marketing Group).

“Our aim was to retain a local culture and buzz, while introducing convenience, quality of life and a real sense of community,” says Benjamin Baccash, vice president of development for Taconic Partners – one of the three firms that formed Delancey Street Associates and together developed Essex Crossing.

London

The area around Manhattan Loft Gardens, London
The area around Manhattan Loft Gardens, London © Jodie Herbage

Europe’s biggest startup ecosystem (according to Startup Genome’s Global Startup Ecosystem Report 2017), London excels in tech research and development and big data. In 2020, the same report ranked the city second for fintech.

London’s influential tech sector was, of course, born in Shoreditch, but has now been centrifugally dispersed. In 2016, for example, Google launched its new offices in the King’s Cross “Knowledge Quarter” while, in 2021, Apple’s London campus will move into six floors of Battersea Power Station’s born-again boiler house. The main residential push, however, has been eastward: super-connected Stratford is about to be anchored by East Bank, a £1.1bn regeneration project rising in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. This new creative district will house some of the best of British talent in outposts of the BBC, London College of Fashion and UCL, whose East campus will specialise in “groundbreaking research, technology and innovation” – including such subjects as robotics, artificial intelligence and smart cities.

Developer Harry Handelsman has been helping redefine London’s lifestyle for nearly 30 years, importing loft living across the Atlantic in the depths of the 1990s recession, restoring the iconic St Pancras Hotel, and putting Marylebone on every A-lister’s landscape with Chiltern Firehouse. His latest venture, however, is Stratford’s Manhattan Loft Gardens, where the city’s rich history of garden squares has been reworked in vertical form for generation rent.

“People working in the tech sector often only remain in place for a year or two and it can be quite a lonely existence,” he says. “The idea behind Manhattan Loft Gardens is to create connectivity – to encourage residents to interact without being forced to.”

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The 248 furnished apartments (from £2,375 a month), ideal for flexible home working, can be let by the day, the week, the month or the year, and the communal areas, sprinkled throughout the 42-floor tower, offer green spaces and activities to bring residents together – from rooftop terraces to reading groups.

Home comforts, of course, have been brought to the fore in recent months and interior designer Richard Angel of Angel O’Donnell was well on trend long before the lockdown with the design of the penthouse at Shoreditch’s Atlas Building (with flats from £1.699m). “Many people in tech work 24/7; and, increasingly, do so from home, so it’s got to work much harder as a sanctuary.”

The eco-friendly and “super-connected” apartment was also in the vanguard when it came to marketing. “VR goggles allowed prospective buyers and tenants to experience the space without having to visit,” Angel explains. Understanding tomorrow’s world before it has happened is what tech cities are all about.



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US suspends tariffs on UK exports in Airbus-Boeing trade dispute

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The US will temporarily lift punitive tariffs on £550m worth of UK exports such as Scotch whisky and Stilton cheese, imposed as part of a row with the EU over subsidies to Boeing and Airbus, in an attempt to de-escalate one of the longest trade disputes in modern history.

The move follows the UK’s unilateral decision to suspend tariffs against the US from January 1, which took both Brussels and Airbus by surprise. Brussels has disputed that the UK had the right to act unilaterally in a trade dispute between the EU and the US when it has left the bloc.

Liz Truss, UK international trade secretary, said she was delighted that US president Joe Biden had agreed to suspend tariffs on UK goods for four months. The move would help to improve transatlantic relations, she said.

The US trade representative’s office confirmed that it would temporarily suspend the tariffs, to allow time to negotiate on settling the aircraft dispute.

The Johnson government has come under heavy fire over the tariffs in particular from the Scotch whisky industry, whose exports to the US plunged 30 per cent last year.

“The easier it is for Americans to buy a bottle of Macallan, Talisker or Glenmorangie, the more money those producers will have to invest in their businesses, their staff and futures,” Truss said. “Trade equals jobs.”

The US-EU aircraft subsidies dispute is one of the longest-running cases in the World Trade Organization’s history, reflecting the importance of the industry to each side and the intense competition between Boeing and Airbus.

The battle dates back to 2004, the year after Airbus first overtook its US rival in terms of deliveries. Both sides have been found guilty of providing billions in illegal subsidies to their aircraft makers.

Brussels was last year given the green light by the WTO to impose tariffs of up to 25 per cent on $4bn worth of US products, after Washington announced duties on $7.5bn worth of European imports. 

Both Boeing and Airbus welcomed any move that could help to bring the two sides together. “We welcome USTR’s (US Trade Representative) decision to suspend tariffs for allowing negotiations to take place,” Airbus said in a statement. “Airbus supports all necessary actions to create a level-playing field and continues to support a negotiated settlement of this longstanding dispute to avoid lose-lose tariffs.”

Boeing said: “We commend this action by the US and UK governments creating an opportunity for serious negotiations to resolve the WTO aircraft dispute. A negotiated settlement will allow the industry to move forward with a genuinely global level playing field for aviation.”

However, Britain’s departure from the EU has raised questions about how effective any UK-US suspension can be. With no precedent to follow, trade lawyers have said it is unclear whether the UK still had a right to impose or suspend tariffs that were granted to the EU. 

Whitehall officials insisted the UK had the right to revoke retaliatory tariffs. One individual close to the process said: “This whole issue shows the benefit of being an independent trading nation . . . if we can get this done, it paves the way to a deeper trading relationship with the US and will help free trade deal negotiations.”

Despite this, there appear to be very few signs of progress in the trade talks between the US and UK. In January, White House press secretary Jen Psaki indicated that securing a deal would not be a priority for the Biden administration.

Last month, Biden’s nominated top trade adviser Katherine Tai told senators that she would “review the progress” of the talks that had taken place between the two sides over the previous two and a half years.

Both the EU and the US have long argued for a resolution to the dispute, but have remained far apart on the terms of any agreement on how to fund new aircraft development. 

After Biden’s election as US president, there was a feeling in Europe that a deal could be within reach. There has been growing speculation that talks were progressing.

However, in late December, the US further raised tariffs on European goods, specifically targeting French and German products.

The EU has said it is in intensive talks with the US in a bid to quickly secure a deal to remove punitive tariffs. 

“We have proposed that both sides agree to suspend tariffs for six months,” a European Commission spokesperson said. “This will help restore confidence and trust, and thus give us the space to come to a comprehensive and durable negotiated solution.”

A US administration official said that while he could not indicate whether there were plans to imminently remove the EU tariffs, the Biden team was continuing to review the dispute. “The goal is to resolve the dispute and create a level playing field,” the official said. 

Both Brussels and Washington are keenly aware that the rules need to be set before China becomes a significant competitor to Boeing and Airbus.

China is expected to be the fastest-growing market for commercial aircraft over the coming decades and Beijing has made it a strategic priority to break the global duopoly in an attempt to claim some of that market for Chinese industry. Later this year, China’s Comac is expected to have fully certified its first major commercial aircraft, the C919 single aisle.



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FC Barcelona and Real Madrid will be forced to pay back illegal state aid

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FC Barcelona and Real Madrid will be forced to pay back millions of euros in illegal state aid after the EU’s highest court ruled Brussels was right to declare that beneficial tax arrangements they enjoyed for a quarter of a century were illegal.

The decision by the European Court of Justice upholds previous rulings by the European Commission and comes as Barcelona, the world’s highest-earning football club, is enduring one of the biggest crises in its history. 

This week police arrested the club’s former president, its current chief executive and its general counsel, in connection with a separate legal case ahead of a vote on Sunday to decide its next president. Barcelona, which recorded a loss of €100m last year, also has to contend with a debt pile of more than €1bn.

In 2016 Margrethe Vestager, the EU’s competition chief supremo, ordered four Spanish football clubs to pay back tens of millions of euros received since the 1990s in the form of sweetheart property deals, tax breaks and soft loans.

FC Barcelona subsequently contested the decision before the General Court, the EU’s second-highest tribunal, which annulled the commission’s judgment. However, after a final appeal from Brussels the ECJ ruled in favour of the EU.

In its decision on Thursday — which is final — the ECJ deemed the tax scheme “liable to favour clubs operating as non-profit entities over clubs operating in the form of public limited sports companies”, holding that it could therefore qualify as illegal state aid under EU rules.

The General Court had previously annulled Brussels’ decision over what it said was lack of sufficient evidence that the tax arrangements offered to the four football clubs, which also include CA Osasuna and Athletic Bilbao, were illegal.

But the commission had questioned the court’s “heavy burden of proof” on regulators in its appeal, arguing that a lower tax rate was obviously more favourable than a higher one.

The ECJ argued that the difficulty in assessing the extent of state aid — because of the complexity of tax deductions — did not preclude the commission from banning government practices that it considered gave sports clubs unfair advantages. 

It said: “The impossibility of determining, at the time of the adoption of an aid scheme, the exact amount, per tax year, of the advantage actually conferred on each of its beneficiaries, cannot prevent the commission from finding that scheme was capable, from that moment, of conferring an advantage on those beneficiaries.”

The Spanish government said on Thursday it had “absolute respect” for the court’s decision. FC Barcelona and Real Madrid did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The judgment will be seen as a big win for regulators in Brussels who have for years been trying to stop highly successful commercial clubs from freeriding on the back of taxpayers.

The European Commission said on Thursday it noted “the judgment by the Court of Justice to follow the Commission’s arguments”.

Thursday’s ruling is the second time Brussels has won an appeal of its state aid decisions in recent weeks. Last month judges at the General Court rejected a legal challenge by budget airline Ryanair to state aid given to rivals on discriminatory grounds.

At present Barcelona is dealing with the fallout of what the Spanish media dubs Barçagate — allegations, denied by the club, that it corruptly hired outside groups to defame former president Josep Maria Bartomeu’s adversaries on Facebook.

Bartomeu was temporarily detained by the Catalan police earlier this week. He, the club, and other individuals in the case, which is being investigated by a Barcelona court, have all denied any wrongdoing.



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Italy raises €8.5bn in Europe’s biggest-ever green bond debut

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Investors flocked to Italy’s inaugural environment-focused government bond offering on Wednesday, allowing the country to raise more than €8bn.

The banks running the issuance chalked up around €80bn in orders for €8.5bn of debt. It was the biggest debut sovereign green bond from a European issuer to date, according to Intesa Sanpaolo, which worked on the deal.

Other recent Italian bond sales have also attracted strong demand, after former European Central Bank president Mario Draghi became prime minister last month.

Demand for the debt highlights the popularity of green bonds, which provide funding for environmental projects and require borrowers to report to investors on how the funds are used. 

Tanguy Claquin, head of sustainable banking at Crédit Agricole, which was a co-manager on the transaction, said the sale was met with “very strong support” from investors, particularly those that are required to consider environmental factors in their portfolios.

The bond, which matures in 2045, was issued with a yield of 1.547 per cent. The underwriters were able to reduce the premium against a normal Italian government bond maturing in 2041 to 0.12 percentage points, a slimmer premium than the 0.15 points initially mooted.

Italy follows several European countries, including Poland, Ireland, Sweden and the Netherlands, into the green debt market. France has issued 11 green bonds since 2017, totalling $30.6bn according to Moody’s Investors Service. Germany joined the market last year with two green Bunds. In its budget on Wednesday, the UK announced plans to sell at least £15bn of green bonds in two offerings this year. 

Italy is the first riskier southern-European government to tap the green market. The spreads on Italian debt relative to the eurozone benchmark German bonds fell to a six-year low of less than 0.9 percentage points in early February in a sign of investors confidence in Draghi’s leadership of the EU’s third-largest economy. The spread widened during last week’s volatile bond market trading but remains low by recent standards.

Spain plans to follow Italy with a green bond offering in the second half of 2021. Analysts expect an initial €5-10bn sale at a 20-year maturity. Johann Plé, senior portfolio manager at AXA Investment Managers said the demand for Italy’s sale “should reinforce the willingness of Spain and others to follow suit.”

Plé said the price investors paid for the Italian green bond “remained fair” and that this “highlights that strong demand does not necessarily mean investors have to pay a larger premium”.

Green bonds often command higher prices, and therefore lower yields, than their conventional equivalents from the same issuer. The German green Bund currently trades with a “greenium” around 0.04 to 0.05 percentage points, roughly double the gap when it was initially issued, according to UniCredit analysis, while French government green debt is roughly 0.01 percentage points lower in yield than conventional bonds.

Italy’s pitch on the environmental impact and reporting of its green projects drew positive reactions from some investors. Saida Eggerstedt, head of sustainable credit at Schroders, which invested in the bond, said the details provided on projects including low-carbon transport, power generation, and biodiversity were “really impressive”.



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