If you haven’t been keeping up, about 4 million voters in Scotland will go to the polls tomorrow (Thursday, Sept 18) to decide one simple question, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” If a majority vote no (the “unionist” position), then the question of Scotland’s independence should be put to rest for a long time to come. If a simple majority votes “yes”, then Scotland and the United Kingdom will sever most of the ties that bind. Scotland will apparently remain part of the British Commonwealth, but with the same relationship to London and the Crown that Australia, New Zealand, and Pakistan have. (Yes, folks, Elizabeth is the Queen of Pakistan. Betcha didn’t know that.) As of this writing (Wednesday afternoon here in the states), it is reported by the Washington Post that the independence movement is slightly ahead.
So what are the implications, other than for scotch and haggis? As with any such major event, the unknowns outnumber the knowns, and the negatives may be overblown. However, from the perspective of global finance and European stability, no one can discern a plus and the minuses seem to be having a field day.
One thing is obvious — Scotland is the heartland of liberalism in the U.K. Independence means the remaining components of the U.K. (England, Northern Ireland, and Wales) will be governed by the conservatives for the foreseeable future. More to the point, Scotland’s indigenous political parties range from left of center to further left of center. Proponents of independence hope for a Scandinavian-style socialist state free of meddling from the Tories in the south. Of course, exactly how Scotland plans to pay for this isn’t quite clear just yet.
Oh, did we mention oil? Britain’s oil comes mainly from the North Sea. However, those reserves are being pumped by firms with names like BRITISH Petroleum, not SCOTTISH Petroleum. However, actual ownership of the oil revenues is a matter which has yet to be discussed, much less decided. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies indicates that Scotland will actually have to cut social spending by about $9.9 Billion per year.
Then there’s the issue of currency. Scotland benefits by using the pound, which is a globally accepted reserve currency. London is adamant that the pound will not be shared with Scotland, any more than it is shared with any other commonwealth state. (Note that Australia, Canada, Lesotho, and the like may have the Queen on their currency, but have to print their own money. As a result, many Scotland based businesses have threatened to de-camp to the south. Will Royal Bank of Scotland become Royal Bank of…… East Northumberland? (In fairness, Scotland could unofficially use the pound the same way Equator uses the U.S. dollar.)
How about nuclear weapons? Currently, Scotland is where the U.K. keeps theirs. Scotland has declared that they will be a nuclear-free zone. Further, Scotland’s chances of joining NATO or the European Union appear slim.
All of this has some very real implications for one of the world’s anchor currencies and 6th largest economy ($2.8 T estimated 2014 GDP, according to CNN.com). To suggest that this wouldn’t have implications for global real estate investment would be short sighted in the extreme.
The current common wisdom (such that it is) about retail real estate is that the Amazons of the world will crush retail real estate. Add to that the pressures of retrenchment among traditional shopping mall anchors such as Sears and JC Penney (neither of whom have figured out how to make “on-line” work), as well as the changing shopping habits of the millennial generation and the “halt” of suburban sprawl, and it comes as no surprise that only three traditional enclosed malls have been completed in the last decade, compared with 19 in the 1990’s (according to the International Council of Shopping Centers).
A neat article in the current edition of Real Estate Investment Today (REIT) published by the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, illustrated both the challenges and the potential solutions for real estate investors. The principle focus of the article was on Macerich, one of the nation’s premier retail trusts. While the article does a great job of illustrating how this one firm is addressing today’s challenging retail landscape, the underpinnings of the article were even more interesting for projecting the future of this important property sector.
Among other ways to address the issues, Macerich is targeting its top performing malls for significant redevelopment. For example, the Tysons Corner Center in Fairfax, VA, is slated for a $525 million expansion. In addition, many top-tier malls are being multi-purposed, with hotels and office space added for synergy and operational leverage. Much of the redevelopment has been aimed at making properties in densely populated markets more up-scale or even “luxury” branding. Macerich also has a technology program, including social media, aimed at the millennial shopper. Finally, the outlet mall product continues to be strong, and Macerich intends to build a few of those in the near term.
On the flip side, Macerich sold about $1 Billion in assets over the past 14 months, and has another $250 million slated for disposal during the rest of 2014. Lower quality assets and properties in secondary markets are largely on the chopping block.
What does this mean for the industry? In some ways, the news isn’t all that bad. The lack of new construction favors existing properties, particularly those with good fundamentals and solid (and growing) customer bases. On the down-side, mid-grade properties are going to become “malls people USED to shop at”, and retail is extraordinarily hard to reposition. Thus, while there are bright spots in retail sector, there are certainly players who won’t survive the next cycle.
My attentiveness to this little blog of mine has waned the past few months. I’ve been terrifically busy, which is of course a “good thing” as Martha Stewart says.
That having been said, despite my “busy-ness”, I recently accepted a seat on the Board of Trustees of the Center for Wooden Boats. The CWB has been at the southern tip of Seattle’s Lake Union for many years, serving as an educational resource about our maritime heritage. Those of you familiar with the current re-development of that portion of Seattle will instantly recognize that the CWB is wonderfully located. Our next-door-neighbor is the old Naval Reserve facility, which has been converted to house the Museum of History and Industry. Together, these two fantastic resources now anchor a huge park/public space in the hottest part of town. To match the demand, CWB is now in the final stages of a multi-million-dollar capital campaign to fund a new education and meeting center.
CWB really has the potential to be a resource of national and even international recognition and quality. While many museums and galleries around the world are facing tough times, CWB continues to enjoy tremendous support. Naturally, the upsurge in attendance and attention have strained these resources, and part of my task as a new board member — coming from a finance/business perspective — will be to aid in the stewardship of this valuable center.
More later, but if any of you have any interest in how to engage or support the CWB, please let me know.
The gap in postings is a good indication of just how busy I’ve been the past several months. Whew….
Anyway, the latest semi-annual Livingston Survey just hit my desk from the Phily FED. Just to remind you, the Phily FED surveys a cross-section of top economic forecasters on four key issues — GDP growth, interest rates, unemployment, and inflation. Ironically, the survey came out before this week’s BEA announcement that GDP grew at an annual rate of 4.1% in the 3rd quarter (following a 2.5% growth in the 2nd quarter).
Nonetheless, the Livingston Survey gives a good snapshot of where professional forecasters think the economy will be over the next couple of years. Forecasters generally see GDP growth ending this year around 2.4%, increasing to an annualized rate of 2.5% early next year, and 2.8% in late 2014.
Interest rate forecasts were also surveyed before the recent FED pronouncements about tapering, although the general sense is that markets have been capturing the “taper” news for a while. Forecasters project t-bill rates to continue below 0.1% into 2014, rising to 0.15% by the end of next year, and 0.75% by the end of 2015. Ten-year bond yields should follow suit, with rates rising above 3% in mid-2014, up to 3.25% by the end of next year. Of course, time will tell on these projections.
Finally, unemployment is projected to dip below 7% after mid-2014, and finish the year around 6.7%. Inflation should hold below 2%, although it is projected to creep up somewhat from the current rates.
The Phily FED produces a series of economic surveys throughout the year. For more information, visit their research department.
My expertise (such that it is) lives in the universe of Finance and Economics, but I tend to specialize in the real estate arena. That means, I spend a lot of time looking at maps. (Somewhat ironically, my main hobbies — flying and boating — also require a lot of map work. Go figure….)
With that in mind, someone sent me a link to a great piece in the Washington Post called 40 Maps That Explain the World. Click on it yourself. The maps are somewhat interactive (you can expand them for detail, and there are cross-post to other articles and explanations). The maps are extremely thought-provoking, and some take a bit of time to fully comprehend.
If THAT wasn’t enough, apparently other writers are starting to compile their own “40 Maps” lists. One of the better ones, albeit somewhat more U.S. centric, comes from the website twistedsifter.com, and is called 40 Maps That Will Help You Make Sense of the World. Whether they do or not is still up in the air, but they do make for fun reading.
One of my favorite regular “reads” is the Survey of Professional Forecasters” from the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank. The main survey comes out quarterly, with occasional special editions thrown in along the way. The brilliance of the survey is its simplicity — ask a large panel of economic forecasters where they think the economy is going in terms of a handful of key indicators — GDP, unemployment, inflation. Then calculate the median and the range of responses.
The medians are fairly predictable and “sticky” (that is, this quarter’s results look a lot like last quarter’s). However, the interesting stuff is buried in the way the distribution of results change. For example, both the last survey and the current survey find that the largest number of economists think unemployment will average between 7.0% and 7.4% next year (with a median of 7.1%), down somewhat from this year. That’s pretty predictable stuff. However, this year’s distribution is skewed to the low side (a very large number of economists think unemployment will dip this year and end up as low as 7% on average) but next year, the distribution is fairly even, with the bulk of economists forecasting anywhere from 6% to 8%. In short, 2014 is pretty cloudy right now, and that means that hedging your economic bets isn’t a bad idea.
GDP projections are somewhat less rosy. In the previous survey (2nd quarter, 2013), the largest number of economists projected 2013 GDP in the 2% to 3% range, with the median at 2%. Today, that has dropped a full half-percentage point, down to 1.5%. Previously, 2014 was projected at 2.8%, and that has now been downgraded to 2.6%, although as we’ve already established, 2014 is pretty much a guessing game.
Inflation continues to be pretty-much a flat line, with a lot of “1.8%” and “2.0%” on the chart. In short, hardly anyone sees inflation above 2.3% or so in the foreseeable future.
To download the full report, go to http://www.philadelphiafed.org/research-and-data/real-time-center/survey-of-professional-forecasters/2013/survq313.cfm
Housing starts reportedly dipped 9.9% in June, with the bulk of that in multifamily starts. A few quick points about that. First, rebounds from a recession are anything but smooth. Come back in December and we’ll see what the trend line looks like. Second, note what happened to apartments. While apartment vacancies are still very healthy (5% range, nationwide), there are signs we’re getting a bit overbuilt in that sector. There was a huge rush, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many (most?) of the equity investors and lenders are looking for a chance to catch their breath.
Finally, I’ve opined in a number of places about the loss of construction talent and infrastructure. The long, deep recession really cost us in skilled labor (apprentice programs all the way to master crafts people) and in entitled land. A lot of building sites which were carrying entitlements (zoning, permitting, concurrence requirements, etc.) saw these vital legalities pass into the sunset (most of these had “build-by” dates). Even worse, many local planning and permitting offices are short-staffed, as cities and counties had to decide between laying off under-utilized permitting staff or over-utilized cops, firefighters, and EMTs. Guess what decisions councils and mayors made? On top of that, these understaffed departments will be the last to staff back up to normal.
Sigh….. normal housing starts in America post-WWII are about 1 million per year. When the total got down to, say, 800,000, the Fed would goose the monetary base, banks would make loans, and builders would fire up the pick-up trucks. When starts got above 1.5 million, the Fed would dim the lights a bit, and builders would go fishing. Overall, starts came in at 836,000 in June, down from May but amazingly up 10% from last year. Prior to 2008, a sustained level of starts in this range would be emblematic of a recession. Today, it’s good news. Go figure.
Oh, and one other quick thing — one pundit (I want to say on CNBC) recently suggested Ford, Chevy, and Chrysler as plays on housing starts. When starts go up, Ford sells more F-series pickups. Reportedly, Ford profits to the tune of $10,000 for each of these main-stays of the building site, and currently sells 72,000 of them a month. Do the math.