Other than a few of the permanent pages (over on the right of your screen), I’ve let this blog die on the vine this year. It’s actually been a surprisingly busy year, so busy that I’ve not had the time to write much! My lack of intellectual output on this blog is mirrored in my other writings, and all of that needs to change.
Lynnda and I spent this past weekend at the Aspen Institute, which hosted one of the regional Renaissance Weekends. I spoke on a couple of topics, most notably on real estate (of course). I wanted to share with you a bit of what I had to say.
First, let me lay the groundwork. Renaissance Weekend is now in it’s 35th year, and has held about 125 such gatherings. It is a non-partisan, invitation-only gathering of thought leaders from a variety of fields (government, science, business, show business, astronauts, authors, Nobel Laureates, etc.). All discussions are strictly off the record (although a speaker, like myself, is free to share what I personally said). The first one was held at the home of Phil and Linda Lader. At the time, he was the developer of Sea Pines Plantation on Hilton Head and went on to be the U.S. Ambassador to England during the Clinton Administration. They wanted a gathering of families over the New Years weekend to talk about important issues of the day — the sort of informal chats we all used to have in college outside of the pure classroom setting. Over the years, Renaissance has grown, and is now held in Charleston every new years. The Charleston event draws 1,100 or so, and over the years, many of the participants wanted smaller, more intimate gatherings. Hence, Renaissance also meets on major holidays (July 4, Labor Day, President’s Day) in places like Napa Valley, Santa Monica, Jackson Hole, and Banff, British Columbia. The Clintons were regulars at Renaissance back when he was Governor and President, and President and Mrs. Ford were also regulars. All in all, about 20 presidential candidates, countless Senators, Representatives, Governors, and elected officials from every level and both parties have attended over the years.
Labor day was hosted by the Aspen Institute, which is a non-partisan forum for values-based leadership and the exchange of ideas. It has earned a reputation for gathering diverse thought leaders, scholars, and members of the public to address some of the world’s most complex problems. It was founded in 1949 by Walter Paepcke, then the Chairman of Container Corporation of America. His first gathering drew such luminaries as Albert Schweitzer, Jose Ortega y Gasset, Thornton Wilder, and Arthur Rubinstein, along with members of the international press and more than 2,000 other attendees. Through reading and discussing selections from the works of classic and modern writers, leaders better understand the human challenges facing the organizations and communities they serve. “The Executive Seminar was not intended to make a corporate treasurer a more skilled corporate treasurer,” said Paepcke, “but to help a leader gain access to his or her own humanity by becoming more self-aware, more self-correcting, and more self-fulfilling.”
One of my talks was about housing, and specifically addressing an accusatory issue being tossed around in political circles that “homeownership in America is at its lowest level in 50 years.” Like so much in politics, that is technically true, but may not be a bad thing. Home ownership in the U.S. hit record levels during the bubble — slightly over 69%. Today, the homeownership rate is about 64%. If you look back at periods when home ownership in America was stable and healthy, the ownership rate hovered around 64%. Thus, from an ownership rate perspective, we may be at a very good level.
The bigger problem we have is home ownership equity. For many years, the aggregate equity enjoyed by homeowners was about 60% of the aggregate value of the homes in America. That means that on average an American homeowner had about 60% equity and about 40% debt. From an equilibrium perspective, that appeared to be pretty good. At the trough of the recession, roughly early 2008, that level got down to about 35%, which everyone would agree was a terrible number. Today, we stand at about 55%. By the way, this is a LOT of money — the aggregate value of all residences in America today is slightly over $20 TRILLION. That means the aggregate equity in America is close to $11 TRILLION. Getting from where we are to where we used to be means we need to create about another $1 Trillion in equity.
So yes, the housing market is still a bit in disequilibrium, but not from the decline in the home ownership rate, but rather from the decline in home equity. The good news is that we’re headed in the right direction. Recent projections from the National Association of Realtors suggest we may get back to “normal” in the 2018-ish period.
P.S. — Not everything at Renaissance is as boring as I’ve made it sound! Lynnda and I had several great chats and dinner with Jay Sandrich and his wife Linda. He directed two-thirds of the episodes of the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the first three seasons of the Cosby Show, and many other iconic productions. The behind-the-scenes tales were awesome!
PriceWaterhouse Coopers does a great job with they’re quarterly survey of commercial real estate investors. Previously known as the Korpacz Survey, after it’s founder, Peter Korpacz, the lengthy but highly readable review gives investors, brokers, appraisers, and others a snapshot of anticipated market performance both by property type (retail, office, etc.) and market (regional, and in some cases by metro area). The most recent issue just hit my desk, and as usual it’s terrifically informative.
The headline this quarter is, “Investors Scrutinize Cash Flow Assumptions”. As it turns out, the assumptions and resultant aggressiveness (or lack thereof) varies significantly by property type and geographic market. For example, strip shopping centers (nationally), apartments (also nationally), and regional warehouses in the pacific and east-north-central regions are enjoying increased optimism, measured by very significant declines in overall capitalization rates. On the other hand, 20% of investors surveyed expect regional mall cap rates to increase over the next six months, and 40% of investors felt the same about the overall Denver market.
Intriguingly, cap rates in CBDs trend lower than in the suburbs of those same cities, driven mainly by higher barriers to entry and a lack of available land downtown. Additionally, most downtown cores in major markets provide the sort of 24/7 lifestyle and transportation alternatives that appeal to younger workers, and hence the firms that employ them. As such, the downtown locations are viewed as less risky, overall.
Overall, vacancy rate assumptions have remained steady over the past year. Coupled with that, tenant retention rates have also remained steady across markets.
In general, office markets remain fundamentally strong, and PWC survey respondents project falling vacancy and rising rental rates over the next few years. Retail market conditions are improving, with no major markets currently in recession and an increasing number in expansion. In the industrial sector, the expansion of the past few years is likely to abate, according to the survey, and a few metros may find themselves in the overbuilt state (Austin, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Portland, and DC). Apartments will continue in expansion in many markets, but the peak may be near, and an increasing number of markets are reported to be in contraction as 2015 turns into 2016.
As noted, the report is detailed, and this issue also features their less frequent surveys of medical office markets, development land, and student housing. For your own copy (they come at a subscription cost, by the way) visit www.pwc.com/realestatesurvey.
The late columnist Joseph A Livingston started surveying economists about their forecasts back in 1946. It’s the oldest continuing survey of its kind, and is continued twice a year under the auspices of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve Bank. One of the neat things about this semi-annual report is that it compares the current central tendency of projections to the projections which were being made six months ago. In short, we can directly compare how economic forecasts are changing over time.
One of the biggest shifts is in the GDP growth rate for the 2nd half of 2015. Six months ago, economists were projecting that we’d end the year with a modestly healthy 3.1% annual rate of growth. Now, economists are forecasting we’ll end the year at about 2.1% — a fairly significant shift in sentiment. Similar declines in GDP growth are projected for 2016. Check my prior blog post about the 12th District report on the western economy, and particularly the impact a stronger dollar is having on the export market.
The good news — and it’s slight — is an improvement in the projections about unemployment. Six months ago, economists were forecasting we’d end the year with an unemployment rate of 5.1%. This has now been revised downward, ever so slightly, to 4.9%. Also, inflation continues to be dead-on-arrival. From the end of 2014 to the end of 2015, the consumer price index is projected to rise only 0.1%, in line with prior forecasts, and the producer price index is actually projected to fall by 3.2%. Both indices are expected to swell in the coming year, but only slightly. The current CPI forecast for the coming year is 1.8%, and PPI is 0.7%. I’ll leave it up to the reader to pick a reason for this, but can you say “energy costs”?
Six months ago, interest rates were forecasted to rise. Actual increases are somewhat lower than previously forecasted. Six months ago, forecasters predicted we’d end the year with 3-month T-bill rates at 0.59%. In reality, the November 23 auction was at 0.14%, although rates are trending up in December (0.28% as of Monday) in anticipation of Fed rate increases. The current forecast is for 3-month rates to end the year around 0.23%, and for 1-year rates to end around 2.3% (down from the previously forecasted 2.5%). Forecasters currently predict 3-month T-bills will hit 1.12% by the end of 2016, and 10-year notes will end next year around 2.75%.
Finally, forecasters are asked to predict the S&P 500 index for the end of the year as well as the end of next year. Six months ago, the consensus forecast was an S&P level of 2158 for the end of the year, and this has now softened to 2090. (It’s helpful to note that the S&P opened just under 2048 this morning.) Forecasters currently project the S&P will hit about 2185 by the end of next year, which is an anemic growth of 4.5% over the coming 12 months.
If you’d like your own copy, which includes much more detail on these forecasts, you can download it for free here.
Greenfield is a global firm (albeit mostly in the U.S.), and even though we’re headquartered in Seattle, we try to focus our attention broadly rather than locally. That said, the 12th Federal Reserve District just released First Glance 12L (3Q15) which takes an early cut at the data from the nine western states. It’s very telling data — the “left coast” as I like to call it tends to suffer worse when times are bad and boom better when times are good. Thus, there are some interesting facts and figures to be gleaned from this well-written report.
Naturally, the report is focused on the health of the member banks in the region, but the macro-econ factors driving that health are of much broader importance. Nationally, unemployment stood at 5.1% at the end of the 3rd quarter. Western states tended to be a bit worse off, with 3 states (Idaho, Utah, and Hawaii) recording lower unemployment rates and the rest showing higher numbers, ranging from Washington’s 5.2% up to Nevada’s 6.7%. California, always the thousand pound gorilla in the room, came in at 5.9%.
However, job growth in the western states is well above the national average — 3% annually for the region versus 2% for the U.S. as a whole. However, the west is digging out of a deeper hole — while job growth nationally hit a trough of -4.9% at the peak of the recession, it bottomed out at -6.7% in the west. Generally, job growth in the west over the past 20 years had held steady at about one percentage point above the national trend during “boom” years.
Housing starts in the west are well below the pre-recession peaks. As of September, 2015, the seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) of housing starts stood at 161,000, with 107,000 of that in 2+ family units. This compares with a peak of 449,000 SAAR in the 2005-2006 period, at a time when 2+ unit housing only made up 85,000 of the starts. Arguably, the market in the west is still absorbing the huge shadow inventory built up during the boom days.
Commercial vacancy rates in the west have been drifting down for the past few years in the office, industrial, and retail sectors. Apartments, however, seem to have plateaued around 4.3% at the end of the 3rd quarter, and are forecast to rise a bit to 4.7% a year from now. I might posit that historically, profit-maximizing apartment vacancy rates have been found to be somewhat higher than these numbers, so apartment managers and owners may have some lee-way to continue building.
The 5 western maritime states are very export-driven, and the strength of the U.S. dollar (up about 18% against major currencies since 2014) has been rough news for those markets. While western state exports rebounded nicely from the trough of the recession (up about 17% from 2009 to 2010), export growth has flat-lined since 2012. Regionally, exports declined about 2.5% since last year, with positive growth reported in only four states (Arizona, Hawaii, Nevada, and Utah). Bellweather California saw exports decline 3.6%. Note that in Washington, my semi-home state, exports make up 21.2% of the gross state product. (We export things like big trucks, big airplanes, software, and agricultural products.) Hence, this is critically important stuff.
The remainder of the report focuses on the health of the regions banks. I’ll leave that up to the reader if you care to download your own copy. Short answer, though, is that the region has seen loan growth accelerate even while the nation as a whole has flattened. Further, the regions banks tend to be a bit more efficient in terms of expenses and staff, both compared to the nation as a whole and compared to the “boom days” pre-recession. Both small and large commercial borrowers generally reported tightening credit standards at the end of the 3rd quarter, which is a change from previous reports. However, consumer borrowers (residential mortgage, credit cards, and auto loans) generally reported easier standards. The bulk of loan growth for small banks (under $10B) came from non-farm non-residential, while for large banks the biggest growth sector was in consumer lending. The percentage non-performing assets (the “Texas Ratio”) in the region, which peaked at 38.9% in 2009, is now down to 5.4%, although still higher than in the 2004-2007 period. By comparison, the national peak hit in 2010 at 19%, and is now standing at 7%, also higher than pre-recession levels.
Ever since PWC acquired Peter Korpacz’s excellent quarterly commercial real estate survey, they have really leveraged that theme into a great regular read. Along with my subscription, their annual Emerging Trends just landed in my in-box, and it’s a really excellent read. (To access a copy, just click on the link above.) The report is a must-read for anyone in real estate, particularly in the investment or finance side. I’ll skip to two of the summaries — one they call “expected best bets” as well as the capital market summary, to give you a flavor of their report.
Expected Best Bets — PWC recommends, “Go to the secondary markets”. They note that gateway markets have pricing problems, while the “18-hour cities” are “…emerging as great relative value propositions.” They particularly cite Austin, Portland, Nashville, and Charlotte.
PWC also discusses “middle-income multifamily housing,” and notes the solid business opportunities providing creative answers for what they call the “excluded middle” households. PWC also encourages planners to re-think parking needs, in light of the changing demands of “live/work/play downtowns.”
On the securities side, PWC notes that many REITs are priced well below net asset value, providing an interesting arbitrage opportunity in 2016.
Capital Markets — PWC opens by noting, “In many ways, it appears that worldwide capital accumulation has rebounded fully from the global financial crisis. The recovery of capital around the globe has been extremely uneven. And the sorting-out process has favored the United States and the real estate industry, affecting prices, yields, and risk management for all participants in the market.”
Whew…. I’m usually loathe to quote so much from another’s work, but I simply could not have said that any better. PWC quotes one of their survey respondents, a Wall Street investment advisor, who says, “There is going to be a long wayve of continued capital allocation toward our business….”
Survey respondents largely were split on short-term inflation, with about 40% predicting modest increases and 60% looking for stability at current rates. However, when they look down the road 5 years, 80% of respondents look for modest increases in inflation. Coupled with that, over 60% of respondents think both short term interest rates and mortgage rates in specific will rise next year, and nearly 80% think such rises will occur over the next 5 years. Intriguingly, a small but significant minority — about 20%, believe rates will rise substantially over the next 5 years. Almost no one believes rates will fall, either in the short-term or the long-term.
To sum up the capital markets view, PWC says the general spirit of the industry is positive, albeit with an eye toward risk. Many are calling for a “long top” to this recovery, but many are also taking defensive postures by shortening investment horizons, paying more attention to the income component of total return rather than the capital appreciation component, and moving down the leverage scale.
As always, I would stress that I am citing a 3rd party source here, and nothing in this review should be construed as investment advise. That said, PWC’s Emerging Trends is an excellent read, and I highly recommend it.
I had the very real pleasure of speaking at the Appraisal Institute’s annual meeting this past July in Dallas, and indeed I’ve been asked to speak there 3 of the past 4 years — a great group and a very well-done conference. My topic this year was on “Practical Statistics for Practicing Appraisers”, and given the need for continuing education credit, my talk was scheduled for two hours. Unfortunately, two hours is either w-a-a-a-a-a-y too much time, or not nearly enough, depending on what you want to do with it.
About the only thing I could do was touch base on a dozen or so different useful topics, talk about the highs and lows of each, and point the audience in the right direction to get more information. One topic I wish I’d spent more time on was Bayesian Statistics, a little-known and under-appreciated branch of statistical inference which, in fact, has significant every-day impacts on how we analyze (or at least SHOULD analyze) data. For example, let’s say that I want to determine the house price trend in a particular town, and have no idea what that trend looks like. I’ll want to construct some sort of “best linear unbiased estimator” (such as a time-series regression) to help me sort all that out.
However, what if afterwards, in that same town, I’ve already measured the overall property trends, but now I’m told that half of the town is known to be contaminated. Do I still want to use the same estimators, or should my methodology be informed by what is now “prior knowledge” about both the existence of the contamination and the overall price trend in the town?
This use of prior knowledge falls into the category of “Bayesian Statistics”, or “Bayesian Inference”, developed by early-18th century theologian and mathematician Sir Thomas Bayes. In short, Bayes noted that our inferences could be improved by the existence of prior knowledge. What’s more, when we’re conducting a Bayesian investigation, our data gathering is anything but random, since we’re seeking data based on our prior knowledge of the situation. In the contamination matter, I may want to look at price trends for homes in the contaminated neighborhood versus price trends for homes in the non-contaminated neighborhood. Naturally, I’ll only focus my attention on properties that have actually transacted, which leads to a common problem in this sort of analysis where properties that have not transacted (which may contain different information) are not part of the data set.
Unfortunately, a lot of practical appraisal — particularly in the residential setting — is heuristic, and over-reliance on “prior knowledge” can lead to a level of sloppiness. That said, a rigorous application of Bayes’ principles, and careful analytical techniques, can allow appraisers to actually develop statistical measures for their valuation work.
Pundits (and yes, to a degree, I’m one) have taken every position possible over the Greek debt crisis. I’ll toss in my 2 cents, and hopefully I’ll add a bit to the debate.
First, I’ve never been to Greece, but one of my colleagues from Greenfield just came back and brought me a bottle of Ouzo (than you, U.S. Customs Service). Also, I had a nice lunch at a Greek restaurant a few days ago. As economists go, that must count for something.
Here is Greece’s problem in a nutshell — as a stand-alone economy they suck. Their people are old, the bright young folks go somewhere more productive as soon as they are old enough to read a map, other than feta cheese they don’t export much of anything, and there simply isn’t enough austerity to balance the budget. Hence, they’ve hocked everything worth hocking right down to the scrap value of the Parthenon to pay for social services and little things like food and medicine. Additional austerity (demanded from what passes for the right in Europe) will salve the wounds for a while, and additional high living (essentially a non-starter, but none-the-less demanded from the left) simply isn’t in the cards. The credit cards are maxed out and the repo man is backing up into the driveway.
By the way, Greece has roughly the same population as Ohio. Greece’s most important industry is tourism, which accounts for 20% of Greece’s GDP and employs one out of five people who actually have jobs. In 2014, tourism was an estimated $12 Billion slice of the economy. However, to put that in perspective, Ohio’s tourism is estimated at $40 Billion per year. You see? The most important thing in Greece is about a 4th the size of one of the least important things in Ohio.
We don’t really think about it here in America, but if the 50 states tried to exist as separate nations, some would die on the vine and others would prosper very nicely. (Although, to be fare, the worst unemployment in America, West Virginia at 7.2%, sits right in the middle between the two healthiest economies in Europe, France and Germany.) We don’t think about that because of the crucible of the Civil War, which you may have read about in your history books. Not withstanding some of the news from South Carolina lately, the Civil War was about several things. Slavery was at the top of the list, for sure, but southern “heritage” types (and yes, I was born and reared in the South) would posit that it was all about states rights versus the central authority of Washington. Let’s go with that for a minute, just for the sake of argument. Let’s assume that was the central theme of the war. How did that turn out? Huh? Turns out, the north won. America was one nation, undivided, period, exclamation point. Along the way, we’ve made numerous economic decisions which would not be rational if we were 50 separate nations, but make perfectly good sense in the long shadow of the Civil War. Hence, some states don’t pull their own weight, economically, but we drag them along, sometimes kicking and screaming, as the rest of us march forward into the economic future.
Europe also had a recent crucible. Indeed, one might think of the 20th Century as one long, amazingly painful period. It essentially started with the “War to End All Wars”, and then a massively painful depression, followed by, “War, the Sequel”, and then followed by, “Let’s all count down to nuclear Armageddon” as the superpowers stared each other down across Germany’s Fulda Gap. By the time the Eurozone was created, thinking people in Europe were willing to do whatever it took to unite the continent and make sure that the casus belli of the past no longer existed.
So, that takes us to Greece. One might not think of Greece as being a focal point, but that would be short-sighted in the extreme. Of course, anyone who has studied anything about western civilization thinks of Greece as the fountain of democracy. That said, it is right at the crossroad of Europe and Asia, and has been central to pretty much every argument in that part of the world in the past two or three thousand years. More to the point, the reasonably solid economies of Europe look at the laggards with pity but also with fear, because a splintering of the Eurozone removes the warm blanket of unity that staves off the kinds of wars that Europe is all too familiar with.
So, like it or not, Europe will hold their noses and cut a check to help pay for Grandma Greece’s hospice bills. They will probably make her move to from a private room to a semi-private one, and she’ll have to settle for generic medicines from now on, and eat in the cafeteria like all the other folks, but she won’t be allowed to starve, and she’ll get a card every Christmas, as long as anyone remembers the 20th century.