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Guest view: Current state of the U.S. economy and its impact on commercial real estate: Part II

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Mike Kushner is the president of Lower Paxton Township-based Omni Realty Group.
Mike Kushner is the president of Lower Paxton Township-based Omni Realty Group. - (Photo / )

Continuing with part two from our series on the health and future of the U.S. economy, we again welcome the knowledge and insight of Robert Calhoun.

Robert is the Northeast Regional Economist for CoStar Group where he manages a team of economists and analysts tasked with producing research at a local, regional and national level on commercial real estate, the economy and capital markets.

Let’s now dive into what real estate market participants should be keeping a watchful eye on in 2018.

Omni: Debt drives real estate markets and there’s a flood of capital in the market right now. Is this a shoe waiting to drop?

I say that all the time: debt drives real estate markets. What you worry about from a capital markets standpoint is that a flood of capital leads to declining underwriting standards, and so far we aren’t seeing anything overly alarming on that front.

There has been some gradual loosening of underwriting standards in the CMBS space, but this has generally been met with demands of higher credit support by the rating agencies. Investors are still doing a good job of differentiating collateral and demanding higher yields for riskier deals. We are seeing a resurgence of (commercial real estate collateralized loan obligations) during this cycle, but the structure of these deals are much better than the previous cycle.

Omni: What is contributing to the widening gap between bid and ask prices in the commercial real estate market right now?

We’ve been watching the staring contest between buyers with dry powder and owners with big gains for some time. While many owners would probably like to take advantage of current valuations and harvest gains at low cap rates, they run the risk of having to redeploy that capital back out into the same market.

Many buyers, despite being flush with cash, are balking at current prices. And the deeper we get into this cycle, the harder it is to make deals by assuming higher rents and higher occupancy into an uncertain future. I would say the widening of bid/ask spreads right now is a healthy thing, further evidence that market participants are staying somewhat disciplined.

A CRE investor has a couple of different dials he can toggle when making investment decisions: risk profile, return requirement, pace of investment. They are choosing to slow their investment pace instead of loosen their risk profile or lower their return requirements.

Omni: From a commercial real estate perspective, what are the most dramatic potential effects that we should brace ourselves for? In terms of the commercial real estate market, what will you be keeping a close eye on in 2018? What will be driving the volatility in 2018?

I’ll echo my comments from before: CRE fundamentals appear solid with no glaring red flags at the national level. The biggest risk to the commercial real estate market would be a sharp rise in interest rates, likely driven by an unforeseen pickup in inflation that causes the Fed to worry that it’s behind the curve. So far, inflation has been very well behaved.

I’ll be keeping a close eye on the unemployment rate and corresponding wage growth. At this stage in the cycle, with labor markets relatively tight, we’ve typically seen wage pressures materialize. As of the Fed’s most recent statement of economic projections, the Committee expects the unemployment rate to be 4.1 percent at the end of 2018. We are already at 4.1 percent as of October 2017. If the unemployment rate were to dip below 4.0 percent and inflation were to begin moving more quickly back toward the Fed’s 2.0 percent target, that could elicit a faster pace of rate hikes than is currently expected.

Omni: Do you think market participants are factoring the threat from technology into their investment decisions?

Technology is an interesting topic when it comes to commercial real estate. I think many market participants see CRE as an area of the economy that won’t be as easily “disrupted” by technology, but we’re already experiencing disruption! So much ink has been spilled over the Amazon effect on retail that I don’t need to say much here. WeWork and its $20B valuation, whatever you may think of it, is shaking up the office market. Even if a company doesn’t actually use WeWork space when they want to expand, couldn’t they take a page from their playbook and demand a shorter/more flexible lease in a traditional office building? How would that impact office valuations?

Technology like driverless cars won’t change people’s need to live SOMEWHERE, but it might change the shape of cities and neighborhoods, creating winners and losers. Technology is also changing the way investors think about real estate as an asset class. Priceline is currently valued at $84B while Marriott has a market cap of $46B. In that light, which his more valuable: owning the real estate or owning the customer relationship?

I’m hearing more chatter about how artificial intelligence and machine learning can begin to disrupt the CRE lending market, with algorithms taking the place of human underwriters. It’s easy to envision a company like Zillow disintermediating traditional real estate brokers by facilitating peer-to-peer home sales, and that same model could be extended into the commercial real estate market.

To answer your question (finally), I think it’s important for market participants to consider technological threats…but at the same time, nobody does a very good job of predicting an uncertain future! Picking winners and losers will be as challenging as always.

In case you missed it, be sure to check out part I from our interview series with Robert Calhoun. In our first article, Robert shares insights into the health and future of the United States’ economy as a whole.

Robert Calhoun is the Regional Economist covering the northeast for CoStar Group and is based in New York. Mr. Calhoun manages a team of economists and analysts tasked with producing research at a local, regional and national level on commercial real estate, the economy and capital markets.

Mike Kushner is the owner of Lower Paxton Township-based Omni Realty Group.

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