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COVID-19 and the economy: changes coming to commercial real estate

No matter where you go to consume news, you will be bombarded by anything and everything related to COVID-19. The impact of this novel virus on our world is impossible to fully understand or appreciate at this time. The term “unchartered water” is being used quite frequently and it couldn’t be more accurate.

Every industry is wondering how this will impact their business, both immediately and long-term. The simple truth is that no one really knows right now. The best we can do is look to history to see how the world has reacted to similar pandemics, economic crisis, and panic. Though the world has not seen a virus causing a global shut down like we are seeing with COVID-19, we can anticipate the significant changes we may expect to see take right here in Pennsylvania. Here’s how commercial real estate is getting pulled into the fold.

Economic Uncertainty. With so much uncertainty in the stock market these last few days, people get nervous. Talk to anyone working in the financial services industry, and he or she will tell you that most of their time right now is spent talking people off the ledge of making panicked decisions. And their fear is not unfounded. After all, trillions of dollars in paper wealth have essentially evaporated.

As people watch their diminishing 401K balances, they feel rightfully uncertain. And if such uncertainty causes consumers to hit the pause button on spending, a ripple effect is bound to take place. When attendees avoid concerts, sporting events, movies, or restaurants, businesses suffer a decline in sales. Operations who supply these enterprises, such as the trucking, food, linens, security, novelties industries then feel the pinch as the ripples become waves of lost revenue. How does this relate back to commercial real estate? All of these businesses rent or own commercial real estate, meaning CRE gets pulled into the downward spiral.

 Supply chain disruption. Here are the facts (changing daily), steel production is down 90% in China. Auto sales in Asia is down 95%. One of the Port of LA’s largest exports is auto parts. Couple these factors with the typical container cancellations during the Chinese New Year and you create an immense lag in product delivery which will ripple out to impact just about every other industry imaginable.

Whole industries have come to a sudden halt.  Hotels, restaurants, construction businesses, retail stores – and this is hardly scratching the surface of the businesses across the Commonwealth mandated to shutter their businesses for at least two weeks – likely more. The ripple effect this will have immediately and well into the future is near impossible to quantify. It’s not unlikely that some businesses may fold as a result. If such businesses owned or rented commercial real estate, this is space that will be vacated. Additionally, a lull in new construction will decrease the amount of new space delivered to the market at least through 2020.

Interest rates. There is much conversation and reason to believe that we will soon see more favorable interest rates, making commercial real estate financing more affordable. The reason is that mass stock market sell offs will generate proceeds which must be invested. Typically, a safe harbor for this cash is short term instruments such as Treasuries. However, this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. On March 3rd, The Federal Reserve lowered the federal funds rate by ½ of one percent which was met with much applause. The truth is that this is irrelevant. The federal funds rate refers to the interest rate that banks charge other banks for lending them money from their reserve balances on an overnight basis. The hard truth is that the federal funds rate has no impact on ten-year treasury yields.

The Silver Lining – Despite the doom and gloom being predicted for many industries as the result of the spread of COVID-19, there are (at least) three reasons why commercial real estate should look to the silver lining in all of this. Here’s what they are.

#1. Some stock market investors fleeing the equity markets may choose to start investing in real estate. Why wouldn’t they invest in CRE? After the rapid downturn that’s transpired in the last few weeks, it only seems logical that some would say enough is enough I’m going to pull my money out of the stock market and invest it in a lower risk type of investment.

#2. Treasury rates have hit historic lows. On March 9th, the ten-year treasury bottomed out at 0.569%, rising to 0.981% by Friday, March 13. For comparison, a year ago, the ten-year treasury closed at 2.592% so the decline has been dramatic to state the obvious. Those of us who have debt, whether it is a home loan or loans on our rental properties, are going to benefit by refinancing debt with significantly lower interest rates.

#3. If there is increased demand for CRE and interest rates remain low, the logical result will be that capitalization rates will continue to compress even further than they are right now. This means that even if a real estate investor doesn’t refinance his rental properties, the value of his real estate will still go up as cap rates continue to compress. So bottom line is that those of us who have invested in commercial real estate will inadvertently benefit from this black swan event.

#4. It’s now a tenant’s market. The speed at which the market shifted from a landlord’s market to a tenant’s market can hardly be overstated. COVID-19 has effectively caused a collapse of U.S. office demand, which ironically comes after the market set a post-recession record just last year. For tenants who are hunting for new office, retail, or industrial space, chances are you’re going to be able to negotiate favorable terms and pricing.

In trying and changing times like these, I am very glad I chose to be an exclusive tenant agent representative/buyer’s agent for commercial real estate. I can still be an asset to my clients, whereas other forms of brokerage are more greatly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. During this historic time, I can serve my clients through subleasing, lease restructuring, and negotiating better deals based on current market conditions.

About the Author: Mike Kushner, CCIM has 28 years of experience in commercial real estate. He is the owner of Omni Realty Group, Harrisburg’s only exclusive Tenant Representation/Buyer Agency Brokerage and Real Estate Advisory Firm. Learn more at http://www.omnirealtygroup.com.

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