Monday, December 15, 2014

Moving Targets

Are traditional doctors offices going the way of house calls?
Think of the economy – any economy – as a river. A river is just water that is moving from a higher elevation to a lower elevation. If anything gets in its way, the water moves around it or, eventually, through it. There’s no thought process involved, or the act of a higher power. Water is driven by gravity to be as low as it can be.

Economies are likewise driven to be efficient. Producing the most possible at the lowest price. Why? Because human beings demand it. There is almost no end to what human beings want, and therefore producers want to produce as much of something as they can, and consumers, who have so many desires, want to pay as little as possible. Ultimately, the marketplace is where consumers and producers meet in the middle.

Human beings can erect dams to manipulate the flow of water. Note that I said manipulate, not stop. The water cannot be stopped. Hoover Dam forces water through channels to spin dynamos, but it doesn’t stop the water from flowing. Other dams force the water into fields to irrigate crops, but they do not stop the water.

Likewise, human governments can erect regulations, taxes and other such things to manipulate the flow of an economy. They can make something artificially cheap or expensive, but eventually the market will, by hook or by crook, work around those artifices to put the product at the market price.

I’ve recently read an article about innovations in healthcare. The supply of healthcare is, like a river, finding a way around artificial impediments. Because the old way of delivering healthcare, via individual doctors and surgeons, has been made artificially expensive with cost-sharing "health insurance”, producers and consumers are finding a way to “meet in the middle” with medical groups, do-it-yourself treatment aided by handheld computers (let’s stop calling them cell phones – they’re really so much more), health clinics, etc.

At the moment, the victim of this market-driven innovation is medical office space. Medical office space was designed to serve the old market of doctors and patients. At the moment, it is being negatively impacted by the change in healthcare delivery – a change initiated not by the free market, but by large public and private institutions.

Will we, at some point, return to a more traditional model? Perhaps. As healthcare delivery moves away from the very institutions that sought to dominate it, they will have to adapt or die. In the meantime, medical office will have to adapt to the new way of doing things. It may do this by clever redesigns to serve medical groups and health clinics, or by repurposing itself to other uses. Thus the ebb and flow of commerce continues. Keep this in mind when dealing with developers and building owners. The consumer (in this case potential tenant or buyer) is always a moving target, and forces much larger than they are driving that movement. Spend some time understanding the macro-economy to better understand the micro-economies you deal with when you represent a landlord or tenant.


Thursday, May 22, 2014

Art and Science

They say that economics is an art as much as a science. This is actually a fancy excuse for why economists have to spend so much time finessing and guessing – the truth is, there’s more information out there than we know or can know, and so we have to collect what we can, when we can, connect the dots, and present the most complete picture possible of the current state of the economy, and where it might be headed.

For the past seven years (!) I’ve maintained an economic index called the Commercial Real Estate Recovery Index. I use it to predict near future demand for commercial real estate in Southern Nevada. To look at now, you might not guess that Southern Nevada is kicking ass at the moment, economically speaking.

Looking at the index, we find year-over-year growth in most of the data points that make up the index, especially port traffic in Los Angeles (not a key data point, I grant you, but it does show 11.2 percent growth year-over-year, and some of that cargo makes its way to and through Southern Nevada), taxable sales (6.8 percent growth y-o-y), and employment (3.2 percent growth y-o-y). Only one measure is tanking at the moment, and it is unfortunately an important one: New home sales are down 21.8 percent from one year ago. Since 2010, the index has grown by an average of 0.2 percent per month.

We have positive growth, but not wildly positive growth. So why am I saying that the economy is kicking ass? Because the numbers do not show everything. The jobs data collected by the state, for example, is “establishment based”. This means that the data gatherers poll a variety of existing businesses and ask them whether they’re hiring or firing. Based on their responses, the state decides how many jobs were likely created and/or destroyed, and comes up with a number. What this process does not capture, of course, is jobs created in newly created businesses.

Using a new method of allotting jobs by industry into the different sectors of commercial real estate, we get the following job picture:

A few take-aways from this graph: 1) The recession hurt different sectors to different degrees, and those sectors responded to that pain in different degrees. The industrial sector took the biggest hit in terms of lost jobs, but the industrial real estate market is in much better shape than the office market, which already appears to have regained the jobs it lost during the recession. 2) Employment in the different sectors peaked at different times - industrial first, then professional office, and finally retail. Medical office employment flattened for a brief time during the recession, but didn't actually peak until 2013 - I can't imagine what might have caused that. 3) Industrial jobs - really construction jobs - have stubbornly stayed lost during the recovery, while professional office jobs seem to be back to their pre-recession level and retail jobs have surpassed their pre-recession level. Unfortunately, this job recovery has not been matched by an "occupied square footage" recovery - this suggests a transition in how space is being utilized. 

The problem with the paragraph above, though, is that it takes for granted that the employment picture it depicts is completely accurate. Alas, it is not.

What the graph above does not capture – the “known unknown” – is how many jobs are being created in newly created businesses. Here, I have to fill in the blanks with my own anecdotal knowledge of the amount of lease and sale activity I’m seeing while I update my database on a daily basis. I don’t have this information dropped into a spreadsheet and calculated and analyzed yet, so I cannot offer any concrete numbers, but my impression is that new business creation is high and it is this new business creation that is driving commercial real estate activity at the moment.

Thus, the numbers we have look pretty good, but I believe the numbers we don’t have look even better, and therefore, using a little finesse and guess, that Southern Nevada’s economy is in better shape than the current numbers suggest.

Of course, I sincerely hope now that I've said this that an “unknown unknown” doesn’t pop up and make me eat crow.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Eyes of the Nation Are Upon Us

During the boom years, the mantra for many large, national corporations was “You have to be in Vegas” – especially if you were in the retail business. The Valley was growing at a remarkable pace, and all those new customers were irresistible to big business.

Then 2008 happened, and the passion really left the relationship.

During the Great Recession, Southern Nevada lost jobs, residents and, of course, dollars. As incomes dropped, in both size and number, Las Vegas lost its luster in the eyes of big business. This reversal of interest was inevitable, given the circumstances, but it didn’t happen overnight.

As far as two years into the Great Recession, national companies were still taking space in Southern Nevada – perhaps because their competitors were going out of business and leaving gaps to be filled, and because rents were dropping fast. In 2009, we recorded lease comps in Southern Nevada totaling 2.4 million square feet by companies with national or international reach. This fell slightly to 2.3 million square feet in 2010, and then dropped significantly in 2011 and 2012, averaging about 1.8 million square feet in each of those two years.

In 2013, the tide changed, and national companies took 2.1 million square feet of space in commercial projects (again, in comps we had access to, and in projects we track). Most of this space was in Warehouse/Distribution, which ranked #1 in demand in each of the past five years. This has more to do with the nature of Warehouse/Distribution space than anything else – not only are Warehouse/Distribution units larger than other commercial units, they also dominate in the logistics roll, a roll for which national companies have a demand in Southern Nevada.

Light Distribution projects ranked #2 in demand by national companies, with companies leasing 274,000 square feet in those properties. Retail, primarily Power Centers, came in at #3 with 253,000 square feet of leases, and Professional Office rounds out the top four, with 177,000 square feet.

Each of these product types has seen a different demand trend over the past five years. Warehouse/Distribution saw higher demand in 2009 and 2010 than in 2013, and much lower demand in 2011 and 2012 than in 2013. Demand for Light Distribution has been very stable. Retail demand has increased steadily from 2009 to 2013. Professional Office space has seen demand by national companies steadily decrease from 2009 to 2013, by 61.9 percent to be precise.

If this is the space that national companies want, is Southern Nevada going to be able to meet this demand over the next two years? In the case of Professional Office, with demand steadily decreasing and 11 years of supply on the market, there shouldn’t be a problem. Retail is also probably secure, with six years of supply on the market in the retail category, and much of this in the form of big boxes. Things get dicey, though, when we consider distribution space. There is about 7 months of Warehouse/Distribution supply, and 2.4 years of Light Distribution supply on the market. Meeting the demand of national, regional and local companies for distribution product will be difficult unless companies can afford the time required to build their own facilities, or speculative construction begins soon.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Bucking the Trend

A new year has dawned, following a year of uneven progress for the real estate market. The industrial market had its best year in five, retail kept its head above water and tallied up its third year of positive net absorption, and office managed a decent year all the while looking about as appealing as Mylie Cyrus with a foam finger.

The underlying economic fundamentals of 2013 were uneven as well, but positive overall. I’ve already written about the trend in Southern Nevada's Napoleonic economic cycle of attack in the summer and retreat in the winter (yes, I hate myself a little for that Napoleon bit, but my father paid for a history degree so I need to use it), so now we need to see if that trend is holding.

Economic data never arrives as quickly as we would like it (“we” being people who have to think and write about economics - I'm sure the compilers of economic data think it comes plenty fast enough), but the numbers for November 2013 are finally filing in to be counted and analyzed. If the trend we discussed last time holds, we should see the CRE Recovery Index leveling off or dropping off in November.

And now for the good news –

November’s index number was actually up! In November, the index reached 95. This is the highest number we’ve seen on the index since December 2008, and that was when the index was plunging (it would be 93 the next month, and 86 six months later). In general, 2013 saw the index take a small step back in February, level off for a few months, and then begin to grow in June, with that growth continuing through the summer, fall and winter. December numbers are not all in yet, but when we look at the numbers that are in, and if we assume those that aren’t in at least stay stable, the index number for December 2013 should remain at 95.

What does this mean? It means that 2013, at least the latter half of 2013, was a pretty solid year. It’s no surprise that it was a year that generated pretty strong performance in the real estate market. We might be seeing the winter lag coming in December and maybe January, but if the region is able to build in 2014 on its reasonably good performance in 2013, we should see continued recovery in the real estate market through 2014. Based on last year’s performance, the trajectory of the retail market is the one to watch. Retail went negative at the end of 2013 after three years of positive net absorption, and this negative turn is taking place just as speculative construction is returning to the retail market. Whether those new projects will stimulate or cannibalize the existing market will be very interesting!

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