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.
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