From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Post Thanksgiving, time to go back to work…

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In past years (say, pre-2008), the Thanksgiving thru New Years period at Greenfield was always slow, as clients and projects seemed to hunker down for the holiday season. Naturally, 2008 was an aberration on a number of levels — the real estate let-down was in full force, and while our business flow was down, we were busy “hunkering down” for what we projected would be a long recession trough.

Last year (2009) was unpredictable. The first half of the year was dreary, but the last half was a rebuilding period for us, as has been 2010. We’re not yet where we want to be (that is to say, back on our pre-recession growth curve), but the accumulations of lessons-learned have put us in a great position for the future.

I’m commenting on our specific experience at Greenfield for a reason. I think our own company experiences are emblematic of what is happening at tens of thousands of other businesses across the U.S. and other countries, and has significant implications for the future of real estate, the economy, and finance for the next few years. I’m always reluctant to get into the prediction business (I’ll leave that up to Faith Popcorn and her ilk), but I can make a few generalizations, particularly as the parallel what I saw back in the 1970’s —

1. Business profits (and valuations — as we see from the stock market) are headed upward, not so much from increased sales (flat across the board) but also thru extraordinarily increased efficiency. One might wonder, if firms are so doggone efficient today, why weren’t they acting efficiently a few years ago? Simply put, “efficient” firms don’t grow very well. Growth usually requires a significant degree of wastage. Hewlett Packard was famous for this — they would budget engineers a certain amount of time and support to just tinker with things, knowing that the sort of Edison-esque profitability that came out of such tinkering. At one time, Xerox was so inventive that they thru away lots of great ideas, the Graphical User Interface being the best known example. Additionally, efficient firms cut wa-a-a-a-a-y back on hiring, training, and marketing. We see this now on college campuses, as new graduates (even in the “vocational” schools like business and engineering) are getting no offers or offers far beneath what their big brothers and big sisters got a few years ago.

2. This “hunkering down” not only cuts the demand for commercial real estate, but also means we may have a substantial excess supply of offices, warehouses, and shopping centers for some time to come. Ironically, business travel is coming back (as executives work harder to sell the same amount as before) but everyone is going “down” a notch on the hotel food chain — executives who used to stay at a Ritz Carleton are now at Marriotts, and former Marriott customers are now at Courtyard Marriotts. (Intriguingly, the Marriott organization is highly vertically integrated, and so actually takes great advantage of this phenomenon). The interesting off-shoot is that while aggregate hotel room counts are up, hotel employment lags (as customers move from “full-service” to “limited service” stays). The same is true with hotel restaurants, as dining-out budgets get slashed.

3. The “trainee” employment picture is worsening in some ways, but may actually improve in others. As noted, new graduates are having real problems getting placed, and are having to accept entry-level jobs far below expectations. I spoke with a young woman recently who graduated in 2010 in Finance. She had great grades and a stellar resume, and fully expected to get an entry-level job commensurate with her expectations. Guess what? No one is hiring. After several frustrating months, she accepted a job as a teller at a Credit Union at about half the starting salary she’d previously expected. Is there a silver lining in this? Yes, two. From the business’ perspective, they’re getting entry-level talent at bargain basement prices, and if they’re willing to mentor and foster these kids, they’ve got talent who will have a much greater familiarity with the nuts-and-bolts of the business once expansion does return. From the “hiree’s” perspective, a foot in the door builds experience and puts her at the starting gate ahead of the rest of the pack.

4. The early 1980’s recession was actually the last of a series dating back to the late 1960’s (the period was called “stag-flation”). While the early-80’s recession was the worst of the bunch, it seemed to have wrung the last of the “bad stuff” out of the economy, and set the stage for two decades of nearly continuous growth. Many credit the pro-business agenda of the Reagan Administration, but that ignores the tremendous pent-up inventiveness which had been waiting for an opportunity. Gates, Allen, Jobs, and Wozniak had been tinkering with computers and software for a decade, but needed a business expansion to really get themselves going. Sam Walton had great ideas about merchandising, but the explosive growth of WalMart depended in no small part on the availability of cheap construction and development credit to build mega-stores at seemingly every street corner. We decry the sloppiness of the mortgage market of the past few years, but no one seems to complain about the millions of construction workers and realtors who rode from apprenticeship to retirement on the wave of the housing boom. Recessions do not last forever, although this one does have the symptoms of lasting for a while longer. When 4% GDP growth returns (and remember, folks, that’s really all it takes), we should be poised for a period of expansion not-unlike the one that started in the mid-1980’s.

Well, folks, that’s really it. Like most of you, I have a lot to be thankful for. I live in a fairly free country, with an economy that considers 9% unemployment and 2% GDP growth to be unacceptable. I get the opportunity to interface with students and young folks on a daily basis, and they constantly refresh my positive outlook for the future.

Written by johnkilpatrick

November 27, 2010 at 11:33 am

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