From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

…of Japan, earthquakes, and real estate

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It’s hard to overstate our sympathies for our friends in Japan who find their country in tatters, with hundreds — if not thousands — of their fellow citizens dead, thousands (tens of thousands? hundreds of thousands?) more homeless, and the economy at a standstill. Fortunately enough, the Japanese are a terrifically resilient and stoic people, with a hard-working culture and more experience dealing with earthquakes than any other developed nation. I have no doubt they started the clean-up and rebuilding process the moment the aftershocks ended.

At Greenfield, we’ve enjoyed a terrific relationship with the Japan Real Estate Institute over the years. It almost seems embarrassing to talk about business while people are still dying, but a quick “google” search on news about the earthquake shows that the top page of stories deals with how this will affect global business, ranging from impacts on energy prices to the availability of Apple’s Ipad-2. Our focus, of course, is real estate, and that may prove to be one of the more interesting problems in this aftermath.

After WW-II, the Japanese people adopted a new constitution which was largely written by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the occupying forces. MacArthur really thought of himself as a Viceroy, and fashioned himself as an expert in governance. (In actuality, his administration of post-war Japan was probably the highpoint of his stellar career.) Despite being relatively conservative in most things, he was a very traditional liberal (albeit in a Victorian sense) in governance. As a result, the Japanese constitution provided for women’s suffrage. It also provided extraordinary rights to small, private property owners, as a mechanism to break-up the hold feudal land holdings. Indeed, eminent domain “taking”, as we think of it in the U.S., is very hard to accomplish in Japan. Small property owners — even the owners of the smallest pea-patch — have exceptionally strong property protections under law.

As great as this sounds, it makes it very difficult to clean up after a disaster. In 1995, Kobe was struck with what is known in Japan as the Great Hanshin earthquake, with a magnitude of 7.2. About the same time (1989), California was hit with the Loma Prieta earthquake, which measured 7.1. Both earthquakes hit in highly populated areas, although the Kobe quake killed over 6,000 while the Loma quake only killed 63. The Kobe quake destroyed about 200,000 buildings, while Loma damaged about 18,000 (12,000 homes and 6,000 businesses).

Of more direct comparison was the destruction in California of Oakland’s Cypress Street Viaduct and a portion of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. In Japan, about 1km of the Hanshin Expressway collapsed.

In California, the highway collapses were repaired quickly. Indeed, one of the repair contractors won a huge bonus award for completing a large chunk of the work in record time, and the Bay Bridge was reopened in 32 days. The Cypress Street Viaduct required longer to replace, but traffic was rerouted quickly.

In Kobe, on the other hand, rubble from the expressway was still piled up five years later. Why? At the heart of the problem was access to private property under, near, and surrounding the expressway. Many of these small parcels had hundreds of individuals listed on deeds, and each of those individuals had to be contacted and permissions gained before reconstruction could begin.

Eminent domain can be a contentious issue here in the U.S. — taking agencies typically try to acquire property on a shoe-string, and my own analyses of “takings” appraisals show that they’re not done very well. That having been said, at least we HAVE mechanisms for handling these problems in the U.S., and should be thankful for that.

Again, our best wishes to our friends and colleagues in Japan. They’re going to need a lot of support as they emerge from these trying times. I also don’t want to forget our friends in New Zealand who had, on a relative level, an equally devastating earthquake in Christ Church. I have great friends from that country, and have enjoyed doing business down there. Best wishes to all of them.

Written by johnkilpatrick

March 11, 2011 at 4:13 pm

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