From a small northwestern observatory…

Finance and economics generally focused on real estate

Tea Leaves and Such

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Flying back from Milwaukee to Seattle last night, I sat next to a fellow who owns several big truck dealerships in the mid-west.  (Seattle, famed for Boeing and Microsoft, is the lesser-recognized headquarters of Paccar, the world’s third largest maker of heavy trucks, after Daimler and Volvo. Last year, they made and sold over $16 Billion worth of Kenworths and Peterbilts.)

ANYWAY, after the usual “how’s business?” question, I got an earful. Turns out no one’s buying heavy trucks right now, even though financing is historically affordable, and customers have cash. Why?  Simply put, his customers are scared of the fiscal cliff.  (We also talked about customers deferring potential acquisitions until after/if tax rates go up, but he said that this wasn’t a big issue in his surveys of customer sentiments.)  He noted that demand for long-haul trucking was down, and noted that his trucking-company customers were reporting a lower volume of hauling for consumer retailers.

Now, if this was an isolated incident, we could write it off.  However, the danger of the fiscal cliff isn’t just what will happen after January 1.  Much like an impending hurricane, people are already packing their bags and getting out of the way or hunkering down and bolting the doors.

What is the impact on real estate?  While it’s too early to completely quantify, clearly there is reluctance right now to make new investments in office, industrial, and retail.  Add to this the realization that the apartment boom may have leveled off, and we have a fairly flat new development market on the horizon. This doesn’t bode well for real estate private equity firms that are focused on development profits or capital gains, but it does mean that income-oriented real estate (publicly traded REITs for example) may exhibit some buying opportunities due to both their tax advantaged nature.  The most recent Current Market Commentary from NAREIT shows slight downward trends in apartment, office, and retail vacancy, with all three sectors showing positive rental rate growth (albeit at lower levels than earlier this year).   The three-year moving average for renter household formation continues to trend upward, while the owner-occupied household formation is in negative territory (despite recent gains in home sales and housing starts).

Notwithstanding the dangers of the fiscal cliff, changes in non-farm payrolls have been strong and positive every month since mid-2010, and even though unemployment is higher than anyone wants to see it, the trend has been solidly downward since the peak of late 2009.  As such, the fiscal cliff is the most significant economic problem on the horizon today. Fix it, and we continue on the track to full recovery.  Let us drive off the cliff, and…. well, that’s a pretty good mental picture, eh?

Written by johnkilpatrick

December 6, 2012 at 9:57 am

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